Religious Organization in Shi’a Iran
In Sunni theory, religious activities fall within the domain of the state. There is no alternative authority. If the ulama take on any organizational role, they do so under the aegis of the state. In the case of Twelver Shi’ism. on the other hand, the skepticism about political power has a firm doctrinal basis. It goes without saying that bad or un-Islamic government is in the nature of things as long as the rightful Imam hasn’t taken matters in hand. This, of course, isn’t going to happen until the end of time. This renders a religious organization separate from (or at least not dependent on) the state an absolute necessity.
Here are some things you should know regarding the religious organization:
This religious organization is provided by the mujtahids. Mujtahids aren’t in a position to enforce the law because they don’t hold state power. Instead, it’s their job to tell the faithful what the law is, and to adjudicate disputes that are brought before them.The mujtahid also collect the dues prescribed by the Koran — the zakat for widows and orphans, and the khums, or fifth share of wealth due the Prophet. These monies are paid to them because, as mujtahids, they have a correct understanding of the faith. This enables them to act as trustees in the absence of the Imam in an area where the state lacks Islamic sanction or significance.
The ulama benefit from religious endowments (awqaf), and they draw an income for various clerical and legal duties. However, endowments can always be confiscated or nationalized, and legal income can dry up, when a state establishes secular courts. Khums and zakat, on the other hand, are much harder for the state to take away.
The tradition of ijtihad refers to the exertion of independent judgment in applying the teachings of the Koran and Sunna to one’s own circumstances. This activity has most often been resisted by the established Sunni ulama.
Mujtahids were needed to interpret the foundations of faith. Anyone not qualified to undertake ijtihad for himself — most people, in fact — rely on the guidance of a living mujtahid. Living, because if one relies on the interpretation of a dead authority, one may misinterpret it, without possibility of correction.
In turn, each mujtahid should accept the guidance of the most learned of his living colleagues as his marja-i-taqlid or ‘source of imitation.’ By the mid 19th century, it was accepted that there should be one senior living marja-taqlid whose interpretation would be consulted for direct or indirect guidance. In practice, there wasn’t always agreement on who that individual would be. But the doctrine gave enormous authority to the mujtahids and encouraged them to exercise and rely on their own independent judgment.
In the 18th century, the Safavid dynasty was overthrown by an invasion of Afghans who tried to reimpose Sunnism on Iran. The leading Shi’ite ulama fled to Iraq and established themselves in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, built around the tombs of Ali and Husain. Although Afghan rule in Iran lasted only 8 years, the tradition of senior Iranian Shi’ite mujtahids residing in these cities has continued. This has added an additional factor of independence to their activities since it generally puts this group beyond the reach of the Iranian state.
Taken together, the above factors may help explain the ability of the Iranian ulama to act independently of, and in opposition to, the monarchy in the 19th and 20th centuries.