The Shiite world has often been ignored in historical research and political value. We seemed to have only started caring again when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Suddenly, a secular Sunni elite was toppled, giving rise to a majoritarian state ruled by a conglomerate of Shiite political parties closely connected to Iran. But the flood of new books on the community is limited to topics of international security, terrorism and war. The modern sense of Shi’ism has been defined more by the experiences with the Ottoman Empire and internal tension over the dogma of the religion.
Traditionally in Shiite Islam, the idea that any one figure could rule it was actually borderline heretical. Twelver Jafari Shiite Islam is named “12-er” because it reveres 12 successors – “Imams” – to the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. For the first 300 years of Islamic history, Shiite leaders were constantly on the run or in hiding. Sunni rulers or religious rivals (often the same enemy) pursued their Shiite rivals, causing a number of sub-splits in the Shiite community that created communities that revered each Imam individually. As one religious leader would die, competition would envelope Shiite rivals for the position. Zaidi Shiites (Fivers) and Ismaili Shiites (Seveners) each see the fifth or seventh Imams as the last legitimate princes of the Shiite dynasty, while Twelvers don’t believe the dynasty ended until the disappearance of a 12th successor. The religion eventually coalesced, seeing this 12th Imam as an exile spiritually empowered that will miraculously reemerge to reassume control of the Islamic community in the End Times. To say anyone else is entitled or qualified at all to lead the community in a formal capacity was consequently a theological controversy.
During the 19th century, Shi’ism, more specifically Twelver Jafari Shi’ite Islam, underwent an intellectual civil war. The first side of the coin was the conservative Akhbari school of legal thought. Their approach to religious law was that it was static. Trying to elucidate new principles of law, even in relation to unprecedented questions facing the community, was considered categorically forbidden. Their philosophical opponents were called Usulis, who argued it was impractical not to open up the possibility of reinterpreting old jurisprudence to apply to the modern era. Eventually, the Usulis proved much more adaptable to the changing environment. Only in Bahrain did the Akhbari school manage to survive, but the philosophy of Bahraini Shi’ism has been heavily influenced by foreign communities over the last 150 years.
But Usuli thinkers have become more reflective of the static Akhbari approach. Because religious thinkers and legal scholars were able to make themselves more relevant as interpreters of Islamic law in relation to new problems, their own positions got to be more socially important. With that, their institutions and resources became central elements of the community and their personas representative of the community as a whole. With this, extremely loyal followings coalesced around them. Even beyond that, the suddenly important position of the most exceptional scholars took on more religious meaning. Thinkers began arguing they were the only ones qualified to lead Islamic communities, even beyond Shiite centers.
That opened up the door for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Developments in Usuli philosophy challenged the traditional attitude to leadership in the community. He developed a concept called “Rule of the Jurist,” theorizing that the most learned scholar was the only legitimate leader of Shi’ite Islam in absence of the 12th Imam. His ideas, published in the 1960s while in exile in Iraq, built on ideas from other leading Shi’ite thinkers throughout the 1900s. By the time he led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, no other authoritative scholar in Twelver Shi’ite Islam had the recognition Khomeini did. That also was true regarding wealth and resources. That same year, Saddam Hussein took the helm as Iraq’s president, and within a year he destroyed any armed or political opposition among Iraqi Shi’ites. In 1980, ordering the murder of the revered Iraqi scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he pushed other religious leaders either into submission or into seclusion. Only Khomeini’s Iran had the ability to lead the Shi’ite world, sponsoring the community of Lebanon and pushing for more influence in Persian Gulf countries – even among the traditionally Akhbari community of Bahrain.
Only with the rise of democratic Iraq has Shi’ism begun to see a rapid shift away from the philosophy one man could be an infallible leader to the Shi’ite world. On the one hand, Iraqis are aware of the oppressive policies of the Iranian government toward its citizens, including rival Shi’ite scholars. On the other hand, Iraq’s most renowned cleric – Ayatollah Ali Sistani – is a student of Ayatollah Khomeini’s main rival Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi. They personify the idea that no one scholar can be considered more authoritative than another recognized as his intellectual equal. With Iraq’s sudden Shi’ite awakening, there is a rival center of Shi’ite culture.
Modern Shi’ite Islam is a rich and changing world. This can only serve as a broad introduction as to the nature of power in the Shi’ite world, but it is an important gateway to understanding why one man might claim himself a legitimate pretender to a religion’s throne.