As noted in the previous chapter, Islam came to Iran in the wake of the Arab conquests of the seventh century. Until the sixteenth century, the Iranian lands, or at least their major urban centers, were predominately Sunnite in orientation. A very large number of the most infl uential fi gures in the history of Sunnism and Sufi sm—and some of the most aggressive anti-Shi‘ite rulers and ideologues—either lived in this region or were of Iranian background. When the first Safavid ruler, Shah Esmâ’il, proclaimed Shi‘ism the offi cial state religion in 1501, his intentions, consciously calculated or not, were probably inspired more by pragmatic politics than by religion as such—legitimizing his rule by virtue of his claim to descent from Imam Musâ Kâzem, fi nding a bond to link his Turkoman supporters and his Persian-speaking subjects, providing a rationale for resistance to his Sunnite Ottoman and Ozbek neighbors. It was also something of a bold gamble, since it was supposedly almost impossible to fi nd a Shi‘ite book or a Shi‘ite religious scholar in Iran, and Esmâ’il had to import much of his new religious elite from Shi‘ite communities abroad, such as those in Iraq or Lebanon, and impose his new orthodoxy at the point of a sword. Yet within a couple of generations, the Iranian population had become overwhelmingly and enthusiastically Imami Shi‘ite in religious identity, and in ways that Shâh Esmâ’il could not have anticipated and probably would have regretted. How was it possible for such a rapid and radical transformation to take place? First of all, the religious discontinuity was probably not nearly as dramatic or as startling as it might appear, especially since the basic idea of veneration of the family of the Prophet had become deeply embedded in virtually all forms of Islam. Moreover, a specifically Shi‘ite presence in Iran extended well back into pre-Safavid times, and all the major sectarian divisions of Shi‘ism— Zaydi, Isma’ili, Imami, and Gholât—had exerted varying degrees of infl uence there. At the beginning of the eighth century, members of the ahl-ol-bayt and their supporters, fl eeing from hostile rulers, began to seek refuge in remote parts of Iran and founded Shi‘ite communities there. Among these early bastions of Shi‘ism was Qom, settled by a Shi‘ite Arab tribe in 712. The sister of Imam Rezâ, Fâtemeh Ma’sumeh (“The Pure”), fell ill while traveling across Iran to visit her brother and died and was buried in Qom in 816. Imam Rezâ reportedly said that anyone who visited her tomb would go to heaven, and this made Qom a major shrine city for Shi‘ites. The city was further distinguished by the school of Shi‘ite religious scholarship which developed there. Shi‘ism also fl ourished in the Caspian region, where people invited a descendant of Imam Hasan, Hasan b. Zayd, to become their leader in 864. He founded a line of Zaydi Imams who ruled periodically in the area down to 1126, and Zaydi missionaries successfully proselytized the non-Muslim population still found there. The Buyid dynasty had its origin in this same region, and the Buyid rulers promoted a somewhat nebulous form of Shi‘ism, probably Imami, in the areas they conquered. Isma’ili missionaries were also active throughout Iran, and there is evidence that a major dynasty in eastern Iran, the Samanids, briefl y considered espousing the Isma’ili cause. Other Iranian Isma’ilis received training and support for their missionary activities from the newly established Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Under the leadership of Hasan-e Sabbâh (fl . 1071–1124), they established a network of effectively autonomous Isma’ili communities linked to a central stronghold at the castle of Alamut in northwestern Iran. However, they also broke with the Fatimids in 1094 over the succession to the caliph Mostanser, supporting the (losing) cause of his son Nezâr. Hasan-e Sabbâh helped formulate the new Nezâri Isma’ili doctrine, which emphasized his role as the agent of the missing Imam Nezâr and a subsequent line of Nezâri Imams at Alamut. The Nezâris were a potent force in Iran until their fortresses were finally destroyed by Hulâgu in 1256. Although hostile to the Nezâris, the Mongol Il-khanids supported the more apolitical Imami Shi‘ites as useful allies in internal policies and against rival Sunni powers. After the Il-khanids’ conversion to Islam, at least one of their rulers, Oljeytu Khodâbandeh, tried to promote Shi‘ism as the state religion. Some of the Timurids were also supportive, or at least tolerant, of Shi‘ism; Gowharshâd, the wife of Shâh Rokh, funded the construction of the magnifi cent mosque adjacent to the shrine of Imam Rezâ (on the pulpit of which, Shi‘ites believe, the Twelfth Imam will sit on Judgment Day). And, of course, the Shi‘ism of the qezelbâsh era that preceded Safavid rule was clearly rooted in the Gholât ideology that had produced numerous, if episodic and generally unsuccessful, rebellions in Islamic Iran. The promotion of Shi‘ism as an offi cial religion thus had a good deal of historical heritage behind it. Second, Shi‘ism proved to be a form of Islam very well attuned to deeply rooted features of Iranian culture. It is true, as most modern scholars emphasize, that Shi‘ism was not an Iranian innovation or some Iranized form of Islam; it originated among Arabs and continued to have a strong Arab constituency in areas far beyond Iran. Nonetheless, certain features of Shi‘ism as it developed had defi nite