Rabu, 21 November 2007

About Islam Shia

Shia Political Thought
Ahmad Vaezi
Published by
Islamic Centre of England
Shia Political Thought
First published in the UK by Islamic Centre of England
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Copyright © 2004 Islamic Centre of England
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Introduction 6
Chapter One - Islam and Politics 10
What is a “Religious Government”? 10
Rejection of Islamic Government 13
The First Argument 16
Second Argument 21
Third Argument 25
Categorizing Social Alterations 27
Flexibility of the Islamic Legal System 30
Rational Management versus Juristic Management 33
Objectives of an Islamic State 36
Implementation of the Shari'a 36
To Enjoin the Good and Forbid the Evil 38
Spheres of Islamic Political Thought 48
i) Political Theology 49
ii) Political Philosophy 49
iii) Political Ethics 50
iv) Political Jurisprudence 50
Chapter Two - What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 53
The Concept of Imamate 54
Imam as “Wali” 56
The Theory of Caliphate 60
The Meaning of Wilayat al-Faqih 66
1. Wilayat al-Qaraba 66
2. Wilayat al-Qada’ 67
3. Wilayat al-Hakim 67
4. Wilayat al-Mutlaqa (The Absolute Authority) 67
Shia Political Thought
5. Wilayat al-Usuba 67
i) Making a Decree (Al-Ifta) 68
ii) To Judge (Al-Qada) 69
Hisbiya Affairs (Al-Umur al-Hisbiya) 69
1 - Political - Devotional (Ibady) Orders and Prayers 71
2 - Legal Punishment (Hudud) 72
3 - Islamic Taxes 72
4 - Jihad (Holy War) and Defense 72
Some Misconceptions 74
The Historical Background 78
Multiplicity in Wilayat 86
The Dominion of the Wali al-Faqih 88
Al-Wilayat al-Mutlaqa 92
i) Divine Laws (Al-Hukm as-Shari’) 93
ii) The Judge's Command (Al-Hukm al-Qadi) 94
iii) Governmental Orders (Al-Hukm al-Wilai) 94
iv) Al-Hukm al-Awaly and al-Hukm al-Sanavy 95
Wilayat al-Faqih and other Ideas of Guardianship 99
Chapter Three - Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 103
Traditional Evidences for Wilayat al-Faqih 104
A Signet Letter (Tuqih) from the Absent Imam 104
Maqbula of Umar ibn Hanzala 107
The Tradition of Abu Khadija 109
The Second Tradition: Saduqs’ Morsala. 113
The Third Tradition:
The Fuqaha are the Trustees of the Prophets 114
The Fourth Tradition: The Ulema are the Rulers 114
The Fifth Tradition: Imam Hussain’s Sermon 115
The Sixth Hadith:
The Fuqaha are the Fortress of Islam 116
Wilayat al-Amma as Hisbah 116
Introduction 5
The Rational Argument 119
The Characteristics of Wali al-Faqih and
the Problem of ‘A‘lamiya’ 123
Ijtihad (Proficiency in Islamic Jurisprudence) 123
Justice 125
Prudence, Trustworthiness, Administrative
Facilities and Courage 126
Knowledge 126
The External Justification. 129
Criticism of Guardianship 137
Chapter Four - Islam and Democracy 143
What is Democracy? 146
Democracy and Liberalism 151
Benefits of Democracy 153
Foundations of Democracy 155
Intrinsic Equality 157
Priority of the Will of the Majority over Rightness 159
Personal Autonomy 163
Limited Democracy versus Pure Democracy 168
What is the Conception of a ‘Religious Democracy’? 170
Smoothing the Path to Religious Democracy 173
Religious Democracy and its Critics 182
Religious Democracy is Paradoxical 182
Usurpation of God's Sovereignty 185
The Problem of Legal Equality 194
Reconciling Islam and Liberal Democracy 196
Final Word 209
Bibliography 212
Shia Political Thought
Contemporary discourse concerning the political role and
application of Islam is deeply influenced by the west, as it is
largely considered as either a positive or negative reaction to
the western way of life. Confronted by the emerging
technical and military superiority, economic achievements
and apparent affluence of western society, Muslims have
been forced to address the challenge of modernity and the
various dimensions that accompany it. As a result, the need
to review and redefine the Islamic position has become
necessary, a discussion which has established two main
streams of political thought amongst Muslim scholars and
Firstly, there are those who advocate a “liberal”
interpretation of Islam and strive to demonstrate its
compatibility with the underlying values of modernism and,
more precisely, the western political system. Supporters of
this stream see their interests and objectives in secular terms;
many adopt ideologies such as nationalism, pan-Arabism,
socialism and Marxism, frequently disconnecting themselves
from classical Islamic political thought.
The second stream of thought, often categorised as
revivalism or fundamentalism, embody an extreme reaction
to the spread of western ideas throughout the Muslim world.
Its followers totally reject parliamentary liberalism, amongst
other western ideologies, and advocate the comprehensive
adoption of the sources of divine revelation as a means to
end the West’s hegemony, whilst overcoming present
difficulties faced by Muslim societies.
The reflexive nature of these two streams offers little beyond
a positive or negative reaction to modernism and the western
Introduction 7
way of life (specifically in the political field). Followers of
the former adopt a secular approach; providing an optimistic
analysis of western political values, either endorsing them or
assuming them as Islamic concepts. In short, this attitude
provides no potential for the development or evolution of
Islamic political heritage. On the other hand, despite strong
aspirations to establish a pure Islamic society and
government, revivalism and fundamentalism fail to provide
a complete or unambiguous model for this ideal society.
Many revivalists have attempted to reform the political
theory of traditional Sunni jurist’s (i.e. the theory of
Khilafah or Caliphate) whilst other, more excessive versions
of fundamentalism (such as the Taliban movement) present
an aggressive, oppressive and backward image of the Islamic
Born amidst shallow and ultimately reactionary Islamic
political ideologies, the theory of “Wilayat al-Faqih”
constituted an entirely new direction and mode of thinking.
This conception of Islamic governance, formally embodied
in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is
distinguished by its close connection to Shia political
doctrine and the successful amalgamation of shari’a and
democracy. It composes the authority of an Islamic legal
system, the political guardianship of a just and capable
Mujtahid (jurist) and the democratic role of the people in the
distribution of political power. Within the framework of the
traditional Shi’a doctrine of Imamat, this political doctrine
reconciles the authority of religion and the authority of the
There are many misunderstandings concerning the theory of
Wilayat al-faqih, its historical background and political
justification, the role of people and what separates it from
Shia Political Thought
other Islamic political theories (such as that of the
Caliphate). The primary function of this book is to clarify
these different dimensions and dispel any ambiguities
surrounding this version of the Islamic state.
The wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the scholars) is a
religious model of government. It is therefore essential to
discuss why we are in need of a ‘religious state’ and to take
full account of the implications and justifications of this
model in the contemporary world. Chapter one addresses the
definition of a ‘religious government’ and explores the
relationship between Islam and politics. It also assesses the
principal arguments presented by various Muslim thinkers,
particularly those who are opposed to the concept of an
Islamic government.
Chapter two intends to clarify the doctrine of wilayat alfaqih,
its historical background, what distinguishes it from
other political theories, and its connection to the traditional
religious authority of the Islamic jurists (Marja’a Taqleed),
to whom ordinary Shia refer to and whose decrees they
follow on religious affairs. All scholars and jurists accept
that the Marja’a has a duty to act as vicegerent on behalf of
the absent, infallible Imam. However, it is the scope of
authority in this vicegerency that is contentious. The second
chapter aims to expound and develop this discussion,
thereby explicating the role of a jurist in the model of
wilayat al-faqih.
As a political theory of state, wilayat al-faqih maintains the
collective vicegerency of the faqih adil (a just or trustworthy
jurist), which is the maximum scope of his authority. The
third chapter will discuss the justifications of this theory and
expound some of the traditional evidence provided by highranking
jurists who support the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih.
Introduction 9
Liberal democracy remains the prevalent political theory of
our time. The final chapter of this book will deal with the
dichotomy that arises between the concept of Islamic
democracy, embodied in the theory of wilayat al-faqih, and
the liberal interpretation of the democratic system, which
exists in the majority of western countries today.
It is my hope that these four chapters will provide the reader
with a comprehensive outline of Shia political thought in
general, and the modern incarnation of this political thought,
which is embodied in the constitution of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, in particular.
At the end I would like to thank Dr: Seyyed Muhammad
Marandi who encouraged me for writing the book and kindly
undertook the final editing. I am grateful to Eskandar Khalili
for typing and editing the manuscript of chapters three and
four. Thanks also to Yasmin Merchant and Jondab who
typed chapters one and two. I am grateful to all my friends
and colleagues in Islamic center of England especially
Shaikh Muhsen Araki and Shaikh Hamid Hadji Haidar for
encouragement and offering helpful advice.
Ahmad Vaezi
Cambridge University
February 2004
Chapter One
Islam and Politics
What is a “Religious Government”?
The influence of religion upon politics is not a phenomenon
that is confined solely to the Islamic world. However, it is
impossible for any political theorist to ignore the role of
Islam in the public lives of Muslims. Its considerable impact
upon the politics of Muslim nations can be attributed to the
strong inclination of the population towards it, and thus the
powerful voice that it is given by them. Leaman writes:
One of the comments which writers on Islamic
Political Philosophy often make is that it is
irremediably conservative. Even the so-called
modernizers have in mind some sort of theocracy, a
state in which religion plays a leading role.1
It is obvious that any legal system requires a government to
adopt it and the apparatus of a state to implement and
enforce it. Therefore, Islamic Law (shari’a) is also in need of
a state for its sanction and application. However, the key
concern then becomes whether or not all theories shaped in
the history of Islamic political thought are actually seeking
the establishment of an “Islamic state”. The two
aforementioned factors; that Islam is a vital and necessary
aspect of a Muslim’s culture, and that the shari’a requires
1 Oliver Leaman, A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy, Polity Press,
1999, p. 134.
Islam and Politics 11
political power and authority in order to be implemented,
might bring one to the conclusion that all political systems in
the Islamic world were historically religious governments.
Although there are obvious difficulties associated with
finding a precise and agreed definition of a “religious
government”, it is essential to distinguish between various
levels of state commitment to a specific religion. The
minimal degree of dedication would be that a government
did not prevent its people from undertaking their religious
rituals and practices. On the other hand, a maximized
relationship between religion and politics requires the total
commitment and adherence of a state to the contents of a
specific religion. Obviously, many varying degrees of
religious authority could be supposed between these two
Official definitions of a “religious state” focus on a series of
prescribed characteristics and functions embodied by this
model of political system. These may be related to
individual characteristics, such as a governor necessarily
belonging to a specific religion or social class, similar to the
governments of European states throughout the Middle
Ages. One might also define a religious government
according to its partial or prejudicial favour towards a
particular religion. Consequently, a religious state uses its
military, political and economic power to promote and
strengthen the position and followers of that specific faith.
This draws our attention to a few, specific aspects of a
religious government. However, it fails to adequately
introduce what most contemporary Islamic political
movements and doctrines have in mind when they apply the
Shia Political Thought
term “Islamic State”, which is perhaps most effectively
described as the maximum realization of a religious state.
An Islamic government’s primary aim is to establish a truly
Islamic society. Islam does not consider society to be merely
a collection of individuals. Rather, it deems that society also
consists of their social relationships and the social order in
which these individuals exist. These are perhaps the most
definitive factors of a society, as different societies are
categorized as being just or unjust, developed or
undeveloped and complex or plain, according to their social
formations and their systems of rights and duties. Financial
sources, social advantages and the structure of the prevailing
political system, are all part of the complex web of social
relationships that contribute to the makeup of society.
Therefore, an Islamic society, by definition, is an ideal
society in which social order is established and regulated
according to underlying Islamic values, teachings and
An Islamic government is one that accepts and admits the
absolute authority of Islam. It seeks to establish an Islamic
social order according to the contents of Islam,
implementing the shari’a, while attempting to direct its
political decisions and public functions according to the
aims and values of Islam.
This understanding of an Islamic state obviously faces
criticism, especially from those who adopt more secular
political ideologies. The following pages will assess some of
the contentious aspects surrounding this theory of Islamic
Islam and Politics 13
Rejection of Islamic Government
Opponents of Islamic governance can be divided into two
major categories: The first of these are the supporters of
secularism, who contend that religion must be completely
separate from worldly affairs. In their eyes, the concept of a
religious state is backward and outdated. They maintain that
this model of political system must be confined to a time
when human beings lacked the knowledge or experience to
organize their social order and were in need of religion to
arrange their legal, economic and cultural relationships.
However, secularism is not a doctrine that merely addresses
the relationship between religion and politics. Essentially, it
is a radical approach to the role of religion and revelation in
shaping human knowledge. Secular rationality maintains that
the human intellect is capable of forming its own knowledge
independent of revelation. According to this, reason in itself
is self-sufficient and autonomous. Hence, mankind is
capable of constructing natural and human sciences as well
as philosophy, law and ethics without the aid of God or
Secular thinking, therefore, leaves very little scope for
religion. According to secularist thought, every instance in
which the human intellect is capable of gaining knowledge
exists as part of the exclusive realm of the human being,
without any need for faith or revelation. Such reasoning
constrains the role of religion to regulating the individual
relationship between man and his creator, while isolating it
from the social and political order. This is because social
relationships form part of “human” affairs and not “divine”
affairs; they are “extra-religious” as opposed to “intrareligious”.
Law, economy and political decisions as well as
the formations of our social structures and systems of rights
Shia Political Thought
and duties are all considered as merely dealing with the
relationship between man and man, not man and God.
Therefore, religion in these cases must delegate everything
to human reasoning and science.
This concise overview of secular thinking illustrates that the
reduction of secularism to a political doctrine, which purely
insists on the separation of faith from politics, is incorrect.
The isolation of religion from politics is but one of the many
accomplishments of secular rationality. Advocates of this
view insist on the disengagement of religion, not only from
politics, but also from ethics, art, law, philosophy and the
sciences. Consequently, they advocate not only a secular
state, but secular laws, a secular culture, a secular science
and so on.
Whereas the first approach delegates a limited scope for
religion, the second group of opponents have no argument
with those who believe it cannot be restricted to merely
having a limited, fixed or previously determined capacity. In
principle, they agree that no one has the right to confine the
contents and the implementation of Islam to private life, or
more precisely, to the individual relationship between man
and God. The central concern of the second group, however,
is that although Islam embodies certain values and ideas, it is
not composed of both spirituality and politics. Thus it has
not specified any particular form of government and
Muslims are free to support any regime they desire.
So the fundamental distinction that arises between these two
groups is that, while secularists argue that religion and
politics must remain separate, the second faction contend
that Islam does not in any way oblige it’s followers to
Islam and Politics 15
establish it in the political realm. They attempt to
demonstrate that Islam has no connection to politics by
concentrating on the Holy Qur’an and early Islamic history,
arguing that it is a purely spiritual doctrine, as opposed to a
spiritual and political one. Secularists, on the other hand,
focus on the demands of modernity, the inability of religion
to conduct and organize the contemporary world, and its
failure to overcome the complications presented by
modernism. Therefore, it is crucial to clarify whether or not
Islam compelled its followers to establish an Islamic
government, and whether or not Islam is indeed capable of
regulating modern society.
No credible Muslim thinker advocates the segregation of
religion from worldly affairs, as the secular tradition would
insist, reducing it to little more than a personal relationship
between man and God. In fact, very few Islamic intellectuals
appeal to secular rationality other than to insist on the
separation of religion from socio-political relationships (i.e.
restricting the scope of religion and extending the role of
reasoning in public life). Although these thinkers do not
explicitly call themselves secular, their attitudes towards the
issue of Islam and politics obviously have common
characteristics with those of secularists.
Having introduced the two main critical attitudes towards
Islamic government, the following pages will examine the
central arguments presented by adherents to these two
schools of thought, beginning with the reasons provided that
reject any original connection between Islam and politics.
Shia Political Thought
The First Argument
In his famous book “Islam and the Foundations of
Government” (Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm) Shaykh Ali Abd
al-Raziq2 (1888-1966) sought to justify the separation of
religion and political authority on the basis of religious
evidences. He argued that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
did not intend to establish a political state in Madina and that
Islam did not support the rise of any particular social system.
This assertion totally contradicted the traditional belief,
which held that the Hijrah (migration to Madina in 622)
marked the beginning of the Prophet’s political activity and
the realization of Islamic governance. Abd al-Raziq argued
that the Prophet was the bearer of a religious message; he
did not have a government, nor did he seek to establish a
kingdom in the political sense or anything synonymous with
it. Rather, his authority was sacred, derived from God so that
he could deliver the divine revelation. According to Abd al-
Raziq, this did not entail political leadership; it was the
mandate of a Prophet and not of a Sultan.
To justify his view, Abd al-Raziq refers to several verses of
the Qur’an. He believes that according to these, the Prophet
Muhammad (pbuh) was only a messenger, commissioned to
deliver God’s revelation to the people and nothing else.
2 Born in Egypt, a disciple of Shaykh Abduh, Abd al-Raziq studied at
Oxford University and was a senior member of al-Azhar University, an
authorative centre of Sunni learning. His short, but controversial book
caused many debates in religious and political circles. Al-Azhar
immediately condemned Abd al-Raziq’s work; he was thrown out of the
university and dismissed from his position as a religious judge.
Islam and Politics 17
We have sent you only to give good news and to warn.
[Chapter 17, Verse 105]
The duty of the messenger is to convey the message
clearly. [Chapter 27, Verse 54]
Yet we have sent you only to give good tidings and to
warn. [Chapter 25, Verse 56]
Tell him: I am only a warner. [Chapter 27,Verse 92]
Abd al-Raziq argues that if the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
had other roles, such as that of a political leader, then the
Qur’an would clearly have announced them.3 In order to
justify his position, he argues that every state requires a
political structure that contains specific institutions and
administrations, but that Muhammad’s leadership was
devoid of these necessary elements of government. In fact,
according to this point of view, political authority only
appeared in the Islamic community following the demise of
the Messenger of God. Consequently, striving for the
establishment of a government is not considered part of
Islamic teachings.4
However, contrary to Abd al-Raziq’s opinion, there is a
mass of historical evidence that clearly demonstrates the
Prophet’s role as both a political and religious leader. In fact,
many western thinkers, such as Anthony Black, agree that
the Prophet’s objective was not merely to establish a new
identity by replacing old tribal customs. According to these
3 Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, Cairo 1925, p. 73.
4 Ibid., pp. 62-64.
Shia Political Thought
thinkers, he addressed political power as well as spiritual
and cultural authority. Black writes:
His purpose was to construct out of tribal
confederacies a new people driven by his own sense of
moral mission. Judaism had preached an allembracing
(ethnic) law, While Christianity had
preached spiritual (universal) brotherhood. But,
neither seriously addressed the problem of military
power and political authority; both had accepted life
under alien, pagan rule. Muhammad preached
spiritual brotherhood, plus an all-embracing law, and
universal political control to be achieved.5
The activities of the Prophet Muhammad following the
Hijrah brought about revolutionary changes to the Arabian
Peninsula. These cannot simply be interpreted as the
ordinary behavior of a religious leader. Included here are
concise examples of his political deeds, which could not
have been issued without political authority.
He assembled a number of hostile tribes and forged them
into a new community (ummah). This is essentially a
political endeavor, which is embodied in what Montgomery
Watt refers to as the “Constitution of Medina”, a document
that outlines the nature of the state that the Prophet was
intending to establish. The charter incorporates articles
concerning the rights and duties of the various tribes and
social groupings that formed this new society, including
5 Anthony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh
University Press, 2001, p. 10.
Islam and Politics 19
their obligations regarding one another, criminal events and
the rights of non-Muslim members of this community.6
He delegated both religious and political responsibilities to
his companions. Some, such as Amr ibn Hazm, were sent to
lead the prayers and teach the people about the Qur’an.
Whilst others, such as Abu Musa al-Ashari and Saed ibn
Aas, were dispatched as representatives to collect taxes
(zakat), arbitrate disputes and punish criminals as well as to
educate people about Islam. Sometimes, the Prophet would
assign companions to exclusively governmental capacities,
such as when he sent Abu Sufyan to gather taxes in Najran,
while Amr ibn Hazm remained his religious representative
in that region.7
The Prophet (pbuh) was a general, a diplomat and a judge.
He led the army, entered into treaties and agreements with
various tribes, and passed judgment in criminal cases. Issues
such war, diplomatic relations and legal arbitration are all
obviously included in political authority and have no
connection to a specifically spiritual mandate.
Furthermore, it is unreasonable to compare the structures of
a modern state and the Prophet’s authority in Madina in
order to determine whether he established a political state.
Dr. Senhoury, for example, argues that the political order
established in Madina adequately met the demands of a
simple tribal community, thus there was no need to establish
6 Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, p. 5.
7 Tabary, Tareekh al-Rasul wa al-Malik (History of Messengers and
Kings), volume 3, p. 318.
Shia Political Thought
a complex social order when the Prophet’s political system
was appropriate to the requirements of his age and society.8
Some thinkers, such as Abid al-Jaberi, contend that because
the word “dawlat” (state) was not adopted as a political term
until the beginning of the Abbasid-era, the political concept
of an Islamic state did not exist either. According to Al-
Jaberi, the Prophet (pbuh) established an “ummah” as
opposed to a state. However, although it may be true that the
term dawlat was not prevalent in Arab vocabulary at the
time of the Prophet, it is not the name that constitutes a state.
Rather, it is the nature of the authority that establishes an
Islamic government, thus it is irrelevant whether the term
“state” was adopted or not.
Although Abd al-Raziq refers to several verses of the Qur’an
in order to justify his opinion, which is that the Prophet
(pbuh) had no role beside that of a messenger, the verses that
he submits as evidence do not confine the character of the
Prophet to a single attribute. A clear distinction must be
made between a relative restriction and an absolute or
definite restriction. The latter confines the character of a
subject to one feature, whilst the former refers to a
restriction in a limited scope of attributes. For example,
someone supposes that x is both a writer and a poet. You
correct his opinion by telling him that ‘x is only a writer’.
However, this does not mean that x has no other qualities
apart from being a writer, because your statement restricts
his character in relation to only two attributes.
8 Ahmed Abd al-Razig al-Senhoury, Fiqh ul-Khilafah wa Tataworeha
(The Jurisprudence of Caliphate and Development), Cairo, 2nd Edition,
1993, p. 82.
Islam and Politics 21
All the verses to which Abd al-Raziq refers fall into the first
category, which is that of relative restriction. They are
merely emphasizing that the Prophet has no responsibility
towards those who disbelieve in his call. Certainly, the
Prophet as a human being has many other qualities and
duties. Therefore, emphasis upon one issue within a specific
context does not nullify the possibility of other tasks or
characteristics. Take, for example, following verses:
O Prophet, urge the believers to war. [Chapter 8,
Verse 65]
And judge (rule) between them by what Allah has
revealed, and do not follow their low desires. [Chapter
5, Verse 49]
Your Wali is none but Allah and his Messenger.
[Chapter 5, Verse 55]
And We did not send a messenger except that he
should be obeyed…. [Chapter 4, Verse 64]
Second Argument
Aside from those who subscribe to a view similar to that of
Abd al-Raziq, other opponents of the Islamic state accept
that the Prophet did, in fact, establish a political order
following his migration to Madina. However, they also
maintain that this does not constitute an intrinsic connection
between Islam and politics. The emergence of the Prophet’s
authority in Madina is considered as little more than a
historical event; a specific situation in which the social and
political circumstances necessitated this endeavor, rather
than a religious duty that was included in divine revelation.
Shia Political Thought
Dr. Haery seems to adopt a similar opinion in the following
passage, in which he emphasizes that the Prophet’s
government was formed upon the consensus of the people
and then later endorsed by God. He writes:
Some previous Prophets, especially the Prophet of
Islam, besides the exalted position of Prophethood
had undertaken governing people and committing
political affairs. We have to know that since people
compelled them with no anticipate inclination, these
political authorities and special circumstances forced
them to accept, the Political authority cannot be taken
into account as part of God’s revelation.9
To support this point of view regarding the Prophet’s
authority, Haery refers to the following verse of the Qur’an:
Certainly Allah was well pleased with the believers
when they swore allegiance to you under the tree.
[Chapter 48, Verse 18]
He, and others who adopt a comparable opinion, insist that
although God endorsed the pledge of allegiance (bay’a)
given to the Prophet, His approval is not enough to make the
establishment of political authority an Islamic objective.10
However, the relationship between Islam and politics and the
historical events precluding the creation of an Islamic social
order are two entirely separate and distinct topics. Studying
the latter requires a precise analysis of the historical, social
and cultural context in that era. Whereas the former
9 Mehdi Haery Yazdi, Hekmat wa Hokumat, London: Shadi Publication,
1995, p. 143.
10 Ibid., p. 152.
Islam and Politics 23
necessitates a comprehensive evaluation of the Islamic
ideology to determine whether or not it encompasses a
political dimension and if it has the potential to be
practically applied. Thus, the correlation of historical stages
and circumstances to the process of forming a government is
entirely separable from our present debate, which concerns
the Islamic political system. Hence, many contemporary
Muslim scholars, such as Muhammad Ammareh, who is an
advocate of the Islamic state, come to the following
Even though the generous Qur’an did not explicitly
[make it] incumbent upon Muslims to form a religious
government [it obliged them] with some duties [that]
would be impossible to fulfill without the
establishment of an Islamic State. 11
Both Dr. Haery and Muhammad Ammareh maintain that the
pledge of allegiance (bay’a) given by the tribal
representatives of Madina to the Prophet, during the year
prior to his emigration from Mecca, was the keystone of his
government. However, this theory, which introduces the
allegiance (bay’a) of the people as the root of the Prophet’s
political authority, confronts two difficulties. The first is that
the contract of bay’a was a prevailing custom amongst the
Arabs, which occurred for a variety of reasons; the pledge of
bay’a to a political leader or tribal chief was only one of
these. Accordingly, it is essential that we assess the content
of these pledges used to support the arguments of Dr Haery
and Muhammad Ammareh.
11 Muhammad Amareh, Al-Elmaniya wa Nehzatona, Cairo: Dar al-
Shorugh, 1986, p. 35.
Shia Political Thought
The pledge mentioned in Chapter 18 of the Qur’an, known
as “Bay’a rezwan”, occurred at Hudaybiyah, near Mecca, in
the sixth year after Hijrah. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
and a number of his followers were en-route to perform the
pilgrimage to Mecca, when Meccan polytheists who wished
to prevent them from entering the city confronted them.
Under these dangerous circumstances, a number of believers
pledged allegiance to the Prophet so as to reassure him that
they would remain by his side and protect him from the
enemies of Islam. This pledge was merely a reaffirmation of
their loyalty in a difficult situation, rather than the
acknowledgement of the Prophet’s political authority.
Furthermore, it took place five years after the establishment
of the Islamic state in Madina, thus it seems strange to
consider this event the original root of his government.
What is often referred to as the second pledge of allegiance
known as “bay’a al-Aqabeh” also has no connection to the
nomination of a ruler. Comparing it to the negotiations that
took place at Saqifa, prior to the appointment of Abu Bakr,
explicitly demonstrates that the pledge of al-Aqabeh was not
a recognition of the Prophet’s political authority. The
negotiations at Saqifa were concerned with leadership
following the death of Muhammad (pbuh). Hence, the bay’a
at Saqifa merely served as an election, whereas the pledge of
al-Aqabeh was regarding the protection and safety of the
Prophet; the representatives of Madina promised to resist the
polytheists and protect the Prophet as they would their own
The second difficulty confronted by the supporters of this
argument, arises from several verses of the Holy Qur’an
which delegate and approve the guardianship (wilayat) of
Islam and Politics 25
the Prophet over the believers, with no reference to any
anticipated acceptance from the people; therefore indicating
that his authority is indeed divine. These verses shall be
discussed in greater detail later, but for now we shall
mention a few:
The Prophet has a greater claim on the faithful that
they have on themselves. [Chapter 33, Verse 6]
Only Allah is your guardian (Wali) and His Apostle.
[Chapter 5, Verse 55]
Third Argument
Another prevailing argument, employed by secularists to
undermine the theory of a religious government focuses on
the ambitions of those who support an Islamic state (i.e. the
establishment of an ideal social order according to Islam and
the application of the shari’a to all facets of society).
Secularists, who adopt this line of reasoning, contend that a
religious social order is an incompatible thesis because it is
confronted by an inherent difficulty known as “the problem
of accommodation”. To justify this argument, they rely on
two premises:
Social, economic and cultural relationships undergo constant
change and development: There is a significant difference
between our contemporary lifestyles and the lifestyles of
previous generations in areas such as transportation,
commerce, education and so on. Thus social formation is
essentially variable and no one can expect a society to
remain stable for a prolonged period of time.
Shia Political Thought
Religion is fixed, unchanging and stable: Every religion is
confined to a specific period of history; as it was founded
upon the demands, circumstances and problems of a
particular age. Religion is an event that happened in a
determined time and place, which cannot be repeated.
Consequently, the message of every religion is inflexible and
has no capacity for adaptation to new situations.
Thus, a secularist would argue that because religion is a
fixed and unchanging set of ideas, it is entirely incapable of
accommodating changes to social relationships, which are in
turn fundamentally unfixed and variable. It is entirely
reasonable to admit that religion is able to form a social
order, which is influenced by its conventions and ethics, but
only at a time when social circumstances would permit such
an influence. For example, in the time when Islam emerged,
it was able to adequately meet the demands of the historical
period. Thus, Islam succeeded in establishing a civilization
during that era. However, it seems paradoxical to suppose
that Islam is capable of effectively shaping social order
under any circumstances and at any time. The core of this
reasoning is that social associations and relationships are
fluid and open to regular changes; no one is able to prevent
these social alterations and thereby narrow them to a fixed
religious form and structure. In summary, secularists assert
that although shari’a has within it the competence and
capability to deal with social formations similar to those
existing at the time when Islam appeared, there are serious
obstacles for the application of shari’a to contemporary
social configurations.
Such an assessment is based on the presupposition that the
conception of a religious state leaves no room for adaptation
Islam and Politics 27
or the endorsement of social changes. Therefore, the
response to this argument will discuss three significant
· An evaluation of this interpretation of social
· Aspects of the Islamic legal system, which have
been overlooked by secularists who subscribe to this
opinion, that render it both dynamic and flexible.
· A clarification of what is meant by the
accommodation of shari’a and the precise definition
of the establishment of “Islamic social order”
Categorizing Social Alterations
No one can dispute the fluidity and variable nature of social
relationships. Changes occur both radically over a short
period of time, and gradually over a more prolonged period.
They have numerous dimensions and affect various aspects
of human life. As far as the present discussion is concerned,
which is the role of religion in a well ordered society; the
legal and moral dimensions are the most important ones that
should be considered.
From a legal perspective, every social order and its assorted
characteristics confront many questions. An efficient legal
system must be able to overcome these problems and
introduce a competent framework, which is able to respond
to new developments that are the result of social alterations.
In order to practically implement a religion that
encompasses social interactions, it becomes crucial to
institute a dynamic legal structure that is able to organize
their juridical aspects. Because the aim of a religious state is
Shia Political Thought
to harmonize social order according to a religious legal
system, it is therefore essential to understand the nature of
the legal aspect of social alterations.
Establishing a truly Islamic society and regulating social
relationships according to the Islamic ideology cannot,
however, be confined to merely the legal aspects of this
transformation. The moral and cultural outcomes of such a
revolution are fundamental as well. An Islamic government
must maximize the role of moral virtues, Islamic values and
true humanity in social relationships. Advocates of the
Islamic state believe that religious aims and values,
stemming from moral virtues and true humanity, can lead
human society towards a higher level of existence. However,
the argument that denies the possibility of harmonizing
social order according to Islamic laws and values usually
attempts to reduce the discussion to a purely legal one,
attempting to illustrate that the Islamic legal system is
incapable of accommodating social changes.
Those who subscribe to this argument presuppose that social
alterations result in entirely new legal problems that have no
previous precedent. Hence, they argue that a religious legal
system, because of its unchanging nature, cannot deal with
the problems that it will be frequently confronted by.
Social changes ultimately give rise to two areas of legal
discourse. The first stems from an entirely new social
phenomenon, of which there is no previous record. Every
legal system must define its position with regard to these.
For instance, the invention of computers and the
development of information technology require fresh
legislation. Another example is transplantation, a new
Islam and Politics 29
technique in medicine that requires jurists to clarify the legal
aspect of this new medical ability, such as the laws regarding
the exchange of natural organs between human beings. The
significant factor with this first group, is that they require
more than merely the application of old and current laws to
new situations, rather, they require a set of absolutely new
laws and up-to-date legislation.
Secondly, there are those social transformations that, despite
the fact they are new, have emerged from pre-existing
relationships and associations, consequently these social
phenomena are new in form and not in content. Accordingly,
they do not require totally new legislation or a fresh set of
laws; jurists could and would categorize them according to
previous legal precedents. For instance, previously there
existed only a few types of companies, whereas at present
there are many forms of commercial relationships. However,
these are not new legal phenomena. They are distinguished
from previous kinds of companies essentially in form,
because they are merely new structural designs.
In short, with regard to analyzing social alterations, we must
adopt the following conclusion. From a juridical perspective,
social changes cannot be restricted to a single definition.
Generally speaking, two streams of social transformation
can be identified in this regard. On the one hand, there are
the cases of completely new legal phenomena that are
without previous record, while on the other there are those
that possess obvious connections or similarities to previous
and familiar elements within the existing legal framework,
though they may have each adopted a partially, or entirely
new form.
