Velayet-e Faqih: Applicable In Iran, Not Egypt

The Shiite principle of velayet-e faqih, which hands supreme power to a religious figure, may work to some extent in Iran, but it is inapplicable in the new Egypt, argues Fahmi Houeidi.

al-monitor Demonstrators wave large Iranian (L) and Egyptian flags knotted together as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks on the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square, February 11, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi.

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velayet-e-faqih, shiites, religion, imam, egyptian muslim brotherhood

Feb 25, 2013

The message of the Iranian scholars who invited President Mohammed Morsi to apply velayet-e faqih in Egypt is the latest explosion in our political arena. Although it is one of the messages that cannot be taken seriously, the fact remains that it constitutes an occasion to clarify what some deemed a recipe for confusion.

Before tackling the subject, an introduction is in order. The fact is that I know that the entire Iranian issue raises sensitivities and contradictory feelings among some people. I know that the counter-mobilization has formed a sense of awareness that has persuaded many to believe that, in the Iranian case, rivalry and estrangement are the solution. I know that the slogan of tolerance applies to all entities, human beings and sects, and that it can be applied to Zionists, Communists, Buddhists, fire worshippers and other demons. Iranians and Shiites, however, are to be excluded. They belong to a different type because that is the stereotype that some have come to form in their minds, and which was adopted by the media, at least in Egypt.

Thus, approaching this issue has become a kind of adventure whose consequences remain unknown. In this regard, I admit that I will not be able to rectify this vision or dispel the confusion surrounding it for that matter, but I find it important to clarify a few things in this regard:

There is a difference between respecting the experience and being convinced of it. If the Iranian people had supported the idea of velayat-e faqih by choice, we would have respected their choice regardless of the fact that we have a different opinion.

One must differentiate between defending the development of Egyptian-Iranian relations in order to protect the high interests between the two countries, and between cloning the Iranian experiment, which is not likely to happen in the context with which we are dealing, an evident fact that can be applied to communist bloc countries, for example.

I am one of those who believes that it is important to differentiate between Iranian politics and Twelver Shiism, which has many followers in the Arab world. Our differences with Iranian policy should not turn into a quarrel with Shiites, and vice versa.  In fact, there are common high interests that should remain above any political or sectarian dispute.  It should be noted that when the Shiite Azerbaijan disagreed with the Christian Armenia, Tehran stood by the latter, not the former, thus prioritizing the said interests.

The decisive factor in the dispute with Iran was basically political, not sectarian. Arab-Iranian relations were generally good during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but the situation turned upside down after the Islamic Revolution, although the Shiite community remained the same during the reign of the Shah. This change did not result from the changing sectarian situation, but due to the fact that the Islamic Revolution antagonized the U.S. and Israel, which was reflected in the position of most Arab regimes, which put this transformation under the category of “moderation.”

Velayat-e faqih is an idea related to the peculiarity of the Shiite sect. Moreover, there is no consensus about it within this sect, and we cannot understand the idea unless we put it in its historical context.

With the exception of the Fatimid dynasty, which lasted for nearly 200 years in Egypt, Tunisia and the Levant (A.D. 969-1172), the Shiites have lived for centuries without a state to protect them. Thus, the faqih undertook this task. He became the umbrella that protects and cares for adherents of the sect. They resort to him. They give him their zakat and ask for his fatwa regarding anything that confuses them, and following the example of the religious authority is a religious duty.

In order for the authority to perform its duties, it provides the followers with services from the zakat money. These services include helping the poor, establishing schools, colleges and hospitals, carrying out Hajj missions and offering academic scholarships to foreign countries.

The Faqih has aides engaged in such activities. The functions of these do not differ much from those of the competent ministers. He also has agents in various countries who receive zakat and inquiries from those who follow the decisions of religious experts. Their functions are close to the ambassadorial functions.

I have had the chance to meet some of the great authorities in the holy city of Qom. While I was preparing my book “Iran from the Inside,” which was first issued in 1987, I found out that miniature kingdoms were set up that did not differ much from the emirates, which spread across Europe during medieval times. In the course of my book, I mentioned that their role provided the Shiite advocates with the cover they needed in the absence of the state. The clerics took up this role, which was a brilliant solution to preserve the sect. This was especially true, as the survival of the sect was fraught with peril, in view of the pressures by the surrounding Sunni communities, which morphed into a conflict and wars between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Dynasty. This war dragged on for 16 years, between 1623 and 1639.

Against this background, the faqih played a crucial role in the Shiite communities, which far exceeded his role in the Sunni ones. This role was the fertile soil for the concept of velayat-e faqih for the Shiites. Indeed, in the absence of the state, the faqih was keen to serve his followers’ interests and therefore legally establishing this through velayat-e faqih, which would develop to become a rational concept.

