Sunday, January 02, 2005

Mohsen Kadivar - The Velayat-e Faqih and Democracy

The Velayat-e Faqih and Democracy: "Velayat-e Faqih and Democracy

Treatise is dedicated to Dr. Seyed Hashem Aghajari

The concept of velayat-e faqih as a type of Shi`ite Islamic government gained currency after the Islamic revolution in Iran, and it has now been experienced for a quarter of a century. A key question in contemporary Iranian politics is the compatibility of the velayat-e faqih with democracy. This question can be answered from the perspective of political thought, or from that of political sociology in view of what has happened in Iran. This essay adopts the first perspective, distinguishing three theoretical answers based on different interpretations of the concept:

The first can be considered the official view of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is based on the opinion that the "absolute, appointive velayat-efaqih" is the only form of Islamic government during the occultation of the infallible authorities in religion (i.e., the Imams), and is binding on the people as a religious duty. Such a government would be popular in the sense that the government is approved by the people. But the legitimacy of all decisions and acts in the public domain depends on
the approval and authorization of the supreme jurist as the vali-ye amr. According to this interpretation, the velayat-e faqih is not compatible with democracy. Limited resort to the popular vote under emergency conditions would be permissible under "necessity" (zarurat), but democracy is per se neitherdesirable nor beneficial.

The second can be considered the view of the traditional Iranian reformists. It is based on the opinion that neither the absolute appointive velayat-e faqih nor democracy is entirely acceptable, but by altering and combining the two one can arrive at a type of Islamic democracy that can be labeled "elective, conditional velayat-e faqih." According to this interpretation, the people of their representatives elect a jurist as the vali-ye amr for a limited period to take over the management of society according to the law approved by the jurists and the people. The elected jurist would be responsible to the people.

The third and last answered can be considered the view of the Iranian Muslim intellectuals. It rests on the opinion that the velayat-e faqih in the political sphere, be it appointive or elective, absolute or conditional, is not supported by valid religious proof. Islam has basically not offered a fixed and specific model for the political
management of society, even though it is not compatible with every kind of politics. The velayat-e faqih, being an autocratic rule of God based on the divine rights of the jurists, is incompatible with democracy. Democracy, being based on principles such as popular sovereignty and participation, the rule of law and human rights, is evidently incompatible with clerical rule and the velayat-e faqih, which is a type of religious dictatorship. The illusion of compatibility of the velayat-e faqih with democracy is due to the lack of familiarity with the jurisprudential terminology, on the one hand, and the theory of democracy, on the other. The fundamental incompatibility between democracy and the velayat-e faqih is not an obstacle to the democratic management of an Islamic society. The majority of its Muslim citizens can have a democratic government while remaining committed to their Islamic faith and ethical values. Islam as a religion can be integrated with democracy as the method of modern political life.
The paper describes and criticizes the first two views and analyzes the third with approval.


Are velayat-e faqih and democracy compatible with one another? If they are not compatible, could modifying one or both bring them to accord? If these two concepts are irreconcilably at odds, which should we refuse, in the interest of preserving the other?

These three questions are of utmost importance to the contemporary political thought in Iran. This paper takes on deliberating the relationship between velayat-e faqih and democracy. Before debating the matter, however, a number of points are discussed:

1. Although the term velayat-e faqih is spontaneously reminiscent of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its founder, incongruity between velayat-e faqih and democracy is not necessarily the same discord as between Islamic republicanism and democracy. Velayat-e faqih is altogether distinct from Islamic republicanism.(1) Proponents of velayat-e faqih believe that Islamic republicanism is a method of governance that would give rise to velayat-e faqih—not the same as it. Similarly, the critiques of velayat-e faqih do not believe a relationship to necessarily exist between the two—they not only perceive an Islamic republic to be capable of existing irrespective of velayat-e faqih, but they additionally believe that an Islamic republicanism less the velayat-e faqih principle is the Islamic republic that was offered to the Iranian public via the Preamble to the Constitution, which gained widespread acceptance through the April 1979 referendum. What ended up being ratified as the Constitution subsequently in late 1979, and was then modified in 1989, and has been implemented by the two supreme leaders in the past quarter of a century is an amalgamation of velayat-e faqih and Islamic republicanism—an amalgamation that could be perceived as being a velayat based republicanism (jomhouri-ye velayi) (2)—the sort of republic within which government organs perform their duties under the supervision of the supreme leader (the vali-ye amr). In this paper we set out to examine agreements—or lack thereof—between the principles of democracy and velayat-e faqih—i.e. the ideal order within which the concept of velayat-e faqih has been fully realized. Velayat based republicanism or the traditional Islamic republicanism is an incomplete realization, and a subset of velayat-e faqih. In other words, in this paper we set out to contrast a democratic government with a form of governance that is based on “appointed and absolute velayat-e faqih.”

