The Integrity of Authority in Shi’a Islam

The Integrity of Authority in Shi’a Islam

Religious esoterica alert. This is indeed pretty esoteric, but is still very much “on topic” as it goes to the issue of the legitimacy of the authority of the system of governance current in Iran today.
Empty says: “As I have come to understand, “spiritual authority” (even by definition), cannot be granted to any person by other people or legal means. It is granted by God. Perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying?” (fyi: this is also a response of sorts to your latest post as well)


No, I don’t think you did misunderstand, and your question is a good one. In the context of Shi’a Islam (which of course is what we were talking about), I use the term spiritual authority as interchangeable with religious authority. The reason for this is that, as you know, in Shi’a Islam, unlike in Sunni Islam where authority was trifurcated after the passing of the Prophet from the temporal plane (into military/ civic, juridical & spiritual authorities – khulafaa, fuqahaa & owlia (the sufis), the Shi’a community refused to accept that trifurcation, insisting instead that all three branches or types of authority must of necessity be vested in the same personage if the propetic project is to make sense and to continue on its path. Thus, by the time of the 6th Imam, doctrinal or creedal concepts such as the inerrency of the Imams (ma’sumiat) and that they are divinely designated (mansus) had already crystallized and were a major part of Shi’a dogma.

So far, so good. (Spiritual authority, thus far, was, as you rightly point out, designated by God and by none other than God. Of course, it was up to the nascent community to determine who exactly was the designated and inerrant Imam (and on this matter, the community was to fall into a major crisis immediately upon the death of Imam Ja’far as-Saadiq himself, leading to the rise of the Ismaili schismatics. But the important thing to note for the purposes of our conversation is that unlike in the Sunnite community, religious and spiritual authority was one and the same. This has remained so to this day.

OK. So that was the really interesting part. Here is where it gets less interesting (but more relevant). What happened during the ghaybat-i suqra (the lesser occultation, 874 CE) to that (unitary) authority, when there were a series of four nuwwab or deputies who carried out certain of the functions of the occulted imam and acted as his messengers for the community of believers? And then, what became of it after the occultation became “complete” in 941 of the Christian era (after the death of the 4th nayeb and his not being replaced by the Imam)?

Well, starting with the “Lesser” Occultation in 874, and gaining momentum in 941 (precipitated by the crisis that this lacuna created in the community), there began a slow, nay, a very slow process of the transference of power and legitimate authority from the Hidden Imam (and his designated legatees), to the members of the religious community of the Shi’a who were more knowledgeable in the Koranic sciences than the others. These would be the qurra’ (the hafiz-i qur’ans and the reciters of the Qur’an), those of the next generation who were close to the companions of the nawwab and who were still extant (and could thus relate ahadith from the nawwab of the Imam), other ahl-i hadith, who were memorizers of the ahadith of all of the Imams and from the Prophet himself and from his purified and immaculate daughter, Hazrat-e Fatimeh, upon all of whom be the peace and blessings of God. It was this class of person who later developed into the fuqaha’ and into sources of emulation and into the Ayatollahs of today.

