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Arjomand: The Critical Turn of Ulema-State Relations

by KEVAN HARRIS

11 Apr 2010 16:2411 Comments
ft6c6006wp_00002.gif[ Q & A ] Professor Said Arjomand has shaped the trajectory of Iranian studies on numerous occasions. His book The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (1984) was a major intervention in the debate over the relationship in Iranian history of Shi'a ulema with the state, arguing that during the Savafid era (16th-18th centuries), the development of the idea of a return of the 12th Imam formulated a quiescent posture, not a revolutionary challenge to political authority. In The Turban for the Crown (1988), at a time when Western audiences were still confused about the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its world-historical implications, Arjomand combined analyses of the relationship between state and ulema in Iran in the long dureé, the rise of the bureaucratic state under Pahlavi modernization and the discontents it produced, and a keen comparative look at how Islamic revolutionary ideology was not novel in its appeal to tradition, but an innovative latecomer in a long string of revolutions that produced ambiguous results. It became a key text on the 1979 revolution for a generation of scholars and journalists. Along the way, he has interviewed Ruhollah Khomeini (during his stay at Neauphle-le-Château), Shapour Bakhtiar (the last Prime Minister before the Revolution), Abo'l-Hassan Bani-Sadr (the former president under the Islamic Republic), and his wife interviewed former Empress Farah Pahlavi. He has continued to produce innovative work during his long tenure at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, including his latest book: After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors (2009).

In an article published in 2009, written before the June election, Arjomand presciently anticipated how the subsequent struggles between opposition leaders and regime hardliners would be not just over election spoils, but also over the character of the state itself:

A revolution worthy of the name is not a passing fever to give way to nature's warming with any Thermidor. Nor does the revolution die with its charismatic leader. The short-term power struggle as a process in which Saturn devours his children merges into a more drawn-out struggle among the children of the revolution for the definition of the new political order. It merges with the constitutional politics of postrevolutionary reconstruction, which will not be complete as long as contending factions in the generation that made the revolution can claim that the heritage of its charismatic leader has been betrayed or remains unrealized. The Islamic Revolution will end when the claim to Khomeini's allegedly unfulfilled heritage can no longer be plausibly made in Iranian constitutional politics or be backed by effective force.

Tehran Bureau conducted a brief interview with Professor Arjomand over email during March of this year.

There has been a long scholarly debate on the historical role of the Shi'te clergy in the politics of Iran -- at times the highest ranking ulema have variously engaged in quietism, criticism, and, of course, helping to rule the state itself. Since June 2009, more than one marja'-e taqlid -- not just the late Ayatollah Montazeri but also Qom stalwarts like Ayatollahs Bayat-Zanjani and Dastgheib -- have issued quite damning censures against the government and its repressive measures as well as calling into question the current ruling interpretation of the position of velāyat-e faqih. Does this represent a continuation of a particular tradition of clerical activism, or something that, given that legitimation of the Islamic Republic is so entwined with appeals to divine providence, is historically new? Furthermore, do their criticisms matter any longer?

Said Arjomand: Let me briefly review the historical role of the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Iran in relation to the state. Shi'ism was established as the state religion of Iran as a result of a Mahdist revolution by Shah Isma'il the Safavid in 1501, and the Safavid monarch claimed to be the lieutenants of the Hidden Imam, while importing Shi'ite ulema from Jabal 'Amil and Hilla to convert Iran into Shi'ism. There was considerable tension between the clerical notables, as I call them, the sayyeds and judges who were at the time Sunni, joined the Safavids and converted to Shi'ism, on the one hand, and the immigrant Arab Shi'ite theologians in the 16th century, on the other. But the two groups intermarried in the 17th century and the tension abated. The clerical notables tended to support the Akhbari movement, but it was the Usuli movement of the mojtaheds that prevailed after the fall of Safavids. The Safavid claim had been mildly challenged in the 17th century by the mojtaheds, Shi'ite jurists who practiced ejtehād (independent law-finding) and claimed to be the "Deputies of the Hidden Imam" (according to their theory of 'general deputyship' or niābat 'āmma), but it was under the Qajars in the 19th century in Iran that the theory established a Shi'ite hierocracy that was independent of the Shah and thus a dual structure of authority--or a system of the two powers. This dual structure of power rested on the Usuli principle that "every mojtahed is [equally] right (mosib)" and the theory that the mojtaheds collectively shared the office of "general deputyship" (niābat 'āmma) of the Hidden Imam. The lay people could therefore choose any mojtahed to follow, and the latter would become their marja'-e taqlid (source of imitation), later called Grand Ayatollah (sign of God).

