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Shi'i leadership paradigms and the marja` at-taqlid, "clerical exemplar" or "religious guide."

Reforming the Marja` at-Taqlid:
The Baha'i Example

by Linda Walbridge

The Bahá'í Faith grew out of the messianic Babi Movement that began in 1844. While the founder of Babism, Ali Muhammad, the Bab, fit the model of other Shi'ite reformers and claimants to the title of Mahdi, the prophet/founder of the Bahá'í religion, Mirza Hussein Nuri, Bahá'u'lláh, presents a different pattern of leadership. While he and his followers experienced intense persecution, he himself was not martyred. He lived to a relatively old age. Thoughout much of his adult life he was, first, the leader (whether officially or not) of the Babis after the execution of the Bab, a holy man/lawgiver, and a social reformer. Drawing on models of Shi'i leadership as well as modern, western administration, he sought to provide the world with an orderly, rational system that combined democratic principles with sacred leadership. In a sense, this amounted to an Imamate with a parliament. While the Bahá'í Faith is now an independent religion that has spread worldwide and lost a great deal of its Shi'i "flavor" it is possible to see this religion as an experiment in Shi'i reformation, especially in terms of how the religion is administered.

Reforminst/modernist Shi'a, in attempting to bring their institutions in line with rationalist modes of organization are currently discussing some of the same themes that Bahá'u'lláh and his successors, Abdu'l Baha (Abbas Effendi) and Shoghi Effendi Rohani, addressed. It is instructive to look at the model(s) that have emerged in this religion in order to see the possible directions that both the Shi'a and the Bahá'í communities may follow. This paper will deal with some comparisons between the Marja'iyya and Bahá'í institutions. It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive, detailed comparison but one that should provoke thought and discussion in both communities.

Becoming a Marja' Taqlid

Before proceding with the comparison, it may be helpful to briefly discuss how one becomes the leader of the Shi'i community. In theory one mujtahid is supposed to be so outstanding in knowledge and piety that he will surpass everyone and be recognized by his peers as the focal point, the one that all Shi'a will then emulate. Traditionally there are no elections. There simply is someone so obvious that the Shi'a will simply turn to him. He is the representative of the imam and as such should have a certain sanctity about him. Whether or not he does depends on whether or not the Shi'a will grant him this sanctity. He does not have it by virtue of an office. He has it because people are willing to accept him as having it.

Sometimes there are these truly obvious mujtahids whose degree of knowledge is really unsurpassed. It is generally stated, for example, that Ayatollah Burujerdi was the marja' taqlid of the Shi'i world. Ayatollahs Hakim and Khu'i in Najaf are also referred to as men who were the sole maraja' of their time.

In practice it never works like this. There are always multiple maraja. Even when Borujerdi was alive there most of the Arabs followed Hakim. While Hakim was the senior marja' in Najaf, there were those in the Isphahan are who were following Abul Qasim Isfahani. Also, during Hakim's reign, there were others, such as Mehdi Shirazi, the father of Mohammad Shirazi, the spiritual head of the Amal movement of Iraq who now lives in Qom, who was the recognized marja' of Karbala. Often we have major maraja and minor ones. Minor ones will often be local maraja'. At other times there is fearsome competition between major figures as in the case of Khu'i and Khomeini. And today there is considerable competition among several men in Iran and Iraq.

Be that as it may, the Shi'a themselves tend to ignore these rivalries and considerations and follow a marja' as if he were the only one. When they are aware of the fact that there are rivalries, they downplay this. As long as the rivalries are not political, they are comfortable with having the competition, a competition that is ultimately alleviated as the senior ayatollahs die, leaving only one as the senior living mujtahid. Such was the case when Ayatollah Gulpaygani became recognized as THE marja'taqlid after the deaths of Shariatmadari, Marashi-Najafi, Khomeini, and Khu'i.

What does the marja' do? The marja's activities are limited in terms of where he performs them and the variety of activities in which he engages. He teaches in one of the hawzas found in the holy cities these days he will be found in either Najaf or Qom and he writes a great deal. He is judged by both of these activities. The more students he has and the more prolific he is the more respect he has. He also has to be prolific in another way - he should have an abudance of children. The marja' needs sons, sons in law, and students to spread his marja'iyya. He sends them to all areas of the Shii world so that they can spread his reputation and also collect religious taxes, khums. The khums goes to the central treasury of that particular marja' and then gets redistributed. This money goes to building mosques and charitable establishments or can be used to help the Shi'i communities in times of great need. The more redistribution that occurs, linked to his name, the more prestige he receives. The greater his prestige and following, the more khums he collects. Of course, his sons and students will be among the greatest beneficiaries. In anthropological terms the marja' is somewhere on the continuum between a Big Man and a chief.

Is the marja' infallible? To certain Shi'a, especially those who are very ulama oriented such as members of the Hizbullah, yes, the marja' is infallible. To those who are very close to the marja', such as his relatives and others who work closely with him, he is not. For those who are quite distant physcially or intellectually, again, he is not. infallible.