parallels with pre-Islamic Iranian religious culture or appealed in other ways to converts and believers of Iranian background. These included its emphasis on legitimism (the divinely sanctioned authority of a charismatic household); its messianic and millenarian message; its rejection of fatalism in favor of the free choice of individuals to resist evil and oppression in the world; and its promise of ultimate justice and salvation for the faithful. Concepts of the holy family of the “People of the Cloak” and the “Fourteen Infallibles” as preexistent beings of light and critical elements of creation immediately bring to mind the Zoroastrian idea of the “Bounteous Immortals” (Amesha Spenta); the function of the Hidden Imam in Islamic eschatology is not unlike that of the Savior (Saoshyant) in Zoroastrianism; the cult of mourning for the fallen Imam Hosayn is reminiscent of the ancient Iranian ceremonies of lamentation for the murdered prince Siâvosh. Iranians fi gured prominently in stories about early supporters of the Imams, and many historical anecdotes emphasized how the Imams insisted on the equality of the Iranian converts with Arab Muslims. Perhaps the best example to illustrate how Iranian and Shi‘ite traditions could be fused was the claim that Imam ‘Ali had married his son Hosayn to Bibi Shahrbânu, daughter of the last Sasanid king of Iran: She was thought to be the mother of ‘Ali Zayn-ol-’Âbedin, who survived the slaughter at Karbalâ, and thus all of the subsequent Imams were of royal Iranian lineage as well as members of the ahl-ol-bayt. Finally, under Safavid patronage, Shi‘ite religious scholars diligently and systematically laid a solid intellectual and institutional foundation for the religion. The Shi‘ism they constructed in Iran was most defi nitely not the qezelbâsh Shi‘ism of the early Safavids that virtually deifi ed the Safavid leader; that was neither credible, given the calamitous Ottoman defeat of Shah Esmâ’il at Chaldirân, nor in accordance with the doctrine of the exclusive claim of the Hidden Imam to legitimate authority. The Shi‘ism that developed in Iran was a form of Imami Shi‘ism that had much more in common with the traditional Shi‘ism of Iraq and Lebanon than the radical notions of the qezelbâsh. At first, the Imami Shi‘ite religious scholars were of course dependent on the Safavid shahs to establish themselves, and they continued to profess support for the Safavid shahs on the basis of their claim to kinship with the ahl-olbayt and their demonstrated devotion to the religion. Their ultimate loyalty, however, was to Shi‘ism rather to the Safavid house, and that was painfully apparent by the end of the Safavid period. At the same time, these scholars managed to work out amongst themselves what the accepted form of Shi‘ism would be and to suppress its internal divisions and external rivals. The basic problem was this: If the Hidden Imam is in occultation, and genuine authority is his rather than that of any king or temporal ruler, who is responsible for giving guidance to the Shi‘ite community? One group, the Akhbâris, argued that the Imams had already provided defi nitive answers to anything one really needed to know, and it was suffi cient just to study and to follow the “reports” ( akhbâr ) of their words (rather like the way some Christians think any individual can discover anything he needs to know by studying the Bible alone). Another, the Shaykhis, claimed that even in the absence of the Imam there was always one “perfect Shi‘ite” who could speak for the Imam (and God), so believers just needed to seek him out and follow his guidance. Looking for religious instruction from charismatic individuals was also possible among the Sufi s in Iran. Although Shi‘ism and Sufi sm were fundamentally incompatible as religious systems, some Iranian Sufi s had been trying to reconcile the two by portraying the Imams as superb mystics. The authority of the Safavids themselves had originally been based on their function as the charismatic guide ( pir ) of a Sufi order, and a few such Sufi orders continued to be active in the Safavid and post-Safavid era. All of these schools of thought were effectively crushed, however, by what is known as the Osuli school of Imami Shi‘ism. The Osulis were quite clear that no one—no Sufi guru, no monarch however distinguished, no “ perfect” Shi‘ite—could even remotely approach the authority and legitimacy that belonged exclusively to the Imam. In his absence, no point of doctrine or practice could be regarded as absolutely established; it was certainly not acceptable for individuals to try to make individual judgments based on their own reading just of traditional reports handed down from earlier Imams. Instead, religious issues had to be constantly re-examined by serious scholars using serious methods of rational analysis and jurisprudence ( osul-ol-feqh, hence the name Osulis). Only after such a program of rigorous study and training could a scholar offer guidance to other Shi‘ites on religious practices, legal matters, and whatever other questions they might have. The most expert of the scholars were entitled to use their considered judgment ( ejtehâd, a person qualifi ed to give such an opinion is known as a mojtahed ) to give a best-guess solution to novel problems, and it was acceptable for a Shi‘ite to follow it as if it had come from the Imam himself. In theory, this gave Shi‘ites the potential to rework constantly the details of their