Velayat-e faqih—or guardianship of the Islamic jurist—is system of governance that has underpinned the way Iran operates since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. At its most basic, the theory of velayat-e faqih, which is rooted in Shia Islam, justifies the rule of the clergy over the state. Velayat-e faqih is at the crux of Shia Islamism and is fundamental in understanding not only how the Iranian system operates but also how Tehran can influence religious and political Shia networks beyond its borders.
The Theory of Velayat-e Faqih
The concept of velayat-e faqih (in Farsi, or wilayat al-faqih in Arabic) transfers all political and religious authority to the Shia clergy and makes all of the state’s key decisions subject to approval by a supreme clerical leader, the vali-e faqih (guardian Islamic jurist). The supreme clerical leader (the faqih) provides guardianship (velayat) over the nation and, in doing so, ensures the top-down Islamisation of the state.
Velayat-e faqih, which is rooted in Shia Islam, has historically been applied to justify limited clerical guardianship over a small section of the populace: those who were vulnerable and incapable of protecting their own interests, such as widows, orphans and the disabled. Its current form is a relatively new interpretation of the doctrine that was formulated in the early 1970s by the dissident Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While in exile in Iraq in the years building up to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini developed a theory of Islamic government that sought to transfer the political power of the Iranian state to the Shia ulema, or clergy.
In a book entitled Islamic Governance, published in 1970, Khomeini outlined his plans for the creation of an Islamic state in Iran, reconceptualising the doctrine of velayat-e faqih to justify clerical guardianship of the state. The ayatollah claimed that God had made Islam for it to be implemented as shown by the creation of divine law (sharia). Given that no one knew Islam better than the clergy, Khomeini argued, it was natural that they should rule as guardians of the state until the return of the 12th divinely ordained Shia imam (Imam al-Mahdi or the Hidden Imam), who Shias believe was withdrawn into occultation by God in AD 874.
After Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the notion of velayat-e faqih was enshrined into the Iranian constitution, with Khomeini taking on the role of supreme leader until his death in 1989. Today, velayat-e faqih is the sole source of political and religious authority for Iran’s supreme leader, now Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.
Transition to Absolute Velayat-e Faqih
After Khomeini’s death, Iran amended its constitution to bolster clerical guardianship of the state by making the supreme leader’s authority and power absolute. The transition to absolute velayat-e faqih sought to strengthen the supreme leader’s institutional authority, which Khomeini had deemed necessary to preserve the regime. The 1989 amendments also removed the constitutional requirement for the supreme leader to be a recognised marja-e taghlid—the most senior rank in the Shia clergy—to allow for the mid-ranking cleric Khamenei to assume the role.
Absolute velayat-e faqih is grounded in the belief that as the Twelfth Imam’s deputy, the supreme leader should hold absolute and exclusive authority over the state’s affairs. The 1989 amendments therefore expanded the scope of the supreme leader’s powers to virtually all organs of the state.
In this view, the supreme leader’s mandate to rule over the population derives from God. In light of this divine mandate, elections and popular participation are of little relevance, as electoral outcomes depend on the supreme leader’s approval. Neither state officials nor the public have a say over the conduct of the supreme leader, and opposition to him is deemed to be disobedience to God. As the Hidden Imam’s deputy, the supreme leader inherits the infallibility of the 12 divinely ordained Shia imams. The public also has no say over the supreme leader’s appointment or dismissal, which are perceived as divinely acts.
While the Assembly of Experts, a body of 88 Shia jurists, is—at least in theory—responsible for selecting the supreme leader and overseeing his actions, in practice the supreme leader’s veto over all candidates running for the assembly has made this body virtually impotent. There is no evidence that the Assembly of Experts oversees the supreme leader’s authority. In fact, Iran’s former chief justice has asserted that it is illegal for any institution, including the assembly, to supervise the supreme leader. Under absolute velayat-e faqih the supreme leader is accountable only to God.
A Break With Traditional Shia Theology
The notion of velayat-e faqih marked a significant departure from traditional Shia custom and practice. Historically, the Shia clergy had practised political quietism since the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam. Their withdrawal from political activism stemmed largely from the clergy’s belief that there could be no legitimate Islamic government during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam.
While the concept of velayat-e faqih had existed for centuries, it was originally intended to allow for limited clerical guardianship over a small section of society, namely those who were considered incapable of protecting their own interests, such as orphans and the disabled. It was not until Khomeini reconceptualised velayat-e faqih that this doctrine was expanded to the entire population and state. Before Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih had very little support among the Shia clergy, with the most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qasem al-Khoei, even denouncing it as blasphemous.
Beyond Iran’s Borders
Khomeini’s revolutionary interpretation of religious authority had far-reaching consequences beyond Iran’s borders and fundamentally changed the nature of religion and politics in the Islamic world. In fact, in many ways, velayat-e faqih was never intended to be restricted to Iran. With its current formulation in 1979, Khomeini attempted to create something akin to an Islamic papacy that positioned himself as the supreme leader of not only Iran but also the entire ummah, or global Muslim community—a role outlined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. For Khomeini and his followers, many of whom hold key positions in Iran today, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a first step to establishing a broader Islamic order that would come to encompass the entire Muslim world.
Despite such grand ambitions, the Shia nature of velayat-e faqih meant that the supreme leader’s influence gained traction only among Shia Muslims. The concept nonetheless had, and continues to have, significant implications for the stability of the Middle East and beyond. Many Shia Islamist political parties and nonstate actors outside Iran, particularly those close to the Iranian regime, subscribe to this doctrine. Among others, these include Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and the Badr Organisation in Iraq.