The Republic of Fatwas | Opinion

Last week, a Shiite American of Lebanese origin, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, attempted to murder the Indian-born British-American author Salman Rushdie. Matar's social media posts display staunch support of the Islamist regime in Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Reports indicate Matar was in contact with elements of the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force terrorist arm. Matar was executing former Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini's three-decade-old fatwa, issued as a death sentence against Rushdie because of the author's publication of The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction that radical Islamists saw as an affront to Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.

Khomeini has been dead since 1989, but his fatwa is not.

The Islamic Republic is a republic of fatwas, where "mujtahids"—those who have earned the right to issue fatwas—run or supervise the day-to-day operation of the regime under the "Vali Faqih," or "the guardianship of the Islamic jurist," the system's chief mujtahid. Today, that is Khomenei's successor, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Mujtahids review any law in the country to ensure they do not run afoul of the Sharia law. Mujtahids dominate the judiciary. The supreme leader's representatives are present in every major organization and, through fatwas, the regime governs every aspect of life in Iran, from banking to hijabs, from foreign policy to family law.

Fatwas are not limited to geographical boundaries. Khomeini's fatwa to murder Rushdie, issued in 1989, was not just about Rushdie. It was about reshaping the world outside Iran's border through the power of fatwa, which connects a mujtahid to any Muslim who follows him anywhere in the world. Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, created armies of Shia militia groups across the region through this relationship. It is through the power of fatwa that Khomeini from his grave reached Hadi Matar, born and raised in America, and inspired him to murder Rushdie.

Fatwas have shaped the history of modern Iran. In the early 19th century, Shiite clerics issued a fatwa to force the reluctant Fath Ali Shah to enter the second Russo-Persian war in 1826. Russia defeated Iran and imposed the treaty of Turkmenchay on Tehran, which ceded vast areas in the southern Caucasus to Russia. Although this fatwa did not end well, it showed the clerics they could mobilize the masses and threaten the Shah.

Islamists wielded influence through fatwas long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution as they fought monarchists and modernizers for power. Defeats in foreign wars destroyed the power of the Qajar kings who had ruled Iran from 1789 to 1925. In their wake, modernizers advocated for Iran to westernize, while the Islamists preached a return to original Islam.

Tehran billboard
Iranians walk past a billboard displaying Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the capital Tehran, on July 31 2022. ATTA KENARE / AFP/Getty Images

The 19th century witnessed the gradual erosion of the king's power and confrontations between the king and the clergy. The most fateful one happened during the reign of Muzaffar ad-Din Shah, which led to the constitutional revolution of 1905 to 1911 and the establishment of a parliament.

During the revolution, modernizers and Islamists worked together to limit the power of the Shah. But the honeymoon between the two groups did not last; Islamists turned on their allies. Sheikh Fazl Allah Nouri issued a fatwa against constitutionalism ("Mashorooteh") and declared it "haram" or forbidden by Sharia law. In the ensuring civil war, constitutionalists defeated the Islamists, hanged Sheikh Fazl Allah, sent the Shah into exile, and put his son on the throne. A key slogan of the Sheikh's supporters: "We are followers of Quran, we do not want Mashrooteh." There is a highway named after the Sheikh in Tehran today. A martyr to Islamists, he is the spiritual grandfather of the Islamic revolution.

The fall of the Qajar dynasty and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty temporarily unified the modernizers and the monarchy; marginalizing the clergy became one of their key goals. Reza Shah created the modern school system in Iran, breaking the clergy's monopoly over the education system. Even more significant was the establishment of the modern, secular judiciary in Iran. For centuries, the clergy had played the role of judge, which had offered them significant political and financial power. The new judiciary pushed them out. The loss continued under Reza's son Mohammad Reza Shah. His "White Revolution" transferred land ownership from the landowner class, a key backer of the clergy and the monarchy, to peasants, and gave women the right to vote.

In response, Khomeini brought his followers to the streets to force the Shah to retreat. They failed; Khomeini was arrested and sent to exile. The Shah picked a Baha'i as his personal doctor, Jews such as Habib Elghaniyan played a significant role in the country's economy, and the Shah's sister even converted to Catholicism, a sin punishable by death. The fatwa class was on the verge of losing everything, but Khomeini was adamant to get it all back.

Khomenei saw the opportunity to establish his power and to return the fatwa to its position of political and religious influence. Historically, the "Twelver Shiite" clergy believed that the right to rule only belongs to Allah, which he transferred to the prophet and twelve Imams. Khomeini advanced a minority view that ultimately prevailed: in the absence of the hidden twelfth Imam, the clergy has the right and responsibility to establish an Islamic government based on Sharia law and executed through fatwas. The clergy's objective is to prepare the world for the reappearance of the hidden Imam.

Khomenei's Islamic revolution in 1979 succeeded in reestablishing the power of the clergy and the potency of the fatwa. For decades, his successor Ali Khamenei has insisted that Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie is valid. Khamenei understands the transnational power of the fatwa. He uses it to impose his will on how millions of Muslims think, talk, and act in lands far from Iran. This week, a fatwa inspired an American to try and murder another American. The plot failed. Will the next victim be so lucky?

Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at FDD.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.