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Islamic Movement

The understanding of the ‘corrective process’ underpinning the Islamic Revolution in Iran

Kalim Siddiqui

The future of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is currently the subject of some debate. Here we publish an abridged extract from DR KALIM SIDDIQUI’s paper ‘Error, deviation, correction and convergence in Muslim political thought’ (1989), on the political thought of Imam Khomeini which underpinned the Revolution.

The establishment of the Islamic State of Iran came after a prolonged process of corrective action among those ‘lost’ within Islam. In the Sunni tradition this corrective process has hardly begun: political thought is still lost in the ‘Islamic parties’, Arab nationalism, the Khilafat movement in India, and the easy availability of political patronage. In the Shi’i tradition, on the other hand, the first significant step was taken early, as the rejection of political compromise. Its roots go back to the rejection of Yazid’s authority by Imam Husain and his subsequent shahadah at Karbala. There is, notably, no difference between the Shi’i and Sunni understanding of the events and issues leading up to Imam Husain’s martyrdom.

The next major corrective step came centuries later, after Iran had been converted to the Shi’i school of thought early in the sixteenth century. It appeared as a debate in the second half of the eighteenth century, between two groups of Shi’i ulama known as usuli and akhbari. The akhbari(or communicators) held the view that, during the ghaiba (occultation) of the Twelfth Imam, it is not permissible for religious scholars to use reason to apply the principles of the law to a specific problem or situation. The usuli ulama, on the other hand, held that, during the absence of the Twelfth Imam, independent reasoning was permissible to reach judgements by which the general body of Muslims could operate. One qualified to do so was a mujtahid. The argument was won byusuli ulama and the akhbari position was abandoned.

The emergence of the usuli ulama can be described as the development of a self-correcting mechanism within the Shi’i tradition. How important this was for the world of Islam is only just beginning to become apparent. In the first phase of this self-correcting process, two things have happened: the doors of ijtihad were thrown open, and there emerged ulama, the maraje’e-taqlid, who often exercised greater influence, even power, than many rulers. However, the traditional Shi’i position that all political power in the absence of the Twelfth Imam was illegitimate was deep-rooted and the maraje’ functioned within the umbrella of the Qajar dynasty that had replaced the Safavis in 1795.

The otherwise powerful usuli establishment suffered from two weaknesses, the senior ulama’s self-imposed abstinence from seeking ultimate political authority, and their multiplicity. The two are closely linked. So long as the ulama did not contemplate political power, there was no need for a single leader; and so long as there was no single leader, the exercise of ultimate political authority could not be contemplated. But the usuli revolution had also opened the doors of ijtihad. It was only a matter of time before the process of ijtihad, begun by usuli ulama, led to the step of setting up the Islamic State. This is what we have come to call the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The Sunni ulama, equally ‘lost’ within Islam, have still not begun the long task of clearing away the debris of their failures, recovering from their self-inflicted disabilities, and breaking the habit of supine obedience to patronising rulers. At the moment, the worldwide network of ‘court ulama’ who serve the Saudi regime and other secular governments are the most error-ridden and deviant body of people lost within Islam. If the Sunni ulama would only lift the veil of their prejudice, they should see that Imam Khomeini has brought the Shi’i caravan back to the point where we all started in the first place.

In a fatwa issued on January 6, 1988, Imam Khomeini said that Islamic government represents "absolute sovereign power as delegated by Allah subhanahu wa ta ‘ala to the Prophet, upon whom be peace." This, said Imam Khomeini, "is the most important of Divine precepts (ahkam) and takes precedence over all the other secondary Divine precepts." Imam Khomeini added: "If the powers of Islamic government are to be confined within the framework of secondary Divine precepts, then the form of Divine rule and absolute sovereignty as delegated to the Prophet, upon whom be peace, would be a senseless and hollow phenomenon." If this were so, he added, the legislative and administrative powers of Islamic government would be severely restricted.

Imam Khomeini went on to give several examples of legislative, administrative, military and economic policies that would be impossible to implement if the Islamic government was bound by secondary Divine precepts. These included the acquisition of private property for major public works, such as new roads, compulsory military service, foreign trade, prohibition of hoarding, customs and excise, taxation and fair pricing of goods and services.

Imam Khomeini then argued that "Islamic government, which is part of the absolute sovereign power of Allah, and exercised by his Prophet, upon whom be peace, is one of the primary precepts of Islam and takes precedence over all the secondary precepts". The concept that the political power exercised by the Prophet must be inherited in full by the rulers who follow him has always been clear in Sunni thought. This is exactly how the rashidoon khulafah understood the source of their authority. The Islamic State is only an extension of the authority of the leader, who is akhalifah (na’ib or vicegerent) of the Prophet. This fatwa of Imam Khomeini completed the long process of corrective action within the Shi’i school that had been at the very heart of theakhbari/usuli controversy. How-ever, some residual influence of the akhbari position still persists not only in Iran but to a much greater degree among the Shi’i ulama of Iraq, India, Pakistan and Bahrain and among their followers.

