Twelver Shiism and Political Power by Patrick Lang – Re-published 1 June 2018

Iran-islam-shia-ya-husain-military-political-flagIn a number of different settings I have recently heard the opinion voiced that Ithna'ashari  (Twelver) Shia 'Ulema (scholars) have traditionally chosen to hold themselves apart from political power in whatever state they have inhabited and that they believe in something akin to the Western notion of a proper separation of church and state.  Usually, the same speaker or writer will accompany this with a description of the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a "heretic" for holding a different view of this matter.  I find these positions to be inadequate in both statements for two broad reasons:


Shiism began as a movement of the underdog in Iraq in the first century of the Islamic era.  The Arabians who defeated the Sassanian Persians at the Battle of Qadisiyah under the beduin general Muthanna believed that the spoils of empire were rightly theirs.  In Iraq they established garrison towns like Kufah and settled down there amid a captive Mesopotamian population to enjoy the fruits of victory.  To divide the "loot" they devised a list of the "entitled" called the "Diwan."  One's placement on this list determined how large an annual subvention one received.  The higher you were on the list, the bigger the share. This position was determined by a number of factors.  Most important of these were the date of your acceptance of Islam (the earlier the better) and secondly the level of your prominence in Meccan, Medinan or other Arabian society.  In conformity to one's position, a regular payment was received from the treasury (beit al-mal) of the community.  Over time more and more of the conquered population were converted to Islam, accepting in the process the many intangible benefits brought by being a member of the Islamic community. Unfortunately for them, this did not generally include inscription in the "Diwan" or the payments from the public purse that went with this.  As a result, the converted, "mawali" in Arabic felt cheated of what they thought to be their rightful share of the money.  This led to great bitterness among the "mawali" against the Arabians and especially against the "Ummayad" Arabian dynasty of Caliphs soon established in Damascus.  This bitterness led to adoption by the Mawali of the cause of the rights of the family of the Prophet whom they believed had been wrongly deprived of the succession to the leadership of the Islamic politico-religious community, the "Umma."  In the early period the family of the Prophet was represented by the Caliph Ali who the Shia incorrectly believe was murdered in Najaf by agents of the Damascus (Sunni) crowd, then by the subjugation of Hassan, Ali's son and the Prophet's grandson.  The "grand finale" for the Mawali (who were also known as “Shiat Ali – “The party (Shiat) of Ali”) was the battlefield death of Hussein, Hassan's younger brother at Karbala at the hands of the Sunni general 'Umar ibn Sa'd (of malodorous memory).  Following Hussein's death, the "Shiat Ali" (Party of Ali) were beaten into submission by the Arabian Sunni 'Ummayad Caliphs ruling from Damascus and remained a more or less permanent underclass in the 'Umma until the 16th Century C.E.  Sunni Caliphs came and went, first the 'Ummayads, then the Abbasids ruling from Baghdad.  Throughout this period, the Shia 'Ulema were deprived of political power, not because they preferred to be without political power, but because they were not able to seize it.  Islam in its pure form envisions a world theocratic state in which all aspects of life are integrated into a whole, a "seamless garment."  These Shia of the Middle Ages (al-Qurun al-Wusta) were people living as best they could in the direction of this ideal.  In this period there lived nine more leaders of the Shia community whom they considered to be "divinely selected."  They were descendants of the Prophet and thought to be vessels of special grace from God.  The Shia would have liked nothing better than to install these "Imams" as they called them in supreme political power, but they lacked the means.  The Sunni 'Ummayad, and Abbasid Caliphs stood in the way as did a variety of Sunni Turkish Sultans who often wielded the real power behind the Caliphs.  Faced with this situation, the Shia retreated into development of their religious sciences within the "Ghettos" of Najaf and Karbala and accepted the status quo with what grace they could muster.


