Islamic Political Philosophy after 40 years

The Revolution of 1979 in Iran was one of the top ten events of 20th century, and one of the top three revolutions in the last 150 years. Four religious events happened in 1979, the most important one was the Iranian revolution. These events made a shock to the sociologists and their theory of secularization. In the secular age and the notion of decline of religious beliefs and practices, and privatization of religion, a revolution occurred under the slogan of Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest) with leadership of a religious authority Ayatollah Khomeini, organized mostly in the mosques and was supported by almost all the Iranians.

The first impact of this revolution was revision of the theory of secularization to de-secularization. Jose Casanova, a well-known sociologist of religion, published his book Public Religions in the Modern World (1994) and Peter L. Berger (ed.), the distinguished sociologist, Published The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), both of them explicitly mentioned the big impact of the Iranian revolution on their revision of the theory of secularization. 

Many philosophers also welcomed the Iranian revolution of 1979 including the famous postmodern French philosopher Michel Foucault who traveled to Iran in September 1978, met Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris in October 1978 and wrote on the Iranian revolution. Foucault found that event as a new discourse of resistance of spiritualty against secular modernity. Many leftist philosophers or social activists supported the revolution because of its anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist direction of the revolution. It was a new hope for the oppressed people in all around the world regardless of their religion, nationality, gender and ethnicity. Of course, this was more hopeful for Muslims and specially for Shiite Muslims.

The Revolution of 1979 won so quickly, much quicker than it was expected. No one could predict that the Pahlavi regime that was the most loyal and powerful allay of the US in the Middle East would be collapsed in less than two years.


The Revolution of 1979 and The Islamic Republic are not identical. I distinguish between these two phenomena. The characteristic of the former could be described in this way. There were two types that needs to be distinguished. The fist type had somehow a consensus or agreement of a big majority of the Iranians in that time. They knew what they did NOT want. We can call this type as the “negative demands”.

They did not want tyranny, dictatorship, and autocratic government, dependent regime as the puppet of superpower such as the US. Although they did not have any problem with modernization, but they did not like Westernization and denying their Persian-Islamic identity. They were tired of oppression, censorship, corruption, torture, political imprisonment, discrimination and injustice. Pahlavi Regime closed all legal and peaceful ways of reform in Iran. There was only one political party that belongs to the King, he said frankly that Iranians had only two choices, either becoming the member of his party, or leave the country! He did not tolerate any diversity or political plurality.

Shah tried to remove Islamic teachings from public sphere. He did not have any problem with non-political Muslims, but he restricted or forced to stop absolutely any political or even religious activity of Muslim reformists, those who are called ‘Islamist’ recently in the West. Almost all of these Muslims’ activists were highly educated, liberal and followers of Muhammad Mussadeqh, the lovely Muslim, secular, liberal Prime Minister in 1950s who nationalized Iranian oil industry and overthrown by the CIA and MI6 coup d’état in 1953 and for 25 years, a harsh Western backed dictator was imposed on Iran. The public figures such as Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995), Yadollah Sahabi (1906-2002), Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-1979), Ali Shariati (1933-1977), and Mustafa Chamran. Many clerics followers of Ayatollah Khomeini such as Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) were repeatedly arrested before the revolution.

The second type of demands were affirmative. But they were so general and ambiguous on the one hand, and covered such a large spectrum of different ideas and even disagreements on the other hand. The demand for a religious state, or Islamic governance as well as the role of Islam in the new administration and its laws, the meaning(s) of the Islamic Republic, the role of Khomeini in the new regime were among the unclear aspects of the revolutionary demands. The term wilayat-i faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist) never used between 1977 and late 1979 in Khomeini’s public declarations in Najaf, his international interviews in Paris, and his public speeches in Tehran and Qom.

Khomeini discussed his political theory briefly around 1965 when he was in exile in Turkey, and in detail in February 1970 in twelve sessions in Najaf. Its booklet was published in Najaf in April 1970. A new edition of it published in late 1971 in Beirut. It was circulated in Iran in underground networks of Muslim political activists. It was reprinted largely in Iran in 1978 under a pen-name and titled “a letter from Imam Musawi discoverer the curtain” (Kashif al-Ghita’). I read it in early 1979 but I was completely or mostly attracted to its political radical criticism against despotism, and did not understand the technical correlations and consequences of his juridical arguments. Most of the advocators of the revolution were like me not completely aware of the above point.

Khomeini himself was possibly not sure that the citizens would accept his political theory if they understood correctly. He did not talk about it until it was approved in the Assembly of Experts (Majlis-i Khubrigan) in fall 1979. It was not discussed sufficiently in the main meetings of that assembly too. In the time of referendum of the new regime in April 1979 the appointed Prime Mister Mehdi Bazargan expressed that the name of the new regime should be “Democratic Islamic Republic”, Khomeini rejected this, responding frankly: “Islamic Republic, neither one word more, nor one word less”.

