Socio-political thought of Iranian 'Ulama

The sacred community versus the civil society
Developing Just Leadership

Blake Archer Williams

Sha'ban 04, 1438 2017-05-01

Special Reports

by Blake Archer Williams (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 3, Sha'ban, 1438)

The sacred community versus the civil society: two different worldviews.

When people with Western sensibilities talk about the system of governance in Iran, two closely related categories of errors are invariably present in their discourse. The first is that they fail to distinguish between Covenantal or Dispensational polities and Conventional ones. Second, they fail to distinguish between communities and societies, or, more specifically, between sacred communities and civil societies. Covenantal or Dispensational polities yield sacred communities whereas Conventional polities yield civil societies. To put it slightly differently: sacred communities are the product of a communal consensus on a given Covenant (and on the Dispensation which ensues from that Covenant), whereas civil societies are the product of a Conventional communal consensus.

What is the nature of man and of the world in which he finds himself? Is there a God, and if so, what, if anything, does He want of me? What, if anything, is my purpose and the purpose of my nation? Different cosmologies or worldviews, having come up with different answers to these questions concerning existence and the world in which we find ourselves, will produce different sets of values and value priorities, which, in the context of nations and nation-states, will produce different legal constitutions, which are nothing other than the building blocks for the institutionalization of those value sets, enabling laws to be forged and enforced so that those values are protected and maintained. Cosmologies, theologies, and spiritual anthropologies, or the sum of one’s orientation in the world and sense of self-identity (that is, the way the above basic questions are answered or assumed) are determinative of one’s national identity and of the polity of one’s nation.

A “nation” of materialist atheists who do not believe in the existence of God, let alone believe that He might want His nation to behave in a certain purposive way collectively, will constitute a very different polity than that of a nation whose constituents believe, in unison, that there is a dispensation (or divinely sanctioned way of life) ordained by God for each individual and for their nation as a whole, and that their entire purpose in life is to live within the bounds of that dispensation in order for its promise of salvation to be fulfilled.

There are different conceptions of the world. In one view, the universe is created (it didn’t “just happen”) and the warps and woofs of whose fabric are utterly moral in their composition. In this worldview, creation is a program upon whose stage mankind is positioned front and center, and in which God is intimately involved by way of his comprehensive providential administration in the affairs of man and in the affairs of the world. The meaning and compass of religion are going to be very different and far more expansive in this worldview than the conception of religion in a society whose citizens do not believe in God. And if they do believe in Him, they consider “religion” to be a private affair that is best kept out of the public arena (the decision of the relegation of religion to the confines of the private lives of the individual is itself a public affairs decision, making attempt at such a separation infinitely regressive and, therefore, a logical impossibility, but that is another story).

Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was published 500 years ago this year. It became the catalyst for the Reformation setting off a series of conflicts between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces within the ambit of the Holy Roman Empire, ending in the Peace of Augsburg (1555). That established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. This principle, (“Whose realm, his [right to impose his] religion”), went against what is now referred to as “religious uniformity,” but was in fact the decay, degeneration, and ultimate ending of the state of the integrality of religion and state within the Holy Roman Empire. But the principle of cuius regio, eius religio was not enough to withstand the various Renaissance pressures. The floodgates that had temporarily been held in place by the Peace of Augsburg burst open throughout central Europe in the Thirty-Year War (1618–1648). The forces of the Protestant Union of the north waged war against the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in order to reassert what they saw as the rights that had been granted to them in the Peace of Augsburg. And so it was not until the Peace of Westphalia (1644–1648) that the European wars of religion were effectively ended and the natural state of the integrality of religion and state ended with a deteriorated and decayed state of the “separation of church and state.” This put an end to the Thirty-Year War in the Holy Roman Empire, and the longer Eighty-Year War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic.

Now, the reason this degeneration and decay from integrality to a chaotic modus vivendi (or from actual community to “civil society”) is not decried as a shame, but is actually celebrated by the misinformed, is that it is seen as inevitable, given the history recalled above. But again, this did not have to be the case. History only came to pass because of the unique historical path that Western Christendom took, which acted as the inevitable prelude to the rise of neo-pagan and humanist ideas prior to the Reformation. This saw their full bloom in the so called Enlightenment.

