Montazeri’s Fatwa: How Important Is It?

This last weekend Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri issued a fatwa in response to one of his followers, a rather important follower by the name of Dr. Mohsen Kadivar, an ayatollah in exile.

In this fatwa Montazeri questions the legitimacy of Khamenei’s “unjust” rule. At one point he rhetorically asks: “How can one think that by resorting to force, injustice, and un-Islamic acts the Islamic system is preserved and reinforced?”


Some see this as paramount to momentum of this movement (which seems to be resembling more and more a civil rights movement rather than a revolution). Yet others see this as overrated.

Prof. Juan Cole argues that Montazeri’s fatwa does not challenge the regime, but instead is only a continuation of his feud with Khamenei and his authority, something that goes back to Khamenei’s rise to the valiy-e faqih. Prof. Cole waves off its importance and declares that this fatwa “will not cause any surprise or make any special waves in Iran”.

I usually think Prof. Cole’s analysis on all things Shi’i is superior (in fact in grad school I relied on many of his texts to inform me on my theses), but this time I believe his reading is too narrow.

What’s being missed here is the means not the ends of this fatwa. Prof. Cole is looking inside the box at the instrumental nature of political fatwas that inspire movements, thinking more about what it will do for the people, or its direct impact on the regime. What he is missing is how the discussion will affect the religious establishment in Qom (or even what it could signal to the hawza in Najaf).

I see this fatwa having more effect on Qom than on the Islamic Republic neofundamental elite or the rahbar. What this fatwa does is ever-so-slightly pry open the discourse in Qom regarding the legitimacy of Khamenei’s leadership.

Now there is a theological principle to discuss and argue in the Shi’i tradition based on an influential marja’ al-taqlid‘s religious decree. If such an influential ayatollah al-uzma issues an edict delegitimizing Khamenei’s leadership based on the regime’s “un-Islamic” practices, lesser ayatollahs, instructors, seminary students, etc., can now flush these ideas out on a theological basis more and more.

His carefully constructed fatwa can cause cracks, cracks that may only be hairline from their inception, but can develop into crevices. Even possibly influencing other senior grand ayatollahs to answer their followers’ and students’ questions more directly like Montazeri did (maybe even those influential leaders outside of Iran, like Sistani who has large swaths of followers inside Iran).

We’ll have to watch for major crackdown in Qom which will signal to us whether Montazeri’s prying open of the discourse actually amounts to something important, but I believe this is where the fatwa’s weight really lies.

So Prof. Cole is right to say that Montazeri’s fatwa won’t necessarily bring millions more into the street, or bring about strikes and bureaucratic subversion immediately, if this was his aim he would have come right out and called for this. But what it can do is open the discussion a little amongst the ‘ulema, maybe enough to insight discourse on Khamenei’s legitimacy, something which, back in the days of the status quo, would never had transpired so openly.


~ by The Common Man on July 15, 2009.

One Response to “Montazeri’s Fatwa: How Important Is It?”

  1. Good post.

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