The marja'iyya is, above all else, extremely informal. It is very much linked on traditional kinship networks and on the M.E. image of the grand patriarch - the great charismatic figure. People are going to vie to be closely related to this patriarch or chief. Marriages are carefully arranged and so you find a network of ulama who are related through marriage.

What is so interesting to us is that young Islamists - especially those who were strongly influenced by the late Baqir as SAdr and today by Seyyid Fadlallah in Lebanon are looking to institutionalize the marja'iyya; i.e, institutionalize the charisma. They contend that the current system leads to abuse of power and corruption - that there is no accountability. Who gets to decide how money is spent? What limits are placed on sons and sons-in-law who have their own charisma?

The issue of sons and power becomes particularly thorny when there are half siblings involved, which is often the case, since polygynous marriages are generally considered the prerogative of men in such positions. Rivalries among wives and their children are commonplace in these households as in any polygynous household. Issues of who controls the money is particularly vexing in such cases. While the marja'taqlid is not a hereditary institution (unlike the imamship), there are times when families will select one son as being promising for the role of the marja', such as in the case of the late Yousif Hakim who was killed by Saddam, generally sons are not seen as possible contenders. They are the eyes, ears and hands of the marja'.

The Situation in the Bahá'í Community

In the Babi/Bahá'í model, the central figures of the Faith are more in the order of imams than prophets, though in different ways. The Bab relied on his seyyid status for some of his prestige and stays very much within the confines of the Shi'i paradigm. He breaks with laws and traditions but, in some ways, no more radically than certain mujtahids have in the past hundred years or so. As mentioned earlier, Bahá'u'lláh's role is more complex. He is generally seen as the prophet in the true sense of the word - the one who breaks out of the old paradigm and starts something new. Yet, even Bahá'u'lláh follows in the pattern of the imam. He is not a seyyid but he is of royal blood. (a descendent of Yazdigard) and this lineage is seen as important in asserting his station. He was not famous by virtue of going out among the flock and preaching. He did not use his own oratorical skills or his personal charm to gain followers. Instead, he used his writings, his sons and his "students" - an entourage of close followers to spread his message. Bahá'u'lláh had three important "sons," Abdu'l Baha, Muhammad Ali, and the Greatest Holy Leaf. The latter can be referred to as a son, because in M.E. terms she did the work of a son and, by virtue of the fact that she never married, she could take on the role of an honorary male. It is through these individuals that the world comes to know Bahá'u'lláh, as well as through his writings.

Abdu'l Baha is very much like a sons of Ayatollah Hakim, the grand marja' in Najaf who died in 1970, in that they were generally loved and revered. He does not exactly take on the mantle of his father, yet, neither is he just a wakil (representative). Like some of the Hakim sons he has his own basis of power, yet also shares in the charisma of his father. Abdu'l Baha is more than sufficient to keep together the bulk of the community in spite of the competition he has from his half-brother, Mohammad Ali, whose mother was apparently quite active in the promotion of her son.

Problems really come when Abdu'l Baha died and left no sons. He is able to keep most of the family together, yet, I daresay that it was the activities of the Greatest Holy Leaf and Monireh Khanum who are very crucial here as well. It is after their deaths that the real breaks in the family occur. The critical patriarchal figure was gone and there was nothing to really bind the family together. Shoghi Effendi was merely one of a number of grandsons, albeit the eldest. But, while he was at Oxford his cousins were at the American University of Beirut, putting him a bit outside the family and certainly orienting him towards the West and away from the thinking of the Middle East

So, what was Shoghi Effendi? Was he an imam? Was he a marja'? In some respects he is neither. He is not the grand old learned man. One could say he was "just a kid" when he assumed the role of leader of the Faith. The Shi'a become furious when a young man tries to attain the marja'iyya. Mohammad Shirazi tried it during the lifetime of Hakim and has never been forgiven. Yet, in some respects he was the marja'. He was the leader of the community. But he ventured out of that role as well and took upon himself far more than any marja has ever dared to do. The maraja' have generally restricted themselves to writing voluminously on the most minute details of people's ritual lives. Of course, in recent years some of them have also seen it as their role to lead a charge against a particularly hated regime as in the case in Iran and Iraq. But Shoghi Effendi went behond that. He tried to structure the entire life of the Bahá'í community. Whereas in the Shi'i system people had, in practice if not in theory, a choice of whom to follow and whether or not to follow, this choice was totally obliterated with Shoghi Effendi. People had one source and one source alone and that was Shoghi Effendi. Shoghi Effendi, in an attempt to bring the "marja'iyya" into the modern world tried to make a Western style institution out of it, to regularize it and to ensure that the community acted as an organic whole led firmly and uniformly by one individual so that it couldn't disintegrate into sects.

Yet, even Shoghi Effendi - who seemed determined to break with the Middle East system of doing things - understood the importance of marriage and kinship. He initially tried to work with his cousins Ruhi and Suheil, but this broke down, especially after the deaths of his parents, his great aunt and grandmother. He knew that preserving the image of the sanctity of the family was important for keeping some symbolic solidarity at the top. Hence, his criticism of the mariage of "a low-born Christian girl."

