City of Brass

City of Brass

Iran: If scholars and politics collide

This is a guest post by Haroon Moghul.

Events over the last few days have deeply concerned me.

Watching the Grand Ayatollah at the top of the Islamic Republic deliver a sermon in which he made no meaningful concessions to the opposition (in fact, he made no real concessions whatsoever), I thought about how strange it is the way history works. The thesis eventually produces an antithesis. Sometimes it takes centuries, but it happens. How odd it was to find Khamenei allude to the tragic events at Karbala, where, only a few decades after the birth of Islam, Husayn, may God be pleased with him, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was cut down (and most of his remaining family as well.) Those events have become a mainstay in much of Muslim popular culture (including throughout the Sunni world), literature and imagination and have done the same for the articulation of an unparalleled protest tradition. Yet I watched and wondered: how does the protest tradition become the state? If the state holds an increasing monopoly on religious interpretation, what happens to the protest tradition?


More meaningfully, considering the structure of Shi’i practice, what happens when the major figures of present scholarship collide, not just on matters of religious practice but politics as well? I honestly don’t know, but I feel it’s worth considerable reflection and should be of concern. When scholarship worries more about maintaining order than guiding and edifying, that scholarship will eventually fade — and one wonders what then occurs. If Sistani and Khamenei disagree, publicly, about matters as important as the events of the last week (thinking hypothetically), then clearly the interests of religion and politics clash. I have not read any serious argument which considers the IranianRahbar to be greater in stature than Sistani, who is arguably the leading Shi’i cleric of our age and indeed one of the great scholars of the Muslim world.


This where I feel the history of Sunni Islam proves instructive.

Over the last 200 years, the Muslim world had been rather uniformly colonized. Very few areas escaped from direct European control; practically none escaped from some form of indirect control or regular foreign interference. This was disastrous for the Muslim world as a whole, but most disastrous for the Sunni world, as in major Sunni Muslim states, the clergy was often subordinate to the state in a way that did not hold in the Shia tradition. This proved to be a bad idea for the ages. When foreign troops landed, governments were overthrown and endowments seized, scholarship found itself without resources or strategies for recovering its previous role. Today, far too many Sunni scholars are perceived, rightly or not, as no more than outmoded tools of the domestically oppressive and internationally impotent state. They have very little credibility for this reason, which leaves an immense gap of authoritativeness often filled by extreme or marginal voices, many of which have no training in the tradition and end up agitating for positions deeply harmful to society, religiosity and human dignity.


The Shia scholarly tradition has fared much, much better. I could name only a handful — Fadlallah, Sadr, Sistani, Montazeri, Khomeini, Khatami — and few could argue that these were not among the most influential personalities of the Muslim world or still are today. Take for example Muhammad Khatami, who although not an ayatollah is nevertheless an ‘alim (properly, a Hujjat al-Islam). Is there any Muslim cleric from the Sunni tradition who commands as much respect, admiration and influence as he does, globally speaking? He was the leader of a massive reform movement that captured the attention of the world; he broadcast a message of dialogue between civilizations that represents one of the most successful initiatives originating in the Muslim world which embraced the wider world and inspired it — as once Islam inspired so many, so broadly. How many other scholars can do so, or could even try to? There are numerous reasons for the vigor and vitality of the Shia tradition, many of them relating to historical processes and decisions which have elevated the profile of these scholars and made them voices to be heard, not just within a select tradition but with weight on the planetary scale.


Part of the success must go to a system that produces scholars and yet depends on community supports and mutual acknowledgment, both by scholars and by “laypersons”, elevating the best, most compelling and attractive personalities and minds, without instituting any kind of rigid structure or hierarchy. That flexibility and that scholastic seriousness has already been deeply threatened by the events of the last week, the full effects we will not see for years (In triumph often are the seeds of downfall, especially when we are unable to conceive the chance of overreach.) When scholars clash over politics, and one reading is privileged over another, then that privilege becomes a matter of imbalance. All the more threatening to a tradition because that privilege is tied not to stronger arguments or more persuasive reasoning but to the institutions of a state, which inevitably affect religious opinion and moral character and from there, reputation and reliability (read: the ruination of the Christian right when blinded by the might.) I am not so simplistic as to propose that there can be a clean line between religion and politics; that probably could never be accomplished, as neither religion nor politics are like Lego blocks which can be placed on opposite ends of a room. But when religion and politics become isomorphic with each other, then certainly there should be cause for concern.


I’d like to know what readers think: how does the Iranian structure and ideology of velayat-i-faqih affect the authority and prestige of other scholars, including those maraji’ who are more esteemed by the community than the supreme leader himself.

Haroon Moghul is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. This post was reprinted from his personal weblog, avari, with his kind permission.

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