The incongruity that may exist between velayat-e faqih and democracy must also be differentiated from any disagreement between religion and democracy, or Islam and democracy, and also from religious governance and democracy, or Islamic governance and democracy.(3) In the sense that if someone believes religion and democracy are totally incompatible, there would be no need to address the questions that are raised here—the conclusion is already reached. Similarly, for those who believe religion is a private matter, exclusive to the relationship of an individual with God, and do not allow for religion to influence the public domain—meaning those who subscribe to absolute secularism, and believe it is the foundation for democracy—religious governance would be basically undemocratic. The relationship between velayat-e faqih and democracy is subject to debate for someone who first, does not believe there to be only dissension between Islam and democracy—someone who gathers democratic views from Islam—and second, does not find an Islamic government to be necessarily incapable of democracy—more pertinently, someone who would allow for democracy to flourish in a religious society. Accepting the above two premises, we now take on the discussion of compatibility between velayat-e faqih—representing a specific case of religious governance—and democracy.
The questions being discussed here are less than twenty-five years old. They became relevant in or about 1979, when the velayat-e faqih concept was applied to public domain. Debating these issues first took place exclusively among elites, and prior to the practical experience that ensued. The analysis and explanations that they have offered in answering these questions are mostly general and often ambiguous. At this early stage, the proponents of velayat-e faqih try to portray this principle in a popular and democratic suit.(4) Starting with the second decade, having experienced velayat-e faqih in practice for ten years, the inquiries into the matter began to spread among the general public—rather than being exclusive to elites, among whom these concepts had been traditionally applied. Furthermore, the responses to these questions gradually became more specific, more exact and much better clarified. The proponents of velayat-e faqih who have responded to the aforementioned questions fall in two camps: some candidly have proclaimed the principle of velayat-e faqih to be entirely contradictory to democracy. Others, while diminishing democracy as being a “Western notion” have defended a sort of “religious democracy” around the velayat-e faqih core. Equally devout Moslems, the critics of velayat-e faqih being applied in the public domain also fall into two groups, but according to their concern regarding democracy. One group, believing the “appointive” and “absolute” attributes of velayat-e faqih to be the cause of its disagreement with democracy, has attempted to bring the two together through stressing the elective and conditional stipulations of the Constitution, concerning velayat-e faqih. A second group has found the functioning of velayat-e faqih in public domain to lack any basis in Islamic jurisprudence—they find the discord between velayat-e faqih and democracy to be inherent in the two doctrines. Depth of analysis and spread of the views that has been offered, in reply to the three questions we raised at the outset, indicate the importance of this debate.
This article is consisted of an introduction and three sections. Remainder of the introduction describes democracy. The first section examines the relationship between appointed and absolute velayat-e faqih and democracy. In the second section we explore the relationship between elective and conditional velayat-e faqih—and also that of faqih oversight—and democracy. In the third section we will discuss the means of governing an Islamic society according to democratic standards. The hypothesis that we are about to subject to scrutiny in this paper is threefold: first, velayat-e faqih and democracy are not compatible; second, the incompatibility between velayat-e faqih and democracy is essential—reforming one or both of them would not bring them into agreement. Therefore, Islamic democracy would be a contradiction in terms, if it were to be based on velayat-e faqih. Third, Islamic society can be governed via democratic means.
It may seem that democracy would be a well-known concept, but the effort that has been exerted to approve or reject it in Iran indicates that many of those who have commented on the subject did not have a clear understanding of it. Democracy has been mistaken often for popularity or for populism. To prevent probable misconceptions in our discussion ahead, it is best to put forth an outline of democracy. In doing so, we should try to emphasize those aspects of democracy that would stand out, in comparison to the corresponding conditions under velayat-e faqih. Democracy is an answer to a question in politics: who is empowered to decide for the public domain? Three types of answers have been offered for this question: autocracy, aristocracy and democracy. In an autocracy, assessment of public interest and forming decisions in public domain rest with one individual—all legitimate power to govern stem from that individual. No worldly authority can oversee his actions—he is above the law, and cannot be held responsible; has absolute authority, and can exert unchecked power to manage the affairs of society. In aristocracy, the ultimate power resides with an elite class—this group of people is not accountable to the public. In a democracy, determination of public interest and decisions on behalf of the public are based on the approval of the public at large—not the approval of a specific individual or a group of elites. In a democratic regime, those executing authority in the public domain are the people’s elected representatives, whose charter is to serve in their clients’ (i.e. the public’s) interest. In a democracy, the government is responsible to the public. It comes to power through the will of the people, and at a certain time, peacefully transfers its power to govern to the succeeding democratically elected representatives. The laws of democratic societies are established through a process ensuring public consent, and are liable to change according to public will.
In more exact terms, democracy is the politics of the modern world. It is an approach to instituting government—the purpose of which is to minimize the likelihood of making erroneous decisions in the public domain, through maximizing public participation in the decision making process. Thereby diminishing the role of the individual in making political decisions and shaping public policy. Proper distribution of political power throughout the society is one of the requirements of democracy. A democratic government is elected through freely expressed majority vote, to govern for a limited term. The equal rights to choose—and to be chosen—are among the bases giving rise to democracy. In a democracy, decisions that affect the society must gather consensus for support. Therefore, public oversight of decisions affecting public domain and distribution of equal rights amongst the citizenry, in order to impose oversight over the decisions regarding public domain, are two of the pillars of democracy.

