Governance in Iran: ‘Divine’ Democracy?

Article Summary
Professor Hilal Khashan reviews a new book by Dr. Ibrahim Moussawi discussing the concept of Shia Islamic democracy in Iran. He argues that the Iranian regime is certainly democratic, though it does not correspond to Western notions of what democracy ought to look like.

In his book Shi'ism and the Democratisation Process in Iran: With a focus on Wilayat al-Faqih, Dr. Ibrahim Moussawi poses pivotal questions on the possibility of eventually transforming Iran into a genuine democratic state founded on local specificities rather than imported Western notions that have nothing to do with the Iranian reality.

The book has seven chapters. Chapter One first examines the principles of Shi'a Islam according to the sources on Islamic law (Al-Quran, Al-Sunna, Al-Ijma’ and Al-Aql), followed by the problem of succession after the death of the Prophet, then "the violation of Imam Ali’s succession, and the martyrdom of the third Imam, Hussein" and finally the periods preceding and following the occultation of the Mahdi. The author examines the emergence of the institution of Ijtihad (making a decision concerning Islamic law through personal enquiry or effort, as opposed to taqlid, which means to obey without question. The principle of ijtihad is primarily associated with Shi’ism). This institution, of course, resulted in the emergence of a hierarchical religious authority. Moussawi paves the way for the idea of ​​Wilayat al-Faqih (mandate of the jurist; clerical rule) by exploring the development of Shiite religious authority from the Ekhbariya school to the fundamentalist school, which emphasized the need for a model that the believers can imitate.

Chapter Two discusses Wilayat al-Faqih and the principles of Shi’a jurisprudence. Moussawi insists that Islamic rule has democratic features and that it is possible to compare and contrast the Western notion of democracy with Wilayat al-Faqih. The author lists nine characteristics of Islamic democracy according to Shiite doctrine: (1) it can be implemented if the majority of the citizens accept it voluntarily; (2) there is no discrimination among citizens on the basis of color, opinion, religious doctrine or race because all members of society are equal before the law; (3) the people are the only source for legitimate political power, unless it is contrary to the will of God; (4) any decision in which the people are not involved in making is considered null and void; (5) a fundamental difference between religious democracy and other types of democracy is that, in the former, society is committed to moral values and accepts them as the basis of law; (6) the state manages natural resources and represents the people and the public interest; (7) it promotes competence through free and fair elections; (8) Muslim clerics elected by the people must confirm that the laws of the country do not conflict with the religious aspect of the political order and (9) a religious democracy works from within the law, and therefore both the rulers and the people are subject to the law.

Moussawi compares Wilayat al-Faqih to the ‘mandate of the nation’ and concludes that Wilayat al-Faqih is the foundation of what the nation may accept or reject because the nation does not have the right to self-supervise, so that is what grants the nation the right to do so. Basing his argument on a book about Islamic governance by the late Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Moussawi says that Wilayat al-Faqih is something that Muslims urgently need, provided they can create its features and set its limitations. Moussawi asserts that it is the doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without providing evidence to refute those who say otherwise, he says that the Islamic Republic has ended the injustices against the Arab, Turkish and Kurdish minorities that were committed during the time of the monarchy. The author asserts that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic has sought to mobilize the Shiites outside Iran to participate in the Wilayat al-Faqih agenda to export the revolution.

Chapter 3 focuses on the role of the Shura Council in democratic transitions, but the author rejects equating Shura with democracy because the final word rests with the Faqih, who is responsible for spreading justice and equality and eliminating tyranny. In democracy, freedom stems from the will of the people, while in Islam freedom comes from obeying God and the Faqih, who represents the infallible Imam in his absence.

In Chapter 4, the author considers the question of applying religious principles in the Islamic Republic. Moussawi believes that the Shura Council’s authority ensures a constructive role in managing state affairs, especially the material and human resources. The author adds that the Shura Council is involved throughout the political order of the Islamic Republic from top to bottom. The nation’s will reaches its peak when the Council of Experts, which is elected by the people, chooses the Faqih, who then sets the general, national policies in consultation with the Expediency Council. Moussawi underlines Ayatollah Khomeini’s belief that differences in opinion are important because they are a human need and are the key to pluralism, but he does not link differences in opinion regarding state interest, which is embodied by the Faqih.

