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Wilāyat al-Faqīh

Roy P. Mottahedeh, Joseph A. Kéchichian
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Wilāyat al-Faqīh

The term wilāyat al-faqīh in Arabic, or vilāyat-i faqīh in Persian, gained wide currency in the Shīʿī world when it was used as the title for the published version of the lectures delivered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) in 1969 to his students in Najaf. It means “the guardianship of the jurist”, and when the jurist Khomeini came to power in 1979 and became the supreme arbiter of all matters of government in Iran, it became clear to the Islamic world as a whole that such guardianship was one route to an ideal espoused by many contemporary Muslims, namely, Islamic government.

The term resonated in the example of the first imam, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 656), who is called by Shīʿīs “Walī Allāh,” which means both “the Friend of God” and “the Vicegerent of God.” Moreover, the phrase also has a kinship to the saying attributed by many Muslims, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, to the prophet Muḥammad: “The ʿulamāʿ [people of religious learning] are the heirs of the prophets.” Some Muslims assume that this saying implies the inheritance by the ʿulamāʿ of direct government by the Prophet.

Origins of the Concept.

The specific background of the theory of wilāyat al-faqīh, however, is to be found in developments in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Twelver Shīʿī thought, which made the issue of central leadership more prominent. The Uṣūlī school of Twelver Shiism, which developed in the middle of the eighteenth century and achieved predominance by the middle of the nineteenth century, gave the exclusive right to interpret Islamic law to the mujtahids, experts who claim that their authority extends back in an unbroken chain of teacher-disciple recognition to the infallible imams. As the rank of mujtahid was passed on only to a very few pupils by existing mujtahids, it was seldom—if ever—held by as many as two hundred people. Among the mujtahids, a few of the most prominent put out manuals interpreting basic practice for ordinary believers, who are obliged by Uṣūlī legal theory to choose one of these few as a marjaʿ al-taqlīd (source of emulation). Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Anṣārī, thanks to his intellectual predominance, achieved wide recognition as the leading source of emulation before his death in 1864. He therefore received from all over the Twelver Shīʿī world the contributions payable to the Hidden Imam, which, according to Uṣūlī theory, went in his absence to the “sources of emulation.” Another “source of emulation,” Mirzā Ḥasan Shīrāzī (d. 1896), showed the political muscle of this office when, following his 1891 ruling, he forced the ruler of Iran, Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh (r. 1848–1896), to cancel a tobacco concession to the British. However, it was only while Ayatollah Moḥammad Ḥosayn Borujerdi was the “source of emulation” from 1947 to 1962 that it became clear that one man could turn this office into authority over the overwhelming majority of Twelver Shīʿīs.

If this office in some sense represented the authority of the absent Twelfth Imam, who is, according to Twelver Shīʿīs, their infallible leader, this meant that the supreme “source of emulation” also had the worldly authority of the Twelfth Imam. Ḥājj Mullā Aḥmad Nirāqī (d. 1828 or 1829) drew this conclusion very early in the nineteenth century, and Khomeini often referred to Nirāqī. Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Anṣārī, who had studied with Nirāqī and was aware of the potential political implications of the newly expanded role of the “source of emulation” (called, for continuity with traditional Islamic legal sources, simply the faqīh, or jurist), devoted a lengthy discussion in his masterwork, Al-makāsib, to refuting the theory of the guardianship of the jurist.

Khomeini's Political Interpretation.

Since al-Makāsib was a work on commercial law, it became a tradition to treat this subject in the context of discussions of the authority of the jurist-judge over the expenditure of moneys. Khomeini, in a section of his Book on Sale (1970), opens the discussion with a direct quote from al-Anṣārī: “Among the guardians over the expenditure of money of the person who does not have independence in the expenditure of his or her money [e.g., a minor] is the judge. He is the jurist with all the qualifications to issue a fatwā [authoritative opinion].” To these words Khomeini adds: “It would not be wrong to turn one's attention to the guardianship of the jurist in general, in a summary way. A detailed discussion would require devoting an independent treatise to this subject, which the present scope of our work does not permit us to do.” The lectures he delivered on this subject were published simultaneously in a somewhat more popular form in Najaf, first as pamphlets as the lectures were completed, then in book form.

