Best Facts and Analysis on Shi'a Politics

Modern Shi’ism in Iran and Current Demographics

The religious pillars of the Iranian state are based on Shi’a Islam--the second largest religious denomination within Islam. The main center of scholarship and religious thought within Shi'ism is in Qom (approximately 90 miles southwest of Tehran). At the top of Shi’a religious hierarchy are the “Grand Ayatollahs” (Marja al-Taqlid or Ayatollah al-‘Uzma). These individuals are “sources of emulation” and are considered to be the most knowledgeable scholars of religious law. By the middle of the 19th century, Sheikh Morteza Ansari, the leading Shi’a jurist of his generation, effectively established the current model of emulation in which each Shi’a believer chooses one Grand Ayatollah (the “most knowledgeable jurist”) whose laws he/she will follow mainly through referring to the Ayatollah’s law book (risala). Ansari’s parallel innovation was the requirement that the Shi’a lay followers pay their religious tax of the khums (lit. “one-fifth” of annual surplus income) directly to their Grand Ayatollah, providing a sustainable model for Shi’a clerical institutional independence. All Grand Ayatollahs in the Shi’a world trace their scholarly lineage back to Ansari, and constitute an “Usuli” school of jurisprudence—often also termed the “Ja’fari” school after the sixth Shi’a Imam. This model provided the clergy with an independent financial base that historically enabled them to keep their distance from the government and stake independent positions.

Iran today is 90-95% Twelver Shi’a (as opposed to Zaydi and Ismaili) with about 5-10% Sunni and less than 1% other religious minorities including sizable communities of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Although seats in Iranian Parliament are based on population quotas, notable minority communities, including Jews, are awarded a seat in the Majles even if they do not reach the minimum population criteria. Jews and Zoroastrians have one seat each and Christians have two seats in the Majles.

Although the majority of the Muslim world today is Sunni (between 85-90%) with Shi’as representing roughly (10-15%), in the Middle East the numbers achieve greater parity (roughly 60-65% to 35-40% respectively). Iran is the largest and most populous Shi’a-majority state in the world, followed by Iraq. Other majority Shi’a states include Bahrain and Azerbaijan as well as large communities in Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Large non-Twelver Shi’a communities are located in Yemen, Turkey, Syria, and Tajikistan.

The Political Theory behind the Islamic Republic

Political thought and authority in Shi’a Islam rests on the key pillar of wilaya which roughly translates as “vicegerency” (deputyship). This notion runs through more than a millennium of elite Shi’a theory and belief, starting with the succession to the Prophet Muhammad himself. The Shi’a assert that the cousin, son-in-law, and deputy of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali bin Abi Talib, was the most spiritually, morally, and politically qualified heir to the prophetic message and should have led the Muslim community after his death. They cite, amongst numerous other examples, the farewell address of the Prophet (hajj al-tamam) given a few months before his passing in front of thousands in which he stated “whoever takes me as his mowla, then Ali is his mowla.” The term mowla here is related to wilaya and is thus the operative term in the contemporary theory of wilayat al-faqih (Persian: vilayat-i faqih) as theorized by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini. As successor to the Prophet, Ali was labelled an “Imam” and inheritor of all aspects of the prophetic message save revelation which came to an end with the Prophet Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets” and the final revelation expressed in the Quran.

Ali married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and a line of eleven descendants resulting from this marriage are considered by the Shi’a as the rightful leaders and heirs to the Prophet. The eleventh descendant of Ali and twelfth descendant of the Prophet, Muhammad bin al-Hassan, went into occultation in the year 874 CE/260 H and the Shi’a await his return, alongside Jesus, at end-times to establish a just government. As enshrined in the Iranian constitution, the Islamic Republic is a system put in place during the occultation—a measure preparing the grounds for the return of the final Imam, in other words. The notion behind vilayat-i faqih is that the succession and vicegerency (wilaya) which passed from the Prophet Muhammad to Ali, and now in the hands of the alive but hidden twelfth Imam, is now manifest in institution of the Guardian-Jurist headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is also a physical descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (a seyyed) acting as a representative of the twelfth Imam, or more technically, is the deputy vicegerent of God.

The system of vilayat-i faqih established by Khomeini argued that the most knowledgeable jurist (faqih) must institute divine justice in the absence of direct leadership of the twelfth Imam, since humanity still has to live in accordance with the just path no matter the circumstance. According to Shi’a belief, Islam is a universal concept not contained by time, space, or sectarian identity. Islam means “submission [to God],” thus rendering every divine prophet from Adam through Noah, Moses, and Jesus to Muhammad each a “Muslim.” Each of these Prophets possessed wilaya (Persian: vilayat) and acted as representatives of God. Therefore, vicegerency and deputyship is a larger worldview of man’s place in the universe with respect to God and the trust God placed in man to care for the universe.  This vicegerency is believed to be shared in a continuous line from the first prophet, Adam, all the way to Muhammad and the Imams after him, now represented by the Guardian-Jurist on behalf of the Hidden Imam. As is often written across the podiums behind which Iran’s Friday prayer leaders address millions each week: “the vicegerency (wilaya) of the Guardian-Jurist is the same vicegerency of the Prophet Muhammad.”

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