The main attributes of a democratic regime are as follows:

a. Holding free and all-inclusive elections.

b. Establishing transparent and accountable government.

c. Respecting civil and political rights.

d. Giving rise to a civil, or a democratic society.

To complete our framework of democracy, now we should ask: what are the characteristics of an undemocratic regime?

a. Sanctioning special privileges in public domain for an individual or a class of elites (such distinction is contrary to the basis of equal rights).

b. Permanency in holding on to an office, or lacking peaceful transfer of power, following a predetermined term.

c. Holding an office or an authority in that office above the law.

d. Lacking oversight of the leadership—irresponsibility to the public.

e. Having absolute or unchecked power vested in an individual or a group (even if it is sanctioned by the Constitution).

f. Lack of regard for public demand in changing the law.

Section I. Appointive, Absolute Velayat-e faqih and Democracy

The theory of appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih is based on four principles.(5) The first principle is velayat.(6) It means having responsibility for, acting on behalf of and having jurisdiction over the affairs of others. There is inequality in the sphere of velayat (hozeh-ye velayat), encompassing public domain. The general public is considered to be incapable of making pious decisions, and unable to exert control over public domain. They need religious oversight, for their lacking religious jurisdiction over public domain. Legitimacy of all decisions and actions in public domain depend on the approval and authorization of the supreme leader, as the vali-ye amr. Another meaning of velayat over people is their guardianship, which is fundamentally different from representing them. The citizenry—having been placed in care of the supreme leader—has no say in the appointment or dismissal of the vali-e amr, and no authority to oversee his conduct of velayat, or his personal conduct (that of the vali-ye amr, or supreme leader). Opinion of the supreme leader constitutes the measure of proper decisions regarding public domain. It is expected of the public to conform to, and coordinate with the views of the supreme leader—not the other way around. All public domain functions derive their legitimacy through their lineage with the supreme leader. The most important religious duty of the people toward the supreme leader is to accept his verdicts, obey his edicts and help him succeed. Velayat is obligatory—not elective. It is permanent, and life-long—not transitory. And it is binding on all human beings, without any exception or condition.

The second principle, appointment (7) stands here for an appointment by the divine ruler, as opposed to election by the people; above and beyond comprising the legitimacy to govern, it implies selection and appointment of the qualified person to reign over the people on behalf of the last Shiite Imam. Identifying the individual, possessing the proper merits, is a function of the elites of Shiite jurists. In selecting the supreme leader from the midst of the Shiite jurist elites, the public cannot be consulted, since they lack the knowledge to properly assess the merits of the supreme leader. It is generally held that the installment and dismissal of the supreme leader is a divine act. In case the leader is found to have forfeited his merits as a jurist, or is found to have become unjust, other elite jurists would find that the leader’s supremacy has been abdicated. The ruler (or the supreme leader) is responsible only to God—no human being has the authority to oversee his actions. Other elite jurists can only inquire into his merits in preparation to their finding him meritorious for asserting his supremacy—another words, beyond the supreme leader (vali-ye faqih) is only God.

The third principle is absoluteness.(8) Jurisdiction of the leader (vali-e faqih) encompasses matters of sovereignty in public domain—all matters fall in this jurisdiction. The leader manages the society based on his determination, or that of his appointees. His authority is akin to that of the Prophet and Imams. His authority is not confined to the religious rule—the vali-ye faqih can rule on matters beyond religious concerns, based on what he deems to be in the interest of the state. His decrees are binding on everyone and just as all other religious decrees must be obeyed and acted on. In case of any conflict between decrees issued by the vali-ye faqih and other subsidiary Islamic standards, the former prevails. Where the Constitution draws its legitimacy from the leader’s sanction of it, it is clear that vali-ye faqih is not be bound by the laws of mankind, including the Constitution. The decrees of vali-ye faqih carry the force of law, and in case if they seem to be contrary to the law, his decrees take precedence. The judiciary, legislative and executive branches of government, armed forces and media are all his organs, which function independent of each other, but under the control of one leader—the vali-ye amr.

