An Illusory Republic: Velayat-e faqih and a Theocratic Form of Authoritarianism

Written by: Roberta D'Agostino

Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist is a book published for the first time in 1970 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a charismatic religious scholar who led the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran in 1979. As a matter of fact, until the Iranian Revolution back in 1979, this country has witnessed an autocratic form of government being exercised until the 1970s by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Written almost a decade before the revolution, the book anticipates the formation of an Islamic government and the creation in 1979 of the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on the implementation of the Islamic law – Shari’ah – and a system of governance led by the so-called Supreme Leader (commonly known as “ayatollah”), that, yet today, remains the highest authority within the country, despite the existence of a president directly elected by the people and who – officially - upholds the executive power. 

The reasons that led to the Revolution were indeed those of dismissing the monarchy, as it was believed to be an illegitimate institution by many Shia religious scholars. It was seen as highly corrupted by its tight connections with the West. The western idea of secularism and the separation of religion and politics was indeed perceived as a threat by the Muslim world and as something that would lead astray the global Islamic community – the ummah. As a matter of fact, Islam does not advocate for a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual powers, rather it argues that religion should be the ground for all activities and every aspect of life should be dealt with by the Islamic laws and the Islamic moral precepts. For this reason, a government can only be considered to be legitimate when it implements Shari’ah, accepting the rule of God and its sovereignty. In this sense, in the book Khomeini argues that it is necessary to halt the followers of God to worship the absolute rulers and instead they should be allowed to worship God who is the sole and true monarch (ruler). Indeed, the Shia belief holds that the leadership of an Islamic government should belong to the Imams that are considered to be direct successors to the Prophet and they should rule according to the legal provisions of Shari’ah, which regulates every aspect of life in a Muslim society. However, while for the western modernized states the ordinances of Islam are regarded as being too harsh, the Islamic societies believe that these religious precepts are intended to save nations from being destroyed by corruption, which, in Khomeini’s view, is the result of the imposition of foreign (Western) laws on the Islamic societies. Thus, when in the 1960s the Shah of Iran started reforming the country, paving the way for what would be later known as the White Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini initiated the discussion on the formation of an Islamic government that would reject all the reforming policies adopted by the Shah and aimed at promoting modernization and openness of Iran driving away the Muslim community from the true essence of Islam. Indeed, it is during the 1970s that Khomeini develops a more revolutionary ideology whereby the ulema – that is, the religious class – is now recognized to have the duty to actively participate in politics and be influential in the political life of the country so as to assist the government in the process of decision-making. 

The book Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist provides the reader with a clear, unambiguous picture of what an Islamic government should look like in Khomeini’s view. His legacy remains evident yet today in the doctrine of Velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) whereby the jurist (faqih), who needs to be just and knowledgeable on the Islamic law, is identified to be both religious and political leader, in the absence of the twelfth Shia Imam whose return is expected at the end of the days, according to Shia teaching. As a matter of fact, Shia Islam, to which Khomeini belonged, rests on the so-called theory of the Twelve Imams who are considered to be direct descendants of the Prophet (Sayyids and Sharifs) and, in the absence of the twelfth successor, the jurist has the obligation to guide the Islamic community both spiritually and politically. In the section entitled Necessity for an Islamic government, Khomeini points out the reasons why the role of the Fiqh is central in the establishment of an Islamic state. More specifically, he argues that the ordinances of Shari’ah have been revealed directly by God to the Prophet who did not simply expound these laws, but he also implemented them, thus leading to the rise of an Islamic government. Therefore, according to Khomeini, those who deny the necessity of an Islamic government deny the necessity for the implementation of the Islamic law and – consequently – the eternal validity of Islam. If we take into consideration the fact that Shari’ah law amounts to a body of regulations that equals a complete social system, Khomeini argues that the nature and the character of the Islamic laws are such that they have been laid down for the purpose of creating a state. As a matter of fact, for many religious scholars, Islam is viewed as a complete system of din and dawla (religion and state), which is responsible to regulate both state and religious affairs. Therefore, for the Iranian revolutionary leader, the ultimate goal of Shari’ah is that of creating the conditions necessary for the formation of virtuous individuals, among whom some will fit the role of the faqih and as such will implement the Islamic ordinances that will eventually build a complete system of government that will make it possible to fulfill God’s will on earth. On the contrary, without the creation of administrative and executive bodies, individuals will not be able to exercise the regency of God on earth and consequently will be driven away from the true essence of Islam. 