          There were a couple of episodes in the Middle Ages that were exceptions to this "rule." One involved the existence in Egypt for a time of a "Caliphate" set up as a rival to the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.  The rulers of this "schismatic" group were Shia of the "Sevener" variety.  This is a kind of Shiism which reveres in a special way the seventh of the "divinely appointed" Shia Imams.  This dynasty ruled for around two hundred years and roughly co-existed in time with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem with which it often made common cause against other Muslim powers.  This dynasty was eventually destroyed by the great Sunni Kurdish Sultan Saladin (Yusuf Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi).  The second major "exception" was the period of power of the "Buyid" or "Buwayhid" dynasty of Turkish strongmen in the Abbasid Caliphate.  These people were originally nomads from Central Asia who invaded what are now Iraq and Iran and who reduced the Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad to the status of "puppets."  The "Buyids" were Shia and for a time they threatened to make Shiism the dominant form of Islam.  The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun was “persuaded” by the “Buyid” warlord of his time to designate the Shia Imam of that time as his successor as Caliph but unfortunately for Shia aspirations the Imam died before al-Ma’mun and history moved on.

          The next major political opportunity for the Twelver Shia “clergy” came at the beginning of the 16th Century C.E. in Persia, now Iran.  At that time a dynasty arose of local power that aspired to separate Persia from the larger world of Ottoman Turkish dominated Islam under their own regional rule.  These were the Safavids.  Because Islam claims universal authority and seeks a universal state under God’s law, it is always necessary for Islamic rebels to declare the Islamic “purity” of their cause and the defects of their overlords “submission” in Islam.  Without such a claim to “authentic” Islam they would be thought (even by themselves) not to be true Muslims.  With such a claim, rebellion can be seen not to be rebellion, but instead to be a “restoration” of true religion. With this in mind, the Safavids decided that all Persians living in their domain should become Shia and therefore not subject to the decrees of the “heretical” and schismatic Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul.  Within a remarkably short time very nearly the entire population of Iran became Twelver Shia and so they have remained ever since.

          One might think that this would have been a fine chance for the Shia “clergy” to take power in Iran to assure that God’s law should be properly applied, but, alas, this was not to be.  The Safavid Shahs found Shiism to be a useful political tool but they had no intention of sharing power with an “other worldly” collection of religious scholars and judges and made sure that such people were adequately “compensated” but had no real power at all except in whatever matters of personal status came before the Sharia courts.  Faced with the brute power of the state the Shia “clergy” once again retreated into their contemplation and codification of such matters as Koranic exegesis.  Once again, it was not a question of the “clergy” abjuring worldly power.  No, it was a surety that the Safavids, and their successors the Qajars and Pahlavis denied any such power to them.

          In what is now Iraq Ottoman Sunni power prevailed until the end of the First World War when British forces occupied that part of the Ottoman Empire and eventually made it into the modern state.  In the course of that transformation the British made a deliberate decision to create a country that would not give power to the Shia “clergy,” but instead would install a Sunni Arab dominated government headed by an Arabian prince of Sharifian descent.  This decision enraged the Shia ‘Ulema and within a few months they led a rebellion against British rule which shook the empire.  Their resistance to the very concept of continuing secularist and Sunni power never ended throughout the era of Hashemite royal government and then successive “lay” nationalist, communist and Baathist regimes.  Their present restiveness should not surprise anyone familiar with their history.

          Thus the matter lay until the late Shah in Shah Riza Pahlavi weakened by illness and American pressure to “reform” was forced from office by a revolution inspired if not led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  The form of clerical government that he created endures in Iran to the time of this writing.

          To sum up the historical record with regard to the political ambition of the Twelver Shia ‘Ulema, they never had governmental power until the establishment of the Iranian Islamic republic because they were never able to seize it.  If they are confronted with a vacuum of secular power in Iraq today, there is no reason from history to believe that they will not want it.

          -Khomeini as “heretic.”