religion in the light of changing circumstances, but in practice it tied them to a highly conservative, technical, and legalistic form of the religion in which precedents accepted as established by earlier authorities were rarely overturned. The triumph of the Osulis was the work of several great mojtaheds, foremost among them Mohammad-Bâqer Majlesi (1627–1698), who was able to produce both voluminous and highly technical works on Shi‘ism in Arabic to buttress Osuli ideology and a number of accessible, readable manuals in Persian that helped disseminate and popularize Shi‘ite doctrine. The system elaborated by Majlesi combined elements of several strands of earlier Shi‘ite thought: the glorifi cation of the Imams rooted in popular faith and imamology, the insistence that all aspects of religion are subject to demonstration by rational proofs, and the overriding importance of the Ja’fari school of jurisprudence. Majlesi also preached obedience to the Safavid shahs but exercised such infl uence over them that he was the de facto ruler for many years. Probably not since the days of the Zoroastrian high priest Kartir, who dominated several Sasanid shahs, had a religious offi cial held such power and infl uence. One of the results of Kartir’s establishment of a form of Zoroastrianism as a state religion had been the creation of what was in effect a Zoroastrian “church,” and the outcome of Majlesi’s doctrines and policies was much the same for Shi‘ism in Iran. As Muslims often like to point out, there is no priesthood in Islam nor any doctrinal basis for one to exist. There are no sacraments to be administered, no mysteries restricted to initiates, and no rites that lay believers are not theoretically capable of performing for themselves. As long as one has such a priestly function in mind, it is thus very misleading to speak of a “clergy” in Iran or any other Muslim country. Nonetheless, it is recognized that some individuals do have a greater degree of piety or a better mastery of religious knowledge than others, and there is a tendency among the masses to follow the lead of those recognized as religious scholars (the ‘ olamâ ). They are trusted to know the details of how a ritual should be performed, or that a marriage contract or business arrangement or distribution of an inheritance is consistent with the requirements of Islamic law. Shi‘ites are expected to choose one of these mojtahed s as their marjâ’ (reference) and follow his advice on controversial or emergent questions. In the case of Shi‘ite Iran, there are many other ways in which the ‘ olamâ have come to hold a position in society that could well be described as that of a clergy or even a religious aristocracy: They are referred to by a special term, ruhâniân (“those concerned with spiritual matters”), that sets them apart from the rest of the population. To be accepted as a qualifi ed member of this class, they have to be confi rmed, not exactly by a successive laying on of hands but by the granting of an “ authorization” ( ejâzeh ) from a teacher, an established authority who has himself received such permission to carry out religious teaching and activities from a preceding authority. (In the contemporary religious schools which have developed in Iran, this authorization is now obtained through a rigorous process of tests and exams.) These clerics are distinguished by the special dress they are entitled to wear, typically slippers, a tunic and cloak ( qabâ and ‘ abâ ), and a turban (‘ ammâmeh, black for those who are descendents of the Prophet Mohammad, the sayyids ; white for others). They tend to be a very tight-knit group, with carefully arranged inter-marriages among the families and positions (like that of the leadership of a mosque) handed down in an almost hereditary fashion. They have a clearly defi ned hierarchy and the institutions and funding to sustain it through endowments, fees collected for providing individual religious services, and the right to collect the tithe ( sahm-e emâm ) that would otherwise belong to the Hidden Imam. In these respects, they certainly have most of the institutional aspects of a “clergy” or even a “priesthood.” It is obvious that the very nature of Osuli Shi‘ism requires some means of determining exactly who is qualifi ed to be a mojtahed and providing an educational framework in which those qualifi cations can be acquired. This is provided through what has come to be known as the “pool of religious knowledge” ( howzeh-ye ‘ elmiyeh ), a network of religious colleges or seminaries, the madraseh s, and the circles of students gathered around distinguished teachers that make them up. The madraseh was a venerable Islamic institution for higher education, typically funded by endowments from rulers or Iran wealthy patrons to support the study of religious law. (In some contemporary Muslim countries, however, the term has also come to be applied to much simpler elementary schools that do not teach much more than Koran recitation.) Safavid dignitaries established a number of important Shi‘ite madrasehs at Isfahan; later rulers promoted the Fayziyeh seminary at Qom. During the nineteenth century, many Shi‘ites preferred to study and teach outside Iran, especially at Najaf and other Shi‘ite shrine cities in Iraq. In 1920, a circle of Shi‘ite scholars led by ‘Abd-ol-Karim Hâeri-Yazdi revived the Howzeh-ye ‘Elmiyeh in Qom, with a curriculum adjusted to meet the specific needs of Shi‘ism at the time. Although