Iran’s theological heartland: why are some clerics nervous?

July 29, 2008

STUDENTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD ARE SEEN IN THE QUADRANGLE AT THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY.  REUTERS/Peter MacDiarmid    A  fellow journalist, an Oxford alumnus who worked in Iran, had a soft spot for Qom. There was something he found familiar about the Islamic Republic’s centre of Shi’ite learning.

     The brickwork and tiled domes did not much resemble the classic stone structures of his alma mater. Nor did students in their robes and turbans look like their jean-clad counterparts in the heart of England. But seminaries, set around courtyards, and the air of erudition evoked for him the quads of that city in Oxfordshire and its history.

    Qom now, however, is more like Oxford of centuries past when scholastic theologians wandered its streets. Philosophy and politics may be debated but everything comes down to theology.

    For Qom is the beating heart of the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late figurehead for the revolution in 1979, was in exile when he propounded his theology of ‘velayat-e faqih’, or rule by the religious jurist. But it is the clerics of Qom who hold it in trust. The city provides the religious and political compass for the system.An Iranian cleric walks in the courtyard of the holy shrine in Qom. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

    That does not mean Khomeini’s theology is not subject to debate. Some clerics argue that the supreme leader — the position Khomeini occupied and now held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – draws his power from the will of the people. Others say it is divine will that matters, and the electorate confirms what has been ordained by God, providing further legitimacy. But what you don’t hear (at least out loud) are those challenging what is still a controversial theory in the Shi’ite world outside of the Islamic Republic.

    So why dip into this arcane theological debate? Because some in Iran’s clerical establishment, say analysts, are nervous. They cite two particular reasons: the first is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and second involves the re-awakening of that other Shi’ite religious centre, Najaf, in Iraq.

    Ahmadinejad’s presidency marked a break with what had become a tradition. Not for about a quarter of a century had there been a president who was not a cleric. The last secular politician to hold the post did so in the early years after the 1979 revolution when the religious establishment was still bedding down the idea of having clerics in charge.

    Ahmadinejad makes much of his religious conviction but some clerics voice concern about where his faith is directed, namely his very public devotion to the Mahdi, the Shi’ites 12th Imam who disappeared in the 10th century and in Shi’ite belief will return to usher in an era of Islamic justice. You see, say analysts, for those nervous clerics, if Ahmadinejad’s real allegiance lies with the Mahdi, where does that leave them?

    The man who matters, Khamenei, Iran’s top authority, has shown no such concern. He publicly praises the president.

    But analysts say clerics have sought to ensure their voices are not drowned out by the outspoken president by electing Ali Larijani as a Qom MP. Ahmadinejad’s political rival has now become parliament speaker. An influential former nuclear negotiator, Larijani also comes with a military background, having served like Ahmadinejad in the ideologically driven Revolutionary Guards, and is from a well-known clerical family.Shi’ite worshippers attend Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque near Najaf. REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish

    For other clerics, their concerns lie across the border. The closest equivalent to the Vatican for most of the world’s Shi’ites is not Qom but Najaf. That Iraqi city and nearby Kerbala are home to some of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines. Unlike Qom, the seminaries of Najaf have traditionally espoused a more quietest theology. Shi’ite religious leaders, they say, should leave the murky world of political power to others.

    So there is some irony that Khomeini was in Najaf when his revolutionary sermons were smuggled in pamphlets and on tapes into Iran, helping bring down the then U.S.-backed shah.

    Najaf, however, was heading into dark days as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Sunni strongman who became president, crushed opposition particularly among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites. Najaf  fell into enforced slumber from which it is now emerging.

    Such theological rivalry can seem remote to observers, particularly those from the more secularised West. Oxford’s theological focus long ago disappeared into the history books. But such issues are helping to shape this part of the world, forming a real and live discussion.

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