Montazeri, Hossein Ali (1922–)

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Montazeri, Hossein Ali

Senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric and theologian Hossein (Hussein) Ali Montazeri is an Iranian political and religious figure who played a pivotal role in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the first major theocratic government in the modern history of the Middle East. Montazeri was one of the original architects of the Shi'ite theocracy in Iran after the victory of the revolution in 1979 and it was he who led the way in drafting a new constitution that assigned a significant role to the clerics in the state. He later became the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1989, however, he was demoted from his position as the designated heir to Khomeini because of his public objections to the revolution and the repressive policies of the state. Later in the 1990s Montazeri became one of the leading dissident figures of the postrevolutionary era and a leading advocate of democracy in Iran. After suffering humiliation, death threats, and a house arrest by the government authorities from 1997 to 2003, he remains one of the major voices of opposition in Iran.


Montazeri was born into a poor peasant family in 1922 in the city of Najafabad in central Iran. He began his formal studies in theology in 1937 at the seminary school of Isfahan, where he was recognized for his intelligence and knowledge of the Qur'anic sciences. In 1944 Montazeri moved to the Islamic seminary (howzeh-ye elmiyyeh) in Qom, completing his education in Shi'ite jurisprudence under the supervision of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989). At Qom, Montazeri became a favorite student of Khomeini and one of his most trusted assistants.

From 1944 to the late 1950s Montazeri experienced turbulent events in the course of Iranian political life. The 1940s and 1950s can be described as a moment in modern Iranian history when many Iranians, including clerics, became politically active in various religious and secular political parties. After the 1941 abdication of the Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878–1944), who ruled the country in an autocratic style, Iran saw a period of democratic zeal and antigovernment movements. Numerous people, especially the young, engaged in pro-democracy parties and demanded greater freedoms and a larger role for ordinary Iranians to play in the political affairs of the country. Anticolonial sentiments were also a major feature of this antigovernment mood in Iran, especially when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980), the son of Reza Shah, came to power in 1941 with the help of the Allies. For many, especially clerics such as Montazeri, the British involvement in the country's economic and domestic politics was indicative of a colonial ambition to take over the country, and the responsibility of the religious leaders was to voice their opposition to the Pahlavi regime (1925–1979) which was seen to be a mere puppet of foreign colonial powers.

In March 1951, Mohammad Mossadeq (1882–1967), a member of the parliament who later that year was elected to be the prime minister, nationalized the Iranian oil, thus closing the operation of the British-owned-and-operated Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Montazeri, following his mentor Khomeini, voiced his support for the popular movements that demanded Iran's right to control its oil production and end the foreign influence in the country's domestic politics. After a successful Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led coup that toppled the government of Mossadeq in 1953, a move mainly aimed at deterring Iran from joining the Soviet bloc, Mohammad Reza Shah returned to power and began to rule the country in an autocratic manner, just as his father had.

Although he mainly kept to his studies at Qom, Montazeri gradually began to get involved in antigovernment movements that were primarily operating underground after the return of the shah to power in 1953. The most significant event that led to the involvement of Montazeri in political activities was the launching of the White Revolution by the shah in 1963, which aimed at reforming Iran's traditional economic, educational, and legal system. The far-reaching project, which sought the complete transformation of Iranian society, angered many Shi'ite clerics. According to these clerics, the reforms were a sinister ploy by the government to westernize the traditional fabric of Iranian society, and deprive Iranians of their national identity that was largely protected by the religious leaders based in Qom.


Name: Hossein (Hussein) Ali Montazeri

Birth: 1922, Najafabad, Iran

Family: Married; three sons, Ahmad, Sayed, and Mohammad (d. 1981); two daughters, Ashraf and Saideh. Nationality: Iranian

Education: Shi'ite theological seminary of Isfahan, Iran, 1937–1944; Shi'ite theological seminary, Qom, Iran, 1944–1960


  • 1960: Instructor, theologian, and scholar at the Qom theological seminary school
  • 1966: Arrested by the Pahlavi regime for antigovernment activities and sentenced to nineteen months in prison
  • 1975: Imprisoned for his antigovernment activities and sentenced to ten years in prison
  • 1978: Released from prison
  • 1979: Appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Friday prayer leader of Qom and a member of the governing Islamic Revolutionary Council
  • 1979: Elected as the chairman of the Association of Combatant Clergy and the Assembly of Experts
  • 1985: Elected by the Assembly of Experts to become the successor of Khomeini
  • 1989: Forced to resign the post of Jurist Consulate due to his objections to the shortcomings of the revolution
  • 1989: After his resignation, he resumes teaching philosophy and theology at Qom, though in the 1990s he is banned from teaching because of his opposition to the government
  • 2003: Iranian authorities lift his house arrest