In Chapter 5, the author examines whether Wilayat al-Faqih could lead to tyranny. He refers to the writings of Lebanese cleric Sheikh Shafiq Jradi and concludes that there are four safety mechanisms that prevent the Faqih from becoming a tyrant: the degree of education of the citizens, the community of scholars, the Assembly of Experts and the constitution. Basing his argument on what Imam Khomeini said, the author asserts that democracy is the fulcrum of the Muslim faith even though it is not a Western-type democracy, which he derides because Islamic law achieves the hopes of humanity by establishing justice, defending human rights, and disseminating moral values, decency and freedom.

In Chapter 6, the author deals with the problem of the republican system in the Islamic state. In Chapter 7, the author addresses the issue of democratization in Iran and the emergence of the reformist movement. At the end of his book, the author notes the repercussions of the 2009 presidential elections.
Moussawi has written an academic book that includes an examination of the Western origins of democracy and lays out its concepts and development over the past three centuries. Moussawi is not trying to legitimize the process of democratic change in Iran on the basis of applying those Western concepts, but he proposes a parallel Islamic model that stems from Imam Khomeini’s teachings, which stress that Islam offers a way of life and system of government superior to Western democratic systems. The author bases his argument on the grounds that Shiite Islam and its doctrine provide dynamic thought that is constantly evolving due to its reliance on independent and logically reasoned Ijtihad. From that, Moussawi believes that Wilayat al-Faqih does not constitute a closed system, but is open to interpretation by religious scholars.

Moussawi believes that there are many elements, such as the concepts of “interest” and “pluralism” (differences in opinion), which characterize Iran’s political system and puts the country on the true path to democracy, albeit from a purely Islamic standpoint. Moussawi acknowledges that the Faqih’s vision forms the basis of what the nation can accept or reject. He insists that a nation has no right to self-supervise, as is the case in Western democracies. He also says that ultimate political legitimacy does not stem from the nation, and thus the people are not the source of political power. Moussawi attributes the notion of an Islamic government to Imam Khomeini as a government of piety and devotion that is wholly committed to applying religious laws and teachings in accordance with the divine source.

The author dedicates the bulk of his book to present Imam Khomeini’s vision of the Islamic state and lauds Khomeini’s notion of freedom that Islam has granted the nation’s citizens, but he considered the notion of the sovereignty of the people as no more than the election of the Assembly of Experts, who are responsible for choosing the just Ijtihadist who will lead the government according to Islamic teachings. One of the basic functions of the Assembly of Experts is to diligently monitor the Ijtihadist to ensure his commitment to his arduous duties. With regard to the Shura Council, its duties are purely executive and procedural because it acts on the basis that God is the only source of legislation. With regard to political legitimacy, even if it is granted by the people to their leaders, that legitimacy is not complete without it being rooted in the Islamic faith.

The author has dedicated a great amount of effort to make his book academic and objective. He did not hesitate to address thorny issues, but he did not take a firm and unequivocal stand on things like the reform movement in 1990s and the implications of the 2009 presidential elections. Moussawi uses a lot of secondary references and tries, as much as possible, to stay neutral on complex issues. He did not take a clear position on the reformist movement or on the 2009 presidential elections, whose credibility caused major controversy at the time. The author does not opine on the issue of recruiting Shiites outside of Iran for Wilayat al-Faqih efforts in exporting the Islamic revolution. This is a key issue that will determine the role of Shiites in the countries where they live. Legitimizing the recruitment of Shiites outside Iran in Wilayat al-Faqih activities will create for the Shiites a crisis of belonging in those countries where they hold citizenship. Initial indicators show that the Iranian political system enjoys popular legitimacy, especially outside major cities. It has already gone a long way in building political institutions, but assessing the performance of the Iranian political system will require decades.

This book is a new addition to comparative political thought and political order in Islam from a Twelver Shiite perspective. It does not ignore proposals from Sunni thinkers and scholars in the study of Islamic political thought and the role of the Shura Council in the political process. This book is an essential reference for university students and researchers on Islamic governance, and also for researchers in the field of comparative politics.


Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:

  • The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
  • Archived articles
  • Exclusive events
  • The Week in Review
  • Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly
Found in: wilayat al-faqih, theocracy, shia islam, political theory, political islam, iranian government, iran, democracy in iran, democracy, book reviews, ayatollah khomeini
Sign up for our Newsletter

The website uses cookies and similar technologies to track browsing behavior for adapting the website to the user, for delivering our services, for market research, and for advertising. Detailed information, including the right to withdraw consent, can be found in our Privacy Policy. To view our Privacy Policy in full, click here. By using our site, you agree to these terms.