O Ali, O Husayn! An Ancient Shi’ite Paradigm Haunts Today’s Islamic Republic

By July 12, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 85

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The post-electoral protests that convulsed major Iranian cities over the past several weeks seem to be slackening, smashed into submission by the iron fist of a regime that has evidently adopted the “Chinese model” in more than just the economic sense. Violent dispersal of all demonstrations, mass arrests of opposition leaders (some of whom have already issued Soviet-style “public confessions”) and a concerted and sophisticated media campaign to blacken the reputation of any and all “troublemakers” and paint them as American, British, Zionist or even Saudi “agents” – all of these methods have combined to reduce the zeal, if not break the back, of the Mousavi-Karrubi resistance axis. But even if the hard-line authorities have won the current battle, powerful predilections and predispositions that lie at the very heart of Shi‘ism – the religion of the majority of Iran’s citizens and the official faith of that country and its 1979 revolution – will not allow this latest outburst of popular frustration to disappear into the dustbin of history.

Shi‘ite Muslims know a thing or two about the more deserving candidate being cheated out of office: it is the reason they exist. The revulsion felt by members of this minority sect for conspiracies to invest the wrong man with authority is so fierce and deep-seated, that even if Supreme Leader Khamene’i and his “beloved son” Mahmud Ahmadinejad manage to crush the present unrest in Iran under the heel of the Basiji boot, the long-term ramifications of this post-electoral “incident” may well shake the Islamic Republic to its foundations. This visceral Shi‘ite revulsion against “electoral fraud” goes back to the earliest days of Islamic history, and so, briefly, must we.

When the Prophet Muhammad died almost fifteen centuries ago, a vocal minority of Muslims argued that his cousin and son-in-law Ali was the individual most worthy of succeeding him (the popular Muslim compound name “Muhammad-Ali” is even said by some to reflect this pristine claim). Ali, they insisted, was the most pious and learned of the new religion’s adherents, was a military champion who had led the forces of the faith to victory after victory, and was, moreover, the man explicitly designated by the Prophet as his heir.

But the hopes of this “Faction of Ali” – shi‘at ‘Ali in Arabic or just Shi‘a for short – were destined to be dashed, and on more than one occasion. First, a troika of Muslim kingmakers took advantage of the confusion following the Prophet’s death in 632 CE to ram through the “election” of one of their number to the vacant leadership position. With Ali absent from the scene – he was doing his duty as a good Muslim and close relative by washing Muhammad’s corpse – the strongman Umar pressured and manipulated the assembled believers into approving his crony Abu Bakr for the newly created post of caliph. He then used force to quell the opposition of Ali’s supporters to this high-handed maneuver, going so far as to employ physical violence against Fatima, Ali’s wife and Muhammad’s daughter, in an attempt to extract the oath of allegiance from her and from her husband. This, at any rate, is how the Shi‘ites tell the story, and it is a story that every Shi‘ite Muslim child grows up on.

In the years to come Abu Bakr returned the political favor, appointing Umar his successor just before dying, while Ali and his backers were increasingly forced out of public life. Ali’s second chance came in 656 CE, when Umar’s successor, Uthman, was assassinated, and the angry mob surrounding his house – composed of protesters against the regime’s policies who had streamed into the capital from the four corners of the Muslim empire – hoisted Ali onto its shoulders and unanimously declared him the next caliph. But the members of the “old boy’s club” still weren’t having it, and Ali, “the people’s choice,” soon saw his mandate evaporate in the face of their relentless machinations. Eventually, he succumbed to the blade of an assassin.

The Shi‘ite saga continued with Ali’s son, Husayn, who unfurled the banner of resistance to a Muslim political establishment (now in the guise of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty) that he believed had gone wildly off course from the moment it usurped his father’s prerogative. The uprising was crushed, Husayn and nearly all male members of his family were butchered on the Iraqi plain of Karbala, and the severed head of this grandson of the Prophet was conveyed to Damascus where it was grotesquely abused by the reigning caliph.

The spirit of defiance did not, however, die with Husayn; it grew stronger. Not long after the debacle at Karbala several thousand partisans of the “family of the Prophet,” after having beaten themselves bloody in atonement for failing to rescue Husayn in his hour of need, participated in a hopeless charge against the entire Umayyad army, perishing en masse. In decades to come the Islamic world would witness rebellion after rebellion in the name of Ali and Husayn and the values they had preached. Most of these movements were easily suppressed, but one of them snowballed and, exploiting the by then well-worn slogan: “O Ali, O Husayn!”, brought the Umayyad regime crashing down. This was the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE – a revolution made to rectify the betrayal of Muhammad’s original revolution – and when it, too, deviated from its declared ideals, a new series of “Alid” and “Husaynid” revolts rocked the Abbasid regime to its core.

