Ayatollah: Cleric or Jurist

b asks, “Is an Ayatollah or a Marja in a Shia society, more of a “cleric” (in the “Western” Catholic sense), or more of a jurist i.e., a professor of legal science or a doctor of law? Or maybe something else?”

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The short answer to your question is, it’s “maybe something else”. The answer to your question is actually quite complex, as the understanding of the role of an Ayatollah entails understanding a different culture and civilization’s self-understanding of religion, which definition is in many elemental ways alien to the Western self-understanding of religion and the role that the priestly class plays in it. In other words, as your last question wisely foresaw, it is not the case where we have a series of pigeonholes, two of which are labeled “Jurist” and “Professor of Law”, and we simply have to decide which pigeonhole to place our Ayatollah in, or, say, place 40% of him in one hole, and 60% of him in another. That is not the case: in so far as the analogy obtains, the configuration of the woodwork is different.

So a proper answer would have to go into a comparative topology of characteristics and functions, which would take forever, and which I would probably not do a good job at. So my response will be necessarily selective rather than comprehensive.

One of the problems that our Prophet (with whom be peace) did away with or tried to do away with was the very existence of a priestly class as such. The success of this aspect of his project is again another huge subject, which we will have to ignore. The important thing to understand for the purposes of this discussion is that the relationship between man and God in Islam is unmediated – either by an individual cleric or by a clerical class, nor yet by the organizational structure of that class of clerics, the Church. The relationship is direct and unmediated. In the Christian tradition (be it Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian, Greek, Russian or Armenian Orthodox) a duly ordained priest of a Church is required for an individual to establish a connection with God. There is a difference that is set in motion and jealously guarded by the Church and its priest between the vernacular language of the congregation and the liturgical tongue of the priesthood. That is why the Bible was always recited in Latin in Europe – so that only the initiate could understand it, and the layman would be dependent on the priest’s cryptanalysis. It took a clever fellow by the name of Martin Luther to translate the Bible into the vernacular and to say that the Vatican was not needed for man to have a relationship with God. Better late than never, I guess.

So that is one important distinction, which is an element in the answer to the question you raised. Another one is the whole issue of the role of religion in questions of state. I do not want to use the hackneyed “separation of Church and State” refrain, as there is no such thing as a “Church” in Islam to separate from the State (or a Mosque or Masjid endowed with a hierarchy that enjoys exclusive authority). This question is itself complicated by the differences in approach to the issue by various sub-elements of the nascent community of Moslems and their respective spirituo-temporal textures and sensibilities – modalities which later crystallized into Sunnite, Shi’ite and Kharijite, among others, each of which again splintered. The Sunnite encounter with this issue was basically to accept the authority of whoever happened to seize the reins of power and managed to hold on to them, whereas the Shi’ite encounter was very different and involved belief in a cycle of 12 divinely-appointed Guides or Imams, the Cycle of Imamate which followed the Cycle of Prophecy. This distinction bears on the question you asked as the Ayatollahs are in a sense successors to the Imams (the last of which is in an occulted state in an isthmus or in the interstices between this world and the next), the Greater Occultation (circa 941 CE) having ushered in a third cycle, the Cycle of Wilaayat or Guardianship. Imam Khomeini’s actualization or institutionalization of the Wilaayat or Guardianship of the Jurisconsult (faqih, or Ayatollahs, if you will) adds yet another kink into this cauldron, as it formalizes and institutionalizes this Cycle as necessary (in the absence of the Imam of the Age), and as such, introduces a certain mediation in that relationship.

The mini-conclusion that may be drawn from our little preamble is that because there is no mediation in Islam, the Ayatollah is closer to the Doctor of Law than to the Priest, but because of the all-embracing role of religion in Shi’a Islam (and Islam generally, actually), the Ayatollah is closer to the Priest and the traditional (medieval) priest at that than to the Doctor of Law, in that his ambit is comprehensive and his opinions bear on every aspect of life, albeit in a consulting capacity borne out of an expertise deriving from specialization rather than because of a special position he occupies owing to his role as cleric or because of his position in a clerical organizational or institutional structure.

Wa’llahu y‘alam (And God knows [best]).

Posted by Arash Darya-Bandari

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