In the early 1960s, similar to many junior level clerics, Montazeri began to actively participate in a number of antigovernment activities. Montazeri's political activities intensified after Khomeini issued in January 1963 in Qom a major declaration denouncing the shah and his plans. Khomeini's revolutionary rhetoric eventually led to his arrest by the Iranian authorities in June 1963. Montazeri participated in demonstrations against the arrest of his mentor and campaigned for his release. After his release in November 1964, Khomeini was arrested again for his criticism of the shah for granting diplomatic immunity to American military officers in Iran, and later that year was sent to exile in Turkey and, eventually, to Najaf, Iraq. Montazeri immediately visited him in Najaf and upon Montazeri's return to Iran he was detained, though shortly released.

From 1965 to 1975 Montazeri became more involved in antishah movements in Qom. In 1975 he was arrested and imprisoned for conspiring to overthrow the monarchy. With the outbursts of the revolution in the late 1970s, Montazeri was released in November 1978 and joined the revolutionary current. From November 1978 to early 1979, while Khomeini was in France after being forced to leave Iraq by vice president saddam hussein in 1978, Montazeri acted as Khomeini's representative in Iran and was considered Khomeini's potential successor.

The most politically charged stage of Montazeri's life began after the overthrow of shah's regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In 1979 Montazeri became a leading revolutionary figure in drafting a new constitution, which assigned a major political role to the clerics within the state. The most significant idea that Montazeri advocated in the new constitution was the doctrine of the absolute rule of the jurisconsult (velayat-e faqih), which recognized a senior Shi'ite cleric as the supreme leader of the country. In 1980 Montazeri was elected as the head of the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics who elect the supreme leader and monitor his activities, and later in that same year he was addressed by the title of grand ayatollah (Ayatollah Ozma) by Khomeini, which made him one of the highest-ranking Shi'ite clerics in the world. The Assembly of Experts then voted in December 1982 to make Montazeri the supreme leader, designating him the highest status in the regime after Khomeini.

From his base in Qom after the revolution, Montazeri helped Khomeini with the management and administration of a vast religious network in Iran and abroad; his network of organizations exercised political influence in both domestic and foreign policy. For nearly nine years (1980–1989) he was responsible for the academic and personal well-being of foreign students, many of whom were of Afghan and Arab origin, who attended and studied at various places within the Qom seminary center. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Council, the Friday Prayer Imam of Tehran and Qom, and the head of the Prisoner Amnesty Council from 1980 to 1988.

In one of the most dramatic episodes in post-revolutionary era, Montazeri, however, lost his position as the designated heir to the office of the Guardian Jurist after he was forced out of his position by Khomeini in March 1989. There are several reasons for Khomeini's decision to denounce his successor. The most important reason was Montazeri's outspoken support for his son-in-law, Medhi Hashemi, who had embarrassed the speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, by exposing his secret dealings with the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra affairs. But the main cause behind Khomeini's decision was due to Montazeri's own candid criticisms of the government's domestic and foreign policies, which he increasingly viewed as counter to the ideals of the Islamic political system he helped to create in 1979.

After the death of Khomeini in June 1989 and the election of Ayatollah ali khamenehi to the office of supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts, Montazeri began to keep a low profile and refused to get involved in political affairs on the governmental level. The period of 1989 to 1994 is known as the quietist stage of Montazeri's life, during which he mainly kept to his studies at Qom. But in 1994 Montazeri returned to political activity, this time, however, not as a member of the government but an opposition figure. In October 1994 Montazeri issued a powerful warning to the regime in a twelve-page letter by stating that the Islamic government that he helped to set up in 1979 was managed by corrupt and selfish officials who were destroying the reputation of Islam for the believers. The letter unleashed a series of public announcements by Montazeri against the regime, making him a major dissident figure since the early years of the revolution when many oppositional groups escaped the country or were eradicated by the regime.

The election of the reformist mohammad khatami to the presidency in 1997 introduced a new political atmosphere in Iran, allowing many dissidents to voice their opinion against the government. But the hard-liner faction of the government, primarily led by the supreme leader, took appropriate measure to curtail opposition. When in early 1997 Montazeri published his six hundred page memoir on the Web, which provided new insights to the numerous executions by the government, the authorities in Tehran saw him as a major threat to their establishment. In November 1997 he was put under house arrest after making a speech that criticized Ayatollah Khamenehi for leading an authoritarian regime. Throughout the country, his followers were arrested for protesting against his arrest. In July 2001 his son, Sayed Montazeri, and another son-in-law, Hadi Hashemi, were arrested for their alleged antigovernment activities.

