Thursday, August 23, 2007

Al-Wali al-Faqih and the Islamic state

I've recently been requested to post a bit more information on the concept of the al-Wali al-Faqih and the idea of an Islamic state as espoused by Hezbullah and Iran. Unfortunately the terms are often bandied about either as condemnations in and of themselves or as a throwback to something sinister or backwards. They are neither of these things and my purpose in this post is simply to clarify these terms and provide useful references for those interested in understanding them. To that end, I enclose an extract from my dissertation on Hezbullah which dealt with the subject, but sadly with little of the depth it deserved or that I would have liked.

As mentioned previously, it was the Islamic revolution in Iran which provided the paradigm and inspiration for Hezbullah. Imam Khomeini differed drastically from his predecessors and many of his contemporaries in Qom and Najaf by advocating the inseparability of Islam from Politics:

The nature and character of Islamic law and the divine ordinances of the shari'ah1 furnish additional proof of the necessity for establishing government, for they indicate that the laws were laid down for the purpose of creating a state and administering the political, economic, and cultural affairs of society2

Khomeini's reasoning was that a body of laws was useless in the absence of an executive force to enforce them, furthermore, especially in a time of Western imperialism and encroachment on Muslim lands, the need for an entity that could safeguard the interests of Muslims and provide a haven for them to practice their religion was imperative3. Unlike contemporary Western forms of political thought, Khomeini's conception of an Islamic government differed in it's notion of sovereignty and where that would come from. Not from the people, nor a government nor a ruler but from Allah through the “Law”4. This law was conveyed through the Quran and all must abide by it, including the Prophet Muhammad himself, who passed judgment and interpretations within the context and guidelines of the Quran. The law as the Prophet Muhammad conveyed it is called Islam and it is the laws of Islam to which ruler and ruled in an Islamic government would submit5, including the Prophet and all subsequent Imam's who are but equals before Allah. Khomeini lamented the apolitical nature of Friday sermons in Mosques throughout the Islamic world and accused those who wished to 'reform' Islam of wishing to create a lame, toothless entity that would be docile in front of the West6.

As Ghorayeb points out, the concept of al-Wali al-Faqih can only be understood within the context of the hidden twelfth Imam (Wali al Amr or Lord of the Age) mentioned earlier. For Shia Muslim's, no truly just rule could be achievable until his return7. This is because only the Prophet, his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and their descendants are considered infallible. In their absence, the duty of articulating right and wrong and interpreting the “Law” as put down in the Quran falls down to clerics and experts in the field, they in turn grant recognition to the most learned and qualified amongst them to become the “spiritual authority of last resort”8 or Marji'. All Shia are expected to follow a living Marji' that is, a source of religious emulation,of which there are currently a number. Each Shia Muslim is in need both of a spiritual source of emulation and a political authority embodied through the Wali al Faqih concept.

The two roles are by no means restricted to one person, nor are Shia obliged to emulate the Wali al Faqih and are free to choose other Maraji'. Thus on the passing away of Imam Khomeini, Hezbullah's leadership officially recognised Imam Khameni'i as it's Marji'9 though it's members were not obliged to follow suit10. They were however, obliged to recognise his jurisdiction as al-Wali al-Faqih since it is a cornerstone of Hezbullah's ideology. As Qassem describes it, the Jurist-Theologian “is the [hidden] Imam's secondary, one who carries out the Imam's doctrinal and jurisprudence functions as required”11, a view which Ghorayeb also stressed upon in her research. Imam Khomeini was also assigned the role of Mujadid al Din(or renewer of religion). Nasrallah pointed out in a speech12, such a person is vital for renewing the eternal and unchanging message passed down to the Prophet Muhammad without altering it's original content and spirit. The Imam al-Khomeini, it was argued, was such a Mujadid by virtue of his leadership of the Islamic revolution13 and his living embodiment and adherence to the Prophetic message of not just Muhammad14 alone but also Jesus, Moses and all other prophets. Though many leading clerics had courted the idea of al-Wali al-Faqih before Imam Khomeini, it was his role in the Iranian revolution and his ability to fulfill that role on a practical level which, according to Sheikh Naim Qassem, elevated him to a stature equaling that of the infallible Imams,”...the custodian of Islamic Shari'a is not he who executes it as he sees fit, but rather he who is of adequate knowledge and leadership to do so.”15.

