- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Iran’s repressive behavior following fraud-tainted presidential elections is spreading ripples across the region, leading some Sunni Muslim religious figures and politicians who admire some aspects of Iran’s political system to question a core belief of the Islamic republic.

The debate centers on an Iranian institution called the velayet-e faqih, or guardianship of a leading jurist, which for the past 30 years has allowed a Shi’ite Muslim cleric to have the final say on all Iranian foreign and domestic policies.

“During the past 30 years, Iran has been a model for Islamic ruling according to the Shi’ite sect,” said Issam al Aryan, a top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the oldest political Islamic group.

Judging from the June elections and the mass protests that followed, Mr. Aryan said, “Now I believe there is an attempt to move to another stage.”

He described it as a transition from the “guardianship of the jurist” to the “guardianship of the people” — an evolution toward democracy that he said could help bridge the gap between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam. The Brotherhood is a Sunni organization, and Sunni Muslims are a majority in most Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution in 1979, devised the modern system of clerical rule and became Iran’s first supreme leader. Iran’s post-revolutionary constitution defines the post as deputy to the 12th or Hidden Imam, a messiahlike figure who devout Shi’ites believe disappeared in the ninth century and will return some day to bring justice to the world.

Sunnis, a majority among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, do not recognize Shi’ite imams.

Sunni-Shi’ite differences date to 632, after the death of Prophet Muhammad, when his followers split over the question of who should succeed him.

Sunni Muslims supported Abu Bakr, one of the prophet’s companions. Others, who later became known as Shi’ites, said the leadership should have stayed within the prophet’s family and backed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali.

Over the centuries, differences multiplied in terms of religious thinking, with Shi’ites revering the prophet’s descendants and other religious leaders or imams considered to be intermediaries with God.

Iran is the most populous Shi’ite nation, although there are large numbers of Shi’ites in some Arab countries, especially Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.

“Each side started to build heritage, history, interests and institutions,” said Khaled al Dakheel, a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

However, what is happening in Iran at present, is “an explosion as a result of a deep existing contradiction in the political system in Iran, which has a religious base, and at the same time seeks to pass on authority through democratic means,” Mr. Dakheel said.

Abdul Salam al Abadi, secretary general of the Jedda, Saudi Arabia-based International Islamic Law Academy, said both Sunnis and Shi’ites share the same principles of belief and the same pillars of Islam, which include daily prayers, giving alms and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Aryan told The Washington Times that the political debate going on in Iran is a “major development in the Ja’afari school of the Shi’ite sect and moves it closer to Sunnis.” The Ja’afari school refers to a major strain in Shi’ite thought.

Mr. Aryan added that without the notion of a supreme religious leader, the gap between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam would be much smaller — an opinion that has created a stir among some Muslim scholars.

Mr. Aryan expressed dissatisfaction with the recent behavior of Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who quickly endorsed the re-election of incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite evidence of widespread fraud in the June 12 elections.

However, he and other Sunni figures said Iran’s system is still more democratic than those of neighboring Arab states.

“Undoubtedly, when you compare the Iranian political system with those in Arab countries, it is better,” Mr. Dakheel said. “Also, don’t forget a very important point, which is the political vitality of the Iranian people, because the Arab people are outside the political game, while the Iranian people insist on being part of [the] political equation.”

Mr. Aryan said the political system in Iran “is better than in many [Arab] countries, which have not seen electing presidents or elections or diversity in opinions.”

He added, however, that “if it is compared with democratic countries, it is still at the beginning of the road.”

• Jumana al-Tamimi is associate editor at the Gulf News newspaper, published in Dubai.

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