The leading edge of Shi’i political thought, that of Imam Khomeini and his close associates, has emerged only since the death of Ayatullah Burujirdi in March 1962. It was only then that Ayatullah Khomeini began to give lectures on political issues, criticising the Shah and exploring the possibility of government by mujtahids. He was repeatedly arrested during 1963 and exiled to Turkey the following year. In 1965 he moved to Najaf, the great centre of Shi’i learning in Iraq. It was during a course of lectures on Islamic government delivered there in 1970 that he developed the concept of vilayat-e faqih.

With his fatwa of January 6, 1988, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Imam Khomeini corrected the political deviation of the entire Ummah that began with the advent of the Umaiyyad rule. In terms of the legitimacy of the leadership of the Islamic State, Imam Khomeini restored the situation as it existed during the rule of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth of the rashidoon khulafah. This means that, for all practical purposes, in terms of State and politics in Islam, the Ummah has been returned to a point very close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace.

During this very short period, from 1962 to 1990, history has moved at an extraordinary pace. Students of history are familiar with the leapfrogging relationship between political ideas and political events: at times ideas run far ahead of events, and at other times events shape ideas. Theusuli school in Shi’i thought can be traced back to Allama Hilli (Jamaluddin Abu Mansur Hasan ibn Yusuf) in the fourteenth century. From his death in 1325 to the triumph of usuli ideas in the eighteenth century, change was slow. In the nineteenth century the usuli ulama in Iran, especially the maraje’, began to influence political events. Since 1978-79, virtually all political thought, Shi’i and Sunni, has been shaped by the events in Iran. The ideas and followers of Imam Khomeini are pushing the frontiers of usuli thought towards a total convergence of all political thought in Islam. Imam Khomeini, like Allama Hilli before him, may not have been aware of all the wider implications of his ideas and ijtihad. The interpretation of the Imam’s fatwa on January 6, 1988, will be long debated by Shi’i and Sunni ulama, both inside and outside Iran.

However, the realisation that politically one part of the Ummah has achieved a position that puts it within two or three decades of the Prophet is an exhilarating experience. We are liberated from the responsibility for at least some parts of our history. We can ‘black box’ a great deal of the divisive theology written and promoted during this period. Indeed, virtually all subsequent sources of error and deviation in the Ummah disappear. The disabilities imposed by our long commitment to essentially indefensible positions fade away; or at least the option of liberating ourselves from such handicaps is now available. Imam Khomeini was resisted by conservative Shi’i ulama on his original ijtihad. His understanding that the vali-e faqih is the khalifah (na’ib) of the Prophet, and that the Islamic State, too, enjoys the same powers as conferred upon the Prophet by Allahsubhanahu wa ta’ala, wipes the slate clean for all Muslims, especially the ulama. From this position, it does not matter whether one is Sunni or Shi’i. This process also allows a new kind ofusuli revolution to spread to all schools of thought in Islam.

But the process that leads to corrective action needs better understanding. The key is the accumulation of unacceptable results of error and deviation within Islam. It was such an accumulation that sparked off the akhbari/usuli controversy among the Shi’i ulama. The triumph of the usuli position corrected most errors of earlier ijtihad, but not all. However, the opening of the doors to further and more fundamental ijtihad led to the emergence of maraje’ who filled the vacuum of leadership caused by the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. This set them on the course that would eventually produce a single leader. But a single leader in Islam is only possible within the framework of the political power of Islam established in the Islamic State. If the corrective process begun by the usuli ulama was to continue, then the eventual emergence of a singlemarja’, as the marja’ of the maraje’, was inevitable. This could only happen in the framework of establishing the Islamic State, which process we now know as the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Similarly, the Imam’s fatwa on January 6, 1988, could only come after the new Islamic State had experienced the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of performing its proper executive, legislative and judicial functions without the ultimate source of authority and power in Islam as khalifah of the Prophet. The absence of such authority from the vali-e faqih and the Islamic State was clearly an error, the results of which accumulated and were unacceptable. In a sense, the authority askhalifah already existed but had not been claimed or clearly understood. The Imam then made the authority explicit and unambiguous. Imam Khomeini did not, for reasons that can be guessed, put it in so many words, but the fact is that he became the khilafatur-Rasool or vicegerent of the Prophet, upon whom be peace.