Shia Political Thought
Flexibility of the Islamic Legal System
The precise criticism introduced by this argument against the
concept of an “Islamic state”, when we are confined to the
juridical aspect, is that the Islamic legal system is incapable
of coping with social transformations. Hence, because it is
inflexible and unable to meet the juridical requirements of
new circumstances, it cannot possibly satisfy the legal
demands of human society.
In order to efficiently cope with the various societal
relationships it will inevitably encounter, every legal system
prerequires the existence of flexible elements in its
methodology and basic foundations. Although the Islamic
legal system does not contain these factors, it is essential that
we realize that it has aspects that provide it with the capacity
to meet and fulfill all the juridical requirements presented by
the two aforementioned categories of social change.
The Islamic legal system is fully equipped to deal with the
first category of social changes. Even though the historical
advent of Islam occurred during a specific time and in a
specific place, it is quite reasonable to extrapolate a
universal, ahistorical and timeless legal framework for
different aspects of social relationships. Many legal aspects
of social alterations can, in fact, remain stable in spite of
their formal changes. This enables Islamic law (shari'a) to
form a general juridical framework for the various categories
of social associations. In reference to different sections of
Islamic law, there exist a selection of unchanging, absolute
and general rules that, at any time and place, all Muslims are
obliged to respect; they are required to harmonize their
public and private relationships with these rules. For
Islam and Politics 31
example, in commercial affairs there are some general rules
as follows:
It is incumbent upon believers to fulfill their contracts and
O you who believe! Fulfill the obligations. [Chapter 5,
Verse 1]
Some types of contracts and commercial agreements are
prohibited because they include unlawful profit such as
Allah has allowed trading and forbidden usury.
[Chapter 2, Verse 275]
Lawful commercial and financial contracts and covenants
must fulfill some general conditions such as mutual consent
without coercion and must not be subject to false methods of
attaining wealth, for example, gambling:
O you who believe! Do not devour your property
among yourselves falsely, except that it be trading by
your mutual consent. [Chapter 4, Verse 29]
These examples of obligations, prohibitions and conditions
concerning one aspect of social life, even though they do not
embrace all the Islamic edicts in this field, help us to
confront developing models of contracts. New forms of
contracts, whether they are altered versions of familiar and
prevailing models or entirely original ideas without previous
record, can be categorized as either lawful or unlawful
according to these three principals and so on. For instance,
Shia Political Thought
“insurance” is an example of an entirely new contract, while
purchasing books via an online bookstore is merely a new
method of trading which, although formally different, is a
continuation of a particular category of business. When all
these new forms of contracts adopt and fulfill the framework
that has been drawn by shari'a, they are considered lawful.
The other important aspect concerning the flexibility of
Islamic law emerges when we take into consideration the
role of covenant and promise in this context. Some verses of
the Qur’an order Muslims to fulfill their promises when they
enter into a covenant or agreement:
And fulfill the promise, surely every promise shall be
questioned about. [Chapter 17, Verse 34]
This Islamic principle enables an Islamic state to enter into
international conventions, in order to make use of their
advantages, even though some of these conventions are
concerned with completely new forms of social
relationships, such as maritime laws or laws governing
airlines and international trade, of which there is no previous
record in the shari'a.
The doctrine of “Ijtihad”, which is the deduction of laws
through reference to Islamic sources, enables a qualified
Jurist (faqih) to deduce responses to both old and new
questions. Every qualified faqih is free to issue new decrees
with regards to subjects that have no previous record
amongst other Imami jurists; thereby providing the Islamic
legal system with a high degree of flexibility, which enables
it to confront new situations and circumstances. This
potential is reinforced in view of jurists who subscribe to a
Islam and Politics 33
doctrine that advocates the absolute guardianship of the
well-qualified faqih (wilayat-a-mutlaqih). This doctrine
insists that the trustworthy jurist, who is responsible for
Muslim society, has the right to legislate according to
specific conditions. This subject will be discussed further in
the next chapter.
Rational Management versus Juristic Management
Misconceptions surrounding the implementation of shari’a
and the role of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in governing a
state and it’s society, have given rise to two opposing
groups, who erroneously come to the conclusion that the
Islamic method of governance is completely incompatible
with “rational management”, which prevails in most modern
states. This group is divided into two categories; the first of
which insists that Muslims in the modern world must submit
to the organization of their economic, political, social and
cultural affairs through rational and technical management.
In this model of regulation, the human intellect, technology
and the sciences have authority, while religion remains
separate from worldly affairs. Therefore all public decisions
and the organizing of the fundamental structures of society
are fulfilled according to the rational form of authority.
The second group, however, advocates the total authority of
religion and attempts to organize social affairs by presenting
absolute “juristic management”. This model of management,
according to them, ignores the role of humanistic sources of
knowledge and instead insists that the solution to all
problems must emanate solely from Islamic jurisprudence
(fiqh). In other words, this school of thought endeavors to
replace rationality and reference to scientific means, with
religion and purely juristic solutions.
Shia Political Thought
It was indicated previously that this misleading
interpretation for the role of Islamic jurisprudence with
regards to social management and the making of political or
economic decisions, arises from a misunderstanding of the
term “religious state” and “religious social order”. This
misconception of a religious society and state grants a
foothold to the critics who wish to portray the Islamic state
as backward and ignorant of the demands of the
contemporary world and who depict Islam as a system that
denies human knowledge, rationality and progress.
Adopting the Islamic ideology and applying its laws and
aims in order to harmonize different aspects of life is one
thing, and ignorance of human knowledge and rationality is
another. Drawing such a sharp and distinctive line between
juridical and rational management is purely fictitious, as it
overlooks any possible cooperation between these two
methods, while incorrectly assuming that a religious state’s
model of government does not overlap with that of a nonreligious
state’s in any way, shape or form (When in fact all
states are burdened with similar responsibilities).
Consequently, this third model would enjoy the advantages
of both methods of management and combine rationality
with respect to the ultimate authority of religion. The
unusual, and irrationally narrow distinction between the two
models of management, fails to provide any definite reason
to suppose that the integration of religious authority and
rationality is either impossible or incompatible. According to
the history of Islamic thought, the Shia and Mutazali schools
have always believed in rationalism. They endorse the role
of the human intellect as a significant source of religious
knowledge alongside Islamic evidence (Qur’an and hadith).
Islam and Politics 35
Rationality is included with Islamic sources and reasoning is
taken into account as a part of religious knowledge.
It is necessary to emphasize that organizing social
relationships, in its full scope, involves many facets. These
include legislation, politics and policymaking as well as
industrial-economic planning, social services and education.
It is incorrect to suppose that, under an Islamic government,
these functions and tasks would be undertaken exclusively
by jurists and that all types of social, economic and cultural
difficulties would be resolvable by jurisprudence. In fact, the
fundamental distinction between an Islamic state and a
secular one should be based on the acceptance or denial of
the authority of Islam in social affairs, rather than the denial
of rationality and scientific knowledge. An Islamic authority
would address the needs of a society according to the criteria
laid down by Islam; the extent to which jurisprudence and
shari’a influence this depends on the depth to which Islam
has defined the subject matter. For instance, the role of
shari’a is greater in legislation than in policy making or
international politics. The various elements of an Islamic
government must harmonize and adapt their functions,
policies and decisions to the contents of Islam, though they
are able to employ their reasoning and scientific knowledge
wherever it is required.
In conclusion, the allegation that Islam is somehow unable
to cope with social progress or changes to various aspects of
human existence is false. Islam cannot be confined to a
specific time or set of circumstances, as it has within it the
capacity to guide humanity towards happiness at all times.
However, Islam’s ability to adapt to the demands of various
social formations and situations should not be taken to mean
Shia Political Thought
that Islam has a passive attitude towards alternative
lifestyles. It is illogical to assume that every kind of cultural,
social or economic relationship can be universally endorsed
by Islam, for it has timeless rules, values and objectives that
disagree with certain types of associations and lifestyles.
This approach is not the product of essential links to a
specific model of social formation or a particular social
order. Rather, it is an active and dynamic attitude that
emerges from a set of unchanging rules and principals that
are not restricted to a specific age or generation.
Objectives of an Islamic State
Ideological aims and functions are an essential part of any
political system, as they serve to distinguish and separate it
from alternative doctrines. Objectives such as creating a
welfare state and extending education or promoting
prosperity and defending a nation’s borders are not specific
to any one model of political system. In fact, almost all
political theories commonly emphasize upon these targets.
Therefore, it is necessary that we define the unique
objectives of a religious government and discuss how they
set it apart from other political systems.
Implementation of the Shari'a
The application of Islamic laws and rulings is a fundamental
aspect of the religious state. A government that neglects the
shari’a cannot be considered a legitimate Islamic authority;
as such a notion is paradoxical and ultimately selfcontradicting.
The Holy Qur’an obliges the believers to
implement, protect and respect Islamic laws in all spheres of
their public and private lives. For example, take the
following verses:
Islam and Politics 37
And we have revealed to you the Book with the Truth,
verifying what is before it of the book and a guardian
over it, therefore, judge between them by what Allah
revealed. [Chapter 5, Verse 48]
And whoever does not judge by what Allah has
revealed, they are the unbelievers. [Chapter 5, Verse
Allah raised prophets as bearers of good news and
warners, and He revealed with them the book with
truth, that it might judge between people in that in
which they differed. [Chapter 2, Verses 2 & 3]
These are the limits of Allah, so do no exceed them,
and whoever exceeds the limits of Allah, these it is
that are the unjust. [Chapter 2, Verse 229]
And if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer
it to Allah and His messenger. [Chapter 4, Verse 59]
For the government and citizens of the Islamic state to fulfill
this duty, it becomes essential for the state’s laws to be
consistent with the shari’a and it’s ruling system to be
founded upon the principals of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
As pointed out, many modern Muslim intellectuals have
criticized this jurisprudential conception, insisting that
shari’a must be separated from governance, public affairs
and the shaping of the system of human rights and duties
that regulate society. They maintain that these should be
governed according to human sciences, rationality and an
extra-religious conception of human rights, rather than
Shia Political Thought
through Islamic jurisprudence. This ultimately secular
approach belittles the importance of the shari’a and its
practical necessity in an Islamic state. This approach shall be
further assessed in the final chapter when considering the
arguments of those who seek to reconcile Islam with liberal
To Enjoin the Good and Forbid the Evil
Islam has made it incumbent upon believing men and
women to establish a healthy society, which is purified of
corruption and wrongdoing and conducts itself correctly and
avoids injustice. This duty is embodied in the principal of
“al-amr’ bi’l maruf’ wal-nahi an al-munkar” (Enjoining the
good and forbidding the evil) that is mentioned in the
following verses of the Qur’an:
And from among you there should be a party who
invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the
wrong and these it is that shall be successful. [Chapter
3, Verse 104]
And (as for) the believing men and the believing
women, they are guardians of each other; they enjoin
good and forbid evil. [Chapter 9, Verse 71]
Calling people to what is right and preventing injustice is the
joint responsibility of the state and its citizens. An Islamic
government cannot remain neutral concerning the moralreligious
conditions of society. Also, as well as being
accountable for affairs such as security, welfare and social
order, the government is also charged with maintaining
human virtues, common good, morality and religious
commitment. Unlike most contemporary political theories,
Islam and Politics 39
especially those formed upon the traditions of liberalism,
Islam does not support the concept of a ‘limited state’.
According to this liberal approach, the authority of a
government is limited by the scope and framework defined
by liberalism and it’s interpretation of human rights and
social justice, which are connected to the underlying values
of liberal doctrine. Consequently, the government is
rendered unable to adopt a partial position with regards to
morality, religion or ethics. Whether someone is moral or
immoral, religious or irreligious, these are regarded as
individual matters that the individual is able to choose as he
pleases. Only if the individual break the law or violates the
rights of others is the liberal government allowed to interfere
in their affairs.
However, it must be pointed out that the duty of a religious
government, regarding the moral-religious position of
society, does not allow Muslim rulers or citizens to impose
Islamic beliefs and values upon others. Religious tolerance is
a significant characteristic of the Islamic ideology; a fact to
which history testifies. For example, the Jews and Christians
of the Spanish Peninsula enjoyed the same rights, security
and prosperity afforded to all citizens of the Islamic state, as
did many other ethnic and religious minorities throughout
the domain of Islam at that time.
The nature of a religious government’s responsibility
regarding the moral condition of society is concerned
primarily with decision-making, legislation and government
policy. An Islamic state is obliged to maximize the
opportunities to promote spirituality, moral values and
individual virtues, while providing the people with a stable
environment in which to attain a comfortable, safe and
Shia Political Thought
fruitful existence. Essentially, its role is to maintain a
healthy social atmosphere. People are free to adopt their own
beliefs and opinions, but in public they must respect and
abide by Islamic laws. For instance, it is not the duty of an
Islamic government to monitor the private lives of it’s
people to discover whether or not they drink alcohol, but no
one is allowed to publicly consume the substance, as this
would damage the social environment, and it is the
responsibility of an Islamic authority to protect society from
corruption and immorality.
From the Islamic view the problem of happiness and
wickedness eventually rests on the choice made by the
individual. Almighty God says:
Surely we have shown him the way; he may be
thankful or unthankful. [Chapter 76, Verse 3]
That is because those who disbelieve follow falsehood,
and those who believe follow the truth from their
Lord. [Chapter 47, Verse 3]
Therefore an individual is allowed to adopt his or her
personal wishes and ideas in private, but these cannot be
allowed to infringe upon the moral health and stability of
society. Nothing must prevent the government and believers
from striving to create desirable social circumstances, or
promoting Islamic values in order to remove the obstacles in
the path of a truly correct and fulfilling lifestyle.
Modern political doctrines tend to emphasize human rights,
rather than human goods. For them, it would be more
desirable and practical if we concentrated on defining the
Islam and Politics 41
mutual duties of the rulers and the ruled according to the
rights of human beings. This is because other concepts such
as happiness, virtue and social good are often ambiguous,
subjective and controversial. For example, there is a strong
tradition in political thought that amongst the members of
any polity there is a common good and the function of the
government is to determine and actualize this. However,
adversaries argue that there are a number of significant
difficulties regarding the idea of a “common good”.
Modernist political thinkers usually ask “what is a common
good? and how are we to know what it is?” Robert Dahl
Every attempt I have seen to prescribe the common
good is either too limited to be generally accepted or
too general to be very relevant and helpful. 12
The Islamic doctrine approaches this problem of “common
good” by extending it beyond the boundaries of a
community. Not only do the members of a community have
a common good but also all human beings have a common
good. Islam believes that human beings share common
inclinations and needs, which they are able to fulfill
correctly through their own actions with the aid of a
desirable, just and true Islamic government.
To Protect True Freedom of Human Beings
Liberty is arguably one of the most important underlying
values upon which contemporary western political thought is
founded. Although there are contending analyses regarding
the nature of freedom amongst western thinkers, liberals
12 Robert Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press, 1989, p.
Shia Political Thought
traditionally recognize individual freedom as the most
fundamental human value and they define and evaluate all
other values according to their relationship with it.13 Because
most people, especially in the west, adopt a liberal
conception of liberty, they often have reservations about
whether a truly religious government can promote the
freedom of its subjects. At a glance, it may seem strange to
suppose that Islam, with its binding nature and limitations,
could act as an effective safeguard of human freedom. But
before proceeding with this discussion, it is appropriate to
explore and assess the liberal theory of freedom.
Also known as the negative view of liberty, the liberal
conception of freedom has come to be understood as the
absence of coercion. This definition of freedom emanates
from the works of thinkers such as Hobbes and Bentham,
who envisaged it merely as the absence of external, physical
or legal impediments. However, this theory fails to
acknowledge less immediate or obvious obstacles to
freedom, such as lack of awareness, false consciousness,
repression or other inner factors of this kind. In fact, it insists
that to speak of such inner factors as relevant to the issue of
freedom, is to abuse words. The only clear meaning that can
be given to this perception of freedom is the absence of
external obstacles.14
13 For instance Immanuel Kant in ‘Theory and practice’ defines justice as
‘the restriction of each individual’s freedom so that it harmonizes with the
freedom of everyone else’. For him justice is more than a condition in
which external freedom is guaranteed to all, it is a condition of maximum
liberty for all.
Allen Rosen, Kant’s Theory of Justice, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp.
14 Charles Taylor, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?” in
Contemporary Political Philosophy, Robert E. Goodin (ed), Blackwell,
1997, p. 418.
Islam and Politics 43
Alternatively, the positive view of liberty asserts that
freedom involves the realization of some specific capacities,
abilities and powers. And it implies that if these are not
realized, then the individual is not truly free, even if he or
she is not subject to external coercion. Whereas negative
freedom is best described as ‘freedom from’ (compulsion),
positive freedom can be termed as ‘freedom to’, meaning
that an individual must be free to realize his capabilities.
Therefore, it is necessary for positive freedom to adopt a
theory concerning human nature and a set of ideas about
human needs and abilities.15
Taylor maintains that the positive perception of freedom
concerns the exercising of control of ones life:
Doctrines of positive freedom are concerned with a
view of freedom which involves essentially the
exercising of control over one’s lives; one is free only
to the extent that one has effectively determined
oneself and the shape of ones life. The concept of
freedom here is an exercise-concept.16
According to the Islamic conception of human nature, we
are subject to various desires and capacities. Those who
follow merely their natural instincts will remain in the prison
of their low desires, unable to realize their potential. But
those who exercise control over themselves and strive for
self-purification, rather than merely obeying their impulses,
are truly free. The Qur’an says:
15 Rymond Plant, Modern Political Thought, Blackwell, 1991, p. 222-3.
16 Charles Taylor, Contemporary Political Philosophy, Blackwell, 1997,
p. 419.
Shia Political Thought
Have you considered the one who takes his low
desires as his Master; Allah has made him err having
knowledge and has set a seal upon his ear, his heart
and placed a covering upon his eyes. Who can then
guide him after Allah? Will you not then be mindful?
[Chapter 45, Verse 23]
Then know that they only follow their low desires, and
who is more erring than he who follows his low
desires without any guidance from Allah? Surely
Allah does not guide the unjust people. [Chapter 28,
Verse 50]
From this perspective, namely the positive interpretation of
freedom, Islam should be recognized as a perfect form of
guidance from Allah and a divine means to achieve true
human freedom. The Qur’an says:
Those who follow the Apostle Prophet, the ummi,
whom they find written down with them in the Taurat
[Torah] and the Injeel [Gospel], (who) enjoins them
good and forbids them evil, and makes things lawful
to them the good things and makes unlawful to them
impure things, and removes from their burden and the
shackles which were upon them, so (as for) those who
believe in him and honor him and help him, and
follows the light which has been sent down with him,
there is it that are the successful. [Chapter 7, Verse
This verse among many others like it, state that the
revelation received by the Prophet was sent as guidance to
all mankind. That Islam is able to free human beings from
Islam and Politics 45
the shackles placed upon them by their low desires, to raise
them from a state of ignorance (concerning God and the
hereafter) and to elevate them to a position of enlightenment
and progress. By submitting oneself to the divine revelation
and teachings of the Prophet, the individual is making an
obvious commitment to worship and obey God, to control
oneself and to accept certain limitations. In other words,
Islam is a religion; a way of life that encompasses both
spiritual and worldly aspects, thus obliging its followers to
follow a specific lifestyle. This disagrees with the liberal
‘negative’ conception of human liberty, because it
establishes boundaries and limitations upon freewill. But
according to the Islamic point of view, these limitations help
them to attain true freedom embodied in spiritual life and
nearness to Allah.
In conclusion, one of the key objectives of an Islamic state is
to prepare a desirable social condition, so that people are
able to realize their full capacities, and thus free themselves
from burdens. This self-realization means that people can
promote their individual virtues and prepare themselves for
the ultimate salvation.
Establishing a just society and respecting human equality
Justice (Adl) and Equality (Qest) are two of the most
important aspects of the Islamic ideology. There are many
verses of the Qur'an that oblige the believers to treat people
equally and to deal with them justly.
Certainly we sent our apostles with clear arguments,
and sent down with them the book and the balance
that men may conduct themselves with equity.
[Chapter 57, Verse 25]
Shia Political Thought
Surely Allah commands you to make over trusts to
their owners and that when you judge rule between
people you judge with justice. [Chapter 4, Verse 58]
O you who believe, be maintainers of justice, bearers
of witness of Allah's sake, though it may be against
your own-selves or your parents or near relatives, if
he be rich or poor, Allah is nearer to them in
compassion; therefore, do not follow low desires, lest
you deviate; and if your swerve or turn aside, then
surely Allah is aware of what you do. [Chapter 4,
Verse 135]
These concepts of justice and equality encompass many
different aspects of individual and public affairs. With
specific regard to politics, they require the government to
ensure that all people are granted an equal entitlement to
citizenship, protection, the rights granted by Islam, and the
benefits that accompany it, regardless of their ethnicity,
beliefs or talents.
However, the establishment of a society upon justice and
equality does not require ‘legal equality’. Meaning that it
does not need to adopt a legal system that endorses universal
and indiscriminate rights and duties for all members of that
society. In fact, in its most precise definition, legal equality
is clearly impractical. All contemporary legal systems adopt
legal inequalities within their structures of rights and duties.
In politics for example, no democratic state allows children
to vote, while in economics the salary of a qualified expert is
greater than that of a labourer. Equally so, the Islamic legal
system, which was revealed as divine law, includes legal
inequalities. These arise in cases such as that of inheritance,
Islam and Politics 47
where the share of a woman is less than that of a man.
Therefore, social justice and fair governance cannot be
defined as merely overlooking all categories of inequality.
Instead, Islamic social justice is realized by the correct and
complete implementation of the Islamic laws (shari’a) and
values without exception.
Thus an Islamic state is distinguished by the objectives
stated above, which have been laid down by the Qur’an and
Islamic traditions. Other objectives include the eradication
of tyranny, the promotion of tolerance and peaceful coexistence
with non-Muslims in Islamic territory, the
dissemination of knowledge amongst the people and the
creation of a welfare society in order to decrease the
economic divide between the rich and the poor. Finally, it is
also essential that the Islamic government should be led by a
just and well-qualified leader, so that it may realize it’s
fundamental aims. This is emphasized in the following
tradition of Imam Rida (peace be upon him):
Some of the reasons behind appointments of lawful
amirs (holders of authority) by God and making their
obedience obligatory are as follows: Firstly, people
would feel duty bound to follow certain rulers that
would rescue them from corruption. It is not possible
to follow such rulers unless power is entrusted on a
trustee ruler. Secondly, prosperity of nations depends
on the existence of rulers who try to solve their
temporal and spiritual problems. God, the Wise, never
leaves His creatures without a guide. The third reason
is that, in the absence of a right leader and guide, the
Shia Political Thought
religious commandments and orders would be
Spheres of Islamic Political Thought
At present, there is a significantly broad scope for political
debates. Many scholars and intellectuals examine various
spheres of political thought such as political philosophy,
political ideology, political science and political systems.
Thinkers who explore the relationship between Islam and
politics are usually interested by what sort of political
knowledge Islam provides, whether or not Islam supports
political philosophy or advocates a specific political
ideology and whether or not Islamic sources support a
particular form of political system.
Historically, Islamic political thought has been concerned
with leadership; the means of appointing a political authority
and the qualities that a ruler must possess. One might
suppose that Islam has restricted the discussion to a
particular area of debate, and that it therefore overlooks
many serious political concerns. However, it is necessary for
us to distinguish between the political heritage of Muslim
thinkers and what is provided by the contents of Islam. The
political heritage of Muslims is embodied in the works of a
selection of prominent Shia and Sunni jurists, philosophers
and theologians, whose disciplines can be placed into four
major categories: “political theology”, “political
philosophy”, “political jurisprudence” and “political ethics”.
It is essential that we briefly review these aspects of Islamic
17 Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Babwayh (al-shaykh al-Saduq), Ellal al-
Shariah, Qom: Maktiba Davari, p. 253.
Islam and Politics 49
political thought in order to clarify the perspective and
nature of the discussions in the following chapters.
i) Political Theology
The nature of Islamic political debates has been deeply
influenced by a long history of theological (kalam)
disagreement between Shia and Sunni scholars. Shia
political thought, the original and oldest Islamic political
theory, is essentially theological because its primary concern
is leadership; the characteristics of the rightful leader and the
correct method of identifying and appointing him. The Shia
school of thought does not restrict these issues to a solely
political or juridical (fiqh) discussion, rather they are
considered a fundamental component of the Islamic
ideology. Imamate is the focal point of this aspect of
political thought and many books have been written by an
assortment of thinkers from different sects on this topic.
ii) Political Philosophy
Political philosophy refers to a set of political consequences
that are inferred from fundamental metaphysical-moral
issues. The political writings of Al-Farabi are a typical
example of Islamic achievements in this field. By definition,
political philosophy should remain independent of any
particular religious system or set of beliefs, as it is based
upon metaphysical and rational foundations. However,
Islamic political philosophers have formed deeply rational
grounds for many Islamic doctrines before applying these as
religious-philosophical premises in their political
Shia Political Thought
To deny the validity of Islamic political philosophy is to
ignore the philosophical and ideological aspects of political
issues. Many philosophical problems in politics have a close
relationship with religion. And there are many Islamic
teachings that offer, either directly or indirectly, suitable
answers to some essential questions in political philosophy.
iii) Political Ethics
Political ethics (or the morals of politics) refers to a series of
writings from Muslim scholars, who have attempted to
advise and guide rulers to a successful and just method of
government. These prescriptions were usually accompanied
by stories of previous kings and rulers. They were
collections of Islamic teachings, Greek philosophy and some
elements of Persian literature. Examples of these include
“Siyasat Nameh” (Book of Government) of Nidham al-Mulk
(1020-1092), and “Nasihat al-Mulk” (Advice to King) of
Ghazzali (1058-1111).
iv) Political Jurisprudence
Muslim jurists (fuqaha) adopted the method of political
jurisprudence (or “fiqh ul-siyasi”) to explicate and define the
Islamic political system and juridical aspects of political
affairs. They discussed the duties of rulers over their
subjects, the means for appointing and the grounds for
dismissing of political leaders, the personal qualities that an
Imam or Deputy (caliph) should possess, and the
relationship between different elements of the government to
one another. Political jurisprudence overlaps political
theology in several areas, such as the discussion concerning
leadership. However, political jurisprudence is distinguished
by its methodology and the large scope of its subject matter.
Islam and Politics 51
“Al-ahkam as-sultaniyya”, written by the jurist Al-Mawardi
between 1045 and 1058, is a good example of this facet of
Islamic political heritage.
The assumption that Islam has a political ideology implies
that it is impossible for one of these disciplines of political
thought to illuminate its dimensions in isolation from the
others. Ideology, as a political term, refers to a collection of
ideas and instructions that are capable of directing political
action. Every political ideology includes ultimate aims and
offers a particular form of political regime that emphasizes
upon specific norms, values and rights in order to draw a
framework for all political affairs. In summary, a political
ideology is a set of ideas that is considered as a decisive
solution for the political aspects of human life. It attempts to
adjust and arrange political relationships according to
determined ideas and directives. Every political ideology
ultimately relies upon political philosophy, because it must
express its position according to fundamental politicalphilosophical
issues, namely questions concerning human
nature, the concept of justice, freedom and it’s limitation and
the relationship between liberty and equality and so on.
From this brief exploration of political ideology, it becomes
clear how extensive the dimensions of a comprehensive
political theory might be. Thus, any explanation of Islamic
political ideology must develop all four aspects of Islamic
political heritage; especially regarding political philosophy
and jurisprudence.
However, it is not the intention of this book to explicate the
entire Islamic political system, including the wide disputes
and disagreements amongst the various Islamic sects and
Shia Political Thought
movements. The focus of the following pages will be on
Imami political theory, which is known as the doctrine of
Imamate in the age of the present, infallible Imam, and as
“wilayat al-faqih” in the age of the absent Imam. Although,
in order to keep this book concise, the political ideology
shall not be discussed in great depth, the most important
aspects of it will be clarified. The content and debate of the
next chapters will be a composition of theological,
philosophical and mostly Islamic juridical (fiqh) discussions.
Chapter Two
What is Wilayat al-Faqih?
The doctrine of wilayat al-faqih forms the central axis of
contemporary Shia political thought. It advocates a
guardianship-based political system, which relies upon a just
and capable jurist (faqih) to assume the leadership of the
government in the absence of an infallible Imam. However,
although the guardianship of a high-ranking religious scholar
is universally accepted amongst all Shia theories of
governance, any disagreement is focused on the details such
as the role of the jurist and the scope of his authority.
Because the theory of wilayat al-faqih has emerged from
Imamate - which constitutes a cornerstone of Shi’ism – it is
necessary to understand this political doctrine within the
context of this concept of leadership. By comparing it to the
tradition political theory of Sunni jurists – the doctrine of
caliphate – and characterizing it’s major features, we will be
able to better understand and appreciate the doctrine of
wilayat al-faqih.
In order to overcome the ambiguities surrounding the
relationship between wilayat al-faqih and the position of an
Islamic jurist as a source of guidance and imitation (Marja’a
e-taqleed), it is necessary to discuss the various dimensions
of guardianship in the absence of the infallible Imam. Also
in order to respond to those who suppose that this doctrine is
an entirely new thesis, which has only recently appeared in
Shia jurisprudence, and argue that it opposes the traditional
Shia Political Thought
position of scholars and jurists, it is vital to briefly explain
the historical background of wilayat al-faqih amongst the
Imami Shia School of Islamic thought.
The Concept of Imamate
The political status of the Imams is an essential component
of Imami Shi’ism. They are considered to be the true
successors of the most noble Prophet Muhammad (pbuh),
and those who subscribe to this Islamic perspective believe
that any successor must be appointed by Allah, through his
Prophet. However, there are those who attempt to reduce
Imamism to a merely political attitude, a party that supports
Imam Ali (pbuh) and his family as the sole legitimate
successor to the Holy Prophet. Hence many Sunni scholars
define Shi’ism as follows:
Shia are those who especially follow Ali and maintain
his leadership and succession of the Prophet by his
appointment (nass) and testament openly (publicly) or
privately, and also believe that Ali’s authority (awla)
never goes out of his descendants.1
But the political authority of the Imams does not imply that
their role and status are restricted to governance or
leadership. For their followers, the Imams represent the
highest level of piety and they embody the same qualities as
exemplified by the most noble Messenger of God. As
Anthony Black describes them:
1 Abdul-Karim Shahrestany, Al-Melal wal-Nehal, Cairo, 1956, volume 1,
p. 131.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 55
The twelve Imams themselves, and above all the
present twelfth or hidden Imam, were held to be
necessary to the constitution of the Universe and of
true religion. The Imam is God’s proof (Hujjah:
guarantee), he is the pillar of the Universe, the ‘gate’
through whom God is approached. Knowledge of
revelation depends upon him.2
Some of the qualities attributed to the Imams, such as “proof
of God” (Hujjah) and “the guardian” (Wali), which are
discussed later, refer to their great authority and are essential
to understanding Shia political thought. Ayatollah Khomeini
described “proof of God” as follows:
A ‘proof of God’ is one whom God has designated to
conduct affairs, all his deeds, actions, and sayings
constitute a proof for the Muslims. If someone
commits an offence, will be made to the ‘proof’ for
adducing evidence and formulating the charge. If the
‘proof’ commands you to perform a certain act, to
implement the penal provisions of the law in a certain
way, or to spend the income derived from booty,
zakat, and sadaqa in a certain manner and if you fail
to obey him in any of these respects, then God
Almighty will advance a ‘proof’ against you on the
day of Judgment.3
The Imams are considered to be the successors of the
Prophet (pbuh) and the rightful recipients of his authority.
This is not because they are from his family; rather, it is
2 Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, p. 41.
3 Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, Hamid Algar (tr), Berkeley:
Mizan Press, 1981, p. 86.
Shia Political Thought
because they are pious, obedient to Allah and embody
characteristics that are pre-required for this level of
religious-political leadership. Equally so, they are not
appointed by any popular consensus; Imamate is instituted
by divine installation (nasb); only Allah truly knows who
possesses the qualities required to fulfill this duty, therefore
only He is capable of appointing them. Shia considers
Imamate, like Prophethood, to be a fundamental belief, and
obedience to the authority of their Imam a religious
obligation. Other than receiving divine revelation, which is
specifically for the prophets, the Imams have all the
qualities, duties and authority of the Prophet (pbuh).
Political and religious guidance emanate from them and they
are guardians over the believers. This is a manifestation of
Allah’s guardianship over human beings.
In addition to this, the concept of guardianship is another
crucial element of Shia political doctrine.
Imam as “Wali”
In many verses of the Qur’an, God introduces himself as
“Guardian of the Believers” (Wali ul-Mumineen):
Allah is the Guardian of the believers. [Chapter 3,
Verse 68]
Allah is the Guardian of those who believe. [Chapter
2, Verse 257]
Allah suffices as a Guardian. [Chapter 4, Verse 45]
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 57
And according to several verses of the Qur’an, this
guardianship has been delegated to the Prophet, so his
authority is rooted in the aforementioned Divine authority:
Only Allah is your Guardian (Wali) and His Apostle.
[Chapter 5, Verse 55]
The Prophet has a greater claim on the faithful than
they have on themselves. [Chapter 33, Verse 6]
Verses such as these illustrate that the authority and
guardianship of the Prophet was originally established and
legitimized by Allah’s appointment. Following this
interpretation, the followers of the Imams provide a large
number of traditions and historical evidence that confirm the
delegation of the Imams, by Allah, through the Prophet (the
doctrine of appointment) as “guardians of the believers”
(Wali ul-Mumineen). Although the consequences of this
doctrine will be considered over the following pages, at this
point it would be helpful to discuss the meaning of the terms
“Wali” and “Wilayat” and their usage, especially with
regards to jurisprudence (fiqh).