Montazeri was finally released in 2003 after a number of religious leaders and Iranian legislators demanded that Khatami pardon him from his house arrest. Since his release, Montazeri, his sons, students, and followers, have been actively involved in the reformist movement. Despite the election of the hard-liner mahmoud ahmadinejad to power in 2005, Montazeri continues to criticize the government on various economic, political, and social issues.


Montazeri has been a central intellectual figure in developing the idea of Islamic government during the time of Occultation (Ghayba), believed by Shi'ite Muslims as a historical period that began in 874 CE when the twelfth imam, Mohammad al-Mahdi, also known as the Hidden Imam, went into hiding, and ends when the imam reappears at the end of time to bring justice to the world. The main question many Shi'ite theologians have been trying to answer since the ninth century has been: What sort of a government should the Shi'ites support that best anticipates the return of Mahdi.

According to Montazeri, the most ideal government during the period of Occultation is the kind that recognizes the most learned cleric as the spiritual leader who can guide and promote the common good for the community. Although the concept, known as the guardianship of the jurisconsult or velayat-e faqih, has been usually attributed to Ayatollah Khomeini, it was Montazeri who first made the most elaborate defense of the doctrine. His four-volume work in Arabic on the general topic of the Guardianship of Jurist, titled Legal Foundations of the Islamic Government and published in 1964, explored the relationship between Islam and the state and justified the rule of the Shi'ite jurist as the most legitimate representative of the Hidden Imam on earth. For Montazeri, it is the senior cleric who should have the spiritual and political authority to govern over both religious and political affairs, and any other form of government is either corrupt or tyrannical.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution provided an opportunity for Montazeri to put into practice such a doctrine. Montazeri's first significant contribution was made in the early stages of the revolutionary period when he played a central role in the Assembly of Experts by drafting the November 1979 constitution, which institutionalized the office of the jurisconsult. The constitution, which was finally passed in November 1979, institutionalized a theocratic order that recognized the jurisconsult as the central figure in the country's political and legal system. By definition, Montazeri argued, this new Islamic Republic "entails the implementation of Islamic decrees…. Only an expert in Islamic laws [a faqih] and not a Western-educated person can discern the Islamicity of laws" (Moslem, 2002, p. 29). The law, interpreted and sanctioned by the Islamic expert, should then be the source of authority in the new Islamic Republic.

However, since 1989 Montazeri has been revising his conception of the guardianship of the jurisconsult by arguing that "the most important point to be highlighted here is that Islam supports the separation of powers and does not recognize the concentration of power in the hand of a fallible human being" (Abdo, 2001, p. 19). No one person should have the power to rule; and that state authority should be shared by various branches of the government, which are held accountable to the people. When referring to the Iranian Constitution, he describes the role of the supreme leader as someone who "can never be above the law, and he cannot interfere in all affairs, particularly the affairs that fall outside his area of expertise, such as complex economic issues, or issues of foreign affair and international relations" (Abdo, 2001, p. 17).


Mohsen Kadivar (1959–) was a former student of Montazeri and a leading dissident cleric in postrevolutionary Iran. Born in Shiraz, Iran, Kadivar completed his undergraduate education at the Shiraz University where he became politically active in the revolutionary movement in 1978. After the victory of the revolution in 1979, he began to study theology at the Shiraz seminary school (1980) and later moved to the Islamic seminary (howzeh-ye elmiyyeh) in Qom (1981) where he studied Shi'ite jurisprudence and philosophy under the supervision of Ayatollah Montazeri. In 1997 he became one of the few students to whom Montazeri handed out a written permission to practice ijtihad, or permission to issue religious rulings and teach jurisprudence, and later in 1999 he received a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy and theology from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran.

Kadivar's political activities against the theocratic regime of Iran began in 1994 and especially after the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997, when he published lengthy critical writings on the doctrine of the absolute rule of the jurisconsult (velayat-e faqih), endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeini as the official ideology of the Iranian state. He was arrested in 1999 for arguing that the doctrine assigns too much power to the senior cleric, because such authority can easily be abused and corrupted in a political system. Despite threats against his life by supporters of the regime, Kadivar continues to be active in the reformist movement in Iran.