Morteza Motahhari (1919-1979) the ideologue of the Islamic Republic who was assassinated by a radical terrorist group in 1 May 1979, explained that Islamic Republic in his TV interview that was broadcasted a few days before the referendum in a democratic way with many differences with the articles of the upcoming constitution and Khomeini’s practice in future.

Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1906-1986) who was a popular Shi’ite religious authority (Marja) and the competitor of Ayatollah Khomeini mildly criticized the power of the ruler in the constitution. He believed that there is an unsolvable conflict between the sovereignty of the nation and the unlimited authority of the ruler. After signing this historical declaration never broadcast on TV and radio, Shariatmadari was completely removed from the media and two years later he was placed under house arrest due to an accusation of participating in a coup against Khomeini. He passed away in 1986 whilst still under house arrest.

Khomeini described the Islamic state as what the Prophet Muhammad did in Medina and what Ali did in Kufa. The citizens were aware of the justice of their Prophet and Imam. They loved them, so the Islamic state was a return to their spiritual teachings and dogmas. Because of these religious archetypes, there was not a lot of questions about the concept and scope of the Islamic governance and its rulers. They trusted Ayatollah Khomeini as one of the Shite authorities and followed him in voting for the Islamic Republic although they knew very little about it. They loved him and based on this love they accepted his political theory, despite knowing nothing about it, besides general knowledge about early Islam.


The political theory of Khomeini was the combination of four different theories. First Shi’ite theological leadership. After prophet (the spiritual guide and the temporal ruler) infallible Imam with divine knowledge is appointed by the Prophet or the previous Imam to manage the Public and private affairs of the Muslim society and the Islamic world. But this theological theory is for the time of attendance of these twelve Imams and is completely silent about the time of their absence.

The second theory is the theory of the Philosopher King of Plato in his Republic. Khomeini replaced philosopher with the Islamic jurist (faqīh). In the time of absence of Imams, the jurists as the deputy of hidden Imam have all rights of the prophet or Imam and they should be the ruler. We can call his theory as the theory of the jurist-ruler.

The third theory is the theory of The Perfect Man or the Perfect Human being (Al-Insan al-kamil) in mysticism specially Ibn Arabi. The perfect man has absolute guardianship. This is a mystical spiritual authority, but includes temporal political one too. Khomeini borrowed the concept of absolute guardianship (wilayat mutlaqa) from mysticism and gave this absolute authority to the just jurist.

The fourth theory is the Iranian mythological kingdom. Shahname the epic masterpiece of Ferdowsi is the story of these mythological kings. They had two characteristics: justice and wisdom. These mythological kings were appointed by a symbolic bird and they had transcendent Farrah or glory. Khomeini borrowed all of these key concepts and revised and reshaped them in his political theory. The King Jurist should have knowledge of the Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and the virtue of justice (‘idalah). The Islamic Jurist (Faqih) is appointed by the hidden Imam.

So, his theory could be called the appointive absolute guardianship of the jurist council (i.e. the jurist ruler is God-appointed as the guardian of the people and he has absolute political authority). Each of its key elements came from one or two of aforementioned theories. But he reshaped or rephrased them and in a new synthesis, he established a new political theory. According to this theory, the only person who is qualified to be the ruler is an Islamic jurist (faqīh). He is appointed by God, or his Prophet, or Imam. So, his legitimacy has not come from the citizens. This appointed jurist is the guardian or custodian or master of all human beings. And his authority is absolute, above human made law, and even above the Shari’a rulings. He has this authority to stop any Shari’a ruling that is against the public interest. This is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch  (The God-Man) or this is, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan in its Shi’ite version.

In this theory, the people have the right to choose, if and only if it consists with the commands and policies of the Jurist Ruler. So, the Jurist Ruler or his representatives in the Guardianship Council can veto any decision, law or policy that is made by the representatives of the citizens including the president or the parliament. In this theory, the citizens are incapable in public domain, the same as minors that their guardians decide in their behalf. This point is mentioned in the Persian book of Khomeini (Wilayat-I faqih or Hukumat-I Islami) explicitly.

Islamic Republic is a competitive-authoritarian or electoral-authoritarian regime. It is not democratic so that the citizens can decide about the major policies of their country in referendums or presidential or parliamentary elections. But the citizens are free to elect from the selected figures by the Guardian Council (Shūra-yi Nigahbān), the citizens’ representatives for presidency or parliament. Democracy in the Islamic Republic, both in theory and practice, could be categorized under facade democracy or quasi democracy. It is a restricted democracy in minor decisions. According to Iranian constitution of 1989, the articles related to the guardianship of the Islamic jurist, primacy of Islamic rulings to all parliament bills and administrative decisions, are unchangeable permanently.    