Arabic lexicographers have mentioned several meanings for
the word “Wali”, such as:
1. Friend
2. Supporter
3. Devoted
4. Protector.
There are a series of words derived from the root of “Wali”,
for instance “Wilayat”, “Mawla” and “Mawala Alayh”. By
Shia Political Thought
considering the context to which these are applied, it
becomes apparent that they apply to the situation that
someone’s affairs have been taken charge of by someone
else. Therefore, whoever takes charge of these affairs is the
latter’s Wali, and consequently it is often applied to
governance as well.4
When the term “Wilayat” is attributed to the Imams, it
carries the implications of “mastership”, “sovereignty” and
“lordship”. This is to indicate the authority of the Imam over
the believers, who are subject to his guardianship. Imami
theologians refer to the Qur’an (especially Chapter 5, Verse
55) and prophetic traditions to support the exclusive
authority (wilayat) of the Imams.
The absolute authority and guardianship of Allah (wilayat
al-mutlaqih) forms a central pillar of Imami political
thought, which maintains that whoever wishes to exercise
this authority must be appointed by Him. It is this idea that
distinguishes Imamism from all other political theories and
even other sects of Shi’ism; because although all schools of
Shia thought agree that the Imam is subject to divine
appointment through the Prophet, only Imamism tries to
sustain this approach under circumstances when the
infallible Imam is absent. In this doctrine, it is Allah alone
who holds the absolute authority and He has explicitly
appointed the Prophet and a number of believers (his family,
4 Lewis writes:
‘vali and vilayat are the Turkish pronunciation of the active participle and
verbal noun of the Arabic root w-l-y, ‘to be near’ and hence ‘to take
charge of’; they mean respectively, governor, and governorship or
Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, The University of
Chicago Press, 1988, no. 22, p. 123.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 59
i.e. the Ahlul-Bayt) as guardians (Wali), who are entrusted
with authority over the Muslims.
Only God is your Wali and His Apostle and those who
believe. Who perform prayer and pay alms while they
bow. [Al-Qur’an, Chapter 5, Verse 55]
The last phrase, “those who believe”, according to Shia
commentators refers to the Imams, whose wilayat was
instituted through their appointment by the Prophet.5
However, what truly distinguishes the Imami political
doctrine from all other forms of Shia political thought
emerges from the Imami concept of leadership during the
period of greater occultation; in which the Twelfth Imam is
absent. The Imami creed adopts a system of vicegerency,
whereby the authority (wilayat) is entrusted to the just and
capable scholar (faqih e-adil), who acts as a deputy to the
absent Imam. Thus, the guardianship of a jurist is
legitimized and his authority is related to the original and
absolute authority of Allah. A clear distinction must be
drawn, however, between the authority of Imamate and the
guardianship of the scholars. The Imams, whose authority is
established upon their explicit designation by the Prophet,
delegate and entrust a degree of their authority to those who
possess specific qualities (such as justice and jurisprudence
in the case of the fuqaha). So whereas the Imams were
specifically appointed as guardians of legitimate authority,
the jurists (fuqaha) are not explicitly selected by name, but
5 For more information about the verse and some debates that have arisen
by the verse among Shi’a and Sunni scholars refer to:
Abdul Husayn Sharafud-Din, Al-Muraja’at, Yasin T. al-Jibouri (tr),
World Ahlul Bayt Islamic League (WABIL), pp. 173-180.
Shia Political Thought
rather implicitly chosen as those who possess the correct
qualities for leadership.
The scope of a jurist ‘s authority and the realm of his
vicegerency constitute the most essential, while
simultaneously controversial element of Imami political
thought. However, before entering this crucial debate, it is
important to distinguish Imami political doctrine from the
political system advocated by the traditional Sunni Jurists,
which is the doctrine of Caliphate.
The Theory of Caliphate
Despite the common disagreement amongst their schools of
jurisprudence, Sunni jurists have traditionally advocated a
specific theory of state known as Caliphate; a doctrine that,
both as a political theory and significant historic reality,
dominated the Islamic community for a considerable amount
of time. In the interests of the present discussion, it is
necessary to differentiate between the theory of Caliphate
and the doctrine of Imamism.
Caliph essentially means successor, or one who assumes a
position previously held by another. However, this word is
not confined to the context of political authority, so a caliph
may not simply be the successor of a previous governor, but
also someone who is definitely appointed as a deputy and
entrusted with authority by the person who appoints him,
somewhat synonymous with ‘deputy’ or ‘vicegerent’.6
Historically, the early Muslims are said to have applied the
title of Khalifa to the first four rulers after the Prophet
6 Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, pp. 32-33.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 61
(Pbuh). In it’s most basic meaning, the Khalifa is one who
exercises governance in place of the Prophet. Abu-Bakr was
once approached by a man, who asked him “Are you the
deputy of the messenger of Allah?” to which Abu-Bakr
replied, “No.” The man asked, “So who are you”? Abu-
Bakr answered, “I am the successor of the Prophet.”7
Montgomery Watt writes:
Since Abu-Bakr was not appointed by the Prophet
except to deputize for him in leading the public
prayers, the phrase “Khalifa of the messenger of
God” cannot have meant ‘deputy’. The primary
meaning must have been merely ‘successor’.8
Although many rulers of the Ummayid dynasty attempted to
attach a divine status to the title of successor (Caliph), Sunni
Jurists generally consider the Caliph to be a legitimate ruler
who governs and directs the state and it’s society. His
appointment is dependant upon specific qualities that the
ruler must possess, however there is no universal agreement
as to what these characteristics must be.
This source of disagreement initiated the first political
divergence amongst the Muslims, which precipitated,
sustained and continues to sustain a theological debate with
focuses on legitimate leadership following the death of the
Prophet (pbuh). However, the theory of Caliphate was not
enshrined until the reign of the Abbasids, when it was
devised and formulated by Sunni Jurists. Black writes:
7 Ibn Assir, Al-Nehaya, Volume 1, p. 315.
8 Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, p. 33.
Shia Political Thought
An articulate community, traditionalist political
theory was finally formulated in the first half of the
eleventh century. Its doctrine of the vicegerency met
the requirements of the emerging religious community
by radically scaling down expectations placed on the
deputy, while retaining the legitimacy of the ‘Abbasids
as leaders of the Muslims. The first four rightly
guided (Rashidun) deputies were now placed in a
special category. The immediate motive was to
safeguard the ‘Abbasids Caliphate against
alternatives, Shia Imamism or Isma’ilism.9
The first, and most significant Sunni Jurist who attempted to
systemize the doctrine of Caliphate within an Islamic
juridical framework was Abu’l Hasan Al-Mawardi (Basra
979 – Baghdad 1058). He was a Shafi’i judge in Nishapur,
and later became the chief Justice of Baghdad. In his famous
book “al-ahkam as-sultaniyya” (the laws of governance), al-
Mawardi attempts to legitimize the authority of the Abbasid
government, while striving to justify the use of coercion as
an implement of governance. He argued that a caliph is
divinely entrusted with authority in political, as well as
religious affairs.10
He writes:
God …ordained for the people a leader through whom
he provided for the vicegerency of the Prophet and
through whom he protected the religious association;
and he entrusted government to him, so that the
management of affairs should proceed (on the basis
of) right religion…The leadership became the
9 Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, p. 84.
10 Ibid., p. 87.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 63
principle upon which the bases of the religious
association were established, by which the well-being
of the people was regulated.11
When examining this perspective, it is important to realize
that the traditional advocates of Caliphate are often inspired
and influenced by the Ash’ari School of Islamic thought.
This particular doctrine emphasizes divine predestination
(taqdir) and the will of God as a unique agent in the world.
Naturally, the fundamental principle of this doctrine brings
them to the conclusion that one person, solely by the will of
Allah, will succeed to gain political authority.
Abu’l-Fadl Bayhaqi (995-1077) writes:
Know that the Lord most high has given one power to
the Prophets and another power to Kings, and he has
made it incumbent upon the people of the earth that
they should submit themselves to the two powers and
should acknowledge the true way laid down by God.12
Al-Ghazzali in his Advice to kings says:
God has singled out two groups of men and given
them preference over others: one group is the
Prophets and the other is kings. Prophets he sends to
His servants to lead them to Him and Kings to
restrain them from (aggression against) each other.13
11 The paragraph is translated in:
Ann K. S Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam, Oxford
University Press, 1981, p. 85.
12 Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, p. 134.
13 Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, p. 94.
Shia Political Thought
This outlook, which assumes that the authority of a Caliph
includes everything and that they are naturally predestined
according to the eternal will of God, is naturally compatible
with the opinion currently adopted by contemporary Sunni
Jurists, who argue that Allah and the Prophet did not appoint
a particular person or persons as rulers over the Muslims.
After all, the logical consequence of this concept of
predestination and unique divine agency is that it doesn’t
matter who governs or how he obtains authority, for in any
case and circumstance it would be subject to the will of God.
This is the first distinction between Shi’a political thought
and the doctrine of Caliphate. For Imamites the legitimate
authority must be designated - directly or indirectly - by
The second distinction that must be made, however,
concerns the method of appointing a Caliph. Imami political
theory maintains that there is only one legitimate means to
designate authority; divine installation. Even the
guardianship of just and capable jurists (faqih adil) is
established upon this basis; they are the vicegerents of the
absent Imam, whose divine leadership is established by
explicit designation, and who implicitly entrusted them with
the guardianship of his followers. All of this authority, of
course, is bestowed by Almighty God who has absolute
authority and guardianship over all of creation.
In rejecting the explicit appointment of a successor to the
Prophet, Sunni Jurists maintain that there are several means
by which a caliph may be elected, which means there is no
unique way to legitimize political power. Instead, they
accept the appointment of the first four caliphs following the
Prophet’s death as a religious source to sanction political
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 65
authority. Consequently, according to Sunni interpretations,
a caliph may be elected either by a few of the elites (e.g.
some outstanding companions of the Prophet), by the
explicit designation of his predecessor, or by an appointed
council (shura).
The fact that many of the contemporary political positions of
that time had been secured by coercion and military power,
created a serious obstacle for the theory of caliphate and
many Sunni scholars attempted to find a means to justify
these authorities. For example, Al-Mawardi attempted to
legitimize the authority of de facto rulers by designating
them as government ministers (wazir) and commanders
(amir), whom the caliph had to recognize.14
Finally, the third distinction arises, which is concerned with
the qualities that a leader must possess. According to the
doctrine of Shi’ism, an Imam is not merely a political leader;
rather he is also a religious leader who undertakes the
exposition of divine sciences. Like the Prophet, he must
embody the highest moral and intellectual qualities, such as
immunity from sin and infallible knowledge. However, there
is a wide-ranging disagreement amongst Sunni scholars
regarding the characteristics of a caliph. Commonly, they do
not believe that a candidate must be sinless, or enjoy
infallible knowledge. In some cases, justice and fairness are
not considered necessary, and obedience is required of even
an unjust or oppressive tyrant. Al-Ghazzali says:
An evil doing and barbarous Sultan, so long as he is
supported by military force (shawka) so that he can
only be deposed with difficulty, and that the attempt to
14 Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, p.88.
Shia Political Thought
depose him would create unendurable civil strife,
must necessarily be left in possession, and obedience
must be rendered to him.15
A general and significant feature of Sunni political thinking
is that there is no procedure for the people to depose an
unjust ruler. Rather, the grounds on which he may be
removed are considerably reduced. For instance, Al-
Baghdadi (d. 1037) said that allegiance (bay’a) might only
be revoked on grounds of heresy, incapacitation,
imprisonment or serious injustice; although the latter is not
accepted as a cause for disobedience by most Sunni
Although Imami political theory does not require a wali alfaqih
to be sinless or infallible, it does mention
characteristics such as justice, fairness and expertise in
jurisprudence as necessary qualities. This is because the
jurists (fuqaha) are not only moral and legal experts they are
also representatives of the hidden Imam.
The Meaning of Wilayat al-Faqih
The words “wali” and “wilayat” have the same root (w-l-y).
From it’s primary meaning of “to be near or close to
someone or something”, is derived the general meanings “to
be in charge”, “to govern” and “to exercise authority”. In
Islamic juristic (fiqh) terminology, the term “wilayat” has
several usages. Some of these are as follow:
1. Wilayat al-Qaraba
15 Ibid., p. 104.
16 Ibid., p. 85.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 67
This type of authority (Wilayat) is given to a father or
paternal grandfather over minors and those who are insane
(even after the age of adolescence). This authority to act as a
guardian is based on relationship.
2. Wilayat al-Qada’
According to Imami Jurisprudence, the infallible Imam
originally possessed the sole authority to judge amongst the
people based upon God’s law and revelation. At this time,
however, a just and capable faqih may undertake this
responsibility with the Imam’s permission.
3. Wilayat al-Hakim
In this case, authority is given to a regular administrator of
justice (hakim), to supervise the interests of a person who is
unable to take care of his own affairs; such as a fool or an
insane person. Whoever does not have a guardian (wali),
jurists say: al-hakim is the guardian of those who have no
4. Wilayat al-Mutlaqa (The Absolute Authority)
According to textual evidences, such as verse 6 of Chapter
33 of the Qur’an, Imami scholars believe that the Prophet
and Imams have divine authority over the people. The verse
states that the Prophet has more rights over the believers
than they have over themselves; thus his discretionary
authority is effective amongst the people. This same
authority, according to Shia beliefs, is also bestowed upon
the Imams.
5. Wilayat al-Usuba
Shia Political Thought
According to Sunni jurists, this authority is connected to
inheritance; it encompasses a class of inheritors. This
category of wilayat is not accepted by Imami scholars.
According to Imami doctrine, absolute authority (wilayat al-
Mutlaqa al-Elahiya) remains with the Absent Imam, even
during his greater occultation. Therefore, in order to exercise
authority, every just and capable faqih requires the sanction
of the Imam, who is in turn designated by God as the
possessor of absolute authority and guardianship.
Although all Imami scholars generally agree upon the
doctrine of Vicegerency (Niyabat) that emphasizes the role
of capable jurists as deputies of the Absent Imam, who are
entrusted with a degree of his authority. However, the
crucial issue is the scope and extent of this vicegerency and
in which affairs the jurists have authority.
In order to clarify the dimensions of this discussion, it is
necessary to examine the traditional roles and functions that
qualified jurists undertake as deputies of the Imam.
i) Making a Decree (Al-Ifta)
With regards to guidance in rulings and religious duties, it is
necessary for those who lack sufficient knowledge of
Islamic law and the legal system (shari'a) to refer to the
opinions of a jurist (faqih). The jurist who issues legal and
juridical decrees is known as a “Marja’a taqleed”, and the
term meaning to follow or imitate their opinion is “taqleed”.
There is no disagreement amongst scholars regarding the
application of this function by a well-qualified jurist. After
all when a person has questions on a particular topic, it is
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 69
only natural for them to refer these to an expert in this field,
not only in the sphere of religion, but in all aspects of life.
For this reason, although the jurist must possess certain
qualities to assume this role, there is no need for the express
permission of an Imam. In other words this function should
not be mentioned as an example of the Imam ‘s authority
and a type of wilayat.
ii) To Judge (Al-Qada)
It is legally established that a just faqih is able to mediate
disputes and judge in legal cases. Imamis believe that this
function (wilayat al-qada or al-hukuma) is encompassed
within the Imam’s divine authority. Hence, only those who
have his permission may assume this role. Imam as-Sadiq
(pbuh) referred to the administration of justice (hukuma) as a
constitutional right and duty of the Imam:
Beware of the Hukuma (administration of justice).
Indeed, al-Hukuma belongs to the Imam who is
knowledgeable in matters of judicial decisions (qada)
and who is the just one (al-adil) among the Muslims,
like the Prophet or his legatee.17
Imami jurists commonly agree that this responsibility
(wilayat al-qada) is entrusted to the just faqih as a deputy of
the Imam.
Hisbiya Affairs (Al-Umur al-Hisbiya)
The Prophet (pbuh) said:
17 Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Just Ruler, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.
Shia Political Thought
The sultan is the wali of the one who does not have a
According to this hadith, the sultan is the guardian (wali) of
those who need a guardian to for a particular reason. For
example, when the father of a minor or an insane person
dies. Imami jurists extend this role to a set of affairs that
require an authorized guardian to oversee them; these are
known as al-umur al-hisbiya, and include religious
endowments, inheritance and funerals (as well as those
mentioned above). Although all Imami jurists accept the
legality and necessity of this role, they disagree as to
whether or not he is appointed by the shari’a or because he is
naturally the best suited for the role. Some maintain that
there is no expressed permission stemming from Islamic
traditions to justify the authority of a jurist in such cases
(hisbah). However, though the shari’a is silent, this does not
mean that issues of hisbah do not need to be attended to.
And a faqih who has knowledge of the shari’a and is just and
pious, logically has priority over all others in these cases.
These three functions only form a fraction of the Imam’s
authority; in the history of Imami Shi’ism, marja’aiyya
(authorative reference) has largely been restricted to these
central roles (especially the first). However, the religious
authority and duties of an Imam as a guardian (wali) extend
far beyond the three functions mentioned above. Those who
believe in universal vicegerency (wilayat al-amma) maintain
that the role of the faqih is not restricted to merely a few
religious duties, but rather he has the same authority as the
Imam. He has the right and duty to lead the Shia community
18 Muhammad Baqer Majlesi, Behar al-Anwar (110 volumes), Tehran,
1985, Kitab al-Elm, Chapter 1, Hadith 29.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 71
and undertake the full function and responsibilities of an
infallible Imam.
In addition to the administration of justice (wilayat al-qada)
and ‘hisbah’, the Imam also has the right to exercise
governmental, juridical and economic duties. The political
nature of these duties consequently implies that the Imam is
the leader and ruler of Muslim society (wilayat al-siyasiyya).
Those who advocate wilayat al-amma extend the scope of
the faqih’s authority to the following duties:
1- Political- Devotional (Ibady) Orders and Prayers
Imami fuqaha emphasize that performing certain religious
ceremonies, such as leading the prayers of Eid al-Adha and
Eid al-Fitr, in addition to the prayer of Jum’ah (Friday), can
only be lead by an Imam or one who has been designated by
Him. This view presupposes that leading the prayers is a
political-religious position and a function of the true Imam.
For instance, Shaykh al-Mufid19 says:
It is well established that every imperfect being needs
someone who can discipline him so that he will
refrain from evil acts…He should also be the one who
will protect Islamic territory and will assemble the
people in order to convene the Jum'ah and the Eid
19 Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Nu’man, known as Mufid is one of
the greatest Imami faqih and theologian. He was born in Dujal, some sixty
miles from Baghdad, in the year 949 or 950AD. His basic and elementary
training and studies was under his father. He went to Baghdad at the age
of twelve. Among his books in fiqh is al-Muqni’a, on which Tusi wrote a
commentary-Tahdhib al-Ahkam (one of the four major books of Imami
20 Shaykh Al-Mufid, Al-Ershad, Tehran, 1972, p. 674.
Shia Political Thought
In addition, the formal affirmation of the new moon for
religiously important occasions (e.g. Shawal for Eid al-Fitr),
requires the endorsement of a just and capable Imam (Imam
2-Legal Punishment (Hudud)
It is established in Islamic traditions that the application of
legal punishment (hudud) requires the sanction of an Imam.
Considering that some categories of legal punishment
involve pain, injury or death, whoever is entrusted with this
duty, must have the legitimate authority to deal with these
issues. The administration of justice and application of legal
punishment obviously require political authority, otherwise
they are impossible to enforce both legitimately and
consistently. Functions that involve the administration of
justice, such as determining compensation (diyat), dividing
inheritance and affairs such as retaliation (qisas), also belong
to the Imam.
3 - Islamic Taxes
The collection and distribution of taxes is one of the most
important functions of any government, therefore those who
have the right to fulfill this duty also have political authority
(wilayat al-siyasiyya). Sunni jurists generally maintain that a
sultan (deputy), who has political power, can receive taxes
such as zakat. Imami fuqaha, on the other hand, believe that
the Imam has the sole entitlement to receive Islamic taxes
(zakat, sadaqa, kharaj) and decide how they should be spent.
4 - Jihad (Holy War) and Defense
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 73
Unlike a number of Sunni jurists, who consider fighting
unbelievers for the expansion of the Islamic state as a form
of “Jihad”. The scope of Jihad is not so broad amongst
Imami jurists who, in order to prevent the abuse of this
concept by corrupt political authorities, insist that the
permission of the Imam is a necessary condition for Jihad.
Shaykh Tusi says:
It is imperative that the Imam should be the one to
commence Jihad against unbelievers (kuffar).21
Sachedina explains why there is no justification for Jihad
without permission of the Imam in the Imami point of view:
The original purpose of Jihad, then according to the
Imami, was not preserved under the Caliphate. What
had caused the Jihad to drift away from the Qur’anic
purpose was the coming to power of unjust and
unrighteous authority claiming to undertake Jihad in
the name of God. Of the two main purposes of Jihad,
namely to call upon the people to respond to God’s
guidance, and to protect the basic welfare of the
community, the first purpose, according to all the
Imami Jurists, required the presence of the just Imam
or the person deputized by such an authority. This
was to guarantee that Jihad against unbelievers was
undertaken strictly for the cause of God.22
These four categories of authority and function introduce an
essential issue in determining the scope of a vicegerent ‘s
21 Muhammad ibn Hassan Tusi, Al-Mabsut fi Fiqh al-Imamiya, Tehran,
1958, Volume 2, p. 9.
22 Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Just Ruler, p. 110.
Shia Political Thought
authority. If an Imam has delegated his authority and duties
entirely to a just and capable jurist (faqih) as his deputy
during the period of greater occultation, the guardianship
(wilayat) of fuqaha would be universal (amma). Universal
guardianship implies that the Islamic society is in need of a
wali to lead and organize it’s affairs, regardless of whether
an infallible Imam is present or not.
Wilayat al-faqih can be defined as an authority entrusted to
learned fuqaha so that they may direct and advise the
Muslim ummah in the absence of an infallible Imam. This
authority is derived from the Imam, who is al-Hujjah (the
proof of God), therefore it is incumbent to obey their
commands as the only legitimate authority. However, there
remains some ambiguity surrounding the scope of the
authority (wilayat) that has been delegated to the fuqaha.
The concept of wilayat encompasses many degrees of
authority. The highest form of authority (wilayat) bestowed
upon the faqih is the universal type (wilayat al-amma),
whereas the most basic form is embodied in the authority to
undertake ‘hisbah’ and ‘qada’ (the administration of justice).
Some people make the mistake of assuming that wilayat alfaqih
refers only to the universal authority, when in fact it
refers to the total scope of the scholar’s vicegerency in the
absence of an infallible Imam.
Some Misconceptions
At this point, it is necessary to address two common
misconceptions surrounding wilayat al-faqih. Many people
erroneously assume that it is something new and in essence
distinguishable from the traditional status of marja’aiyya.
This misunderstanding is caused by a lack of attention to the
definitions of and the relationship between ‘wilayat’ and
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 75
‘marja’aiyya’ and the distinction between ‘fatwa’ and
‘hukm’ (the commands of faqih as wali)
The role of a marja’a taqleed is widely considered to be
solely a juridical authority to whom the Muslim community
may refer to in the case of religious questions and
commandments concerning the practical side of Islam (fiqhi
questions). However, this definition is not comprehensive; it
concentrates exclusively on one of the legitimized functions
of a jurist, while overlooking the others. As we mentioned
previously, the faqih has at least three significant functions;
as an expert in Islamic law and jurisprudence, he is entitled
to undertake ‘ifta’. However, as an appointed deputy of the
Imam, he has the authority (wilayat) to exercise ‘hisbah’ and
‘qada’. Accordingly, every faqih is entitled to issue a decree
(fatwa) and, at the same time, to be appointed as ‘wali’ to
undertake specific functions. When the jurist administers
justice or acts as a legal guardian to a ‘mawla alayh’
(someone who is without a legal guardian) he is known as a
‘wali’ or ‘hakim al-shar’ and when he is referred to in
religious (fiqh) issues, he is usually called ‘marja’a taqleed’.
A necessary distinction must be made between a ‘fatwa’
(decree) issued by a faqih in his capacity as a religious
authority (marja’a) and a ‘hukm’ (order) issued by him as a
wali and ‘hakim’ (guardian or ruler).
A ‘fatwa’ is classified as a decree issued by the jurist based
on his deductions from Islamic sources. He attempts to
determine the position of the shari’a and divine
commandments with regards to a specific issue, in which his
opinion will be adopted by those who submit to his religious
authority (muqalid). On the other hand, a ‘hukm’ is an order
issued by a wali regarding a particular set of circumstances,
Shia Political Thought
the Islamic legal system and interests of the Muslims.
Therefore, it is not merely due to his deduction from a
religious source, though he must respect the shari’a when
issuing a hukm. The hukm is intended to effectively
organize and resolve difficulties within Muslim society.
Another key issue concerns the relationship between the first
function of the faqih, which is ifta, and the other duties that
are subject to his wilayat (guardianship). Theoretically, these
two elements seem independent and entirely separable from
one another, but can they really be disassociated?
Suppose that there were one hundred just and capable
scholars, who fulfilled the qualities required to assume the
role of wali and marja’a. It is not obligatory upon all of them
as an ‘individual duty’ (wajib al-ainy) to assume
responsibility for all three functions of a faqih? The answer
is negative. Performing these functions is a ‘sufficient
necessary’ (wajib al-kefai), which means that if a number of
them were to undertake these three duties, then the others
would no longer be obliged to issue a ‘fatwa’, to judge or to
act as a guardian (if the others are meeting the requirements
of the community). In conclusion, although ever faqih
potentially could become marja’a and wali, only a few of
them will effectively assume these functions.
At its highest degree, the universal vicegerency of the jurist
(wilayat al-amma) also encompasses political authority
(wilayat al-siyasiyya). Some adversaries of the doctrine
maintain that the meaning of ‘wilayat’ (guardianship) in
Imami jurisprudence is essentially incompatible with
political authority. They argue that, according to the Islamic
legal system, ‘guardianship’ requires the existence of a
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 77
‘mawla alayh’ (one who is need of a guardian), which in
definition refers to those who are impotent in their affairs,
whereas political authority cannot presuppose that the
subjects of a government fall into this category. Therefore
the guardianship of a faqih is limited in scope and has no
connection to political authority.23
The term ‘wilayat’ is used in two cases in the Qur’an and
Islamic traditions; firstly there are circumstances when a
‘mawla alayh’ is unable to discharge his or her own affairs
(in cases of insanity, incapacity or immaturity) – this is umur
al-hisbah. The second involves the authority of the Imam to
administer justice (wilayat al-qada) and collect taxes.
However this case does not presume any disability on behalf
of the ‘mawla alayh’. Although people are generally able to
manage their own private affairs, there remain matters in
every society that require the existence of a reliable, credible
and just authority to undertake and supervise them. The
Qur’an introduces Allah, the Prophet and (according to the
Shia perspective) the Imams as guardians (wali) over the
believers. Clearly these verses consider the believers (mawla
alayh) in need of divine guidance and leadership, and not as
impotents who need supervision in all of their personal
The authority and guardianship of the faqih is a social duty,
which is delegated to them. Consequently it neither gives
them an increased status in humanity, nor decreases the
status of people who admit the guardianship of a just and
capable faqih. Imam Khomeini says:
By authority we mean governance, the administration
of the country and the implementation of the sacred
23 Mehdi Haery Yazdi, Hekmat wa Hokumat, p. 177.
Shia Political Thought
laws of the shari'a. This constitutes a serious and
difficult duty but does not earn anyone an
extraordinary status or raise him above the level of
common humanity. In other words, authority here has
the meaning of a government, administration and
execution of law, contrary to what many people
believe, it is not a privilege but a grave
The Historical Background
Universal guardianship (wilayat al-amma) is undoubtedly
the most fundamental element of Imami political doctrine in
the era of occultation (ghaibat). Therefore, it is essential to
understand what position the most learned Imami jurists
have historically adopted regarding this concept. Moreover,
it is often speciously conceived that wilayat al-amma is a
new development in Islamic thought, which has no origins
amongst the early Imami jurists. However, a brief survey of
its historical background in Imami jurisprudence reveals not
only the weakness of this supposition, but it also illustrates
that wilayat al-amma is a concept widely endorsed by many
outstanding jurists.
When examining a historical account of scientific studies, it
is easy to overlook two important points. Firstly, we often
assume that our predecessors approached a problem from the
same perspective and with the same clarity as we do.
However, this expectation is rarely validated with regards to
debates on subjects such as politics, which encompass
various dimensions that each constitutes an area of
specialized research (such as philosophy and ideology).
24 Islam and Revolution, pp. 62-63.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 79
Therefore it is hardly correct to suppose that political
thinkers in the past necessarily followed the same problem
or methodology as contemporary intellectuals. Secondly,
although scholars today are freely able to write and express
their own ideas, this often leads us to mistakenly expect that
the social and political climate was the same for previous
scholars, who in fact lived under illegitimate and often
oppressive governments. They were thus often forced to
practice precautionary dissimulation (taqiyyah) and were
unable to explicitly state their opinions.
There are two strands of thought amongst the supporters of
wilayat al-amma. There are those who explicitly and directly
insist that the vicegerency of a faqih is universal. While on
the other hand, some scholars maintain that a learned jurist
may be entrusted to undertake a number of duties in addition
to the primary three of ifta, qada and hisbah.
The latter of these two opinions usually occurs in the early
period of Shia jurisprudence. Until the emergence of the
Safawid dynasty in Iran, the Shia community existed as a
minority, without political power. Hence, the universal
authority of a faqih, ruling and political jurisprudence had
very little bearing on the circumstances of the Shia, which is
why the fuqaha devoted less attention to discussing matters
of political theory and the duties of a ruler.
When taking into account the opinions of these learned
scholars, it is important to recognize that they not only state
their personal opinion (ijtihad) concerning the scope a
jurist‘s guardianship, but also maintain that this opinion is in
accordance with the general consensus (ijmaa) of the Imami
fuqaha. This reinforces the assumption that jurists who were
Shia Political Thought
historically silent regarding political issues, such as
governance and universal authority, remained so due to the
social and political circumstances of the time (taqiyyah).
Regarding the first school of thought regarding wilayat alamma,
one of the most important Imami jurists, al-
Muhaqqiq al-Karaki25 says:
Imami fuqaha have consensus on the point that the
fully qualified faqih, known as a mujtahid, is the
deputy (nayib) of the infallible ones (peace be upon
them) in all the affairs attendant upon the deputyship.
Hence, it is obligatory to refer to him in litigation and
accept his verdict. If necessary, he can sell the
property of the party who refuses to pay what he is
due...rather, if it were not for the wilayat al-amma
many of the Shia community’s affairs and needs would
remain undone.26
25 Ali ibn Abd al-A’l who is better known as Muhaqqiq al-Karaki or even
the second Muhaqqiq-researcher- (after Helli who is famous as the first
Muhaqqiq in fiqh) died in 937/1530. He was originally from Jabal Amel,
south Lebanon. He like the first and the second shahid (martyr) completed
his studies in Sham and Iraq and different centers of Sunni learning before
coming to Iran during the reign of the Safavid denasty (Shah Tahmasb). In
this period of Iran‘s history the authority of Imami scholars had been
increased and Karaki had a great status in administration of justice. He
established a great seminary (Hawza) in Qazvin and Isfahan consequently
Iran once again became center of Imami jurisprudence. One of his famous
books in fiqh is ‘Jame ul-Maqasid’ which is a commentary on the book of
Allama al Helli-Qawaid.
26 The articles (al-Rasayel) of Mhaqqiq al-Karaki, edited by Muhammad
al-Hassun, the first collection (Al-Ressala fi al-Salat ul-Jom’a), Qom,
1409AH, pp, 142, 143
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 81
Shaykh Muhammad Hassan27, The author of an
encyclopedic work in Imami fiqh, ‘Jawahir al-Kalam’
…carrying out Islamic sentences and implementing
religious injunctions is obligatory at the era of
occultation. Being the deputy of the Imam (Pbuh) in
many cases rests with the fuqaha. The faqih’s social
status is the same as the Imam. There is no difference
between him and the Imam (Pbuh) in this respect.
[The verdict of] Our fuqaha on this issue [is]
unanimous; in their works they frequently underscore
the idea of referring to a guardian/governor (hukm)
who is the agent and representative of the Absent
Imam. If the fuqaha are not to have the general
vicegerency, all the affairs of the Shia will remain
unattended. Those who surprisingly raise objections
about the wilayat al-amma of the faqih, then seem to
be ignorant of jurisprudence and the words of the
infallible ones; they have not pondered these words
and their meanings28.
Hajj Aqa Reza Hamedani29 also maintains that wilayat alamma
is a unanimous concept amongst Shia jurists:
27 He was of Arab descent and died in 1849. Shaikh Muhammad spent
thirty years to complete his great work (al-Jawahir) which the last print of
the book in Iran includes forty three volumes. It is a commentary on the
book of Muhaqqiq al-Helli (al-Sharay‘).
28 Muhammad Hassan, Jawahir al-Kalam, Tehran: Dar al-Kotob al-
Islamiya, 1398AH, Volume 21, pp. 396-397.
29 Died in 1904 the author of some significant books in Imami
jurisprudence such as ‘Mesbah al-faqih’.