Some researchers in Lebanon believe that concept of velayat-e faqih was launched by a prominent Shiite scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Maki al-Jizini, who lived in the fourth century. He comes from the village of Jezzine in the Jabal Amel region. Jizini wrote a book titled “al-Lum’ah ad-Dimashqiya”  (The Damascene Glitter), in which the expression Deputy Imam was mentioned for the first time. This expression had become widespread and was said to be the basis for the faqih’s role in relation with his followers. In this context, it had been said that “Shiism thrived at the hands of Jizini in a way to fill the power vacuum, which lasted for more than four centuries, i.e., since the practical completion of the Imamate.” The latter means since the disappearance of the last Imam of Ahl al-Bayt [the People of the House].

Iranian sources do not refer to the role of Jizini. They consider that the concept of the absolute state of the faqih is attributed to another scholar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Niraqi, who was born in Kashan, Iran and died in 1820. Niraqi dedicated one chapter of his book “Awaid al-Ayyam” , entitled “Velayet-e Faqih,” to detail Islamic rules and governance. Whether the sheikh gleaned his title from the idea of the Deputy Imam — which was first put forth by Jizini — or not, according to the Iranian literature on this subject, Niraqi was the author of this idea and Ayatolloah Khomeini was influenced by it, as shown in his book “Islamic Government.”

Based on this concept, the supreme religious authority can act on behalf of the Hidden Imam. He has absolute power and is the legitimate ruler, which makes the fuqaha rulers of the kings. While some welcomed this idea, many rejected it.

Abu al-Qassem al-Khoei (d.1992) was at the forefront of this opposing camp. He was one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the Iraqi city of Najaf at the time. He issued a statement, criticizing the point of view of Imam Khomeini, which was entitled “The Basis of the Islamic Government.” Many influential scholars in the city of Qom supported Khoei.

The stance of these Islamic scholars was the main reason behind Khomeini’s decision to take up residence in Tehran rather than Qom, when he returned from exile in Paris back to Iran, following the success of the Iranian revolution.

The scholars’ reservation about the Khomeini point of view was echoed among the Shiites of Lebanon, as Muhammad Jawad Mughniyah wrote a book titled “Khomeini and the Islamic State,” refuting the perspective of Khomeini and rejecting the concept of the supreme religious authority’s absolute power. The head of the Shiite Supreme Court, Imam Muhammad Mahdi Sham al-Din (d.2001) took the same stance as Mughniyah and made many statements, where he showed his bias towards Wilayat al-Umma (Governance of the People) and against velayat-e faqih.

There is no tangible assessment of an actual experience of velayat-e faqih, after we have seen the views and criticism of those biased towards a relative power of the faqih and those who support the faqih’s absolute powers. Nevertheless, in view of the historical context and religious background, this concept stems from the specificities of the Shiite sect.

It also has no place in the Sunni communities and among its intellectual references, who do not accept the idea of limiting the Imamate within the dynasty of Prophet Mohammad (the Shiites consider it as one of the pillars of Islam, which, in their view, are six pillars rather than five, as in the culture of Sunnis). Since the Imamate has no place in the political thought of the Sunnis, there is no room for talking about a Deputy Imam or ranks of jurists characterized according to their knowledge. Also, Sunni scholars do not only graduate from religious seminaries, but include those who have enhanced Islam and delved into any branch of human knowledge.

It has been customary in Sunni communities to distinguish between the religious establishment and the state. Several writings discussed this issue, and contributed to drafting and regulating the relationship between scholars and rulers. The dominant trend geared towards discriminating between the two. Discrimination differs from distinction as advocated by some, but it is more about professional diversity and respecting its limits.

It is true that Al-Azhar in Egypt had a prominent role in public affairs during the Mamluk era, under the Ottomans in particular (from the 13th century to the 19th century), but this was due to the fact that it was the most prominent elite institution in society at the time, and enjoyed complete independence. The situation changed amid the proliferation of state institutions, whose influence weakened Al-Azhar’s independence and made it subordinate rather than parallel to the ruling authorities.

At present, the role of Al-Azhar is regulated in the new Egyptian constitution. Article 4 of the constitution stipulates that Al-Azhar is “an Islamic body that exclusively specializes in running all of its affairs, and is responsible for propagating the Islamic call, theology and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. The opinion of the senior Al-Azhar scholars on matters pertaining to Islamic law are to be followed.”

This text puts an end to the ongoing dispute about expanding Al-Azhar’s influence (this is the only point on which the Salafists agreed with the Shiites). This allows us to respond to the message of the Tehran scholars by thanking them for their proposal and apologizing for not being able to accept it. This can be done calmly, politely and respectfully. But it seems that this vocabulary has been eliminated from the narrative characterizing the current phase of dispute and tension.

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