Turning the Page on Iran's Ruling Ayatollahs

Members from Hashid Shaabi hold portraits of lawmaker and paramilitary commander Hadi al-Amiri, center, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, and Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, left, during a demonstration to show support for Yemen's Shi'ite Houthis and in protest of an air campaign in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, in Baghdad March 31, 2015. Sistani (age 85) and Khamenei (age 76) have suffered health crises in recent years and in both Najaf and Qom people are already discussing succession. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Arguably, the two most prominent religious figures in the Shiite world are Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The former derives his legitimacy from years of study and from the affirmation of tens of millions of Shiites who find his teachings the most compelling and theologically legitimate. The latter derives his legitimacy from his position as the supreme leader of Iran.

Both Sistani (age 85) and Khamenei (age 76) have suffered health crises in recent years. In both Najaf and Qom (and Baghdad and Tehran), people are already discussing succession.

Loosely speaking, Shiism has a religious hierarchy not unlike Roman Catholicism. While Catholics have the pope, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, Shiites have the marja at-taqlid (source of emulation), grand ayatollahs, ayatollahs and hojjat al-Islam s (proofs of Islam).

The difference between the two is that while the College of Cardinals elects the pope and—with the exception of a few times in history—all Roman Catholics recognize the choice as pope, Shiites make their own personal choice from among the most learned grand ayatollahs.

This is not a one-sided bargain, however. In exchange for the religious guidance of the source of emulation, Shiites agree to pay khums, an annual religious duty, to the offices of the ayatollah whom they follow.

This can amplify the power and influence of the most pious ayatollah who turn around and use the money to support more mosques, soup kitchens and charities and take in more seminary students. It is a system that is inherently democratic, since ordinary Shiites vote with their wallets without the government as a filter or middleman.

In just a year or two, the situation in Iran and the broader Shiite world might look much different. In theory, an 86-member assembly of experts convenes upon the death of the supreme leader to choose a successor. Iranians elect its clerical members—all prescreened by largely unelected bodies—on February 26.

While the assembly of experts usually meets almost as a coffee klatch, it has only once convened for its most important function, that of choosing the next supreme leader.

Back in June 1989, shortly after revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, however, it showed itself to be a rubber-stamp body. The regime's most prominent leaders had already met informally, compromising upon Ali Khamenei who, at the time, was considered weak and malleable, a man who would not pose a threat to the Islamic republic's various power centers.

There has been much speculation over who might succeed both Khamenei and Sistani but analysis (at least in the United States) seems increasingly to be constrained by too much emphasis on precedent.

When Khomeini reformulated the concept of vilayat-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurists) in his treatise on Islamic governance, he did not mandate that the guardianship be limited to a single individual. Hence, if there is no consensus figure who emerges, either before the assembly of experts meets or after, then it is conceivable that a council will assume the power of the supreme leadership.

A council would solve the immediate succession crisis, but could also signal the beginning of the end of the Islamic republic because, by its very existence, a council would confirm insurmountable factionalism.

It's one thing to have political factions battle it out at levels below the supreme leader; it is quite another to have them battle it out while each claiming to speak as the deputy of the Messiah on earth.

As for Sistani: The Iranian government will try to force recognition as marja' of someone sympathetic to Khomeini's vision—Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, for example—but it is unlikely that Iraqi Shiites and the Shiite world more broadly would accept someone who subscribes to the notion of clerical rule.

Indeed, when Grand Ayatollah Araki died in 1994, Khamenei had his lieutenants float his own name as marja' and was basically laughed off the stage until he withdrew. In Najaf and Karbala, Iraqi intellectuals speak of various possibilities, but here, too, it is important to recognize that the idea of a single paramount marja' has historically been more the exception than the rule.

The consolidation of the maraji from many sources of emulation into just one or a handful of paramount figures is a 19th-century phenomenon that was driven by, of all things, the introduction of the telegraph into Iran and Ottoman Iraq. (Full disclosure: this was the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation in Iranian history.)

For the first time, Shiites from hundreds of miles away could pay a pittance and address their questions directly to the top clergy in Najaf, thereby bypassing intermediary religious clergy or locally prominent theologians. At the same time, Najaf-based clergy could disseminate fatwa (which are not mere religious pronouncements, as sometimes portrayed, but rather answers to religious questions) farther than they ever could before.

Technological innovation may have aided the consolidation of the maraji into one or two marja', but technological innovation might also provide the deathblow to the idea of a single marja' with the status of Sistani. Every grand ayatollah maintains a website with religious pronouncements, fatwa, sermons and so forth. What results is a deluge of religious resources providing more options than ever for ordinary Shiites seeking guides.

In addition, whereas once the offices of the ayatollahs would close up shop after their death, the agents of some now continue to solicit khums even after the death of the ayatollah whom they represent. Indeed, this is the case with the office of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, which continues to operate in Bahrain.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the diffusion of religious leadership—the Shiites have always been more democratically minded in this regard—which is why so many find Khomeini and Khamenei anathema. Still, it is time that those who assume the next decades in the Shiite world will be a continuation of the status quo with only different faces heading familiar institutions check their assumptions.

The Shiite world seems to be heading to a period of diffuse rather than consolidated leadership, the impact of which might alter permanently both intra-Muslim and cross-sectarian dynamics.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.