Shia Political Thought
In any case, there is no doubt that the fuqaha of
integrity (Jame al-Sharayeti), who have all the
perfect, necessary qualities to undertake the
vicegerency are the deputy of the Imam of the time in
such matters. Our fuqaha have testified to this in
their works. Their statements indicate that they regard
the vicegerency of faqih in all matters as indisputable
so much so that some of them have taken consensus
(Ijmaa) to be the pivotal proof of the faqih’s general
guardianship (neyabat al-amma).30
As we discussed earlier, many jurists attribute duties to the
faqih that require him to be entrusted with universal
authority. The evidences regarding the appointment of a
faqih as a deputy of them Imam cover many chapters of fiqh,
the explanation of which would require many pages.
However, in the interests of our discussion, we will examine
only a few of them here. Shaykh al-Mufid (334-413 A.H)
asserts that the application of legal punishment (hudud) is
one of the key functions of a faqih:
It is the duty of the ruler of Islam (Sultan al-Islam)
who is appointed by Almighty God to implement
hudud. Sultan al-Islam is the infallible Imams from
Muhammad’s (Pbuh) family or the rulers and
governors (Hukm) who are designated by them. They
have entrusted this duty to the fuqaha where
30 Hajj Aqa Reza Hamedani, Mesbah al-Faqih, The Chapter of Khums,
Volume 14, p. 291.
31 Muhammad ibn Nu’man (al-Mofid), Al-Moqni’a, p. 810.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 83
Early Imami jurists applied titles such as ‘sultan al-Islam’,
‘hukm’ and ‘wali’ to the Imams. Many of these, such as
sultan al-Islam, originally belong to the infallibles (Prophet
and Imams) and so seldom apply to others. However, the
majority of them also refer to those who are the appointed
deputies of the Imam as well. For instance, Fakhr al-
Muhaqqiqeen32 says:
The meaning of ‘hakim’ here is the just ruler (al-
Sultan al-adil) or his deputy. When there is no access
to the Sultan or his particular deputy, it is the role of
a well-qualified faqih…so when the author (Allamah
Hilli) says “when there is no hakim” he means by
‘hakim’ all these three [above].33
Muhaqqiq al-Karaki also endorses the above interpretations
of ‘hakim’. He writes:
Al-hakim refers to an infallible Imam or his particular
deputy. In the era of occultation, the Imam’s general
deputy (al-nayb al-amm) is the well qualified
jurist…It should be noted that when the fuqaha use
the term (hakim) unconditionally, it exclusively refers
to a well qualified faqih.34
It is important to remember that ‘judge’ is not synonymous
with ‘hakim’. This is because the application and
enforcement of legal punishments, in the view of Imami
scholars, is delegated to the governor (hakim) and not the
32 He is Muhammad the son of Allama Helli. His famous book on fiqh is
‘Eidhah al-Fawaid’ which is a commentary of his father ‘s book (al-
Qawaid). He died in 771AH.
33 Fakhr al-Muhaqqiqeen, Eidhah al-Fawaid, Volume 2, p.624.
34 Al-Jami ul-Maqasid, Volume 11, Kitab ul-wasaya, pp. 266-267.
Shia Political Thought
judge (qada). Hafs ibn Qiyas asked Imam as-Sadiq (pbuh):
“Who is in charge of punishment, the ruler or a judge?” To
which the Imam replied: “The application of hudud is due to
he whom has hukm (who governs)”.35
This distinction clearly indicates that the application of legal
punishments (hudud) requires full political authority; which
in turn necessitates universal guardianship (wilayat alamma).
A view that is supported by many Imami jurists,
such as al-Karaki:
The reliable well qualified Jurist who can issue legal
decisions is designated by the Imam. Accordingly his
rulings are effective and it is obligatory to assist him
in the administration of al-Hudud and al-qada, among
the people. It is not proper to say that the Jurist is
designated for administration of Justice and for giving
legal decisions only, and that the Jum’ah prayer is a
matter outside the scope of these two responsibilities.
Such an opinion is extremely weak because the jurist
has been appointed as al-hakim, by the Imams, which
is well documented in the traditions.36
As we discussed, the Jum’ah prayer is a political function,
which, in the view of the Imami jurists, belongs to the Imam.
Therefore, every Imami jurist who believes that the fuqaha
are able to fulfill this function during the period of
occultation (ghaibat), would also have admit to the validity
of wilayat al-amma.
35 Shaikh Hur al-A’meli, Muhammad ibn Hassan, Wasael al-Shi’a, Qom:
Ahl ul-Bait Institution, 1412 AH, Volume18, p. 220.
36 The Just Ruler, p. 196.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 85
Moreover, if the authority of the faqih is not confined to the
role of legal arbitration and guardianship, then the Imami
mujtahid may say that the fuqaha have the authority to
collect Islamic taxes, which is an obvious indication of
universal authority. The first shaheed (martyr)37 says:
It is said that it is obligatory to give ‘zakat’ to the
jurist during the occultation if he asks for it himself or
through his agents because he is the deputy of the
Imam, just as the collector of the taxes is. Rather,
however, it is more appropriate to state that his
vicegerency on behalf of the Imam is applicable in all
those matters in which the Imam himself has
authority; whereas the collector is the agent of the
Imam only in a particular function.38
The second shaheed39 also believes that the Islamic taxes
(zakat) should be delivered to the Imam, or to the trusted
Jurist during occultation. He later explains why the zakat
should be given to the faqih:
One must bear in mind that he (the faqih) is appointed
in the interest of the public, and if he were to be
37 He is Muhammad ibn Makki who was born in south Lebanon-Jabal
Amil- in 734AH. Fakhr ul-Mohaqqeqin was one of his teachers. He was
martyred as a result of a fatwa issued by a Maliki jurist, supported by
Shafei, in the year 786.He has written some significant books in fiqh such
as ‘Luma’h’, ‘Durrus’, ‘Dhikra’ and ‘Bayan’.
38 Translated in ‘The Just Ruler’ from Jawaher al- Kalam, Volume 15, p.
39 Shaikh Zain ul-Din is one of greatest Shi’a jurists. He was born in 911
AH and was expert in Sunni jurisprudence as well. One of his important
works is a commentary on the first Shaheed’s work (Luma’h) and it is a
strange coincidence that the author and the commentator both were
executed and martyred.
Shia Political Thought
dishonest there would occur harm to those who were
entitled to receive the zakat. 40
In concluding the historical background of wilayat al-amma,
it is necessary to re-emphasize that this doctrine is widely
supported by later Imami jurists. Who, explicitly and more
clearly than their predecessors, support the universal
authority of a faqih. A number of these jurists, and their
works, are as follows:
· Mullah Ahmad al-Naraqi, in his work Awaid al-
Ayyam, chapter ‘Wilayat al-fuqaha’, Page 529.
· Sayyid Mirfattah al-Maraqi in al-Anavin Page.355.
Al-Bahr al-Ulum in Bolqatol al-faqih, Volume 3,
· Shaykh Abd al-Allah Mamaqani in Risala al-Anam
fi hukm e-amwal al-Imam, Page 14.
· Mirza al-Nayyini in ‘Al-Makaseb wa al-Bai’, edited
by Shaykh Muhammad Amali, Volume 1, Page 336.
· Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Borujerdi in al-Badr al-
Zahir fi salat al-Jum’a, Page 71.
· Sayyid Muhammad Reza Gulpaayigani in ‘al-
Hedaya ela man Lahu al-Wilayat, Page 46.
Multiplicity in Wilayat
Although according to Imami political doctrine, authority
(wilayat) is bestowed upon a deputy (wali) by the infallible
Imam, there is an important distinction between the specific
designation of a deputy and the ‘general’ designation of a
number of deputies. While there was an explicit nomination
40 Ibid.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 87
for each of the Imams to undertake leadership, and for the
vicegerency of the four deputies during the minor absence,
the guardianship of the jurists during the greater absence is a
‘general’ designation. This means that no faqih is
exclusively appointed as ‘wali’ and deputy; all Imami jurists
who are just and qualified in fiqh (ijtihad) have the right to
exercise the Imam’s authority as his deputies. Accordingly,
universal authority has been entrusted to many jurists in
every age and generation. Inevitably, this multiplicity means
that the Imami theory of leadership could be confronted by
the problem of disturbances and conflict, as polarization
between various sources of decision-making naturally results
in differences and chaos. In the context of the present
discussion, it is important to assess how the universal theory
of guardianship might address such issues.
In most cases, multiplicity does not present any serious
problem regarding the functions of the fuqaha. It is
unrealistic to insist that all cases of ‘hisbah’ need to be
undertaken by a single jurist. Likewise, there is no reason to
expect uniformity in ‘Marja’aiyya’ and the administration of
justice. The fundamental difficulty arising from multiplicity,
however, is that of political authority and leadership (wilayat
The best way to approach this concern is to consider the
status of the fuqaha who are entitled to political authority.
Wilayat al-faqih defines the criteria required of a ruler, and
maintains that anyone who fulfils these qualities has the
right to govern. In principal, authority (wilayat) does not
demand any extra conditions. However, to be practically
applied such authority requires suitable political
circumstances and the recognition of the people. According
Shia Political Thought
to Imami doctrine, if Muslims appoint a just and capable
jurist as their leader, then other fuqaha are obliged to support
him and obey his orders, so long as he fulfils the qualities of
wilayat. This situation is comparable to the relationship
between judges; when one is responsible for a specific case,
though other judges are entitled in principal to perform the
same role, they have no right to interfere in his judgment.
Shia traditions discuss the appointment of the fuqaha as
deputies of the Imam, but they do not endorse or design a
particular method to acknowledge or elect one or more
jurists who possess the wilayat. Article 107 of the
constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, suggests the
following process:
The task of appointing the leader shall be vested with
the experts elected by the people. The experts will
review and consult among themselves concerning all
the religious men possessing the qualifications
specified in Article 5 and 109. In the event they find
one of them better versed in Islamic regulations or in
political and social issues or possessing general
popularity…they shall elect him as the leader.
The Dominion of the Wali al-Faqih
When considering that wilayat al-faqih represents the
keystone of Imami political doctrine in the Era of Greater
Occultation, it is essential that we assess the scope and
domain of its authority. For our present subject, we must
take into account the power of other religious authorities
amongst the Imamis; the marja’ai. Does the wali al-faqih
have authority (wilayat) only over those who accept him as
their marja’a, or those who imitate marja’ai that support the
idea of wilayat al-amma?
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 89
Aside from the relationship between the wali al-faqih as a
political leader and other fuqaha as marja’ai, it is also
important to gauge the authority of the wali al-faqih
regarding the shari’a. Is he only able to issue orders within
the framework of the Islamic legal system, or is he fully
authorized to make decisions even if they contradict the
shari’a? In other words, is his license as a ruler defined by
the shari’a, or is his authority above the shari’a and therefore
We can structure our analysis around two significant
aspects; the people’s respect for his orders, and his respect
for the Islamic legal system (shari’a). However, before
proceeding with this discussion, we should review two
important points.
Firstly, unlike Imamate, which is considered as a
fundamental aspect of belief (aqueeda) in Shi’ism, wilayat
al-faqih is a juridical (fiqh) subject matter. What
distinguishes a fiqhi discussion from a theological (kalam)
one, is that while the latter concerns issues of belief
(disagreement upon which would render an individuals
belief imperfect), the former is legal and thus subject to
divergence of opinion even amongst the scholars of a
particular Islamic sect (as disagreement in these issues does
not invalidate belief). Hence, there can be disagreement on
the universal authority of the jurist, as a juridical (fiqh)
discussion and such disputes are not concerned with faith
Secondly, a necessary distinction must be made between a
fatwa (religious decree) and hukm (order). As previously
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stated, a decree, deduced from Islamic sources and issued by
a qualified faqih – fatwa – is valid and reliable for those who
refer to him as their marja’a taqleed (religious authority),
thus it is binding upon them to obey his fatwa. However,
those who refer to other scholars as religious authorities are
not obliged to observe this ruling. But an order (hukm)
issued by the wali al-faqih is binding upon all Muslims, not
merely his followers, regardless of how far his political
authority might reach. Therefore, a command issued by a
jurist as wali al-qada in the administration of justice is
obligatory for everyone, even other fuqaha, because the just
and capable jurist is appointed as hakim (wali). This opinion
is supported by a tradition from Imam as-Sadiq (pbuh), in
which Umar ibn Hanzala transmits that the Imam prohibited
his followers (Shia) to recourse to a tyrannical or illegitimate
authority (taghut) to resolve their affairs. Instead they are
obliged to refer to one who relates the traditions of the
Ahlul-Bayt and knows what is lawful and prohibited (i.e. a
faqih). Imam as-Sadiq (pbuh) said:
I have appointed him a hakim over you. If such a
person orders (judges) according to our ruling and
the person concerned does not accept it, then he has
shown contempt for the ruling of God and rejects us;
and he who rejects us, actually rejects Allah and such
a person is close to association [Shirk] with Allah.41
In this tradition, Imam as-Sadiq (pbuh) addresses the role of
a just faqih (hakim) who has been entrusted with authority
by the infallible Imam. According to this hadith, the people
are not allowed to recourse to an illegitimate or oppressive
41 Muhammad ibn Hassan al-Tusi, Tahzib al-Ahkam, Kitab ul-Qad’a,
Volume 6, p. 218, Hadith 514.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 91
authority for the resolution of their problems. Instead they
are required to refer to the wali (hakim) and obey his
decisions, regardless of whether or not he is their marja’a
Such as solution, however, hardly seems convincing for
those who do not accept wilayat al-amma. One might argue
that the wali al-faqih issues commands (hukm) based upon
his own opinion (fatwa) that the authority of the jurist is
universal (wilayat al-amma), while according to the view of
another marja’a the scope of a jurists authority is limited and
he is not designated to undertake political affairs. According
to this view, the tradition of Umar ibn Hanzala and others do
not include these kinds of orders.
However, this reasoning presents obvious problems that
extend far beyond the governmental orders (hukm) of a
jurist. For instance, when administering justice (wilayat alqada)
a faqih issues an order according to his own religious
decree (fatwa), however there is no excuse for people to
disregard or disobey his command on the grounds that he is
not their marja’a. This is because the authority to judge (alqada)
and the authority to issue decrees (al-ifta) are
independent of one another, thus the role of the judge cannot
be infringed by the edict of a marja’a (as the marja’a is not
the judge of that legal case). Furthermore, although the
opponents of wilayat al-amma maintain that the designation
of the faqih as the Imam’s deputy does not extend to
political authority (wilayat al-siyasiyya), this surely cannot
imply that if the people elect a just and capable faqih as their
leader, instead of an unjust person, that his leadership is
some how illegitimate and people are free to disobey. We
Shia Political Thought
will return to this point in the next chapter when examining
the authority of a faqih endorsed by ‘hisbah’.
We noted earlier that the debate surrounding the authority of
the wali al-faqih has two significant aspects. The second of
these – the relationship between the faqih’s commands and
shari’a – is a very new discussion in Imami political
jurisprudence, whereas the first aspect has been discussed by
many fuqaha. Imam Khomeini was perhaps the first Imami
faqih who explicitly and publicly discussed the connection
between governmental orders (ahkam al-hukmati) and
Islamic laws (ahkam al-shari’). He firmly advocated the
absolute authority of the faqih (wilayat al-mutlaqa) and it is
essential that we briefly clarify the definition of this term to
avoid any misconceptions.
Al-Wilayat al-Mutlaqa
When one first encounters the idea that a jurist has an
unlimited and absolute scope of authority (wilayat almutlaqa)
in issuing governmental orders, it is easy to dismiss
the model of political regime as “absolutism”, which is
defined in the Oxford political dictionary as follows:
Originally (1733) a theological concept referring to
God's total power to decide about salvation. Extended
to politics indicating a regime in which the ruler
might legitimately decide anything. Usually applied to
monarchical regimes of the early modern period.42
42 Iain McLean, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, Oxford
University Press, 1996, p. 1.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 93
This misinterpretation often leads to the false assumption
that there are no controls, restrictions or limitations upon the
powers of the faqih; his authority is unquestionable and he
can exert himself without regard to the demands of the
shari'a or the interests of his people. He has no duty to
respect the various kinds criteria and standards for his
governance. This is similar to a dictatorial model of
government, which is an absolute rule unrestricted by law,
constitution or other political, religious or moral factors
within the society and state. Clearly this interpretation of
absolute authority is not correct even when considering the
Prophet (pbuh) and the Infallible Imams. A faqih as wali
must meet certain criteria, one of which is justice. The above
conception of wilayat al-mutlaqa obviously contradicts the
idea of justice and such a person has no legitimate authority
(wilayat) over believers. The precise and correct
understanding of ‘wilayat al-mutlaqa’ has a close
relationship to discussion about the nature and various kinds
of ‘command’ (hukm) in Imami Jurisprudence, especially
the faqih’s injunction as wali (al-hukm al-hukmati) and its
position among commands of shari'a.
i) Divine Laws (Al-Hukm as-Shari’)
This refers to a set of rules and commands legislated by God
and expressed to people through the Prophet Muhammad
and his successors. Hukm al-Shari’ is usually divided by
Muslim Jurists into two divisions. The first part is called ‘alahkam
al-taklifi’ which is the laws of duty and in turn
divides into five divisions (obligation, prohibition,
desirability, undesirability and permissibility or ‘mubah’).
The second part is called ‘al-ahkam al-waz'i’ which
establishes specific relationships and situations (waz') that
are subject to particular divine laws. For instance, marriage,
Shia Political Thought
ownership, purity and uncleanness are all situations that the
Islamic legal system endorses and defines in particular
matters and circumstances - usually al-hukm al-waz'i is
subject to particular laws of duty. Divine laws also are called
the first order laws (al-ahkam al-awaliya) because deeds and
things by themselves - with no regard to temporal and
unexpected accidents - are subjects to these laws and
legislation of Islam.
ii) The Judge's Command (Al-Hukm al-Qadi)
Even though the legal decision of Judge (faqih) is issued
with consideration of the shari'a and decrees of Islam, it is
not a component of the shari'a. The judge’s role is merely
the execution (tanfidh) and application of Islamic law to
juridical cases. In administration of justice, the faqih as
Judge does not deduce Islamic laws rather he attempts to
apply the most appropriate laws to the situation.
iii) Governmental Orders (Al-Hukm al-Wilai)
Supporters of universal authority (wilayat al-amma) do not
restrict the orders (hukm) of the faqih to merely the
administration of justice. As a hakim, the jurist may issue
orders and it is incumbent upon all Muslims, even other
fuqaha, to obey them. These include his edicts concerning
the beginning of Ramadhan or the application of legal
penalties (hudud). The best examples of orders that fall into
this category are the governmental commands that the faqih
may issue as the political leader of a society. The wali alfaqih
may issue orders regarding situations that he
recognizes as affecting the interests of Islam, Muslims and
Islamic laws and values. A situation may arise in which the
wali al-faqih can issue an order based on the interest
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 95
(maslahat) of the people, even though in principal the action
would not otherwise be compulsory in shari’a.
Two crucial questions arise regarding these orders. The first
concerns the nature of the order; whether the governmental
command is categorized as the ‘first order’ of the shari’a, or
as the ‘second order’ (al-akham as-sanavy). The second
question concerns the scope of such orders. A faqih may
issue an obligatory or prohibitive order regarding matters
that are considered permissible (mubah) and for which there
is no prior obligation (for doing or not doing it) in Islamic
law. However, a dispute arises about whether or not the
faqih may issue orders that disregard the commands of the
shari’a. Since the answer to the latter of these questions
emerges from the former, it is necessary to explain what we
mean by ‘second order’ commands (akham as-sanavy).
iv) Al-Hukm al-Awaly and al-Hukm al-Sanavy
The actions that we commit according to our free will are
subject to one of the following categories in shari’a, namely
obligation (wajib), prohibition (haraam), desirability
(mustahab), undesirability (makruh) and simple
permissibility (mubah). These ‘first order’ laws (al-ahkam
al-awaly) are determined by the law giver (hakim) upon
considering the essence and natural status of deeds and
things. However, in exceptional situations and under
circumstances in which people should not or cannot respect
previous legislations, new rulings must be issued. These
temporal laws are legislated according to the demands made
by exceptional situations, and are called laws of 'the second
order' (al-ahkam al-sanavy). They are secondary and
temporal because people must revert to obeying the first
order laws as soon as the exceptional circumstances return to
Shia Political Thought
normal. For instance, according to shari'a it is not
permissible for Muslims to eat “carrion” (dead animals) or
the meat of animals not ritually slaughtered. It is a first order
command, but in a dire situation when a person has nothing
to eat at all, God permits him or her to eat such meat, this
permission is a second order law. The Qur’an says:
He has only forbidden you what dies of itself, and
blood, and flesh of swine, and that over which any
other (name) other than (that of) Allah has been
invoked, but whoever is driven to necessity, not
desiring, nor exceeding the limit, no sin shall be upon
him. [Chapter 2, Verse 173]
Fuqaha usually cite ‘necessity’ (ezterar), damage (zarar),
distress and constriction (usr wa haraj), disorder of the
Muslim's system (ekhtelal al-nidham) and compulsion
(ekrah) as the major exceptional topics that demand and
require second order laws, as reasons for reverting to laws of
‘the second order’. The prevailing conception amongst
Imami Jurists emphasizes that the governmental orders
should be issued by the faqih only in one of the
aforementioned exceptional situations because al-hukm alhukmati
is but a second order command.
When we consider this opinion, the answer to the second
question – which is the relationship between governmental
order and shari'a - is very clear. In a normal situation, the
faqih has no right to issue orders in opposition to obligatory
(either haraam or wajib) first order laws, even if the interest
(maslahat) of the Muslims demands thus. In other words,
interest as such cannot justify governmental orders when
they are on the contrary with Islamic obligatory laws.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 97
However, situations in which the interest (maslahat)
becomes so serious that ignorance of it could cause
significant damage, distress and constriction or disorder,
would allow the Wali al-faqih to issue these orders.
Ayatollah Khomeini, in a revolutionary view, stated that
although the implementation of shari'a is very important, it is
not the ultimate goal. Islamic laws (shari'a) serve as a means
to achieve the primary aim embodied in the protection of
Islam and the extension of Justice. For him the Islamic State
is not merely one part of Islam amongst others, but it is
Islam itself. Consequently the significance of Islamic laws is
overshadowed by the significance of protecting the Islamic
system and the interest (maslahat) of Islam. He expressed
the view during his lectures in Iraq - the seminary of Najaf -
years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran he explored this view
more explicitly. In his famous letter to Ayatollah Khamenei
(the current wali al-faqih), he insists that the authority of the
Prophet and Imams to govern is not only a first order divine
law but also it has priority over others such as praying,
fasting, Hajj and so on. He writes:
The government or the absolute guardianship (alwilayat
al-mutlaqa) that is delegated to the noblest
messenger of Allah is the most important divine laws
and has priority over all other ordinances of the law.
If the powers of the government restricted to the
framework of ordinances of the law then the
delegation of the authority to the Prophet would be a
senseless phenomenon. I have to say that government
is a branch of the Prophet's absolute Wilayat and one
Shia Political Thought
of the primary (first order) rules of Islam that has
priority over all ordinances of the law even praying,
fasting and Hajj...The Islamic State could prevent
implementation of everything - devotional and nondevotional
- that so long as it seems against Islam's
Unlike conditional authority (wilayat al-muqayada) that
restricts the right of the faqih for issuing governmental
orders solely in permissibility cases (mubahat), wilayat almutlaqa,
by definition, is a juridical view concerning the
dominion of the just faqih to issue governmental orders even
if it is in opposition with some obligatory Islamic laws.
As has become clear from the current discussion, the
meaning of wilayat al-mutlaqa is totally different from
‘absolutism’ and the establishment of a totalitarian and
dictatorial government. Some qualifications and conditions
are essential for the wali al-faqih such as justice, piety and
the necessary socio-political perspicacity. So, if he fails to
meet one of them, he will be dismissed. In the constitution of
Islamic Republic of Iran a group of experts elected by
people supervise and control the leader. This constitution in
article 111 says:
Whenever the leader becomes incapable of fulfilling
his constitutional duties, or loses one of the
qualifications mentioned in Article 5 and 109, or it
becomes known that he did not possess some of the
qualifications initially, he will be dismissed. The
43 Sahife’ Noor (letters and lectures of Ayatollah Khomeini), Volume 20,
p. 170.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 99
authority of determination in this matter with the
experts specified in Article 108.
As I indicated before, in Imami Political Jurisprudence
‘wilayat al-mutlaqa’ is a new term. Imami fuqaha usually
use other terms such as ‘wilayat al-amma’ and ‘neyabat al-
Amma’ to refer to the authority of faqih. Imam Khomeini
applied the term publicly, then in 1990 it was enshrined in
the constitution of Islamic Iran. Article 57 says:
The power of government in the Islamic Republic are
vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the
executive powers, functioning under the supervision of
the absolute religious leader and the leadership of the
Wilayat al-Faqih and other Ideas of Guardianship
Perhaps Plato was the first political theorist who presented a
comprehensive guardianship model of government. In the
‘Republic’, he states that political knowledge is a supreme
art that aims to realize the good of the community. Attaining
that knowledge requires serious training. Thus, men and
women must be carefully selected and rigorously trained in
order to achieve excellence in the art and science of politics.
This serious training renders a few of them a class of ‘true
philosophers’44, who deserve to rule the society. Therefore,
44 Grube maintains that Plato does not mean by ‘philosopher king’ the
professional sense that at present the word ‘philosopher’ purport, he says:
‘Plato does not mean that the world should be ruled by pale
metaphysicians from the remoteness of their studies, he is maintaining that
a statesman needs to be a thinker, a lover of truth, beauty and the Good,
with a highly developed sense of values’.
Plato, Plato’s Republic, G.M.A. Grube (tr), Indianapolis, 1974, n 13,
Shia Political Thought
the ideal Republic will come into existence if a class of
guardians (Philosopher Kings) rules over it.
In the history of political thought, various interpretations of
the guardianship model of the State have been suggested,
Marxist-Leninism and all the political ideologies which
believe in an organized group of revolutionaries, a vanguard,
who possess the sufficient knowledge and commitment to
overcome capitalism and to lead the working class to
establish a socialist and non-class society are samples of the
guardianship political theory.
Obviously, Shia political doctrine should be categorized as a
guardianship model of government because it believes that
only those who have specific qualifications (infallible ones
or their deputies) have a right to govern the community. For
Imamism the problem of leadership is not the question of
people’s elections. People have to accept and believe in
divinely designated leadership just like the Prophecy in
order for it to be practical. Since the fuqaha are generally
designated as guardians, the role of the people within the
period of occultation increases. They have a duty to
acknowledge their governor among the fuqaha directly or
through a selected group of fuqaha. Nevertheless, this
participation of people does not render wilayat al-faqih a
purely democratic and non-guardianship theory of State.
Robert Dahl is quite right when he states that:
No single interpretation can do justice to the
variations among the many different visions of
45 Robert Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press, 1989, p.
What is Wilayat al-Faqih? 101
However, what he mentions at the beginning of his
discussion could be recognized as the central point of the
vision of guardianship:
The assumption by democrats that ordinary people
are qualified, they, (advocates of guardianship) say
ought to be replaced by the opposing proposition that
rulership should be entrusted to a minority of persons
who are specially qualified to govern by reason of
their superior knowledge and virtue.46
Indeed, the theory of ‘wilayat al-faqih’, which is in
embodied in the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the first actual
experience of Shia political ideology, is mixed between
guardianship and democracy. While the authority of the
faqih and the supervision of Islamic laws and values over all
political and social functions of the government emphasise
the guardianship dimension of this political system, the
approval of representative democracy and the participation
of people in electing members of the Assembly of Experts
(who choose and can remove the wilayat al-faqih’),
parliament, president and many parts and local councils,
show the democratic aspect of this political ideology. Article
56 of the constitution emphasizes people’s sovereignty:
Absolute sovereignty over the word and man belongs
to God, and it is He who has made man master of his
own social destiny. No one can deprive man of this
Divine right, nor subordinate it to the vested interests
of a particular individual or group. The people are to
46 Ibid., p. 52.
Shia Political Thought
exercise this Divine right in the manner specified in
the following Article.
This chapter aimed to clarify the conception of wilayat alfaqih
and its historical background amongst Imami jurists.
The next chapter will concentrate on the problem of
justification and examine how the advocates of this political
theory legitimize it.
Chapter Three
Why Wilayat al-Faqih?
In the previous chapter, we encountered the absolute priority
of God as a fundamental component of Imami political
doctrine. After all, it is He who has accorded the Holy
Prophet and the Imams (peace be upon them) the authority
to lead and govern the Islamic society (ummah), and
‘wilayat al-faqih’ is an extension of this authority. However,
while the wilayat of the Imams has traditionally been
verified according to Islamic theology (kalam), the
guardianship of the jurists (wilayat al-faqih) is almost
exclusively discussed within the sphere of jurisprudence
(fiqh). Hence the universal authority of the faqih (wilayat alamma)
must be substantiated according to ijtihad (juridical
reasoning). This method shall be referred to as an “internal
justification” as it is intended to convince those who already
accept the basic principals of the Shia creed. On the other
hand, wilayat al-faqih, as a political model of guardianship,
must be able to justify itself amongst other political
ideologies; especially the democratic theories that essentially
criticize any guardianship form of state. This approach is
what we shall refer to as the “external justification” for the
theory of wilayat al-faqih, and we shall return to it later.
The internal justification relies primarily on religious
traditions narrated from the Holy Prophet and Imams,
although some jurists also refer to rational arguments as
well. Consequently, from the basis of Islamic jurisprudence,
Shia Political Thought
the authority of the faqih may be established according to
sunnah (traditions) and reason (daleel al-aql).
Traditional Evidences for Wilayat al-Faqih
Imami jurists usually refer to a set of reports from the
Prophet Muhammad and the Imams to establish wilayat alamma
for the fuqaha. We shall examine a few of them here.
A Signet Letter (Tuqih)1 from the Absent Imam
One of the most reliable traditions adduced by scholars2 for
the purpose of this discussion is a report from the twelfth
and absent Imam (May God hasten his reappearance).
Shaykh al-Sadiq transmits in his book ‘Ikmal al-Deen wa
itmam an-Ni'ma’ that Ishaq ibn Yaqub wrote a letter to the
absent Imam asking him about some concerns that he had.
The Imam's deputy (Muhammad ibn Uthman al-Umari)
conveyed the letter to him. The Imam replied:
As for events that may occur (al-hawadith al-waqi'a)
[when you may need guidance] refer to the
transmitters (ruwat) of our teachings who are my
hujjah (proof) to you and I am the proof of God
(Hujjatullah) to you all.3
1 Tuqih as a word means seal and signature and in Islamic historical books
and in the history of Hadith the term applies to the letters issued by Imams
especially letters and decrees of the absent Imam declared through his four
particular deputies.
2 For example, Shaikh Muhammad Hassan in Jawaher al-Kalam, Volume
15, p. 422, Shaikh Morteza Ansari in al-Aada wa al-Shahadat, p. 46,
Shaikh Morteza Haeri in Salat al-Jum’a, p. 154, Kashif al-Qeta in al-
Ferdus al-A’la, p. 54.
3 Shaikh al-Saduq, Ikmal al-Din, Ali Akbar al-Qafari (ed), Qom, 1405AH,
Volume 2, Chapter 45, p. 483.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 105
Shaykh al-Tusi also transmits the narration in the book ‘al-
Qayba’4 and other collections of Imami ahadith report the
tradition from the books mentioned above.
Advocates of wilayat al-faqih often refer to the second part
of the tradition, namely, “they are my proof to you, and I am
the proof of God to you all” to establish the authority of the
fuqaha. However, some scholars (such as Imam Khomeini)
maintain that the first part of the hadith may also be used to
establish the authority of the faqih. The first section of this
narration encourages people to ask those who relate the
traditions of the Imams (peace be upon them) about any new
occurrences that they encounter. It is highly unlikely that
Ishaq ibn Yaqub asked the Imam about what was to be done
regarding religious questions; even ordinary Shia would
know that in these cases of fiqh (jurisprudence) one should
refer to the fuqaha (jurists). In fact, according to some
narrations, people would recourse to the students of an Imam
during his lifetime. Therefore, Ishaq must have been
referring to something other than this by his question about
‘al-hawadith al-waqi’a’, Imam Khomeini says:
What is meant by hawadith al-waqi'a is rather the
newly arising problems that affect the people and
Muslims. The question Ishaq ibn Yaqub was implicitly
posing was this: now that we no longer have access to
you, what should we do with respect to social
problems? What is our duty?5
It is necessary to establish what the Imam meant by ‘ruwat’
(narrators), when he commands his followers to refer to the
4 Muhammad ibn Hassan al-Tusi, Kitab al-Qayba, Qom, 1411AH, p. 290.
5 Imam Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, p. 85.
Shia Political Thought
narrators of traditions with respect to these new
circumstances. After all, it is self evident that people who
merely transmit traditions and narrate what they have seen
and heard, without a comprehensive understanding of the
science of ahadith or jurisprudence, are not qualified to
undertake this duty. Therefore the Imam must have been
referring to the fuqaha (jurists) who are experts in the
interpretation and explanation of Islamic sources.
