A day of mourning

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri passed away on Saturday. His opponents have in recent years referred to him in the Iranian media as the ‘Simpleton Sheik’, omitting to even use the prefix Ayatollah.

Crowds gathered outside his residence in Qom for his funeral on Monday, while campuses around Iran – notably Teheran and Esfahan – have seen mourning precessions.    

At Elm va Sanat Tehran University (of Science and Technology) the mourning procession for Grand Ayatollah Montazeri chanted that it wass a ‘Day of mourning for the green people of Iran’ and ‘Montazeri is alive and lasting Marja’. 

Montazeri, once a powerful establishment figure, was sidelined for his criticism of the mass execution of thousands of young political prisoners in the 1980s.  He even condemned Khomeini’s fatwa for the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, saying: ‘People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.’ In 2004 Grand Ayatollah Montazeri stated that the Iranian people did not go through a revolution in order to ‘substitute absolutist rule by the crown with one under the turban’.

Iranians, who are predominately Shi’a Muslims, celebrate people’s deaths more so than their lives. You may come up with an excuse and decline a wedding invitation to a wedding of the son of an acquaintance… but it would be dishonourable to miss his funeral. Montazeri will be eulogized in death more so then he was ever in his lifetime and under the circumstances, his funeral will turn into rallying point. It was his house arrest and confinement that turned him into a martyr.  

Despite the general (and erroneous) belief in a unified Shi’a clergy, the dozen or so Grand Ayatollahs in the world have their own groups of followers and take very different positions, even at times issuing religious edicts or fatwas that contradict one another. Yet only a tiny section of these Grand Ayatollahs are affiliated with the state in Iran; many clerical leaders have been openly appalled by the Government’s acts of post-election violence, while a clear majority have noticeably failed to carry out the usual protocol of sending out official acknowledgments of the Government’s proclaimed election victory in June. 

For three decades Iran has been a laboratory of political and social experimentation. It has also experienced what no other Muslim state has experienced in the 20th century, namely the coexistence of revolutionary Islam alongside what could be called a more ‘secular’ dimension. Ironically the Islamic republic has put its secular political interests above the sanctified power of the Islamic clergy and is unique in Iran’s Islamic history for having kept under house arrest two Grand Ayatollahs: Montazeri and Shariatmadari. 

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