The End of a Dynasty and The Rise of Tyranny
Submitted by Hooman - ITF Contrbutor from Iran - April 20, 2010
In year 1979, there was a major revolution that took place in the country of Iran. That revolution was known as the Islamic Revolution and replaced the Shah of Iran with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This might now sound out of the ordinary because people have often heard of Islamic run governments. But this was odd because it was not a Sunni form of Islam that established a religious theocracy. This was a Shia group that established a religious theocracy. Even though this was an Islamic Revolution, this led to a very deep divide amongst the Shia population in religious terms and political terms.
It is impossible to talk about Iran and the Shia today without knowing a little history of the Shia and 20th century Iran. The Shia split off from the Sunnis after there was a dispute about who should be the next heir to Muhammad. Many Muslims believed that it should stay in the bloodline of Muhammad and go to his grandson Ali. These people became known as the Shiites. The opposition to Ali came from the Caliphate who claimed that he should be the heir to Muhammad. The two sides would fight each other at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
Historically, the Shia have almost always been oppressed by the Sunnis. Even under Saddam Hussein, the Shia were a majority in Iraq and they were still oppressed. Iran has been the first time that the Shia have ever had a large power in the Middle East. Even after the battle of Karbala, the Shia still did not have a great nation like the Sunnis. Not only did they not have a nation, they made up a very small number of the total Muslims. Even today, they only make up 20% of the Muslim population in the world.
A person also needs to know about the history of 20th century Iran to fully understand what is going on that would lead to a split as severe as what happened in Iran. The people who ruled Iran before the time of the Islamic Revolution were the Pahlavi Dynasty. Before them, there was a democratically elected government. This government was overthrown by a CIA and MI6 coup and put the Pahlavi Dynasty in its place. This act angered many Iranians because they did not want an absolute monarch ruling over Iran because they wanted their democracy back in place . There were very few in Iran who supported the Shah because most people viewed it as an illegitimate government that did not represent the people of Iran. Early on into the reign of Pahlavi dynasty, the seeds of Revolution were sewn and the people just needed a leader to unite the people.
The revolution that was to overthrow the Pahlavi Dynasty was and Islamic Revolution that was led by Khomeini. Khomeini wanted to unite not only the Shia world together, but also the Islamic world. The problem that Khomeini had to unite all of Islam, is that most of Muslims in the world were Sunnis and not Shiites. The solution that Khomeini had was to pull Iran farther from Shia Islam and closer to Sunni Islam. Even though Iran was dominantly a Shia nation, it was called the Islamic republic in an attempt to appeal to the Sunni world .
Before the revolution could take place, Khomeini first had to make an argument to the Shia to get support for the revolution. Khomeini was one of the ulama in Shia Islam. This means that there were very few who could disagree with him. It was the job of the ulama to carry the 12th Imams mandate and to safeguard the Revolution . Khomeini argued that Allah had commanded for an Islamic government to be made and Allah wanted him to be the one to carry out the execution of the command.
Many Shia would be opposed to the Islamic government that Khomenei wanted to put in place . One of the most vocal Shia opposers to Khomenei was Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qasem al-Khoi. Khomeini and Khoi did not like each other at all . Khomeini and Khoi would often refuse to speak to each other. Rather they would exchange points of views through argument between their students. Khoi would make his point that he did not like Khomeini even further during the height of the Islamic Revolution. In 1978, Khoi would send an agate ring to the Shah of Iran as a gift and a special prayer. The purpose of this was to insult the Islamic Revolution that Khomeini was trying to establish.
Grand Ayatollah Khoi would argue that having a velayat-e faqih (Islamic Government) was a violation of Shia tradition and theology. Khoi would even go as far as denouncing Khomeneis plan for an Islamic government as a deviation of Shia Islam The shift that Khomeini pushed the Shiites in can be seen by looking at history. There has never been a major Shiite power in the Middle East until the Islamic Revolution took place. Even in present day Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Sistani resides there. He argues that Shia Islam needs to stay out of politics. This is the traditional view point of many historical Shia Ayatollahs. Khomeini pushed a new Shia Islam in which the clerics would rule the nation.
