Why Shia clerics challenge Iran’s Shia clerical regime

Iranian authorities have not disclosed the grounds for Shirazi’s arrest.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Kuwaiti Shia men gather before the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait City to call for the release of Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, on March 7. (AFP)
Cracks at the seams. Kuwaiti Shia men gather before the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait City to call for the release of Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, on March 7. (AFP)

The concept of Shia clerical opposition to a Shia clerical regime may seem odd but it is real. Consider the arrest of Hossein Shirazi, son of Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi.

Iranian authorities have not disclosed the grounds for Shirazi’s arrest. Could it have anything to do with a video, recently made available on social media, in which Shirazi likened Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to a “pharaoh,” someone who saw himself as above criticism or accountability?

Shirazi has also attacked the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), which is the central religious doctrine in Iran, and accused the regime’s founder, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, of elevating himself to divinity. He said: “Velayat-e faqih means you are his subject! Did he not say that the powers of the guardian jurist are the same as those of God? Did the newspapers not report that the powers of the guardian jurist are the same as those of the Prophet of God? This means everyone else is a subject.”

After his arrest, Shirazi’s followers assembled in front of the Iranian consulate in Karbala, Iraq, and chanted: “Death to the dictator!” and “No to the pharaoh!” The day after the Karbala protest, four followers of the ayatollah stormed the first-floor balcony of the Iranian Embassy in London and took down the Iranian flag.

The Shiraziyyin have had a tumultuous record with Iran. At times, they have supported Iran and sometimes, they have been energetic opponents.

It started out relatively well. The late Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi — Sadiq Shirazi’s brother — was one of the few senior Iranian clerics in Iraq to welcome Khomeini. Other Iranian and Iraqi Shia clerics traditionally saw the shah of Iran as the patron of the Shia and distanced themselves from Khomeini, the exiled revolutionary leader.

Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, however, put his entire clerical infrastructure in Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan at the disposal of the Iranian revolutionaries. The ayatollah’s nephews, Hadi and Taqi al-Modarresi, were instrumental in mobilising the Arab Shia to the Khomeinist cause. After the revolution, the Shiraziyyin took an active part in “exporting” the Iranian revolution to the Arab world.

Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi and his nephews became embroiled in Iran’s internal power struggles and found themselves on the losing side. In the end, they were marginalised and forced to live under house arrest in Qom.

The Shiraziyyin do not fare much better under Khamenei, whose struggle with independent-minded clerics has a theological dimension: There are as many interpretations of Shia jurisprudence as there are Shia jurists. The multitude of interpretations puts Shia jurists in natural opposition to any institution that monopolises the right to interpret the law. That institution, of course, is velayat-e faqih.

Khamenei is both head of state and the head of organised religion. He uses his position as the head of organised religion to legitimise that of head of state. As head of state, Khamenei employs all its powers to control organised religion. Those powers range from the state’s economic resources, which can serve as an inducement, to the Special Clerical Court or inquisition, which deals with alleged heretics and nonconformist Shia clerics. For the time being, the Shiraziyyin seem resistant to both.

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