Political Concepts

Is Iran an Islamic State?

Iran’s domestic political situation has once again boiled over with demonstrations and bloodshed on the streets of Tehran. Whereas the Presidential election outcome is the overt casus belli, it is also evident from the nature of the confrontations that this situation has simply given vent to the fissures that have been forming in Iranian society. Whilst it remains to be seen how events will play out in the months ahead it is clear that powerful players within the Iranian establishment are facing off against each other whilst seeking to harness the momentum generated by both liberal and conservative factions of Iranian society. The incumbent President Ahmedinejad has the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei against his rivals primarily Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister who in turn has the support of former reformist Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani also happens to be the head of the Assembly of Experts which has the power to remove the Supreme leader who is increasingly being drawn into a bitter partisan fight.

Whatever may happen there is a bigger deeper fundamental question, in many cases assertion, that lurks in the minds of many that has troubled Muslims and emboldened non-Muslims in their criticism alike. For many Westerners Iran embodies the Islamic state as envisaged by Islam. There is a chorus of attack and indirect ridicule of Islam with Iran being held up as an example of Islam in practice. For leading Western thinkers this is certainly the case. Bernard Lewis, the famous British orientalist, said in 2004: “Among state sponsored Islamic movements there are again several kinds…. The first of these to seize power and the most successful in exercising it is the movement known as the Islamic revolution in Iran.”

Contrary to popular belief Iran is not an Islamic state as outlined by the Quran and Sunnah. In Sunni Islam the Caliphate with the Caliph elected by the people is the benchmark whilst Shia Islam considers an infallible Imam appointed by Allah سبحانه وتعالى as the legitimate ruler over the Islamic state. To understand the true reality of Iran one needs to consider the actual constitutional foundations of post-revolutionary Iran. An examination of the Iranian political system and comparison with the Islamic state of Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم will reveal Iran as very much a man-making legislative quasi democracy couched in an Islamic garb which differs from the Western model only to the extent that it does not incorporate liberal social values in it’s political culture; it is not a ‘liberal democracy’ so to speak.

Classical Shia Islam’s whole premise for ruling is that an infallible Imam chosen by Allah سبحانه وتعالى will rule over the people implementing the Shariah. However the occultation of the twelfth Imam presents a major problem for Shiaism. Ayatollah Khomeini like many other Shia ulema of the past argued that in the absence of the Imam it is not right that the divine laws of Allah سبحانه وتعالى be held in abeyance. They argued that knowledgeable scholars, the Fuqaha, should rule and apply Allah سبحانه وتعالى laws until the Imam re-appears; this is the concept behind Wilayat-e-Faqeeh. This theory whilst not universal amongst the Shia ulema, as others believe only the infallible Imam can rule, presents a problem in itself as in Islam there can only be one ruler, not several.

Khomeini detailed his political model for Iran culminating in his Wilayat-e-Faqeeh or ‘Rule of the Jurist’ thesis. Khomeini was absolutely unequivocal when considering the state’s source of legislation; in page twenty nine of his ‘Rule of The Jurist’ thesis Khomeini states: “In Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to God almighty. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator….the body of Islamic laws that exist in the Quran and Sunnah has been accepted by them and recognized by them as worthy of obedience.”

Yet when Khomeini assumed power as the ‘Supreme Leader’ he designed an unprecedented elaborate governmental structure including an electable parliamentary Majlis that had the power to legislate; the caveat was added that all laws passed would be scrutinized by the ‘Guardian Council’, a group of twelve men, to ensure laws passed ‘conform’ with the Shariah. Khomeini’s ‘Rule of the Jurist’ would have been acceptable to even some Sunni scholars as the Islamic state, albeit as a weak Islamic opinion, but Khomeini never even implemented his own theory when he came to power.

This situation regarding legislation is not acceptable from Islam. By definition the Shariah provides all the laws needed for the Islamic state from Allah سبحانه وتعالى. Any consideration of new situations such as technological advances mandates the need for Ijtihad by a Mujtahid, a comparison of the situation in question with the Quran and Sunnah, so that an analogy can be drawn and the relevant Shariah law applied. There is no basis for the Iranian Majlis to set itself up to enact new legislation. To argue that such a body do so is to imply that the laws revealed by Allah سبحانه وتعالى through his Messenger are incomplete. In the Caliphate an elected Majlis would advise and account the Caliph over his actions, not legislate. Moreover by having a body to ensure all laws passed will comply with Islamic law actually provides the scope for much deviation under the guise that the general Islamic principle(s) have been met, subject to an individual’s interpretation and belief. With the Shariah present there is no need for anybody to ensure such vetting since such man made laws should not be enacted in the first place. Piecemeal and partial application of the Shariah such as the penal code is meaningless in the absence of the entire system of Islam which is designed to structure the whole of society; such a system cannot be Islamic if other sources of legislation are applied. This is a clear contravention of what Khomeini stated before the revolution and something that is not allowed in Sunni or Shia Islam.

