Iran: Muslim Theocracy, Democracy or Theocratic Democracy? – Ibraheem A. Waziri

Swotting the events that led to the revolution now – through his stewardship as the Iranian supreme leader, Jurist-Consult - one can be right to say he has lost his place in history as a saint-scholar in favour of some strong opinions (Montazeri’s inclusive) that place him side by side with the Shah he overthrew and others leaders in history who never feigned sainthood or scholarship in the first place.


The debate about democracy in the contemporary Muslim nations is rearing its head back into new and social media again, with Iran as the focus. Following its recent rounds of conflicts with the USA, a very active, high pitched, albeit, informed voice typical of the Mr Massoud Rajavi’s 1981 established – and now waxing stronger – National Council of Resistance of Iran’s (NCRI), is ubiquitous with rants, demands and demonstrations within Iran.

In a similar debate in 2017 when the public thought of the possibility of a war between Iran and US, an NCRI member, Samad F. Pakzad, who identifies as being on exile, having been condemned to death by the present leadership, wrote on Quora: “What we want is for the US to stay away, let us to overthrow this criminal regime. We don’t need your army, we don’t need your money, and we don’t need your boys to pay with their lives in a war on Iran. We can overthrow this regime and institute a democratic secular regime in Iran.”

Since the discussion about the Iranian system and operation re-started, in the new world, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the central question is about the appropriate label that can be ascribed to the system in the stream of given appellations with which various political structures are largely known. Before discussions about its merits or demerits are put forward. Is it a democracy or a theocracy?

The Middle Position

It appears like the first person to put forward the argument that Iran is a kind of theocratic democracy is the reverent American Arabo-Islamic expert, Richard Bulliet. Towards the turn of the millennium, he submitted a critique of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington’s thesis on Clash of Civilizations, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

In it, after delivering a compelling argument that the West and what it stands for today, of systems of governance and institutions, owes much to Islam and Muslim thinkers of the middle ages, went further to outline the possible promise that he sees the Iranian theocracy holding to become one of the better democracies with time – in a century. More or less!

The Justification of the New Iranian System: The Theocratic Foundation

The fundamental logic that gives the Iranian system religious justification which can also earn it the label of a theocracy is in its original claims that can be broken down into the following:

1. Societies cannot exist – at any point in time – without a divinely ordained universal infallible secular and religious leader.
2. That since the demise of the prophet of Islam these infallible leaders have continued to be found in his lineage.
3. The total number of 12 of the leaders has been found so far within the first three centuries after the prophet of Islam.
4. That the twelfth leader nicknamed Mahdi did not die but gone into hiding, at birth, and will come back at the end of times to deliver the world and “fill it with justice after it has been filled with injustice”.
5. This means that since the 10th century AD, the world has been deprived of a rightful infallible visible leader; it has been living in a complete and perfect state of confusion.
6. That it was until in 1979 with the foresight and insight of Imam Khomeini, relying on an authentic Hadith (wisdom of the prophet of Islam) that suggests, “Ulama’(Muslim Scholars) are the inheritors of the Prophets”, he led a successful revolution in Iran and established an Islamic republic, that should hold secular and religious leadership, in trust, for Mahdi until it is ripe for him to come out of his hiding place.
7. The state shall be led by a supreme Alim (Islamic Scholar), most learned and wise of them all. This conception is what is called Wilayat alfaqih termed in, Guardianship of the Jurist-Consult.

Imam Khomeini was not the original founder of the theory of Wilayat alfaqih in Shi’ite political Islam. Two scholars, Mufid and Ansari were said have mulled it in the 10th and 18th centuries respectively.

The Jurist in in the Iranian Constitution: The Democratic Elements

Thus in the present Iranian constitution the role and powers of the Jurist-Consult is clearly spelt out, which includes that he singlehandedly appoints the jurists to the guardian council; appoints the highest judicial authority in the country; holds supreme command of and over the armed forces; signs the certificate of appointment of the President and in the national interest can also dismiss the popularly elected President. The Jurist-Consult has his successor selected by the guardian council of advisers half of the 12 members of which he independently selected.

