Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How Islam Rules in Iran

Mehran Kamrava

How Islam Rules in Iran questions prevailing assumptions about the Iranian theocracy by demonstrating that the Islamic Republic has deep and continuously evolving ideological and jurisprudential roots. In today’s Iran, the book argues, state-religion relations exhibit three key features. An obvious feature is the deep basis of the state in innovative interpretations of Shia jurisprudence. The Islamic Republic is based on the system of the velayat-e faqih, generally translated in English as the “guardianship of the jurisconsult.” As a concept, the notion of the velayat-e faqih had existed in Shia thought for some time before Ayatollah Khomeini elaborated on it in his 1970 book by the same name. Khomeini’s contribution lay in his innovative interpretation of the velayat-e faqih as a supreme political leader that oversaw not just religious affairs, as previous theologians had theorized, but was in overall charge of all affairs of the entire community, profane and political as well as religious. Today, Khomeini’s conception of velayat-e faqih underlies the institutional and political foundations of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian political system is far more ideologically-informed, and hence ideological, than may at first meet the eye.

A second characteristic of state-religion relations in Iran is the internal theoretical challenges to the prevailing jurisprudential interpretations that inform the state. The clerical establishment has been highly bureaucratized after the revolution and has been brought under the state’s political and organizational control. But the state leaders’ jurisprudential interpretations, and their politically-modulated theories of the ideal Shia order, have not gone uncontested. In the revolution’s second decade, in fact, serious challenges to the way the theory of velayat-e faqih had evolvedwere voiced from within both clerical ranks and non-clerical circles. It took about a decade for the state to effectively sideline these theoretical challenges, some of which came from figures affiliated with it. But these voices dissent, or at least difference, have not been altogether eliminated. To this day, different interpretations of an ideal Shia order, political and otherwise, rear their head, sometimes more faintly and sometime more forcefully.

The state’s reassertion of its idealized relationship with religion, evidenced most starkly after 2009, marks the third feature of today’s Islamic Republic. Once dissenting views about the nexus between Islam and politics had been effectively quieted, the state found room and opportunity to fully institutionalize its own conception of the ideal religious order. This “official orthodoxy” has found its expression in what may be called Khameneism. This Khameneism exhibits features that are starkly conservative in its jurisprudential orientations, is authoritarian in its politics, and is paranoid about matters of security, and is therefore intolerant of any indication of dissent.

In constructing its arguments, the book examines the theoretical and practical contributions to Iranian Shia thought as articulated by clerics and lay thinkers, both those who are relatively famous and those who are unknown or are lesser known. The book explores the compound effects that these arguments have generated in general and as particular political outcomes. More specifically, it analyzes the ways in which current religious intellectual production in Iran has shaped evolving political-religious discourses in the country, impacted the ongoing transformation of Iranian Shi‘ism, and ultimately underwritten the political survival and fate of the Islamic Republic.

The book’s specific focus is on Shi‘a jurisprudence and the innovations it has undergone, its relationships with and use by the state, and where it stands today. In the prerevolutionary era, starting from the 1960s and lasting into the late 1970s and the first couple of years of the revolution, until about 1981, Iran witnessed something of a golden era of jurisprudential thought and religious intellectual production, with significant innovations being made in the study and application of theology, jurisprudence, Islamic history, and ijtihad. War and revolution, along with parallel and reinforcing processes of state building and political consolidation, eclipsed Iranian Islam’s intellectual dynamism in the 1980s. It was only in the mid-1990s when the gates of ijtihad were thrown open once again, this time in response to more than a decade of a grand theocratic experiment the world had come to know as the Islamic Republic. The “intellectual revolution” gripping the country at the time crystalized itself in Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami’s election as president in 1997, and, like all revolutions, in its early years ushered in an exciting period of free thinking and intellectual innovation. But revolutions of this kind seldom live up to their promises, and an Iranian renaissance of intellectual thought, of rethinking and reimagining the role of religion in state and in society, was not to be.

The Green Movement of 2009 was the last gasp of the intellectual revolution whose painful death had started some years earlier. Both movements, the earlier one of scholars and academics writing articles and publishing books, and the later one of people in streets decrying the theft of their votes, were mercilessly suppressed by an unbending orthodoxy now firmly in control of the state and all its repressive, political, cultural, and ideological institutions. States rule not just by repression or by dominance of the public space. They rule also by controlling the narrative, the story, or stories, that govern people’s lives from one day to the next. By the late 2000s, the Islamic Republic had outgrown its genesis as an experiment. It was now a reality, a hard, brute reality unwilling to give an inch, to compromise on the ideological universe it had made and on which it relied.

Throughout, the Islamic Republic’s political reality has been highly complex and complicated. As the official ideology of the state, the travails and transformations of Iranian Shi‘ism have been particularly profound. The book maps out the evolution of key theoretical concepts guiding Iran’s Islamic government since the success of the revolution. It examines several themes that have emerged as key constitutive elements of how Iranian theologians see their ideal world. These areas of scholarly focus encompass related notions and concepts that are central to Iranian Shi‘i political cosmology. The first of these areas includes debates and discussions over jurisprudence in general and the extent to which it can be interpreted and adapted – its dynamism – in changing times and contexts. This relates directly to a second area of considerable discussion and theorizing, namely the very nature of legitimate authority and how, and through what sources, legitimacy is bestowed on those with the power to rule.

These debates might be academic, but for Iran their social and political impact are real and immediate. Related to legitimacy is the question of rulership, specifically who has the right to rule and how the ruler ought to behave while in power? Another question whose exploration has become especially necessary since the final decades of the twentieth century is the role and nature of democracy in an ideal Islamic order. Lastly, especially since about 2009-2010, Iranian politics has experienced the steady development of what may be called Khameneism, an ideological-political posture of the state that is centered around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s “leader” (rahbar) and velayat-e faqih since 1989. This Khameneism exhibits features that are starkly conservative in its jurisprudential orientations and is authoritarian in its politics. Khameneism, the book maintains, forms the backbone of the state’s official religious, political, and ideological orthodoxy.

How Islam Rules in Iran pushes our collective understanding of the relationship between religion and politics in Iran in several new directions. The book presents a deep dive into the ideological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. It delves below the level of discourse, exploring specific concepts and theoretical constructs that continue to guide – in what is a living, dynamic manner – the relationship between religion and politics in Iran. Through the study of some of the key religious concepts currently being used and operationalized in Iran, one important conclusion the book reaches is that there is far more theoretical substance and depth to the structure, institutions, and functions of the Islamic Republic than meets the eye. This is no run-of-the-mill authoritarian system; there are complex theoretical and ideological constructions undergirding it. Apart from practical power considerations, this institutional complexity is a product of the fact that the early crafters of the Iranian state set out to design and maintain a political system that is at once faithfully both Islamic and republican. Reconciling these two distinct areas of operation into a cohesive, workable political system has necessitated the design of a highly elaborate, institutionally complex state, one with equally detailed theoretical and ideological underpinnings. These theoretical underpinnings, articulated mostly by senior clerics who move seamlessly between the religious and political establishments and who organically tie the two together, form the main focus of the book.

How Islam Rules in Iran by Mehran Kamrava

About The Author

Mehran Kamrava

Mehran Kamrava, Georgetown University, Qatar ...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!