The Difference Between A Marja And A Supreme Leader
By Abbas Djavadi,
Recently, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest Shi'ite authority,
urged voters to turn out for that country's March 7 parliamentary elections. He
warned that that failure to do so would "allow some to achieve illegitimate
To be sure, Sistani is no politician, though he is not apolitical, either. He
doesn't issue political or legal orders. He doesn't direct Iraq's policies on
ethnic issues, oil exploitation, foreign relations, political parties, media,
courts, or security. He just gives advice from his home in Al-Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is a source of emulation across the Shi'ite
Still, many in Iraq's majority Shi'ite community follow him -- not because he is
an official "supreme leader" like Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not because
the Iraqi government requires the people to either follow him or face
punishment, as in Iran. They follow Sistani because Iraqi Shi'a respect him as a
religious authority, an influential marja, or marja-i taqlid (source of
Although it is difficult for even Sunni Muslims -- let alone non-Muslims -- to
understand it, in the Shi'ite confession it is extremely important to have and
follow a marja. Marjas provide advice and even make decisions when you are in
doubt on religious, social, and even political questions. Marjas are recognized
and respected ayatollahs, usually grand ayatollahs, who are qualified and
accepted by the public to make decisions within the framework of Islamic rules
Imagine you are a Shi'ite Muslim facing a long intercontinental flight and you
aren't sure how to arrange your prayers or ablutions. Or imagine there is a
political event or dispute in your society, such as an election, and you are not
sure how to act. You check the book of your marja, the risalah, and find the
answers you need.
Every marja has his own risalah. For things that cannot be found in those books,
you turn to the nearest representative of your marja, write a letter or e-mail
or, more recently, raise the question on the website of your marja and receive
One of my late uncles, Ayatollah Abdollah Mojtehedi, used to tell me that a
marja should have three qualities. First, he should be a deeply knowledgeable
and experienced religious authority. Second, he should be "clean" from any
personal or group interests in politics or business. And, third, he should be
fair and moderate.
And, my uncle added, the decision to follow a marja is entirely a free and
personal one. Nobody can impose on you an obligation to follow a particular
cleric or force to renounce your chosen marja.
From Emulation To Dictation
My uncle died before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and didn't live to see what
happened in its wake to the centuries-old concept of the marja in Iran. While
still in exile in Paris, the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, promised to become "just a spiritual leader" following his triumphant
return to Iran. He would, he said, go back to the seminary in Qom as a cleric
and just advise the people without ruling the country. In short, he promised to
adopt the role that Sistani has been playing in the seminary of Al-Najaf for
Before the revolution, Khomeini was more celebrated as a political fighter and
challenger of the shah's regime than as a respected religious authority, a marja.
Upon returning to Tehran, however, Khomeini became a "supreme leader," an
"imam," which was an innovation that none of us understood then. He formulated
the constitution, appointed the cabinet, changed the country's leadership at
will, and started personally to pronounce the final word on everything from
security issues and foreign policy to who should be punished or which political
party or newspaper should be banned.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini initially said he
would be a simple "spiritual leader."
His successor, Ali Khamenei, also a fighter against the shah rather than a
religious authority, was hastily "promoted" to the title ayatollah in order to
become supreme leader. His elevation was the culmination of the system that was
created in 1979, in which only one faction among the victors of the revolution
usurped all the powers of the executive, legislature, and judiciary and began
brutally to eliminate all opponents.
This new system was formulated with this statement: "Under the open sky, the
only just position is that of the supreme leader." This simplistic ideology was
pronounced by Ahmad Khatami, an ultraconservative member of the Assembly of
Experts that elects or fires the supreme leader. Another member of the same
body, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, reportedly issued a fatwa before last June's
presidential election, saying that it is permissible to "change" or manipulate
election results to prevent the victory of the enemies of the supreme
According to the official ideology, the supreme leader rules "on behalf and in
absence of the Mahdi," the 12th Imam whom Shi'a believe went into hiding in the
seventh century to return one day in order to restore global justice and peace.
This concept, now the official policy of Iran, strictly bans any trace of
opposition to the supreme leader and his will and allows the government to act
ruthlessly against whomever they consider enemies of the system -- from leftists
and democrats to former friends and dissident clerics and ayatollahs.
Both Khatami and Yazdi are clerics, as are most other members of the Assembly of
Experts, the Guardians Council (charged with the interpretation of laws and the
vetting of candidates in elections), and many members of the parliament and the
cabinet of ministers. But very few of them are respected, fair, moderate
religious authorities -- a marja -- clean of political or business interests.
Most of the influential and popular marjas, such as Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad
Kazem Shariatmadari and Hossein Ali Montazeri, were put under house arrest or
forced into passivity. Under the new system, more than 200,000 mullahs became
receivers of government salaries and benefits -- and were therefore largely
silenced. This was an unprecedented development in Iranian history, during which
Shi'ite clerics were always dependent solely on voluntary religious donations.
No Longer Followed
The more the Islamic regime's leading clerics have distanced themselves from
religion in order to cling to power, the more they have come to depend on the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militia, and the notorious
"plainclothes militia" to maintain their positions by force. The five years of
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's presidency has seen the further strengthening of the
Revolutionary Guard and the gradual transition from religious authoritarianism
to a military dictatorship with religious trappings.
The other day I asked a relative in Tehran who our current marja is. I knew that
our larger family once followed Grand Ayatollahs Muhsin al-Hakim (in the 1960s),
Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1970s) and Abol-Qasim al-Khoei (1980s). But who
have we followed since Khoei's death in 1982?
"Mr. Sistani," my relative answered. He said he believed most Iranian Shi'a
recognize Sistani as their marja. "I have his risalah at home. He has
representatives in most Iranian cities that you can consult with, or you can
send his hawza, his seminary, an e-mail and get an answer."
"There are two major differences between Mr. Sistani's views and those of
Khamenei," another source from Isfahan told me. "Sistani believes that Shi'ite
clerics should stay out of active politics and remain as religious authorities,"
the source said. "He also thinks nobody can claim to be acting on behalf and in
absence of the Hidden Imam. And you know well what the [supreme] leader
Neither my relative in Tehran nor my source in Isfahan, both devout Shi'ite
Muslims but still increasingly upset with the regime, have participated in the
antigovernment demonstrations that have rocked the country since last June's
election. I think the regime will be finished if people like them begin doing
With their aggressive policy of distancing themselves from the foundations of
Shi'ite Islam and the intensifying oppression, Khamenei and his lieutenant,
Ahmadinejad, are gradually ensuring the alienation of the majority of the
Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views
expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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