khamenei is a review of Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei’s 31-year record as a Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei’s Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader

Posted on June 3, 2021 by

Categories: English is a review of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s 31-year record as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The series focuses on one of the most secretive world leaders. Reports about his personal life are scant and, except for his son Mojtaba, whose name has been in the news only in recent years, the media has seldom published any reports or photographs of his family.

This mystery does not surround only his personal life and his family. Now, three decades after he ascended the throne as the most powerful individual in the Islamic Republic, short videos have come to light that reveal that his election as the Supreme Leader was meant to be a temporary measure. 

Business groups and institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader are one of the most secretive sectors of the Iranian economy: their financial dealings and profits and losses have never been transparent. Even in politics, the Supreme Leader refuses to act in a transparent way. He has shunned responsibility wherever he has been able to do so.

The series of reports tries to untangle the mystery of Khamenei.

The “Overnight Ayatollah” and “Ayatollah in a Prance” have long been two favorite quips for Iranians when discussing the efforts to present Ali Khamenei as a marja or source of emulation for the Shia faithful.

The first was coined by figures on the left of the Iran’s political spectrum in the months after Khamenei’s appointment as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The second was first uttered by the highly-regarded Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani on April 9, 2014, in a lecture at the Grand Mosque of Qom. Naturally, he did not refer to Khamenei by name.

Not only had Khamenei not been considered a marja before his appointment, but he was in fact specifically referred to as a hojatoleslam, or authority on Islam: a title reserved for mid-ranking clerics. Khamenei felt that this put him at a disadvantage, especially vis-à-vis high-ranking clerics such as Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the originally designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini.

A short while after he became Supreme Leader, Khamenei launched a strident campaign to confer upon himself the titles of both ayatollah and source of emulation. This began, according to the Islamic scholar Mohsen Kadivar, with his deliberately changing his appearance from that of an intellectual clergyman to a more traditional one. Amongst other things, Kadivar says, “he exchanged his stylish cloak for the conventional one worn by the clerics… and apparently gave up smoking pipe.”

Ayatollah Khomeini had only ever referred to Khamenei as a hojatoleslam, while he called his own students hojatoleslam wal-moslemin (“Authority on Islam and Muslims”: a notch higher). Perhaps for this reason, for a whole week after Khamenei’s election, none of the recognized marjas came forward to offer their congratulations. It wasn’t until June 10, 1989 that the first complimentary letter was published, which was attributed to Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki.

At the time of Khomeini’s death, the five most important Shia marjas were Abolghasem Mousavi Khoei, Mohammad Reza Mousavi Golpayegani, Shahaboddin Marashi Najafi, Mirza Hashem Amoli and Hossein Ali Montazeri. Of these, Golpayegani was the most prominent within Iran. But Khamenei’s people seized on this supposed correspondence from Ayatollah Araki, who was by then 95 years old and not fully in control of his mental faculties.  

Although Araki had for the most part stayed out of politics, but was widely viewed by Shiites as the pre-eminent authority on theological affairs. In his diaries, the newly-anointed Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote: “Mr. Ebrahim Amini [an ayatollah and a member of the Assembly of Experts] said Mr. Montazeri was against the leadership of Mr. Khamenei, and does not approve of it.

 “I said, ‘Do your best to convince him to approve. And, in the meantime, we will work on his [Khamenei’s] qualifications as a marja.’ Then [Mohammad Abaee Khorasani and Morteza Bani Fazl, two other clergyman members of the Assembly of Experts] came and said the same thing…If this does not work, we can bring up Mr. Araki as marja.”

Fake Letters of Endorsement?

According to Mohsen Kadivar, some of the terms used in the original letter – which was supposedly from Ayatollah Araki –were not compatible with Araki’s Islamic jurisprudential principles. For one thing, the ageing spiritual leader did not believe in Velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the Islamic jurist: the founding principle of the Islamic Republic.

Kadivar writes that subsequent letters that attributed to Ayatollah Araki were even further away from the principles he believed in. The suspicion grew stronger that it was in fact his son that had written those letters.

Rafsanjani’s diaries state that Ayatollah Golpayegani was also among the marjas who did not come forward to congratulate Khamenei. It was Khamenei who first broke the silence by thanking him for reciting the prayer for the dead next to the body of Ayatollah Khomeini. When Golpayegani did finally wish Khamenei well, he referred to him not as an ayatollah but as a hojatoleslam wal-moslemin. When these congratulatory messages were published on the Supreme Leader’s website, Golpayegani’s was  censored and appeared only as a one-liner.

On June 13, 1989, Ayatollah Montazeri had sent a message to Khamenei that in essence, advised him to  seek the advice of marjas and “committed and informed figures” before making any critical decisions. His message and Khamenei’s response were broadcast on state radio and television during the day, but that night there was no mention of the exchange in the evening news.

“The evening news did not read Mr. Montazeri’s letter or the response to it,” wrote Rafsanjani. “I asked Mr. Khamenei about it. He said that his office had received many phone calls complaining about it, so he asked for divine guidance, and decided that they should not be broadcast on television.”

In none of their messages did the marjas refer to Khamenei as an ayatollah. The closest thing to an exception was Ayatollah Mirza Hashem Amoli, father of the Larijani brothers, who described him as “a scholar, an expert on Islam and wise.” At the time, Ayatollah Amoli was 90 years old, and his office was run by Sadegh Larijani, the man Khamenei would later appoint as head of the judiciary.

A Crash Course on Islamic Jurisprudence

One of Khamenei’s first actions on receiving these messages from marjas was to form a “jurisprudence council” so that he could begin an intensive course in Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) – not unlike a student cramming the night before an exam.  

