Islam





velayat i-faqih
"governance by jurisprudence"


General Glossary Glossary
Legitimation of Authority
   The Iranian Revolution of 1979 involved more than Islamic "fundamentalism," or anti-Western sentiment, or reaction against the cruelties of the Pahlavi shah, which is the popular representation of the Iranian Revolution and the shallow demonization of its central participants, from Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumeyni on down, by the Western press and governments. The Iranian Revolution was about political authority and in particular, what makes political authority legitimate. At the core of the conflict between the Pahlavi regime, with a government and constitution modelled after Western examples, and the clergy, students, farmers, merchants, and middle class, was a question of what Islamic government should look like. And the revolutionary idea which in part animated the revolution and dominated Iran after the fall of the Shah of Iran, was the brainchild of a brilliant and learned Shi'ite, the Ayatullah Khumeyni. The idea, misleadingly labelled "fundamentalist" by both Khumeyni partisans and by the West, in fact represents a radical departure from Islamic tradition; this core idea Khumeyni called velayat i-faqih, or "rule by jurisprudence" (sometimes called "Islamic republicanism" in the West) and remains the ideological core of Iranian government and has ignited revolution and resistance throughout the Muslim world. It's possible that velayat i-faqih , or some version of it, may become the model of Islamic government in the twenty-first century and beyond. It's equally possible that it will simply represent a blip in Islamic history.


Islam
The Qur'an

Islam Glossary
Dhikr
Hadith
Tawhid
Ummah
   The principle message of the Qur'an is the unity and absoluteness of God (tawhid) and the duty of the believer to remember God in all actions, thought, and speech (dhikr). But the Qur'an is also meant to be a "guide to life," that is, a moral rule-book governing individual and collective behavior. It is a book of precepts, advice, and prohibitions; Islam itself is an active and practical religion which enjoins on its believers the task of modelling society along Islamic ethical lines. In addition to the Qur'an , Muhammad provided the Islamic community (ummah) with the sinless example of his life and conduct (Sunnah) and his own sayings not directly inspired by God (hadith). So from the beginning of Islam, the Qur'an , the Sunnah, and the Hadith, were regarded as the principle or even the sole guide for all ethical, social, and political knowledge. Not only should individual actions be guided by the ethical teachings of the Qur'an , the Sunnah, and the Hadith, but so should all social and political actions. The Qur'an should serve as a basis for writing laws and for judging disputes.


Islam
The Qur'an

Islam Glossary
Dhikr
Hadith
Shari'ah
'Ulama
   Out of this general orientation towards the relationship between the Qur'an and government arose the tradition of fiqh, or "jurisprudence." It was recognized early on in Islam that certain people, by virtue of the uprightness and their study and scholarship of the Qur'an , Sunnah, and Hadith, were more capable of applying these to the messy, everyday issues of society, law, and disputes. This group became the 'ulama, or "learned clerics," whose job it is to produce Islamic law (Shari'ah) from their knowledge of the Islamic religion and traditions. Fiqh is a particular branch of this activity; for our purposes, it would be accurate to say that it is the "judicial" branch. The fuqayah , or clerical judges, function as court, trying crimes, especially moral and religious crimes, and resolving disputes by applying their years of scholarship on the Qur'an and the Sunnah.


Shi'a
Shi'a
   This tradition, both the Shari'ah and fiqh , are shared by Sunni and Shi'a Muslims alike, although the Shi'a Shari'ah differs from the Sunni one. However, Shi'ite tradition has a long and deep distrust of temporal authority, since Shi'ism defines the succession of Islamic secular power after 'Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam and son-in-law of Muhammed, as illegitimate.


   So it is scarcely surprising that as Shah Riza Pahlavi of Iran began to adopt more and more Western models of society and government, and began to actively oppose the Shi'ite fiqh courts by setting up his own, that the Shi'ite clergy would turn on the regime and eventually declare it to be illegitimate. The Shi'ite clergy, with Khumeyni as a popular leader, would use the Shi'ite sense of history as a powerful weapon against the Pahlavi Shah, aligning themselves with figures such as 'Ali and Hussein, the third successor to 'Ali who was killed by the second Umayyad caliph, and aligning the Pahlavi government with the evil forces that through history have oppressed the truly faithful. In 1975, Khumeyni declared the Shah's government to be illegitimate and opposed to Islam.