The fourth principle, jurisdiction (feghahat) is the most important requisite for leading an Islamic society. Islamic jurisprudence plays an essential role in the planning and management of an Islamic society. All political decisions must be in accord with the religious fundamentals. Islamic jurisprudence is capable of providing solutions to all political, economical, cultural, military and social problems of the world, and therefore, capable of guiding the greater Islamic world, and the non-Islamic constituency. Politics is a branch of the Islamic jurisprudence, and a part of the religious experience. The Islamic jurisprudence provides a pertinent, and complete theory for managing the human race, and guiding the human experience from cradle to grave. Therefore, velayat or administration of public domain is held to be the exclusive right of Islamic jurists.

The theory of appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih—in all four of its principles—is contradictory to democracy. In fact, this theory provides for a religious autocracy, or at the very best, it may be viewed as a clerical aristocracy. In fact it has been claimed that the vali-ye faqih, as the operative of the divine on earth, is akin to God—“He cannot be questioned for his acts, but they will be questioned for theirs” (9)—a permanent, irresponsible, sacred and absolute authority in the temporal world. In other words, this theory sustains a religious aristocracy, which is fundamentally distinct from democracy. The following are contradictions, arising out of each of the four appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih principles:

Guardianship (Velayat)
i. A requisite of religious guardianship is that the general public—in their capacity to make pious decisions, and capability to influence matters of public domain—is not equal to the jurists. Whereas in the democratic approach everyone is believed to have firstly, the same rights as anyone else, and secondly, the right to influence the public domain.

ii. In order to administer the public domain, the citizenry is empowered to elect a representative government—rather than being rendered unable or incompetent to make proper decisions, and requiring paternal oversight.

iii. The standards of proper conduct in the public domain are the views and opinions of the vali-ye faqih—the public is bound to obey his directives. Whereas in a democracy, the public officials must coordinate themselves with the will and sentiment of the public they represent.

iv. In the theory of velayat-e faqih, everyone must seek the permission of vali-e faqih for any decision or action in the public domain. The situation is completely reversed in a democracy—all public officials are to seek people’s consent, in order to function in the public domain.

Appointment (Entesab)
i. Democracy is a bottom up approach to government. The appointive velayat based state is a top down regime—election stands in opposition to appointment.

ii. People elect or dismiss their government officials in a democratic regime. Whereas in an appointive regime, members of the general public have no say in the installment or removal of the ruler.

iii. Without exception, all political assignments in a democratic regime are limited to a specified term. In the appointive velayat-e faqih, however, the leader is practically appointed for life, and time-in-office for other public officials are determined by him.

iv. The elected representatives of the people are charged with oversight over the government of a democratic regime, and government is accountable to the people it governs. In an appointive rule, the ruler is only responsible to God; he is not responsible to any human being for his conduct.

Absolutism (Etlagh)
i. All government officials are assigned limited powers in a democratic regime—there are checks and balances. In appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih, the leader possesses absolute and unchecked power.

ii. In a democratic regime, none stands above the law. In appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih, the leader is not only above the law, he sanctions the law—he can shut down the Constitution.

iii. Separation of powers is fundamental to democracy. In velai based state, the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government, next to the armed forces and media are the instruments of the leader (veli-e faqih)—they all function under his orders. Heads of the three branches, and key institutions of government are, in effect, his deputies.

Jurisdiction (feghahat)
There is no special privilege in public domain that is set-aside for any particular group in a democratic regime, whereas, governance in velayat-e faqih is the exclusive right of the Islamic jurists.
In a democracy, the society is managed based on scientific principles; it is not expected of jurisprudence to provide planning for political, economical, cultural etc. Whereas in velayat-e faqih, Islamic jurisprudence provides the entire theory of government in all fields, from cradle to grave.
The principle incompatibilities between appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih and democracy are so clear that they need no further proof—it is readily obvious that these principles are not compatible.

The question should be raised here; is referring to public opinion not warranted under any circumstances, according to the concept of velayat-e faqih? The answer is affirmative, but it depends. Referring to public opinion may be warranted in minor cases, and only where the leader’s position is not undermined as a result. In any case, he is the final authority—he can overrule the public’s opinion at any time. Another case may be that if he does not resort to public opinion, he may come across as being dictatorial. In the second case, referring to public opinion is only warranted in a do-or-die situation—to get passed the circumstantial necessities.(10) It is evident that once the need is overcome, the public opinion would again become irrelevant, and that referring to public opinion under such circumstances is not the same as free elections held in democratic regimes.

Among the proponents of appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih theory, the few who have called it democratic are clearly wrong. Their position can only be adopted either due to a lack of understanding democracy, or for future deniability or cover-up. Among the proponents of this theory, Messrs. Javadi Amoli and Mesbah Yazdi have stated candidly that this theory is incompatible with democracy.(11) But others among them, while completely rejecting “western democracies,” are promoting a “religious democracy.” (12) In effect, they are only playing with words—subscribing to appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih ideology is to deny democracy in all its forms. Apparently, the only aspect of democracy that may have been appealing to this group is its popularity. Otherwise, tooting “religious democracy” is a popularity ploy—the sort of playing with words, which this group has resorted to, is the same as deceiving the public.