Shoghi Effendi, in fact, had to work with two models simultaneously - a Middle East one and a Western one - and they were bound to conflict eventually. Yet, this is not completely an East/West divide. While the Iranians were far less likely to enthusisastically accept the administrative order that Shoghi Effendi was constructing than were the Bahá'ís of the West, the Western Bahá'ís were not altogether ready to relinquish the charismatic model that the Faith had originally been built on. So, there is a fuzziness in the issue of leadership.

Shoghi Effendi's death led to what might have simply been a parliamentary form of leadership. However, instead of simply endowing it with temporal leadership powers, the UHJ was also endowed with a sense of sanctity and infallibility. Probably the fact that there was no guardianship to co-exist with the House of Justice, emphasized its sense of "sacredness." Also, the fact that House of Justice members tend to spend many years as members of this institution, bestows on them as individuals a sense of sacredness and infallibility..Furthermore, even at this stage kinship networks are not altogether eliminated. We have the Nakjavanis, the Bananis and the Woolcots, for example.

The use of "khums"

The importance of the way in which khums is used is of extreme importance in the marja'iyya. It has to be used in ways that the Shi'a can benefit. If it is not, the people will complain and not pay khums. People who pay large amounts of khums are recognized publicly by the ulama and given special treatment. This encourages them to give more. So long as the khums is being used in a way to benefit the rank and file this is generally acceptable, though it is still criticized. The rank and file Shi'a want the khums money to be redistributed through the marja' so that local mosques and institutions can be built.

The UHJ also collects khums. But it no longer acts like a chiefdom. The informality has been eliminated and the entire drive is to move into a kingdom - or a state system - whereby the center becomes the glorious stage at the expense of the periphery. Yet, there is a problem here because the UHJ does not really have the apparatus to enforce the payment of khums. It needs to rely on old fashioned methods of attracting money. Once again, the issue of personal charisma and rational, institutionalized form of government come into conflict.

The marja''s lack of formality and lack of institutionalization has made it ephemeral. It has lacked accountability and has lent itself to corruption. On the other hand, because it has relied on charisma, rather than formal powers, it has built in flexibility. The believer decides how much power the institution has and can venture off into different, non-ulama centered activities without fear of censure. This gives it a certain cohesian because one can remain a Shi'i while holding any number of types of beliefs. There is a core that holds people together but much leeway for religious expression.

How about the UHJ? Actually, it functions far more like Khomeini's vision of wilaat al-faqih than as the traditional marja'iyya. Shi'a give their own value to the marja'. They ascribe to him how ever much authority they wish to give him. His power comes from his charisma and from the redistribution of khums. One can disagree with the marja' and not face any kind of penalty, except maybe disagreement with neighbors. As Dr. Talib Aziz has written, there is no room for dissent from the authority of the jurist holding the power of the wilayat al faqih. Although his edicts are not divinely mandated as are the laws of the Prophet, they have virtually the same status and must be obeyed even by other jurists who disagree with their textual authenticity or derivation. This system of authority clearly contradicts classical theory according to which all jurists are the rightful heirs of the imams and the leading jurist is only a first among equals. The statists counter this observation with the argument that an orderly society requires a stable legal system. Thus the dissent of even other jurists must not be admitted, for the sake of the unity of the ummah and the survival of the legitimate Islamic regime. If dissent is to be allowed or expressed, ti should be within the close circle of jurists and in the course of adjudication...such dissent must not spread to the public arena where it could cause disorder....

Of course, the Bahá'í Faith has tried to rid itself of clergy in the process of regularizing and institutionalizing leadership. So, what one has is a de-clericalized wilaya. On the other hand, I wonder if it really makes that much difference that the men on the UHJ are not clerics since they are accorded the type of powers that usually come with being priests. In my view, they act as a corporate body of priests, and, it can even be argued that they, as individuals, are often treated as high-ranking priests. Muslims are also insistent that they have no clergy, but I have yet to understand how they are any different from priests, except that they do not perform sacraments.

Actually, it is interesting to note that some Islamists - those who take inspiration from Baqir as Sadr, for example - are not great supporters of the marja' and want the clerics role to be very narrowly defined, as does someone like Abdul Karim Soroush. They, like the Bahá'ís, however, have not been able to settle on a very workable model. They are up against long-held traditions and a religion that seems to gain strength in having ill-defined lines and room - within certain paramaters - for variation.


The Bahá'í model, then, appears to me as a very early Islamist attempt to regularize religious leadership. The issues that are most problematic for thinking Bahá'ís are the same ones that beset thinking Shi'ites eager to modernize their religion and rid it of those aspects that they feel are negative. Oddly, some of those qualities that they view to be most negative are some of the things that have actually made religious leadership in Shi'ism viable.

Like Khomeini's view of leadership and government, the Bahá'í view is also utopian. Consquenly, one can never address the positive and negative sides of ways of doing things in order to come out with some adequate means of leading a religious community. Iran's attempt at utopian government has largely been a disaster and is leading to the mass exodus of Iranians from their Shi'i beliefs. They commonly talk about finding a new source of religious meaning - often this means looking at pre-Islamic or un-Islamic sources of inspiration, reminding me of some of the discussions for religious experiences expressed among Bahá'ís.

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