The Criticisms of the Theory and Practice of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic

There were many criticisms on the theory and practice of Khomeini from inside Iran. We can classify these criticisms or objections into seven categories:

The first, those jurists who agreed with the Guardianship of the Jurist but they advocate the ruler should be by a committee of the jurists collectively and not only by one of them theoretically, and they requested participation in the power practically. Ayatollah Hassan Tabatabaei Qomi (1912-2007) and Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi (1928-2001) were the most important jurists in this category. The former was one of three leaders of June 1963 uprising, house arrested for 12 years before revolution, and house arrested after revolution for about 14 more years after his critical declaration about Iran-Iraq War in 1983. The latter was under restriction from middle of 1980s until his death.      

The second category was ayatollah Shariatmadari (1906-1986) who believed in a wilayat faqih as a spiritual guide (not a ruler) and nation state as representative of the citizens. This was his revised theory after the revolution. His first theory was general and not clear in these points.

The third category was quietist jurists (none-political) who disbelieved in the theory of guardianship of the jurist and made arguments against it in their juridical books. Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim (1889–1970). Ayatollah Ahmad Khonsari (1887-1985), Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim Khoei (1899-1992), Ayatollah Ayatollah Murtada Ha’iri Yazdi (1916-1986) who was the older son of AbdulKarim Ha’iri Yazdi (the founder of Qom theological seminary and the mentor of Ayatollah Khomeini), Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki (1894-1994), and Allami Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (1904-1981), the author of Al-Mizan fi Ttafsir Al-Qur’an. Ayatollah Khu’i the mentor of ayatollah Sistani wrote explicitly that ‘the big majority of the Shi’it jurists do not believe in the Khomeini’s theory of the Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist.”

The fourth category were the students of Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989) who revised Khomeini’s theory and made it semi democratic. Three jurists could be mentioned in this category: Murtada Mutahhari (1919-1979), Ne’matollah Salehi Najafabadi (1923-2006) and Hussein-Ali Montazeri (1922 – 2009). The latter, Ayatollah Montazeri, was the first advocator of the political theory of Ayatollah Khomeini and the head of Assembly of Experts in 1979 which approved and inserted the guardianship of the jurist as an article of the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He revised his political theory in 1986 in two key elements first he replaced appointive element with elective element, and second, he replaced absolute or unlimited ruler’s power with limited by the constitution. Ayatollah Montazeri, my mentor, revised his political theory for the third time in the last decade of his life and denied the guardianship of jurist in executive power absolutely, while he restricted the role of the most learned jurist in monitoring the lawmaking.

The fifth category was Mehdi Haeri Yazdi (1923-1999), the student of Khomeini, PhD in analytic philosophy from Toronto university, and the younger son of the founder of Qom theological seminary. He wrote a book on the name of Hekmat va Hokumat (Wisdom and Governance) in Persian in 1994 and published in London. In the last chapter of this book “unsolvable puzzle of Islamic republic and wilayat-i faqih” he strongly criticized the theory of guardianship of jurist. He believed that the state is an agent of citizens as the shared owners of the country from a philosophical perspective.

The sixth category is consisting of the jurists who implicitly criticized the theory of guardianship of jurist, and rejected strongly consequences of Khomeini’s administration in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The major figures of this category are Ayatollah Seyed Reza Zanjani (1902-1984), Ayatollah Seyed Reza Sadr (1920-1994), and Ayatollah Abolfazl Mousavi Mujtahid Zanjani (1900-1992). The second wrote a booklet titled In “the Jail of Wilayat Faqih”, and the latter published a famous declaration of March 1980 on “the deviation of the revolution”.   

At the end and as the seventh category I want to explain my viewpoint. I was 19-20 years old student of electrical engineering in 1978-1979 and advocated the revolution, transferred to Islamic studies in Qom seminary and completed my advanced studies under mentorship of Ayatollah Montazeri for ten years. Around 1988, I became doubtful about the administration of Ayatollah Khomeini, and one year later I suspected the validity of the theory of the guardianship of jurist. After five years researching deeply on political philosophy in Shi’i Islam, I focused on political thought of jurists of this school to learn more about the political theory of Khomeini and official ideology of the Islamic Republic. I published my first article on this issue in 1993, and my first book in 1996 on “The Theories of Governance in Shi’ite Jurisprudence”, and in 1997 the second book on “The guardianship Governance”. A few month later I found myself in the jail, 18 months for my critical interview on  reviewing the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Republic and a speech in the masque of Isfahan in Ramadan in condemning the assassinations of the political dissidents in the name of Islam.


