Qom has become more than just a city of religious schools

Track Persia – February 3, 2017

Radicals within Iran’s leadership have utilised strategies aimed at spreading the politicized Iranian conception of Twelver Shi’i Islam particularly during the Safawids’ reign and the Khomeinists’ theocracy.

  1. Safawids’ strategies of propagating radical Twelver Shiism

Safawids’ pretensions to Shi’i divinities

Shah Ismail’s profession of Twelver Shiism had no precedence in early Safawid history. Founded by Sheikh Safi al-Din (d. 1334), the early leadership espoused no Twelver, let alone Shii or other distinctly separatist, religious discourse, nor did they claim Alid family connections or descent from any of the twelve Imams or other members of the Prophet’s family. Under Safi al-Din the order’s adherents were in fact mainly Shafi’i Sunnis, and in its early years the order enjoyed good relations with the established Sunni political authorities.

In 1505, for example, four years after Tabriz’ capture, in the Arabic preface to a firman inscribed in Isfahan’s Masjid-i Juma, Ismail was described as “khalifat al-zaman (the successor of the age), spreader of justice and beneficence, al-imam al-‘adil al-kamil (the just, the perfect Imam), al-hadi (the guide), al-ghazi, al-wali…” An inscription on a coin minted in Kashan the next year, 1506, referred to him as al-sultan al-adil (the just sultan), as did that on a coin minted twelve years later in Mashhad in 1518. Although such terms as al-imam al-adil (the just Imam) and al- sultan al-adil could have secular implications, in Twelver Shii discourse they could also refer to the Hidden Imam himself.

The use of such terms with reference to the shah was to bolster Ismail’s pretensions to the imamate. Claims to the imamate would reinforce the larger-than-life image of the leader among the poorer peasants and tribal nomads who formed the bulk of the Safawid levies in this period. Such claims would also appeal to similarly receptive elements of the Twelver community throughout the region as a whole-not as well-versed in the details and technicalities of the largely Arabic-language Twelver legal decisions and religious terminology as the higher ranks of the educated Twelver clergy-, if not also elements of Iran’s urban and rural population.

Ismail’s reign also witnessed efforts to reconstruct Safawid lineage so as to establish the Alid descent of Sheikh Safi al-Din, the founder of the order and, by extension, that of his familial successors. Indeed, the Safawid claim was to have been descended from the line of the fifth Imam, Miusa al-Kazim (d. 799). Court officials echoed these claims of Alid lineage. Together with the exploitation of the ambiguity of the religious terminology-and, indeed, reinforcing the suggestion the Safawids intended that terminology to refer to the shah as the Imam-, this genealogy further legitimised claims for Ismail’s imamate and thus his authority within the order, Safawid territory, and the larger Twelver community.

The efforts both to establish familial ties with the Alids and to lay claim to the imamate, inasmuch as they were mutually reinforcing, occasionally converged. In 1519, for example, twenty years after the capture of Tabriz and six years after the Safawid capture of Baghdad and the nearby Shii shrine cities, an inscription on a wooden panel of a box at the grave of Imam Musa, from whom the Safawids had now ‘proven’ their descent, referred to the command-no doubt also publicly proclaimed-to build the box as having been issued by “al-sultan al-adil al-kamil … Shah Ismail”.

The apparent Safawid commitment to Twelver Shiism was belied, however, by the very limited degree of Safawid interest in and understanding of the faith. Indeed, the Safawid identification with Twelver Shiism was generally limited to public profession of faith, scattered, officially-sponsored persecution of Iranian Sunnis, formal cursing of the Sunni caliphs, and wars against the Ottomans and the Uzbegs-the latter as much rooted in military and political, as religious, conflicts.

At the centre of the Safawid polity especially, for example, there is little evidence Ismail’s interest in and knowledge of the doctrines and practices of the faith were ever more than superficial. During his five-year exile prior to the capture of Tabriz Ismail’s teacher Shams al-Din al-Lahiji (d. 1506- 1507) instructed the future Safawid ruler in the Qur’an and some works in Arabic and Persian, but himself appears to have known little of Twelver doctrine and practice. The shah’s personal behaviour also suggested little acquaintance with and interest in that doctrine and practice.