Is all this history relevant? Everyone who believed that it wasn’t suffered the previous century’s most stinging slap in the face in the form of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a massive upheaval unprecedented in modern times, both the content and form of which were profoundly influenced by Shi‘ite religio-historical paradigms. In a matter of months the Shah metamorphosed into the hated Umayyad caliph Yazid, Khomeini became Yazid’s holy victim Husayn, and the uprising of the Iranian people in dozens of cities across the country rapidly assumed the character of an ever-burgeoning Muharram procession (the commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom). Nor was this the first time in modern Iranian history that the events which gave birth to the Shi‘ite branch of Islam – the dispossession, oppression and murder of Ali and Husayn – functioned as a model for a major national convulsion. From the Constitutional Revolt of 1905-11, through the Pahlavi-Mosaddeq struggle of the early 1950s, to the widespread protests against the Shah’s “White Revolution” in 1963, the traumatic foundational episodes of Shi‘ism have not just been invoked, but have lent their color, passion and even structure to the movements as a whole. There is nothing surprising about this: each of these modern day conflicts revolved, at base, around the question of rightful authority and its illegitimate appropriation by elements viewed as tyrannical, and, as we have seen, struggling to restore the deserving candidate to the office stolen from him by tyrants is the religion of Shi‘ism’s raison d’etre.

So here we are again, today, with yet another Ali – Ali Montazeri – and another Husayn – Mir Husayn Mousavi. Although Ayatollah Montazeri was slated by Ayatollah Khomeini to accede to the post of “Guardian Jurist” directly after him, differences with the leadership led to Montazeri’s fall from grace and, eventually, to his decade-long languishment under house arrest. Ayatollah Khamene‘i – the far less learned and far less qualified “Abu Bakr” to Montazeri’s “Ali” – was installed in his stead, through the good offices of Ayatollah Rafsanjani, whom we might style the revolution’s “Umar” (Rafsanjani may well succeed Khamene’i as Supreme Leader – as Umar did Abu Bakr – and though he is often linked to the reformist camp, his own daughter having been arrested for participating in the protests, nevertheless, a week after the presidential election this Chairman of the Assembly of Experts signed onto an official letter supporting Khamene’i’s position and condoning his conduct in the present crisis). Montazeri has occasionally violated his somewhat porous gag order to support “reformist” causes in the past, and he has now thrown all his weight behind the “oppressed” figure of Mousavi. Mir Husayn Mousavi, like his seventh century namesake, has (in the eyes of his supporters) been denied his rightful leadership role and is being persecuted for his unwillingness to concede quietly and fade away. For today’s radicalized Iranian reformists, then, the good guys evoke Shi‘ite heroes, the bad guys Sunni villains (indeed, for years those figures most closely tied to Khomeini’s ideological and political legacy – such as Ayatollah Tavassoli, who dropped dead last year on the Expediency Council floor while vociferating against the abuse of Khomeini’s grandson, or Ayatollah Taheri-Esfahani, who has just pronounced the recent presidential elections “null and void” – have been berating Iranian establishment figures such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and even Supreme Leader Khamene’i himself for deviating from and betraying the founder’s principles, going so far as to assert that they were hostile to Khomeini’s revolutionary project from the outset, and have now, ironically and tragically, gained the reins of power. Such usages immediately conjure up in the Shi‘ite consciousness images of the Umayyad usurpation).

The point here is not to play name games, but to indicate that the classic Shi‘ite religio-historical pattern is already weaving its way into current events. The color green, the rhetoric of zalem and mazlum (“oppressor” and “oppressed”), the cries of demonstrators that “Tehran is Karbala!”, Mousavi’s declaration of his willingness to die the death of a shahid (martyr) – all of these are unmistakable appeals to the ancient Ali-Husayn paradigm, a paradigm that, rather than diminishing with the passage of time, grows more effective each time it is applied to a novel situation.

