Monday, May 12, 2008

State and Religion in Shi’ah Islamic Thought

Today I am beginning a series of publications of articles about the Shia faith, culture and history. I think that it is important, crucial in fact, to understand the uniqueness and specificity of this branch of Islam which so often either totally ignored or, worse, conflated with Saudi Wahabism. How often do we hear that Iran and Saudi Arabia are "Islamic states"? To a certain degree such a statement is undeniably true; the danger here is that it somehow assumes that the two countries, societies and religious wordviews are somehow similar, if not identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While there undoubtedly is an over-arching commonality among the various branches of Islam, this shared heritage should not serve to somehow occult the very substantial differences among them.

The Muslim world is amazingly diverse and the Islam of the Talebans has little in common with the Shia Islam of neighboring Iran which, in turn, has little in common with the kind of Islam practiced in Turkey and even less so with the Islam of the Saudis. Still, the Western corporate media likes it conflate it all together into a vague, but always frightening, "Islamic fundamentalism" or, even worse, "Islamo-Fascism" (the beloved expression of the UN Neocons).

I have come to the conclusion that Shia Islam is one of the least known or understood religions of the planet even though Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are, in many ways, among the most important countries on earth. Furthermore, the USraelian Empire has now clearly embarked on a long term strategy of aggression and sabotage against the Shia world. Even if the West knows close to nothing about the Shia, they will become the central key force of the Middle-East in the foreseable future.

Let us not forget here that the Shia were the first Arabs to even defeat the Israelis not only in combat, but politically. Likewise, the Shia were the first in the Middle-East to overthrow a pro-US dictatorship and replace it by an Islamic government in Iran. The very same Shia are now in the process of booting out from power the Three Stooges (Siniora, Hariri, Jumblatt) and their clique of overweight millionaires from power in Lebanon. The Shia are clearly a formidable force and one whose main strength lies in their faith.

It is therefore exceedingly important to learn more about the Shia, their history, culture and beliefs. With this new series about Shia Islam I will endeavor to regularly publish essays written by Shia Muslims on various aspects of their identity. Hopefully, this will give a valuable insight to all those who, like myself, are not Muslims but who want to understand this complex, rich and original faith.

The concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of Islamic Jurists) is a very important one albeit not one which is accepted by all Shia. For example, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arguably the single most influential Iraqi Shia authority, does not accept the point of view of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei on this topic. Hezbollah, which is under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Khamenei, does endorse this teaching (which is why it does not accept the spiritual leadership of Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah which most non-Hezbollah Lebanese Shia consider their spiritual leader). Thus, the idea of Wilayat al-Faqih is at the center of not only Shia-Sunni differences, but even intra-Shia polemics.

I am deeply grateful to Ali Mahdi for allowing me to publish his most interesting article.

The Saker

    State and Religion in Shi’ah Islamic Thought

    By: Ali Mahdi

    Port Dover, Ontario, Canada

    Written for: “History of the Middle East,”

    at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Imam ‘Ali says, “Scholars are the rulers of the people.”1 In Islam, there is no room for secularism, as Islam encompasses all aspects of society, economics, administration and politics. Islam is not just worshipping God, it includes politics as well. This can be proved from the Qoran and hadith (traditions). Therefore an Islamic state ruled by the ‘ulama or clergy is necessary under Islamic Shari’ah or law, which is applicable for all time. The necessity for a true Islamic state became a reality with the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, which was led by (Imam) Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mousavi Khomayni. Islamic government is not a recent theory, as many scholars argue, but it has its origins in the Qu’ran and Sonnah (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad, and his Holy Family. The theory of Wilayat al-Faqih, the rule of the Islamic jurist, is the form of government used in the Islamic Republic of Iran; this theory was developed by Imam Khomayni. It is explained in many of his books, especially “Wilayat al-Faqih.” Wilayat al-Faqih, an Islamic government with a strong leader/jurist, is the main theory of Islamic governance in Shi’ah thought, and has proved itself to be an alternative to secular styles of government promoted by the United States of America and its allies. Today, Iran is the only true Islamic state; its constitution is based on the Islamic laws put down by the Prophet mixed with a modern Republican state. State politics and religion in Shi’ah Islamic thought provides a compatible system of governance for all Muslims.

The Islamic state is not a new phenomenon, but comes from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad, took the existing Arabian society, and tore it apart as it was a decayed and corrupt system, which was far from the ideals set prescribed by God for humanity.2 He established an Islamic government that is the model and inspiration for a modern Islamic government which encompasses all aspects of life within the state. The Islamic revolution brought by Imam Khomayni is not dissimilar to that brought by Prophet Muhammad. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was ruled by the tyrant monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi, who repressed Islam and the political, social and economic aspects of Islam which were crucial to the maintenance of social justice. The Islamic Revolution brought power and influence to the clergy, and implemented an Islamic state based on the rules and traditions given by our Prophet and his Holy Family.

