Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Khomeini's Concept of Governance of the Jurisconsult (Wilayat Al-Faqih) Revisited: The Aftermath of Iran's 2009 Presidential Election

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Khomeini's Concept of Governance of the Jurisconsult (Wilayat Al-Faqih) Revisited: The Aftermath of Iran's 2009 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

The serious crisis that has unfolded after the June 2009 presidential election in Iran exposed the absolutist nature of the state's highest religious authority, and the urgent need to critically interrogate Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of governance of the jurisconsult (wilayat al-faqih). Jurists and scholars have been attempting to devise a model in which sovereignty belongs to the public by basing their arguments on historical, jurisprudential, theological, philosophical, and extra-religious frameworks to present state models which allow for public sovereignty and challenge the notion of divine sovereignty inhering in the jurisconsult.

The prediction of Ayatollah Hoseyn-'Ali Montazeri (d. 2009)1 that the doctrine of al-wilaya al-mutlaqa [the all-comprehensive and absolute authority of the jurisconsult] could degenerate into religious and clerical despotism [estebdad] seems to have come true in a most glaring form: the political situation after the country's June 2009 presidential election. Protesters who believed that massive fraud and vote rigging had occurred were met by a brutal and forceful reaction from Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei, the jurisconsult [vali-ye faqih] who occupies the Islamic Republic's supreme position. In his first post-election Friday prayer service, he proclaimed categorically that he would tolerate no more protests or challenges to the validity of President Ahmadinejad's reelection with a remarkable 62% of the electoral votes and an impressive turnout of 85% of all eligible voters. Construing this as a sign of divine grace and endorsement, he equated any dissent or questioning with the "greatest crime"2 one can commit againstthe nation of Iran. In addition, he signaled to the other two presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, that they would be held accountable if any more blood was shed as the state strove to restore order and normality.

This was a veiled threat to the protesters and a signal to the hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) that they had some degree of official permission to use coercive methods while putting down the protests.3 This arbitrary and excessive use of discretionary authority opened the still ongoing discourse on the merits of the concept of wilayat al-faqih [or velayat-e faqih in Persian, i.e., governance of the jurisconsult], which currently lacks any checks and balances.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) originally promulgated this concept in a 1970 series of lectures delivered in Najaf, Iraq, he relied on both rational and traditional proofs to buttress his case that during the concealment of the messianic infallible Imam,4 whom believers hold went into occultation in 941,5 the jurisconsult has a mandate to implement Islamic rulings not only in matters of devotion and personal affairs, but also in the realm of the social and the political.6 In other words, his prerogative is considered an extension of the authority enjoyed by the divine guides (also known as "the infallible Imams"). Khomeini advocated an Islamic state led by a qualified jurisconsult who would ensure that Islamic rulings are adhered to and implemented within the broad outlines and general principles of shari'a. Thus, his scope of authority was at least circumscribed by the fallible human interpretation of the nebulous concept of shari'a.7

Toward the end of his life, however, Khomeini stretched this concept to its farthest limit and expanded the scope of the jurisconsult's authority8 by proclaiming in January 1988 that this person is not confined to shari'a if it conflicts with the society's general welfare and best interests.9 Just what constitutes this "general welfare" and "imperative necessity," as well as how they are measured, remained undefined and vague. Moreover, the customary checks and balances over this person's expansive powers are conspicuously absent. With this proclamation, Khomeini elevated the state's preservation to a primary injunction [al-ahkam al-awwaliyya] and downgraded rituals (e. …

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