Velayat-E Faqih

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Theory of governance in Shi ʿite Islam.

From the Arabic term for "the authority, or governance, of the jurist," the doctrine of velayat-e faqih was associated particularly with Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It holds that those scholars of Shiʿite Islam most qualified in terms of piety and erudition are to exercise the governmental functions of the Twelfth Imam during his major occultation (absence from the terrestrial plane), which began in 939 c.e. and still continues. Even before the occultation, the imams would delegate certain of their functions, particularly in the judicial sphere, to qualified members of the Shiʿite Islam community as a matter of practical necessity. It was therefore natural that after the beginning of the occultation, other executive functions of the imam also should be assigned to the Shiʿite jurists, including, for example, the collection and disbursement of religiously mandated taxes (zakat and khoms), but not the waging of offensive jihad (holy war) or (according to some jurists) the holding of Friday prayers. This led to the crystallization of the theory of the niyabat-e amma (general deputyship) of the jurists, a process that was complete by the middle of the sixteenth century. Already in the Safavid period (15011702) the general deputyship occasionally was interpreted to include all the prerogatives of rule that in principle had belonged to the imams, but no special emphasis was placed on this. Similarly, although velayat-e faqih began to be discussed as a distinct legal topic in the nineteenth century, against a background of enhanced social authority for the Shiʿite jurists, no concrete political conclusions were drawn from the concept.

It was left to Ayatollah Khomeini to claim, in typically radical and comprehensive fashion, the right or even duty of the leading Shiʿite scholars to rule. He did this in his first published work (Kashf alAsrar, 1944), again in a technical work on Shiʿite jurisprudence, and most fully and importantly, in a series of lectures delivered in 1970 during his exile in Iraq; these lectures were published under the title Hokumat-e Islami (Islamic government).

Khomeini's arguments in the lectures are both scriptural and rational, traditional and revolutionary. Asserting that Islamic government differs from all other forms of rule by being based on the implementation of divine law, Khomeini attributes the disarray of the Islamic world in general and Iran in particular to the prevalence of arbitrary rule and its concomitant man-made laws. He then demonstrates the centrality of government to the Islamic world-view and ridicules the opinion that the validity of the laws contained in the Qurʾan (the holy book of Islam) and other sources should have been restricted to the first few centuries of the Islamic era. Next, he reviews in great detail the Qurʾanic verses and traditions of the prophet Muhammad and the imams, which, in his estimation, support the thesis of velayat-e faqih ; cites the opinions of previous, mostly recent, Shiʿite scholars on the subject; and reaches the conclusion that "the same governance that was exercised by the Most Noble Messenger and by the Imams is also the prerogative of the jurists" (Khomeini).

In the last of the lectures, Khomeini laments the prevalence of the "pseudo-saintly" in the religious institution, and it was indeed several years before a sizable number of Khomeini's colleagues came to accept his thesis. It was the repressive policies of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (ruled 19411979), that impelled the religious scholars to conceive of broad and radical aims and enabled them to gain a favorable response from much of the Iranian public. Nonetheless, although by the autumn of 1978 a clear majority of Iranians had come to favor the institution of an Islamic government under the leadership of Khomeini, it cannot be said that velayat-e faqih was a prominent slogan of the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini himself made no mention of it in the proclamations he issued during the revolution.

Not until the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was elaborated by the Assembly of Experts that convened in the fall of 1979 did velayat-e faqih emerge as the pillar of the new order. It was enshrined in the preamble to the constitution in Article Five ("During the Occultation of the Lord of the Age [that is, the Hidden Imam], the governance and leadership of the nation devolve upon the pious and just jurist who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability; and recognized and accepted as leader by the majority of the people"); and in Articles 107 to 112, which specify the procedure for selecting the leader and list his constitutional functions.

Khomeini's own view was that these provisions did not do justice to velayat-e faqih, and in February 1988 he propounded the theory of velayat-e motlaqaye faqih ("the absolute authority of the jurist"). He declared obedience to the ruling jurist to be as incumbent on the believer as the performance of prayer, and his powers to extend even to the temporary suspension of such essential rites of Islam as the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Although this formulation of the theory might appear to be an ideal prescription for theocratic absolutism, in fact, Khomeini was not seeking to extend his control of Iranian affairs (which in any event was far less than absolute). Rather, he was seeking to provide theoretical justification for government attempts to break the stalemate on controversial items of social and economic legislation.

The actual implementation of velayat-e faqih, moreover, was destined to change in a quite different direction. When Ayatollah Hosainali Montazeri was compelled in March 1989 to resign as designated successor to Khomeini, none of the other senior religious scholars seemed qualified for the position. When Khomeini died on 4 June of the same year, it was therefore Hojjat al-Islam Ali Khamenehia relatively junior figure in the religious hierarchy, despite his political prominencewho was chosen as leader of the Islamic Republic. This necessitated the modification of Article 109 of the constitution to remove scholarly seniority from the qualifications of the leader, a change that was approved in a referendum held in August 1989. It has been argued credibly that the resulting disjunction of political leadership from seniority in the learned hierarchy of Iranian Shiʿism effectively brings the implementation of velayat-e faqih to an end. If this is true, velayat-e faqih must be designated as a theory that was, to a degree, workable only because of the unique qualities and appeal of Khomeini, and that falls short of being a permanent solution to the problem of governance in a Shiʿite Muslim society.


Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein. The Just Ruler in Shi ʿite Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1988.

hamid algar
updated by eric hooglund

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Velayat-E Faqih

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