Wilayat al-Faqih is the rule of a pious and just (‘adl) jurist who is learned in all aspects of diniyat (religion). This method of determining this person is elaborated in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.3 It is necessary for an Islamic society to have a religious judge as a ruler to defend the ‘ummah (community) from its enemies, develop justice, and society. Not all people would agree with these goals, and see them as going against their interests and liberties. The leader has absolute authority and his will and authority are superior to the wills and power of the people.4 Islam is a not only restricted to individual prayers, fasting, and moral values and is involved in the solution of social problems, justice, and political and economic issues. In Islam, the general population must accept the guardianship of the jurist, which means the enforcement of Islamic laws. Problems must be solved and governance must be guarded by the ‘ulama. In the Qoran, God asks Prophet Muhammad to consult the people (shura) before making a decision, although the final decision lies with the ruler. This was done to show the fallible people how to run an Islamic state. In Islam, it is necessary that the believers follow all the rules of Islam and obey their scholars.

The concept of Wilayat al-Faqih was originally detailed by in “’Awa’id al-Ayam by Ayatollah Mulla Ahmad Naraqi in the early nineteenth century, although it had been mentioned earlier.5 He argues that the faqih is entrusted with guardianship rights during Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi. He writes that this can only mean that a qualified jurist could be the legitimate ruler in the absence of the Imam, and this was the only legitimate government.6 Ayatollah Naraqi develops his arguments from the Qoran, hadith and jurisprudence. He stresses that the scholars have the same right to rule as the Prophet and Imams. Imam Khomayni was the next scholar to study the role of the jurisprudent in governance, and he expanded on the theories of Ayatollah Naraqi.7 In his book “Wilayat al-Faqih,” written from a collection of speeches while in exile in Iraq in the early 1970s, Imam Khomayni discusses guardianship as a principle of Islam, which serves as a foundation for all duties. He expands on this concept from governmental and political points of view. He writes that the Prophet’s successors (Imams) were not just appointed for expanding on the principles of Islam, but for “rulership, and for enforcement of laws and regulations.”8 Imam Khomayni writes in his book “Qa’edah la-Zarar that the jurist in the time of occultation had authority of the society just as the prophet did. The four deputies of Imam al-Mahdi during the Lesser Occultation were his successors in political matters, and today the ‘ulama hold this role, so they have the right to political power.

Islamic law was not meant to be enforced only for the time of the Prophet and Imams, but for all time. The ‘ulama are the representatives of the Imams, so therefore have a right to rule. Imam Khomayni explains the deviation from Islamic government during the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties and its continuation into the modern day. He emphasizes the importance of rising up against tyrannical governments and to establish and Islamic government, with the enforcement of Islamic law, Islamic unity, and to save the oppressed from tyranny. He notes that this is the religious duty of all Muslims, especially the scholars. Imam Khomayni explains the role of the Islamic legislature, writing that it is their goal to develop all government programs within an Islamic framework and not that of other states.

Next Imam Khomayni explains the important qualities of the Islamic ruler. The leader of the Islamic state has not been appointed by Imam al-Mahdi, but from ahadith we know that he must have command over religious laws (fiqh) and be just (‘adl.) He must be knowledgeable about Islamic law and he must be “just,” meaning moral and trustworthy. Imam Khomayni recommends “A person, who intends to be the guardian of the Muslims and successor of the Commander of the Faithful [Imam ‘Ali], should not be attached to worldly matters. If one indulges in worldly matters, he cannot be the trustee and reliable person for people.”9 This was evident in Imam Khomayni’s very simple and humble lifestyle. The Leader of the Islamic state tries to be the executors of the rules of God, and they cannot go against God’s rules. They can only use their own authority when there is no clear principle.10 Imam Khomayni argues that divine Islamic law is applicable to all aspects of all societies in all eras. Gods’ religious commandments are not useful unless they are applied to form an Islamic state based on divine guardianship. To protect Islam from its enemies and to prevent chaos in an Islamic society, an Islamic state is necessary. Even though our infallible Imam is in Occultation, we must have an Islamic state. Imam Khomayni writes that we live in the time of the Occultation, and that Islamic principles are to be enforced, and no one has been appointed by God to fulfill this task. However, God has given man the qualities which are required for leadership to a great number of ‘ulama since the beginnings of Islam. They must join together to form a just government in the world. It is the duty of the ‘ulama to fulfil their role to enforce Islamic law. Laws, some seen as harsh or authoritarian by outsiders who do not understand their obligations to Islam, are made to protect the people from corruption in society and to protect Islam. Imam Khomayni writes that it is not the role of the ‘ulama to sit in “some corner in Najaf or Qom studying the questions of menstruation and parturition instead of concerning themselves with politics, and draw the conclusion that religion must be separate from politics.”11 He notes that during the time of the Prophet and Imam ‘Ali religion and politics was one, as they were political and religious leaders. If one concentrates only on prayer and the other duties of Islam, the imperialists and colonialists will be able to take the Muslim society over.