The resulting book, Vilāyat-i faqīh, which bears the subtitle hukūmat-i Islāmī (Islamic Government), argues that it is incumbent on Muslims to establish such government, and that it is incumbent on jurists to assume all the tasks that the Prophet Muḥammad had performed, including direct rule. In the version published in pamphlets, Khomeini is said to have restated the traditional view of Uṣūlī Twelver Shīʿīs that every mujtahid, the exact equivalent for faqīh in this context, must follow his own judgment, which would imply that no mujtahid need defer to another in matters of government. The book version, however, states that if one faqīh possessing knowledge and moral integrity undertakes the task of government, “he will possess the same authority as the Most Noble Messenger [of God, i.e., Muḥammad], and it will be the duty of all people to obey him.”

Uṣūlī theory ideally embodied leadership in a single person, such as Ayatollah Borujerdi, who was called “the absolute source of emulation,” and hence made it conceivable (if not necessary) that a faqīh be the final source of all authority. But Khomeini's assertion that all, even mujtahids, should submit to such a faqīh continues to be a contested point among Shīʿī clergymen. For example, the Iraqi clergyman Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, in one of the lectures written shortly before his death in April 1980, developed a similar interpretation of the role of the faqīh, and Ṣadr's eloquent exposition of this theme, alongside the success of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, made the theory of the guardianship of the jurist known in the Sunnī world.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence after the 1979 Iranian Revolution was evident in the new constitution for the country, with articles 5 and 107 (which are not fully consonant with each other), treating the leadership of a single faqīh as the norm. The document says that “only in the event that no faqīh should be so recognized by the majority” should a “source of emulation possessing outstanding qualification” be chosen for this position. If such a candidate cannot be found, three or five “sources of emulation” would form a leadership council. When Khomeini found that his chosen successor as supreme faqīh, Ayatollah Ḥusayn ʿAlī Muntaẓirī, often opposed his policies, he got Muntaẓirī to withdraw from the succession. Such a withdrawal might imply that the faqīh recognized by so many as possessing qualities of knowledge and leadership suddenly no longer possessed these qualities. Khomeini, recognizing the strain that such change put on the clergy and ordinary believers, called for a revision of the constitution some months before his death in 1989. Khomeini also advised that the qualification that the religious leader be a “source of emulation” be dropped from the constitution.

The updated constitution, presented to Iranians shortly after Khomeini's death, duly dropped this qualification. The circle around Khomeini reported that on his deathbed Khomeini recognized an important political figure, ʿAlī Khameneʿi (who had not completed the highest level of training as a theological student), as a mujtahid, now the sole requirement for a national spiritual leader of Iran; Khameneʿi assumed that position. Given the problem inherent in the disjunction between the political theory of the guardianship of the jurist and the actual hierarchy among Shīʿī clergymen was emphasized by the Iranian government's attempt to persuade the public that they should accept Ayatollah Muḥammad ʿAlī Arākī, a very pious mujtahid in his nineties, to be the leading “source of emulation,” although Arākī had not previously aspired to be recognized as a “source of emulation” by even a minority of Shīʿīs, beginning an interesting discussion of the meaning of the guardianship of the jurist, in which some theorists have argued that the voice of the people is the voice of God and the true source of the authority of the faqīh.

Recent Re-evaluations.

In the early twenty-first century Muḥsin Kadīvar has written the most discussed book on the guardianship of the jurist. In it he considers the subject from all aspects of Shīʿī learning, including the ḥadīth ascribed to the Prophet and the Imams, theology, mysticism, and jurisprudence. In none of these areas does he find substantiation for the claim that the guardianship of the jurist is more than a trusteeship for legally incapable persons, such as minors. Even in this narrower sense, there is no consensus among the jurists. Kadīvar shows that the presumption of Islamic law has been that there is no guardianship except for a few cases, such as administration of the estate of a deceased person. Attempts to legitimize the guardianship of the jurist on theological grounds such as God's justice, which in the Shīʿī view requires the existence of an Imam, implying the need for a just faqīh in the absence of the Imam, would undermine the theory of the imamate, as there would be no distinction between a fallible jurist and an infallible Imam. The thrust of Kadīvar's argument is that there is no specific form of government mandated by Islam. If there is to be an element of wilāyah in the government, it should be “elective” (intikhābī) and not, as hitherto, “mandated” (intiṣābī).

