Ayatollah Husayn-'Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) was a Shi'i cleric of very high status, a leading figure in the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the man originally designated as the heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader. Like

Ayatollah Husayn-'Ali Montazeri

Ayatollah Husayn-'Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) was a Shi'i cleric of very high status, a leading figure in the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the man originally designated as the heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader. Like Khomeini, he was an exponent of the Islamic state. Montazeri subsequently fell out of favor with Khomeini over issues related to the regime's abuse of human rights (including women's rights) and democracy, was stripped of his titles, and demoted. Until 2003, he lived under house arrest in Qom where he acquired a reputation as a relatively liberal cleric associated with the reformist opposition. In the course of the protests that took place in Iran following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections, he wrote several remarkable fatwas (religious rulings) in reply to questions from another progressive cleric, Mohsen Kadivar. In these fatwas, he speaks in support of the protesters who challenge the Islamic regime (which he considered unjust) and declares Iran's supreme leader Sayyed 'Ali Khamenei to be illegitimate. Elsewhere, he has written of his own error in supporting Ayatollah Khomeini's doctrine of velayat-e faqih, that urges the rule of a single, supreme cleric (such as Khomeini and his successor Khamenei). Such rulings are of profound importance in lending legitimacy to the forces of reform in Iran. Ayatollah Montazeri died on December 19, 2009, in the clerical city of Qom. Below are excerpts from his fatwas translated by Muhammad Sahimi of PBS's Frontline[1] and edited for clarity by Denis MacEoin. —The Editors

Fatwas on Those in Power

Question 1: When positions of power that exist in order to serve the public—which according to the laws must be occupied by those who are fair, honest, and competent, and which require the votes of the majority of the people—are taken by individuals who are either not qualified, or no longer satisfy the conditions and qualifications stipulated by the laws … what course of action is required [by the people]?

Montazeri: If any one of the qualifications mentioned in the question, which religiously and rationally govern the conditions needed to occupy an official position to serve the public, is no longer met by the person who occupies that position, that person, automatically and without any need for dismissal, is sacked, which also means that all the orders issued by him are no longer valid. …

Question 2: What is the religious duty of the public with regard to the public servants who, despite their having been warned by wise and well-intentioned people, insist on continuing to act against religion?

Montazeri: … those who have lost, religiously and rationally, all credibility for serving the public, are automatically dismissed, and there is no legal basis for them to continue their work. If they want to use force, or fool or cheat others in order to keep their power, people must express their opinion about the illegitimacy and declare their disapproval of their performance, and seek their dismissal through the best and least harmful way. It is clear that this [dismissal of the officials] is a social duty for everyone, and all the people, regardless of their social positions and according to their knowledge and capability, must participate in this endeavor, and cannot shirk their responsibility. The enlightened who have more knowledge about religion and the laws, and who are also more influential, have greater responsibility [toward the dismissal of unqualified officials]. They must unify the public and must work, through the formation of political parties and organizations, and through public and private gatherings, to inform the people and show them the way [to dismiss the officials]. In his will Imam Ali[2] said: "Governance and domination by evil people [in a society] is the natural consequence of not preaching good deeds and avoiding sin, because they [the evil people] abuse the opportunities."

Question 3: Will committing the following great sins and insisting on doing so [by the officials] prove that there is no longer any fairness [in their behavior], and that they are unjust [toward the people]?

  1. Ordering the murder of innocent people;
  2. Preventing innocent people from gathering in public places and injuring them;
  3. Preventing people by force from doing their religious duty of preaching good deeds and avoiding sin through banning all the legitimate and peaceful ways of protesting;
  4. Denying the freedom and jailing of those who preach good deeds and avoid sin, and pressuring them to "confess" to doing what they have not committed;
  5. Preventing a free flow of information and censoring the news, which are to the Muslim masses the essential and introductory parts of preaching good deeds and avoiding sins;
  6. Libeling the protestors, who seek justice, by claiming that "whoever is opposed to the [government] officials is a traitor and a spy for foreigners."
  7. Lying, giving false testimony, and making false reports about people's rights;
  8. Treason against the national trust;
  9. Ignoring people's votes and neglecting the advice of the clerics and informed people;
  10. Preventing people from participating in the national process of deciding their own fate;
  11. Making a bad name for Islam and religion through presenting a very violent, irrational, aggressive, superstitious, and dictatorial image of Islam and Shi'ism in the world.

