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Politics and Religion Collide: The Attempt to Defrock Ayatollah Sanei

By Rasool Nafisi,, WASHNGTON

Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei

In early January, following the demise of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, the Society of Teachers and Researchers at Qom Seminaries, a pro-statel clerical body, announced that it did not acknowledge cleric Yusuf Sanei as an ayatollah. The reason for such a decision, like many other seemingly religious decisions of the Islamic regime, was rather political. A great part of politics in today's Iran is based on clerical rivalry and personal innuendo rooted in the clerical community.

The death of Montazeri created a vacuum for the emergence of a new marja-i taqlid, or source of emulation, which is the highest ranking in Shi'ite Islam, granting an ayatollah the right to interpret Islamic doctrine to followers and less-qualified clerics. To many reformist and oppositional groups, Sanei and Ayatollah Dastgheib in Shiraz were qualified to take up this mantle because of their seniority, their religious knowledge, and of course their opposition to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. No wonder that the Ansar-e Hezbollah, a militant group charged with upholding the principles of the Islamic revolution, harassed Sanei and attacked his residence and Dastgheib's, and even shut down the mosque where Dastgheib holds his sermons and prayers.

The editor of IRNA, the sate-run national news agency, also ordered his reporters to drop the title of ayatollah from the name of former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who has emerged as a sympathizer with the opposition. By forcing the oppositional clerics out, the regime could nominate its own supporters to become the next marja, such as Ayatollah Hussein Nouri-Hamadani, alongside with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Islamic regime has had it with reformist ayatollahs, such as Sanei and Montazeri, who have gone out of their way to support reformist agendas, and condemn Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad.

Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei is specifically targeted by the regime for numerous reasons. Aside from his most recent sermons, in one of which he called Ahmadinejad "a rascal and a liar," Sanei is well known for his shaaz (rare and innovative) fatwas regarding women. In numerous opinions expressed by the ayatollah, he asserted that women are equal to men, and they can become judges, the president, and even Vali Faghih, supreme leader. According to his fatwas, a nuclear weapon is forbidden, not only to own one but to use it, and suicide bombing is against the teachings of Islam.

Poster of Ayatollah Sanei during funeral of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri

However, it is worth noting that Sanei was not always as progressive as he is today. In fact, he reversed his positions on many issues, including the role of Vali Faghih, the leadership of Khamenei, the use of force, and the imposition of strict Islamic punishments, such as stoning. Sanei was the prosecutor general for four years in the early 1980s, when opposition members were being mowed down on a daily basis in prisons and on the streets. In fact, he was instrumental in defrocking Ayatollah Shariatmadari, a formidable rival to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the first ayatollah ever to suffer such humiliation.

I had the opportunity to meet with and confront Ayatollah Sanei about women's rights at his residence in Qom in 2003, when I was visiting the Qom Seminary for a research project. His house, which is located in the same ally as the late Montazeri's, is divided into three sections. In one section, or andarouni, the family lives. In two other sections, or beerooni, he meets visitors, or holds sermons. At that time, the reformists around then President Mohammad Khatami were still in power, and in fact the reformist parliament and the cabinet members kept requesting fatwas about women, and he would maintain his position in every occasion about gender equality. This is why he is nicknamed the ayatollah of the reformists.

The question that I most wanted to ask him was about the Koranic injunction regarding inheritance for women. Unlike many other injunctions, the verse on inheritance is very clear: it is women who inherit half that of men. Ayatollah Sanei answered, "Unfortunately there is nothing we can do for this one. It is god's law, sound and clear, and we cannot go around it." Then he added the cliché that men are the breadwinners of the household and need the capital, while women stay at home. I believe he was right about his own household, but I am not even sure that in Qom today women stay home, while men go to work.

Can an Ayatollah Be Demoted?

One needs to make a clear distinction between Iranian Shi'ism and its rules and norms before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As the clerics became the rulers, they ignored a great number of Shi'ite bylaws, and added quite a few. In the tradition of Shi'ite clerical hierarchy, there has never been an office to promote or demote clerics, from the time the titles, such as hojjatolislam and ayatollah, were coined in nineteenth century. An ayatollah normally is a senior cleric who has established himself as knowledgeable and upright mujtahid, (the one who can issue fatwa, and his qualifications are already approved by a marja, the highest ranking clergy). An ayatollah needs to have published religious guidelines that may or may not differ from other mujtahids. But the litmus test of an ayatollah's status is the number of students he supervises, and the stipend he offers them. This of course requires strong ties to the merchant community in order to be able to collect their religious donations, and spend it on various religious needs including seminary students. Once all the conditions are met, an ayatollah emerges, meaning he is neither appointed nor promoted by a secular or religious authority.

Ayatollah Sanei and Mir Hossein Mousavi at Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral

The game changer was the office of the Vali Faghih, which was created after 1979 Islamic Revolution. The boundless powers of the Vali eroded many well-established norms of the Shi'ite clerical system, including the multiplicity of voices and opinions to interpret religious doctrine, which was such a pride of the Shi'ite leaders. Ironically, Ayatollah Sanei himself was one of the first advocates of the unlimited powers of the Vali Faghih; he called it the highest office whose edicts superseded all others. As the office became formal and the consensus-based tradition weakened, the marjaih itself was undermined.

This process of the politicizing the clergy paved the way to defrock Ayatollah Shariatmadari in the early days of the Islamic Republic, and force him to confess on national television, where he was called simply, "Mr. Shariatmadari." Then, the Society for the Theological Instructors and Scholars of the Fayzyiah Seminary took the action of defrocking Shariatmadari. Ayatollah Sanei at that time was instrumental in discrediting Shariatmadari, and confiscating the endowments under his supervision. Now, Sanei is the latest victim of the vanishing religious authority of the clerics.

Rasool Nafisi, a renowned expert on Iran's clerics, is a professor living in Virginia.

About: is a bi-weekly journal of analysis and research written primarily by scholars and activists living inside Iran and those who have recently left the country. Our purpose is to provide in-depth information about the internal political dynamic that is unavailable in the mainstream media. Through research and commentary, we will continue to document the political and theological crisis.

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