Imam Khomayni writes about the necessity for an Islamic government in his book “Wilayat al-Faqih. He continues his discussion that the Prophet Muhammad laid down the laws for an Islamic state and implemented these laws as well, and called for an Islamic state to be set up. The Islamic state cannot just have Islamic legislations to protect Islam; it needs an “executor.” This executor is called the Wali al-‘Amr, meaning “the one who holds authority,” a term derived from the Quranic verse 4:59: “O you who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger and the holders of authority (wali al-‘amr) from among you.” The Wali al-‘Amr, implements the laws and verdicts given by the courts, allowing society to benefit from the just laws that the courts deliver.12 Without an Islamic state, religion would into destruction and decay causing its institutions and rites to decay and then vanish. Wilayat al-Faqih protects the religion from “madmen.”

The legitimacy of Islamic government can be proved by hadith (traditions) reported by the Prophet and Imams. Here are a few prominent hadith out of many hadith regarding Islamic government. Imam Jaafar as-Sadeq says in the Hadith of Wilayah (of the ‘Ulama):

    They must seek out one of you who narrates our traditions, who is versed in what is permissible and what is forbidden, who is well-acquainted with our laws and ordinances, and accept him as judge and arbiter, for I appoint him as judge over you. If the ruling which he based on our laws is rejected, this rejection will be tantamount to ignoring the order of Allah and rejecting us is the same as rejecting Allah, and this is the same as polytheism.13

This means that the ‘ulama are the heirs of the Imams in the “absence” of Imam al-Mahdi according to Shi’ah fiqh (law). The majority of people are not given the Wilayah (guardianship); it is the ‘ulama who have this power during the Imam’s Occultation.14 In another hadith, Imam ‘Ali says, “Scholars are the rulers of the people.”15 In an Islamic society, the head of government should be a “just” jurist with all the prescribed qualifications. These jurists are the authorized representatives of Imam al-Mahdi, while he is in Occultation. Devine commandments cannot be altered, as it would be going against the will of God.16 Imam ‘Ali also says: “I have accepted the task of government because God, Exalted and Almighty, has exacted from the scholars of Islam a pledge not to sit silent and idle in the face of gluttony and plundering of the oppressors, on the one hand, and the hunger and deprivation of the oppressed, on the other.”17 This means that the scholars have the role of running the Islamic state. The fifth Imam, Muhammad al-Baqer says: “Islam is founded on five pillars: prayers (salat), zakat (charity), hajj (pilgrimage), sawm (fasting), and Wilayah (guardianship).” Zurarah (a student) asked the Imam: “Which one is the most important?” The Imam answered: “Wilayah is.” After the Imam emphasized Wilayah as the most important, he added: “Because it acts as the key for them (ie: the five pillars) and the wali is the guide towards them.” 18 Imam Husayn says, “Discharging of the duties and the enforcement of laws should be in the hands of the scholars, God-fearing and pious persons. These are the people who do not make any changes in the Divine commands pertaining to lawful and unlawful things, and who are the custodians of trusts.”19

