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  • Shi‘ism: The Democratisation Process in Iran with a Focus on Wilayat al-Faqih
  • Hamid Mavani (bio)
Shi‘ism: The Democratisation Process in Iran with a Focus on Wilayat al-Faqih, by Ibrahim Moussawi. London, UK: Saqi Books, 2011. 215 pages. $60.

Ibrahim Moussawi’s study of the compatibility between Khomeini’s version of wilayat al-faqih (governance of the jurist) and democracy, with Iran as his case study, does provide some sporadic fresh insights. But by and large, it is deeply anchored in apologetics and agenda-driven scholarship that makes only limited use of the extensive relevant Western scholarship. From the beginning, the author sets out to prove something that is inherently impossible, namely, that the wilayat al-faqih model is compatible with democratic norms and principles. But how can this be, when one of its pivotal concepts is that all authority and legitimacy rests exclusively in the person of the wali al-faqih (supreme jurist) who is, moreover, accountable to no one and enjoys absolute and irrevocable authority (pp. 48, 114–115, 134, and 139)? Although the Assembly of Experts is, in theory, charged with supervising his rulings, its members cannot oppose his decision to nullify the majority’s choice [End Page 736] for president, revoke contracts or any other issue, or to prohibit the performance of primary religious injunctions (e.g., prayers and fasting) if he deems this to be in the public interest (maslaha). And yet Moussawi views this model as a mechanism that ensures pluralism and diversity (p. 15)! Just what constitutes this “general welfare” and how it is measured remains nebulous and vague. In other words, the supreme jurist’s scope of power and authority is almost boundless and, as such, is not circumscribed by the shari‘a’s parameters.

Relying on an interview with Lebanese journalist Mahmud Haydar, the author opens his book with a superficial treatment of the concepts of democracy and democratization. He argues that the wilayat al-faqih model constitutes an “Islamic democracy” without clearly defining what this term signifies. Equally shallow is his treatment of John Stuart Mill, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not to mention his attempt to draw parallels and equivalences between their thoughts and wilayat al-faqih. This attempt is, to say the least, disingenuous.

In chapter 1, Moussawi outlines some of the reasons advanced by scholars to advocate political quietism or activism during the messianic infallible Imam’s Greater Occultation. In the process, he unjustly caricatures the former as those “who argued that sins should proliferate for the Mahdi to appear in order to redress injustice” (p. 30). This bias and prejudice is also reflected in the way he refers to one of the leaders of political quietism as simply “Ayatollah al-Khu‘i” (d. 1992) without any distinctive or honorific title, whereas the leader of political activism is “Ayatollah al-‘Uzma [the most distinguished], Imam [pre-eminent leader] Khomeini” (d. 1989) (p. 30). Chapter 2 exhibits a common error: juxtaposing the concepts of wilayat al-faqih and marja‘iyya in the belief that they have many areas of overlap and that the former is a source of uniting the Shi‘a Muslim community (p. 61). These two institutions are, however, poles apart. In fact, the introduction of wilayat al-faqih fragmented the community and politicized the institution of marja‘iyya (p. 168). At present, Ayatollah Khamenei is regarded as the wali al-faqih even though he is not a marja‘.

Chapters 3 and 4 analyze the function of shura [consultation] in democratizing a state governed by the principles of wilayat al-faqih and its application in Iran, respectively. Here, the author tacitly admits in a few places shura’s inability to overrule what the supreme leader regards as unchanging and immutable (pp. 73–75, 86–87, and 92). Chapters 5 and 6 are littered with contradictions as Moussawi strives to negate the possibility that the wilayat al-faqih model could degenerate into clerical despotism and that Iran is a republic, respectively. The last chapter is devoted to the tug-of-war between the conservatives and the reformists, along with questioning the validity of the jurist’s all-comprehensive authority.



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