Is Shi'ism the Iranian Regime's Achilles' Heel?

The death of Iran's Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri at age 87 on December 20, 2009 has been followed by decidedly hagiographic post-mortems. But perhaps the most curious of these assessments, by Michael Rubin, includes a contention that "the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism." This odd viewpoint is merely the extension of a profoundly flawed, ahistorical mindset which denies the living legacy of Shi'ite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in Iran, particularly since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The great Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher -- a renowned Islamophile -- believed that Shi'ism manifested greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, compared to Sunni Islam. Goldziher observed,

On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi'i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs...Of the severe rule in the Qur'an (9:28) that "unbelievers are unclean", Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi'i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa [najis], ritual impurity.

At the outset of the 16th century, Iran's Safavid rulers formally established Shi'a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi'ite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (although it was interrupted between 1722-1795 during a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle), through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics ...

These Shi'ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews in particular, but also of Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najis conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), "Sheikh Ismail ... never spares the life of any Jew," while another European travelogue makes note of "the great hatred [Ismail I] bears against the Jews[.]" During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the Shah,

... was required to wear 'basmackes' (a kind of over-shoes), because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts ... when he was dismissed from the Shah's presence, [Jenkinson stated] 'after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace' -- as though covering something unclean.

The writings and career of Mohammad Baqer Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Shi'ite dhimmitude in Iran. Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi'ite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century, al-Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran -- the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi'a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise "Lightning Bolts Against the Jews," despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi'ite theocracy. In this treatise, al-Majlisi describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari'a -- first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, or poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi'ite impurity or "najis" regulations. According to Al-Majlisi,

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths ... It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal's being slaughtered [according to the Shari'a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, ... and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them ... It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.

The dehumanizing character of these popularized "impurity" regulations fomented recurring Muslim violence against Iran's non-Muslims -- including pogroms, forced conversions, and expropriations -- throughout the 17th through the early 20th centuries.

The so-called "Khomeini revolution," which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shi'ite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Bahá'ís and Jews, rapidly deteriorated. Historian David Littman recounts the Jews' immediate plight:

In the months preceding the Shah's departure on 16 January 1979, the religious minorities ... were already beginning to feel insecure ... Twenty thousand Jews left the country before the triumphant return of the Ayatollah Khomeini on 1 February ... On 16 March, the honorary president of the Iranian Jewish community, Habib Elghanian, a wealthy businessman, was arrested and charged by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal with "corruption" and "contacts with Israel and Zionism"; he was shot on 8 May.

The writings and speeches of the most influential religious ideologues of this restored Shi'ite theocracy -- including Khomeini himself -- make apparent their seamless connection to the oppressive doctrines of their forbears in the Safavid dynasty. Most notably, the conception of najis, or ritual uncleanliness of the non-Muslim, has been reaffirmed. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly, "Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najis." Khomeini elaborated his views on najis and non-Muslims as follows:


Eleven things are unclean: urine, excrement, sperm, blood, a dog, a pig, bones, a non-Muslim man and woman [emphasis added], wine, beer, perspiration of a camel that eats filth ... The whole body of a non-Muslim is unclean, even his hair, his nails, and all the secretions of his body ... A child below the age of puberty is unclean if his parents and grandparents are not Muslims; but if he has a Muslim for a forebear, then he is clean ... The body, saliva, nasal secretions, and perspiration of a non-Muslim man or woman who converts to Islam automatically become pure. As for the garments, if they were in contact with the sweat of the body before conversion, they will remain unclean ...

Khomeini's close ally, the late, much-lionized Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, further indicated that a non-Muslim (kafir's) impurity is "a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [is] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles." This "hatred" was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt -- i.e., non-Islamic -- thoughts. Montazeri's Shi'ite Islamic Weltanschauung was articulated in his four-volume treatise on the "Vilayat al-Faqih" [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists], a key rationale for the post-1979 Iranian Shi'ite theocracy. These views -- openly antithetical to Western conceptions of individual liberty, religious freedom, and democracy -- were aptly summarized by Montazeri's student, Iranian sociology professor Mahmood Davari, in 2005:

According to Montazeri, Islamic rule differs from Western democracy in two matters. While the people in a democratic system are supposedly free to elect any person as their ruler, in a Shi'i society Muslims may not choose any other ruler except a just faqih. In a democratic society, people are free to legislate any law according to their collective wishes, whereas in an Islamic regime the legislation must be in accord with Islamic laws and ordinances. Therefore, according to Montazeri, Islamic rule is essentially different from democracy in the West.