Since the establishment of the new Iran after the revolution, the country has had two supreme guardians, Ayatollahi Ruhullahi Khomeini (1979 -1989) and Ayatollahi Ali Khamne’i (1989 – Date). Earlier after the revolution, Ayatollahi Hosseini Ali Montezeri was selected by guardian council to be the designated successor of Khomeini. But not sooner than later he began to disagree with Khomeini in the closed door sessions of the guardian council, and much later in public glare through letters and press briefings.

In one of such outings, he implied that Khomeini has discarded his scholarly and saintly disposition; stopped being an ‘inheritor of the prophet and representative of the hidden Mahdi’; and transformed into a worst image of the Iranian Shah, the dynasty the revolution ousted, by keeping a prison system that unjustly incarcerate people among other things. Ayatollahi Hosseini Ali Montazeri was later to be stripped of his entitlement as the designated successor of Khomeini and got incarcerated along with other high religious leaders and critics of the system or the leadership.

The system was to suffer its first crisis of succession in 1989 after the demise of Khomeini who died without the council having nominated a designated successor since the trouble Montazeri had with Khomeini. Khamne’i was selected to hold the position in the interim before a substantive Jurist-Consult is agreed upon. Thirty years on now he is still there despite having protested earlier that he did not meet the standard set by the constitution as the most learned and respected among the highest echelon of the saintly and scholarly Shi’ite religious circle.

Can this Be Democracy?

It seems the preoccupation to draw similarities between the Iranian system structures with those of other variants of world democracies, is not part of the concerns and priorities of the proponents of the Iranian system; in Iran and elsewhere! Full of self-assured righteousness, their fixations seem to be in the logic of the justification of the system and how they can make it better, most robust and exportable to other Muslim countries. In Nigeria most of Iranian system supporters do not participate in any of the country’s democratic processes. They express desire to execute a revolution similar to 1979 Iran’s, oust the system and erect in its place something rooted in the logic and philosophy of the Iranian system.

However some Muslims and others interested in political Islam, who also sympathize with democracy and its popularly known ideals, often attempt a comparison with arguments that place the Iranian guardian council side by side , say, British monarchical council with the King or Queen as a leader similar to the Jurist-Consult. Or the American Federal Reserve Bank (FED) which some conspiracy theorists often refer to its clandestine and non-transparent mode of operation, as the main gate keeper of the American system. This should make United States of America to look like a sort of an aristocracy of money!

In this, pundits, while trying to draw system boundaries, similarities and extents, often point to the powers of the Jurist-Consult spelt out in the Iranian constitution, as considered above, to be extra democratic in all purposes and intent. Not in any way close to the powers of the Queen in this era of Britain’s democracy as no single individual is associated with the American FED for life. But in Iran the elected representatives of the people are not better than the employees of the Jurist-Consult. The electioneering processes are mere screening and recommendation sessions done by the people for the Jurist-Consult to ratify and appoint. The constitution empowers him to sack also in what it can qualify as the interest of the state.

Also reference is constantly being made to the arbitrariness and impunity of the Jurist-Consult, in practice, as it is self-evident during the stewardship of Khomeini. His disputes with Motazeri, for example, and the veracity of the charges of Montazeri laid against him, which could be independently verified and argued to be in favour of the logic of Montazeri both on the scale of democratic principles and some fair theological assumptions upon which the Iranian state is built.

At the end it is fair to submit that if Iran’s can be labelled a democracy, then, it will be on a class of its own which compromises a number of principles bordering around the supreme will of the people. Perhaps a return to the thesis of Professor Richard Bulliet that gives room to the branding of the system as theocratic democracy where a human – God’s representative – stands as the system gatekeeper to be ratifying or cancelling the decision of the people as peculiar circumstances may demand. This until perhaps evolutionary processes in the system can recognize the vitality and essentiality of extending God’s vicegerency to every kind of human being, not only the present saint-scholar, the Jurist-Consult.

