Iran's Clerical Elite Has Never Been More Split


There are only about thirty living marja taqlid (or Grand Ayatollahs) in the world today. Almost all of them are either Iranian or Iraqi, and all of them have been educated in Iran (mainly in Qom), Iraq (mainly in Najaf), or both. A Grand Ayatollah is distinct from an Ayatollah. Ayatollahs are normally specialists in one area of Islamic studies, like law, philosophy, or ethics. But Grand Ayatollahs demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge by publishing a resalah amaliyah (or book) detailing the answers to a broad array of religious and legal matters.

It's hard to rank the Grand Ayatollahs in terms of their influence. All of them have significant followings. However, Grand Ayatollahs that reside in Najaf and Qom have extra prestige. In Najaf, the Americans quickly discovered that Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani had tremendous clout and could not be ignored. In Iran, things are a bit more complicated by the history of the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Khamenei was hand selected to succeed the founder of the Republic, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Khamenei was technically unqualified for the position because he was not a Grand Ayatollah at the time of his selection for the succession. His technical title was Hojatoleslam wal-muslemin.

Hojatoleslam (from Arabic: حجة الإسلام‎ ḥujjatu l-IslÄÂ�m) is an honorific title meaning "authority on Islam" or "proof of Islam", given to Twelver ShÄ«‘ah clerics. It was originally applied only to leading mujtahids, but from about the start of the 19th century came to be used by all clerics following the creation of the title Ayatollah for top Twelver mujtahids.

The title Hujjatu l-Isl�m wa l-Muslimīn (Authority on Islam and Muslims) is given to middle-ranking clerics.

What happened is that Ruhollah Khomeini had a falling out with his original designated successor, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Montazeri was critical of the mass killing of political prisoners in 1988 and the fatwa issued against British author Salman Rushdie. Instead of taking over for Khomeini, he was stripped of his title of Grand Ayatollah and eventually found himself under prolonged house arrest (1997-2003).

Because of this history, Ali Khameini's credentials to be Supreme Leader have always been suspect. Meanwhile, Montazeri's claim to be the leading Grand Ayatollah in Qom (and therefore in Iran) is strong. But Montazari is controversial. He is definitely revered by almost everyone for his religious knowledge, but he has also aligned himself more with the Reformist camp. He has been openly critical of President Ahmedinejad, for example. Had he remained impartial, the following might be more powerful.

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival in the disputed presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, massed in competing rallies Tuesday as the country's most senior Islamic cleric threw his weight behind opposition charges that Ahmadinejad's re-election was rigged.

"No one in their right mind can believe" the official results from Friday's contest, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said of the landslide victory claimed by Ahmadinejad. Montazeri accused the regime of handling Mousavi's charges of fraud and the massive protests of his backers "in the worst way possible."

"A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy," he declared in comments on his official Web site. "I ask the police and army personals (personnel) not to 'sell their religion,' and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before God."

Now, McClatchy is going a bit out on a limb in calling Montazeri Iran's most senior cleric. That case can certainly be made, but it would just as certainly be disputed by the Supreme Leader. Moreover, Montazeri's impartiality is more than just a little open to question. Yet, in any case, Montazeri's pronouncement carries enormous weight and makes Bill Keller look like even more of a fool for writing yesterday:

Whether his 63 percent victory is truly the will of the people or the result of fraud, it demonstrated that Mr. Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.

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