We mentioned earlier that most Imami jurists usually refer to
the second part of this tradition to establish the guardianship
of the jurists. The statement makes clear that fuqaha (ruwat)
act as the proof (hujjah) of the Imam in all matters in which
the Imam acts as the proof of Allah. Imam Khomeini
describes a ‘proof of God’ (or hujjah) as someone who God
has designated to conduct affairs; all his deeds, actions and
sayings constitute a proof for the Muslims. If the proof
commands you to perform a certain act and you fail to obey
him, or if despite the existence of the proof, you turn to
oppressive authorities for the solution of your affairs, then
God almighty will advance a proof against you on the Day
of Judgment.6
In summary, being a hujjat implies the authority of one over
his followers, and hence the injunctions of the holder of such
a status must be complied with. Since the Imam as God's
hujjat (the ‘proof’ that Allah will not accept any excuses for
disobeying) has designated the fuqaha as his hujjah, the
commands and directives of the fuqaha are as those of the
6 Ibid., p. 86.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 107
With regards to its chain of transmission (sanad), the only
issue that arises is the existence of Ishaq ibn Yaqub. There is
no particular attestation of him found in the Imami books of
biography (Ela al-Rejal). Hence the question may be raised,
how can we be certain that the letter was really issued by the
Imam and that Ibn Yaqub received the letter? There is a
difference between reporting an ordinary transmission and
the claim that one has received a special letter from the
Imam in the era of the minor occultation, during which,
access to him is only possible through his appointed deputy.
The key point, however, is that many great Imami scholars
such as Shaykh Sadiq, Shaykh Tusi and specially Shaykh
Kolayni, who were alive during the era of the minor
occultation (and were experts in ahadith) mention the
tradition as ‘tuqih’ which is sufficient evidence for a valid
chain of transmission.7
Maqbula of Umar ibn Hanzala
According to the science of ahadith, the ‘maqbula’ is a
narration that has been accepted by fuqaha as a valid
tradition without examining the authenticity or weakness of
its chain of transmission. In other words, even though some
of those who appear as its transmitters may be weak and
unreliable, some evidences that support the soundness of the
text compel the fuqaha to ignore such weakness.
Umar ibn Hanzala, who was a disciple of Imam as-Sadiq
(pbuh) said:8
7 Seyed Kazim Haeri, Wilayat al-Amr fi asr al-Qayba, Qom, Majma al-
Fikr al-Islami, 1415AH, pp. 123-124.
8 Shaikh al-Kolayni reports the tradition in Al-Kafi, Kitab al-Fazl al-Elm,
Chapter of Ekhtelaf al-Hadith, Volume 1, p. 67 also Al-Tusi, Tahzib al-
Ahkam , Kitab al-Qada, Volume 6, p. 218, Hadith 514.
Shia Political Thought
I asked Imam Sadiq whether it was permissible for
two of the Shia who had a disagreement concerning a
debt or an inheritance to seek the verdict of the ruler
or judge. He replied: 'anyone who has recourse to
taghut [i.e. The illegitimate ruling power], whatever
he obtains as a result of their verdict, he will have
obtained by forbidden means, even if he has a proven
right to it. For he will have obtained it through the
verdict and judgment of the taghut, the power that
almighty God has commanded him to disbelieve in.
“They wish to seek justice from illegitimate powers,
even though they have been commanded to disbelieve
therein”. [Al-Qur’an, Chapter 4, Verse 60]
Umar ibn Hanzala then asked what was the correct action for
two the Shia to take under such circumstances. Imam Sadiq
They must seek out one of you who narrates our
traditions, who is versed in what is permissible and
what is forbidden, who is well acquainted with our
laws and ordinances, and accept him as judge and
arbiter, for I appoint him as hakim [judge].9
No Imami jurist disputes that this tradition firmly establishes
the authority of a faqih with regards to the administration of
justice (wilayat al-qada). However, many leading scholars
such as Mirza al-Nayini, Sayyid Mohammad Reza
Gulpaayigani, Shaykh al-Ansari10 and Imam Khomeini
believe that the text does not confine the authority of a faqih
9 Translated in Islam and Revolution, p. 93.
10 In Kitab al-Qada wa al-Shahadat, p. 48.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 109
to wilayat al-qada. They assert that the Imam designated the
faqih as trustees of universal authority (wilayat al-amma)
when he said: “I appoint him [faqih] as hakim [judge]”
However, a judge's role is not limited to merely resolving
disagreements amongst the people; their conflicts and
disagreements compel them to not only recourse to judges,
but also to possessors of political power. The tradition of
Imam Sadiq (pbuh) unconditionally prohibits any referral to
illegitimate authorities (taghut) and there is no reason to
assume that the Imam solely commanded his followers not
to refer to judges appointed by an illegitimate government,
while allowing them to recourse to the same government for
the regulation of their affairs. By appointing the faqih as
hakim, the Imam made it incumbent upon all Shia to refuse
any kind of recourse to illegitimate authority. Hence in all
aspects of disagreement it is necessary for them to refer to a
faqih, whether it is in a governmental or judicial capacity.
There are no problems surrounding this hadith’s chain of
transmission. All of the transmitters (Muhammad ibn Yahya,
Muhammad ibn al-Hussain, Muhammad ibn Isa, Safvan ibn
Yahya and Dawood ibn al-Husayn) are reliable. And
although there is no specific confirmation that Umar ibn
Hanzala himself existed, fuqaha generally accept this and
other transmissions from him.
The Tradition of Abu Khadija
Fuqaha such as Imam Khomeini and Shaykh Muhammad
Hassan11 appeal to a famous transmission that was narrated
by Abu Khadija (who was one of Imam Sadiq's
11 In Jawaher al-Kalam, Volume 21, p. 395 and Volume 40, p. 17.
Shia Political Thought
companions), to argue in favor of wilayat al-amma. The
tradition is mentioned by Shaykh Tusi, Shaykh Sadiq, and
Shaykh Kolayni. According to them, Abu Khadija said:
I was commanded by the Imam [Ja'far as-Sadiq
(pbuh)] to convey the following message to our
friends [Shia]: 'when enmity and dispute arise among
you, or you disagree concerning the receipt or
payment of a sum of money, be sure not to refer the
matter to one of these malefactors for judgment.
Designate as judge and arbiter someone amongst you
who is acquainted with our junctions concerning what
is permitted and what is prohibited, for I appoint such
a man as judge over you. Let none of you take your
complaint against another of you to the tyrannical
ruling power.12
The explanation of the argument here is similar to the
previous narration. Even though the Imam says: “I appoint
such a man as judge”, a statement that explicitly concerns
wilayat al-qada, it is essential to recognize that the final
section of this transmission is not merely a repetition. Rather
it is a prohibition of recourse to tyrannical authorities in
matters relating to the executive. In the first instance, the
Imam has commanded his followers to turn away from
illegitimate judges, while in the second he has prohibited
them from referring to other illegitimate powers with regard
to non-judicial issues. This indicates that the appointment of
a faqih is necessary in all matters of judgment and of
12 Al-Kolayni, Al-Foru’ men al-Kafi, Kitab al-Qada, Volume 7, p. 412;
Al-Tusi, Al-Tahzib, Kitab al-Qada, Volume 6, p. 303; Shaikh al-Saduq,
Man la Yahzoruhu al-Faqih, Volume 3, p. 2.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 111
Many experts in the field of biography (Elm al-Rejal) testify
that Abu Khadija is a trustworthy narrator. In addition, the
hadith is well known amongst the fuqaha and classified as
mashureh (famous), consequently there is no problem
regarding its chain of transmission.
One might suppose that the designations issued by Imam
Sadiq in the previous two traditions are temporal and limited
to his lifetime. This possibility is based on the assumption
that his successors may have dismissed the fuqaha from
authority, just as the successors of a ruler may dismiss his
previous commands. However, this supposition obviously
overlooks the status of Imams within Imami Shi’ism; their
commands and instructions are not equitable to those of an
average ruler and their orders must be obeyed both during
their lifetime and after their death. Furthermore, Imam as-
Sadiq referred to a verse of the Qur’an (4:60), which ordains
disbelief in taghut (oppressive authority) and prohibits any
recourse to illegitimate government as a ground for his
designation of the fuqaha as ‘hakim’. This is a strong
indication that his edict is not restricted to a specific time,
and that it is forever obligatory for people to turn away from
tyrannical authorities.
These three traditions are considered reliable and act as solid
foundations for the establishment of wilayat al-amma.
Nevertheless there are some disagreements amongst Imami
jurists pertaining to the transmission and interpretation of the
texts. Most critics maintain that the above-mentioned
traditions confirm little more than the administration of
justice (wilayat al-qada) by the fuqaha.
Shia Political Thought
Aside from the three aforementioned traditions, advocates of
wilayat al-amma also appeal to a set of transmissions that,
although too weak to prove the universal guardianship of the
faqih by themselves, certainly reinforce and verify the
The First Tradition: The Sound Transmission of Qadah
Ali bin Ibrahim, from his father, from Hamad bin Eisa from
Qadah (Abd al-Allah bin Maimun) from Imam Sadiq (pbuh),
who narrated the Prophet (pbuh) as saying:
The superiority of the learned man over the mere
worshipper is like that of the full moon over the stars.
Truly the ulema (scholars) are the heirs of the
Prophet (pbuh); the prophets bequeathed not gold
(dinar) and silver (dirham) instead they bequeathed
knowledge, and whoever acquires it has indeed
acquired a generous portion of their legacy.13
According to this tradition, the just and pious religious
scholars (ulema) are the heirs of the Prophet; consequently,
they must fulfil all the attributes and responsibilities that
Allah designated for him (aside from receiving the divine
revelation). Hence they are entrusted with maintaining his
authority (wilayat) and the integrity of Islam. And, as has
become clear from previous discussions, the Prophet has
been appointed as the guardian and leader of the ummah. As
the Qur’an says:
The Prophet has higher claims over the believers than
their own selves. [Chapter 33, Verse 6]
13 Shaikh al-Kolayni, Al-Kafi, The Book of Virtue of Knowledge, Volume
1, p. 34.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 113
So his right to rule and govern over the believers is also
entrusted to the scholars.
Critics believe that the tradition discusses the knowledge
rather than the status of the prophets. So the scholars are the
heirs of the Prophet in the field of knowledge. The hadiths’
chain of transmission is sound and the fuqaha usually accept
The Second Tradition: Saduqs’ Morsala14.
Shaykh Saduq in several of his many books mentions the
following hadith:
Imam Ali narrated the Prophet (pbuh) saying: “O
God! Have mercy on those that succeed me”
[Kholaphayi]. He repeated this twice and was then
asked: “O Messenger of Allah, who are these that
succeed you?” He replied: “They are those that come
after me, transmit my traditions and practice and
teach them to the people after me.”15
The interpretation of this tradition is similar to the previous
one. Those who are successors of the Prophet (pbuh) should
have his status (in all areas apart from those such as
receiving divine revelation), as Imam Khomeini says:
To be a successor means to succeed to all the
functions of Prophethood. In this respect, what is
14 In the study of hadith the terminology for a transmission in which the
name of the first transmitter or a number of them has not been mentioned
is called ‘morsal’.
15 Uyun al-Akhbar al-Reda, volume 2, chapter, 31, p. 37 also Ma‘ani al-
Akhbar, p. 374 also Man la Yahzurohu al-Faqih, Volume 4, p. 420.
Shia Political Thought
implied by the sentence, ‘O God! Have mercy on my
successors’ is not less than what is implied by the
sentence: ‘Ali is my successor’, since the meaning of
successorship is the same in both cases.16
The Third Tradition: The Fuqaha are the Trustees of the
Shaykh Kolayni mentions the following hadith from the
Prophet (pbuh):
The fuqaha are the trustees of the Prophets, as long as
they do not concern themselves with the world
(dunya). The Prophet was asked: ‘what is the sign
with their concern to this world?’ He replied: ‘By
seeing whether they follow Kings (sultans). If they do
that, then fear for your religion’.17
The argument is that the fuqaha are trustees of the Prophet
not merely with respect to deducing Islamic laws, but with
all the duties and functions of the Prophet (pbuh) and this
encompasses the establishment of a religious government
and a just social system.
The Fourth Tradition: The Ulema are the Rulers
Amody transmits a tradition from the Commander of the
faithful, Ali (pbuh):
The ulema [scholars] are the rulers [hakim] over
16 Imam Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, p. 72.
17 Kolayni, al-Kafi, Volume 1, p. 46.
18 Amodi, Qorar al-Hekam, Volume 1, p. 137, 506.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 115
The meaning of this tradition explicitly supports wilayat alamma,
but the chain of transmission is weak.
The Fifth Tradition: Imam Hussain’s Sermon
During a sermon about enjoining good and forbidding evil,
Imam Hussein (pbuh) addressed the scholars and said:
…The disaster that has befallen you is greater than
what has befallen others, for the true rank and degree
ulema has been taken away from you. The
administration of the country and the issuing of orders
should actually be entrusted to religious scholars
(ulema) who are guardians of the rights of God and
knowledgeable about Gods ordinances concerning
what is permitted and what is forbidden. But your
position has been usurped from you, for no other
reason than you have abandoned the pivot of truth
and have disagreed about the nature of the sunnah,
despite the existence of clear proofs. If you were
strong in the face of torturing and suffering and
prepared to endure hardship for God’s sake, then all
proposed regulations would be brought to you for
your approval and for you to issue.19
If it were not for the weakness of its chain of transmission,
the tradition would have been the most explicit verification
wilayat al-amma.
19 Harrani ibn Shobeh, Tohaf al-Uqul, Qom, 1404AH, Volume 1, p. 238.
Shia Political Thought
The Sixth Hadith: The Fuqaha are the Fortress of Islam
Shaykh Kolayni mentions the tradition from Imam Kazim
Believers who are fuqaha are the fortresses of Islam,
like the encircling walls that protect a city.20
The statement, which is that the fuqaha are the fortresses of
Islam, means that fuqaha have a duty to protect Islam. They
must do whatever is necessary to fulfil that duty hence they
need to follow the Prophet as a good example for every
believer. The Qur’an says:
Certainly there is for you in them a good example, for
him who fears Allah and the last day. [Chapter 60,
Verse 6]
The Prophet (pbuh) as the fortress of Islam did not restrict
himself for training and teaching to protect Islam, rather he
undertook socio-political duties and functions as well, hence
all the tasks entrusted to the Prophet Muhammad must also
be fulfilled by the well qualified fuqaha, as a matter of duty
to become the true fortresses of Islam.
Wilayat al-Amma as Hisbah
By referring to textual evidences (the Qur’an and ahadith),
advocates of universal authority (wilayat al-amma) intend to
illustrate that well qualified fuqaha not only have priority
over others to govern the believers, but are also explicitly
designated as guardians (wali) of the Muslim community.
However, some Imami jurists maintain that even when you
20 Al-Kolayni, Al-Kafi, Volume 1, p. 38.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 117
overlook the traditional proofs of wilayat al-faqih, one can
establish the same authority for the faqih by considering
‘hisbah’. Although this method of reasoning cannot confirm
the designation of the faqih as wali, it does emphasize the
priority of the fuqaha to undertake these social duties and
makes clear that their authority is legitimate.
‘Hisbah’ as a word literally means reward or spiritual wage,
and it is usually applied to deeds that are done to please God
and seek heavenly reward (thawab). In Islamic
jurisprudence, this term refers to something that God is not
willing to ignore or overlook. For instance, there are people
who are minors or suffer from insanity, who are unable to
discharge their own affairs and need someone to take care of
them. If they have no father or grandfather, someone else
should undertake their responsibilities and since these who
prepare themselves to be in charge of their affairs do that for
the sake of God, it is called ‘hisbah’.
There is an important difference between ‘hisbah’ and what
is referred to as sufficient necessity (wajib al-kefai).
Sufficient necessity is an obligation that everyone one can
fulfil, but if undertaken by a sufficient number of
individuals, other people are relieved of their duty, whereas
‘hisbah’ should be undertaken by the faqih. If a qualified
jurist is not available, then only the just believers (mumineen
adil) have the right to be in charge of such affairs.
Having clarified the meaning of ‘hisbah’, we will now
examine an argument that presupposes the extension of its
denotation. People who adopt this line of reasoning argue
that ‘hisbah’ is not restricted to its traditional examples such
as in the case of minors and the insane. Rather, the
Shia Political Thought
philosophy and reasoning behind such a role demand its
extension to social and political affairs. This argument has
two major premises:
Muslims are obliged to observe the instructions and
prohibitions of Islam in all areas of their personal and social
lives, and some of these realistically require the authority
and apparatus of a state in order to be practically
implemented. Furthermore, it is impermissible for the
believers to allow illegitimate and unjust rulers to govern
their society, while they have the potential to manage their
own affairs independently. From a juridical perspective, this
premise is universally accepted.
A just faqih must undertake the duty of social and political
guardianship for two reasons: either that the traditional
evidences supporting wilayat al-amma are sound, or the just
faqih has priority over others to undertake this duty. The
reason behind this is that no one has the right to establish his
authority over another unless they are qualified to undertake
the duty of ‘hisbah’ (guardianship). And the protection of
Islam and Islamic society is an instance of ‘hisbah’, which
means God is not willing to ignore or overlook it,
consequently well-qualified fuqaha have priority over
ordinary people to bear this responsibility. In other words,
necessarily someone has to undertake the function. We have
two options; either to delegate the authority to those who
have no professional knowledge about Islam or approve the
authority of a just faqih. We have natural misgivings about
the former when the later is feasible. Therefore, the fuqaha
have a duty and a right to fulfil it.21
21 Seyed Kazim Haeri, Wilayat al-Amr fi Asr al-Qayba, p. 96.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 119
Despite the traditional arguments illustrating that the fuqaha
have been designated as wali, this argument merely
establishes the priority of a faqih to be in charge of
governmental affairs similar to other cases of hisbah.
The Rational Argument
Recourse to rational argument has a long history amongst
Shia scholars. Some believe that the rational theory was first
adopted by the Zaydi Shia, al-Qasim ibn Ibrahim (785 -
Medina 860), who argued that divinely appointed political
authority is necessary due to the imperfections of human
nature.22 Mullah Ahmad Naraqi (d. 1829), the author of
‘Avaed al-Ayyam’, was the first Imami jurist who appealed
to logical reasoning to support the concept of universal
authority (wilayat al-amma).
This approach adopts a similar structure to those rational
arguments upon which Shia scholars base the necessity of
Prophethood and Imamate; that it was necessary for God to
appoint some people as Prophets and Imams in order to
provide divine guidance to mankind. Therefore it is only
reasonable to assume that in the absence of such infallible
guidance, God would entrust the responsibilities of religious
and political leadership to those people best qualified to
undertake it as deputies of the absent, infallible Imam.
Two strands of argument are presented as a justification of
wilayat al-faqih. The first of which is an argument consisting
entirely of rational premises without reference to the Qur’an
or traditions, while the second is an argument established by
22 Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, p. 40.
Shia Political Thought
a combination of reasoning and textual evidences. However,
purely rational arguments are generally unable to
definitively establish the prophecy or leadership of a
particular person. Rational arguments must typically consist
of universal, certain and necessary premises, and
consequently, pure reasoning can prove the necessity of
Prophethood and Imamate, although these rational
arguments often encompass an explanation of qualifications
that the ideal leader should have (e.g. sinless or just).
Although there are many different lines of reasoning, it will
suffice here to mention a few of them. In his volume
concerning theology, Avecina (Ibn Sina) presents a
discussion based on the necessity of a well-organised social
order in order to establish the necessity of prophets.23
Although this argument has naturally been appealed to by
Muslim scholars and philosophers in order to establish and
define Prophethood, the addition of some premises gives it
the potential to confirm the necessity of its continuation in
the vicegerency of the fuqaha. The structure of modified
version of the proof is as follows:
1. Man is a social being and therefore necessarily needs
social order to overcome many of his conflicts and
2. Human social life and order should be designed so that it
provides individual social happiness.
3. A set of adequate and perfect laws and the existence of
one who is capable of executing these laws and leading
society are two necessary conditions for the
establishment of an ideal society.
23 Ibn Sina, Al-Shefa, The book of Al-Elahiyat, The 10th Article, Chapter
2, p. 487.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 121
4. It is not in the power of human beings to establish an
ideal, just, and truly well-ordered society without the aid
of God and His divine laws.
5. To avoid any deficiency, interference or possession of
God’s message (revelation), the Prophets who delivers
His message must be infallible.
6. The explanation of the contents of the perfect religion
and the execution of its laws prerequisite the
appointment of infallible Imams.
7. When there is no access to infallible Imams for attaining
the above-mentioned aim (3), the leaders who are just
and are expert in religious knowledge (Just faqih).24
The first four premises prove the necessity of prophecy and
that it is necessary for God to send prophets. The sixth one
extends the reasoning to the question of Imamate and the
necessity of an infallible Imam. And the final premise
establishes the necessity of a qualified religious leader in the
era of the absent Imam.
Another rational argument has been presented by Ayatollah
Borujerdi who applied some historical and religious
premises in his reasoning.
1. The leader and ruler of a society must be entrusted with
the protection of social order and meet the essential
needs of the people.
2. Islam has paid attention to those essential needs and has
legislated suitable laws. The ruler (wali) of Islamic
society is responsible for the execution of these laws.
24 Abdullah Javadi Amoli, Wilayat ul-Faqih, Qom: Esra Publication,
1378AH, pp. 151-152.
Shia Political Thought
3. Within the early period of Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) and
the Imams (pbut) were the legitimate political leaders
and the organisation of political and social affairs was
their duty.
4. The need to regulate social relationships according to
divine laws and values is not confined to a specific
period of time. Rather it is a crucial need for every age
and generation. Certainly when infallible Imams were
present amongst people, they appointed reliable people
as their representatives to undertake Shia social affairs
and prevent their followers from recourse to tyrannical
governments (taghut) for their affairs. The assumption
that Imams encouraged people to avoid referring to
taghut without presenting an alternative solution to their
problems is illogical.
Considering the previous premise, it is also logical that just
fuqaha should be appointed as their representatives and
deputies in the era of greater absence because there are only
three possibilities:
· A non-faqih (one who is not a just faqih) is designated
as the Imam’s deputy. This supposition is obviously
unwise and impractical, as a person lacking the essential
knowledge or qualifications would be unable to provide
· In the era of occultation, Imami have a duty to avoid any
recourse to illegitimate government for their social
affairs, however the Imams did not introduce any
alternative point of reference. This theory is equally
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 123
· The Imam has designated the just faqih as his deputy to
undertake these affairs and that is what we are seeking.25
Before concluding the internal justifications of wilayat alfaqih,
it is necessary for the sake of our discussion to
examine what qualifications a deputy of the Imam must
have. Although we have previously mentioned that only a
well-qualified jurist may be considered the Imam’s deputy
(neyab), we have not yet discussed what qualifications he
requires according to Islamic sources, i.e. Qur’an and
The Characteristics of Wali al-Faqih and the Problem of
When compared to other political doctrines, Imami political
thought has some significant advantages. For example, when
it insists that the ruler of the society must possess specific
characteristics. In modern democratic systems, factors such
as popularity, being telegenic and having the support of a
powerful party and large corporations are the most important
factors, while individual virtues and qualifications are often
neglected. Shia political thought, on the other hand, makes
the personal characteristics of a political leader an essential
factor. Some of these are as follows.
Ijtihad (Proficiency in Islamic Jurisprudence)
Since the implementation of Islamic laws and values in the
various aspects of social life are one of the most important
aims of an Islamic state, the ruler must naturally have
25 Hussain Borujerdi, Al-Badr al-Zaher fi Salat ul-Jom‘a wal-Mosafer,
Qom, 1367AH, pp. 72-78.
Shia Political Thought
expertise and knowledge in Islamic thought in order to be
able to make socio-political decisions and issue orders
according to the Islamic point of view. Many traditional
proofs of wilayat al-amma insist that the wali (hakim) must
be a faqih:
In maqbula of Umar ibn Hanzala, Imam Sadiq (pbuh) says:
They must seek out one of you who narrates our
traditions, who is versed in what is permissible and
what is forbidden, who is well acquainted with our
laws and ordinance, and accept him as judge and
arbiter, for I appoint him as hakim.26
In the tradition of Abu Khadija too, Imam says:
Designate as judge and arbiter someone among you
who is acquainted with our injunctions concerning
what is permitted and prohibited.27
In a signed letter the Absent Imam (may Allah hasten his
reappearance) writes:
As for events that may occur, refer to the transmitters
of our teachings.28
As we have already discussed, these titles and attributes
correspond with a just and competent faqih’s (mujtahid)
abilities, and not those who merely transmit traditions.
26 Muhammad Hassan Hor al-A’meli, Wasael al-Shi’a, Qom: Ahl ul-Bait
Institution, 1412AH, Volume 27, p. 137.
27 Al-Kafi, Volume 7, p. 412.
28 Shaikh al-Saduq, Ikmal al-Din, Volume 2, p. 483.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 125
Justice is a quality required of all forms of authority and
leadership in Imami political doctrine; judges and prayer
leaders must all be considered fair and capable, and their
roles are considerably less than those who rule an entire
state. In addition, the Qur’an teaches Muslims to have no
inclination and cooperation with unjust people and
tyrannical authorities:
And do not incline to those who are unjust, lest the
fire shall touch you, and you have no guardians
beside Allah, then shall you not be helped. [Chapter
11, Verse 113]
In some verses of the Qur’an Allah Almighty invites the
believers to show their disobedience to unjust people, those
who commit great sins:
And do not obey the bidding of the extravagant,
(those) who make mischief in the land and do not act
right. [Chapter 26, Verses 151-152]
Do not follow him whose heart we have made
unmindful to our remembrance and he follows his low
desires and his case is one in which due bounds are
exceeded. [Chapter 18, Verse 28]
Although justice has not been stipulated in the traditional
proofs of wilayat al-faqih examined in the course of this
subject, the Qur’an and a number of transmissions criticize
unjust rulers and those who are obedient to tyrannical
governors. They also maintain that a community founded on
Islamic laws and teachings, cannot be run by someone who
Shia Political Thought
does not believe in or behave in accordance to justice. To
cite an example, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (A) said to
Muhammad b. Muslim:
O Muhammad, surely the unjust rulers and those who
follow them are separated from God’s religion.
Certainly they went astray, and led many astray.29
Prudence, Trustworthiness, Administrative Facilities,
and Courage
Such qualities are obvious requirements of any appropriate
political leader, thus there is no need to mention evidences
regarding them.
Many evidences stipulate that a trustee of Islamic political
authority must be amongst the most knowledgeable (‘alem),
competent and qualified of Islamic scholars. This criterion is
somewhat contentious however, as many of the traditions
mentioned in it’s support have weak chains of transmission.
According to the book of Solaim b. Qais, Ali (p) says:
Does anyone deserve to be the ruler (caliph) over the
ummah except one who is most knowledgeable of
God’s book (Qur’an) and the Prophet (pbuh)’s
traditions (sunnah). Allah says in the Qur’an (10:35),
“Is he then, who guides to the truth, more worthy to
29 Al-Kafi, Volume 1, p. 184.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 127
be followed, or he who himself does not go aright
unless he is guided?30
It is transmitted from the Prophet (pbuh) that he said:
One who leads his people, while there are among
them more knowledgeable than he, their sovereignty
(the people’s) would begin to decline forever.31
As we mentioned in the previous chapter, a just faqih has
various functions. Some of them like the administration of
justice (qada) and ‘hisbah’ are categorized as ‘wilayat’,
whilst others such as ‘ifta’ do not require a designation from
the Imam. In the context of the present subject, it is essential
to determine which of these functions is dependant on
‘alamiyat’ (being the most knowledgeable).
Reference to Imami jurists’ decrees shows that those who
consider ‘alamiyat as a condition have merely concentrated
on ‘ifta’. Ayatollah Sayyid Kazim Yazdi, the author of ‘al-
‘urwat ul-wuthqa’ writes:
With regard to a mujtahid’s functions, none of them
are restricted by al-‘alamiya but taqleed (ifta). The
matter of his wilayat however, is not conditioned by
Many great Imami jurists who have commented upon this
important book (al-urwat ul-wuthqa), such as Ayatollahs
30 Solaim ibn Qais Al-Helali, Kitab al-Solaim, Tehran: Dar al-Kotob al-
Islamiya, p. 118.
31 Barqi, Al-Mahasin, Volume 1, p. 93.
32 Al-Urvat ul-Wosqa, The Chapter of Ijtihad wal-Taqlid, Question 68.
Shia Political Thought
Haery, Mirza al-Nayini, Aqa Ziya al-Araki, Sayyid Abul-
Hassan al-Esfahani, Burujerdi, Khomeini, Khui, Milani, and
Gulpaayigani, do not add any marginal notes to this decree
of Yazdi, which means they agree with him that the
functions of the faqih that exercises his authority (wilayat)
are not conditioned by being the most knowledgeable.
Shaykh al-Ansari also maintains that ‘alamiya is not
necessary in the designation of a faqih as wali (hakim)’.
Every just faqih has the right to undertake affairs which
require justified authority (wilayat). He believes that only
when fuqaha have different decrees (fatwa) the decree of the
one who is most knowledgeable (‘alam) has priority over
Shaykh Muhammad Hassan, the author of ‘Jawahir al-
Kalam’, also believes that the traditional proofs, which state
that the fuqaha are designated as ‘wali’ and the deputies of
the Imam, emphasize on the professional knowledge about
Islam (fiqahat) and not upon the ‘most knowledgeable’ as
the condition of a faqih’s wilayat.34
Essentially with regards to some functions of the faqih such
as ‘qada’, it seems incredible if one supposes that it is
conditioned on ‘alamiya because this implies on a very large
scale that the Shia community has only one faqih who has
legitimate authority to judge.
Finally, we have indicated that ‘Ijtihad’ has various aspects
and therefore it is quite reasonable to assume ‘X’ is the most
33 Shaikh al-Ansari, Taqlid, Published by International Congress of Shaikh
al-Ansari publications, p. 67.
34 Jawahir al-Kalam, Volume 40, pp. 44-45
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 129
knowledgeable (a’lem) in chapters of Islamic jurisprudence
concerning worship (such as praying and fasting), while ‘Y’
is a’lem in the chapters of transactions (moamelat) and ‘Z’ is
the most knowledgeable in the context of the administration
of justice and punishment (hudud). Consequently, we have
to take into account the relationship between a function that
a faqih wants to undertake and the kind of knowledge that is
a prerequisite to that function. There is no sufficient reason
to convince us that one who is the most knowledgeable in
chapters of worship would be able to perform the function of
‘qada’ better than a faqih who is most knowledgeable in
administration of justice.
On the other hand, ijtihad and fiqahat are but one
characteristic that a leader of the Islamic society should
have. There is no reason to concentrate on the priority of
‘a’lem’ and thereby ignore other qualifications that walis
(fuqaha) must possess, which might provide them with the
necessary abilities and characteristics of a ruler. Certainly, in
a situation wherein a few faqih are completely equal in all
qualifications of leadership except ijtihad, one might claim
that the authority of a’lem has priority over others,
especially when he is the most knowledgeable in socialpolitical
aspects of Islamic law. But it should be noted that
even this is merely a ‘rational preference’, because as the
author of Jawaher al-Kalam indicated, the traditional proofs
of wilayat al-faqih are silent about alamiya as a condition of
The External Justification.
Shia Political Thought
Many political theories are known as ‘guardianship’ in spite
of the profound differences they have with one another. By
guardianship, we mean a political system in which the state
is governed by qualified rulers (guardians). The ruler or
rulers are not subject to election and do not come to office
through free election. They deserve to govern the people due
to their specific qualifications and abilities. Therefore, the
delegation of authority in a guardianship model of state is
not due to a democratic process, but rather to the qualities of
a guardian. Advocates of guardianship commonly believe
that the entrustment of political power to a highly qualified
minority, who has exceptional expertise, guarantees the
interests and good of the people. Although the followers of
guardianship disagree about the qualifications the guardians
must have, or about the interpretation of happiness and
people’s good. This is why the guardianship supported by
Plato is rationally different from the Marxist Leninist
interpretation of it. Plato’s guardians are a minority of wellqualified
philosophers, whereas the latter’s are an organized
group of revolutionaries.
There are many arguments to justify guardianship over
democracy. Although on the other hand, guardianship in turn
faces many criticisms, especially from advocates of
democracy. So if we admit that ‘wilayat al-faqih’ is a
political doctrine belonging to the guardianship model of
state, it must be able to overcome its critics and eventually
establish itself as a reasonable, rational and legitimate
political doctrine. That is what is meant by ‘external
justification’, which, contrary to ‘internal justification’, does
not rely on religiously accepted reasoning.
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 131
First of all, we must assess why and how ‘wilayat al-faqih’
poses as a guardianship regime. According to this theory of
state, a just, capable and pious jurist, who possesses a
number of qualities, has legitimate authority to govern the
society in the era of occultation (ghaibat). This obviously
indicates that other kinds of experts and average people have
no equal access to the highest political office and only
specific experts (jurists) have the right and the opportunity to
attain the highest level of political leadership. Moreover,
they are not elected by people, but are instead designated by
Imams as ‘wali’ and possessors of the authority.
On the other hand, the unique example of this political
system, whose detailed blueprints are embedded in the
constitution of the Islamic republic of Iran, does not adopt a
pure system of guardianship. After all, it’s constitution
respects a limited democratic processes in that the majority
of governmental institutions, even the political leadership is
chosen through elections. According to article 107, a group
of elected experts (a few jurists are elected by people every
seven years) shall elect a well-qualified faqih as the political
leader. Both the authority of shari'a (wilayat al-faqih) and
the sovereignty of the people in this political regime make it
a mixture of democracy and guardianship. Hence it should
be categorized as a ‘meritocracy’, because it does not go
hand in hand with all the standards of guardianship. What
distinguishes this model of ‘meritocracy’ from guardianship
is the role of the people in participating in the distribution of
political power and in shaping political decisions through
their representatives. However, people and their
representatives are not religiously free to delegate the
political authority to a non-faqih or those who have no
tendency to rule, legislate and execute within the framework
Shia Political Thought
of divine laws and Islamic values and teachings.