In his most recent publication on law and Islam, Resaleh-ye Hoqouq (2004; Treaties on law), Montazeri boldly defends a democratic conception of spiritual authority. He endorses the idea of the compatibility of human rights with Islamic law by arguing that Islam not only in principle defends human rights, but also advances the rights of women, the elderly, children, and even animals. According to Montazeri, the Prophet of Islam and the holy imams were the staunchest advocates of the sanctity of human rights that include activities from freedom of expression to holding rulers accountable for their actions. He argues that "every person in a society, including those that are in favor or against the government, have the freedom of expression; they have the right to promote their particular ideals and reform programs or changes in the policies of the ruling regime on the basis of rationality, logic and law, and they can get involve in political participation and organization of parties" (Montazeri, 2004, p. 66). In other words, Islamic law accommodates democratic norms of action practiced by the citizens of a political community.

For Montazeri, there is no room for authoritarian rule in an Islamic political system; all authority rests on the people, who elect rulers and remain the sole sovereigns of the state. Even the infallibles (the Prophet and the imams) never claimed to be above the law, and they were also held accountable and subject to criticism by individual members of the Muslim community. Montazeri's reinterpretation of the doctrine of the guardianship of the jurisconsult is viewed as a major contribution to democratic culture in Iran, and an original contribution in bringing closer together Shi'ite theology and democratic thought.


Global perceptions of Montazeri can be divided into two historical phases. The first phase involves the period when Montazeri was one of the leading political figures in the theocratic government from 1979 to 1989. This is when Montazeri received a negative reaction spanning from world leaders to ordinary people for his association with a government that denied the rights of many Iranians, particularly dissidents, religious minorities, and women. Especially for those in Western Europe and North America, Montazeri was the symbol of an antidemocratic order in a country that was taken over by religious fanaticism. He was, however, seen as a more benign figure for advocating moderate policies and opposing state execution of political prisoners. Montazeri's daring objection to the shortcomings of the revolution while a successor to Khomeini in the 1980s received a positive reaction from major media outlets around the world.

Global perceptions of Montazeri became gradually more positive after he was demoted from the post of supreme leader in 1989. In the late 1990s, when Montazeri was highly outspoken regarding the antidemocratic features of the government, many in media and political circles would refer to him as a key dissident cleric for the promotion of democracy in Iran. In this second stage, roughly from 1994 to 2007, Montazeri began to be described as a leading reformist critique of the hard-liner establishment, and as potentially the greatest threat to the theocratic establishment for demanding a separation between politics and religion.


I am very sad and sorry to see that in the present circumstances there is no tolerance in the Islamic society for hearing anything other than what is coming out of the ruling circles, a condition in which the children of Revolution and those concerned with the fate of the country are being sent to jail on a daily basis under various pretexts, and a situation in which Islam, the Revolution, and its late Leader [Ayatollah Khomeini] are being exploited. I have spent a lifetime fighting for the independence and honor of this country and defending the legitimate rights and freedom of people, and I have taught most of the incumbent rulers as my pupils. In a condition where I am being treated like this, what can others expect? As I have said repeatedly, I have no desire to be the Leader; nor am I interested in the position of marja'yyat [religious leadership]. Yes, I consider telling the truth my religious duty. So I will keep voicing what I consider to be in the interest of the Revolution and the nation, and like in the past, I will continue to defend the legitimate rights and freedoms of the people.



Although it is still too early to assess his definitive legacy, Montazeri will most likely be remembered for his passionate defense of a more benign, more democratic Islam. His rise in popularity both inside and outside Iran has enabled him to symbolize an alternative form of clerical leadership in defiance of an absolutist religious government. However, for his ability to change, reform, and adhere to the democratic values of accountability and popular sovereignty, as interpreted from an Islamic perspective, Montazeri can be regarded as a living legendary figure for many Shi'ite Muslims in Iran and beyond who seek to democratize and reform their societies against secular and religious autocratic regimes.


Abdo, Genevive. "Re-Thinking the Islamic Republic: 'A Conversation' with Ayatollah Hussain 'Ali Montazeri." Middle East Journal 55, no. 1 (2001): 9-24.

Baqer, Moin. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. London: Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.

Montazeri, Hossein Ali. Resaleh-ye Hoqouq [Treaties on law]. Tehran: Saraie, 2004.

Moslem, Mehdi. Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Wright, Robin. The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. New York: Vintage, 2000.

                                              Babak Rahimi

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Montazeri, Hossein Ali (1922–)

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