This last point represents another element integral to this regularly resurrected Shi‘ite archetype: its patience and persistence. Husayn’s original rebellion failed utterly, as did the insurrections and mutinies carried out in his name in the generations that followed. But each defeat strengthened the Shi‘ites, each instance of mass martyrdom added new layers and dimensions to the Husayn tragedy, until it burgeoned into an enormous, crushing juggernaut. This has been the case in modern times, as well: the marchers for Mosaddeq (1953) also invoked – in addition to the classic model of Ali and Husayn – the trials of the fallen champions of the Constitutional Revolution (1907). The throngs of protesters against the Shah’s “White Revolution” (1963) referenced both the marchers for Mosaddeq and the Constitutional Revolutionaries. And the teeming masses that sent the Pahlavi monarch packing in 1979 inflamed themselves and others by means of passionate allusions to all three previous abortive attempts. This is the Shi‘ite way: every failure to redress injustice compounds that injustice, until the body-politic can tolerate no more and the explosion becomes unavoidable.

The same predilection for recollection is on display in the exploitation of the “mourning cycle.” Shi‘ites commemorate the passing of their loved ones on the fourth, seventh and fortieth days after death, and such commemorations – especially that of the arba’in or fortieth day – in many ways forged the rhythm of the Iranian Revolution: mourners marching in memory of those killed by the Shah’s troops in earlier demonstrations were themselves mercilessly mowed down, and forty days later their own deaths were honored by even vaster crowds, whose breasts were again pierced by the army’s bullets – and so on until victory. In the present crisis Mousavi has already taken advantage of the fourth day memorial for the deceased, asking his supporters to wear black in the Thursday street processions to lament the protesters who lost their lives on the Monday after the elections. That which kills Shi‘ites makes them stronger.

Khamene’i and Ahmadinejad and their Basiji thugs will probably win the current round. Despite the minor cracks beginning to show in the edifice of the government – Parliamentary president Ali Larijani’s accusations of fraud, repression and bias leveled at the highest echelons of the ruling apparatus is only the latest example (though Larijani has hardly moved over to the reformist camp) – the Supreme Leader still commands sufficient authority to employ overwhelming force against the demonstrators (the Pasdaran or Revolutionary Guard has yet to be called in, and even the Basij has so far shown relative restraint). Moreover, faith and tradition are mustered with great effect by the authorities no less than they are by the opposition: Ayatollah Khamene’i (whose given name happens to be a compound of both Ali and Husayn) wielded religio-historical symbols masterfully in his much touted Friday sermon, at one point bringing the politicians, clerics and generals sitting in the front rows of his audience to typical Shi‘ite tears. He then backed up his appeals to the religious conscience of his hearers by threatening the use of force. Mousavi may have God on his side, but Khamene’i has God and the Revolutionary Guards.

The loss of the present battle, however, only increases the chances of an eventual triumph in the overall war. Mousavi’s quashed rebellion will fester in the Iranian national and religious consciousness, and will join the failed protests of 1999 and 2003 to create a vast reservoir of, as it were, “Husaynid” resentment. The monster of injustice will feed hungrily on this latest deception and crackdown, and will eventually grow so stout that he cannot be ignored and must be slain.

But herein lies the rub, for Mousavi’s mutineers have no clear idea of what this monster is. Is it the Ahmadinejad government? Is it the hard-line osul-gara or “fundamentalist” camp? Is it the excessive power of the regime’s theocratic dimension? Is it the Islamic Republic as a whole? The Mousavi camp also harbors no coherent ideas about what to replace the monster with. If the protesters’ demands are limited to the holding of new elections, then they have little chance of seeing those demands met: as long as the current theo-political constellation remains in power, new elections are unlikely. Moreover, even if a new election is granted, and even if Mousavi wins that election, very little of substance will have changed in Iran. Steam will have been let off, grievances will have been redressed, but far from being shaken, the stability of the regime and its oppressive theocratic leadership might actually be bolstered by such a turn of events.

If, on the other hand, the tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets and their millions of sympathizers across the country aspire to a more fundamental transformation in the way their country is ruled, then neither they nor any of their leaders has formulated a compelling vision of what such a transformation might entail. No alternative system or ideology has to date been proposed, let alone propagated, by any of the participants in this latest set of “disturbances.” Without this essential ingredient, neither Ali nor Husayn nor anyone else will succeed in changing the character of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian opposition may someday be in a position to ride the epic wave of “Ali-Husaynist” resentment to victory over the hard-line Islamist cleritocracy, but to do so successfully, it must know what it is fighting for – not just what it is fighting against.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Ze’ev Maghen
Prof. Ze’ev Maghen

Prof. Ze’ev Maghen is a professor of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research asociate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]