The practical consequences of Montazari's bigoted Shi'ite Islamic authoritarianism -- which Michael Rubin ignores -- have been highlighted by Iranian studies professor Jamsheed Choksy. In an NRO essay ("Religious Cleansing in Iran") written with Nina Shea (published July 22, 2009), Choksy noted,

Iran's constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status - the ... subjugated condition of "people of the Book" dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government. ...


Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran's 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.

Choksy concluded this past July with a reminder especially apposite for those who share Rubin's views:

Iran's political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they've been forgotten.

And following Montazeri's death, Choksy made this sobering observation:

[T]he religious minorities in Iran see little theological difference and only a marginal pragmatism among the various Shiite views. Montazeri's opinion was characterized by one Iranian Christian clergyman as "...rubbing salt into our wounds." Ultimately, Montazeri's tolerance of differences, especially religious ones, was far from acceptance.

Finally, it would behoove
Michael Rubin and his ilk -- those ostensibly promoting "authentic, Montazeri-stylized Shi'ism" -- to carefully re-examine Iran's history under Shi'ite Islam, and then ponder these sagacious words written a decade ago by the secular Iranian historian Reza Afshari:
... Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran has presented an almost perfect case. Who is more culturally and religiously authentic than the Ayatollah's? Who is more credible to say what relevance Shiite culture has or does not have for the major issues of our time? The issue is not Islam as a private faith of individuals. It is about what state officials claiming Islamic authority might have to say about the state's treatment of citizens. Islamic cultural relativism in human rights discourse addresses Islamic cultural preferences for the articulation of public policies within the contemporary state. In Iran, liberal Muslims or any other new interpreters of Islam did not come to power. When and if they do, we will have their record to examine. What we have from liberal Muslims today are only ideological claims punctuated by expressed good intentions. A sector of the traditional custodians of religion, the ulema, politicizing Islam did come to power; therefore it is logical to assume what we faced in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of Shiite Islam (at least an authentic version of it) injecting itself into the politics of a contemporary state. They created a record of what the `culturally authentic rulers did. The Western cultural relativists deserve to know the details of that record.

The death of Iran's Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri at age 87 on December 20, 2009 has been followed by decidedly hagiographic post-mortems. But perhaps the most curious of these assessments, by Michael Rubin, includes a contention that "the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism." This odd viewpoint is merely the extension of a profoundly flawed, ahistorical mindset which denies the living legacy of Shi'ite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in Iran, particularly since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The great Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher -- a renowned Islamophile -- believed that Shi'ism manifested greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, compared to Sunni Islam. Goldziher observed,

On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi'i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs...Of the severe rule in the Qur'an (9:28) that "unbelievers are unclean", Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi'i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa [najis], ritual impurity.

At the outset of the 16th century, Iran's Safavid rulers formally established Shi'a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi'ite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (although it was interrupted between 1722-1795 during a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle), through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics ...

These Shi'ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews in particular, but also of Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najis conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), "Sheikh Ismail ... never spares the life of any Jew," while another European travelogue makes note of "the great hatred [Ismail I] bears against the Jews[.]" During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the Shah,

... was required to wear 'basmackes' (a kind of over-shoes), because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts ... when he was dismissed from the Shah's presence, [Jenkinson stated] 'after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace' -- as though covering something unclean.

The writings and career of Mohammad Baqer Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Shi'ite dhimmitude in Iran. Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi'ite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century, al-Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran -- the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi'a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise "Lightning Bolts Against the Jews," despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi'ite theocracy. In this treatise, al-Majlisi describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari'a -- first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, or poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi'ite impurity or "najis" regulations. According to Al-Majlisi,

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths ... It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal's being slaughtered [according to the Shari'a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, ... and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them ... It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.

The dehumanizing character of these popularized "impurity" regulations fomented recurring Muslim violence against Iran's non-Muslims -- including pogroms, forced conversions, and expropriations -- throughout the 17th through the early 20th centuries.

The so-called "Khomeini revolution," which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shi'ite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Bahá'ís and Jews, rapidly deteriorated. Historian David Littman recounts the Jews' immediate plight:

In the months preceding the Shah's departure on 16 January 1979, the religious minorities ... were already beginning to feel insecure ... Twenty thousand Jews left the country before the triumphant return of the Ayatollah Khomeini on 1 February ... On 16 March, the honorary president of the Iranian Jewish community, Habib Elghanian, a wealthy businessman, was arrested and charged by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal with "corruption" and "contacts with Israel and Zionism"; he was shot on 8 May.