The German philosopher and sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936) distinguished between two types of social groupings: Gemeinschaft (often translated as community or left untranslated) and Gesellschaft (often translated as society). Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft describe the crucial distinction between community and “civil society.” Community is characterized by a dispensationalist consensus or a sacred communal consensus on a dispensation sent down from on high. The latter is characterized as a consensus to “agree to disagree” and to agree that a consensus in any meaningful form can no longer be reached, paving the way to a “conventional” polity (agreed to by secular-humanist convention). This “agreement to disagree” which crystalized between the Peace of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia was, in effect, the West’s long and excruciating decision to throw out the baby of community with the bathwater of the Church’s malfeasance in the revolutionary fervor of the Reformation and the “Enlightenment” that followed in its wake.

But whereas the integrality of church and state was lost with the Peace of Westphalia, where pre-Westphalian communities gave way to the Westphalian order of “civil societies,” the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 restored community to the Muslim nation of Iran. Imam Khomeiniī comments with respect to this difference,

The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to Almighty God. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator.

The Covenantal polity and the constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on the theory of Velayat-e Faqih which is a theory that addresses man’s basic and existential questions in a way that is suited not to any people, but to people who share a broad spectrum of basic first principles or creedal beliefs and who have achieved the high plateau of “religious uniformity.” In other words, these are people who have attained to faith in and have sworn allegiance to and have dedicated themselves to living their lives in accordance with a divine dispensation ordained by God.

To say the same thing from its opposite and negative rather than affirmative perspective, this political theory is suitable for a community of faith. It is clearly not suitable for an aggregation of atomized and supra-individuated persons who have pilfered away the sacred revealed guidance and teachings that are the bindings that provide for social cohesion against the centrifugal forces of excessive individualism and social alienation. Consequently, such individuals find themselves in the geographical confines of a given location that they share (through no choice of their own) with other individuals with whom they have little in common. In this situation, individual interests are at variance and indeed at loggerheads with those others with whom they are condemned to share the confines of their geographical as well as emotional and cognitive spaces. Failing to attain to a collective faith, man finds himself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, in a state where there is “no society [in the true sense of the word, by which he means community, as opposed to what has come to be known as “civil society” in the post-Westphalian order], and … [where] the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (this state, Hobbes erroneously characterized as a state of nature, whereas in fact, it is the state of denatured man). This is the definition that society has slouched down to after the diluvium that followed the Peace of Augsburg and the ascendancy of the Westphalian order that followed it.

Contrary to this, the Islamic vision, which was to bring about a social transformation that founded the life of the community on divine norms, had to be acknowledged by society as a whole (as a logical outcome of the nascent community’s faith in that vision and program). Here is Imam Khomeinī again,

The body of Islamic laws that exist in the Qur’an and the Sunnah has been accepted by the Muslims and recognized by them as worthy of obedience. This consent and acceptance facilitates the task of government and makes it truly belong to the people. In contrast, in a republic or a constitutional monarchy, most of those claiming to be representatives of the majority of the people will approve anything they wish as law and then impose it on the entire population [whereas in Islam, the yoke of compliance with the Law is taken on willingly by the community of those who have attained to faith].

Here Imam Khomeini, the greatest man the modern era has witnessed, has placed his finger on the crux of the difference between simply democratic forms of government and ones based on divine law: the latter is sacred to those who have attained to faith in it, while the former can at best be characterized as optimally coercive. The only way to escape from the tyranny of the absolutism of law is for that absolutism to have absolute legitimacy; is for society to go back to being a community; for there to be consensus, in other words, and for that consensus to be sacred, to have consensus upon the sacred, to hold values in common that are inviolable in their sacro-sanctity.

Without consensus on the sacred, authority will always remain illegitimate, or a conventionally agreed upon approximation of legitimacy that, nonetheless, will always be a locus of individual resentment. Man’s failure to achieve sacred consensus dooms him to a life of tyranny. Legislation can be just, have full efficacy, and be capable of fulfilling man’s quest for happiness only when it is in accord with man’s primordial constitution: with his fitrah. “Judgement [as to what is right and what is wrong] rests with Allah alone” (12:40), meaning that the creation of laws that will enable him to reach his intended perfection in this world and bring felicity to man in the hereafter is God’s exclusive prerogative, for no one but He has the competence for this undertaking.