The nature of the Supreme Leader’s position is also not compatible with Islam. In the Iranian system the Supreme Leader is chosen by the eighty six member Assembly of Experts elected every eight years which elects and supervises the activities of the Supreme Leader and has the power to remove him from office. In the Caliphate the Caliph is directly given the bayah or pledge and elected by the people. Only if the Caliph does an open transgression can any citizen of the state petition the Court of Unjust Acts to investigate the Caliph and if necessary remove him from office. The point here is that in the Caliphate the leader is not potentially held politically hostage by any other organ of the state. The Supreme Leader is not equivalent to the Caliph constitutionally or for that matter to the infallible Imam.

The Supreme Leader’s position is further undermined by the position of the President who assumes an executive role, producing and implementing government policy within his ministerial team. Although subject to the Supreme Leader’s approval the President’s office potentially creates a political rival with gravitas within a constitutional framework whilst the Supreme Leader adopts a more hands off role. Even the signing of international treaties is subject to approval by the Majlis. The Caliph on the other hand is required by the Shariah to assume day to day running of the people’s affairs as the singular leader who may appoint and remove executive assistants to help him fulfill his responsibilities as needed. The Caliph has full authority over all affairs, providing decisive leadership whilst not being able to legislate and is accountable for everything which occurs inside the Islamic state.

The other important point of difference to note is that Khomeini’s Iran clearly defines itself as a nation state. Evidence of Iran’s ideological thinking can be found in the constitution as Article 78 states: “All changes in the boundaries of the country are forbidden.” In this context Article 145 acquires a greater meaning which states: “No foreigner will be accepted into the Army or security forces of the country.” Whilst this statement is understandable for a Nation state, for an Islamic state it is not acceptable. The majority of Muslims live beyond the borders of Iran. They should be entitled to be part of the Islamic state, as Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم proclaimed all Muslims to be one Ummah. It is clear that seeking the unification of the Muslim lands is not sought yet this is a fundamental requirement in Islam. Iran defines itself within fixed borders and does not seek to open new lands to the light of Islam; the Islamic state seeks to unify Muslims and their lands and not draw any ethnic or sectarian distinction.

In the Islamic state there is only one ruler who only implements the Shariah; the rule is neither Sunni nor Shia but is Islamic. The ruler may adopt legislation from many different Islamic schools of thought, whether Sunni or Shia, as the law of the land. The ruler however is not permitted to adopt legislation covering personal worships and beliefs unless they have a societal impact such as Zakat. The Islamic state is not a police state that would intrude in to peoples’ homes investigating what beliefs they hold.

The whole structure of the Iranian government fails to meet the criteria of Islam. Moreover from it’s actions over the past many years it is clear that pragmatism has been placed over and above principle. This can be most aptly seen from Iranian foreign policy. Iran has an alliance with the dictatorial Syrian regime which brutally suppresses it’s Muslim population. In addition Iran has warm relations with both Russia and India who have engaged in barbaric crackdowns against the Muslims in Chechnya and Kashmir who seek their freedom. In fact in the case of Kashmir Iran has traditionally sided with India against Pakistan. In the Muslim world India and Russia are both seen as oppressors. Yet Iran continues to have warm relations when in the Islamic Shariah it is forbidden to engage with nations that are killing and oppressing Muslims. Iran has also actively co-operated and aided the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan instead of using it’s armed forces to liberate these lands. Ahmedinejad stated in an interview with the New York Times during his visit to New York in September 2008: “We helped in Afghanistan….the situation there (in Iraq) has calmed tremendously, luckily. And we assisted a lot.”

Iran’s pragmatism and present course is explained by the fact the revolution in 1979 which deposed the Shah and brought Khomeini to power did not just constitute those who called for Islam. Khomeini had indeed come to power, but was at the head of a broad based front formed by a multitude of different groups including secular parties whose main objective was to simply get rid of the Shah and his despised regime. This was something that even the Americans acknowledged at the highest levels of government. Stansfield Turner, then director of the CIA, said in February 1979 “What we had not predicted was that a 78 year old man, an Ayatollah who had spent 14 years in exile, could forge together these forces and turn all of these volcanoes into one immense volcano, into a national and real revolution.”

Iran has failed to live up to the initial hopes and expectations which gave rise to the revolution in 1979. Moreover the rulers in Iran have deliberately traded on the Iranian people’s sentiment for Islam to implement a disingenuous system. As has been the case throughout the Muslim world, including Pakistan, Islam has been simply used as a slogan with no real substance. This demonstrates that real Islamic change can only be implemented in it’s totality, not partially or gradually, otherwise it will only lead to failure. The sum total of the Iranian system reveals a mish mash of legislative and competing organs that in reality are more akin to a democratic structure, closer to the Western political model. Iran thirty years on from it’s revolution has failed it’s people and the wider Muslim world. Devoid of genuine Islamic ideology the regime has become distant from Islam as it becomes ever more pragmatic to survive. Today it bears the ugly scars of this political truth as it’s people spill their blood on it’s streets again calling for political change.  


The writer is a Political analyst who specialises in International Relations who maybe reached at [email protected]