Proponents of appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih find democracy neither desirable nor beneficial. In their view, the citizenry must be so trained as to allow for none other than blindly following and absolutely obeying the edicts of religious leaders—for the fear of people conceiving opinions to the contrary.

Section II. Elective, Conditional Velayat-e faqih or faqih oversight and Democracy

Considering the great difficulties that appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih theory faces, both conceptually and in fact, an alternative view has become more significant among those subscribing to velayat-e faqih. In their approach, care has been extended to strike a balance between velayat-e faqih and democracy. The first attempt at merging velayat-e faqih in public domain with democracy has been made in the past century by Mirza-ye Naeeni. While keeping the general appointive velayat-e faqih principles intact, and taking into account lack of public confidence in the clergy, as the political reality of the time, he allowed the representatives of the people to constitute a government, which remained subject to religious oversight—hence, the conditional government.(13) It was made clear that if for any reason (e.g. regaining popularity) the clergy were to revoke their permission, that government would thenceforth become illegitimate. In the second step toward legitimizing political rights of the public independent of the jurists, the concept of public rule with jurist oversight, offered by Mohammad Bagher Sadr,(14) has been validated. In this theory, the clergy have more of an oversight and consent role than operative, although the supreme overseer is found, and appointed among them through the traditional approach, rather than by way of democratic elections. In the third step, the jurists in Qom advance the theory of elective, conditional velayat-e faqih, the evolved form of which is compiled by Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri Najaf-Abadi (15). In his approach, three of the principles in the appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih theory have been modified—as described in the following:

Firstly, by expanding on the selection process for choosing a leader amidst multiple qualified jurists, prior to the eventuality of him being appointed by the divine ruler, selecting a ruler from the slate of qualified candidates ends up being based on public volition. Considering the traditional Shiite doctrine, the public opinion influencing who may rule supreme is a significant step toward democratization of the political process.

Secondly, although the guardianship term (velayat) has been kept in this theory, the legal ramifications of it are different. In the first theory, velayat was a religious edict, issued by the divine ruler to compensate for the laity’s inadequacies in public domain, whereas in the new theory velayat is a binding contract, and a form of a general power of attorney establishing independent jurisdiction over someone with his consent. On this basis, the government would be a form of religious treaty between the people and the sovereign.

Thirdly, as a consequence of the government having its bases in a contract, the terms and conditions of this agreement, such as a limit on time in service of the ruler and the likes, the collection of which is called the Constitution, would be legitimate. On this basis, the resulting government would not have absolute power, since it would be limited by the Constitution, as the terms and conditions of the agreement. All the elements of a healthy relationship between the general public and those entrusted with power to rule can be achieved by this approach.

The jurisdiction requirement remains intact as a principle requisite in the new theory, and not only jurisdiction, but also the supremacy in jurisdiction is considered to be the primary requisite for leadership.

Analysis of the recent twenty-some years of velayat-e faqih in action has inclined the author of the new theory to emphasize the advisory and oversight dimensions and lessen the operative aspects of leadership.(16) But it is clear that for prevailing religious motives this oversight is none other than velayat, and that it takes place based on the religious obligation felt by the overseeing jurist.

Democratic aspects of this theory are as follows:

1. All public officials—without exception, even the leader—are elected through general elections, and the public participates in electing the government.

2. As a consequence of recognizing the public as being a party to an agreement, the public’s right to self-determination in public domain is established—accepting this fact is seminal to democracy.

3. The public right to take part in the law making process being a condition of the constitutional agreement provides the grounds upon which the society would democratize.

Based on the preceding points this theory could be called “religious democracy” or “Islamic republicanism.” Its remaining true to Islamic principles is protected through the supreme leader’s guardianship and oversight. Concurrently, the society is managed democratically. But for the following reasons, the resulting religious democracy would be limited, and in a few respects it is different from democracy:

1. Accepting an exclusive right for jurists to hold the highest office in society, under the auspices of supreme oversight, poses the first discrepancy between this theory and democratic principles. Accepting such a right is contingent upon jurisprudence being effective in addressing the challenges of political and social management. Proving the Islamic jurisprudence to be capable of producing effective solutions in such scientific fields is extremely unlikely.

2. The jurisdiction supremacy requisite for assuming the leadership takes away from the elective qualities of this approach. On one hand, if the qualifying merits are concentrated in one person, then election becomes irrelevant. On the other hand, the ability to recognize and qualify supremacy, considering the broad spectrum of the Islamic jurisprudence and the variety of opinions held by the jurists, effectively shields the selection process from the public. The practical difficulties associated with this approach are above and beyond the theoretical criticisms that are due to this principle requisite.

