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Wilāyah

By:
Najam Haider
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Wilāyah

Wilāyah, a nominal form of the Arabic verbal root w-l-y, carries a variety of meanings ranging from assistance and friendship to authority and power. Derived from the same root are the terms walī and mawlā, which were used for a variety of concepts in the early Islamic period. The former denoted an individual's position as “next of kin,” his status as a “guardian,” or—in mystical texts—his status as a saint or “friend” of God. The latter bore similar meanings but also designated the subordinate non-Arab client in a constructed social partnership.

In Imāmī Shiism, wilāyah (or the variant form walāyah) conveys the special status and devotion accorded to the twelve Imams. Specifically, the Shīʿa believe that the Prophet's son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib succeeded him as the bearer of spiritual and (ideally) temporal authority. One of the primary proofs forwarded for this claim was Muḥammad's pronouncement that “Of whomever I am the mawlā, ʿAlī is the mawlā” during his final pilgrimage at a place known as Ghadīr Khumm. According to the Shīʿah, this event marked the designation of ʿAlī as the Prophet's successor (walī), endowing him with an authority and spiritual guardianship over believers that subsequently passed to eleven of his lineal descendants.

The occultation of the twelfth imam in 260 AH (874 CE) presented Imāmī Shiism with a major challenge. Initially, the community upheld his sole legitimate authority in all religious and temporal matter but—as the period of occultation progressed—Imāmī scholars (of an Uṣūlī or rationalist tendency) increasingly assumed the functional powers of the Imām, with some claiming that the juristic class held the position of general vicegerent (nāʿib ʿāmm) of the Hidden Imam. Al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī, writing early in the thirteenth century, spoke of jurists as having a guardianship of the Imamate (walaʿ al-imāmah). (See Akhbārīyah.)

Historically, the vast majority of Shīʿī scholars were political quietists and did not challenge the authority structures of their day. The shahs of the Shīʿī Ṣafavid dynasty (1501–1722) in Iran went so far as to claim to be the house of wilāyah or authority themselves. The great Imāmī jurisprudent Murtaḍā al-Anṣārī (d. 1864) rejected the notions that religious scholars enjoyed the same authority (wilāyah) as the Imam or that secular governments could exercise such authority. The doctrines of the absolute sovereignty or wilāyah of the Imam and the general vicegerency of the jurists on his behalf, however, provided a basis for some scholars to claim a wider breadth of secular authority even over aspects of secular governance. The anti-constitutionalist cleric Shaykh Faz¨lullāh Nūrī rejected the idea of modern parliamentary representation in 1907–1908 precisely on the grounds that it would intrude on the prerogative of the Imam to exercise wilāyah.

From being a relatively obscure term in Imāmī Shīʿī theology and law, wilāyah was lifted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to worldwide prominence. In his 1971 book, Islamic Government or the Wilāyah of the Jurisprudent, Khomeini argued that, as representatives of the Hidden Imam, religious jurists had a responsibility to take control of governmental authority (wilāyah) in jihād and the enjoining of good and forbidding of evil—all state functions in most Muslim countries. For Khomeini, the guardianship of the jurisprudent (wilāyah al-faqīh) implied the end of any separation of religion and state. Whereas the general vicegerency of the jurists on behalf of the Hidden Imam had been exercised collectively, Khomeini envisaged a single jurist-guardian as a sort of Platonic philosopher-ruler. He insisted that if any jurisprudent succeeded in founding such a government and ruled according to Shīʿī law, it would be incumbent on all believers to follow him.

After the Islamic revolution of 1978–1979, the principle of wilāyah al-faqīh was enshrined in Article 5 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The supreme jurisprudent emerged with very broad and somewhat undefined powers; he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to dismiss certain high officers of the state. Toward the end of his life Khomeini even suggested that the supreme jurisprudent could properly suspend laws of Islam, such as the commandment to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. A less activist interpretation of the office has been offered since 1989 by Khomeini's successor, ʿAlī Khameneʿi.

See also IMāM; ITHNā ʿASHARīYAH; VICEGERENT; WALāYAH; and WILāYAT AL-FAQīH.

Bibliography

  • Akhavi, Shahrough, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran. Albany, N.Y., 1980.
  • Calder, Norman. “The Structures of Authority in Imāmī Shīʿī Jurisprudence.” Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1980. An unpublished dissertation which offers a sound overview of Shīʿī notions of authority.
  • Dien, Mawil, and Paul Walker. “Wilāya.”Encyclopedia of Islam. 2d ed., vol. 11. Edited by P. J. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Vilāyat-i faqīh: Ḥukūmat-i Islāmī. Tehran, 1979.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.
  • Modarressi, Hossein. “The Just Ruler or the Guardian Jurist.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111 (1991): 549–562. This work is a review of Sachedina's The Just Ruler.
  • Sachedina, A. A.The Just Ruler. New York and Oxford, 1988.
  • Takim, Liyakat. “From Bidʿa to Sunna: The Wilāyah of ʿAlī in the Shīʿī Adhān.”Journal of the American Oriental Society120 (2000): 166–177. A piece focusing on the evolving view of wilāyah as embodied in an aspect of Imāmī ritual law.
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