The Islamic government that was being pushed by Khomenei was also pushing Shariah law heavily. Historically the Shia have never pushed Sharia law as heavily as the Sunnis. The Islamic Republic of Iran has not been strict of its enforcement of Shariah law. Iran is still not as strict on Shariah law as countries like Saudi Arabia has been . Even though the law is still not as strict, Khomeini still moved the country in the direction of Sunni Islam. Many people have termed this concept as the Sunnification of Shia Islam.
Rather the Shia Islam is defined by Karabala and rituals performed on Ashura . Rather than the Islamic Revolution being about associated around Karbala or any sort of Shia tradition, it was all about laws and rules. This idea was not very popular among many of the religious Shia. It was a golden opportunity for people like Grand Ayatollah Khoi to criticize the Islamic Revolution.
An example of a major Shia tradition is the holiday of Ashura. During the height Ashoura, they will perform a self flagellation to mourn the loss of Imam Hussein. This holiday honors the martyrdom of Imam Husseyn. Imam Husseyn is the most celebrated martyr in Shiism. This is largest holiday in the Shia calendar and it is very different from any of the Sunni holidays because it is largely based in ritual.
Many of the Shia would criticize Khomenei because he did not preside over any observances of Ashura or any rituals associated with the martyrdom of Hussayn. Khomenei did more to discourage Shia piety and push Sunni Sharia Law and this caused much division in the Shia communities . Khomeini never even bothered to visit one of the most popular Shia Shrines of the 8th Imam in Mashad. The Islamic Republic of Iran would even begin to shock many of their neighboring Shia communities because of their disregard for Shia traditions .
Many Shia would not follow Khomenei because of the titles he would take on even though he was Shia. For example he took on the title Naeb-e Imam which means deputy of the 12th Imam. In Shia Islam, the 12th Imam is a Messianic figure that is supposed to return and bring peace to the world. The 12th Imam is also the reason that the twelvers get their name. This is the branch of Shia Islam that believes in the return of the Imam who will bring peace to the world. When Khomeini took on the title of Imam, he was equating himself with the Imam who would bring peace and justice to the world.
Khomenei would go even farther and take on a title that went above the title of deputy of the 12th Imam. He actually took on the title of Imam. For the Sunnis this simply meant that he was leader so it was not a big deal for much of the Sunni world. But for the Shias this took on an entirely different meaning. For the Shias, the title of Imam was reserved for Ali and his eleven descendants who were the twelve Imams. This not only raised is status above all of the Ayatollahs in Iran, but it put him on the same level as the rest of the Shia Saints . In Catholicism, this would be the equivalent to a priest declaring themselves to be a Saint sent by God then wanting all of Catholics to refer to him as a Saint. Many Shia viewed Khomeini taking on the title of Imam as a way of stealing a title.
In an Iranian Parliament session, there was a deputy who asked Khomenei if he was the 12th Imam. There was no response and even though the question was repeatedly asked, he never answered the question. He never affirmed whether or not he was the 12th Imam. This was an indirect way of associating himself with the 12th Imam. To the average person who does not know much about Shia Islam, this might not seem like a big deal. But to the Shia Muslim, this was a way of comparing themselves to someone as important as Jesus or Moses in Judaism and Christianity.
Khomenei would take it even farther with how high he placed his status and compared himself to Allah. During the Iran-Iraq war, Khomenei was asked if there was anything he could do to stop Muslims from killing one another. Khomeneis response was Do you also criticize Allah when he sends an earthquake? . With Khomenei saying this, he compared himself to Allah. The person who asked Khomeini that question was one of his former students. Once Khomeini answered that question, his student would never speak to him again.
For many Shia in Iran and outside of Iran, there was no way that they would support Khomenei. Khomenei had not taken part in many of the Shia rituals like Ashura and had compared himself to Allah and the 12th Imam, and pushed Sharia law which has been a Sunni belief and not a Shia belief. The lack of Shiism in the Islamic Republic of Iran was insulting to many of the Shia that lived outside of the country.
At the time of the Khomeini revolution, the Shia did not support the Shah of Iran who openly persecuted the Shia for their beliefs, but they did not support the direction that Khomeni was taking their branch of Islam. The situation in the Shia communities was summed up with a question that was asked to a Pakistani Shia community. The question was who do the Shia support, Khomenei or Khoi. Their answer was when it comes to politics, they support Khomenei but when it comes to issues of religion, they support Khoi. This split between in the Shia community is still in existence even though Khomenei is no longer the leader of Iran.
