Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rafsanjani and Religious Titles in Iran

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has long been my favorite living character from the Islamic Revolution because of how complex a character he is and how he has been involved in so many significant incidents in the past. I started to follow him in earnest just over two years ago as part of an assignment I had for a class. What caught my attention in all of the articles I read about him was that Mr. Rafsanjani was occasionally referenced at "Hojatoeslam", and other times as "Ayatollah". I had previously attended a pair of lectures from the brilliant Robert Gleave of Exeter on the Hawza (Shia religious seminary), who explained the background for the structure of the Shia religious educational system, and it did not make sense to me that there would not be a singular title for him.

The Hawza is set up in a fairly similar to a university in many ways, minus some of the red tape, and administration. The most well-learned clerics teach courses to others in whatever their specialities happen to be (for example Ayatollah Khomeini was particularly skilled in studies of Mysticism and it is likely that he taught courses on this), and like university professors, are paid a small amount in return. Where the process differs from a modern university is that the requirements to reach the next "level" of scholarship are not as concrete as in Western education systems. There is no final exam or specific set of requirements. Rather the instructor or instructors judge you based upon how far you have progressed in your studies, how well you understand the material and how much scholarly work you have produced. (According to Professor Gleave some portions of this process are actually changing and some hawzas are even giving certificates similar to a diploma)

The top four levels of Shia scholarship in descending order are Marja-e Taqlid/Grand Ayatollah (source of emulation), Ayatollah (sign of Allah/God), Hojatoeslam (proof/authority of Islam), and Mujtahid (one capable of Ijtihad). Ijtihad is the idea that individuals who have enough background and understanding of the Quran and Hadith and are able to interpret the laws of Islam.

One of the controversies which the Islamic Republic faced in the late 1980s is that Ayatollah Khomeini (By this point he was one of the most learned Shia clerics in the world so calling him a Marja-e Taqlid is probably more accurate, despite the convention of calling him simply Ayatollah), was ill and once he died, they needed to have a replacement for him. The version of Velayat-e Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent, or simply clerical rule) which the Khomeini based his rule upon, called for a highly educated Ayatollah (by default with many followers) to be the leader of the Islamic Republic. 

Unfortunately for him, there were no other Marja-e Taqlids or even Ayatollahs who supported this idea. Even at the formation of the Islamic Republic 5 of the 6 top Marjas (2 actively opposed it, and 3 were neutral) did NOT support the idea of Velayat-e Faqih, with Khomeini being the one exception. Ayatollah Montazeri who had been "promoted" to Marja-e Taqlid during his tenure as "Deputy Supreme Leader" had broken with Khomeini over human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic (amongst other issues), and he was the highest ranking cleric who also supported the idea of Velayat-e Faqih

Khomeini's legacy was in danger, and because there was not a clear replacement candidate, many speculated that there would be perhaps a council of clerics leading the Islamic Republic. Strangely enough, Hojatoeslam Khamenei (then the President of Iran) was quickly "promoted" to Ayatollah and picked as the replacement. One of his contemporaries, Hojatoeslam Rafsanjani was in a similar position (Speaker of the Majles at the time), and had worked together with Khamenei to discredit Montazeri. Khamenei had been referred to in the Persian press as "Hojatoeslam" right up to the point when he was finally "promoted" to Ayatollah. At the same time the regime controlled-press tried to discredit Montazeri (who was clearly more learned than Khamenei) and used disparaging words for him (he may have even been referred to as Hojatoeslam, a rank 2 levels below what the press had previously given him). 

Rafsanjani has ended up with the short end of the stick after Khamenei became the Supreme Leader of Iran. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Rafsanjani to be more or less equal with Khamenei and then end up with nothing (the Presidency from 1989-1997 was not much of a reward as he still had to answer to Khamenei's absolute authority). Rafsanjani and Khamenei (who is a few years younger) had worked so that someone they both disliked would not gain power, and Rafsanjani was the force behind promoting Khamenei as Supreme Leader. After Rafsanjani gave some support to the reformists during the 2009 Green Revolution protests, he was no longer referred to as Ayatollah in the press, but Hojatoeslam, and his sons and daughters were persecuted against (Mehdi and Faezeh were arrested, and Mohsen was forced from his position as head of the Tehran Metro as I mentioned here). 

Today Rafsanjani is likely to be called either Ayatollah or Hojatoeslam, depending on how the person feels about him. Unlike in the Hawzas of Najaf or other places outside Iran where Islam and politics are often separated to a greater extent than in Iran, the titles given to religious figures may be representative of political-religious authority, rather than a recognition of Islamic scholarship. When someone is given a title, it is just as likely that this is a symbol of political power as it is that this person has actually extensively studied theological issues in the Hawza. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has not spent much of his time in the last 30 years working on religious issues, he has been running the country and his pistachio business. Doesn't it make sense that he should be the same "rank" as before unless he has actually produced religious scholarship and been active in the seminary? It can be incredibly frustrating, but on the bright side it is easy to tell how a particular newspaper (and therefore whoever runs the paper) feels about a particular person by what title is bestowed upon them.

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