Montazeri: Committing any of the above sins and insisting on doing so are some of the clearest demonstrations of a lack of fairness [by the officials], and are obvious signs of injustice. Indeed, if such sins are not viewed by the people as signs of injustice, what sins can be considered as such? It is clear that any sin, particularly those listed above, that is committed in the name of the religion, law, and justice, will cause even more corruption and elimination of justice, and will receive punishments in this world and even more severe ones in the next, because such sins, in addition to their own particular effects, also cause the destruction of the good images of religion, justice, and law.

If there are cases in which the government officials believe they are taking just and legitimate actions, but a majority of the people consider them as unjust, illegitimate, and corrupted, the views and judgments of fair and neutral adjudicators must be the criteria [for deciding who is right].

Question 4: Can resorting to "preserving the political system as the highest priority," which only provides justification for violating the legitimate rights of the people and ignoring moral principles, be considered honest? …

Montazeri: Preserving the political system is not by itself an issue, particularly when the system becomes the same as a person [who rules the system and the people]. When it is said that preserving the political system has the highest priority, we mean the system that is a tool for setting up a just society, in which the religious and reasonable duties of the people can be carried out. Thus, resorting to "preserving the political system as the highest priority," in order to justify what the officials do and presenting to others what they do as just are not allowed. … So, how can one think that by resorting to force, injustice, and un-Islamic acts the Islamic system is preserved and reinforced?

A political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, closure [of the organs of civil society], arresting [people] and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate. And, according to the teachings of the Prophet and his descendants, confessions in jail have no religious or legal validity and cannot be the criteria for action [against the confessor].

The courageous people of Iran are also aware of such confessions—the examples of which can be found in the history of communist and fascist regimes—and are aware that such confessions and fake television interviews are extracted from their jailed children under duress and torture, in order to hide the oppression and injustice, and in order to present a distorted image of the peaceful and lawful protests of the people. The [government] officials who are responsible for such acts must be aware that such acts are sinful, and are punishable both religiously and by law.

Iran belongs to the people, not to you and me, and it is the people who make the decisions, while the officials are their servants. People must be able to gather peacefully, and defend their rights both in writing and orally. When the Shah heard the people's revolutionary voice [in November 1978], it was too late. It is hoped that the officials will not allow the same situation to develop again, by being as flexible as possible about the people's demands.

Question 5: Under what conditions does the Faghih[3] [the supreme leader] lose his qualifications [for continuing as the supreme leader], and what are the duties of the maraje'-e taghlid[4] and the people with regard to this issue?

Montazeri: Injustice is the intentional opposition to the teachings of religion, the foundations of reasonableness, and rationality, and the national accords and consensus that have become the laws of the land. The ruler who opposes these is no longer qualified to rule. Recognizing this is first and foremost the duty of the learned people [the clergy] who know the teachings and rulings of religion and are independent of the political system, as well as intellectuals and legal scholars who are completely familiar with the laws as well as the Islamic teachings and rulings, and are familiar with the solid evidence of the ruler being opposed to the teachings of the religions, reasonableness, and rationality, with the condition that they are independent of the political system. Next, it [recognizing the disqualification of the ruler] is done by the common people who are familiar with the Islamic rulings and the laws, and feel the opposition of the ruler in their own daily lives.

Thus, in summary, the fairness or injustice of the rulers is something whose effect in society is clear and not masked. Everyone is responsible for [opposition to] injustice and the neglect of people's rights [by the officials] according to their knowledge, and must also inform others about it, and by considering the existing conditions … present a solution [to the problem that society is grappling with]. It is impossible and not believable to think that a person may be supportive of justice, but does not take a step in materializing it, or is afraid of doing so, or uses lack of power as an excuse for inaction. Being afraid of God's creation means being against God. The lives of our innocent Imams were dedicated to social justice. Had they spent their lives only for Islamic teachings regarding individuals [and not society], they would not have been oppressed, jailed, placed under surveillance, and finally killed. God expects the learned people [the clergy], especially those who are informed about the religion, not to be silent about oppression. Of course, taking action [against oppression] entails paying a heavy price, but it will also be rewarded greatly [by God].

[1] Muhammad Sahimi, "Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's Fatwa: An Unfair Supreme Leader Is Illegitimate," Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, July 12, 2009.
[2] Son-in-law of Muhammad, the first Shi'i imam.—Eds.
[3] Faqih—Eds.
[4] Maraje'-e taqlid (sing., marja'-e taqlid) are the highest religious authorities in Shi'ism.—Eds.