Four men were arrested after the attack on the London embassy on Friday, March 9, 2018. (supplied)

By Shatha Al Juburi

Track Peria – March 18, 2018

The followers of Ayatollah Hussein al-Shirazi on March 9 stormed the Iranian embassy in London to protest the capture of a religious leader in Qom by the Iranian authorities. A Persian language channel broadcasting from outside of Iran reported that the opponents of the Shi’i concept of wilayat al-faqih (the rule of a religious jurist), which Iran’s late Supreme Leader Khomeini applied as the basis of the rule in Iran, had stormed the embassy and raised a pro-Shirazi flag.

Four men were arrested, according to the UK police, on suspicion of criminal damage and for being unlawfully on diplomatic premises. A UK police spokeswoman said: “All four people have been taken to a central London police station. They remain there in custody”.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that Tehran had made a strong protest to the British government over the incident, according to the IRNA state news agency. While Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister ‘Abbas ‘Araghchi made his protest known to the British envoy in Tehran, demanding “absolute protection of our diplomats in London and immediate action against attackers by the British police”. The Iranian Ambassador in London Hamid Baidi-Nejad protested that the rioters had been holding sticks and knives.

IRNA described the London incident as a “terrorist act”, saying: “These are followers of Ayatollah Shirazi”. However, the ayatollah’s representative Qassem al-Fahd said that the attackers had “done this independently”, explaining: “They do not have any organisational links with Shirazi and his representatives, responses from Iranians in Iraqi cities will continue in the coming days”.

Who are the Shirazis?

Grand Ayatollah Sadeq H. Shirazi was born in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala in August 1942 to a Sh’i religious family. Currently, he is regarded as a senior “marja’ al-taqlid” (a source of emulation), a senior cleric who has the authority to issue fatwas (religious decrees) on matters of Islamic jurisprudence. He is the brother of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Shirazi, and a relative of Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi who co-led a 1952-53 revolt against Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy together with the prominent Iran’s late Prime Minister Musaddeq. He studied in the top Shi’i seminaries of Najaf and Qom and he is currently residing and teaching in the seminaries of Qom and Shiraz in Iran.

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Shirazi (1928-2002) was succeeded by  Sadeq Shirazi as a senior marja. The Shirazi theologians in Qom are close to the two young Khomeini brothers, Hassan and Hussein Khomeini, who are equally opposed to the Khomeini’s model of wilayat al-faqih, that is one cleric can rule, which is being applied in Iran by Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Shrazis promote a different version of this concept; that is a group of clerics can rule the nation by a consultative body. The ideologues of the Shirazis argue that this model of rule is the right way to apply democracy. [1]

The Shirazis became powerful in the Arab Gulf countries, especially in Kuwait, in the mid of the last century. They succeeded to secure significant resources and form a broad network of religious and social institutions there associated with its leader Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi.

Enmity towards the Shi’i traditionalism 

The Shirazis criticise the traditionalist religious leadership that follow the conventional school in Najaf such as the Najaf-based marja’iyya (the Shi’i religious establishment) which is under the leadership of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The conservative marja’iyya in Najaf follows the quietist school which is rooted in the Shi’i sect’s tradition of avoidance of powerful rulers. It argues against direct engagement in politics because it follows an orthodox Shi’i doctrine that holds the supreme political authority on Earth rests with the infallible imam after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The followers of the Twelver Islam believe that the only legitimate states are those ruled by the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, or the “hidden imam” whom they regard as infallible and the last rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed. They believe that their twelfth imam vanished in the ninth century will eventually return to render final judgment on humanity.

The Shiraziyya’s political activism

The Shirazi movement, al-Shiraziyya, was founded by marja Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi  who was based in the Shi’i holy city of Karbala in Iraq in the late 1960s.[2] The movement’s leading political ideologue was Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, al-Shirazi’s nephew, who was appointed by his uncle as the head of the group which established ‘Risaliyoun’ (Preachers) in 1968. The group focused on organizing and training religious workshops for a number of young Shi’i men who were seeking to be militant clerics.[3]

After the success of Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the crackdown of Iraq’s former regime against the group, the Risaliyoun members fled to Iran and changed its name to al-‘Amal al-Islami (The Islamic Action). The group launched a huge promoting campaign for the Iranian Revolution in the Arab Gulf countries, particularly in Kuwait, and in Lebanon seeking to spread the Khomeini’s revolution by their well-organised and broad missionary network.

The Shiraziyya’  political ideology shows that the group is influenced by the late Egyptian Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, particularly regarding his call for the establishment of an Islamic state after the failure of the secular parties in governing the majority Muslim nations.

Ahmad al-Katib, who was a member of Shiraziyya, said that the members of this group––including himself––had been stark supporters of the Khomeini’s version of wilayat al-faqih, however, he had been really disappointed with Khomeini’s attempts to be a dictator shortly before his death. Al-Katib said that Khomeini had made it clear that he, as the wali al-faqih (the guardian jurist), had been above the law and his authority had superseded even the Iranian constitution. [4]

The political project of the Shiraziyya seemed to have failed in Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq. Al-‘Amal al-Islami had a poor representation in Iraq’s political process in the post-invasion 2003. In the 2010 general elections, the group did not win a single seat in the parliament. Some observers attribute its failure to the party’s closeness to Iran and its adoption of wilayat al-faqih which is unpopular in Iraq where most senior marjas usually adhere to traditional quietism.

The recent arrest of Ayatollah Hussein al-Shirazi, however, shows that the Shiraziyya still has a large number of followers in Iraq. The protests in southern Iraqi Shi’i city of Karbala have not stopped since the arrest of the ayatollah by the Iranian security in Qom. Dozens of protesters, including some Shi’i clerics, chanted the slogan ‘death to the wilayat al-faqih’  and called for Shirazi’s immediate release while holding Iraq responsible for allowing Iran to arrest the Iraqi-born cleric. Protests have also been held in front of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad in support of the cleric. Yesterday, the protestors in Karbala called on the Iraqi government not to allow Iranian pilgrims enter Iraq to visit the Shi’i holy shrines unless the Iranian authorities released the Ayatollah Hussein al-Shirazi.


[1] To know more about the Shirazis read Laurence Louër, Transnational Shia politics: religious and political networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008).

[2] Ahmad al-Katib, Al-Marja’iyya al-diniyya al-Shi’iyya wa- afaq al-tatawwur, Beirut, Al-Dar al-Arabiyya, 2007, p. 7.

[3] Chibli Mallat, Religious Militancy in Contemporary Iraq: Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr and the Sunni-Shia Paradigm, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 2, Islam & Politics, Apr., 1988, p. 22

[4] Author’s interview with Ahmad al-Katib, London,  August 2011.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.