Thus when Hezbullah refer to their vision of Islamic government it is one in which sovereignty lies with Allah, expressed through the laws laid out in His Quran. The laws themselves are then interpreted through reason and the traditions laid out by the Prophet Muhammad. No human being is above this law and all must operate within it's context, including al-Wali al-Faqih. The Faqih himself becomes the head of the executive branch of government, until the return of the Hidden Imam, and is selected on meeting a strict set of criteria and merits based on the needs identified by learned and experienced clerics. Notions of Western style democracy which place sovereignty with the people are thus unsuitable in a world where Allah has already laid down the laws best suited to humanity. Furthermore, the fact that people are fallible, governed by their desires or unable to identify what may be best for themselves renders a Western style liberal democracy as open to corruption and unsustainable in the long term. The Islamic state is seen as the ideal under which mankind can continue to lead a sustainable, virtuous and just existence. Islam, according to Khomeini, is thus as relevant in our modern age as it was over 1000 years ago16.

1Divine law ordained by Allah through the Quran

2Khomeini 2000b: 253

3Ibid. 251-253

4Khomeini 2000a: 247-8


6Manar Media Group, Lebanon, 2005, “Ruhollah” (Spirit of God Documentary)

7Ghorayeb 2002: 62

8Qassem 2005: 50-51

9Palmer Harik 2005: 16

10Qassem 2005: 52; Ghorayeb 2002: 64-65

11Qassem 2005: 53: Ghorayeb 2002: 62

12Transcribed from audio file , Nasrallah, H. Speech in Arabic on the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini 6/6/2006 (My own translation)

13Ghorayeb 2002: 65

14Transcribed from audio file , Nasrallah, H. Speech in Arabic on the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini 6/6/2006 (My own translation)

15Qassem 2005: 55

16Khomeini, 2000: 253-4


مترجم سوري said...

thanks for passing by. really would like to read ur posts. sound intersting but too difficult for me to understand. i'm not that good in politics. anyway will do my best.


Maysaloon said...

Welcome أُمنية
I'm always happy to answer questions so don't worry at all.


G.Gar said...

Wassim, thanks for the informative post. I want to know, however, how could the notion of the Wali faqeeh being the head of the excecutive boduý of the government be reconciled with th notion of a sovereign independent, multi religous state????

To my very humble point of viwe, Arab nationlism and its reviaval of the desert egalitarianism in light of western socialist theory is capable of of palying the functional role Islamism is supposed to play in fending our value system and identity against western hegemony and pentration. Furthermore, Arab nationalism is capable of assimilating religous and ethnic differences, something Poliical islamism can't do. In the Arab world we Have Syriancs, copts, sunis, Shiites, Druze................etc.

There if we go back to your brilliant post" ramblings on being a "Muslim Arab", you quite rightfully stated that Islam is an integral part of Arab identity- a postulate I totally agree with. Therefore, I find myself obliged, in order to be consistent, to follow it down deductively and ask, what is role of Islam in Non- Arab countries? Frankly speaking, What I have on mind there, is Iran. Because it is state where the identity is formulated on the basis of Persian nationalism interwined with the Iranian interpretation of shiisim.

Kind regards, and hope you accept the temporal fact that not all human beings like my humble self are on thesame level of IQ andcultural sophistication like yourself..........

Unknown said...

hmmm... ok... R u saying this is good? R u saying u would like to live under Wilayet Al Fiqih?

i love this part: "The Faqih himself becomes the head of the executive branch of government, until the return of the Hidden Imam"

LOL how convenient
I'm not sure if you are good in Arabic, but this reminds me of a Syrian saying: 3eesh ya kdeesh

Maysaloon said...

Hi Dania,
I'm not saying that at all. This is actually a part of my dissertation on Hezbullah and was really just me trying to explain the peculiarities of the government in Iran. It might read strangely to you, but perhaps that is because I wanted to have a no nonsense and non-stereotyped view of how they in fact see themselves without judging. I hope you found it informative!