With great reluctance and trepidation at first, but then gradually (and now, some would argue, shamelessly!), they started to take on the daily functions of the Imam, who was no longer available to them. For example, no-one could be found to lead the Friday prayer. It was felt to be too big a responsibility. Thus, because of that and because of the general persecution that the community suffered, the tradition of Friday prayer inaugurated by the prophet was reluctantly (and temporarily) abandoned by the Shi’a – to be reinstituted by Imam Khomeini over a thousand years later. Another problem that the community was faced with as a result of the occultation and the failure of the occulted Imam to designate another deputy after the death of the fourth one, for example, was the question of what to do with the khums and zakat (tithes or poor dues) that had accumulated and continued to accumulate. During the period of the lesser occultation, the deputies would distribute this money in accordance with instructions they received from the Imam. But after 941 when even these deputies were not available to the community (through whom members were also able to communicate with their Imam by letter), the tithe monies accumulated (as the obligation to pay it was still in force), but there was no one to accept responsibility for its proper distribution.
To make a very long story short, those members of the community who were more knowledgeable in the Qur’anic sciences and in the sciences of (shi’a) hadith, began to take the place of the Imams in so far as they fulfilled their functions. That process has culminated in what is seated before you, on the throne of an authority that is both legitimate and spiritual. Legitimate because it is the community who has chosen, in the absence of their Imam, to gather around these particular members of the community (those they held in greatest esteem due to their religious knowledge and piety) and ask them for guidance; and spiritual because those same members of that same community refuse now as then to accept or even to countenance any bifurcation or trifurcation of the functions of leadership. Thus, for example, there is no Sufism in Shi’a Islam. The Shi’a shaykh or pir is one and the same as the Shi’a mujtahid, the Shi’a faqih, the Shi’a mutikallim, the Shi’a ‘arif, the Shi’a falaasuf, and the Shi’a hakim.

Contrary to claims by the uninitiated to the contrary, this transitional process is now not complete, per se (it is still ongoing, and details will continue to be ironed out for generations), but in its broad outlines, it is a fait accompli that is welcomed by the vast majority of the millions of believers, and given grudging acceptance by that minority of maraaji’ who do not agree with the direction the change has taken. But even for that minority, the right to be the source of emulation for ritual practice is granted to them (as per usual), and they in turn order their muqallids to follow the dictates of “those in authority among you” (again, as per usual). The points of friction having to do with the collection and distribution of the tithe or poor tax, and, not least, with civic law (criminal law was never in their hands to begin with), will be ironed out, like I said, in the following decades, and probably, it saddens me to say, in favor of the State.


An Contemporary Example of the Disintegration of Authority:
Media (or anything else, for that matter) working “independently” from government is an historical aberration and an atavism of the now-defunct Enlightenment project, with its epicenter in London and Paris circa 1700. The idea then was to deal with the tyranny and absolutism of government by setting up other centers of power: media ‘free’ to publish opinions other than those held by the government, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature answerable to the public rather than to the king, etc. But this was a mistake, because in so far as it succeeds, it fractures and binds the authority, legitimacy and power of a given culture – which of course is why it does not succeed: it only appears to succeed in the naive minds of those people who actually believe, for example, that the United States is a “democracy” (whatever that means) rather than a plutocracy or oligarchy (actually, now a patent kleptocracy). (And in so far as it does not succeed, it leaves behind a rotten mess.)

So again: it was a mistake because it fractured or ‘balkanized’ if you will, the body politic, as a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The Enlightenment impetus, then, was an impulse buy. This is the key to understanding why the two other great and ancient civilizations of the world – Iran and China – demurred and ultimately disdained two-party or multi-party politics. It is divisive, that’s why. If a body’s arms and legs behave in ways which you don’t like and you cut them off, the last thing you get is five bodies working in harmony with each other. What you actually get is a basket-case: a body going to hell in a hand-basket (to borrow a term from the Vietnam war protestors’ cruel depiction of their returning quadriplegic soldiers.) (The five bodies, to complete the metaphor, being the executive, legislative, judiciary, plus the central bank and the media.)

In conclusion, the trick is not to wrest control of the body from the head, to cut the head off, as it were, but to foster a culture and moral paradigm wherein the child is kept whole and raised in such a manner as to wield authority and power in his or her adulthood in a way that not only legitimizes but sacralizes the body politic.

Some of you may recall my earlier statement: The only way to escape from the tyranny of absolutism is for that absolutism to have absolute legitimacy; is for society to be a community. And the only way to approximate that is to have consensus upon the sacred, is to hold values in common that are held sacred: haram, haraam, totem & taboo. Without consensus upon the sacred, one can have authority but one cannot have legitimate authority, and without legitimate authority one either has barbaric anarchy, or the next (but barely) better thing, illegitimate autocracy. Man’s failure to achieve sacred consensus dooms him to tyranny.

Posted by Arash Darya-Bandari


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