Khomeini’s book is also considered to be important for the post-colonial literature. As a matter of fact, Khomeini believes that, in order to establish an Islamic form of government, it is necessary to liberate the Muslim world from the rule of the imperialist powers. Indeed, Western states are recognized to be a plague for the Islamic community and therefore they need to be expelled. In this sense, Khomeini encourages the Muslims of his time to resort to law and reason, as only these two elements will prevent them to fall pray of non-Islamic forms of government. Hence, all Muslims have the duty to stand up against a system that is the ‘antithesis of Islam’, meaning disbeliever and infidel in its nature. In order to preserve the moral integrity of the society, for Khomeini, there is no other option than to destroy and overthrow the corrupted governments that promote oppression and violate individuals’ rights. Therefore, it appears evident the necessity of a ruler who will have the duty to maintain the institutions and the laws of Islam and prevent the further deterioration of individuals’ morality. While the twelve Imams are identified as legitimate successors of the Prophet in guiding the ummah, in the absence of the twelfth Imam this obligation falls on a just and knowledgeable jurist and more generally on the entire class of fuqaha. It is interesting to notice how this duty extends to include a whole category, remarking the principle of the necessity of a government understood as a general one that will always be in effect. As a matter of fact, according to Khomeini, the Islamic laws cannot be restricted to a particular time and place, since doing so would be contrary to the essential bases of Islam, considering that the enactment of them, as well as the formation of a government and the establishment of an authority to implement these laws, is necessary also after the Prophet’s death. Indeed, without these legal precepts, the world would be dominated by chaos and anarchy. 

The idea of an Islamic form of government, as spelled out by Khomeini, does not correspond to any of the existing systems at the time of the writing. More specifically, he argues for a government based on the concept of constitutionalism – which will be abandoned in the years immediately before the Revolution. Nonetheless, he distinguishes between an Islamic understanding of constitutionalism and a Western conceptualization. In particular, while the latter is typical of societies in which the representatives of the people (whether they are presidents or monarchs) participate actively in the process of legislation, in the case of Islamic societies the legislative power and, overall, the competence of making the laws fall only on God who is recognized to be the Sacred Legislator. For this reason, in an Islamic form of government, the parliament is replaced with a planning body responsible for drawing up programs for different ministers based on the ordinances of Islam, for which the ultimate sovereignty lies with God and men can only exercise His regency on earth. Thus, considering that for Islam the ultimate sovereign is not to be found among the people, the divine law has authority over all individuals and the government and, hence, everybody is subject to the Islamic law with no exception. 

Hereafter, Khomeini proceeds with describing the person of the jurist and the qualities he must have in order to be able to lead the people. Even though the term Fiqh means jurist or one who – by definition – is learned in matters of law and judicial procedures of Islam, however, he is also recognized to be knowledgeable in the doctrines and institutions of the faith. In this sense, two requirements are necessary for a person to be considered as a legitimate faqih: knowledgeability and justice. Hence, the jurist needs to possess a comprehensive knowledge of the provisions and ordinances of Islam so to not misread and misinterpret what is spelled out in the Qur’an and he must be excellent in belief and morals so that rules of Shari’ah would be implemented without any obstacle. Both knowledgeability and justice are fundamental for the establishment of a universal Islamic state. Also, the fuqaha must be rational and resort to reason, since Islam does not admit the arbitrary rule of individuals who end up corrupting the system and the society. In this sense, law and reason help prevent the foundation of a government that is anti-Islamic in nature and not grounded in the implementation of the divine rules. Indeed, it is the duty of the Imams and the jurists to use government institutions to execute the Islamic law and establish a religious system, with the goal of disseminating the precepts and correctly guiding the people. Specifically, the person of the Fiqh is entrusted with performing all the tasks that belong primarily to the Imams, as direct successors to the Prophet. Despite the fact that the jurists do not directly descend from the “Most Noble Messenger of God”, rather they are simply regarded as imams in the literal understanding of the word (that is, leader or guide), they are to perform all the activities carried out by the Imams, since the latter are those who appoint the fuqaha. 