3. What would it be like if there were widespread public discontent with the supreme leader’s stance? If there was a circumstance, where the majority of the people moved toward a direction and the leader (vali-ye amr) found that direction inappropriate or undesirable—stated his ruling on the matter as such, and the majority still refused to follow his advice. Would he resort to force, in order to establish the validity of his views, albeit against the public will? Or would he acknowledge the will of the people—having taken an stance against him as his lacking support among the public—and resign, take to cultural and educational activities to convince the public on the merits of his view, win the majority over and regain his rightful position as the supreme leader again? The evidence is in favor of the former.

Section III. Democracy in a Religious Society

It became evident through the discussion in the previous sections that: one, the “appointive, absolute velayat-e faqih” and democracy are entirely incompatible—these two concepts are complete opposites—just as the Platonic Philosopher-King, the Iranian theory of kingdom or the mystic’s theory of the perfect human’s reign would stand in contradiction to democracy, and two, the “elective, conditional velayat-e faqih” or the concept of the elected supreme leader’s oversight is a form of limited democracy, which differs from democracy in three respects. Although according to the leader’s capacity the religious order may extend far into democratic terrain, in cases of narrow-minded jurists the reverse would also be true.

Up to this point, we obtained the two comparisons above, regardless of approving or disapproving democracy or either of the two religious theories. In this section we are about to answer two important questions: First; based on the religious principles, how credible are the two velayat-e faqih theories? Second, considering the definite discord between the first theory and democracy and the relative incompatibility between the second theory and democracy—between velayat-e faqih and democracy—which is more suitable for managing the affairs of a religious society?

Regarding the first question—the concept of velayat-e faqih is a subject of dispute in the Islamic jurisprudence (17)—it falls under the category of obligations that must not be left unattended, such as guardianship of orphan children. Most jurists have accepted this principle, but not all. As the scope of effect of this principle increases (as its domain is stretched), less people have signed on. Extension of Velayat-e faqih into public domain is viewed as clerical governance (i.e. in the political arena), and is not recognized by most jurists (18)—meaning that in their view, there is not sufficient basis in the Islamic law to support the claim. The absolute velayat-e faqih in public domain, specifically emanating from Ayatollah Khomeini, has been assumed by some (not all) of his students as being true. In any case, the author believes that the theory of appointive-absolute velayat-e faqih lacks any basis in reason, or in the Islamic law.

Surrounding the theory of elective, conditional velayat-e faqih and the elected supreme leader’s oversight: this is a young theory, which has not been adopted with much enthusiasm among the jurists in traditional Shiite domains. Its supporters are often found amongst intellectuals and political activists. From an Islamic jurisprudential perspective, two of the principles of this theory are subject to debate: one, the requisite of jurisprudential supremacy of the overseer, and two, the assumption of Islamic jurisprudential capability in such spheres as management, politics and social planning. The second point has not been subjected to much scientific analysis and debate among the jurists and religious scholars. The fact that every act, be it individual or social, must be according—or at least, not be contradictory—to Islam, can be assured through consultation with an advisory panel such as the council in charge of supervising compliance with Islam (hey-at-e nezarat-e mojtehedat) in the conditional (Mashrooteh) Constitution or the Guardian Council (Showra-ye Negahban) in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, and does not necessarily require supreme oversight or velayat-e faqih. In any event, a number of contemporary jurists, including Ayatollah Montazeri have stated positions surrounding this theory. The author believes that both issues pivot on a more basic understanding, and that is the general expectation from religion, or more aptly from the Islamic jurisprudence. Neither the jurisprudential supremacy is the requirement for social management, nor can one expect the Islamic jurisprudence to supply the required insight for managing the society. Therefore, the jurisdiction principle in the aforementioned theory is (insufficient or) incomplete.

The conclusion arrived in the above, means that velayat-e faqih, be it of religious or civil order, appointive or elective, absolute or conditional, lacks any credible religious basis for its operation in the political sphere. The jurists who have accepted certain types of velayat-e faqih have in fact researched the matter with a preconceived expectation from the religion, prior to either reasoning through, or testing their specific hypothesis. They have assumed that a complete religion must have provided a specific and constant model for managing the public policy—additionally, without assuming political power, establishing the religion is annulled; the purpose for establishing the religion is to execute the edicts of the Islamic law (shari’a); for this purpose, only jurists are qualified; hence, founding a religious governance in the sense of velayat-e faqih is necessary, or even inevitable.

Referring to the context of the Islamic religion, Koran, conduct of the prophet and the Shiite Imams show that: (19)

1. Islam is not limited to the individual’s relation with God—it also includes the social domain. The social edicts of Islam are also not limited to ethical guidance and abstemious decrees; they also include requirements to act upon.

2. The Islamic society is not compatible with all politics. It has clearly declared certain political settings to be illegitimate, and has forbidden Moslems to reflect such policies.