Under the Pahlavis from 1925 to 1979, the independence of the clerical power (hierocracy) was not impaired, though its power was greatly reduced. During Khomeini's leadership in the revolution of 1979, the lost power of the hierocracy was regained with a vengeance, and a theocratic republic was established under a Supreme Jurist (according to the theory of vali-ye faqih). Khomeini's revolutionary innovation in the theory of the Mandate of the Jurist (velāyat-e faqih) was to argue that if one mojtahed or jurist (faqih) succeeded in establishing a government, the other jurists were obligated to follow him. In fact, a number of Grand Ayatollahs opposed Khomeini in the 1980s. Between 1992 and 1994, three or four Grand Ayatollahs died one after the other. The IRI Head of Judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, thought he had the opportunity to resolve the contradiction between the old and the new principles of authority by declaring the Supreme Jurist the sole marja' in 1995, but the attempt failed. The IRI government instead published a list of seven marāje', putting Khamenei in the third place. The top marja' on the list was Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani, who died in 2007, and the glaring omission in it was Ayatollah Sayyid 'Ali Sistani. This was the beginning of a new phenomenon of government-favored marāje', and ushered in a new phase in the evolution of hierocracy-state or mosque-state relations.

After the electoral putsch of June 2009, the most scathing criticism of the Supreme Jurist and the regime came from the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-'Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's successor-designate, followed by Ayatollah Yusof Sane'i, who had also been close to Khomeini and whom the government recently sought to "demote" from the rank of marja'-e taqlid. As you rightly point out, Ayatollahs Bayat-Zanjani and Dastgheib have also condemned the post-elections repression. As for Ayatollahs Sane'i and Dastgheib, their offices were attacked and impounded in the last days of December 2009, following the Ashura anti-government demonstrations. Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani's case is interesting because he was a radical cleric appointed by Imam Khomeini to the committee that amended the Constitution in 1989. Even more interesting is the condemnation of Ayatollah Khamenei by a more radical cleric, Hojjat al-Islam Hadi Ghaffari, the founder of the Iranian Hezbollah in 1979. Now, against this historical background, let me answer your question as to whether this challenge to the legitimacy of velāyat-e faqih and its official interpretation is new and serious.

This challenge, what I call the emergence of a new oppositional Shi'ite jurisprudence, is new, and amounts to the rejection of the official interpretation in favor of a return to the Usuli principles of collective authority of the mojtaheds as jurists, and of the pre-eminent ones as marāje'i. When demanding an extraordinary meeting of the Assembly of Experts to deal with the post-election political crisis in August 2009, Dastgheib published the rationale for his demand in terms of Shi'ite jurisprudence on his website. He reclaimed for "every jurist and mojtahed in whatever time and place, authority (velāyat) over those who accept him." He further claimed that the "protection and guardianship of the Constitution" belonged to the Experts whose duty it was to defend its every clause, reminded his colleagues in the Assembly of Experts pointedly of the cardinal principle of Usuli jurisprudence: "the Experts are mojtaheds, and imitation is forbidden to the mojtahed." They should therefore meet to restore the authority and reputation of the preeminent jurists (marja'iyyat) according to this fundamental principle of Shi'ite jurisprudence.

Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani also contributed to the new Shi'ite oppositional jurisprudence in a two-part interview published in the daily E'temād at the end of August (8-9 Shahrivar 1388). He echoed Sane'i and the reformists by citing Khomeini's saying, "the criterion is the vote of the nation," in order to bolster what the reformists call the "republicanism" of the regime as against its "Islamicness." He argued that it was not 'Ali's designation or appointment by the Prophet but the allegiance (bay'at) of the people twenty-five years later than entitled him to political rule. Political authority invested in the ruler by the pledge of allegiance, according to Bayat-Zanjani, is purely contractual, just like any contract to buy and sell (bay'), and there is nothing sacred and no divine appointment involved in such pledge of allegiance. This populist interpretation flatly contradicts the fundamental idea of theocratic government as "continuous (mostamerr) Imamate," which is written into the Preamble to the Constitution and propounded as its official interpretation.

Last but not least is Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, a student of the late Ayatollah Montazeri, who was one of the five signatories of the well noted manifesto by reformist intellectuals in exile published on January 3, 2010, just two weeks after Montazeri's death. The manifesto stated that "religious despotism" (estebdād-e dini) had completely lost its legitimacy after the violence against unarmed demonstrators at Montazeri's funeral and during Ashura. The reference to the Supreme Jurist as the "tyrannical guardian" (vali-ye jā'er) in the manifesto was most probably penned by Kadivar, drawing on the nascent Shi'ite oppositional jurisprudence.

One of the common and strongest themes in the declarations and interviews with Green Movement leaders -- Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami -- is a "return to the constitution." But the Iranian constitution is rife with internal contradiction over the sources of state legitimacy. Aside from the shrewdness on the part of reformist/Green politicians, what does this strategy epitomize? Can the constitution, like the U.S. constitution in the 19th century, be appealed to even though it contains anti-democratic language and institutions?

The call for a "return to the constitution" by Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami is part of a somewhat desperate strategy to maintain their position of leadership over the Green Movement. Both Mousavi and Karroubi have acknowledged that they do not feel in charge of the protest movement that surprised them by its grass roots tenacity and persistence. Of course they cannot do otherwise as the former revolutionaries turned reformist with aging. But this call is falling flat on the ears of the protesters who preponderantly belong to a different generation born after the Islamic revolution, and to a different gender, women. As Akbar Ganji realized in his Republican Manifesto of 2002, the Iranian constitution, passed in 1979 and amended in 1989, is unworkable. Likewise, Ebrahim Yazdi, secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran was openly advocating "the constitution minus the velāyat-e faqih" by June 2008, if not earlier. The same need for elimination of this cardinal principle of the present constitution is strongly implied by the above-mentioned January 2010 manifesto of the intellectuals in exile. As you put it, it is indeed rife with internal contradiction over the sources of state legitimacy. Furthermore, the reformist argument that it strikes a reasonable balance between the republicanism and Islamicness rings increasingly hollow, and must seem totally unconvincing to the Green Movement after the brutal suppression of peaceful protests in the last six months of 2009.

In February of 2010, Arjomand published an opinion piece that again may prove prescient:

The greatest difference between 2009 and 1979 was created by the revolution itself. Revolutions give birth to a new political class, and Iran's Islamic revolution was no exception. The Iranian leadership formed after the revolution consisted of a narrow ruling stratum and a much broader supporting group that was given charge of administration and political mobilization.

In the 20 years since Khomeini's death, the composition of this political class has changed drastically. The clerical elite has gradually lost power to the military-security groups, from whose ranks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged. Bureaucratic and security services dominated by the Revolutionary Guards and its militia, the Basij (Mobilization Corps), are now firmly in command.

The leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blessed the Revolutionary Guards' decision to steal the presidential election. By identifying squarely with the military-security apparatus headed by Ahmadinejad, Khamenei has alienated an important segment of the ruling clerical elite. He has also reduced his own status as the ultimate arbiter in Iranian society, a role that was central to Khomeini's dominance of the system. As a result, he has produced a rupture between the two pillars of the revolutionary regime: the clerical elite and military-security structure.

The growth of Khamenei's personal, extra-constitutional power introduces a strong element of uncertainty into Iran's future. Political regimes that rely on personal power, commonly known as dictatorships, prove to be fragile in crisis. This was the weakness of the Shah's regime, which collapsed as he became paralyzed in his decision making. There was nothing behind him supporting the system.