the Pahlavi rulers generally tended to limit the role of religion and to supplant traditional religious education with statesupported secular schools at all levels from primary grades to university (even establishing a Faculty of Theology at the University of Tehran), Hâeri-Yazdi and his colleagues succeeded in preserving the independence of the seminary at Qom and made it into one of the most prestigious centers of Shi‘ite learning in the world. Although the number of students enrolling at Fayziyeh and several other seminaries which emerged in Qom and other major cities, especially in Mashhad, fl uctuated during the Pahlavi reign, it had dwindled to somewhat less than two thousand toward the end of regime. Seminaries and their programs revived dramatically after the Islamic Revolution. Today, there are more than 40,000 students from 91 countries enrolled at Qom, utilizing modernized systems of instruction and the latest technology including computers. The traditional program of study and methods of instruction at Qom in their idealized form have been well described by the anthropologist Michael Fisher: “There are no grades, so students study only for learning’s sake. Students who do not study are not fl unked out, but neither are they elevated by bribery or favoritism. For each there is a place according to his capacity and inclination … Students study with teachers of their own choice. There is thus never a disciplinary problem or a problem of lack of respect for teachers … Teachers do not pontifi cate; rather all teaching is on a dialectic principle of argument and counterargument in which students are encouraged to participate insofar as they have the preparation to do so.” 5 Originally, anyone who received an ejâzeh might be considered a mojtahed, but over time a more elaborate hierarchy has developed. At the base are the tâlebs, students or seminarians, who are supported by grants from the schools or teachers and can remain in the classes indefi nitely. The less talented, after completing the basic curriculum, become mollâ s or âkhund s and typically take over the running of a small community or village mosque. A somewhat more advanced scholar is recognized as a hojjat-ol-eslâm (“Proof of Islam”). Those who go on to become still more distinguished teachers and who publish certain technical works on Islamic law are recognized as an âyatollâh (“sign of God”), roughly the equivalent of mojtahed in its original sense of someone entitled to use ejtehâd in juridical matters. There has long been a tendency in the Shi‘ite community to take this system to its logical conclusion and recognize one mojtahed as the prime authority to be followed, the marjâ ’ -e taqlid. As âyatollâh s proliferated, even that term become diluted; in recent times, it has not been uncommon for there to be fi ve or more active marjâ ’ -e taqlids. The recently introduced concept of velâyat-e faqih, rule by one supreme scholar of religious jurisprudence overseeing all matters of the Shi‘ite community, has only partially restored the notion of a head of the Shi‘ite hierarchy. It was Khomeini who gave life to this concept and engineered its incorporation into the constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1980. It was a novel and controversial concept from the beginning, and several prominent religious leaders actually opposed it. There has never been any obligation on Shi‘ites outside Iran to accept the leadership of such a faqih. Moreover, as the offi ce has developed since Khomeini’s death, it really refl ects more a mastery of politics than religion: the current faqih, ‘Ali Khamenei, was a mere hojjat-oleslam before his appointment, and even Khomeini was at most one marjâ’ amongst several equals in terms of religious authority. The resultant tension between political and religious authority has posed something of a crisis for the clergy and for Iranian society as a whole that has yet to be resolved. Most secular Iranians, and even many of those with strong commitment to their religion, consider the system as anachronistic, paternalistic, and undemocratic. Much political criticism and opposition in the Islamic Republic in the past decade has been focused on resisting the enormous authority vested in the person of vali-e faqih. Hosayn-’Ali Montazeri, a prominent marjâ’ and once a champion of Khomeini’s idea, has become a major critic of the concept that he himself helped to develop and enshrine in the constitution. Immediately after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Montazeri was designated as the successor to Khomeini. As the idea of velâyat-e faqih came to be implemented and its shortcomings became apparent throughout the 1980s, Montazeri began criticizing its ill-effects, thus alienating himself from Khomeini, who remained a staunch supporter of the concept to the end of his life. In 1988, Khomeini forced Montazeri to resign his position and arranged some changes to the constitution. The revised constitution, which was submitted for public approval after Khomeini’s death, eliminated status as a marjâ’ as a requirement of velâyat-e faqih and gave the position more authority in the form of velâyat-e motlaqeh-e faqih (“the absolute authority of the supreme jurist”). The Council of Experts (Majles-e Khebrehgân) then promoted Khamenei to âyatollâh and elected him as the new vâli-e faqih. For criticizing the expansive powers of Khamenei, Montazeri was placed under house arrest and constant surveillance.