Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

By Reza Afshari | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
The Shiite Theocracy

The official Sunni Islam, which claims the allegiance of the majority of Muslims in the world, has only the Prophet Muhammad, who is considered to be the last messenger of God on earth. The orthodox Sunnis grapple with complex sets of traditions that his leading followers had developed in his name. In contrast, the Shiite religious landscape in Iran is more imaginitively crowded. The Twelver Shiites have erected a hierarchy of Imams, who as the direct twelve descendants of the Prophet had theoretically inherited a touch of prophetic charisma, if not divine attributes, leaving behind ponderous legacies of sacrosanct words. In theory the clerics consider these twelve superhuman beings as the eternal, rightful leaders, spiritually as well as politically, of the Shiite community. Some three centuries after the death of the Prophet, the Last Imam went into an indefinite period of occultation, to return one day as the Savior. In the past few centuries, an obscure clerical theory maintained that until the return of the Last Imam, the Shiite ulema would be the de facto leaders of the community.

In the recent memory of Iran, however, the Shahs ruled autocratically, allowing the Shiite ulema only as much authority as they needed to manage the religious and personal affairs of his mostly obedient subjects. At the same time, an informal hierarchy of Shiite clerics emerged, at the top of which stood a few senior mojtaheds (Islamic jurists). In the twentieth century, they assumed the title Grand Ayatollah. Mojtahed is a cleric who, after a lifetime of religious learning, is capable of rendering ejtehad, an opinion on Islamic law, based on a set of traditionally recognized sources. Each practicing Shiite is supposed to choose and follow one mojtahed as the marja-e taqlid, source of emulation. Each marja-e taqlid (marja, for short) is supposed to be an autonomous authority, whose teachings and judgments are voluntarily accepted by his followers. No more than a few clerics could achieve that august status at any given time. However, from time to time an especially distinguished mojtahed, one of the Grand Ayatollahs, received general acceptance by the others as the sole marja and his fatvas were universally

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