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How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy

How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy
(Mehdi Khalaji, May 31, 2017)

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About the event

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This presentation demonstrated how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran’s uncertain future.

About the speaker

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. A Shiite theologian by training, Mr. Khalaji has also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals and produced for the BBC as well as the U.S. government’s Persian news service.

From 1986 to 2000, Mr. Khalaji trained in the seminaries of Qom, the traditional center of Iran’s clerical establishment. There he studied theology and jurisprudence, earning a doctorate and researching widely on modern intellectual and philosophical-political developments in Iran and the wider Islamic and Western worlds. In Qom, and later in Tehran, Mr. Khalaji launched a career in journalism, first serving on the editorial board of a theological journal, Naqd va Nazar, and then the daily Entekhab. In addition to his own writing, he has translated the works of the humanist Islamic scholar Muhammad Arkoun.

In 2000, Mr. Khalaji moved Paris where he studied Shiite theology and exegesis in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He also worked for BBC Persian as a political analyst on Iranian affairs, eventually becoming a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At Radio Farda, he produced news, features, and analysis on a range of Middle Eastern, Iranian, and Islamic issues.

Mr. Khalaji writes a bilingual English and Persian blog, MehdiKhalaji.com. He also addressed Westminster on the subject of: “Inside Iran: What Forces Will Decide its Future, and How?


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, tonight as you know our speaker is Mehdi Khalaji, who is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Sh’iite groups in the Middle East. Mehdi is a Shia theologian by training, and appropriately enough, with that occupation he studied in Qom for quite some time I think, and there gained your doctorate in theology. He went on later to study in Paris at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where again he focused on Shi’ite theology.

He has worked in the world of broadcasting and the U.S. government’s Persian news service. He was a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, which is the Persian language service of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and there he produced news features and analyses on a range of Middle Eastern, Iranian, and Islamic features.

Today, he is going to talk about the very important transformation of the Iranian clergy as a result of the Revolution in 1979. Please join me in welcoming Mehdi Khalaji.

Mehdi Khalaji:

Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for having me here. Thank you Westminster Institute for inviting me. This is a great honor for me to be here, speaking to you about one of the most enigmatic issues in the history of Islam and the history of Iran, which I have struggled a lot to understand since a long time ago.

As Bob told you, I was born in Qom. Qom is the Vatican of Shia Islam, and I was born to a very traditional family. My father is an Ayatollah, so he sent me to the seminary when I was 11 years old. His dream was to see me as an Ayatollah, but I studied for fourteen years and I described myself as a recovering Ayatollah now. And then I studied Western philosophy, and I did journalism and so on, but clerical establishment was for me not some personal pre-occupation but also an enduring, intellectual pre-occupation on which I have written a lot in Persian and in English, and I think the clerical establishment in Islam in general is still one of the darkest corners of Islamic history. It is very hard to find good works, academic works, on this issue, whether Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. Obviously, there are far fewer books and researchers on Shia Islam for different reasons.

Roots of the Shia clergy

Let us start with a few basic facts. I like the term basic. I was not born an English-speaking person, so English is my fourth language, but I like some words in English like ‘basic’. ‘Basic’ means for me simple but essential, and sometimes, many people who talk about the subject miss the basic facts or the basic principles. When we talk about Shia clergy, we are talking, actually, about a modern phenomenon because when you hear clergy, you think about the Christian clergy. That is very obvious, you know, clergy in the Latin languages refers mostly to Christianity and the Christian clerical establishment, but whether in Catholicism or in Protestantism, clerical establishment or clergy have a very special and important theological place, theological definition, theological function, but in Islam we do not have that kind of function for clerics.

Actually, if, in Christianity, clergy was born out of a theological need, in Islam, it was born out of a totally historical need. In other words, in Islam in order to be a Muslim, in order to understand Islam, in order to understand Muhammad’s message or Qur’an, in order to practice religion, you do not need to go to any cleric. You do not need any cleric’s advice. You can understand and practice Islam based on your own intellectual capabilities. In other words, Islam was born as a Protestant religion but historically, it became Catholic, especially in Shi’ism.

Sunni-Shia division

One of the expressions I do not like in English is ‘political Islam’. You know that this does not exist in any Muslim languages? If you translate this ‘political Islam’ to Persian or Arabic or any other language, it is not a familiar expression to Muslim ears. The main division in Islam, which is the division between Sunnis and Shia, happened out of a political dispute. When Muhammad died, even before his funeral ceremonies, Muslims started to fight over his successor. Some people said that Ali, his son-in-law, was his successor. The majority of people said that we have to follow the pre-Islamic model, which is the tribal model, for appointing a successor. The majority of Muslims appointed Abu Bakr and then Omar, and then Uthman as the first and second and third caliph, the successor of the Prophet, but Shia were the minority. Over a thousand years Shia remained an angry opposition, protestant minority everywhere in Islamic territories.