The writings and speeches of the most influential religious ideologues of this restored Shi'ite theocracy -- including Khomeini himself -- make apparent their seamless connection to the oppressive doctrines of their forbears in the Safavid dynasty. Most notably, the conception of najis, or ritual uncleanliness of the non-Muslim, has been reaffirmed. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly, "Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najis." Khomeini elaborated his views on najis and non-Muslims as follows:


Eleven things are unclean: urine, excrement, sperm, blood, a dog, a pig, bones, a non-Muslim man and woman [emphasis added], wine, beer, perspiration of a camel that eats filth ... The whole body of a non-Muslim is unclean, even his hair, his nails, and all the secretions of his body ... A child below the age of puberty is unclean if his parents and grandparents are not Muslims; but if he has a Muslim for a forebear, then he is clean ... The body, saliva, nasal secretions, and perspiration of a non-Muslim man or woman who converts to Islam automatically become pure. As for the garments, if they were in contact with the sweat of the body before conversion, they will remain unclean ...

Khomeini's close ally, the late, much-lionized Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, further indicated that a non-Muslim (kafir's) impurity is "a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [is] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles." This "hatred" was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt -- i.e., non-Islamic -- thoughts. Montazeri's Shi'ite Islamic Weltanschauung was articulated in his four-volume treatise on the "Vilayat al-Faqih" [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists], a key rationale for the post-1979 Iranian Shi'ite theocracy. These views -- openly antithetical to Western conceptions of individual liberty, religious freedom, and democracy -- were aptly summarized by Montazeri's student, Iranian sociology professor Mahmood Davari, in 2005:

According to Montazeri, Islamic rule differs from Western democracy in two matters. While the people in a democratic system are supposedly free to elect any person as their ruler, in a Shi'i society Muslims may not choose any other ruler except a just faqih. In a democratic society, people are free to legislate any law according to their collective wishes, whereas in an Islamic regime the legislation must be in accord with Islamic laws and ordinances. Therefore, according to Montazeri, Islamic rule is essentially different from democracy in the West.

The practical consequences of Montazari's bigoted Shi'ite Islamic authoritarianism -- which Michael Rubin ignores -- have been highlighted by Iranian studies professor Jamsheed Choksy. In an NRO essay ("Religious Cleansing in Iran") written with Nina Shea (published July 22, 2009), Choksy noted,

Iran's constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status - the ... subjugated condition of "people of the Book" dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government. ...


Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran's 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.

Choksy concluded this past July with a reminder especially apposite for those who share Rubin's views:

Iran's political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they've been forgotten.

And following Montazeri's death, Choksy made this sobering observation:

[T]he religious minorities in Iran see little theological difference and only a marginal pragmatism among the various Shiite views. Montazeri's opinion was characterized by one Iranian Christian clergyman as "...rubbing salt into our wounds." Ultimately, Montazeri's tolerance of differences, especially religious ones, was far from acceptance.

Finally, it would behoove
Michael Rubin and his ilk -- those ostensibly promoting "authentic, Montazeri-stylized Shi'ism" -- to carefully re-examine Iran's history under Shi'ite Islam, and then ponder these sagacious words written a decade ago by the secular Iranian historian Reza Afshari:
... Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran has presented an almost perfect case. Who is more culturally and religiously authentic than the Ayatollah's? Who is more credible to say what relevance Shiite culture has or does not have for the major issues of our time? The issue is not Islam as a private faith of individuals. It is about what state officials claiming Islamic authority might have to say about the state's treatment of citizens. Islamic cultural relativism in human rights discourse addresses Islamic cultural preferences for the articulation of public policies within the contemporary state. In Iran, liberal Muslims or any other new interpreters of Islam did not come to power. When and if they do, we will have their record to examine. What we have from liberal Muslims today are only ideological claims punctuated by expressed good intentions. A sector of the traditional custodians of religion, the ulema, politicizing Islam did come to power; therefore it is logical to assume what we faced in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of Shiite Islam (at least an authentic version of it) injecting itself into the politics of a contemporary state. They created a record of what the `culturally authentic rulers did. The Western cultural relativists deserve to know the details of that record.

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