THE BLOG
08/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Divisions in Iran's Leadership -- More than Meets the Eye

Deep fissures are showing as never before on a clerical style of government that has struggled for so long to paint itself as one united, single voice for Iran. A group of Iranian religious leaders, known as the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, released a statement last week calling the recent presidential elections as well as the new government it created, both "illegitimate". Such a public declaration has been nearly unheard of in the three decades of the Islamic Republic's existence, and is indicative of a growing split amongst the clerical leadership -- a leadership that is critical to the legitimacy and existence of Iran's current government.

Shiite Islam, a division of the religion to which the Iranian government officially adheres, traditionally held that the religious leadership should serve as the "divine guides" of the Muslim community, which ordinary people should seek to imitate. With the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, and in sharp departure from more traditional notions of Shiism, this began to change.

Khomeini preached the theory of wilayat al-faqih (jurisconsult); an elitist concept associated with the supremacy of senior Shiite clergy. According to this hierarchy of obedience, the Wali al-Faqih -- Iran's supreme leader -- is the most divine source on earth at this time who was appointed by the Prophet Mohammed himself. As a result, his decision was final and infallible, and anybody who disobeyed him was considered to be disobeying God Himself.

Following the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Ali Khamenei was chosen to be the second supreme leader of Iran and the new wali al-faqih, even though he had never held the important title of marja or ayatollah prior to his ascension to the highest religious authority. As a result, many leading Shiite religious figures did not support him in that role. This included Ayatollah Rafsanjani -- former Iranian president and current chairman of the powerful Assembly of Experts. Notably, the so-called "spiritual leader" of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, is also known to have not supported the notions of the wilayat al-faqih.

It is thus important to view these recent events in their proper historical context, and recognize that by speaking out against Ayatollah Khamenei, much of the Iranian religious establishment is doing a lot more than just contradicting the leader of the country, whose word is supposed to be final. In fact, by questioning the Iranian elections and new government -- both of which have been confirmed and supported by Ayatollah Khamenei -- they are in a sense questioning the concept of the wilayat al-faqih, which laid the very foundation of Iran's current form of government.

During the 1979 Iranian revolution, the religious establishment went from the political sidelines to the forefront of the political scene; an act that was instrumental in the collapse of the Shah's government. Today's events appear to demonstrate winds of change yet again, with clerics speaking up once more against the Iranian government, perhaps indicating that drastic changes are on their way for the Iranian regime.