The nine members of this council were all clergymen, and either members of the Assembly of Experts or the Guardian Council, or both. They were Mohammed Emami Kashani, Tehran’s Friday Imam, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali Boroujerdi, Jafar Karimi, Ayatollah Mohammad Momen, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Mohammad Yazdi.

Khamenei’s next step toward setting himself up as a marja was to have the security agencies put pressure on prominent Iranian sources of emulation and clergymen, asking them to issue “certificates” attesting that he was a marja.

Seven such certificates were thus procured between June 17 and August 26, 1990: from Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel Lankarani, Ali Meshkini, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, Mohammad Yazdi, Abdollah Javadi Amoli, Mohammad Momen and Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei. But according to Mohsen Kadivar, four of the seven certificates — those by Amini, Momen, Javadi Amoli and Meshkini — only verified Khamenei as a marja in the “executive affairs” necessary for exercising leadership, not in all religious and theological issues.

From early 1990 onwards Khamenei also began expending resources on presenting himself as a marja outside of Iran’s borders. For instance, after the 1992 death of Grand Ayatollah Abolghasem Khoei – a spiritual leader for much of the Shia world, who was based in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf – the Supreme Leader’s representative in Syria, Ahmad Fahri, delivered a Friday sermon at the Shrine of Zainab in which he referred to Khamenei as a marja. But at the time, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fazlollah, a noted source of emulation for Lebanese Shia Muslims, made it known that he did not agree. A number of marjas and prominent clergymen in Iran also objected to this “counterfeit” assignment. For this transgression, they were punished with political condemnation and house arrest.

Against the Shia Tradition

In Shia tradition, there is no central authority that bestows titles such as ayatollah or marja on clergymen. Rather, ayatollahs “emerge” gradually, after years of scholarship and preaching, and by winning the devotion of a vast number of followers and the approval of their peers.

This was the subject of a Friday sermon delivered by Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Tehran’s Friday imam, on December 24, 1993. In his speech, Ardebili declared that a real marja should be selected by the people themselves.

“This the soundest, the most correct and the least defective way of choosing a religious marja,” he said. “Somebody might say that if past marjas did not appoint their successors it was because of the specific conditions of their time, but this is not true.” He pointed out again that Ayatollah Khomeini had not appointed anybody to succeed him as marja.

Ardebili’s sermon contradicted an oral quotation from Ayatollah Khomeini that had in fact endorsed Khamenei as a “complete marja”. Needless to say, this did not endear Ardebili to Khamenei and his supporters. This became his last sermon, as he was quietly removed from his post.

Ayatollah Montazeri also vocally objected, several times, to the efforts to present Khamenei as a source of emulation. Through Ayatollah Mohammad Momen, a member of the Guardian Council, Montazeri sent a message to Khamenei and attached an audio tape of a speech by Deputy Intelligence Minister Fallahzadeh in which he referred to Khamenei as a marja. In his message, Montazeri warned Khamenei that his “agents” were trying to pass him off as a source of emulation.

According to Momen, Khamenei initiallysaid that he would respond to Montazeri. Then, according to Montazeri, on December 14, 1994, Khamenei instead delivered a sharply-worded speech against him. This in turn incited by mob attacks on Montazeri’s prayer hall on December 23 and 24.

On December 2, 1994, after the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki in November that year, it was announced that Khamenei was now one of the seven sources of emulation. Security agencies then exerted renewed pressure on clergymen to endorse Khamenei as a marja.

One of these clergymen was Ayatollah Taheri Esfahani. After writing a letter endorsing Khamenei, he sent a message through an intermediary to Ayatollah Montazeri, informing him that “Rashidi, Isfahan’s special prosecutor, came here a few times and insisted that I must write this. I concluded that I could not refuse.”

“Choke the Enemy”: Khamenei Wanted to be the Only One

By 1997, Khamenei wanted to be the marja and not just a marja. According to Hashemi Rafsanjani’s diaries, Ayatollah Montazeri learned about this through Ayatollah Azari Qomi, who quoted Khamenei as having said: “To have seven marjas is not right. Only one person can be the marja! And this is the job of the Society [of Qom Seminary Teachers].”

Then on Friday, November 14, 1997, on the occasion of the birthday of Ali, the first Shia Imam, Ayatollah Montazeri delivered the famous speech that led to his house arrest and attacks on his prayer hall. In this speech, he told Khamenei directly that he lacked the status of a marja and pointed out that Khamenei had not written a treatise: a sort of thesis expected from marjas. Instead, he declared, Khamenei was answering questions on Islamic jurisprudence by reading off Ayatollah Khomeini’s treatise.

“Accepting the status of a marja by the Supreme Leader was not the right thing to do,” wrote Grand Ayatollah Ahmad Azari Qomi in a letter to President Mohammad Khatami on October 27, 1997. “This was against sharia principles and definitely against the constitution that is based on Islamic principles.”

He also wrote that Khamenei had created a “special adjutancy” under the command of Ali Fallahian, Iran’s former intelligence minister, in order to “establish” himself as the marja and “keep other marjas down.”

After Montazeri’s speech, a campaign of harassment against him and Qomi got underway. Khamenei publicly defended the attacks. “This is not personal,” said the Supreme Leader on November 26, 1997. “I bear heavy responsibilities on my shoulders and I sincerely thank all those who stepped into the arena to choke the enemy and punch the enemy on the mouth.”

The attacks on these two ayatollahs and their house arrests took place on November 19, 1997. According to Mohsen Kadivar, the operation was orchestrated by the judiciary chief Mohammad Yazdi, who is today commander of the Tehran Revolutionary Guard Corps. Montazeri’s illegal detention at home lasted for five years, two months and 12 days, while Ayatollah Azari Qomi remained under house arrest for 15 months until his death on February 11, 1999.


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