Islam and Democracy in Iran

In daring attempts to find an alternative to the official theocracy enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a number of dissident clerics have been striving for a different kind of constitutional democracy consistent with the Shari‘a. Politically the most consequential of these was the radical modification of the Mandate of the Jurist into a purely supervisory one by one of its chief architects in 1979, Ayatollah Hasan-‘Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s successor-designate until 1988 who had published a treatise in Islamic jurisprudence justifying the Mandate of the Jurist. The young jurist who followed Montazeri’s hint and developed a full-fledged critique of Khomeini’s constitutionally enshrined theory of Mandate of the Jurist was one of his students, Mohsen Kadivar. This critique unfolded in two stages. The first was implicit, and consisted of the relativization of Khomeini’s theory by presenting it as one among many recognized Shi`ite views of the state. Kadivar took the second and final step a year later with the publication of Hokumat-e velā’i (Mandate-based government), or government based on the “absolute appointive mandate of the jurists.” He now offered an explicit critique of Khomeini’s theory and a refutation of the legal arguments for the validity of the official doctrine of theocratic government.
Kadivar’s theory remains strictly within the bounds of Shi‘ite jurisprudence, and offers no hermeneutic questioning of the Shi‘ite jurisprudence itself as a historically contingent discipline. The more radical epistemic break with Khomeini’s theocratic theory was made in a series of lectures and articles which were later published as two books by Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari. Undermining the premises of the constitution and official ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he forcefully denied the key premise of the ideological era—namely that the Shari‘a should be the basis of an Islamic constitution. He argues that no political regime was ever founded on the basis of the science of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in the past, and none could be so founded in the future. ‘Abdol-Karim Sorush, a leading reformist religious intellectual, too, in a major departure from his earlier purely instrumental, “managerial” view of democracy as a rational method of management of society, now offers a normative definition of democracy as resting on three pillars: rationality, pluralism, and human rights.
Today, the pendulum has globally swung back from ideology to the rule of law and there are signs of an incipient new phase of post-ideological Islamic constitutionalism in the Muslim world. We are witnessing a return to the idea of limited government-- this time as the rule of law according to a constitution not based on but inclusive of the principles of Islam as the established religion. The notion of Islamic democracy put forward by Kadivar, Sorush and Khātami may well be part of the global wave of post-ideological constitutionalism. It remains to be seen, however, when and if they become embodied in constitutional law of Iran.
سعید امیر ارجمند
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