The Safawid identification with Twelver Shiism offered few positive images to Twelver clerics resident outside Safawid territory in this period. Relative to the order’s historical lack of interest in the faith, Ismail’s abrupt conversion was problematic. The Safawid religious discourse after that profession was as extreme and clearly unorthodox. The Safawid elite’s interest in and knowledge of the details of the faith was limited and prospects for the continued viability of the Safawid polity were, at best, uncertain. The unease these aspects of Safawid Shiism generated among orthodox Twelver clerics was compounded by the very public manner in which one of their number did associate himself with the Safawids very soon after the capture of Tabriz and the profession of faith by Ismail.

Al-Karaki’s influence

Ali bin al-Husayn al-Karaki, later given the title “al-Muhaqqiq al-Thani” (the second investigator),  was the most influential Arab cleric said to have migrated to Safawid territory in this period.

Al-Karakl’s association with the Safawid court began very soon after the capture of Tabriz. Born in the late 1450 – 1460s in the Jabal Amil village of Karak Nuh, al-Karaki studied in Syria and Cairo early in his life.

Al-Karaki’s association with the Safawid Shiism began almost immediately upon Ismail’s profession of faith in 1501. In 1503, al-Karaki was present at the Safawid capture of Kashan and, presumably with court authority and approval, endorsed the rulings of a local Sunni qadi, allowing the latter to keep his post after the qadi had agreed to Ismail’s call to curse the Sunni caliphs.

In 1504 al-Karaki settled in Najaf with some financial support from the court. In 1505 he was in Isfahan with Isma’il. When the Safawids captured Baghdad in 1508 that year, al-Karaki, along with Baghdad’s Shi’i naqib  joined Ismail in his tour of the Shii shrine cities and al-Hilla. Two years later, in 1511, al-Karaki was with Ismail at the capture of Herat.

Al-Karaki did not hesitate to openly utilize his religio-legal knowledge and skills to support specific aspects of Safawid Shiism in this period, including the more extreme manifestations of the Safawid identification with and expression of the faith. Thus, he consistently defended the extreme anti-Sunnism of Safawid Shiism. In 1511, the year Herat was captured, for example, al-Karaki completed and dedicated to Ismail “Nafahat al-Lahut fi Lan al-Jibt wal-Taghut” in which he argued for the legality of cursing the Sunni caliphs, thereby lending support to a practice already adopted by Ismacil. Sometime between the capture of Herat and the battle of Chaldiran several years later, al-Karaki replied for Ismail to questions addressed him by the Ottoman Sultan Selim, including questions as to why Ismail had destroyed the tomb of the Sunni jurist Abu Hanifa (d. 767) in Baghdad at the Safawid capture of the city in 1508. Such efforts not only represented al-Karaki’s approval for these specific instances of anti-Sunni extremism, but lent further legitimacy both to the Safawid’s extreme anti-Sunni rhetoric and confrontations with Sunnism both at home and abroad and thus also, more generally, to the Safawid identification with Twelver Shiism.

Al-Karaki endorsed the Safawids’ use of such terms as al-sultan al-adil and al-imam al-adil to refer to Ismail, thereby encouraging the shah’s exploitation of the ambiguity of meaning of these terms to bolster the shah’s claim to the imamate.

Al-Karaki was well-compensated for his association with and the services he rendered the court. In addition to the remuneration he received, al-Karaki received land grants-including several villages-in Arab Iraq from Ismail, probably after the capture of Baghdad in 1508. After the capture of Herat two years later, in 1510, Ismail granted al-Karaki additional administrative authority in Safawid territories, also apparently in Arab Iraq, and an annual stipend of 70,000 dinars, which al-Karaki distributed among his students. The year after Ismail’s death, al-Karaki spent much time in Safawid-controlled Najaf, from where he could easily oversee his eastern-Iraqi financial affairs.

Doubtless al-Karaki was not without support among contemporary Twelver clerics and he may not have been the only Arab Twelver cleric to have emigrated to Safawid territory to assist the Safawids in their propagation of the faith during the first fifty years after Tabriz capture. Indeed, among al-Karaki’s students were a number of individuals from Lebanon and Gulf.