Consequently, in this meritocracy, a just Imami jurist as
‘wilayat al-faqih’ and a group of fuqaha as the ‘guardian
council’, supervise and control the decisions and functions
of representatives and bureaucrats, who are themselves
subject to the democratic process. The central discussion
here concerns the relationship between ‘wilayat al-faqih’ and
what traditionally are stated as the foundation and
justification of the guardianship. We must now evaluate
whether these foundations are adequate to cite as
justifications of ‘wilayat al-faqih’ and how could this
doctrine overcome the critiques of guardianship.
Some advocates of guardianship hold that ordinary people
lack the necessary qualifications for ruling. They seem to
lack much understanding of their own basic needs, interests
and good. Many of them are unable or unwilling to do
whatever may be necessary to attain deep knowledge about
their own needs and good as well as the appropriate means
to achieve these needs and goods. In conclusion, people have
no political competence to govern themselves. Their
deficiency is partly in knowledge, partly in virtue i.e. strong
tendencies to seek good ends; hence they are not qualified to
govern. This approach undermines the fundamental ground
of democracy and supports the idea that guardians who have
sufficient political competence should govern people.
Obviously, the doctrine of ‘wilayat al-faqih’ does not rely on
the political incompetence of people to justify the priority of
the faqih’s authority. Neither in traditional proofs of ‘wilayat
al-faqih’ nor in the rational ones, do Imami scholars stress
on people’s deficiencies. Some rational proofs of ‘wilayat alfaqih’
depend on the belief that it is not in the power of
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 133
human beings to establish an ideal, ordered society with no
aid of God’s revelation. Clearly, this premise expresses the
deficiency of human beings as such, and not simply the
imperfection of ordinary people, confirming the competence
of a small minority as guardians. Indeed, this deficiency
justifies man’s need of religion, and its important role in
organizing social relationships.
The second foundation mentioned as a reason for
guardianship consists of a specific conception of governing.
For them, ruling people is an art. Therefore, rulers must be
experts of a certain type, meaning experts in the art of
governing. They as guardians would be specialists whose
specialization would make them superior in the art of
leadership, not only in comparison with ordinary people but
also with other kinds of experts such as economists,
physicists, engineers and so on. Although most people are
potentially capable of acquiring the qualifications needed for
leadership, they lack the time to acquire them. A society
needs many different types of experts. The need for
acquiring different skills and then implementing them,
makes it impossible for each and every person to spend the
time they would need to gain the moral and instrumental
competence for ruling. To suppose that a large number of
people each have the capacity to acquire and use numerous
specialized skills is not realistic. Consequently, in a well
ordered society some persons should be rigorously trained
and selected to function well as rulers (guardians). Because
leadership is so crucial nothing could be of greater
importance than the education of our rulers.35
35 Democracy and its Critics, pp. 62-63.
Shia Political Thought
Apart from the fact that many scholars have misgivings
about the actual existence of the art of governing, this
argument exclusively supports the Platonic version of
guardianship. There is no single art or science that can
provide us with the moral and technical knowledge and
abilities required for being an ideal leader. Many versions of
guardianship, including ‘wilayat al-faqih’, do not look at
guardians as specialists in the art of governing. Instead, they
believe that the duty of governing should delegate to a few
qualified persons, because of some certain qualifications and
abilities that they have. Guardians have a advantage over
others in matters of leadership, such as their in depth
knowledge of ideological, great commitment to the
ambitions of specific party, being vanguard and leader in
revolution or possession the knowledge that is necessary for
shaping particular social formation.
The unique reason that justifies (apart from traditional
religious reasons) the ruling of the fuqaha as guardians,
pertains to their knowledge about Shari’a which must be
accompanied with personal virtues and moral competence. It
is true that moral competence is not confined to a small
minority and that many people have the capacity to gain
moral competence and become just and pious. However,
what distinguishes the just fuqaha and render them the
unique group who has legitimate authority to rule over the
believers is their expertise in Islamic jurisprudence. The
justification of the guardianship of fuqaha is owed to the
fundamental role of Islamic law in the lives of Muslims.
Islam obliges Muslims to adopt Islamic laws and values in
both their individual as well as public lives. Consequently,
one who has the ability (as a jurisprudent) that is necessary
for undertaking this task must be in charge of ruling the
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 135
people. Therefore, the question of ‘wilayat al-faqih’ is not a
question of having a specific art. It has roots in a religious
belief that sees a crucial role for shari’a in Islamic society.
The distinction between the general good and personal
interests could provide the advocates of guardianship the
third reason for justification. The case of guardianship
sometimes rest on assumption that the composition of the
general good (general interest) and how the knowledge of
what composes the general good may be acquired. If the
general good were only composed of individual interests and
if we were to believe that everyone could pursue his
personal interests without guardians, then the guardianship
model of state would be unnecessary and undesirable. But if
the general good and interest of society consists of
something more than an aggregation of personal interests,
then to achieve it will require more than this. To bring about
the general good would then require an understanding of the
ways in which the general good differs from a combination
individual interests. If it is also true that most people are
mainly concerned with their own individual interests instead
of that of the general public, then the task of deciding on the
general good should be entrusted to those especially trained
to understand what the general good consists of. Obviously,
that depends on what is meant by the general good.36
Although the followers of ‘wilayat al-faqih’ do not fully
accept this argument, however, a modified version of it
would sufficiently justify this model of guardianship. Islam
as a perfect religion aims for real human happiness, hence,
its laws and teachings are necessarily established for the
ultimate self-realization of the human being and for gaining
36 Ibid., pp. 70-71.
Shia Political Thought
true salvation. From this point of view both the good of the
individual as well as the general public are harmonized with
the contents of Islam. Concepts such as public interest
should not be defined without considering of the crucial role
played by Islam in both the public and private spheres.
When one acknowledges this fact, which is especially true in
a society where most people believe that Islam is the
ultimate way to salvation, the following argument could be
supposed as external justification for the doctrine of
‘Willayat al-faqih’:
1. General interest and public good are not merely a
composition of individual interests and they must be
determined through a higher source.
2. Within an Islamic society the real public good and
interest cannot be known while neglecting Islamic laws
and values. It does not mean that other kinds of expertise
play no role in the process of determining public good,
rather, the key point is that all political and economic
decisions, various legislations as well as government
orders must take Islamic teachings (especially
jurisprudence) seriously and harmonize themselves with
the demands of Islam.
3. People are mostly concerned with their own individual
interests so the task of deciding the public interest, at
least in cases that are specifically dealt with by Islam
should not be entrusted to the ups and downs of public
4. Technocrats and those who are experts in the various
sciences are often more concerned than average people
with the good and interest of the public. However, as
mentioned in the second premise, in an Islamic society
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 137
technocrats as policymakers can not have a full
understand of the public good, unless they are experts in
Islamic thought.
Policymaking, legislation, organizing the system of rights
and duties and other significant functions of government
must be done under the supervision and authority of a well
qualified faqih (or fuqaha) who is just, brave, honest,
intelligent, knowledgeable about social and political issues,
and an expert in Islamic ideology.
This external justification seems quite convincing within a
specific context, that is, for those who pursue Islamic culture
and support the establishment of an Islamic society. For
those who do not believe in Islam, the premises of this
justification (particularly the second and fourth) need further
Criticism of Guardianship
Advocates of democracy usually criticize guardianship and
its justifications. We have to consider briefly a few of these
criticisms to assess how the connection between the doctrine
of wilayat al-faqih and these critiques might be? In my view
the three following criticisms are more significant than the
i) Adversaries of guardianship insist that the keystone of
this theory that tries to justify the deserts of guardians to
rule based on their knowledge is disputable. The
possession of this religious knowledge is not sufficient
enough to prove that political power should be entrusted
to a fagih to protect and promote public welfare and
Shia Political Thought
prosperity. How can we know that the guardian is not
seeking his own interests rather than that of the general
public? Is there any system of control over them to
prevent hem from abusing his authority? In the
guardianship model of state, since the people do not
delegate authority to the guardian, they cannot legally or
constitutionally withdraw political power from the
guardian. The guardians are free of popular controls.
ii) Unlike democracy that provides people with the
opportunity to engage in governing themselves and to
improve their moral-political experiences, the
guardianship system of rule prevents an entire
population from developing their social, political and
moral capacities. This is essentially because only a few
people (guardians) are engaging in governing.
Therefore, only a few people have the opportunity to
learn how to act as morally responsible human beings.
Only guardians can exercise the freedom of participating
in the process of making laws, while in democratic states
the whole population enjoys that freedom. Even though
in many democratic states, the cooperate and political
elite are far more powerful than ordinary citizens,
however, they cannot be compared to guardians. These
elites are not despots and people can still play a role in
the distribution of political power and in making
political decisions.
iii) Guardianship is based upon the idea that there is a set of
truths, objective propositions and valid knowledge that
can determine public good or true social interests. The
second pillar of guardianship rests on the point that only
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 139
those who have this knowledge37 (what does public good
consist of and by what means can we achieve it?) are
exclusively competent to hold political authority. Some
critics of guardianship criticize the first pillar of the
argument. They emphasize that there is no such thing as
rational, unquestionable, or objective knowledge. There
are no determined truths as ‘science of ruling’ that can
justify the authority of a few people as guardians. In
addition, they believe advocates of guardianship face the
problem of validation because they can not establish
why their understanding of public good and social
interests is objectively true. Robert Dahl writes:
In judging the validity of statements about the general
good we can and should employ reason and
experience. Nonetheless, no assertion that ‘the public
good definitely consists of such and such’ can be
shown to be ‘objectively true’ in the same sense that
many statements in mathematics, logic, or the natural
sciences are understood to be objectively true.38
37 There is no agreement among advocates of guardianship about the
nature of this knowledge therefore they disagree about the qualifications
of this small minority of rulers (guardians). For instance, in the eyes of
Plato this knowledge consists of a set of propositions about what is best
for the community. This knowledge is based on rational certainty that
ordinary people have no access to. Unlike true philosophers, ordinary
people just have opinions (uncertainties) instead of knowledge (rational
From an entirely different perspective, Marxist-Leninists maintain that
this knowledge consists of the laws of historical development based on
‘historical materialism’ as a rigorous methodological approach rooted in
the belief that the structure of society and human relations in all their
forms are the product of material conditions and circumstances rather than
of ideas, thought or consciousness. Consequently, for them the guardians
are a few revolutionaries who know the laws and material conditions that
rule over these historical developments.
38 Democracy and its Critics, p. 71.
Shia Political Thought
To clarify the relationship between these critiques and the
Imami political doctrine of wilayat al-faqih we have to keep
in mind that these criticisms are targeting ‘pure
guardianship’, a political theory that leaves no room for
people in political affairs while entrusting complete political
authority to non-elected minority (guardians). In the next
chapter it will be explained that wilayat al-faqih is
compatible with a specific version of democracy called
‘religious democracy’. In any case the mixture between the
authority of a just faqih who represents both the authority of
Islamic jurisprudence as well as the authority of the people,
renders some of these criticisms essentially irrelevant to the
doctrine of wilayat al-faqih. For example the second critique
mentioned above is absolutely inapplicable to the
guardianship of the faqih. Moreover, according to what has
been discussed in the previous chapter about the meaning of
absolute authority of a just faqih, the first criticism is also
irrelevant, because the guardianship of a faqih is not beyond
the control of a group of elected experts who supervise and
control his usage of power and authority. In addition, it is the
religious responsibility of all Muslims to be not neutral
about the behavior of their governors and leaders.
In the previous pages it is clear that the guardianship of the
faqih is not base on the assumption that leadership is a
specific art or knowledge that consists of a set of truths and
skills. Therefore, the final criticism cannot undermine this
version of guardianship either. Almost all Shi’a scholars
believe in rationalism, hence, the problem of validation is
very important in their eyes. This is true not only with
regards to fundamental Islamic beliefs, but also in other
aspects of Islamic thought including political thought. They
Why Wilayat al-Faqih? 141
attempt to justify their system of beliefs through rational
arguments, as well as through traditional evidences. As a
result, Shi’a political thought is based upon a set of true,
valid and objective doctrines about human nature, the
philosophy of life, and morality. It consists of a set of
philosophical-theological statements that produce an Islamic
world ‘s view. Indeed, this theory of state like other political
theories is rested upon a comprehensive philosophy and the
justification of this political thought is due to the
justification of its moral-philosophical foundations as well.
However, we do not believe in ‘hard rationalism’, which
demands that all religious statements and beliefs must be
verified by decisive rational proofs, exactly as with
mathematics. Obviously, religious statements and beliefs
should be categorized according to their own appropriate
methods of justification. Islam consists of objective truths
and valid statements; however, one can not prove its
validation by recourse to a unique methodology (rational
proofs). Unlike the fundamental doctrines of Islam (usul al-
Din) that can largely be validated and justified through
rational arguments, the validation of Islamic law is, to a
large extent, based upon trust in the commands of God,
which in turn can be established by appealing to rational
The key point is that the validity of this model of
guardianship (wilayat al-faqih) does not acquire its
approbation from the assumption that there is an objective
art or science for ruling people or a specific knowledge used
for understanding public good and finding the means for
achieving them. Its verification is due to the validation of
Islam’s moral, philosophical and theological foundations
Shia Political Thought
including the importance of Shari’a for our ultimate
The external justification of wilayat al-faqih consists of two
independent sides, the positive and the negative. Positive
justification aims to justify the validation of this theory
directly and through the emphasis on the necessity of the
Islamic legal system and the implementation of its laws for
the establishment of an ideal social and personal existence.
However, the negative side refers to any efforts undertaken
to prove the priority of this doctrine over its alternatives.
Since the doctrine of democracy in general and the theory of
liberal democracy in particular is the most important
alternative theory facing guardianship, the external
justification of our political theory would be insufficient if
we fail to assess the relationship between the theory of
wilayat al-faqih and democracy. The next chapter will
attempt to make complete the external justification of this
political doctrine by evaluating the nature of democracy and
its possible connections to this version of guardianship.
There is another significant reason why we should discuss
democracy. Some Muslim thinkers maintain that Islam
fundamentally disagrees with democracy. Hence, in their
eyes our interpretation of imami political thought that mixes
the guardianship of the faqih with elements of democracy is
totally wrong and is against the foundations of Islam.
Chapter Four
Islam and Democracy
Contemporary Islamic political thought has become deeply
influenced by attempts at reconciling Islam and democracy.
Muslim thinkers who deal with political debates cannot
ignore the significance of the democratic system, as it is the
prevailing theme of modern western political thought. Thus
it is necessary for any alternative political system, whether it
is religious or secular, to explore its position with regards to
democratic government. In the past, prominent Islamic
thinkers such as Imam Khomeini, Mirza Muhammad
Hussain Nayini and al-Kawakibi maintained that a
democratic Islamic form of government is a compatible and
practical thesis, believing that a constitution could protect
and guarantee both the essential Islamic as well as
democratic aspects of government.
In contrast to this more optimistic approach, many
fundamentalist thinkers argue that Islam and democracy are
irreconcilably opposed, and that there exists a clear
contradiction between Islamic and democratic principles.
This opinion has emerged as a result of their perception of
the source from which democracy came, the creed from
which it emanated, the basis upon which it has been
established as well as the ideas and systems of thought with
which it is currently associated. However, opposition to
religious democracy is not confined to fundamentalists;
advocates of a secular state also believe that the concept of a
democratic Islamic government is a paradoxical thesis, and
Shia Political Thought
they often refer to a selection of Islamic rulings and beliefs
that they construe as antagonistic to the foundations and
underlying values of the democratic system.
Other Muslim intellectuals maintain that any apparent
incompatibility or conflict between the ideas of religion and
democracy are caused by the misinterpretation of Islam.
They maintain that there is no conflict between democracy
and an understanding of religion, which is changing, rational
and in harmony with accepted extra-religious criteria and
values. They believe that by reinterpreting Islam and
constantly reviewing and renewing its beliefs, the vision of a
religious democracy would be completely feasible and
indeed desirable.
Consequently the question of whether or not religious
democracy is feasible has given rise to four major schools of
thought amongst thinkers and Muslim political movements:
1. The implementation of Islamic laws (shari'a) and the
establishment of an Islamic society based upon Islamic
values is possible within a constitutionally Islamic and
democratic political system. The participation of citizens
in making political decisions can serve the sociopolitical
aims of Islam and democracy merely acts as a
system and method for the distribution of political power
and a means by which citizens express their opinions.
2. There is an obvious conflict between the traditional
juridical (fiqhi) based conception of Islam and
democracy. The establishment of a religious democratic
government is in need of a rethinking, reinterpretation
and review of Islamic thought in order for it to become
harmonious with contemporary global and philosophical
Islam and Democracy 145
foundations, values and implications of democracy.
Therefore, the practicality of religious democracy rests
upon the reformation of traditional religious knowledge.
3. Democracy is a system of disbelief (kufr) and is totally
and completely irreconcilable with Islamic beliefs and
principles. Commitment to Islam leaves no room for
4. The fourth approach arrives at the same conclusion as
the third, that the idea of a democratic Islamic
government is paradoxical. However, unlike advocates
of the third approach, this group emphasizes the
desirability and justification of democracy, and insists
that religion cannot possibly satisfy the values and
foundations that democracy requires.
These approaches shall be addressed in detail later in this
Chapter, but first it is necessary to examine democracy, its
various interpretations, its relationship to liberalism and
some philosophical presuppositions that support this
political doctrine. Many apprehensions surrounding the
theory of religious democracy are caused by conceptional
ambiguities concerning the description of democracy and its
possible models. We must define what it is that democracy
means, whether or not there is a unique and commonly
agreed interpretation of democracy and what exactly
distinguishes a democratic government from a nondemocratic
one. Without answering such questions it will be
impossible to come to an objective and accurate conclusion
regarding the issue of religious democracy.
Shia Political Thought
What is Democracy?
The term democracy is derived from the Greek words
‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratia’ (rule), so democracy literally
means ‘rule by the people’. In other words it is a political
doctrine in which it is believed the people possess the
capacity needed in order to govern and regulate society. This
idea originally emerged towards the beginning of the fifth
century B.C. in ancient Greece, primarily amongst the
Athenians. The city-state of Athens referred to itself as a
democracy (from 500 B.C to 330 B.C) because all citizens
(excluding women, slaves and non-residents) could
participate in political decisions. Abraham Lincoln’s famous
definition of ‘Government for the people and by the people’1
refers to this model of participatory democracy.
Throughout the long history of political thought, many
different forms of democratic government have emerged and
declined, they often came into being almost completely
independently of one another, as Dahl writes:
It would be a mistake to assume that democracy was
invented once and for all, as, for example, the steam
engine was invented...democracy seems to have been
invented more than once, and in more than one place.
After all, if the conditions were favorable for the
invention of democracy at one time and place, might
not similar favorable conditions have existed
elsewhere? I assume democracy can be independently
1 Daniel Webster in 1830 (thirty three years before Lincoln’s definition)
said: people’s government, made for the people, made by the people and
answerable to the people.
Cf: Patterns of Democracy, p. 1.
Islam and Democracy 147
invented and reinvented whenever the appropriate
conditions exist.2
Although the root meaning of the Greek term ‘demokratia’ is
clear and straightforward (rule by the people), it is necessary
to properly define what constitutes ‘demos’ (the people).
Historically the criteria of who ought to be included in
‘demos’ to rule and participate in political decisions, as a
citizen has been an ambiguous and contentious issue. In the
most ancient models of democracy, ‘the people’ did not
include all adults; women and slaves were not given the
right to participate in the political system. And even today
there are noticeable disagreements amongst modern
interpretations of democracy about who should be included
among the ‘demos’. For example, even though the principle
of equality was firmly established in the American
declaration of independence in 1776, the right for free men
to vote on an equal basis was not granted until 1850. Black
males were prevented from voting until the fifteenth
constitutional amendment some twenty years later. And
females, both free and enslaved, were not given the right to
vote until the nineteenth constitutional amendment in 1920.3
Democracy in the above mentioned forms, is an imaginary
and inapplicable idea in large scale societies.
In general, both advocates and critics agree that ‘rule by the
people’ - in the truest meaning of the people – never existed
and is never likely to exist. It is impossible for any
democratic regime to be fully democratic, as it will always
fall short of the criteria that emanates from its self-evident
2 Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 9.
3 Sulaiman Sadek Jawad, Democracy and Shura, Published in Liberal
Islam, p. 97.
Shia Political Thought
meaning. The virtues and advantages that are mentioned to
justify democratic government undoubtedly require
‘participatory democracy’, which delegates decisions to
citizens, so, in a single meeting or during an election, people
are able to express their opinions. That is why the Greeks
passionately supported ‘assembly democracy’. Obviously
this system is inherently limited by practical considerations,
in a small political unit such as a city, assembly democracy
provides citizens with desirable opportunities for engaging
in the process of governing themselves. This original
conception of democracy, which was embodied in Greek
city-states, is possibly the most appropriate to the true
meaning of the term (excluding the fact that only a minority
could vote). However modern democracies within nationstates
exist on a much greater scale than before.
Consequently, modern theories of democracy, despite their
alleged efficiency when dealing with the problems of largescale
societies, effectively decrease the political participation
of the people. In modern democratic theories ‘the people’
(demos) are replaced by ‘representatives’, so that a small
proportion of the population are made responsible for
looking after the affairs of the people, thus ‘rule by the
people’ becomes ‘rule by representatives elected by a
majority of the people’.
A significant cause for the confusion concerning the
meaning of ‘democracy’ at present is due to the fact that it
has developed over several thousand years and ultimately
stems from a variety of sources. Our understanding of the
term ‘democracy’ is not necessarily the same as an
Athenian's understanding of the term. Greek, Roman,
Medieval and Renaissance notions have intermingled with
Islam and Democracy 149
those of later centuries to produce a mosaic of theories and
practices that are often deeply inconsistent.4
If any attempt to apply the original meaning of democracy to
the nation-state is impossibly absurd, and moreover if there
is no commonly agreed definition of the democratic system
amongst its advocates, it should be reasonable to concentrate
on what at present are known as democratic states in order to
recognize its major elements and what distinguishes them
from a non-democratic state.
Even though, in theory, political philosophers and theorists
have presented various models of democracy such as
‘elitism’, ‘participatory’, ‘pluralistic’ and ‘corporate’, in
practice representative democracy is the prevailing norm
among contemporary democratic systems. The major
characteristics of modern democracy, according to Dahl are
as follow:
Elected officials: control over government decisions
concerning policy is constitutionally vested in officials
elected by citizens. Thus, modern, large-scale democratic
governments are representative.
Free, fair and frequent elections: elected officials are
chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which
coercion is comparatively uncommon.
Freedom of expression: citizens have a right to express
themselves on political matters without danger of severe
punishment; this includes criticism of officials, the
government, the regime, the socio-economic order and the
prevailing ideology.
4 Democracy and its Critics, p. 2.
Shia Political Thought
Access to alternative sources of information: citizens have
a right to seek out alternative and independent sources of
information from other citizens, experts, newspapers,
magazines, books, etc.
Associational autonomy: citizens have the right to form
relatively independent associations or organizations,
including independent political parties and interest groups in
order to achieve their various rights.
Inclusive citizenship: No adult permanently residing in the
country and subject to its laws can be denied the rights that
are necessary for the five political institutions listed above.5
These help explain the political reality of democracy as a
political system in which people participate, and as a method
and process for making collective political decisions. The
key point is that democracy requires 'majority rule', meaning
that majority support should not only be necessary, but also
sufficient for enacting laws. Some contemporary writers
even go so far as to argue that majority rule is a definition,
not a requirement of democracy.6 Also numerous advocates
of democracy do not confine the role of the people to the
mere distribution of political power, or participation in the
process of collective political decisions (via their
representatives), rather, they have a right to control
governors. Mayo writes:
In short, a political system is democratic to the extent
that the decision makers are under effective popular
5 On Democracy, pp. 85-86
6 Democracy and its Critics, p.135.
7 H.B. Mayo, An Introduction to Democratic Theory, Oxford University
Press, 1960, p. 60.
Islam and Democracy 151
In summary, democracy is a political system, which
acknowledges the right of the people to participate in
political decisions, either directly or indirectly through
elected representatives, to distribute and regulate the
political power under the rule of a majority. Political
prerequisites such as free, fair and frequent elections,
freedom of expression, inclusive citizenship and so on, are
necessary in order to insure the soundness of the process.
Democracy and Liberalism
Most contemporary democracies are liberal democracies: a
combination of the democratic political system, and the
liberal political ideology, that places emphasis upon specific
rights and values such as private possession, negative
freedom, individualism and toleration. Therefore, liberal
democracies embody two distinct features; the first of these
is the liberal conception of a limited government; this is that
the individual should enjoy a degree of protection from
arbitrary action of government officials. This limitation of
government - which is often referred to as the theory of
limited democracy – is rooted in the belief that fundamental
rights and values supported by liberalism possess a moral
standing and philosophical grounds, that are altogether
independent of democracy and the democratic process.
These rights and values serve as a limitation or restriction on
what can be enacted by means of the political system.
Citizens are entitled to exercise certain rights and should not
be threatened by the powers of state and governmental
processes. Liberals believe in protecting these rights from
infringement, even though they may be by democratic
Shia Political Thought
This is why liberal attitudes towards democracy have
historically been distinctly ambivalent. In the nineteenth
century, liberals often perceived democracy as something
threatening or dangerous. The central concern for liberals
has always been that democracy could evolve to become the
enemy of individual liberty and pluralism. The rule of the
majority is the 'democratic solution' to conflicts that people
have regarding their interests and opinions. This means that
the will of the greatest number of people should prevail over
that of the minority. In other words, democracy comes down
to the rule of 51 percent, a prospect that Alexis de
Tocqueville (1805-1859) famously described as ‘the tyranny
of the majority’. Individual liberty and minority rights can
thus potentially be crushed in the name of the people.8
Liberals have expressed particular reservation concerning
democracy, and have crafted a network of checks and
balances in order to reconcile the advantages of democracy
and fundamental liberal rights and values. This combination
creates a model of democracy that, as Heywood says, has
three central features:
First, liberal democracy is an indirect and
representative form of democracy. Political office is
gained through success in regular elections,
conducted on the basis of formal political equality –
‘one person, one vote; one vote, one value’. Second, it
is based upon competition and electoral choice. This
is ensured by political pluralism, a tolerance of a wide
range of contending beliefs, conflicting social
philosophies and rival political movements and
8 Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies, Macmillan Press, 2nd Edition,
1998, p. 43.
Islam and Democracy 153
parties. Third, liberal democracy is characterized by
a clear distinction between the state and civil society.
This is maintained both by internal and external
checks on government power and the existence of
autonomous groups and interests, and by the market
or capitalist organization of economic life.9
As far as our discussion – the relationship between Islam
and democracy – is concerned, it is fundamental to
distinguish between democracy just as a method to form a
political system or as a process for making collective
decisions opposed and liberal democracy as one of the
possible models of democracy consisting of an ideological
framework of beliefs and values. Many opponents of
religious democracy have failed to distinguish between
democracy as a method and liberal democracy, which in
principal represents a particular political philosophy and
doctrines with its own beliefs regarding human nature,
human rights, ends and moral values.
Benefits of Democracy
There are many advantages that make democracy more
desirable than any other feasible alternative political system.
Even though to attain all of the potential benefits is beyond
the capacity of current democracies, these ideal
consequences cannot be overlooked. When properly
implemented and regulated, the democratic political system
should in theory produce a series of beneficial objectives.
Avoiding tyranny: Democracy reduces the likelihood of a
tyrannical or autocratic government obtaining power.
9 Ibid., p. 46.
Shia Political Thought
However, this does not mean that democracy can totally
guarantee the prevention of oppressive or dictatorial rule, or
that it is entirely capable of preventing injustice in society.
For example, the Nazi party in Germany (1933-1945)
obtained power through the manipulation of the democratic
and free-electoral systems. Advocates of democracy argue,
though, that in the long-term a democratic process is less
likely to do harm to the interests of the citizens than a nondemocratic
Protecting essential rights: Democracy guarantees its
citizens a number of fundamental rights that undemocratic
systems do not grant. These political rights are all necessary
elements of democratic political institutions.
Human development: It is claimed that democracy fosters
human development more fully than any practical
alternative. This claim is controversial and very difficult to
substantiate. The only way to test this assertion is by
measuring human development in democratic and nondemocratic
Political equality: Only a democratic government can
guarantee a high degree of political equality amongst
Protecting essential personal interests: Democracy assists
people in protecting their own fundamental interests. It
allows people to shape their life in accordance with their
own goals, preferences, values and beliefs.10
Perhaps the most common justification given for democracy
is that it is essential for the protection of the general interests
of the persons who are subject to a democratic state.
10 On Democracy, pp. 45-57.
Islam and Democracy 155
However, it is worth mentioning that this attempt to justify
democracy has been attacked by some democratic theorists.
For example, John Plamenatz argues that we cannot compare
governments and, as a reasonable empirical judgment,
conclude that “the policies of one have in general done more
than those of the other to enable their subjects to maximize
the satisfaction of their wants”. This is particularly true if the
governments are not of the same type and the values and
beliefs of the people concerned differ greatly. Moreover
people do not and should not prefer democracy to its
alternatives because they believe it is better at maximizing
the satisfaction of their desires. They should instead favor it
because it provides people with certain rights and
opportunities or reject it because it does not.11
Foundations of Democracy
It is widely believed that political theories have
philosophical or metaphysical foundations that justify every
political ethos or system amongst its alternatives. Referring
to these foundations for the justification of political thought
is considered important because they represent the basis
from which the system has emanated. It is insufficient
merely to examine publicly admitted elements and values
that have emanated from this basis, as these have ultimately
grown around a political doctrine and logically cannot prove
the validity of that political theory. The prevalent approach
maintains that the question of justification is also a question
of truth. A valid and justified political system must be
consistent with human nature, human common goods and
ends and other related moral-philosophical truths. This
method of political theorizing (also known as
11 John Plamenatz, Democracy and Illusion, Longman, 1973, pp. 164-168.
Shia Political Thought
foundationalism) is omnipresent in the history of political
thought, especially so during the age of enlightenment, when
thinkers such as John Locke and Emmanuel Kant presented
rational foundations as basic elements of contemporary
western political culture. Political foundationalism
presupposes that there is a correct answer to every
fundamental political question, and through the appropriate
method of thinking, political truths are made available.
Recently, some advocates of liberal democracy, in contrast
to traditional supporters of democratic governments, have
inclined to justify their political system without reference to
a particular interpretation of human nature or any
comprehensive moral, religious or philosophical doctrine as
a basis. John Rawls (1921-2002) and Richard Rorty, the
contemporary American philosopher, are to prominent
figures of this modern anti-foundationalism movement in
political thought. They present a ‘political’ democratic
liberalism instead of a ‘philosophical’ one. Their
justification for this model of political thought is not rooted
in any specific philosophical or moral doctrine. John Rawls
Political liberalism, then, aims for a political
conception of justice as a freestanding view. It offers
no specific metaphysical or epistemological doctrine
beyond what is implied by the political conception
This attitude, its influence and its relevance to our main
debate (Islam and democracy), will be assessed later in the
12 John Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1996, p.
Islam and Democracy 157
Chapter. It is now necessary to briefly refer to some
philosophical foundations mentioned by some thinkers to
justify democracy as the most desirable political system.
Intrinsic Equality
The belief that all humanity is made intrinsically equal by
man’s own inherent nature and instincts is a concept
supported by the great religions of Islam, Christianity and
Judaism. For some, however, the idea of inherent equality
provides a justification for democracy because it indicates
that all human beings are of equal intrinsic worth and no
person is naturally superior to another. Locke says:
Though I have said above...that all men by nature are
equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of
equality: age or virtue may give men a just
precedence: excellency of parts and merit may place
others above the common level...and yet all this
consists with equality, which all men are in, in respect
of jurisdiction or dominion over one another, which
was the equality I there spoke of, as proper to the
business in hand, being that equal right that every
man hath, to his nature freedom, without being
subjected to the will or authority of any other man.13
The politically implicit meaning of the last sentence of this
quotation is that the good or interests of each person must be
given equal consideration, hence, people have a right to
express their will and no one has the right to make a decision
on behalf of them except with their permission. For
13 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett (ed),
Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 322.
Shia Political Thought
advocates of democracy who refer to the intrinsic equality,
every guardianship model of government, which entrusts the
authority to a few people (guardians) instead of people
themselves, must therefore be incompatible with the idea of
the intrinsic equality of people. Locke ascribed the intrinsic
quality to ‘men’ instead of ‘the people’ because in his own
era the theory that men alone qualify as ‘active citizens’ was
common (As indicated earlier, it was not until the twentieth
century that women gained the right to vote). It is also worth
mentioning that Kant too firmly supported political freedom
and according to his view, the legislative authority should be
placed in the hands of a representative assembly, whose
members are elected by a majority of voters in each district.
However, Kant's franchise is restrictive. He assumes that it
should extend only to adult males who own property and
that these persons alone qualify as ‘active citizens’. Others
are merely ‘passive citizens’ and while they must be assured
the same civil rights and legal equality as everyone else, they
should not be allowed to vote.14
If we were to overlook this restriction and ascribe the
intrinsic equality to all human beings (men and women), it
could not justify democracy as the best desirable political
system, as essentially there is no necessary connection
between admitting intrinsic equality and the necessity of a
democratic state. Robert Dahl states that intrinsic equality is
quite compatible with guardianship as well. He writes:
As I have already said, nothing in the assumption of
intrinsic equality implies that Able, Baker and Carr
are the best judges of their own good or interests,
14 Allen Rosen, Kant’s Theory of Justice, Cornell University Press, 1993,
pp. 34-35.
