Up until recently, no one would have dared shout "Death to Khamanei" on the streets. That would have been considered to be uncouth even for the dissidents because according to the Iranian-version of Shia Islamic Jurisprudence the "rahbar" (leader) acts on behalf of the 12th Imam, the hidden leader who will return to the Shia as a saviour and spread justice and peace to the world.
Khomeini left no one in doubt of the powers that should be granted to the Supreme Leader. The semi-divine status, given to himself, was at complete odds with traditional and mainstream Shia Islam. Shi'ism was not blind to the fact that religion plays an important role in the daily affairs of the Muslims but it had always called for limited interference from the clerics. Khomeini was not the first to dream of a ruling cleric and he was influenced by the ideas of 18th century father and son scholars Mohammed Mehdi and Ahmed Naraqi.
The Naraqi's (pictured) take their name from the village they were born in near Kashan, Iran in 1716 and 1771 respectively. They theorized that the scholar should also have power even in the political sphere and that an able jurist could also become a ruler. This theory was put into practice by Khomeini who expanded on the thesis and became an absolute authority over his subjects in Iran.
For those who are unfamiliar of the lengths Khomeini went in his argument that he should be obeyed as an absolute ruler this is an extract taken from the website of the Supreme Leader - note the constant references and comparisons Khomeini makes with the infallible Prophet and Imams;
"If an eligible person with these two characteristics [knowledge of the law and just] rises and comes to power, he will acquire the same wilāyah (authorities) which were established for the noble Prophet Muhammad (s.) as far as administering the society is concerned. And, therefore, all people are required to obey him."
This revival of Naraqi's thought did not go down too well with the majority of Ayatollahs. One man who did back Khomeini was Hussein Ali Montezeri. He published "Studies in Guardianship of the Jurist" and advocated the rule of the jurist on Islamic grounds. Ironically, after the revolution Montezeri saw the failure of good governance and was silenced after he raised his concerns with Khomeini. He is now still under house arrest in Qum for his opposition to the Islamic government.
Khomeini paved the way for this revival in a series of lectures he gave in Najaf in 1970. His lectures were quickly compiled and published as a book that was distributed to his followers. His main opposition at the time came from Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, who dismissed the idea of unlimited 'wilayat al-faqih' (Guardianship of the Jurist) because it had no legal basis or precedent for the Shia. He bases his argument on a verse of the Quran:
Only Allah is your Wali and His Messenger and those who believe, those who keep up prayers and pay the poor-rate while they bow. [Shakir 5:55]
The meaning of the word "wali" is a major point of debate between the Shia and Sunni schools of thought. Regardless of differences in opinion between the two schools the Shia all agree that this is the verse in the Quran which explains the divine status of the 12 Imams. My grandfather argues that there can never be a jurist who can have the same "wilayah" (guardianship/authority) as the Imams and Prophet because God makes it clear that 'only' a certain few can have this status.
The schism that appeared continues to be relevant today. It is the focal point of everything that is going on in Iran today and it has also affected the future of Iraq. Debates over who was right and how much influence the clerics should have over the daily lives of Shia Muslims continue to this day with both sides passionately disagreeing with each other.
The issue of 'wilayat al-faqih' is still the most obvious difference between the Najaf school in Iraq and the Qum school in Iran.
The ignorance of this issue, or indifference, was a factor that led to the crushing of the 1991 uprising in Iraq. The United States feared, most likely due to resident Arabists, that if the rebels overthrew Saddam they would establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Baghdad. However, the Najaf seminary, and Iraqi's in general, would never have allowed the clerics to have the same powers their counterparts enjoy in Iran. This is even more evident when one looks at Iraq today.
"Wilayat al-Faqih" will be at the heart of the debate in the Middle-East and for Shias in particular for many more years to come because it is so central to what makes their world tick.