One of the biggest gifts that God or nature or whatever, history, has given to Shia was the Mongol invasion. The Mongol invasion has destroyed the central government and Islamic Empire in Baghdad, and somehow freed this minority here and there. And it took Shia two centuries to recover and reconstruct itself, and actually assert itself as a serious religious, political power by creating the Safavid Empire four centuries ago. So four centuries ago in Iran we had a dynasty that was trying to claim legitimacy, religious or Islamic legitimacy, by making Shi’ism as its official religion, and on the other hand, by differentiating itself from the rest of the Muslim world, not only by the religious element but also by Persian language element, by a lingual element.

Iranian Islam

So it started to create a notion of Iranian nationalism based on pre-Islamic religion, mythologies, Persian language, and somehow Persianizing Islam and offering this kind of version as Iranian Islam. Iranian Islam is the Persianized Islam. Iranian Shi’ism is the Persian Shi’ism, which is different from Lebanese Shi’ism, different from Arab Shi’ism, different from Turkish Shi’ism because in Iranian Shi’ism you see all this the trace of the pre-Islamic Persian mythologies, Zoroastrian elements, Mithraism, and all this religions, and myth, and history.

Interestingly, since four centuries ago, Iranians in Iran in order to maintain the power equation, they needed to make an alliance with the powers outside the region because Iranian Islam has defined itself in spite of the majority of Muslims. The main rivalry was between Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire, so in order to maintain the power equation, they needed to make an alliance with Europeans, with Portugal, with Dutch, with French.

The Telegraph

Inside the country they needed to create a very powerful clerical establishment, so they started to gather Shia jurists from different parts of the Muslim world, including from Lebanon or Iraq or India. So they started to create this establishment. They allocated lots of money to make religious endowments for them, built madrassahs, and so on, but the very important turning point was the advent of the telegraph in Iran roughly two hundred years ago.

Two hundred years ago when the telegraph was introduced to Iranians, clerics became able to connect with their followers who were not in their city, who were not in their region. So, for example, we had a cleric sitting in Najaf in Iraq, issuing a fatwa and sending this fatwa by telegraph to his followers in Tehran. One of the most famous events is the fatwa by Ayatollah Shirazi, who issued a fatwa against the government’s decision to sign a contract with a British company on tobacco. It was under Qajar and this fatwa was not more than I think fifteen words, very short, very brief, but it just destroyed the government’s effort to cut this deal and mobilize the whole people against the government, and some people, some historians, described this as a ‘tobacco revolution’.


We entered into the modern era by telegraph and actually, modernism was a double-edged sword. On one hand, modernism introduced to Iranians modern ideas like a constitution. They had a constitution movement over 100 years ago in Iran, the first constitution movement ever in the Muslim world; freedom, individuality, privacy, equality, all these kind of modern ideas and values. But at the same time, modern technology helped the traditional forces, especially the clerics, to reconstruct themselves in a more effective and assertive way, so – as I told you, by telegraph – and then by telephone, and then by cassette tape, and then even today by Internet. These people can connect to their followers no matter where and when. It is interesting, if you go to the website of some of the clerics in Qom, you find their website in about sixteen languages, and they say that we receive the religious donations or religious taxes by credit card. So somebody is here in New York, following a non-important Ayatollah in a non-important place, but he can first get advice from him on the Internet and pay him his religious taxes and actually empower him financially, religiously, socially.

Ayatollahs and Popes

Let me explain the nature of the clerical establishment by comparison to the Catholic clerical system. In Catholicism, you have a very well-defined hierarchy. On the top you have the Pope. When the Pope dies, Cardinals in a very well-defined procedure get together and appoint the successor. The successor would have the same authority as his predecessor and all the assets, all the networks, all of the money. Everything will be transferred to him, so he as an individual sits in a in a religious seat. No matter who was the predecessor, everything the predecessor had, including authority, money, everything would be for him.

In Shi’ism – I am not talking about Sunni Islam, which is totally different – in Shi’ism there is no hierarchy in this way, which means that Shi’ism recognizes the pluralism of the Ayatollahs. There might be 10, 100, 500 Ayatollahs. Ayatollah means the highest clerical level, Pope, and every individual, every Shia, is free to choose his own Ayatollah, to follow him on religious issues and pay him his religious taxes and financial duties. So, for example, I have written on clerics a lot. If you go to the Washington Institute website, one of the papers I wrote was about the recent developments in the Iranian Shia political establishment. You would find there that I gave some numbers, I do not remember all these numbers, but we have something like 500 Ayatollahs in the Shia world, and some of them have a thousand followers, some of them have hundreds of millions of followers. For example, Ayatollah Sistani.