So in this sense, waliyic Islam, which is the guardianship-type of comprehensive authority God’s regent on earth is given in order to interpret and implement His dispensation, is not “democratic” in the sense of each person’s vote having been equally weighted in matters that require a high degree of religious expertise. Rather, it is hierarchical based on a hierarchy of knowledge and learning. This of course applies to issues that fall within the aegis of the dispensation or within the jurisdiction circumscribed by the sacred law. For example, in this system, if “the people” want to marry persons of the same sex, then waliyic Islam, and specifically the wali or faqih will step in and remind or educate the Muslim, saying, “No, God’s law forbids you from doing so.” But in areas where the sacred dispensation or shari‘ah is silent and has a neutral interest, say, on the matter of land use policy, for example, then a congress of “democratically” elected representatives of the people will decide such “regulations” (we use the word to distinguish between the jurisdiction of the people — ‘urfiyat — and sacred “laws” that are the domain of God) in accordance with the will of the people whom they are elected to represent. And the line as to where God’s jurisdiction ends and that of the people’s begins is static with respect to certain things but is wholly dynamic with respect to others, and is also determined by the fully-qualified magister.

On the other hand, if we define the word democracy as a system of governance where the will of the people reigns supreme, then the system of waliyic Islam is indeed more democratic. This is so because the people have willed, collectively, to submit their wills to the will of God. Such consensus yields or at least tends toward the highest common factor rather than to the lowest common denominator. This is the highest yield that can possibly be expected from the absence of consensus on major first principles, which is the state that is the norm and definition of secular democracies and which is a species of heteronomy that a failure to achieve sacred consensus will invariably yield. So in the strict sense of the word, waliyic Islam is maximally democratic whereas liberal democracy (even if we grant that, its misconceived anthropology notwithstanding, is capable somehow of immunizing itself from being hijacked by the creeping forces of covert de facto oligarchy) is at best minimally so.

Achieving sacred consensus on the divine dispensation is the only way in which a purposive community can be achieved. As man was made to have purpose communally as well as individually, any polity that does not provide him with the means to achieve that common purpose will be heteronomous to his primordial disposition or original nature (fitrah), thereby annihilating it in time. We would argue that not only is community not actually possible without man submitting and fettering his will to that of God’s dispensation, but that in the long run, even “civil society” (and the whole Faustian Westphalian project) is not sustainable. The reason is that it will disintegrate into oligarchy or some other form of a repressive system. It would be the 21st-century equivalent of the Weimar Republic that will turn into its analogue of 1933 Germany (wasn’t 9/11 our Reichstag fire?), or transmogrify into different and ever more exquisite forms of chaos and anarchy. It is not difficult to figure out why. God has created man in such a way that he must necessarily have an umbilical relationship to his Maker at all times, such that any surplus of autonomy is ultimately false and, therefore, self-undermining. In his arrogance, if man believes that he has been given the freedom to do whatever he wants, he should know that the nature of the world in which he finds himself is that the centrifugal forces of his unfettered lower or commanding self (al-nafs al-ammarah bi-al-su’) will inevitably burst the bindings of whatever system he has concocted for himself. This will ultimately cause him (and his so-called order), to quote the Qur’an, “…to become like a field of grain that has been eaten down to [nothing but its] stubble: fa-ja‘alahum ka‘asfin ma‘kul” (105:5) — a spent force.

Here are a couple of instances of the more obvious Qur’anic evidences and warnings,

Does man, then, think that he is to be left to himself? (75:36);

Do they seek, perchance, a din other than Allah’s, although it is unto Him that whatever is in the heavens and on earth acquiesces itself, willingly or unwillingly, since [it is] unto Him [that the affairs of] all shall be returned [for evaluation and judgement]? (3:83).

And so we say to those Johnnies-come-lately liberal hawks who feel the urge of the “responsibility to protect” us from ourselves by dragging us down to the minimalist version of their sham democracy that while we can and do appreciate their position (which is best summed up by the axiom “misery enjoys company”), our response must nevertheless remain, “Do me a favor; don’t do me any favors.”

Blake Archer Williams’ two books, Introduction to Waliyic Islam and Creedal Foundations of Waliyic Islam, which are the sources for the ideas presented in this essay — and where they are fully elaborated — can be found on, together with all 32 of his books on waliyic Islam or the Shi‘i Islam as expounded by Imam Khomeini, which is the basis of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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