Scholars point to the Verse of Authority (4:59)20 to show that the Wali al-‘Amr cannot be a corrupt or a secular leader. God gives us the command to the Leader in all material, religious and spiritual matters.21 The authority of the Leader over the Islamic state is derived from Ayah (verse) 2:246: “…Raise up for us a king (that) we may fight in the way of Allah…” This means that even in the time of an infallible, people need one ruler to lead them and to fight against oppression.22 Ayatollah Momen, a member of the Council of Guardians, writes that by disobeying the Wali al-Faqih, you are disobeying the laws of God. Ayatollah Khamenei also mentions that since Wilayat al-Faqih is the law of God, obedience to the Islamic state is mandatory (as a divine duty).23 It is necessary to follow the Wali al-Faqih; this is said by all ‘ulama. All ‘ulama believe in Wilayat al-Faqih, although some interpret it differently. Ayatollah ‘‘Ali Sistani (most senior marja’/religious authority in Shi’ah Islam) says: “everyone, even other mojtaheds, are obligated to follow the hokm (jurisdiction) of the person who has Shar'ei Wilayah, when the hokm is related to public issues where social order and people's sustenance are concerned. On the issues that are related to the protection of the Islamic system, the accepted Faqih has Wilayah on all the believers.”24 This means that everyone has to follow the Wali al-Faqih, regardless of the marja’ they follow.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s only true Islamic state, the highest-ranking official is the Leader (Rahbar) or Wali al-Faqih, who is the head of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. Imam Khomayni was the first Leader, and since 1989, Ayatollah Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei holds this role. The leader (or leadership council) is chosen by the Assembly of Experts (Khobregan), of which the seventy mojtahed’s (jurisprudents) are chosen directly by the people. According to the Constitution the Wali al-Faqih must be pious and fair, and have proper political and social expertise. The Wali al-Faqih must have the qualifications to issue decrees on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution has many functions and duties, including the appointment and dismissal of most heads of state organizations, the president (after the Supreme Court has made a ruling on a violation of his legal duties or a vote of his incompetence by the Majles). The Leader also has the ability to pardon the sentences of condemned people, and to resolve problems that cannot be settled by the Expediency Council, and other disputes. The Islamic Republic of Iran is obviously not perfect, as it is fallible, but it is the closest thing we have of Islamic government in practice. The only true Islamic state will be implemented when Imam al-Mahdi appears.

Islamic government is not just a reaction against imperialism and the corrupt Pahlavi monarchy, but a return to the Islam of our Prophet, who commanded that we follow in his footsteps. He commanded that we have an Islamic state, and Imam Khomayni was the first person to establish this state. Imam Khomeini’s ideas are not his alone; they are based on an extensive study of hadith, Quran, and Islamic history. From the careful study of this, scholars find that the leader of the Islamic state must be a jurisprudent – who has both a religious and legislative role, of which are explained in hadith and the books of our scholars. These laws are not ancient and can be replaced as time goes on; they are progressive and must be applied for all time. According to the eminent scholars that Shi’ah follow, it is necessary that we follow the Wali al-Faqih. Imam Rouhollah Khomayni has brought an Islamic revival to Iran that was so desperately needed. With religion, all social, economic, and political problems can be solved. It is the scholars, according to Imam ‘Ali, who hold the rights to the governance of the Islamic state.25 With his strong words and actions Imam Khomayni defeated an imperialist tyrant (Shah Pahlavi and his American supporters), who repressed Islam, and brought Islam back to the rightful role that is so clearly explained in the writings of Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Infallible Imams.


1 “Ghorar al-Hekam.” (book of hadith). Volume II. 293.
2 Shaykh Shabbir Hassanally. “Islamic Revolution Question.” (online posting). Islamic Digest Forum. 8 March, 2005.,352.0.html.
3 Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali. “Practical Laws of Islam.” Islamic Culture and Relations Organization: Tehran, 1997. 30.
4 Practical Laws of Islam, 32-33.
5 Algar, Hamid. Forward to “Wilayat al-Faqih.” Imam Ruhollah Khomayni. 4.
6 Martin, Vanessa. “Creating an Islamic State.” IB Tauris Publishers: London. 117.
7 Arjomand, Said Amir. “Turban for the Crown.” Oxford University Press: New York. 180.
8 Algar, 5.
9 Khomayni, Imam Ruhollah. “Hokomat-e Eslami.” Page 199.
10 Khomayni, Imam Ruhollah. “Sahif-e Nour.” Publication of Minister of Islamic Guidance. Volume 11. 123.
11 Khomayni, Imam Ruhollah. “Wilayat al-Faqih.” 16.
12 Khomayni, Imam Ruhollah. “Wilayat al-Faqih.” 18.
13 “Furu’ al-Kafi.” (book of hadith). Volume 7. Tehran, 2001. 412.
14 “Wilayat al-Faqih - A Contribution.”
15 Ibid. 1.
16 “Why do we need an Islamic Governance and Guardianship of a Jurist?”
17 Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb. “Nahj al-Balaghah.” Sermon 3 (Khutbat ash-Shaqshaqiyah). Ahlul-Bayt Assembly of America. 8.
18 “Wasael ash-Shi’ah.” (book of hadith). Volume I. 40.
19 “Tuhaf al-‘Uqoul.” (book of hadith). 242.
20 Quran: “Oh you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you…”
21 Arjomand, 177.
22 Ibid. 5
23 Arjomand, 183.
24 Sistani, Ayatollah ‘Ali. “Wilayat al-Faqih.” Email. 10 February, 2005.
25 “Nahj al-Balaghah (Peak of Eloquence)”, Sermon 2 (regarding hypocrites). 6.