However, it is clear that throughout the half-century following shah Ismail’s profession of the faith at the Safawid capture of Tabriz in 1501, a number of  Arab Twelver clerics from Hijaz, Bahrain, Iraq and Jabal Amil area of Lebanon rejected the Safawid identification with Twelver Shiism and were adamant in their refusal to associate with the Safawid court.

Among the factors in these clerics’ rejection of Safawid identification with the faith were Ismail’s abrupt conversion to the faith, the Safawids’ consistently extreme, unorthodox religious discourse, the Safawid hierarchy’s lack of interest in and understanding of the doctrines and practices of the faith and, in contrast with Sunni successes, the uncertainty of the future of the Safawid polity. The treatment Twelver clerics received from Sunni political institutions ruling their homelands was not sufficiently harsh or repressive to drive them to emigration.

Ali al-Karaki was one of the few clerics in this period who can categorically be shown to have left his homeland specifically to associate himself with Safawid Shiism and the Safawid effort to propagate the faith in the territory under their control. That association itself also contributed to the aversion of many clerics, and laybelievers, for Safawid Shiism during Ismail’s reign.

Safawid’s support for Twelver Shiism centres

In the seventeenth century in an improved politico-military atmosphere, the patronage of the Safawid court and the Safawid political and socio-economic elite established and supported Twelver centres in Iran, in Isfahan, for example.

These Iranian centres became a focus for the region’s Twelver community, attracting both Iranians and Arabs, producing many of Twelver scholars prominent in the second Safawid century, and promoting Persian as a language of expression of works on Twelver doctrine and especially practice-the latter as part of yet another effort to  spread Twelver Shiism among the Persian-speaking population. Scholars from these centres became close associates of the court continuing al-Karakil’s legacy Safawid agenda for Twelver Shiism.

As the faith became more firmly established in Iran, however, conflicts over points of Twelver doctrine and practice, including disagreements over the relation between clergy and state and the nature of  clerical authority in the in occultation inevitably found expression in Iran as well.

  1. Strategies of spreading Khomeinists’ Twelver Shiism

Khomeinists and their allies have developed a number of strategies to gain power and propagate their version of Twelver Shiism. Since the wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudents) concept forms the basis for the Iranian governance, the state’s coffer provides a centralized network that creates immense ideological leverage across the Shi’i world. Violence and coercion are other measures utilized by those pushing the pro-Iranian radicalized Shi’ism.

Khomeini’s ideology, the absolute wilayat al-faqih, calls for clerics, namely a marja taqlid (source of reference), to lead the state is a far cry from the customary role for the Shi’i clerical apparatus and faces criticism from mainstream circles. Not only did Khomeini and his successors embrace political leadership, but due to the ideology’s revolutionary precepts, they have made sure to push their system wherever a Shi’i community could be penetrated.

Khomeini’s view of those not following his line was that they were at worst living in a state of false consciousness and at best, confused by propaganda. For Khomeini, Shi’i Islam of the traditional  school was fundamentally flawed due to outside influences and conspiracies. “After all,false ideas spread over the centuries by a conspiracy of Jews, imperialists, and royalists had taken a heavy toll…Government officials had systematically spread the notion that clerics should be seen within seminary confines and not heard in the arena of controversial politics.”

Utilizing Qom seminaries

For the Shi’i clergy, the hawza (plural: hawzat), a Shi’i seminary led by prominent grand ayatollahs and devoted to higher learning, is the primary institution needed to achieve education and advancement for future clerics of all ranks. Hawzat mainly teach subjects including traditional logic, language, law, mysticism, traditions, jurisprudence, philosophy, literature, and a litany of other topics.

Historically, the most important and influential of the hawzat was traditionally in Najaf, where the courses offered and knowledge of the teachers was held in high regard. Nonetheless, Najaf has suffered aprecipitous decline since the last quarter of the twentieth century.[22] Repressive government policies, the physical safety of more radical seminaries, and the highly selective nature of the Najaf hawza have all been factors that have had negative effects on the influence of Najaf’s seminaries.

Iran has main hawzat in Isfahan, Mashhad, and Qom, with Qom maintaining the most important and prominent position. Since the Iranian Revolution, the Qom hawza underwent a transformation morphing the seminary from a legitimate Shi’i Islamic educational institution into an ideological outlet with the goal of producing uncritical supporters of wilayat al-faqih.

