Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Good news from Iran: in more than eighty cities Iranians are protesting a government that is not working for them. Unemployment and inflation are high, and many Iranians resent their government sending huge sums of money to Syria and Lebanon. Worse, the government suppresses social freedoms and open criticism of its leaders.
It’s good that Iranians are complaining; I hope that they are able to create reform in Iran and that the United States will help Iranians to create a peaceful, stable democracy.
Yet many Americans wonder if an Islamic Iran is really possible. Today, while Iran has a president, the most powerful person in government is a religious figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran is therefore a theocracy, a country led by religious figure. Does this mean that theocracy is the “right” way to practice Islam? If so, should we worry that Muslims in Europe and the United States will want a theocracy?
For most Muslims, even most Iranians, the answer to these questions is “no.” Iran may be a theocracy today, but as with most authoritarian governments, it’s not because the people want a dictatorship! Iran is theocratic because of its history, not because of Islamic teaching.
To understand where Iran is, and where it can go in terms of government, we need to take a look at what makes Iran unique. Outside of Iraq, Iran is the only country in the world that has a majority Shi’a Islam population. (Something like 85–90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni; most of the rest are Shi’a).
I’ve written about the differences between Sunni and Shi’a in the past. The biggest is the way that Muslims decide exactly what they are supposed to do. Sunnis teach that Muslims are supposed to look for a consensus of Muslim people or Muslim legal scholars (“ulama”). Sunnis like to quote a saying of Muhammad, “God will not make my community agree on error.” If you want to know what to do, look to the community!
Shi’a, however, teach that since the time of Muhammad God has appointed leaders to guide the community. To figure out what to do, Shi’a listen to the ranking ulama in their area. There are a number of levels of Shi’a ulama, the highest of which is “Grand Ayatollah” (also known as “maraj’”). As of 2014 there were sixty-four of these in the world.
Ayatollahs are supposed to explain Islamic ideas, teaching the correct practice of Islam and explaining how to intepret the Qur’an. But it was only in the late twentieth century that Shi’a in Iran decided that an Ayatollah should also be a political leader.
To understand what happened, we need to know a little of Iraq’s history.
Around 1500 a group of Persians known as the Safavids conquered what we now call “Iran” and formed the Safavid empire. The Safavids had practiced sufism (Islamic mysticism), but while setting up the new empire they adopted Shi’a Islam as the state religion. From this point on, the region in which modern-day Iran is located has been the biggest worldwide center of Shi’a Islam.
Yet even though the Safavids practiced Shi’a Islam, Shi’a ulama were never part of the government. They made rulings about how people should live as Muslims, but they never had governmental authority or responsibility.
The Safavid empire eventually gave way to the Qajar dynasty, which fell apart during World War I. Iran was a constitutional monarchy until 1953, when, sadly, the United States and Britain engineered a coup against a popular Iranian government that did not quite do what whe wanted them to do. Iran was then a dictatorship until the 1979 revolution.
The years of dictatorship were uneven. The shah (the equivalent of a king) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi at times tried to “westernize” Iran, stressing universal literacy while allowing women to vote and non-Muslims to hold public office. Unfortunately Pahlavi’s government also became more authoritarian as time went by. Many Shi’a leaders opposed the shah, including one popular Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini.
In 1979 the shah’s government was overthrown, and the Republic of Iran was established. Through a national referendum Iran became a theocracy, and Khomeini became the “Supreme Leader.” Since then, the highest ranking political figure in Iran has been a Grand Ayatollah.
Why did Iranians vote for a theocracy in 1979? There were at least two big factors. First, the Iranians distrusted the West and the United States in particular. While many Iranians were not aware of our role in the 1953 coup, they knew that the shah was very close to the United States. We unfortunately did not do a lot ot object to the shah’s oppression of Iranians, so it’s understandable that Iranians would not want to exactly imitate our form of government.
Second, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a very popular, persuasive speaker, and was very popular. He had been exiled in 1964 for speaking out against the shah and against the United States. In a sense, he was like an Iranian Nelson Mandela, a symbol of resistance against oppression. So when he argued that Iran should be a theocracy, the people agreed.
Yes, things have not worked out well for anyone. Iran has been involved in a number of problems in the Middle East, while its people have been suffering from government mismanagement. But these problems are not about religion, but instead are related to Iran’s leaders’ thirst for power.
The idea that a Muslim country should be led by a legal scholar is very new, something which has only been discussed in the 20th century. No other Muslim country has ever had this kind of arrangement. Iran became a theocracy due to Khomeini’s popularity as an opponent of an abusive monarch. And so the Grand Ayatollah is in charge because of Iranian politics, not Iranian religion.
As I’ve written before, the religion experts expect the number of Muslims in the US and worldwide to continue to grow. I realize that this makes many of us nervous! But we should at least be able to rest assured that Islam, both Sunni and Shi’a, is not a threat to American-style democracy. The Iranina theocracy is an aberration, an exception to the rule. And as the current protest show, Muslims don’t like theocracies!
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