Islam and Democracy 159
suppose it were true that a few people like Eccles not
only understood much better than the others what
constitutes their individual and common good, and
how best to bring it about, but could be fully trusted to
do so. Then it would be perfectly consistent with the
idea of intrinsic equality to conclude that these
persons of superior knowledge and virtue, like Eccles,
should rule over all the others. Even more: if the good
of each person is entitled to equal consideration, and
if a superior group of guardians could best ensure
equal consideration, then it follows that guardianship
would definitely be desirable and democracy just as
definitely would be undesirable.15
Priority of the Will of the Majority over Rightness
A rare conception of democracy supposes that the
democratic system and the rule of the majority can guarantee
correct decisions and right answers to political needs. People
who individually are the best judge for their private,
personal affairs also are the best judge in public affairs
(policy decisions). The political judgments of the majority
reflect what is best and right for the community. According
to this theory, there is no need for a few experts (guardians)
with specific moral and scientific-philosophical knowledge
to perform correct policy decisions, because the performance
of the experts is no better than the people's choices. The
choice of the majority would be based upon certainty and
would achieve a correct result. However, the practical and
realistic approach to democracy, supported by its advocates,
does not accept that the rule of the majority is a guarantee
for right decisions. It admits that people have a right to
15 Democracy and its Critics, p. 88.
Shia Political Thought
decide, however it also accepts that voters and their
representatives may not always make the correct decisions.
The validity of the democratic political system is not owed
to the knowledge that the will of the people (majority)
reflects the correct outcomes and true social good. The
political legitimacy of democracy, instead, rests upon the
will and consent of the people, not upon their reason or
rightness. This means that although there is no rationalphilosophical
certainty that democratic political decisions
are right, it is simply sufficient that these decisions are
outcomes of the will of the people and their exercising of
their practical rights and freedoms. Michael Walzer writes:
Democracy rests, as I have already suggested, on an
argument concerning freedom and political
obligation. Hence it is not only the case that the
people have a procedural right to make the laws. On
the democratic view, it is right that they make the laws
– even if they make them wrongly.16
Since the legitimacy of the democratic system rests on
people’s rights instead of their valid knowledge, there is no
reason to suppose firstly that the power of the people must
be limited by the rightness of what they decide, and secondly
that a few experts ought to be empowered to review what the
people do and step in when they move beyond those limits
and make incorrect decisions. The presupposition of such a
view is that there is a small group of people, in every
society, that can recognize the truth better than society as a
whole can, hence they must have a right to intervene.
Democracy in principle absolutely disagrees with this
16 Michael Walzer, “Philosophy and Democracy”, in Political Theory,
Volume 9, No 3, August 1981, p. 386.
Islam and Democracy 161
procedure, for the people’s rule does not rest upon their
knowledge of truth. If we admit that finding objective
knowledge, true answers, and right decisions is possible and
philosophers are those who can be presumed to attain the
truth, then the tension between philosophy and democracy is
inevitable because the democratic system fails to reconcile
between the rule of majority and the authority of truth
(philosophy). Walzer says:
Nor can the philosophical instrument be a majority
amongst the people, for majorities in any genuine
democracy are temporary, shifting and unstable.
Truth is one, but the people have many opinions, truth
is eternal, but the people continually change their
minds. Here in its simplest form is the tension between
philosophy and democracy. The people's claim to rule
does not rest upon their knowledge of truth...the claim
is most persuasively put, it seems to me, not in terms
of what the people know, but in terms of what they
are. They are the subjects of the law, and if the law is
to bind them as free men and women, they must also
be its makers.17
Many advocates of the democratic system as the best
desirable political system strive to justify the detachment
between democracy and the issue of truth by stating
misgivings about the possibility of attaining objective
knowledge about public good and moral truths. For instance,
Robert Dahl emphasizes that not only is the justification for
democracy independent of any specific answer to the
epistemological ontological questions about the nature of
moral judgments, but also democracies should have
17 Ibid., p. 383.
Shia Political Thought
misgivings about such claims. For him, we are entitled,
indeed obliged, to look with the greatest suspicion on any
claim that another possesses objective knowledge of the
good of the self that is definitely superior to the knowledge
possessed by the self.18
General Freedom
Democracy, not only as an ideal, but in actual practice
prerequires certain rights and liberties. A truly democratic
government could only be established within a political
culture that profoundly supports these rights and freedoms.
That is why advocates of democracy always stress its
relationship to freedom and view democracy as the best
political system that maximizes and protects general
freedoms such as freedom of opinion and expression and
freedom of religion. Accordingly some liberties are
preconditions for the emergence of a democratic state,
whereas others (such as the freedom of self determination)
are seen as results of such a state. Thus one can conclude
that democracy is desirable because freedom in general and
freedom of self-determination in particular is desirable. In
other words, to govern oneself, to obey laws that one has
chosen for oneself, and to be able to determine ones destiny
is a desirable state of affairs. On the other hand, however,
human beings cannot exist in isolation from society, and it is
essential for them to live in association with others and to
live in association with others naturally requires that they
must sometimes obey collective decisions that are binding
upon all members of the association. Democracy maximizes
the potential for self-determination amongst society because
its members still govern themselves. Dahl claims that this
justification for democracy has been endorsed by all those,
18 Democracy and its Critics, pp. 66, 101, 103.
Islam and Democracy 163
from Locke onwards, who have believed that governments
ought to be based upon the consent of the governed.19
In a similar manner, democracy is also justified by the
assumption that this political system maximizes ‘moral
autonomy’. A morally autonomous person is one who
defines his own moral principals. Dahl states a deeper reason
for valuing self-determination; that the freedom to govern
oneself is in fact an expression of the value of moral
autonomy, but he neglects to discuss the arguments for why
moral autonomy should be respected.20
Personal Autonomy
Dahl believes that the cornerstone of democratic beliefs is
the presumption of personal autonomy, namely the
assumption that no person is, in general, more likely than
yourself to be a better judge of your own good and interests,
or to act in order to bring them about. Consequently you
should have the right to judge whether a policy is, or is not,
in your best interest. On this assumption, then, no one else is
more qualified than you to judge whether the results are in
your interest.21
It is quite clear that this justification, if any, merely supports
the assembly model of democracy, which is appropriate for a
small-scale society in which people have an opportunity to
share directly in the process of making political decisions,
whereas most present day democracies are representative. In
the representative model of democracy, the choice of people
about their goods and interests is confined to electing
19 Ibid., p. 89.
20 Ibid., p. 91.
21 Ibid. p. 99.
Shia Political Thought
representatives. Dahl in his later book (On Democracy)
refers to this dark side of representative democracy:
The dark side is this: under a representative
government, citizens often delegate enormous
discretionary authority over decisions of
extraordinary importance. They delegate authority not
only to their elected representatives, but, by an even
more indirect and circuitous route, they delegate
authority to administrators, bureaucrats, civil
servants, judges and at a still further remove to
international organizations...popular participation
and control are not always robust, and the political
and bureaucratic elites possess great discretion.22
Even though the roots of democracy mentioned by advocates
who believe in foundationalism are not restricted to what has
been discussed above, these four principals are viewed as
more significant than the others. In comparison with the
second approach i.e. the political or pragmatic defense of the
democratic state, which does not rest on any specific
foundation or doctrine to justify this political system,
foundationalism is significant because with a comparative
discussion one can make judgment and recognize how
compatible Islam and the foundations of democracy might
be. Before further debate about these foundations, it would
be appropriate to explore the modern approach to liberal
democracy (anti-foundationalism). As indicated previously,
John Rawls, one of the most influential political
philosophers of the twenty century, in his latest works insists
that we should present a political conception of liberal
democracy – liberal justice – instead of the comprehensive
22 On Democracy, p. 113.
Islam and Democracy 165
conception that rests upon specific moral and philosophical
doctrines. For him this new political liberalism is ‘free
standing’ with no reference to any particular comprehensive
doctrine or specific moral-philosophical foundation. He
While we want a political conception to have a
justification by reference to one or more
comprehensive doctrines, it is neither presented as,
nor derived from, such a doctrine applied to the basic
structure of society…but as a distinguishing feature of
a political conception is that it is presented as free
standing and expounded apart from, or without
reference to any such wider background.23
By emphasis on a freestanding view of liberal democracy – a
well ordered, just, democratic society, which does not rest
on particular doctrines – he hopes that this conception can
attain an overlapping consensus among reasonable
comprehensive doctrines. The political conception of liberal
democracy with its freestanding view supplies appropriate
circumstances to be endorsed by citizens who belong to
various comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrines.
He says:
The problem, then, is how to frame a conception of
justice for a constitutional regime such that those who
support, or who might be brought to support that kind
of regime might also endorse the political conception
provided it did not conflict to sharply with their
comprehensive views. This leads to the idea of a
political conception of justice as a freestanding view
23 Political Liberalism, p. 12.
Shia Political Thought
starting from the fundamental ideas of a democratic
society and presupposing no particular wider
doctrine, so that it can be supported by a reasonable
and enduring, overlapping consensus.24
Rawls’ starting point is the ideas and values that are latent in
the public political culture of contemporary western liberal
democracies. His political conception of a well-ordered
democratic society based on the principles of justice, is
formed upon western culture without any attempt to justify
these ideas and values. Rawls writes:
In order to state what I have called political
liberalism, I have started with a number of familiar
and basic ideas implicit in the public political culture
of a democratic society. These have been worked up
into a family of conceptions in terms of which political
liberalism can be formulated on understood.25
Richard Rorty, a famous American philosopher, maintains
that Rawls does not attempt to justify democratic institutions
through philosophical foundations. Rorty writes:
Rawls is not attempting a transcendental deduction of
American liberalism or supplying philosophical
foundations for democratic institutions, but simply
trying to systematize the principals and intuitions
typical of American liberals.26
24 Ibid., p. 40.
25 Ibid., p. 43.
26 Richard Rorty, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy”, in Reading
Rorty, Alan R. Malachowski (ed), Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 289.
Islam and Democracy 167
For Rorty, the sources latent in the public political culture of
liberal democracies seem to be all that is available, and so
must be all that is required to justify the liberal democracy
political system. Rorty says:
It is not evident that [liberal democratic institutions]
are to be measured by anything more specific than the
moral intuitions of the particular historical
community that has created those institutions. The
idea that moral and political controversies should
always be ‘brought back to first principals’ is
reasonable if it means merely that we should seek
common ground in the hope of attaining agreement.
But it is misleading if it is taken as the claim that some
particular interlocutor has already discerned that
For many thinkers it is obvious, that this method of
justifying a political system, which consists of merely
invoking the basic elements of a public political culture,
because these cultural elements and values grow and thrive
around that political system, cannot logically support this
argument. This anti-foundationalist approach to the
contemporary democratic system comes to the conclusion
that advocates of liberal democracies are free to ignore
critics whose criticisms question the moral intuitions of
western liberal democracies. Rorty, in principle, disagrees
with any attempt to provide rational foundations for systems
of values and concepts.28
27 Ibid., p. 290.
28 Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift, Liberals and communitarians,
Blackwell, 2nd Edition, 1996, pp. 259-261.
Shia Political Thought
Obviously this form of justifying a democratic state does not
provide an opportunity for comparative critical discussion
between Islam and democracy. This anti-foundationalist
approach as a first step and starting point wants us to
completely admit all basic values of western liberal
democratic culture while allowing no room for criticism or
philosophical discussion concerning these values and
foundations. As Rorty states “Rawls puts the democratic
politics first and philosophy second.”29
Limited Democracy versus Pure Democracy
Pure democracy or unlimited democracy is a political system
in which all political questions are settled directly, without
any restrictions, by the majority vote of citizens. Early
liberals were concerned about pure democracy for its
potential harms, for instance Kant maintained that pure
democracy that relies upon the majority vote in an assembly,
without any constitutional restrictions, subjects the
individual to the whims of the masses, as it contains no
constitutional safeguards against the tyranny of the majority
and, therefore, it cannot protect personal rights. Justice
demands that a people be given the right to make its own
laws, but the right must be constrained by constitutionally
guaranteed civil liberties. In Kant’s view, political freedom
embodied in voting and democratic processes, alone does
not ensure civil freedom. The majority may fail to respect
the rights of the minority.30
Conversely the idea of a limited democracy is based on the
doctrine that there are many fundamental rights – including
29 Reading Rorty, p. 291.
30 Kant’s Theory of Justice, p. 34.
Islam and Democracy 169
political rights – that possess a moral standing and a
philosophical ontological basis that is independent of
democracy and the democratic process. Since the validity
and foundational justification of these rights does not depend
on majority rule or the democratic process, they can serve as
limits on what can be done by means of the democratic
process. Citizens are entitled to exercise these rights, against
the democratic process if need be, to preserve fundamental
political rights and liberties and in order to protect
themselves from infringement even by means of the
democratic process itself.31
The above-mentioned justification for limited democracy
should not be restricted to fundamental rights; rather, it also
embraces moral and religious values. According to this
justification, whatever possesses a moral or philosophical
standing – a reliable and valid foundation – independent of
democracy and the democratic process, should be protected
from possible democratic harms. Consequently the limits of
democracy could be constitutional, moral or even religious.
Theoretically, the limits of this type of democracy depend on
what is crucial and most fundamental for citizens who
choose democracy as their desirable political system.
For example, in the United States, since 1803 the Supreme
Court, consisting of nine judges, has been assigned to
declare whether legislation is ‘constitutional’ or not. Indeed
they have the authority to review what the people and the
people’s representatives enact via the democratic process. Of
course, the constitutional role of the Supreme Court judges
extends no further than the enforcement of a written
constitution that is itself based on democratic consent and is
31 Democracy and its Critics, p. 169.
Shia Political Thought
subject to amendments through the democratic process. The
tension between judicial review and democracy occurs
within the framework of the constitution. Even when the
judges act in ways that go beyond upholding the textual
integrity of the constitution, they generally claim no special
understanding of truth and rightness but refer instead to
historical precedents, long-established legal principals or
common values. Nevertheless, the place they hold and the
power they wield make it possible for them to impose
philosophical constraints on democratic choice.32
Having referred to these primary points concerning
democracy, it is now time to address the central purpose of
this Chapter; that is the possibility of a religious (Islamic)
What is the Conception of a ‘Religious Democracy’?
It goes without saying that ‘pure democracy’, which
delegates all dimensions of public affairs including
legislation to majority rule without limitation, is absolutely
incompatible with Islam. Essentially every school of
thought, ideology and religion that follows a set of beliefs,
values or rules independent of the will and desire of people
cannot approve unlimited democracy. These values and rules
must be protected and this cannot be insured by the will of
the majority, as majorities in any form of democracy are
shifting and unstable. Even political ideologies such as
Liberalism and Socialism are in need of a constitution to
control a purely democratic process and to protect their
fundamental values and beliefs from possible harm from
32 Walzer, “Philosophy and Democracy”, in Political Theory, Volume 9,
No. 3, August 1981,pp. 387-388.
Islam and Democracy 171
majority rule. On the other hand, democracy and the
democratic process do not provide us with a comprehensive
ideology, way of life or any substantial values. Democracy is
but a method among other alternative methods for
overcoming difficulties in decision making in an association
or society. The philosophical foundations mentioned to
justify the democratic system, fail to uphold it as a reliable
means to attain truth and righteous decisions. Majority rule
is too weak to be presented as an alternative to
comprehensive religious, moral and philosophical doctrines.
In fact what gave democracy superiority over other
alternative systems is far removed from any philosophical or
ideological basis; instead the democratic system is made
desirable in comparison to other political systems because of
its practicality.
Democracy as a method does not contain fixed, unalterable
or absolute moral and philosophical ideas and values.
However, in order for a political regime to be democratic, it
must meet some criteria. A democratic political system
should provide the opportunity for the people to participate,
at least in some significant political decisions, to express
their ideas, orientations and needs, to distribute political
power through free elections and be able to regulate and
bring to account the governors. These political rights and
duties of the people in a democratic regime could be dealt
with within a fixed framework consisting of specific rights
and values. In current limited democracies these frameworks
are embodied in constitutions, and constitutions in turn are
influenced by values and beliefs that people of each country
respect and support. Muslim advocates of democracy cannot
accept ‘pure democracy’ as Abu al-Ala Mawdudi says:
Shia Political Thought
Islam is not democracy: for democracy is the name
given to that particular form of government in which
sovereignty ultimately rests with the people, in which
legislation depends both in its form and content on the
force and direction of public opinion and laws are
modified and altered, to correspond to changes in that
Therefore the key issue concerning religious democracy is
whether Islam has the capacity to draw an appropriate
framework for a democratic government that meets the
above-mentioned criteria. As I have indicated in the earlier
pages of this Chapter, many Islamic thinkers believe that
Islam has delegated significant political as well as social
roles and duties to Muslims. In Islam, no conflict exists
between the supreme authority of religion – the definite and
unquestionable status of divine laws and Islamic values –
and the political status of people in an ideal Islamic state. As
there are limitations for the will and desire of the people,
they have authority within the framework of Islamic rules
and values. Hence, a majority of the people or their
representatives have no power to legislate or make
judgments that contradict Islam. At the same time the
governors in an Islamic state must respect the rights, will,
and authority of the people. Ayatollah Khomeini, the
founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran during a meeting
with the representative of Pope VI said:
I do not want to impose (my will) on my people, and
Islam does not permit us to establish a dictatorship.
We follow our nation’s votes and act according to
33 Abu al-A’la Mawdudi, Political Theory of Islam, Karachi: Maktaba-e
Islami, p. 30.
Islam and Democracy 173
their views. We have no right, God has not conferred
such a right to us, and the Prophet (pbuh) never
permitted us to impose our ideas upon Muslims.34
Smoothing the Path to Religious Democracy
The advocates of Islamic democracy usually refer to the
shura (consultation) as the most important Islamic teaching
that supports and justifies the authority of people in an
Islamic government. Rashid al-Ghannouchi (Tunisia, born
1941) writes:
The Islamic government is one in which:
1- Supreme legislative authority is for the shari’a,
which is the revealed law of Islam, which transcends
all laws. Within this context, it is responsibility of
scholars to deduce detailed laws and regulations to be
used as guidelines by judges. The head of the Islamic
state is the leader of the executive body entrusted with
the responsibility of implementing such laws and
2- Political power belongs to the community (ummah),
which should adopt a form of ‘shura’ which is a
system of mandatory consultation.35
Thinkers like Sadek Sulaiman (Oman, born 1933) maintain
that shura in Islam includes basic elements of democracy.
He says:
34 Ruhollah Khomeini, Sahifa Nur, Tehran: Ministry of Islamic Guidance,
Volume 10, p. 181.
35 Rachid Ghannouchi, “Participation in Non-Islamic Government”, in
Liberal Islam, p. 91.
Shia Political Thought
As a concept and as a principle, shura in Islam does
not differ from democracy. Both shura and democracy
arise from the central consideration that collective
deliberation is more likely to lead to a fair and sound
result for the social good than individual preference.36
The Holy Qur’an explicitly proposes and encourages that
public affairs and the governance of the ummah should be
based upon shura:
And those who respond to their Lord and keep up
prayer, and their rule is to take counsel amongst
themselves. [Chapter 42, Verse 38]
And ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them
in the affair. [Chapter 3, Verse 159]
The second verse orders the Prophet (pbuh), who receives
revelation and enjoys infallible knowledge, to take counsel
with believers in management of public affairs. This
command shows the fundamental significance of the
participation of Muslims in social and political affairs. It is
somewhat an exaggeration to suppose that the shura is the
functional equivalent of western parliamentary democracy
because there are some controversies amongst scholars about
the political status of shura. For instance, those who believe
in the theory of Caliphate, emphasize that members of the
council only have a duty to express their opinion with no
right to make political decisions. Accordingly if the Caliph
refers to the assembly to take their opinion regarding rulings,
36 Liberal Islam, p. 98.
Islam and Democracy 175
which he wants to adopt, their opinion is not binding on him,
even if it is a consensus of majority opinion.
What makes shura one of the basic elements of Islamic
democracy, it seems, is the fact that shura refers to one of
the significant essentials of democracy. Democracy in its
long history has had evolutions and alterations, but matters
such as public participation, the rule of law and the
responsibility and accountability of governors can be
recognized as essential to democracy. In conclusion, the
assumption that the Islamic political system could be a
democratic one, merely implies that Islamic teachings
endorse and agree with the essentials of democracy. From
this point of view, there is no doubt that the verses of the
Holy Qur’an concerning shura along with some
transmissions from the prophet and Imams emphasize on the
necessity of public participation in political and social
affairs. But the question concerning the political role of
consultation (shura) in the process of making decisions still
remains. Is consultation merely a religious duty of the ruler
of the Islamic state, or is he bound by the decisions of those
The last verse [159] of Surah al-Imran [3] verifies the view
that shura is not binding upon the ruler, for the Almighty
God delegates the final decision, after consultation, to the
Prophet (pbuh):
And take counsel with them in the affair, so when you
have decided then place your trust in Allah. [Chapter
3, Verse 159]
Shia Political Thought
However, the practice of the Holy Prophet, according to
some traditions, testifies that he had implemented and
respected the opinion of the believers even when it was
against his own views. It is recorded that the Prophet not
only consulted with his experienced or close companions,
but sometimes he held open meetings in which all Muslims
were invited. The consultation that took place about the
battle of Badr and Uhud was one such example. In the case
of Uhud he gave precedent to the opinion of the majority of
Muslims over his own concerning the location of the
battlefield and decided to fight outside the city of Madina.
He also consulted the people concerning the treatment of
prisoners of war following the battles of Badr and al-
Clearly, however, the Prophet did not consult the Muslims
concerning religious affairs or divine matters. His
consultations were restricted to war, peace and ordinary
public affairs that were not determined by revelation and
were not amongst the situations in which divine order
determined must be done. For example, with regard to the
treaty of al-Hudaybiyah the Prophet (pbuh) did not submit to
the opinion of the majority of his companions who were in
disagreement with the covenant, it was not in fact a
consultation but a series of complaints made to the
messenger regarding the terms of the peace. He rejected
their suggestions to break his promises and continued to
respect the agreement, which he had made because it was a
command of Allah (swt). He told them: “Verily I am the
servant of Allah and his messenger. I shall never disobey his
37 Ibn Kathir, Umda, Volume 3, p. 63; Ibn Hisham, Sireh Ibn Hisham,
Volume 2, pp. 272-273.
Islam and Democracy 177
In short, even though the shura in its historical function
within the Islamic world does not totally overlap with the
modern concept of democracy and the political status of
parliament in contemporary representative democracies, it
would be appropriate for shaping a limited democratic
model for an Islamic state. The Qur’anic emphasis on the
status of shura as an essential aspect of the Islamic political
system – according to those who interpret the word for amr
in both of the two verses relating to shura, as referring to
governmental affairs – makes way for defining a determined
systematic role for the people’s representatives (members of
the shura) within the body of the Islamic state. The abovementioned
verses are silent about how the form and
mechanism of shura in an Islamic political system might be,
consequently the constitutional approach inclines to
determine and stabilize the political status of shura (people’s
authority) under the supreme authority of Islam does not
confront any religious problem.
The second element, however, often mentioned by advocates
of religious democracy as an appropriate approach to an
Islamic democratic state is bay’ah. In the first Chapter, the
meaning of ‘bay’ah’ has already been discussed. Here, the
aim is to examine its legal nature, for it is supposed that its
political function is the same as the function of an election in
democratic systems. It should be noted that bay’ah in the
sense of adherence to a religion (as occurred between the
Prophet and his supporters from Madina before Hijrah) or
recognition of a pre-established authority by other means
(such as the testamentary designation, such as the bay’ah of
people to the second caliph Umar) is irrelevant to our debate.
Bay’ah as a means and method of designating a person as a
Shia Political Thought
ruler (caliph) among other legitimate methods is held to be
the same as democratic election in its legal nature. This
political view exclusively belongs to Sunni jurists, because
Shia political thought, except that of the Zaydis, maintains
that the Imamah is acquired by election within the Alid
family. The bay’ah has never been able to play this role, for
the Shia recognize only one method of designating the
Imam. He is appointed through the testament (nass) of one in
the legitimate line of descent.38
This sense of bay’ah is a supposed contractual agreement
between those who elect and he who has been designated as
the ruler. As far as democracy is concerned, for at least two
reasons, bay’ah is not simply and solely a democratic
election. Firstly, bay’ah implies binding obedience to the
ruler, and since it is a contractual agreement, like
commercial agreements such as bao (to sell), the obedience
of the elected ruler as a religious duty, would be obligatory.
Secondly, this obligatory obedience is life long, whereas the
democratic process of appointing a person as ruler is merely
temporal with no religious implications.
One of the most important characteristics of a democratic
government is its accountability to its people. A democratic
state must be accountable and its citizens must have the right
to criticize its policies and functions. Advocates of religious
democracy maintain that al-amr bi'l-maruf wal nahy'an almunkar
(enjoining good and forbidding evil) is one of the
most significant Islamic duties placed upon Muslims and it
should render the Islamic state accountable. Many Qur’anic
verses emphasize on this fundamental injunction, which if
Muslims take seriously would produce a healthy and healthy
38 Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 1, p. 1113a.
Islam and Democracy 179
society that is far removed from tyranny, injustice and
dictatorship. Almighty God says in the Holy Qur’an:
And from amongst you there should be a party who
invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the
wrong, and these it is that shall be successful.
[Chapter 3, Verse 104]
And (as for) the believing men and believing women,
they are guardians of each other, they enjoin good
and forbid evil. [Chapter 9, Verse 71]
It is an Islamic duty, incumbent upon all Muslims, to
concern themselves with the health and well being of
society, to oppose injustice and immorality, and to scrutinize
the actions of those who undertake governmental affairs.
There exists a mutual responsibility between the rulers and
those whom they rule to implement and uphold the Islamic
shari'a and this provides a clear framework and basis upon
which citizens may question the actions and policies of their
governors with regards to their socio-religious duties. As the
most-noble Messenger (pbuh) in a famous tradition says:
Every one of you is a shepherd (of the community), and
all are responsible for their dependants and herd.39
In order to fulfill this obligation (to monitor governmental
functions) there is a requirement for certain conditions to be
met, such as the freedom of speech and to criticize as well as
access to accurate and objective information. Otherwise, the
active participation of people in public-religious duties such
39 Sahih Muslim, Hadith 1829.
Shia Political Thought
as providing constructive feedback and criticisms toward the
governors and standing for justice and truth would be
impossible. It is obvious that Islam does not concur with
individual freedom to the extent prevalent in western culture.
However, the preconditions of an Islamic and democratic
government that respects the rights of the people and their
contribution in socio-political affairs, are outlined by the
Qur’an and Sunnah (valid traditions). For example the
Qur'an encourages believers to listen to different opinions
and to select the best of them:
Therefore give good news to my servant. Those who
listen to the word, then follow the best of it; those are
whom Allah has guided, and those it is who are men
of understanding. [Chapter 39, Verses 17-18]
There are many narrations in historical and religious texts
documenting dialogue and debate that occurred between
Shia Imams and non-Muslim intellectuals in which
disbelievers (even atheists) were able to express their
ideological views so long as they were voiced as academic
opinions and kept within the circles of scholarly debate,
rather than attempting to propagate them. In a true Islamic
state, it is the right granted to the people that they be kept
aware of affairs in society and government.
Imam Ali (pbuh) once explained the mutual rights and duties
that exist between an Imam (leader) and the people:
It is your right that I must not hide any secret, except
that of war, from you. And that I should not take over
Islam and Democracy 181
matters (without your consultation or awareness)
other than those concerning divine laws (hukm).40
Aside from the obvious distinction between religious
democracy and western liberal democracy, the former holds
the same essential advantages as any democratic
government. These include the participation of citizens, the
distribution of political power by election, political
accountability of governors, constitutionalism and political
transparency as well as mutual responsibility between the
rulers and the ruled. Religious democracy however, is far
more desirable for Muslims than any feasible alternative
because of the supreme role of the shari'a in providing a
basis for, and shaping the growth of, the contents of this
political system. It is also desired because of the qualities
and moral-religious commitments that the governor must
have as the leader of Muslim society.
For instance, constitutionalism and accountability in secular,
western democracies as Nathan Brown says, has expressed
itself most frequently in human authored constitutional texts
and rights, whereas religious constitutionalism is defined
under the authority of the shari'a. Therefore, the religious
government is not only accountable with regard to people's
rights and needs, but also with regard to the shari'a and
divine laws. He writes:
Many Muslims have come to believe that the crisis of
political accountability can be solved by insisting that
Muslim governments rule within the bounds fixed by
the Islamic shari'a. In essence, this demand renders
the Islamic shari'a as a kind of constitution.
40 Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Sharh-e- Nahjul Balaqeh, Volume 16, p. 17.
Shia Political Thought
Governments may not cross the boundaries firmly
established by the Islamic shari'a; rulers are held
accountable to God's law.41
In summary, although governments throughout history have
often ignored the political teachings of Islam, the main
purpose here is to show that these significant teachings
smooth the path towards the establishment of a religious
Religious Democracy and its Critics
As indicated earlier, adversaries of religious democracy are
scattered amongst both fundamentalists and liberal
advocates of a secular state. All of them arrive at the
conclusion, through various perspectives, that any
composition between Islam (the authority of religion) and
democracy (the authority or consent of the people) is an
incompatible thesis. Here, the major arguments that the
major critics of religious democracy have presented will be
Religious Democracy is Paradoxical
Critics of religious democracy maintain that there is an
inherent antagonism between the fundamental aspects of the
Islamic creed and the basis of democracy. According to this
view, those who subscribe to the idea of religious democracy
ignore the true nature of religion and overlook the
epistemological foundations of democracy. The democratic
system is based upon pluralism that places emphasis upon
41 Nathan Brown, “Islamic Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice”, in
Democracy the Rule of Law and Islam, Eugene Cotran (ed), Kluwer Law
International, 1999, p. 491.
Islam and Democracy 183
freedom instead of regulation, diversity as opposed to
homogeneity, and multiplicity rather than unity. According
to pluralistic doctrine, no single person, group or school of
thought can possess or claim to possess the absolute truth or
that it's understanding and opinions are correct and that all
others are false. Truths are distributed amongst humanity,
hence, every opinion is but a composition of truth and
falsehood, and consequently no opinion has superiority over
another, and cannot claim such. People are free to follow
and support any opinion they decide upon, whether it be
religious or secular, theistic or atheistic, moral or immoral.
The unlimited freedom of choice is one of the most
important foundations of democracy, a foundation that Islam
is opposed to. Hamid Paydar writes:
One of the epistemological foundations of democracy is
the obscurity of truth and its distribution amongst all
human beings, however, if an ideology or religion
should call itself the sample of truth, maintaining that
other religions and opinions are manifestations of
infidelity, polytheism and misleading, it would not be
compatible with democratic government. Islam,
according to some verses of the Qur’an introduces
itself as a unique right and true religion. Verses such as
“This then is Allah, your true lord; and what is there
after the truth but error” [10:32] “And whoever
desires a religion other than Islam, it should not be
accepted from him” [3:85] and the opening verses of
Surah Taubah (repentance) are in contradiction to
man's freedom of choice. 42
42 Hamid Paydar, “The Paradox of Islam and Democracy”, in Modara wa
Modiriyat, Abdul Karim Surush (ed), Tehran: Serat Publication, 1997, pp.
Shia Political Thought
This view emphasizes on the inflexibility of Islamic laws
and the absolute authority of the shari'a as evidence of
incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Obviously
the interpretation of democracy stated above does not
represent what exists in an ordinary democratic state. It is a
particular version of democracy mixed with extreme
liberalism, which asserts the absolute neutrality of a liberal
democratic state. For this new approach a desirable political
system should ignore any conception of good and should not
based upon any particular philosophical-religious doctrine of
life. As Galston says:
According to this view, the liberal state is desirable
not because it promotes a specific way of life but
precisely because it alone does not do so. The liberal
state is ‘neutra’ amongst different ways of life. It
presides benignly over them, intervening only to
adjudicate conflict, to prevent any particular way of
life tyrannizing over others, and to ensure that all
adhere to the principals that constitute society's basic
It is not our objective to discuss whether the neutrality of a
political system is possible. However, the fact is that no
form of political life can be justified without appealing to
certain ideas and values concerning society and the
individual. Some advocates of liberalism maintain that
liberal theorists covertly employ theories concerning
goodness. However, their adamant denial of any reference to
43 William .A Galston, Liberal Purposes, Cambridge University Press,
1991, p. 80.
Islam and Democracy 185
a basis or foundation reduces the strength of their argument
and leaves their theories vulnerable to criticism.44
Regardless of whether a neutral government is feasible or
not, there is no doubt that Islam is in complete disagreement
with many underlying values of liberal democracy, including
secularism, pluralism and radical individualism.
Consequently the above-mentioned theory merely explains
the general incompatibility of Islam with liberalism and
specifically the new conception of a 'liberal state'. This,
nevertheless, does not in any way undermine other versions
of limited democracy, including religious democracy.
Usurpation of God's Sovereignty
Some Muslim thinkers who emphasize on Islamic
governance argue that democracy is contradictory to Islamic
principals because it involves the legislation of laws, and
there are may verses of Qur’an that demonstrate that
legislation is reserved for Allah (swt).
Indeed judgment (hukm) is only for Allah. [Chapter 6,
Verse 57]
And in whatever thing you disagree, the judgment
thereof is with Allah. [Chapter 42, Verse 10]
And if you were in dispute in anything amongst
yourselves, refer to Allah and His Messenger.
