Islam, Shi'ism, and Iran

Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran (Photo by lahsan, available at Wikimedia Commons)


 By Frederick W. Kagan

The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran rests on a theological argument that supports the absolute and autocratic rule of a Supreme Leader or council of jurisprudents, but the regime is neither absolutist nor autocratic. Advisory and representative institutions coexist with a Supreme Leader who holds absolute veto power but almost never exercises arbitrary control . There are two major sources of this confusion, one practical and one theological. Practically, the regime has always consisted a number of semi-autonomous power centers that neither Supreme Leader has been willing or able to subordinate fully to his control. Theologically, the nature of Shi'ism and of religious leadership in Shi'ism encourages this kind of quasi-hierarchical system under a leader whose actions are subtle, often masked in obscurity, and appear to emanate from above the plane of normal human reality. Comprehending the Islamic Republic requires understanding some of the basic elements of Shi'ism that distinguish it from mainstream Sunni Islam, as well as the particular theological arguments used by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to justify the creation of a new Islamic state. The articles in this section briefly explain these principles. They can be read separately or in any order, but the reader unfamiliar with Shi'ism and the principles of the velayat-e faqih(guardianship of the jurisprudent) should proceed in this order:

Islam--Shi'ism--Velayat-e Faqih--Islamic Republic.