June 22, 2009


Iran's Supreme Revolutionary: By inexplicably inserting himself into the election controversy, Ayatollah Khamenei is destroying his reputation and tainting himself with an aura of corruption, Reza Aslan writes. Worse, he’s unwittingly turning a protest into a revolution. (Reza Aslan, 6/21/09, Daily Beast)

The remarkable thing about Khomeini’s innovative religio-political system is that it stood in contradiction to more than 1,000 years of Shiite theology. Shiism is a messianic religion in that it eagerly awaits an “End Times” when the messiah (called the Mahdi in Islam) will return to sweep away the old order and replace it with the perfect state, the kingdom of God. Hence, only a government administered by the messiah after he returns to earth can be considered legitimate. A government run by human beings—whether monarchy, democracy, or theocracy—is considered a usurpation of the messiah’s authority, which is why the religious clergy in Shiism have for centuries maintained a deep and abiding commitment to political quietism.

Khomeini argued, however, that in the absence of the messiah, the people must rely on his agents on earth (i.e., the clergy) to carry out the messiah’s duties and responsibilities. That includes establishing the perfect state for him. Simply put, rather than wait for the messiah to return to create the kingdom of God, the clergy should build the kingdom of God for him, thereby ushering in the messiah’s return (a uniquely Islamic take on Christian millenarianism).

For the vast majority of Khomeini’s fellow ayatollahs, including practically all of his superiors, this was a scandalous idea. Khomeini was accused of appropriating the authority of the messiah for himself; in effect, declaring himself to be the long-awaited Mahdi. Of course, Khomeini never made any such statement, nor did he ever explicitly identify himself with the Mahdi. Rather, like any good messiah, he simply embraced the messianic imagery of the Mahdi and allowed his followers to draw their own conclusions. For example, he eagerly accepted the title “The Imam,” an appellation reserved solely for the Mahdi when he returns to earth.

During Iran’s horrific eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Khomeini cast the battle as revenge for the Sunni massacre of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn and his family at Karbala, even though such vengeance is the exclusive right of the Mahdi. “The blood of our martyrs [is] the continuation of the blood of the martyrs of Karbala,” he proclaimed.

But by far the most overt connection Khomeini established between himself and the messiah was his doctrine of the Valayat-e Faqih. In Khomeini’s view, the faqih would have more than just supreme authority, he would have infallible and divine authority—authority that, in fact, would be equal to the authority of the Prophet Muhammad.

“If a knowledgeable and just faqih undertakes the task of forming the government, then he will run the social affairs that the Prophet used to run and it is the duty of the people to listen to him and obey him,” Khomeini wrote in his magnum opus Islamic Government. “This ruler will have as much control over running the people’s administration, welfare and policy as the Prophet… had, despite the special virtues and the traits that distinguished the Prophet… [he will have] the same power as the Most Noble Messenger… in the administration of the society…[he] will hold the supreme power in the government and management and the control of social and political affairs of the people in the same way as the Prophet.”

This was a startling, some would say heretical, statement, but it was vital to Khomeini’s success in achieving absolute power.

Ayatollah Khamenei had, wisely, disavowed such absolute power, but now is trying to reclaim it and, thus, delegitimizing himself in purely theological terms.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2009 7:57 AM
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