What is Welayat Al-Faqih?

Welayat Al-Faqih (rule by the jurisprudent) is a principle that was advocated most vocally and comprehensively by Ayatollah Khomeini. However elements of this theory had previously been proposed by certain Shia scholars.

According to Khomeini’s ideology, this principle means that absolute religious and political leadership of the Muslim faithful should be in the hands of the most senior cleric. After the 1979 Iran revolution; this principle came to mean that Ayatollah Khomeini, as Supreme Leader, had the right to wield absolute power over the Iranian people; and as a result of his Grand Ayatollah status, Shia all round the world had the duty to follow his lead.

The Iranian religious city of Qom became the main centre for advocating and adding religious legitimacy to this principle and Iranian clerics who disagreed were marginalized.

Breaking with Shia quietism

The previous dominant principle advocated by Twelver Shia preachers was that in the period after the twelfth Imam had gone into eclipse nobody had the divine authority to provide political leadership to Muslims and that therefore all forms of political leadership were corrupted and imperfect. Therefore, religious guidance could be provided by the most learned scholars whose importance was measured in the degree to which they knew and followed the ‘path of the Imams’.

For example Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Al-Khoui rejected Welayat al-Faqih by saying:

“In the time of Ghayba [absence of the twelfth Imam] there is absolutely no evidence that proves the Wilayah of the Fuqahah [i.e.; the legitimacy of religious leaders to provide leadership]. Wilayah is only the prerogative of the Prophet and Imams. The Fuqahah not only don’t have Wilayah in general affairs, but they also do not have any legal Wilayah in non-litigious affairs.”

Khomeini’s theory of Welayat Al-Faqih was therefore a radical departure from orthodox Shia political beliefs. However through the political influence of the Islamic Republic and through the religious influence of Iranian scholars and those who agreed with Welayat Al-Faqih; Khomeini’s ideas came into wide circulation among Shia Muslims around the world and gave inspiration to numerous radical political groups. For example, Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is very clear in his support for the Welayat Al-Faqih principle and his deference to the Iranian leadership.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Welayat Al-Faqih

Figures like Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Shaikh Ali Salman who received much of their religious education in Iran were thoroughly immersed in the principles of Welayat Al-Faqih and many of their followers have been very clear about adherence to this principle.

In previous years huge posters were on display featuring images of Isa Qassim alongside figures from the Iranian leadership with a quote from Qassim, saying: “Keep the way of Khomeini until the arrival of the Mahdi [the hidden twelfth Imam]” – a direct affirmation of the Welayat Al-Faqih doctrine. Many of Isa Qassim’s public pronouncements can also be understood as tacit support for Welayat Al-Faqih and many of his followers are even more vocal about support for this principle.

A July 2012 paper by the American Enterprise Institute noted Qassim was increasingly moving into Iran’s orbit and this, “should be a red flag for the US on Bahrain”.

Adherence to the Welayat Al-Faqih principle, and the Islamic Republic’s success in exporting the Welayat Al-Faqih paradigm is a significant factor in explaining why Shia activists in Gulf states, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere moved from a position of political quietism to political activism.


Origins of the Bahrain opposition: Other sections

Part 1

A major divide within Shia Islam: Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis

Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis in Bahrain

Part 2

The Da’wah current in Iraq

The Da’wah current in Bahrain

Why do Al-Da’wah & the Islamic Enlightenment society matter?

Part 3

Origins of the Shirazi current in Bahrain

Consolidation and radicalization of the Shirazis

Differences between the Da’wah & Shirazi factions in Bahrain

Part 4

Beginnings of labour activism and civil society movements

1953-56 unrest and the Higher Executive Committee

Emergence of left-wing, Marxist and Baathist parties

Whatever happened to Bahrain’s left-wing?

Part 5

Who were the People’s Bloc?

Who were the Religious Bloc?

Part 6

Religious Bloc versus the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly

Eclipse of the left

Part 7

Politicization of Bahraini Shia

The influence of political Islam movements elsewhere

The influence of Ayatollah Khomeini

Politicization of religious festivals

Part 8

The radicalizing influence of Iran’s Islamic revolution

Growing Shirazi radicalism

Exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Part 9

Al-Da’wah contacts with Iran’s revolutionary leadership

Changing Iranian allegiances

Part 10

Saudi oppositionist movements

Part 11

Announcing the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Islamic Front aims and ideology

Part 12

1981 coup attempt by Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Part 13

Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain after the failed coup

The Shirazi movement loses favour in Iran

Declining influence: The Islamic front in the 1990s

Part 14

Iranian support for Bahrain’s Al-Da’wah movement

Moving into the Iranian ideological orbit

Part 15

What is Welayat Al-Faqih?

Breaking with Shia quietism

Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Welayat Al-Faqih

Part 16

A new generation of Shia clerics

Hezbollah in Bahrain

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