As I clarified, the political theory of Khomeini is NOT the unique, official or dominant theory of Shite jurists. There are many other political theories in Shi’ite jurisprudence, and his theory was only one of them. In addition, this theory was specific to him and his students. There was a well-known theory of “wilayat faqih in necessary social affairs” among the Shi’ite jurists that expresses they are responsible for these affairs. Shaikh Murtada Ansari (1781-1884), the most distinguished Islamic Jurist from the Usuli School of Islamic Jurisprudence in 19th century discussed this subject and after a comprehensive argument mentioned that “there is no evidence for expansion of guardianship of jurists to public affairs”. Akhund Khurasani (1839-1911) the spiritual leader of The Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) not only reaffirmed his mentor’s rejection of political wilayat-i faqih, but also explicitly issued a historical fatwa with two other Shite authorities that “in the time of absence of Imams, the governance of the people is the responsibility of the representatives of the people in the Parliament.”

A minority of jurists since 19th century expanded the traditional theory of “wilayat faqih for administration of necessary social affairs” to “wilayat faqih in public affairs” which implicitly includes politics and governance. The most distinguished jurists of this type are Muhammad Hassan Najafi (1785-1849) who was the author of Jawahir and Ayatollah Hussain Brujerdi (1875-1961). It is interesting that although Brujerdi accepted that theory practically, he strongly rejected the militant group of “Fadayian-i-Islam” (Devotees of Islam) in 1950s. This group was the first advocator of Islamic State in Iran.

Khomeini expanded the theory of wilayat faqih in public affairs to absolute appointive guardianship of Jurist, and was first to apply this theory, becoming the first jurist-ruler in the history. This theory was based on several problematic prerequisites or hypotheses: 1) The teachings of Islam could not be practiced completely unless political power was held by the jurists. 2) The establishment of an Islamic State as the necessary premise of implementing Shari’a. 3) Shari’a as Islamic law as state law. 4) Jurist ruler can make any law or suspend any law including shari’a rulings for the purpose of public interest or regime protection.

The first premise sets up Islam as a political ideology whilst reducing Islam to the servant or tool of temporal politics. In this way, Islam will be fluid in the hand of governments. The guarantee of complete practicing of Islam is the consciences of the believers that is based on free, voluntary choice and love by heart. Political power that is based on force and punishment destroys the fundamental characteristics of Islam as a religion. The Muslims could be active in the public domain and follow their religious affairs in civil society. The role of Islam as a religion is changing the conscience of the human in the direction of God. It is much higher order than the function of politics.

The second premise i.e. the necessity of establishment of an Islamic state for the implementation of Shri’a is problematic too. Sharia consists of the permanent Islamic values or virtues and ethical or moral norms. Confining or reducing Shari’a to law that is essentially temporal and time bounded is reduction of permanent goals of Shari’a to a temporal issue that belongs to the past and is not effective in different situation. Returning to the laws of early Islam is a misunderstanding. The correct job is bringing the virtues and values of that teachings to the present. Shari’a in its correct meaning does not need the establishment of an Islamic state. The most important function of a state is the administration of temporal needs of the citizens in security, order, economics, international affairs and social services. These functions need natural and social sciences. The only consequence of religious state or theocracy is defaming religion, nothing else. The Islamic state, in true sense, is neither possible, nor useful.

The third premise, i.e. Shari’a as state law is another big problem. First, almost all parts of state law could not be found in law-based Shari’a. Those types of laws that can be found do not necessarily have good functions in our time. Shari’a was created for another purpose. Using it as state law is destroying both the Shari’a and the state. Second, State law is impossible without use of force and punishment for those who violated it. Identification of Shari’a as state law gives the role of God in the hereafter to the state in the temporal world. Is there any need for “the Day of Judgment” when we have a religious state? It is the expansion of hierocracy in place of piety.

The last premise, i.e. the absolute power of the jurist-ruler over Shari’a is the most problematic one. If Shari’a is Islamic law, the jurist ruler that is fallible and do not have divine knowledge becomes law-maker. He makes law for public interest or protection of the regime. This process is the process of secularization of Shari’a by the jurist ruler. This process is in contrast to the primary goal of an Islamic state i.e. implementation of Shari’a.

The theory of the absolute appointive guardianship of jurist is absolutely wrong theoretically and practically. I think if there will be a real referendum, majority of  the Iranian citizens including believers who practice Islam will not vote for this naïve theory. Secular democratic state may be supported by the majority. I mean a passive secular state (not assertive one) that recognizes the right to freedom of religious practicing in both personal and public domains without any monopoly for one tradition.

This is my presentation for the 40th anniversary of Iranian Revolution on March 29th 2019

at the center for Islamic and Middle East Studies (CIMS), Department of Culture studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway

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