June 25, 2009

THE CONSERVATIVES IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE:

Why the turbans are at odds: A debate rages about the nature of clerical rule (The Economist, 6/25/09)

THE Koran is the word of God, which every Muslim must follow, but its commands can be hard to interpret. So people should submit to the rule of a properly trained religious scholar. The idea is a simple one, and the father figure of Iran’s revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made it the central principle of his Islamic state.

But the notion of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) has proved to be controversial as a religious doctrine and tricky in practice. The turbulence now sweeping Iran has many causes, among them a simple urge for freedom. Yet the tensions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies generated by trying to impose velayat-e faqih lie at the heart of its troubles.

Divisions among top Shia scholars are nothing new. In the main seminary towns of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, followers of competing ayatollahs have frequently clashed, sometimes with fists. One recurring split has pitted scholars who believe they should stay outside politics against those who believe they must engage in it. Ayatollah Khomeini pushed this argument to a new level. His revolutionary constitution created the post of supreme leader, placing an unelected senior scholar in overall command of the country.

Many of his fellow ayatollahs saw this as an “innovation”, a bad word in Muslim jurisprudence, signifying an unsubstantiated departure from Islam’s founding texts. Some feared that immersion in worldly affairs would taint clerics and end by repelling believers from the faith. Others argued that democracy was a better way to divine God’s will, or that a committee of scholars, rather than a single man, would suit the leadership function better. Ali al-Sistani, a Najaf-based ayatollah who is probably the most widely revered scholar among the world’s Shias today, has stated that in order to be legitimate such a ruler should win acceptance from a majority of believers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 25, 2009 4:49 PM
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