[Chapter 4, Verse 59]
44 Ibid., p. 79.
Shia Political Thought
In conclusion, Islam holds that sovereignty is with God
(Divine law = shari'a) and not with the ummah (people), thus
the ummah does not possess the right to legislate on any
matter. For example, even if all the Muslims were to gather
together and agree to permit usury, usury would remain
prohibited because it is a decree from Allah and Muslims
have no choice in the matter. On the other hand, in
democracy sovereignty is with the people, thus they are able
to legislate according to their own free will and desires,
either directly or indirectly via the representatives they have
The Egyptian revivalist scholar, Sayyid Qutb holds that the
essential doctrine of liberal democracy, namely the
sovereignty of man, is a usurpation of God's sovereignty and
a rebellion against His authority, for it subordinates the
individual to the will of other individuals instead of God's
governance on the earth.46 Clearly this approach to religious
government, in principal, should not ignore the
administrative and executive role of the people in an Islamic
state, because for them the problem of legislation is
fundamental. This approach insists that the believers cannot
frame any law for themselves, nor do they have the right to
alter or modify God's laws. This assumption has emanated
from the idea that it is incumbent upon Muslims to follow
shari'a and to restrict all actions and principals to this basis.
It is not allowed for them to undertake or leave anything
except after understanding the rule of Allah regarding it.
Furthermore, those who deny any legislative role for the
45 Abdul Qadeem Zalloom, Democracy is a System of Kufr, London: Al-
Khilafah Publication, p. 35-37.
46 “Sayyid Qutb, Ideologue of Islamic Revival”, in Voices of Resurgent
Islam, John Esposito (ed), Oxford University Press, 1983.
Islam and Democracy 187
people maintain that the Islamic shari'a contains rules for all
past events, current problems, all possible incidents and that
it encompasses the actions of man completely and
comprehensively. Allah says:
And we have sent down to you the book as an
exposition of everything, a guidance, a mercy and
glad tidings to those who have submitted themselves
to Allah. [Chapter 16, Verse 89]
Accordingly, Muslims are allowed to make use of the
sciences and thoughts of human beings unless they
contradict Islam. However, with regard to laws and
legislation it is prohibited for Muslims to devise and obey
un-Islamic rules because it is impossible to find a human
action that does not have an evidence or a sign that indicates
its rule in the Quran. This is due to the general meaning of
His saying ‘exposition of everything’.47
Since the above view is both influential and popular amongst
Islamic revivalist movements, it would be both convenient
and useful to examine its various aspects. In order to do this,
one must first clarify the meaning of “God’s sovereignty”,
then the assumption that all legislative authority rests with
God and that believers and qualified jurists (fuqaha) cannot
frame any laws for Muslim society should be examined. It
should also be emphasized that there is a lack of knowledge
concerning the Islamic model of democracy, which insists
on the sovereignty of God as well as people’s authority in
limited aspects of political affairs. The followers of this
doctrine focus solely on a comparison between their
47 Democracy is a System of Kufr, pp. 22-25.
Shia Political Thought
conception of an Islamic state and a purely democratic (or
liberal democratic) model.
By definition, sovereignty is the claim of ultimate political
authority, subject to no higher power with regards to the
legislation and enforcement of political decisions. In the
international system, sovereignty is the claim by the state to
independent self-government and the mutual recognition of
claims to sovereignty is the basis of international society.48
Through regarding sovereignty as the basis and foundation
of the political power that a government relies upon in order
to be able to exercise its power and organize its domestic
and international relationships, the idea that sovereignty as a
political term has no connection to God has come to being.
Therefore those who attribute the quality to God confuse
between the religious status of God amongst believers and
the political power of a state referred to by the term
‘sovereignty’. Hence many thinkers such as Fazlur-Rahman
essentially deny any attempt to translate the supremacy of
Allah into political sovereignty.
The term ‘sovereignty’ as a political term is of a
relatively recent coining and denotes definite and
defined factors in a society to which rightfully belongs
coercive force in order to obtain obedience to its will.
It is absolutely obvious that God is not sovereign in
this sense and that only people can be and are
sovereign, since only to them belongs ultimate
48 Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, p. 464.
Islam and Democracy 189
coercive force i.e. Only their 'word is law' in the
politically ultimate sense.49
As a matter of fact, every formed state has sovereignty
regardless of how its political hegemony and power are
established and shaped. So, all political models of
government - democratic, dictatorship, guardianship and
even a military government established by a coup d’etat - so
long as it remains in power and can exercise ultimate
political authority, possesses sovereignty. In the Islamic
ideology, however, there is no unique origin for the
establishment of political sovereignty and thus the
fundamentally crucial question in this regard is one of
‘legitimacy’. Which form of political sovereignty is the
legitimate one? Amongst political philosophers there are
several answers to this significant question. The idea that
‘only people can be and are sovereign’, as Fazl ur-Rahman
stated, represents the democratic approach to this question.
Certainly, for philosophers who believe in ‘guardianship’
such as Plato, the rule of majority and the consent of the
people does not legitimize the political sovereignty of a
Therefore, sovereignty as such could be created through a
number of means and in different forms, but every political
doctrine presents its own specific interpretation of legitimate
sovereignty and emphasizes on one factor as an essential
element of a legitimate state. In the view of those who
support the doctrine of an Islamic state, the legitimacy of a
government is strongly tied to the extent of that
49 Fazlur-Rahman, “The Islamic Concept of State” in Islam in Transition,
Ponohue and John Esposito (eds), Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 269.
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government's commitment to the shari'a as well as Islamic
teachings and values. Muslim thinkers construe the
phenomena as God's sovereignty because God's will is
embodied in his legislations and His will and orders have
priority over the will and orders expressed by the rulers of an
Islamic government, who are obligated to rule in accordance
with divine laws (shari'a).
With regards to this interpretation of God's sovereignty with
its particular insistence on his supremacy in legislation, the
key issue that arises is whether sovereignty prevents the
believers from any form of legislation. This important
question distinguishes between religious democracy and the
above-mentioned doctrine that does not recognize any right
for the believers to frame any law for themselves. Religious
democracy, as emphasized before, is based firmly upon the
belief in the ultimate authority of almighty God, including
his legislative sovereignty. But it is essential to recognize
that the unquestionable legislative superiority over
dimensions of Muslim's life is one issue, and their frequent
need for appropriate, fresh and temporal laws to handle new
and unusual situations is another. Muslims society, like all
other societies, is in need of new laws and regulations in
order to adapt its legal system with the frequent alterations
in social relationships, namely, new developments in human
lifestyle, technological development and cultural–
economical changes. Social change in its broad meaning
regularly produces many fresh judicial questions, which
often cannot be resolved without new legislation.
The conception that Islam is perfect, comprehensive and allembracing
with regards to the needs of human beings,
particularly the judicial-legislative necessities that arise, and
Islam and Democracy 191
that the Islamic legal system consequently includes all rules
required for a desirable Islamic way of life, with no need to
draft new legislation and laws, can be interpreted in two
ways. The first notion incorporates a misinterpretation of the
idea that Islam is indeed a perfect religion. This theory
asserts that in every case in which mankind is in need of
laws, there are appropriate rules that already exist in the
shari'a that can be automatically applied. Islam contains
every law that people require in order to handle their private
and public affairs. In conclusion, there remains no legal
vacuum to justify the existence of another legislative
sovereignty to derive new laws. According to this view,
Qur’anic verses such as “And we have sent down to you the
book as an exposition of every thing” [16:89] should be
interpreted as supporting this view, because the word
‘everything’ embraces all rules we need in the various
dimensions of our life, at all times and in every model of
social formation. Regarding the Islamic legal system, all
judicial demands would be satisfied either by in advance
prepared rules or through Ijtihad (fuqaha derive new laws by
referring to Islamic sources), which in turn is not legislation.
Through ijtihad the faqih recourse to the sources of shari'a to
declare the position of Islam with regards to new questions
and situations, this in its nature is completely separate from
legislation. Islamic jurists have no right to legislate, they
merely are able to understand and announce to believers
what Almighty God has declared.
Small-scale societies have a relatively simple social structure
that can be easily regulated by a basic set of rules. However,
contemporary society is considerably larger and possesses a
vast social structure permeated by many complex
interrelationships. In such an environment, every
circumstance and aspect of public life requires a flexible
Shia Political Thought
legal network, consisting of both fixed and changeable rules,
in order to be able to stay in harmony with the demands of a
growing and modern society. The existence of ahistorical,
non-temporal and fixed laws is a significant characteristic
that is common in many comprehensive legal systems,
especially in the Islamic legal code, nevertheless, the
importance of temporal, changeable rules that every
government must legislate according to new economic,
social and political situations cannot be ignored. These
policies are required to protect the interests of society and to
overcome different social difficulties concerning education,
taxation, security, exports, immigration and so on. Therefore
the adoption of policy is one of the most important functions
of a government.
The shari'a is perfect, not because we do not need any kind
of legislation or because all the rules needed have been
previously prepared, rather it is because Islam is the most
perfect of all legal systems. It consists of comprehensive and
all-inclusive divine laws and Islamic jurisprudence also has
specific elements, which render it a dynamic and flexible
system that is capable of operating hand-in-hand with
changes in society and reality. One of the most significant
aspects of this structure is the right of a well-qualified jurist
(Wali al-faqih mujtahid a-adil) to issue rulings and
commands. If the shari'a has already providing a verdict
regarding a specific issue, it is an obligation upon the
Islamic state to adopt the ruling of the shari'a. If a situation
arises in which the shari'a is ambiguous or there exists a
difference of opinion concerning the divine law, the opinion
and edict of the Wali Amr (who carries the responsibility of
rulership in the absence of the infallible Imam) has
precedence over all others. In the case where there exists no
Islam and Democracy 193
obligation or prohibition in the shari'a, it is permissible for
the just faqih to issue a governmental order necessitated by
the interest of Islam and Muslims. Since the just faqih has
legitimate authority (wilayah) and legislative sovereignty
other governors, including those elected by the people such
as members of parliament and the president, should be
appointed by the just faqih otherwise they would have no
legitimate authority to make governmental rules and
decisions. For instance Ayatollah Khomeini says:
In the absence of the guardianship of a faqih or divine
ruler, the taghut (illegitimate authority) will prevail. If
the president is not appointed by a just faqih, he
would be illegitimate.50
In letters appointing the members of the Islamic
Revolutionary Council in Iran as well as the first premier,
referring to the above points, he writes:
As a person who enjoys the wilayah of the sacred
religion, I appoint him...any opposition to this
government is tantamount to opposition of shari’a.51
Therefore, being elected by the majority or obtaining public
consensus does not automatically grant legislative
sovereignty or legitimate religious authority to rule and
govern Islamic society. And in cases that governors have
been appointed by the just faqih – even elected officials –
their authority for making decisions and orders cannot
contradict the shari'a. Finally, in instances where there is no
50 Sahifa Nur, Volume 9, p. 253.
51 Sahifa Nur, Volume 5, p. 31.
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clear indication from the shari'a because the case is totally
new, and without previous record, it is the responsibility of
the fuqhaha (jurists) to deduce the appropriate rule from
Islamic sources.
The legitimate status of the majority is what truly
distinguishes religious democracy from all other conceptions
of the democratic state, for religious democracy limits the
authority of the people in accordance with the legislative
sovereignty of God. Whereas in non-religious democratic
states, the sovereignty of elected individuals is not restricted
by shari'a, and the doctrine explicitly assumes democracy as
a secular system detached from the authority and
sovereignty of God. It thus fails to make a fair assessment of
the religious model of democracy and the relationship
between Islam and democracy.
The Problem of Legal Equality
Legal equality is often highlighted as one of the crucial
foundations of democratic government. Consequently, every
political theory that wishes to categorize itself as democratic
must respect the legal equality of its citizens. Some critics of
religious democracy maintain that Islam is not compatible
with democracy on the grounds of some inequalities
endorsed within the Islamic legal system.
Islam may be credited with having disseminated the
spirit of equality and brotherhood amongst its
followers, nevertheless the inferior status of three
groups, namely non-Muslim citizens, slaves, and
women, and their inequality before the law as
Islam and Democracy 195
compared with free male Muslim citizens do not help
in smoothing the path to a democratic system.52
Even though the modern conception of democracy
emphasizes on all embracing legal equality, democracy in its
nature – as the history of political thought – testifies that it is
compatible with legal inequalities. As discussed before, in
ancient models of democracy only free male landowners had
the right to participate in the process of making decisions for
city-states. In modern democracies, the right for all free men
to vote on an equal basis was not granted until 1850. Males
of African origin were denied the right to vote until 1870,
and females, both those who were free and the slaves, were
not granted the right until the 19th constitutional amendment
in 1920. Moreover, even the modern conception of
democracy does not rest upon a complete, unexceptional,
and all-inclusive legal equality. Instead it relies upon the
principal that all adult members of society are considered
equal in political rights, and are able to participate in voting
and the distribution of political power. Therefore the
existence of non-political legal inequalities, in principal, is
not incompatible with democracy. Suppose that according to
a legal system, women have not been granted the right to
become a judge or religious leader, or that they inherit less
than males, obviously these non-political inequalities do not
undermine the idea of establishing a democratic system.
No one can make a credible attack against the Islamic
ideology because of its supposed endorsement of slavery,
slavery was an age-old, and universally accepted institution,
which was only officially abolished in the western world less
than two centuries ago when the anti-slavery movements
52 Forough Jahanbakhsh, Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in
Iran, Brill, 2001, p. 49.
Shia Political Thought
emerged around the world. However, when Islam was
revealed, slavery was considered a completely natural aspect
of human culture as well as an inseparable element of
society. Islam moderated this institution and encouraged
believers to emancipate their slaves. In fact, the concept of
freeing slaves is an important element in the Islamic system
of punishment. The acceptance of slavery by Islam should
not, therefore, be considered an obstacle for democracy. In
summary, there is no doubt that there are some differences in
shari'a between Muslims and non-Muslims (for example in
retribution), between men and women (for example in
inheritance), but these legal inequalities have no connection
to political equality and citizenship. For example, in the
constitution of Iran as a model of Islamic democratic
government, many articles emphasize the equal rights of
citizens, men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim:
All people of Iran, whatever their ethnic group or
tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; color,
race, language and the like, do not bestow any
privilege. [Article 19]
All citizens of the country, both men and women,
equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all
human, political, economic, social and cultural rights,
in conformity with Islamic criteria. [Article 20]
Reconciling Islam and Liberal Democracy
Muslim advocates of religious democracy strongly support
the conception of a democratic political system possessing a
religious framework drawn by shari'a. In other words, a
judicial (fiqhi) based model of democracy that respects the
Islam and Democracy 197
authority of the people regarding God's sovereignty and
Islamic law. They emphasize upon the accountability of the
government, the participation of the people in political
affairs and the implementation of the shari'a. According to
their conception of religious democracy, the political power
belongs to the people, but their authority is limited by the
shari'a. Hence, it is not in the people's power to make
political decisions that contradict Islamic rules and values.
The basic structure of a fiqhi based society, namely the
system of rights and duties, should be defined according to
instructions and limitations set forth by Islamic teachings in
general and shari'a in particular.
Some Muslim intellectuals attempt to present a model of
Islamic democratic government, which in principle
welcomes with open arms many underlying values of
contemporary liberal democracies. As a notable sample of
this modernist approach there is the conception of Abdul-
Kareem Soroush (an Iranian intellectual born in 1945)
regarding religious democracy. Here we will briefly explore
a political approach that strives to reconcile Islam and the
western conception of human rights, justice and rationality,
by reducing the status of shari'a to juridical conflicts with no
connection to the management of society or the regulation of
social relationships. The basic elements of this doctrine are
as follows:
i In contrast to the prevailing conception of a religious
society and Islamic government, that is essentially fiqh
based and defines a religious society as one wherein the
implementation of shari'a is the ultimate aim and major
function of the religious state, the above mentioned
doctrine does not give Islamic jurisprudence such a
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crucial role. According to a fiqh-based interpretation of
religious society and Islamic governance, the rights and
responsibilities of people have been defined and
determined by Islamic laws, in other words the issue of
human rights is defined within a religious context,
particularly jurisprudential arguments. However, the
above doctrine insists that defining human rights, and
thus human duties, belongs to the extra-religious area
and should be determined outside the domain of religion
and shari'a.
ii “The first issue concerning human rights is that it is not
a solely legal (fiqhi) inter religious argument. Discussion
of human rights belongs to the domain of philosophical
theology and philosophy in general. Furthermore, it is an
extra-religious area of discourse. Like other debates on
matters that are prior to religious understanding and
acceptance such as the existence of God, and the
election of the Prophets, human rights lies outside of the
domain of religious”53
iii Religious law (shari'a) is not synonymous with the
entirely of religion; nor is the debate over the democratic
religious government a purely jurisprudential argument,
so we shouldn't define the religious society according to
the extent of its adoption of shari'a. The prophets
founded a society based on faith and spirituality, not on
legality. The heart of a religious society is freely chosen
faith, not coercion and conformity. Religious society is
based upon free, invisible faith, and dynamic and varied
religious understanding.54
53 Abdul Karim Soroush, Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam,
Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (trs), Oxford University Press, 2000, p.
54 Ibid., pp. 134-141.
Islam and Democracy 199
iv The jurisprudential governing and attempt to resolve
social and public difficulties by Islamic laws must be
replaced by rationality and scientific magnanimity.
Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) was a solution for simple,
underdeveloped societies that had simple, uncomplicated
relationships. Fiqh could handle and successfully
organize such societies, but the problems of complicated
modern societies would be resolved solely by rationality
and science instead of jurisprudence.55
v Democratic religious regimes need not wash their hands
of religiosity nor turn their backs on God's approval. In
order to remain religious, they, of course, need to
establish religion as the guide and arbiter of their
problems and conflicts. But, in order to remain
democratic, they need dynamically to absorb an
adjudicative understanding of religion in accordance
with the dictates of collective reason. Furthermore,
every democratic religious government must be mindful
of both the inside and the outside of the religion in order
to remain faithful to both of its foundations.56
vi Debates concerning justice, human rights and the
methods of government cannot be resolved through
intra-religious debate: these are extra-religious
arguments that deeply influence the understanding and
practice of religion. Religious understanding must
constantly renew and correct itself according to
philosophical-theological debate concerning human
rights, the meaning and nature of justice, the effective
method of government and so on. The legal and
55 Abdul Karim Soroush, Qesseye Arbab-e Marefat, Tehran: Serat
Publication, 1995, pp. 54-55.
56 Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, pp. 128-129.
Shia Political Thought
jurisprudential schools of thought should harmonize
their achievements with these novel insights.57
Having accepted these premises, one comes to the
conclusion that many substantial changes of modern
humankind in its ideas, attitudes, worldviews and lifestyle
must be admitted and respected by religion. These profound
and widespread alterations include the desirable political
system, human rights, the structure of fundamental rights
and duties and the limited role of religion in human life.
According to this doctrine, these significant changes should
be noticed as new realities and truths, hence, religious
knowledge must try to acknowledge and adopt itself to these
facts. Therefore Muslims should not strive to deduce their
political system from Islamic sources or form their social
relationships according to the shari'a, instead they have to
shape the fundamental basics of their society (i.e. The
system of rights and duties) to become consistent modern
mankind's world views, ideas and perspectives. The
keystone of this political approach consists of the concept
that the traditional Islamic thought – religious knowledge –
is temporally limited and must therefore undergo a drastic
metamorphosis in order that it be brought into line according
to the views of “modern mankind”.
This political doctrine suffers from three major categories of
weakness. The first of these is that the fundamental aspects
of this theory, presupposed by a specific doctrine about the
nature of religious knowledge, rests on a subjective approach
to the interpretation of texts. This subjective approach,
called by Soroush “theoretic evolution and devolution of
57 Ibid., p. 148.
Islam and Democracy 201
shari'a”, insists that religious knowledge and the science of
religion are relative to presuppositions, and in addition, that
they are also temporal. He states that since these
presuppositions are varied and restricted by time, religious
knowledge and the interpretation of religion is entirely
human and this worldly. All of this implies that religion is
constantly surrounded by a host of contemporaneous data
and deliberations, thus the interpretation remains constant so
long as these external elements are also constant. However,
once they change, the change will be reflected in the
understanding of religion as well. Consequently, religious
texts (such as the Holy Qur’an and Islamic traditions or
ahadith) do not carry their meaning on their own shoulders,
instead it is necessary to situate them within a context. The
interpretation of the text is in flux, and presuppositions are
actively at work here. Therefore, the interpretation of
religious texts is subject to expansion and contradiction
according to the assumptions preceding them. These
assumptions are part of the world’s view of an age, which
need not and usually does not enter the mind through any
formal education or conscious adoption, but rather are
utilized inadvertently and fluently.58
This approach to religious knowledge and the interpretation
of texts has been strongly influenced by subjectivist schools
of interpretation particularly the German philosopher Georg
Gadamer (died 2001) and the philosophical hermeneutics of
his famous book “Truth and Method” (First German edition
1960).59 According to these, the horizon of the reader (his
58 Abdul Karim Soroush, “The Evolution and Devolution of Religious
Knowledge,” in Liberal Islam, pp. 245-246.
59 I have written a few books and articles concerning the exploration and
criticism of this hermeneutical approach for instance refer to:
Shia Political Thought
presuppositions, attitudes and expectations) share in the
process of interpretation, thereby making the reader more
than a passive observer who merely receives the message of
the text, rather he is an active participant who creates the
meaning of a text, or at least the horizon of the reader shares
in the process of constructing a meaning around the text.
Hence, according to this theory, admitting modern and
popularly viewed and shared ideas as extra-religious
presuppositions is acceptable, even if this should interfere in
the interpretation of religion. Examples of such ideas include
the western conception of human rights, political system and
the social formation of rights and duties. Below are a few
brief criticisms of this conception of the nature of religious
knowledge and understanding religious texts.
i When referring to a religious text, the fundamental aim of
interpretation for believers and religious scholars is to
understand the 'intention' of the author (for instance the
intention of God in divine revelation and what the Prophet
had in mind with regard to interpretation of his hadith). To
achieve this understanding, they seek objective and valid
interpretations of the texts. Obviously every form of
interference originates from the reader's prejudices,
presuppositions and expectations, which imposing a
specific meaning upon the text, this is obviously harmful
for any attempt to interpret religious texts.
ii It is quite possible to subjectively interpret a religious text
with no regard to the intentions of its author or its context.
This form of interpretation is known as tafsir bi rai
“The Hermeneutical Reflection of Heidegger,” in Transcendental
Philosophy, Volume 3, No. 3, September 2002.
An Introduction to Hermeneutics (Persian), Tehran, 2001, Chapters3&4.
The Alteration of Understanding Religion (Persian), Tehran, 1996.
Islam and Democracy 203
(interpretation by personal attitude and prejudice), and is
criticized in many traditions originating from the Prophet
and the Imams (peace be upon them). Developing a
meaning according to the varied presuppositions and
prejudices that exist in human society, is not a question of
feasibility, rather it is a question of legitimacy.
iii The assumption that religious texts do not carry their own
meaning ignores the profound semantical relationship
between words and meanings that is established in every
natural language. This doctrine supposes that sentences of
a text are empty vessels that a reader may place his own
meaning within, as Soroush says:
Statements are hungry of meanings instead of being
pregnant of them.60 (meaning a statement requires a
meaning to be given to it, rather than providing a
meaning from it).
Clearly anyone who wants to use or understand a language
must respect its structure and limitations. Why aren't we
free to apply and understand an English text as we wish?
The point is that the pre-established connection between
words (and their meanings) in this language prevent us
from doing so and these limit the shape and framework of
our linguistic activity. Therefore, statements in a text are
not devoid of meaning, rather they contain their own
meaning and play a crucial role in the process of
understanding and transmitting the intention of their
author, although this is not to say that other elements
(such as the context of the text) are not important.
60 Qabs wa Bast-e theory e Shari’a, Tehran, Serat Publication, 1995, 3rd
Edition, p. 287.
Shia Political Thought
iv This method of understanding in general, and
understanding religious texts in particular, lends itself
towards 'relativism'. It emphasizes that religious
knowledge and the interpretation of text is a theory-laden,
as Soroush writes:
Religious knowledge will be in continuous flux, and
since it is only through those presuppositions that one
can hear the voice of revelation. Hence the religion
itself is silent.61
This absolute relativism doesn't allow any room for the
question of validity in interpretation of the text and
religious knowledge. According to this approach, the
validity of religious knowledge is connected to the
validity of extra-religious knowledge, which consists of
the presuppositions of each age, which in turn are varied
and changeable. Whereas appealing to religious beliefs
and knowledge based on reliability and validity of
religious knowledge is undermined by this theory.
v As a matter of fact readers face a text through their
horizons that means they cannot ignore their knowledge,
mental abilities, backgrounds and personal experiences
concerning the context and content of the text. In other
words, it is quite impossible that someone can overlook his
own horizon and keep his mind empty when confronting a
text, because our knowledge, experiences and so on are
inseparable parts of our identity. This reality would not
excuse free and nonstandard interference of the reader ‘s
horizon in the process of the interpretation of the text.
Indeed, the horizon of every reader consists of several
61 Liberal Islam, p. 245.
Islam and Democracy 205
categories and some of them play a crucial role in
understanding the text. For instance, those who know
Arabic and have suitable background in Islamic
philosophy understand philosophical texts that have been
written by Muslim philosophers in Arabic language much
better than others. On the other hand, there are some
elements whose influence we have to control during the
interpretation of text, such as our prejudices and
expectations that tend to impose particular and prejudged
meanings over the text. That is why even some great
advocates of philosophical hermeneutics notice the danger
of some pre-understandings that hold back the correct
process of interpretation. Heidegger and Gadamer
emphasize that we have to distinguish between ‘correct
and incorrect’, ‘legitimate and illegitimate’ conceptions
and prejudices that come into understanding.62
Consequently we are not free to allow our prejudgments,
attitudes and fore conceptions to be presented in the event
of understanding. Substantial changes in ideas, lifestyle
and attitudes among modern humankind should not decide
the message of a religion. Certainly these radical
alterations sometimes create challenges and conflicts
between a religion and modernism that require solutions,
but reinterpretation of religion in favour of these new ideas
and attitudes is not an appropriate solution, especially
when we know that there is no justification for many of
these modern concepts and approaches. Values such as
consumerism, individualism, the liberal concept of
freedom, secularism, free market (capitalism) and
technology that make the major paradigms of
62 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, John Maquarrie and Edward
Robinson (trs), Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, p.195; Hans Georg Gadamer,
Truth and Method, London: Sheet& Ward, 1999, p. 298.
Shia Political Thought
contemporary civilization and modern humankind ‘s
lifestyle, have established themselves because of the
personal preferences of the majority. However, most of
these paradigms suffer from the problem of justification.
Therefore, there is no reason for believers to blindly apply
all modern values and conception to their religious texts
and to reproduce their religious knowledge in accordance
to them.
Another criticism of the above mentioned political doctrine
concerns the ambiguous role of religion in this version of
“religious” democratic government. The scope of politicalsocial
affairs concerns the practical aspect of Islam, which is
largely embodied in Islamic law. Yet, this doctrine
essentially denies the fiqhi based model of governing and,
therefore, it remains ambivalent about the role (if any) of the
shari’a with regards to the organization of social
relationships and the process of making significant socialpolitical
decisions. On the other hand, if we endorse the
claim that religious understanding should constantly be
renewed and corrected in light of extra-religious
presuppositions and that Islamic jurisprudential thought
must harmonize its achievements with these novel insights
obtained by human sciences, then what reason would justify
and obligate us to harmonize our political-social decisions
with such dependent, relative and changeable religious
knowledge? Why shouldn't we just directly trust these novel
extra-religious sights and presuppositions and relinquish
Soroush emphasizes that religious democracies in order to
remain religious, need to establish religion as the guide and
Islam and Democracy 207
arbiter of their problems and conflicts.63 However, by
overlooking the role of the shari’a in resolving the problems
of contemporary modern societies, he does not explicitly
state the mechanism upon which Islam might be the guide
and arbiter of conflicts in the modern world.
Also significant is the fact that this doctrine fails to
demonstrate why the problem of human rights and the
system of rights and duties are extra-religious and why we
shouldn't respect the explanation of religious sciences from
intra-religious contents. It seems that the only reason that
could possibly justify this approach rests on an extremely
subjective conception of the nature of religious knowledge
and the interpretation of texts, which has been criticized
previously. In spite of this, there is no justification for
ignorance concerning Islamic teachings, conceptions and
laws with regards to human rights and duties. In cases where
extra-religious notions and values contrast some Islamic
teachings first of all we have to assess their capacity for
truth-valid objective reasons that support and justify them.
Clearly many fundamental notions in the modern conception
of human rights are deeply influenced by concepts and
values of liberalism, which in turn suffer from absence of
valid justification. For instance the liberal conception of
freedom plays a very significant role in shaping modern
conceptions of human rights, while advocates of Liberalism
still have not presented a valid convincing rational argument
for this conception of liberty.
63 Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, p. 128.
Shia Political Thought
Consider John Stuart Mill who tried to base and defend this
freedom entirely on the principle of utility,64 which as many
critics have pointed out is ill-equipped to bear the burden. If
personal liberty is as valuable as Mill insists, liberals should
at least attempt to find a more permanent foundation for it
than the disputable proposition - the principle of utility.
Classical liberals like Mill are not the only liberals whose
defense of individual freedom have run into trouble. Recent
defenders of the liberal conception of personal freedom such
as Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin do not present a
convincing rational justificatory basis for it. Hayek stakes
his defense of personal liberty on skepticism about moral
rationality, while Berlin resorts to a kindred species of moral
relativism. For Hayek ‘reason’ is powerless to determine
‘ends’ and, therefore, cannot tell us what we ought to do.
Human intellect cannot by itself settle questions concerning
value, especially questions about moral values.
Consequently people personally must be absolutely free to
choose.65 Berlin, on the other hand, emphasizes on ‘relativity
of values’ and the subjective nature of values to conclude
that there is no objective higher good than the arbitrary or
relative good each individual sets for herself.66 The
weaknesses of these arguments seem plain. How is it
possible to claim that there are no objective values and that
all values are purely subjective, and yet simultaneously state
that we should always hold personal liberty in such high
regard as to make it one of the central pillars of human rights
and political life. If they are right that there are no objective
64 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Edited by Gertrude Himmglfarb, Penguin
Books, 1984, p. 69-70.
65 Friedrich Hayek, Law Legislation and Liberty, University of Chicago,
1973, pp. 32-34.
66 Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969,
pp. li, lvi, 172.
Islam and Democracy 209
ends or values, then there can be no rational or objective
grounds for valuating individual ends or liberty. In short,
liberals must avoid the temptation to base their argument on
relativistic or skeptical premises because it undercuts rather
than supports their own arguments.
There are other points about the above mentioned political
doctrine regarding the role of Islamic law (fiqh) in an
Islamic government, which were discussed in the first
chapter and do not need to be repeated again.
Final Word
During these four chapters I have attempted to explain the
main elements of Imami Shi’a political doctrine and, where
necessary, reconstruct some arguments that provide the
reader an opportunity for better understanding the various
dimensions of this political theory. However, it should be
noted that there are still many things that must be discussed.
Surely this political theory like any other theory is based on
some philosophical foundations that have not been examined
here in detail. One of these foundations, for instance, is the
theory of self or the concept of human nature that underlies
this political ideology. Obviously, each political ideology
presupposes a specific concept of human nature because it
tries to offer a desirable form of social-political life and
naturally each form of life carries with it its own picture of
human nature. As Hollis says:
All political and social theorists, I venture to claim,
depend on some model of man in explaining what
moves people and accounts for institutions. Such
models are sometimes hidden but never absent. There
Shia Political Thought
is no more central or pervasive topic in the study of
The other significant moral-philosophical discussion pertains
to the relationship between right and good and which one
has priority over the other. Liberalism insists on rights and
maintains that no definition of good life, human’s ends and
virtues, or ideal way of life can impose limits on individuals
and what they select as their path in life. Therefore,
liberalism instead of basing a conception of politics upon a
specific concept of human nature and good life, concerns
itself with rules that secure human rights, particularly rules
that secure each individual the greatest amount of freedom to
follow his own interpretation of what is good. Accordingly,
political action including legislation, decision making,
policy making and other governmental functions must be
done independent of any concept of good and moral
philosophy. Indeed neutrality and moral pluralism is a
central value of modern Liberalism.
Joseph Raz writes:
Liberalism is committed to moral pluralism, that is to
the view that there are many worthwhile and valuable
relationships, commitments and plans of life which
are mutually incompatible.68
Explicitly, Shi’a political thought contrasts the doctrine of
Liberalism basing itself on underlying moral values drawn
by Islamic jurisprudence and ethics. As a result, human
67 Martin Hollis, Models of Man, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
68 Joseph Raz, Liberalism Autonomy and the Politics of Neutral Concern,
Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1982, p. 7.
Islam and Democracy 211
rights and duties must be defined according to these
fundamental Islamic rules and values instead of being
neutral. There is no doubt that a comprehensive assessment
of Shi’a political doctrine requires a profound comparative
discussion about these moral philosophical issues that are
absent in the present book.
The content of the book is concerned mostly with the
clarification of what is the desirable political regime among
Imami jurists. This type of discussion belongs to Islamic
political jurisprudence (al-fiqh al-siyasi), but it is correct to
keep in mind the fact that al-fiqh al-siyasi does not confine
itself to the question of ‘what is the desirable model of statepolitical
regime- among Muslim thinkers?’ The mutual
rights of the governed and governors, the method of
controlling political power at the various levels, and the
rights of minorities are just some significant examples of
political fiqhi debates that should be considered in an
exhaustive assessment of Shi’a political thought. In any case
it is hoped that this book has succeeded in explaining some
of the major elements of current Imami political theory.
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