In Iran there were around 180,000 students and clerics prior to Khomeini’s ascension to power, compared to 3,000 students attending classes in Najaf. In 1979, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah, Qom’s hawzat had 6,000 students, multiplying to 25,000 in 1993. By 2008, some 20,000 foreign students had been graduated through Qom’s hawzat.[43] According to a 2010 report by Iran’s Press TV, 12,000 foreign students studied in Qom.

Iran’s missionary approach

Qom has become more than just a city of religious schools; it is now a manufacturer of missionaries. Iranian ambitions to spread their politicized theology have affected the way they churn out students from their seminaries. Iranian government intervention in all aspects of clerical life, including seminary curriculum, has changed the clergy’s traditional way of thinking and living. The clerical establishment is now producing mostly missionaries and preachers, rather than true scholars of Islamic law and theology.

While missionary activity normally targets non-Muslims, it is clear that a primary goal of this effort is to reintroduce Iranian revolutionary ideology to Muslim populations. These missionaries and preachers (mughalib) complement Iran’s revolutionary goal not only to become the “Vatican” for Shi’i Muslims but also to alter Shi’i theology. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i went so far as to encourage the studying of foreign languages and to push for the “simplification” of the texts students were reading (as opposed to the traditional scholarship methods). AhlulBayt News Agency reported Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani’s 2011 announcement stating, “Qom is ready to educate Russian Muslims.”In Azerbaijan, which is no Iranian ally, the local Shi’i religious establishment was deeply influenced by Iran’s efforts. Shaykh Allahshukur Pashazadeh, the current grand mufti of the Caucasus and a prominent Shi’i religious leader inside Azerbaijan went so far as to call on his followers to accept wilayat al-faqih and the religious authority of Khamene’i.

Cash for Clerics

Iran’s radical clerical apparatus has used its flush pockets to influence religious circles and popular beliefs when dealing with Shi’i ideology. The Islamic Republic has made its clergy the richest in Shi’ite history. The alms received by leading clerics have become a central fixture of the Shiite religious hierarchy. The amount of alms a senior cleric receives is often, along with the acceptance of his peers, a key factor in determining his status as a marja’ and his relative position in the ierarchy.

Iran’s mullahs have taken the more normative donation-based foundations commonly found among leading members of the Shi’i clergy. Due to their integration with the state, enriching with confiscated monies, and being given control over businesses in Iran and abroad, these foundations have increased their influence in the Shi’i world.

The first area of Iranian dominance comes in how they handle donations and projects built with that money. Due to the fact that the Iranian state is intertwined with clerical foundations (bonyad), a centralized strategy can be developed. The bonyads, which manage everything from banks to factories were created from confiscated assets of leading members of the pre-revolution elite. The bonyads, are estimated to control up to 20 percent of Iran’s GDP. Thus, bonyad monetary power totals in the tens of billions of dollars.

In Lebanon, the symbol for the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation can be found prominently displayed in front of many building projects, including apartments, civic centres, hospitals, and mosques.

According to Iranian reformist sources, the Khomeini Foundation funded 16,045 people in Lebanon, and in Syria around $1 million was spent. In Azerbaijan, another Shi’i-majority country, 27,875 received stipends, and $2,211,694 was spent. In Tajikistan, around 30,000 received payments from a budget of around $1,300,000 spent by the foundation. The spread of Iranian money has also affected Tajikistan’s primarily Sunni population, with many becoming Shi’a. In 2010, it was recorded that one-third of the population was Shi’a and that Shi’i mosques were referred to as “Iranian mosques.”

In Iraq, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, Iran has been using its financial power to exert its influence.  Financially backing students in the hawzat is another effective way to win the loyalty of students who will be the future of the Shi’i clerical establishment. Often, these students are reliant on donations from individuals and groups in order to continue studying. In 2012, Iranian-trained cleric and official Ayatollah Shahroudi opened an office in Najaf to gain the loyalty of the followers of Najaf-based senior clerics including grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Money plays a key role in decisionmaking and undoubtedly plays a huge role in maintaining Shi’i

clericalism. Influence gained from social projects and from what amount to patronage networks, while immeasurable, is highly important in demonstrating goodwill toward the faithful and building a loyal base forany ideological movement. Anti-Iranian Shi’i clerics  are hard-pressed to maintain their relative influence given such a disparity of resources between themselves and Tehran.