          Sunni Islam is all about Law.  This is the majority form of the religion (85% of all Muslims) and it holds that the “Roots of the Law” (‘usul fiqh) are essentially four in number: Quran, Hadith (the traditions of the practice of the Prophet and the early Islamic community, Qiyas (analogy from existing case law), and Ijma’ (consensus among reputable scholars of the religious sciences).  There is some dissent about this last “root” since Hanbali and Wahhabi Sunni Muslims would limit the right to form consensus to those who actually knew the Prophet in his lifetime.  This necessarily limits Hanbali and Wahhabi contemporary interpretations of the law.  There is, or was, a fifth “root” which is no longer readily available to Sunni Muslims.  This was called “Ijtihad” (This means a scholar’s effort to reach an original opinion on some point of law based on the other “roots of the law”).  A scholar who could do that would be called in Arabic a “Mujtahid.”  There are no such persons in the world of Sunni Islam today because Sunni Muslims hold that the religious sciences were so perfected in the first centuries of the Islamic era that for a person to be capable of Ijtihad today that person would have to possess perfect mastery of those sciences.  As a practical matter, this means that marked change is very difficult in Sunni Islam and occurs only in a slow and evolutionary way.  In expression of this phenomenon, Sunni Muslims say that the Gate of Ijtihad” is closed, perhaps forever.  This conviction is so firmly held that “innovation” (Bida’ in Arabic) is said to be equivalent to heresy.

          This question of “Ijtihad” is one of the major ways in which Shiism (especially the majority Shia Twelver Usuli faction in Iraq and Iran) differ from the Sunnis.  These Shia judge that not only is the “Gate of Ijtihad” still open but that the function of the Mujtahid is essential to the continuing relevance and development of the Islamic faith in the modern world.  As a result, Twelver Shia Islam possesses an elaborate system of education and virtual certification of religious scholars with the goal of producing senior “clerics” who are “qualified” and recognized Mujtahids.  The most senior of these Mujtahids bear the title of “Ayatollah,” (“Sign of God” in Arabic).  Each of these Ayatollahs is considered to be a “reference point for emulation,” (marja’ at-taqlid in Arabic) and every pious Shia Muslim is required to follow the practice and teaching of one such although the opinion of an Ayatollah does not have authority after his death unless endorsed by a living Mujtahid of sufficient stature.

          Since neither major form of Islam (Sunni or Twelver Shia) have any concept or theory of hierarchy among “clerics” each scholar is free to have whatever opinion he finds worthy concerning points of law and governance of the Islamic community.

In Sunni Islam this freedom is limited by the closure of the “Gate of Ijtihad.” Radically new opinions are not accepted in Sunni Islam by the Ijma’ (consensus) of leading scholars because Ijtihad is no longer a real possibility and so they can readily be held to be incorrect or simply outside Islam.  This would be a virtual definition of heresy.

          In Twelver Shiism with its living tradition of Ijtihad the situation is radically different.  “Certified” Mujtahids, especially Ayatollahs are free within Islam to theorize on legal, social and religious matters as much as they want.  Their peers may not agree with their judgments and that is a serious matter.  The individual Mujtahid may hold minority views but it is a mistake to say that because his views are not universally endorsed by the consensus of his fellow Mujtahids he is so far in error as to place him outside Islam or in Western theological terms, in heresy.

          This is precisely the case with the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  He was a Philosopher (Falsafa in Arabic) by specialization.  This was his field of study not Jurisprudence as many have supposed.  In the course of his long life, he developed many interesting and innovative doctrines for the development of Islam.  The most famous of these is his concept of the “Rule of the Religious Scholar” (wilayet al-faqih in Arabic).  According to this teaching of his, the community should be ruled by the clergy.  This Iranian revolution of 1979 created such a government and it endures to this time.

          A good many of Khomeinis peers and fellow Mujtahids did not share his belief in the correctness of this doctrine and denied him their Ijma’.  This denial simply meant that they differed with him in this important matter.  It did not mean that they or he were heretics.  To think that this lack of total consensus of support for Khomeini’s thinking placed him outside Islam reflects a basic ignorance of Usuli Twelver Shia belief.

This entry was posted in Religion. Bookmark the permalink.