“When a scholar dies, a breach takes place in Islam which cannot be filled until the Day of Judgment.”
– Prophet Muhammad
“On the Day of Judgment, God will be pleased with a person who honors and respects a Muslim scholar and He will be annoyed with one who insults a Muslim scholar.”
– The Sixth Shia Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away at the age of 87 in the holy city of Qum, Iran on the night of Dec. 19.
Maligned by the regime during the better portion of his life, he continues to be demeaned, even in death.
Although you will often see his name prefaced with “dissident cleric,” that does a great disservice to his more appropriate title, grand ayatollah – the highest rank achievable by Shia Muslim scholars – and the decades upon decades of study, thought, research, teaching and writing required to earn it. Indeed, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was likely the highest living religious authority in Iran prior to his death.
Despite the standing conferred upon him by those credentials, his demise was only tersely mentioned by the state-run press. In truth, it may have even been welcomed, for he was a thorn in the government’s side for years, continuously calling them back to the path of proper Islamic conduct and rule from which he long felt they had strayed.
Ayatollah Montazeri was one of the main architects of the nascent Islamic Republic. As one of the leaders of the 1979 Iranian Revolution which toppled the Shah, he helped write the country’s new constitution which codified the concept of Waliyatul Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent. Because this doctrine was the foundation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule and Montazeri was seen as exceptionally faithful to it, Khomeini designated him as his successor in 1985, then referring to him as “the fruit of my life.”
By the late 1980s though, a sharp divergence in their views led to an abrupt falling out. Montazeri’s vision of Waliyatul Faqih was that the clerics would play only an advisory and consolatory role in the government, which would otherwise be run by democratically elected officials. They would not rule directly or have absolute powers, as Khomeini and his partisans advocated
Montazeri also criticized the mass execution of political prisoners that occurred around that time. While remaining steadfast in the belief that government must rule according to Islamic precepts, he openly called for political, cultural and ideological reforms and condemned those practices that unjustly infringed on people’s freedoms. Regarding Khomeini’s fatwa sentencing author Salman Rushdie to death, Montazeri famously stated, “people in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.”
As a result, he was denounced and demoted by Khomeini, striped of his title, and disparagingly referred to by state media as nothing more than a “simple-minded” cleric.
For the treasonous act of questioning the qualifications and credentials of Khomeini’s eventual successor and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he was placed under house arrest in 1997 (Khamenei was his student and a mid-rankling cleric who was bequeathed with the title of ayatollah overnight). The stipulation was rescinded in 2003 during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami.
Afterward, Ayatollah Montazeri continued to champion the reformist cause. He was an unflinching advocate of women’s rights, those of the domestic political opposition and other reform-minded politicians, and even of Iranian Baha’is.
While continuing to call for curbs on the powers of the supreme leader, he was most outspoken after Iran’s June presidential election. Despite widespread allegations of vote-rigging, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was nonetheless declared the victor (an outcome “no one in their right mind can believe” Montazeri had said). As a political prisoner himself under the Shah, he was especially critical of the regime’s mistreatment of opposition candidates and their supporters in the election’s aftermath.
A few noteworthy excerpts from his recent writings:
“A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate.”
“If Iranians cannot talk about their legitimate rights at peaceful gatherings and are instead suppressed, complexities will build up which could possibly uproot the foundations of the government, no matter how powerful.”
“Independence is being free of foreign intervention, and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions, not being put in prison for every protest one utters.”
Descriptions of Montazeri’s character emphasize his humble, modest, incorruptible and unpretentious nature. Yet, he was uncompromising in his belief that the Islamic Revolution deviated from its original goals and became something he could not have foreseen. It is lamentable that the present government is incapable of recognizing this, as evidenced by the way they announced his death.
Dropping his title of grand ayatollah, the official IRNA news agency wrote:
“Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away. He acted as the clerical figure of rioters in the post-election incidents and his unfounded statements were widely welcomed by anti-revolutionary media.”
They concluded by saying he died of “illness and senility.”
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.