Specifically, in the final section of the book, entitled Program for the Establishment of an Islamic Government, Khomeini outlines the necessary steps to undertake the process that eventually will lead to the institution of a leadership based on the implementation of the divine law. The first of these activities is indeed the propagation of the cause (that is, the establishment of an Islamic state) which will consist primarily in instructing the believers in matters of worship as well as political, economic and legal issues as regulated in the Qur’an (Khomeini & Algar, 1970 ). The task of propagating the cause, alongside with that of instructing the people, befall the fuqaha given their knowledgeability on the ordinances of Islam. Indeed, Khomeini believes that the spread of religious knowledge among the younger generations is the only way to defend Islam against the Western imperialism. As a matter of fact, the preservation of Islam remains the most important duty that befalls the whole religious community and, only in such a case, the resort to violence is allowed. Indeed, the vice-regents of God on earth have the obligation to preach the moral teachings, make the ummah knowledgeable on religious matters and, in case of departure from the true spirit of Islam, the ulema may allow the use of violence to protect it from being altered and perverted into something it is not. The necessity of fighting (Jihad) against the tyrannies imposed on the Muslim world with the help of the West becomes evident in Khomeini’s view, insofar as it is understood as a struggle to pursue freedom and independence and as a means to an end, which is that of ultimately establishing an Islamic system of government. In this sense, jihad is understood by Khomeini also as a struggle against one’s own self, since in the final section of the book he encourages individuals to wake up from the sense of apathy that has pervaded them under the rule of the Shah and further fueled by the increasing influence of the West. In this regard, the role of the fuqaha remains central, considering that, due to their privileged position within the community, they are responsible for leading the people towards the correct understanding of the rules of Islam. Thus, the idea of a revolution stems directly from the necessity of fighting back the “Western evil” and preserving the integrity of the religion. 

Indeed, in order to allow for the establishment of an Islamic state, some internal reforms are required. Specifically, what it is meant by reforms is the involvement of the ulema in politics. As a matter of fact, if in the early years Khomeini’s view reflects the social conservatism typical of the clerical Shia tradition and which is grounded in the criticism of the ulema class as being politically silent. In the years after the “White Revolution” he realizes the necessity of a politically more active religious class. Khomeini’s revolutionary approach was inspired by the writings of Islamic scholars such as Sayyid Qutb and has translated into the development of a new doctrine known as Velayat-e faqih, whereby the jurist is designated as the political and religious leader of the community and – de facto – upholds the executive power and rules over the country. This idea was at the soul of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 and the foundational stone of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Although the concept of Velayat-e faqih ushered in a new political system, as it claims for the establishment of a state founded upon the religious teachings of Islam, it remains a very controversial doctrine. As a matter of fact, throughout the whole book Khomeini points the finger towards the West’s hunger for colonizing geographically distant countries, especially those rich in natural resources. Several times he blames the Western powers to be responsible for the current situation in the Muslim world. The imperialistic policies of the United States and those of European countries have indeed fueled corruption and thirst for money that resulted in the rising to power of authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, alongside with corrupted governments and dictatorships, the imperialistic approach adopted by foreign powers resulted in sentiments of anti-Westernism and anti-modernism, that became the narrative upon which the colonized populations, as in the Iranian case, drew their struggle for independence. As a matter of fact, the post-colonial movements in the Muslim world were promoted by Islamist movements that conceptualized the struggle for freedom as one fought primarily against the “bad guys” of the West (mainly the United States) and their secular ideas. The threat of secularism undermined the very essence of Islam that, on the contrary, argues for din and dawla as a comprehensive system of life. Nonetheless, whereas it is true that western imperialism did nothing to eliminate the already established inequalities but took advantage of them, it is also true that the same thirst for power manifested by the post-colonial rulers was somewhat inherited by Khomeini, who – de facto – created another form of authoritarian regime in Iran. Indeed, especially in the years after the Revolution, when the constitution had been changed so to justify the doctrine of the Islamic leadership, its institutionalization resulted in the establishment of a government, absolutistic in nature, where all the powers were in the hands of the Supreme Leader. As a matter of fact, the political system adopted in Iran is that of a theocracy where the executive authority lies with the religious caste. However, such a government does not provide room for opposition and Iranian citizens are to follow obsequiously the jurists and obey their will, which in many ways resembles what the colonial powers had previously tried to implement in the countries of the region.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).