Even though many Shia did not support the Islamic Republic, Khomeini still had enough support for the revolution. It looked like the 1979 Revolution would bring about a religious theocracy like what the Papacy is for the Catholics. But the main difference is that even though the Shiites still have a hierarchy like the Catholics, they do not rely on the hierarchy to maintain order. Rather the Shia rely on the congregation to decide how important the Ayatollahs are. Since Khomeini was able to take on religious titles like Imam and was able to make himself the leader of a revolution, this made Khomeini the most prominent Shia leader around .
Religious issues were not the only reason that the Shia in Iran split into opposing groups. There were also political reasons that the Shia split. Recently in the news in Iraq, there was the election that took place and Grand Ayatollah Sistani (who was the student of Grand Ayatollah Khoi) wanted many of his clerics to show poll neutrality . He would back neither side in Iraqi politics. This position goes back to the position taken by Grand Ayatollah Khoi during the Islamic Revolution. They argued that the clerics should not be involved in politics because they would have to compromise some of their moral values. This is a sharp contrast from the Islamic Republic that is ruled over by clerics and other religious leaders.
An example of why Sistani and Khoi believed that clerics can be found in a dispute that took place between Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Imam Khomeini. Rather than Khamenei being the one who would become the supreme leader of Iran after Khomeini died, it was supposed to be Montazeri. There was an event called the Iran-Contra affair which showed that Khomeini was buying weapons from America in exchange for hostages . Despite Khomeinis anti American chants, this showed that he was still having dealings with America. The result of this deal was Khomeini had to find another person to lead Iran rather than having a Grand Ayatollah lead Iran after he died even though Montazeri was a supporter of Khomeini from the beginning of the revolution. This made a huge problem that would have required to compromise many of the values. The solution was to put Khamenei in charge but he was not an Ayatollah. This meant that an Islamic Republic would have to be lead by a person who did not have proper qualifications to lead.
This is one example on why Sistani believes that the Shia clerics should have to stay out of politics. It requires them to make many compromises that clerics should not have to make and would not make under normal circumstance. A person who does not have the proper qualifications to be a Grand Ayatollah would never be able to become the religious leader of Najaf. The Shia clerics staying out of politics would help to avoid making unnecessary compromises like that example.
Despite all the mixing of politics and religion and revolutions that led to a split in the Shia, there is a very basic historical and doctrinal issue that no Shiite leader can get around. The position of the Shia has always been one of rebellion and defiance. Even going back as far as Karbala, the Shia were defiant against the Sunni Caliphs. Now the Islamic Republic of Iran is has to deal with a problem of being a revolutionary religion while ruling on Islamic principles.
The term Islamic Republic is a contradiction in terms. The Khomeini Revoluton is not a republic because it is a religious theocracy and cannot be considered a Republic. It is also not Islamic because Shiism cannot be in power without instantly discrediting itself . Any form of Islamic government can be opposed on Islamic terms because Shiism is a revolutionary form of Islam. If a Shia government is in power, it would have to lead to a split just because the people have always been defiant and rebellious for the last 1400 years of history. Khomeini could not create an Islamic Republic without having that nation be challenged on Islamic terms.
The problem with the Islamic Republic can be seen now. With the protests that have gone on, it shows that the split in Shia Islam still exists. Even though both of the current leaders of Iran were both around during the Islamic Revolution and are twelvers, many of the opposition leaders are also twelver Shia. The most well known opposition leader is Mir Hussein Mousavi. During much of the Iran Iraq war, he served as Prime Minister. Another one of the opposition leaders was Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who was supposed to follow Khomeini. Even though he died at age 87 a little before Ashura, he was a critic of the leadership the Islamic Republic. At his funeral, there was a large opposition protest. Just the recent political problems in the Islamic Republic of Iran show that the Khomeini revolution split the Shia and the divide has not gone away.
The split in Shia Islam has existed ever since the Islamic Revolution took place. It has been showing itself recently during the election riots that took place. Part of the split has taken place due to politics between the groups of Shia and part of the split has been due to religious differences. But another part of the split has been due to political differences.