Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (photo: Getty Images)

Reformist Theologians in Iran
The Search for Montazeri's Heirs

Three years since the death of the Shiite dissident, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, there is still no one in Iran who can assume his role as the spiritual authority of the reform movement. Many critical clerics have been silenced since the crushing of protests in 2009. Yet, there is increasing support for efforts to reform Islamic law in the country. By Urs Sartowicz

When Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri died three years ago, the Green movement in Iran lost its spiritual mentor and its most important champion within the Shiite clergy. At his funeral on 20 December 2009 in the Iranian theological centre of Qom, tens of thousands of mourners streamed by his coffin. The funeral procession began from his modest house, where he had lived for the past decades, had taught, and spent numerous years under house arrest, and ended at the Grand Mosque. This was to be one of the last large demonstrations of the Green movement.

Among the high clergy, Montazeri was not only the sharpest critic of the human rights violations committed by the regime, but was also the most outspoken proponent of reform of the system. Although to the very end he held to the doctrine of rule by religious scholars, which he helped to anchor in the constitution after the 1979 revolution, but he believed that religious scholars should be elected by the people for a limited mandate and only provide spiritual guidance for the government rather than making political decisions themselves.

Even though he never publically declared allegiance to democracy, he emphatically advocated popular participation in politics through independent parties, free elections, and a free press. He continued to develop his positions until the end of his life, and just a few years before his death he declared that Baha'is should receive full civil rights and that apostasy should not be punished with execution. After the controversial re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, he refuted any claims the regime had to legitimacy.

No change can be expected from the old spiritual leaders

Three years after Montazeri's death, there is still no spiritual leader on the horizon who can assume his role.

Ayatollah Yousef Sane'I (photo: © Ayatollah Yousef Sane'i)
Stigmatised and isolated by the Tehran leadership: Prominent cleric Ayatollah Yousef Sane'i from Qom was chairman of the influential Iranian Guardian Council until 1983, but became a critic of the regime soon after

​​Although his sons Said and Ahmed are highly respected clerics, they are far from enjoying the religious authority of their father. In June 2010, after the office of Montazeri was closed on the personal order of Revolutionary Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i (as well as the removal of his tombstone), they have been severely limited in their work. This spring, the regime intervened again and sealed off the doors to the house.

Among the highest ranking clergy, those named to the Shiite "Religious Reference" (Marja'-e taqlid), only Grand Ayatollah Yussef Sane'i is sympathetic to the reform movement and supports a rational reinterpretation of Islamic law. In particular, he has made a name for himself in the controversial field of women's rights through a series of progressive legal pronouncements. Yet, since January 2010, when his status as a Marja'-e was revoked and his office ravaged by the militia, he has kept a low profile.

Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Dastgheib, who also expressed his support for the Green movement after the election and demanded a public hearing for the officially defeated candidates Mir-Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, has avoided any public criticism since January 2010, when his mosque in Shiraz was closed down by the authorities. No significant impulse for reform of the system or of Islam can be expected from these quarters. Whoever is looking for progressive spiritual leaders must turn to the younger generation.

Ahmad Qabel followed in the footsteps of Montazeri, yet died in prison

Ahmed Qabel was one of the most radical and courageous reformist theologians. After his studies in Qom, he had received Montazeri's permission to interpret Islamic law. Nonetheless, he ceased to wear the robes of a cleric for many years following. As a result of his criticism of the system, he was imprisoned in 2001 and subsequently went into exile in Tajikistan.

Ahmed Qabel (photo: ©
Ahmed Qabel was one of the most radical and courageous reformist theologians in Iran. He was detained for criticizing the system in 2001 and eventually exiled to Tajikistan

​​In an unprecedented letter sent to Revolutionary Leader Khamene'i in 2005, he accused the Iranian Supreme Leader of being personally responsible for the murder of dissidents and the persecution and suppression of the opposition.

He did not mince his words with respect to other sensitive topics either. In an interview in early June, he openly declared that the law on wearing the veil lacked any religious basis and that he could not fathom this obsession with women's hair. Although he held the position that a complete separation of religion and politics was neither possible nor made sense in a religious society, he clearly rejected a religious state that claimed to rule in the name of God.

During the final years of his life, he worked on a comprehensive reinterpretation of Islamic law, in which controversial issues were not ignored. He was convinced that the basis of all religious laws must be reason alone. Qabel was unable to complete this work. On the way to Montazeri's funeral, he was arrested. A show trial convicted him to 20 months in prison. He became seriously ill while behind bars. Ahmed Qabel died late October in Tehran.

Debate on reform has not been fully silenced

Reformers have long faced the threat of persecution by the judicial system. Some of the most important pioneers of the reform movement, such as Mohsen Kadivar, Hasan Yussefi Eshkevari, Akbar Ganji, and Abdolkarim Soroush, have therefore gone into exile. Yet, there are still religious leaders in Iran who openly express political criticism and support reform of Islam. At the Assembly of Teachers and Researchers of Qom Seminary (Majma'-e Qom), some of the participants have joined forces.

Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi-Tabrizi (photo: © MEHR)
Break with the rigid dogmatism of the "Velayat-e faqih": Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi-Tabrizi adopted Montazeri's idea that the nation's ruling legal scholar is not appointed by God, as his supporters maintain, but elected by the people

​​In a sermon given in August, Assembly Chairman Ayatollah Hossein Musavi-Tabrizi took up the idea of Montazeri that the ruling religious scholars are not – as their followers claim – appointed by God, but should be chosen by the people. He is of the view that Iranians could even elect a non-cleric, as long as he is religious and understands something about politics. At the same time, he appealed to the people to pressure the government for reform through protests and criticism, as there is no other way to eliminate corruption in society.

This past June, Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Fazel-Meybodi, also a member of the Assembly, published an article in which he expressly argued for a reform of the Sharia. Many of the currently controversial rulings on women's rights, the age of consent for marriage, slavery, and punishment for adultery and apostasy, as well as the discrimination against religious minorities cannot claim eternal validity, he says, but were issued by the Prophet for his time and its society.

Similar to Qabel, Fazel-Meybodi is convinced that the provisions of criminal and family law must be adapted to the transformed ideas of reason. When society accepts human rights as reasonable, then the interpretation of religion should follow, demands Fazel-Meybodi. This type of argumentation is nothing new, but that such ideas, especially when it comes to the sensitive issue of women's rights, are now openly expressed in the heart of the theologian city of Qom, demonstrates their growing acceptance in religious circles.

Urs Sartowicz

© 2012

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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