The Iranian regime is now critically dependent on decisions made by one man, the Leader. For that reason, it is demonstrating a degree of fragility that is comparable to the Shah's regime in the latter part of the 1970's.

Most spokespersons of the Green protest movement advocate civil disobedience instead of revolution. ...But there is little chance that these children of the Islamic revolution -- now graying reformists -- will remain in control of the Green movement, which reflects the aspirations of a post-revolutionary generation of young women and men and students.

The ayatollah-dictator and the Revolutionary Guards have tried their best to discredit their opponents by concocting, through forced confessions at show trials, a conspiracy of regime change based on a "velvet revolution" produced by "Western social sciences."

Deep down, they know there is no conspiracy. Their fear is grounded in what they see in front of them: the forward march of history.

The interview was conducted on behalf of Tehran Bureau by Kevan Harris from Johns Hopkins University.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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11 Comments

Great interview thanks Kevan and T.B.

I am waiting for Pirous and Hezbollah Inc., LLC to show up to negate the interview, I wonder if they get paid BI-weekly or monthly from IRI.

Dylan / April 11, 2010 7:06 PM

thank you so much for this...very interesting.

Ardavon / April 11, 2010 7:33 PM

Dylan, while we can (successfully) dispute his claims of an "electoral putsch" and the like, really the narrative that's contained within this interview is simply an expression of this man's own political preferences. However, it must be admitted that he is amongst a minority that share these political preferences.

"Negating" shouldn't be your expectation, but rather "equal time" within the editorial content of Tehran Bureau.

Pirouz / April 12, 2010 11:17 AM

i dont understand the focus on the election.

This movement should not concentrate on the election. Sometimes people speak as if everything was ok before and suddenly there was a coup. The whole 30 years of the worst brutality and dictatorship is the main issue here.

It should be the people against IR not moussavi or the socalled reformists against ahmadinejad.

rostam / April 12, 2010 6:36 PM

I wonder what he means by 'the forward march of history (his story)'? I think at best the population of Iran is divided between those who want to embrace in wholesale a Western style pre-dominantly secular and irreverent culture and those who wish to retain their independence and authenticity in a world of increasing diversity and unfathomable change brought through advances in global communication. This does and will require a leap in the reconstruction of Shi'ite religious thought and the role of the traditional religious hierarchy.

rezvan / April 12, 2010 6:44 PM

I agree with Rostam that we should not focus on the election while they are picking our pockets and raping the youth. It is a side show in the march.

As Prof. Arjomand rightly notes, this movement started about 150 years ago and has gone through several steps, to first separate the clergy from the monarchy, which it finally managed in 1979, in a trade that allowed an open deception to take place in exchange for the end to rule of a monarch, and destruction of one of the pillars.

Today, the next wave is swelling and it is one that eventually shrug off the remaining part of mullah-king bipolar dictatorship, which without the legitimacy of a kingdom to play against, will self-destruct. Today, it is trying to re-create a kingdom from within itself, but that is a historical contradiction, to form a mirrored enemy out of yourself for self-legitimacy. The military-industrial complex in Iran wants Khameneie to be the focus of hatred, but the symbiotic relationship needed will be destroyed when his is destroyed, and probably from within.

Alas, history moves at its own pace and with a formidable cadence. Yes, the mullahs and their entourage are doomed, but so are a large number of the youth of Iran. Both sides will suffer the roles relegated to them by history. One a villainous one, the other heroic, but full of death and blood. Yet, both are doomed.

I wish resvan's admirable challenge to history's dictatorship could be carried out. A historical fact is that Shi'a thought has been so tarnished that no one can think of seriously marketing it any more. A 150 digital channel satellite is more immediate and soothing than the promise of houris for martyrs.

The Western system, alas, an aberrant and wisdom-free creation based on the knowledge and philosophies developed by your own ancestors, has the ability to absorb all cultures now. It has the seed of all destructions in it, nihilism of khayyam! Witness, China and India; in some respects even more entrenched cultures than Iran.