Silencing traditionalist Shi’i clerics

When financial and more traditional forms of written argumentation have not been effective, radicals embracing wilayat al-faqih have often turned to more violent tactics. Grand Ayatollah Khoei and the then junior Sistani disavowed Khomeinist ideology in the 1960s and 1970s. This resulted in the Iranian revolutionary government seizing Khoei’s properties and in the harassment of Sistani’s relatives living in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, himself a traditionalist marja taqlid, was “demoted” in clerical title by Khomeini and then arrested in 1982. Shariatmadari died under house arrest in 1986. In an ironic twist, it was Shariatmadari’s 1963 intervention via recognizing Khomeini’s status as a grand ayatollah that saved the latter from the shah’s chopping block.

In Lebanon, Hizballah regularly used force, coercive methods, and even altered the histories of those who did not go along with the group’s ideology. In 2009, Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah went so far as to argue that “the subject of the Wilayat al-Faqih and the Imamate is at the heart of our religious doctrine, and any offense to it is an offense to our religion.” In essence, Nasrallah was attempting to drown out any internal Shi’i criticism of wilayat al-faqih and then fold the entire Lebanese Shi’a community into being adherents to the concept.

Nasrallah and Hizballah did not stop with rhetorical messages to the Shi’i populace and often reinforced their ideological inclinations and goals via force. During the fighting of May 2008, Hizballah decided to depose the Mufti of South Lebanon, Sayyid Ali al-Amin. Al-Amin was a fierce critic of wilayat al-faqih and embraced a similar line of belief to that of Sistani’s traditional school of thought.

Al-Amin was not the only Lebanese Shi’i cleric to suffer from his disavowal of Hizballah’s ideology.

The late Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, a marja taqlid once based in Lebanon, could hardly be considered a traditionalist. He had formerly associated with Hizballah and expressed extreme anti-American and anti-Israel positions. Yet his disavowal of wilayat al-faqih, which progressed over the course of almost a decade, was not taken kindly by Hizballah or Iran. In some instances his followers were removed from positions within Hizballah, and mosques that associated with Fadlallah were vandalized with pro-Khamene’i posters. Lebanese Shi’i opposition to Hizballah has even claimed that Fadlallah’s house was attacked by elements belonging to Hizballah’s security late chief Mustafa Badreddin. Following Fadlallah’s death, Hizballah neglected to mention he was a marja taqlid (Islamic legal schola with following) and on Hizballah’s al-Manar television station, only his past associations with Hizballah were highlighted.

When compared to the relative stability for the Shi’a found in Lebanon, the more chaotic conditions in Iraq have allowed for far more instances of the violent targeting of clerics adhering to a more traditional approach. Sistani and his supporters have been at the forefront of a number of attacks led by pro-Iranian groups. From June-September 2007, three Sistani aides were assassinated, including an imam in Basra. According to USA Today, “Some had stopped wearing clerical robes or turbans when traveling outside Najaf.”

In 2007, American officials were warned about Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a group “run by Iran’s Quds Force” and their plot to “target Sistani’s inner circle.” According to a diplomatic cable, the group was “serving as a tool in Iran’s efforts to take control of the hawza… in Najaf.” In 2011 alone, there were at least 18 attacks, which “mostly targeted chieftains and men of religion followers of Sayyid Sistani,” including the preacher at Diwaniyya’s Zahra’a Mosque. Often, the perpetrators of these attacks went unnamed. In July of that year, Shaykh Muhammad Falak, “One of the leading representatives of al-Sistani  survived an attempted drive-by assassination in Iraq’s Basra Province. Attacks by “unknown” culprits continued, and in February 2012, there was a grenade attack on Sistani’s religious followers in Diwaniyya.

Based on ‘The Battle for Soul of Shi’ism’ by Phillip Symith, ‘The Myth of the Clerical Migration to Safawid Iran: Arab Shiite Opposition to Ali al-Karaki and Safawid Shiism’ by Andrew J. Newman 

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.