Self-proclaimed marja riles other Iranian ayatollahs

Conservative ayatollahs in Qom, Iran, are losing patience with one of their own because he deems himself a marja, or top religious authority, and because of his secular leanings.

al-monitor Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, seen in a still from a video uploaded Jan. 23, 2018.  Photo by YouTube/Bachehaye GHalam Kids Pen 3.
Rohollah Faghihi

Rohollah Faghihi


Topics covered

seminaries, ruhollah khomeini, shiite, secular, ayatollah, hard-liners, qom

Sep 24, 2019

The growing visibility of a grand ayatollah in Iran’s holy city of Qom is arousing the anger of hard-liners who consider him dangerous because he promotes a secular and nonpolitical direction for the seminary there. 

Last year, Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Javad Alavi Boroujerdi declared himself a marja — a title given to the highest level of Shiite authority. This didn't sit well with ​Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the powerful chairman of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, who recently berated Boroujerdi publicly.

Based on Shiite belief, every Muslim should choose a marja to follow and practice religious instructions in line with that leader's perceptions. Historically, Shiite marjas weren't appointed or elected by anyone. After studying and being certified for ijtihad (the ability to deduce the rules of Sharia from the sources of jurisprudence) by two marjas, an ayatollah was able to rise to become a marja only after public acceptance, and no state-run institution was considered credible to intervene in such issues.

However, in recent decades, the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, which is close to the political establishment, has sought to change the course of history by attempting to handpick marjas. During the 1980s, an entire generation of similarly schooled marjas passed away. So in 1994, the society released a list of seven ayatollahs as the credible marjas for people to follow. That action was unprecedented. Nonetheless, the society argues that its members are senior ayatollahs who are eligible, based on Shiism, to select the marjas.

In the 2000s, the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom decided to enforce a strict policy to prevent the rise of nonaligned marjas. The group announced that any ayatollah seeking to publish his own Towzih al-masa'il — a book containing jurisprudential rulings and fatwas of a particular marja — and open an office must obtain the society's permission.

Moreover, to increase its legitimacy, the society states it was responsible for proclaiming Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a marja and helped save him from harm during the regime (1941-1979) of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. However, this is not true, according to a 1956 document of the shah's security and intelligence organization, SAVAK. The document, dated before the society was founded in 1961, says Khomeini was already a marja at that time and was followed by people in central and western Iran. Also, four main marjas in Qom, including Ayatollah Mohammad Hadi Milani, are said to be the ones who officially declared Khomeini a marja to stop the shah from executing him.

Many of the founding and long-time members of the society have left the group because they disagreed with the direction it has taken.

Boroujerdi, 65, the grandson of a respected ayatollah, published his own Towzih al-masa'il last year, a move equivalent to pronouncing himself a marja, while simultaneously increasing his activities in Qom and on social media. This series of developments led to Yazdi's recent outburst.

“If some [people] announce themselves as a marja, and if I would be alive [that day], I would officially stop them. … Who [else] in the seminary should deal with this issue? [Boroujerdi's] being the grandson of a marja isn't a [good] religious reason to become a marja. ... If this person [opens an office], I will take down the [office] banner," Yazdi said.

Two reasons stand out for the hard-liners' irritation and anxiety over Boroujerdi naming himself a marja.

First, Boroujerdi has sought to portray himself as an up-to-date marja with soft positions on various issues, which can attract members of the younger generation in Iran, who are increasingly finding themselves alienated from the seminary.

Praising Iran’s pre-Islamic history, Boroujerdi said in 2016 that he is proud of the 539 B.C. human rights charter of Cyrus II, founder of the first Persian Empire. Hard-liners, on the other hand, mostly attempt to ignore the history of Iran before Islam arrived around A.D. 650.

In another position indicating his stark contrast with hard-liners, Boroujerdi has described cyberspace as a “golden opportunity.” He said recently that it's impossible to close off the path of communication, and countries like China and Russia have failed to block people's access to information.

Unlike many Iranian religious authorities, Boroujerdi was a staunch supporter of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and in 2016 — even before the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal — he praised its potential to divide Europe and the United States.

“Unlike the gentlemen who are very pessimistic about the JCPOA, I’m not cynical, and I have repeatedly said that if the JCPOA has the advantage of separating Europe from America, that would be enough for us," he told the media at that time.

The second reason is that, in 2003, a group calling itself the Regular Meeting of Professors of Qom Seminary was formed with an announced goal of achieving the seminary’s independence from politics, financially and intellectually. Many seminary teachers warmly received the initiative, and more than 80% joined the group. Hard-liners, however, criticize the professors, who avoid politics and follow the path of seculars. Boroujerdi is a prominent member of the independent group, and the rising influence of a marja out of this association, whose goal is in full contradiction with hard-liners, worries them.

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