The process of correction of error and deviation within the Shi’i tradition is now almost complete, at least so far as Iran is concerned. Some parts of Shi’i opinion outside Iran are suspicious of the changes that Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad has achieved. It is also known that within Iran there are ulama who have deep reservations. However, these are unlikely to halt the powerful forces of internally-generated corrective action.

We have also seen that the act of establishing the Islamic State is the most powerful corrective agent in Islam. This is because, in the political process, even small errors soon lead to results that are clearly unacceptable. Errors in matters of theology affecting rituals and ibadah, on the other hand, can persist for a long time without causing harm to Islam or the Ummah. Perhaps it is also true that within Islam a wide range of variations is possible in peripheral areas of fiqh without amounting to error or deviation. In actual error are those who allow such peripheral areas to cause controversy among Muslims. This diversity in Islamic practices need not lead to unacceptable cumulative results, as may happen with error and deviation on larger issues of leadership, State and politics in Islam. These have the potential to result in the disintegration of the Ummah, and in such conditions, such as those prevailing in parts of the Ummah today, even peripheral issues may cause bloodshed.

The Sunni political experience is, of course, very different; there was no vacuum of leadership, only a gradual decline in its quality. The Sunni school recognises the pre-eminence of the first fourrashidoon khulafa. The qualitative change that occurred when Mu’awia ibn Abi Sufyan became, in his own words, the first malik (king) of the Muslims, is also known and recognised. There is no difference between the Shi’i and Sunni understandings of the events and issues that led to Imam Husain’s shahadah (martyrdom) at Karbala. The root of political error and subsequent deviation in the Sunni school lies in the easy acceptance and almost automatic bay’ah that was given to rulers of known political deficiency and moral corruption. This happened because opposition to the established ruler came to be regarded a greater fitna than the ruler’s known deviation from the classical standards of private and moral excellence laid down in Islam. This gave many Sunni ulama easy access to the courts of the rulers and to political patronage, while those who resisted this were frequently persecuted and marginalised.

The full extent of the cumulative damage that had been caused to Dar al-Islam by this deviation became obvious when the European powers began to emerge in their imperialist role. In a hundred years or so before the defeat of the Uthmaniyyah State in the 1914-18 war, virtually the whole of the world of Islam had passed into European hands. After 1919 the European powers consolidated their hold on the Arab heartland of Islam by dividing it up into client States. Mustafa Kemal completed the demolition of the last political remnant of Dar al-lslam by formally abolishing the khilafah in 1924. The cumulative effect of initial error and deviation had reached its logical conclusion and Islam had lost all semblance of political and military presence in the affairs of mankind. No result could be more unacceptable.

But the habit of supine obedience that the Sunni ulama had developed was not to be abandoned at once. The immediate response of most of them was to seek political patronage from the new political order –first the colonial states, and later the new Muslim nation-States. These rulers were only too anxious to provide these ulama with a sense of security and political patronage in return for political subservience. Two men who made the most valiant but ultimately futile attempts to revive the political fortunes of Islam were Hasan al-Banna and Abul Ala Maududi. Notably, neither was a traditional alim. They and their parties, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon and the Jama’at-e Islami, also ended up on the side of the status quo, enjoying extensive patronage from Saudi Arabia.

The kind of corrective action that began with the success of the usuli school among the Shi’i ulama has yet to begin in the Sunni tradition. It can be argued that the nature and degree of error and deviation in the Shi’i school was different from those in the Sunni school. There is weight in this argument. But there are three common features that should be noted without attempting to find their sources in theological formulations. These are that the error and deviation in both the Shi’i and the Sunni schools of thought rendered the ulama politically ineffective; that both Shi’i and Sunni ulama were as open to political manipulation by the rulers (the Shi’is during the Safavid dynasty in Iran, for example); and that in both schools the closure of the door of ijtihad led to unacceptable results.

Imam Khomeini’s work – indeed, the revolution in Iran – would not be possible without the prior clearing up, through ijtihad, of a number of issues peculiar to Shi’i theology. It is beyond the scope of this paper to list the issues awaiting ijtihad by Sunni ulama. What is undeniable is that most Sunni ulama today suffer from all the failures of understanding of political issues that were common among akhbari Shi’i ulama before the usuli revolution.

[This paper is abridged from Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s paper ‘Error, deviation, correction and convergence in Muslim political thought’, first published in 1990. This paper is reprinted in Dr Siddiqui’s books Stages of Islamic Revolution and In Pursuit of the Power of Islam.]

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 11

Jumada' al-Akhirah 03, 14242003-08-01

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