The march of history is true, and people play roles history assigns them, by chance, and not the other way around, in a sense, we produce our own deterministic acts with each act.

nassim sabba / April 12, 2010 11:39 PM


Dear Nassim Sabba and Rezvan,
Thanks for your thoughtful posts. If you allow me my 2-cent, I think that with all its persuasive power, the difficulty (or rather, practical uselessness) of this kind of Historicism, is that the overall effect of a particular historical phenomenon or event can only be evaluated in retrospect. The greatest historicists of modern times, Hegel and Marx, were proven wrong, not in their fundamental Historicism, but in their respective prognosis as to what the final stage of history might be. To assign a "finality" to the "state of 'End of Culture'" (as Walter Benjamin puts it),that is, to the seemingly all-absorbing power of Western (un)culture, is theoretically indefensible and in Praxis deeply and unjustifiably pessimistic. Subscribing to a somewhat modified (and perhaps weaker) form of Historicism, I personally share the more or less same conviction with Rezvan--if I've understood his post correctly-- namely, that "if Islam in general, and Shiism in particular, are to at some point be a viable alternative to the current state of the world", then that "will require a leap in the reconstruction of the religious thought and the traditional religious hierarchy."

Parsa / April 13, 2010 1:41 AM

Dear God,
Why did twice you agents screw Persians? Once as an Arab Sunni and Second time by pseudo-Iranian / Arab Shiite. You have some explaining to do when I see you.

British screwed us awhile but we learned from them then they left.
American screwed us awhile but we learned a lot from them and then they left.
However, your agents came and have no plan to leave.

Thanks a lot.
Dylan

P.S., if these people are your agents, I have nothing to do with you.

Dylan / April 13, 2010 6:48 AM

I think Arjomand is being rather pessimistic about the ability of Khamanei and people who support him to adapt to change. I think they also want reform but not under threat from Western powers and their heinous agenda. They do not want to see a strong and powerful IR capable of dictating its own terms and agenda. They are used to dictating to others but do not like to be told that actually they are the ones walking around naked and there is glaring double standards in their observance of international norms. The IRI is the new kid on the block that is increasingly getting boisterous & self confident. With the continued threats from the US and its allies and now an openly declared policy of not excluding Iran from any nuclear strike, it will unfortunately only mean a need for greater involvement of the IRGC, the army and the Baseej. The best help that the US can do to assist internal change is to back off and as China is suggesting to deal with Iran's nuclear issue through diplomacy and bring it to closure. Once this is done the possibility of change and US influence and the role of moderate clerics and IRGC commanders is much more likely to stay. Niloofar perhaps can use her energies positively by organisin a million signature petition urging Mr Obama to reach a peaceful deal with the current Iranian govt on the nuke issue and stop making silly threats. It just makes him look silly, he is not Mr Bush.

rezvan / April 14, 2010 10:12 PM

Rezvan,
You come through as an honest person and I am sure you are sincere about your Islamist feelings. I respect your faith, but you are out of place. You need to spend your energies positively and for your own Lebanon. You refuse to believe the Barbaric Republic is fast approaching its closing stage. The Iranian people have out grown this nightmare. Even if you imagine a world without America and President Obama, the destiny of the Barbaric Republic with respect to the Iranian people will not change. The nukes are a mere irrelevancy.
Please get over it and think about the future of southern Lebanon without the Barbaric Republic. Think hard. It is not too far away.

Niloofar / April 16, 2010 7:47 AM

what is said now and what happened in past and present they are all important and the most important thing is today we do need someone who could lead the nation to unite and organize the groups only with one voice and one goal and all attacks on clergy leader and regime change and no more illusion of reform or any change in exiting regime and if you pay attention that how are they preparing themselves and what are they planning next to crush the people, all should understand there is no time to spare, because regime is very much skilled and 31 years of experience, I don't like violence and would prefer nonviolence, but logic says these people understand nothing but only violence because their religion is base on violence and by force of sword .

jam / April 17, 2010 3:10 AM