   It was at this point that Khumeyni developed the theory of government he called velayat i-faqih , which we can now translate as "rule by fiqh ." If the Shah's government was illegitimate and the Constitution of Iran, built on Western principles at the beginning of the century, was opposed to Islam, what would a legitimate Islamic government look like? Khumeyni theorized that the activity of fiqh , using learned clerics to decide judicial issues, should be the model for the executive branch of government. That is, a group of the most learned clerics, should use their study and knowledge of the Qur'an , the Sunnah, and the Hadith, to make executive decisions and to veto or pass laws. Ideally, an Islamic republic, which is what Khumeyni called this new type of state, would have laws written by a Parliament elected in multi-party elections around the country. This Parliament would be made up of people from all walks of life, would be managed by a Prime Minister representing the majority party, and would be responsible for passing laws and budgets. There is an executive branch represented by a President, and the first president of Iran after the Revolution was a non-cleric and socialist, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. But exercising power over the Parliament and the President would be a Guardian Council, made up of the most learned and intelligent clerics. This Guardian Council would use the judicial principles of fiqh to determine whether laws accord with Islam or are non-Islamic, whether certain measures (such as land reform) are properly Islamic or not. In addition, all secular courts would be replaced by fiqh courts and these fiqh courts, typically independent and decentralized, would all be organized under a Supreme Court, which would, like the courts, be a fiqh court. This judiciary, too, would be ultimatey subject to the Guardian Council. In post-Revolutionary Iran, the Guardian Council was headed by Khumeyni himself until his death.

   In practice, velayat i-faqih has only been partially implemented and has met with a great deal of opposition from Shi'ite clerics. For the principle is absolutely new in Islamic history; it has no precedent in the Qur'an , the Sunnah, the Hadith, or the whole of Islamic history. Properly speaking, it is one of the most revolutionary ideas of the twentieth-century; so labelling the concept "Islamic fundamentalism" is somewhat misleading, for it covers up the lack of precedence for most of the political innovations of the Iranian Revolution.

   The concept has met several practical details. One issue involves efficiency. At a certain level, government is about solving problems: inequity, disputes, famine, and so forth. Velayat i-faqih puts on top of this problem-solving function the necessity that the solutions also be properly "Islamic," so that a great deal of energy is spent in all branches of government in justifying government programs and laws in the Qur'an , the Sunnah, and Islamic tradition. For instance, one of the principle disputes in early post-Revolutionary Iran revolved around economic inequities. Under the Shah of Iran, the gap between the poor and the rich had become unbearably wide; some post-Revolutionary reformers wanted to literally take land away and put it under common use. They were opposed by groups who believed in the Islamic sanctity of private property. Both sides spent years arguing which solution was more properly Islamic and very little was done about the endemic poverty in Iran. Many critics argue that this has rendered the government inefficient and distracted.

   On the other hand, some Shi'ite clerics believe that political power will distract learned clergy from their real purpose, the study and reasoning over Islamic traditions, and that promotion into the higher ranks of clergy will be based on political and bureaucratic service rather than religious dedication, intellectual achievement, and Islamic knowledge. In other words, that the learned clergy will become less religious and less Islamic. So the practical problem Islamic republicanism faces, then, has two opposite poles: subjecting practical problems to so much religious dispute that solving the practical problem becomes secondary and, on the other hand, the danger of the higher clergy becoming too secularized and less grounded in the knowledge and virtue that merits their status as clergy in the first place. However this practical problem works itself out, the idea has caught fire throughout the Islamic world and has caused revolutionary fires to break out all around the Middle East and North Africa. We may be at a crossroads in Islamic history in which Islamic government undergoes a change as profound and world-shaking as the political changes which occurred in the European Enlightenment, and Khumeyni would achieve the same status as a Rousseau or a Jefferson. Or velayat i-faqih may fold under the weight its many contradictions and dilemmas.

Richard Hooker



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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-19-98