3. In the collective teachings of Islam, its general concepts and social protocols, one can extract one specific or tens of other general political models, none of which would be illegitimate and none of which alone would suffice for a complete political system with all of its necessities and specifics. In other words, Islam does not offer a specific and constant model for managing the politics of all societies, and far be one for all times (i.e. Islam does not provide a blueprint for a universal government).

4. Avoiding such details in Islam is due to the fact that they are variables. The religion, which claims to be constant—beyond place and time—would be subjected to change, if it were to take on transitional matters. Additionally, Islam acknowledges that human faculties are capable of finding appropriate solutions in these fields. In other words, politics is a matter of intellect, and the ability to reason is a human trait. It is true that a pious individual must satisfy the requirements of his religion in all of his interactions, but acting in accord with the general principles and common protocols of religion does not negate the fact that politics is a human endeavor requiring political wisdom.

5. One cannot expect to find knowledge of politics, economy, management and sociology in the Islamic jurisprudence. At the same time, one cannot do away with the body of constitutional, commercial, criminal and other laws. The Islamic jurisprudence provides a legal framework in such branches of law as the constitutional law, law of commerce, civil and criminal law and the likes. Branches of law cannot be expected to provide political and economical planning. Although, legal council is indispensable in a variety of fields, entrusting management, economy, commerce, politics and a whole host of other specialized activities to lawyers would not produce an optimum result. Velayat-e faqih has risen out of a sort of false expectation from the Islamic jurisprudence.

6. The obligatory Islamic decrees effecting public domain do not necessarily warrant religious governance. The necessity for carrying out such edicts may as effectively be accomplished through other means—the pious conscience and the collective will of the public in a civil Islamic society could see to it that all its obligations are fulfilled. There is a difference between the law and religious obligation. The law must pass through a formal process—designed for close scrutiny and consensus gathering—including scrutiny and adoption by the people’s representatives. Religious obligation is not the same as legal obligation. Similarly, committing a sin has a different consequence than breaking the law. An individual is not necessarily punished during his lifetime for having committed a sin or for having failed to fulfill a religious obligation. Religious leadership aims to convince its followers to voluntarily take on a course of action, or relies on the individual to abstain from what may be harmful, based on the individual’s recognizance and free will. If a religious decree is to carry the force of the law—such that it may carry with it worldly punishment—it must put on a legal suit, go through the law making process and become the law.

7. More so than being a religious obligation, velayat-e faqih is a reflection of the Iranian theory of kingdom and Eastern despotism in the mind and essence of Shiite jurists, which has also been corroborated by the Platonic Philosopher-King. Its absolutism can be traced in the absolute velayat of perfect human in the Ibn-e Arabi Sufism. It seems that traditional Islamic jurisprudence—with such notions as the principle of non-velayat (20), conditions of sovereignty (21) and satisfaction (22)—cannot be compatible in public domains with such views as velayat-e Faqih.

Regarding the second question—the choice between velayat-e faqih and democracy, in the event of unresolved incompatibility between the two, is democracy. Through the discourse in answering the first question, we provided that the difference between velayat-e Faqih and democracy is void of any religious requirement, and a matter of rational evaluation. In which case, the alternative that stands to yield the most benefit is the preferred choice. Velayat-e faqih has no credible foundation in Islamic jurisprudence. It is a notion that is formed in the minds of a group of honorable jurists through a specific reading of a handful of Islamic passages. Refuting velayat-e faqih does not in any way undermine any of the Islamic teachings, requirements or obligations. I believe democracy is the least erroneous approach to the politics of the world. (Please note that least erroneous does not mean perfect, or even error free.) Democracy is a product of reason, and the fact that it has first been put to use in the West does not preclude its utility in other cultures—reason extends beyond the geographical boundaries. One must adopt a correct approach, regardless of who came up with the idea; “look into what is being said, not at who says it.” (23)

Adopting a democratic approach for political management is as valid in a religious society as it is in a non-religious one. A non-religious society, as well as one consisted of a mix of various religious beliefs and ideological subscriptions can be effectively managed democratically—so can a religious and pious society. The claim that absolute secularism is indispensable to democracy is only an opinion. In any case, contemplating the relationships between Islam and democracy, or the feasibility of a religious democracy is outside the scope of this paper. The author believes that it is possible to manage an Islamic society using a democratic approach. If a society consisted of a Moslem majority decides to observe Islamic values and considerations, it can incorporate the Islamic values through democratic means—meaning that Islam as a religion can coexist with democracy being a modern approach to managing its politics.(24) In this paper, I have assumed the advantages of democracy to be self-evident. No doubt that this stance would be debatable to those believing otherwise. In any event, the author’s subscription is to a democratic approach in the Islamic society. God bless you.

