The Experience of the Islamic Revolution in Iran – The Contemporary Debate

Sheikh Chafiq Jeradeh

The Islamic Revolution in Iran has come to be defined for many by the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (the Jurist’s Guardianship), instituted by Imam Khomeini – May Allah Sanctify His Soul (MASHS). Wilayat al-Faqih represents an Islamic concept that is based on the values of the Sufi-Irfan idea that it is possible for humans to ascend through a thorough knowledge of themselves to the state of a ‘Perfect Human Being’.

Such a person is sometimes referred to as the ‘Pole’ or ‘the Pole of the Poles’. In the Sufi-Irfan concept, this state of being carries clear contractual obligations – including political obligations for any human on this path. It also implies that such leadership also requires a strong understanding of law and the literal application of Islam in the day-to-day life of individuals and of Islamic societies. Beyond this juridical understanding, a leader has to possess the ability to manage and organise the elements of society – that is, he must be able to act ‘politically’, following the lead provided by Mohammed’s (pbuh) and his Household’s method of managing the early Muslim communities.

What is remarkable about the Wilayat al-Faqih, and the act of revolution that gave rise to the Islamic State of Iran, was the interaction between the development of the concept of Wilayat al-Fiqih within the context of the reality of revolutionary action. As political reality impinged, and as the revolution imposed new challenges, these events reinforced and opened further scope for the concept to grow and to exhibit new dimensions.

The more the concept expanded and added substance, so it created a new atmosphere amongst Iranians generally. Furthermore this leadership concept opened new horizons for dealing with the external international order, as well as in the military and scientific spheres via its bold declaration to achieve a nuclear fuel cycle. This latter ambition was placed within a moral and religious stance which forbids nuclear weaponisation – in contrast with the peaceful use of energy derived from nuclear fuel.

Thus I believe that it is plain both that the Wilayat al-Faqih concept is susceptible to further evolution and certainly is not immutable; it has not assumed its final shape – as it lies at the intersection of the religious structure intended to manage the day-to-day reality of existence with the desire to live in harmony with the divine values.

Therefore both the substance and the detail of Wilayat al-Faqih are mutable, and should reflect the requirements appropriate to both time and place. It was this need to place the Wilayat al-Faqih in its correct setting that explains why the concept altered and developed during the late Imam’s (MASHS) lifetime. Between the phases of preparing the revolution; the revolutionary phase and the rise of the state; the imposed war phase; and the phase of drafting the constitution, the concept evolved under the pressure of these events. If this transformation was not always very evident during Imam Khomeini’s (MASHS) life, this is largely due to the fact that this period spanned a period dominated by extraordinary change and was overshadowed by the towering figure of the founder.

Nevertheless, after the demise of the Imam (MASHS) and Imam Khameini assuming office, the Imam’s methodolgy, i.e. as Wali Faqih, was impacted by three major debates:

Firstly, until now, the tension between the underlying religious principles and contemporary structures of statehood and the international order have not been satisfactorily resolved. The relationship between Islamic values that demand direct involvement with political and social affairs, and the prevailing global order influenced by contemporary mores and ideas, methodology, and institutions, places it [Iran] at each and every juncture in face of a debate on the values of Islam versus the values of the wider world (which have been created by so-called ‘modernity’).

Although similar dilemmas face all Islamic movements, this potential conflict takes, in Iran, a more serious form, owing to it being a doctrinal state that has surpassed the limitations of being a movement, rather than a state. Iran also – perhaps uniquely – possesses the virtue of having the option to find the balance between these opposing currents.

These tensions however are evident today in Iran: They have given rise to a strand of thinking within society that seeks to place doctrinal religion within a secular framework – this, in addition to their desire to establish the political structures on a similar secular basis. This has caused the religious parties to react in two ways:

  • Firstly it has led some to wall themselves in behind the Wilayat al-Faqih formula and to reject any new thinking about this concept arising in the Iranian intellectual or political arena.
  • Secondly, it has led to a wider discussion regarding the relationship between Islam and Wilayat al-Faqih. The object of this discussion is centred on how to Islamise contemporary institutional systems of governance, whilst another strand is moving in the opposite direction: It looks at how to revise the concept (Wilayat al-Faqih) better to reflect contemporary reality, and its needs.

This is the real dilemma facing the present al-Wali al-Faqih (the Guardian Jurist, i.e. Imam Khamenei) and the institutions affiliated with him.

Secondly – During Imam Khamenei’s rule, some circles began to discuss the following issues:

  1. Does the concept of Wilayat presuppose a tradition of (cognitive) knowledge of its own, which in itself enables the Wali (Supreme Leader) to lead and to manage the actuality? Or, does it require some additionally acquired expertise in governance, as well as the special vision, which only spiritual attainment can provide?
  2. Does Wilayat al-Faqih have one form, and one form only – the one presented by late Imam Khomeini, or there are other possible forms that Imam Khamenei can reveal?
  3. Finally, does the concept rest on a basis of popular acceptance and commitment within the ranks of the Iranian elites? Or; does its basis lie in the emotional circumstance of revolution? This is an important point that needs to be clarified – for the answer to this question will spell out for us the possibilities for dissension between Iranian elites and the popular will.

Thirdly – There has been in Iran an ancient debate that is perennially renewed: The issue is what should govern Iranian policy: the logic of interest; or the logic of ideology? Does Iran’s interest lie within Iran, internally; or does the Iranian interest intersect with other peoples who uphold the same revolutionary Islamic values?

A debate about such issues may look nothing out of the normal at first glance; but, taking into account the doctrinal nature of the state, and the cultural mood of the people, each of these issues and the debate surrounding them, has an impact and consequences whose potential scope are difficult to predict. Time and experience will be the judge, when it comes to observing how successfully such debates can be resolved.

Sheikh Chafiq Jeradeh is director of the Institute of Sapiential Knowledge for Philosophical and Religious Studies in Beirut. This article was first published in Conflict Forum’s magazine, Cultures of Resistance, Issue 03/Volume 01, Winter 2009-2010.

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  1. […] a brief article regarding the dynamic tension between state and religion in Iran. This article is published on Conflicts Forum. Conflicts Forum is founded and directed by Alastair Crook, who has had a career as a British […]

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