Audience member:

How do you get to be an Ayatollah?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is a very interesting question. Ayatollah has two aspects. One is educational. You have to start to go to the seminary, study certain textbooks, pass some exams, go to some courses. Usually, it takes at least ten years, so ten years of serious study may make you an Ayatollah, but there are two kinds of Ayatollah. One is certain people who are Ayatollah, which means that they are like a doctor in theology. They have studied and they got a degree in theology, so they are able to teach, they are able to write, they are able to offer original studies. They are offered to produce new, critical opinions, but we [also] have Grand Ayatollahs.

Grand Ayatollahs

Grand Ayatollahs are those people who are Ayatollahs, but they were able to create a social and financial network and build a business. It is not just an Ayatollah, he has a business, he has an institution, he has an office, so he is able to attract people to follow him and to pay him the religious taxes. They are called Grand Ayatollahs, so, for example, my father is an Ayatollah, but he does not have any followers on earth. He is teachings, he is writing, and that is it. It is just an academic prestige, that is it, but there are people who are Grand Ayatollahs, which means that they have institutions, they have organization, they have many people working for them, many clerics working for them. They are going to different cities, different villages to promote their religious leadership and so on, and gather, collect the religious taxes.

So if we are talking about Ayatollahs, it means those people who are theologically eligible to be followed. You have about five hundred Ayatollahs in Iran, in Iraq, in Kuwait, in Lebanon, and elsewhere, but among these people we have less than 50 people who have been able to claim themselves as a Grand Ayatollah under different levels. For example, we have Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, who has a very large portion of Shia community as his followers, millions of peoples. He has an office in New York, in Chicago, in London, in Paris, in different places in the world, so people go there to perform the religious ceremonies, to pay their taxes, to get introduced to religious people, to mingle with the religious community. You have Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, who has millions of followers inside Iran and outside Iran. We have some Grand Ayatollah who have one million, two million, three million [followers].

If you go to the Washington Institute website, I explain how you can because there is no transparent system that you can go there and say, okay, what is the data? Who are the Ayatollahs and how many followers each one has and how much money do they collect? No, there is no such system, but there are some ways that help you to have a rough estimate about the number of people who follow them, about the very income sources, about the way they spend it and so on. So one of the main differences between Shia Islam and the Catholic Christianity is that in Shia Islam, there is no such hierarchy in the clerical establishment, so you have many people and you are religiously free to follow any of them. There are some criteria, but all of them are subjective. For example, you have to follow the most pious Ayatollah. You have to follow the most knowledgeable Ayatollah. It is very subjective. People have different opinions.

Audience member:

Does everyone have to choose an Ayatollah to follow?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is a very good question. In Shia Islam, you have to either be an Ayatollah, which means you have studied enough to be able to understand the religious and sacred texts for yourself. It is like you are a doctor, so you do not need to go to a doctor, so you diagnose your problem yourself and you prescribe for yourself, but if you are not an Ayatollah, you have to follow an Ayatollah, and among those Ayatollahs you have to choose the most pious, the most knowledgeable Ayatollah, who is well aware of the contemporary problems of the Muslim community. So actually, he is able to apply the legal system to the current cases. This is one difference.

The second difference is that when the Pope dies, ‘Pope’ is a title, it is not an individual, but in Shia Islam, when an Ayatollah dies, it is an individual, it is not a title, which means that if Ayatollah Sistani, for example, dies, now, he is one of the richest Ayatollahs on the planet. When he dies, technically, we cannot speak of any successor because there are already many Ayatollahs out there. The followers have two choices: one, to continue to follow him as they did before, but if there was a new case, they can go to another Ayatollah, and the other choice is to choose another Ayatollah, but there is no successor of this specific Ayatollah. One of the consequences is that everything he had, the financial network, the money, the assets, the organization, the madrassah, the institutions, the libraries [are not transferred]. For example, Ayatollah Sistani has an observatory in Qom because they need to know the real time for fasting, praying, and so on, so he has a huge observatory facility in Qom.

So they have millions of dollars as assets, savings, and so on, but if he dies, this money, these assets, this network would not transfer automatically to anyone else. It remains in the family, which is very strange because neither the Ayatollah nor the family are accountable before any authority. They are not accountable before any government, they are not accountable for any social or political authority, so nobody knows how much money they have and how they would spend it, so the children of the Ayatollah, the sons-in-law, or the relatives continue to run those organization for an unlimited time.

See the rest of his talk…

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