November 17, 2002, Cambridge

(1) The relationship between velayat-e faqih and Islamic republicanism (jomhouri-ye Eslami) has been discussed previously in Velayat-Based State (Hokoomat-e Velayi [4th ed.]), Tehran: Ney, 1380, Chapters 11 and 12, pp. 160-219.

(2) The term “velayat based republicanism” (jomhouri-ye velayi) has been described in the article: “From Constitutional Monarchy to velayat based Republicanism” (Az Mashrooteh-ye Saltanati ta Jomhoori-ye Velayi)—August 9, 2002 speech at Columbia University, New York, is online at

(3) A number of points have been addressed about the relationship between religion and democracy in the article “Religious Democracy” (Mardom Salari-ye Deeni), Tehran: Tabarestan-e Sabz weekly, number 15 (31/6/1380 issue), pp. 5-7; also accessible online (

(4) As an example, one could point out Ayatollah Khomeini’s usage of the term “democracy” during the Paris interviews, and also Morteza Motahari’s.

(5) Theoretical basis is laid out by the author in The Theories of State in The Shi’ite Figh (Nazari-yeh-ha-ye Dowlat dar Fiq’h-e Shiite [5th edition]), Tehran: Ney Publishing House, 1380, the second and forth theories.

(6) The subject of velayat (guardianship) has been expanded at length in the Velayat-Based State, ibid.

(7) The subject of entesab (appointment) has been expanded in the series of articles “Hokoomat-e Entesabi.” (Appointive State). Nine articles in this series have been published in the Aaftaab monthly (Tehran, 1379-1381).

(8) The subject of etlagh (absoluteness) has been expanded in the article “Ghalamro-e Hokoomat-e Deeni az Deedgaah-e Imam Khomeini” (Imam Khomeini’s Perspective on the Scope of the Religious State), in Dagh-Dagheh ha-ye Hokoomat-e Deeni (Anxieties of Religious Governance [(2nd ed.]), Tehran: Ney Publishing House, 1379, pp. 111-134.

(9) Koran, Sura Anbiaa, Aye 23 (Anbiaa Chapter, verse 23).

(10) Ayatollah, Sheikh Nasser Makarem Shirazi’s “Anvar al Feghaheh” In Al Bai’, (Vol. I), Qom, 1411 Islamic Calendar, p. 516.

(11) The book: Porsesh-ha va Pasokh-ha (Questions and Answers) by Sheikh Mohammad Taghi Mesbaah Yazdi, Qom: Imam Khomeini Institute, 1380, and the book: Velayat-e faqih; Velayat-e Fegh’h va Edaalat (Velayat-e faqih; Guardianship of Jurisprudence and justice) by Sheikh Abdollah Javadi Amoli, Qom: Osara’ Institute, 1379.

(12) In this midst, usage of the term “Mardom Salari-ye Deeni” (religious democracy) by the second Iranian vali-ye faqih (supreme leader) is worth mentioning.

(13) Mirza Mohammad Hossein Naeeni. Tanbeeh al Aemeh va Tanzeeh al Mellateh. For analysis of Naeeni’s point of view see The Theories of State in the Shi’ite Figh, ibid. the fifth theory.

(14) Seyed Mohammad Bagher Sadr. Al Eslaam Yaghood al Hayat (Beirut, 1399 Islamic Calendar). For further analysis see The Theories of State in the Shi’ite Figh, ibid. the sixth theory.

(15) Sheikh Hossein-Ali Montazeri Najaf-Abadi; Darasaaton fee Velayat al-Faqih va Fiq’h al Dowlat-e Eslami-yeh, (Vol. I-IV), Qom, 1408-1411 Islamic Calendar—for analysis see The Theories of State in the Shi’ite Figh, ibid. the seventh theory.

(16) Some of the recent point of views held by Ayatollah Montazeri in his book Deedgah-ha (Points of View, or Perspectives), particularly in the transcript “velayat-e faqih and Constitution” is worth studying (

(17) See Ayatollah Khomeini, Kashf al Asraar, p.185.

(18) Ayatollah, Seyed Abolghaasem Khoi, Al Masaa-el va Rodoude: “the greatest Shiite scholars do not agree with it.”

(19) These points were discussed sporadically throughout Dagh-Dagheh ha-ye Hokoomat-e Deeni (Anxieties of Religious Governance). Now they are clustered in one place.

(20) Much has been discussed in Chapter 16 of Hokoomat-e Velayi (Velayat-Based State), pp. 242-245, about the principles supporting lack of velayat.

(21) See Montazeri’s Darasaat (Vol. 1), p. 495, the Third Principle, for the framework in monarchy.

(22) See Ibn-e Fahd-e Helli; Al Rasaael al Ash’ar (Ten Thesis), thesis 9, case 9.

(23) Imam Ali. Nahj ol-Balagheh.

(24) See Mardom Salari-ye Deeni (Religious Democracy), ibid.

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