There have been many defenders of the guardianship of the jurist. One of the most prominent is Ayatollah ʿAbdallāh Javādī-āmolī, one of the conservative young clergymen favored by Khomeini, who connects the theory of wilāyat al-faqīh with theological and philosophical themes in order to make it a primary necessity of religion. Still, later echoes of the theory of the guardianship of the jurist that have been heard among the Muslim Brothers, a Sunnī organization, indicate that the theory in a diffuse form has caught the attention of Muslims. The difficulty of transferring the theory to the Sunnī world, however, is that there are very few parallels to the comparatively hierarchical clergy of Twelver Shīʿī.



  • Anṣārī, Murtaḍā al-. Kitāb al-Makāsib. Vol. 2. Qom, 1991. Contains his refutation of the guardianship of the jurist (pp. 80–100). Find it in your Library
  • Dabashi, Hamid. “Early Propagation of Wilāyat-i Faqīh and Mullā Aḥmad Nirāqī.” In Expectation of the Millennium: Shiism in History, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, pp. 287–300. Presents the early history of the theory. Find it in your Library
  • Javādī-āmolī, ʿAbdallāh. Vilāyat-i faqīh: vilāyat-i fuqāhat va ʿadālat. Qom, 1999. Find it in your Library
  • Kadīvar, Muḥsin. Ḥukūmat-i vilāyī. Tehran, 1998. Find it in your Library
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. Contains a complete translation of Khomeini's treatise on government, which includes his assertion that mujtahids should defer to the jurist who has actual leadership (p. 62). Find it in your Library
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi. Kitāb al-Bayʿ. vol. 2, pp. 459–539. Qom, n.d. Find it in your Library
  • Maghnīyah, Muḥammad Jawād al-. Al-Khumaynī wa-al-dawlah Islāmīyah. Beirut, 1979. Critiques the guardianship of the jurist from a traditional standpoint. Find it in your Library
  • Mallat, Chibli. The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer Ṣadr, Najaf, and the Shīʿī International. Cambridge, U.K., 1993. Compares the ideas of Ṣadr and Khomeini on Islamic government. Find it in your Library
  • Modarressi, Hossein. “The Just Ruler or the Guardian Jurist: An Attempt to Link Two Different Shiʿite Concepts.”Journal of the American Oriental Society111, no. 3 (1991): 549–562. Find it in your Library
  • Moussavi, A.“A New Interpretation of the Theory of Velāyat-e faqīh.”Middle Eastern Studies28, no. 1 (1992): 101–107. Revisionist approach to the concept. Find it in your Library
  • Muntaẓirī, Ḥusayn ʿAlī. Dirāsāt fī wilāyat al-faqīh wa-fiqh al-dawlah al-Islāmīyah. vol. 1–4. Qom, 1988–1992. Revisionist treatment. Find it in your Library
  • Muṭahharī, Murtaẓā. Valāʿhā va Vilayāt-hā. Qom, 1983. Discusses the concept of wilāyah in Shiism. Find it in your Library
  • Sachedina, A. A.The Just Ruler (al-Sulṭān al-ʿĀdil) in Shīʿite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence. New York, 1988. Contains a discussion of the concept of wilāyah in Shiism; should be read in conjunction with Modarressi (1991). Find it in your Library
  • Tafṣīl va taḥlīl-i vilāyat al-faqīh. N.p., n.d. Anonymous text, usually ascribed to Mehdi Bāzargān, critiquing Khomeini's broader understanding of the guardianship of the jurist. Published by Nahẓat-e Āzādī. Find it in your Library
  • Tehrani, Mahdi Hadavi and Hossein Pirnajmuddin. The Theory of the Governance of Jurist (Wilayat al-Faqih). London: Islamic Centre of England, 2004. Find it in your Library
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