Or a Better Alternative

The trajectory of the world modern systems since after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, have significantly change. The successes of the Chinese with their type of system and leadership after abandoning communistic experiment and repeated inclination to distrusting democracy, which is now being extensively debated (Francis Fukuyama versus Zhang Weiwei, 16/11/2011, Wiley Online Library) shows there could be another island beyond the horizon. We have not arrived at the final destination yet with the western styled democracy as Fukuyama had wanted us to believe way back 1992 with his End of History thesis!

For the Iranian system, one of the areas where the true test of its resilience is in its ability to provide robust fool proof successions order that is objective, logical and satisfactory. Enough to withstand the assault of the emotion of an individual, appeal to the sentiment of the large segment of the system stakeholders and hold the admiration of the relevant international spectators in terms of meeting the universally known purpose of governance, responsiveness and result on the universal scale of national stability and other development indices.

Some Reflexions: Muslim Saint-Scholar and Political leadership through History

While thinking through the basic principles and prevailing realities of the present Iranian system, one never fails to observe that since after the period of the Khilafah – about 40 years after the demise of the prophet of Islam – Muslim communities have struggled a lot with the idea of a near perfect secular and religious leadership twined in a single individual.

At each experiment, the resultant output proves disappointing, until a near consensus is achieved within both Sunna and Shi’a communities that political secular leadership is to be separated from the saintly and scholarly position with its standing rule of the thumb, “enjoining what is right and admonishing against what is wrong”. Many a good number of scholars have taken to the path of political leadership only for them to leave a prominent blemish on their reputation as righteous and saintly scholars, who are remembered most for their, often, brutal and unapologetic dictatorship.

Sympathisers of the Iranian system in Nigeria often rush to argue that Sheik Uthman Dan-Fodio, the initiator of the 19th century Jihad in the then Hausa states in West Africa, also believed in and applied the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih throughout his lifetime.

Granted that Dan Fodio, a saint and a scholar, took up arms against tyrant and unbelieving rulers of the Hausa states, overthrew them and replaced the existing order then with what he deemed to be a better one. But soon after, he also elected to remain with the scholarly community, instead of belonging to the secular and political leadership category, by abdicating his position of the political leader. He also advised his younger brother-comrade in the struggle, Abdullahi Fodio, to do the same which he Abdullahi did. Subsequently, the system they bequeathed, maintained a strict demarcation between saintly scholars and political secular leaders (Sarakuna) breeding two different classes in the social hierarchy until our experience with colonialism and subsequently, democracy at independence.

Even the initiator of the Iranian revolution, Khomeini, is said to have been forbade by his reverent teacher, Ayatollahi Seyyed Hosseini Barujeridi, to participate in secular political leadership struggle. It was one the reasons he did not go public with his ideas about that until after the teacher’s demise in 1961.

Swotting the events that led to the revolution now – through his stewardship as the Iranian supreme leader, Jurist-Consult – one can be right to say he has lost his place in history as a saint-scholar in favour of some strong opinions (Montazeri’s inclusive) that place him side by side with the Shah he overthrew and others leaders in history who never feigned sainthood or scholarship in the first place.

It is the same story with Khamne’I for the last 30 years since he assumed stewardship. It was recently reported how, under his command and watch, the Iranian military shot down a passenger’s airline through its space. About 176 innocent souls were reported to have perished. Is it lack of preordained intuition of a ‘saint’ that played out? Or it is the integrity of a respectable sage who, in the first place would deny his glaring errors and later admit them, that is being tested? Perhaps it is in the natural design of the Divine to have embedded in the pragmatic demands of political leadership, a burden that supplants the resolution of a vowing saint and breaks the integrity of a conscientious scholar.

After all, there is a very strong erudite postulation that there is no any Mahdi who went into occultation at the end of the 3rd century after Hijra; who needs the throne that combines both religious and secular leadership of the world, to be held in his name, until he comes out from his hiding place at an uncertain projected end of times (The Development Of Shi’ite Political Thought, Ahmad Alkatib, 1997).


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