Reflections on Religious Despotism: Between the Reign of Ardashir and the Constitution of Khomeini

ByMohammad Al-Sayyad

The era of Ardashir I (180-242 AD) is considered to be one of the landmark sources of official information for the Persian Empire’s political legacy. It acted as the constitution of the Persian Empire  — because of  the standing of Ardashir I in the history of Persia and the notability of his era among those who  succeeded him. Ardashir I is the one who reinstated, unified, and expanded the geographic area of the Persian Empire. He was the founder of the Sasanian Empire which ruled Persia until the Islamic conquest. A book titled “The Reign of Ardashir I”— authored by Ehsan Abbas — was printed in 1967.

Here, we will seek to draw a comparison between the era of Ardashir I and Khomeini’s ideological doctrine — the basis on which the Velayat-e Faqih-inspired political  system was thereafter established —  in terms of the position of religion within the respective ruling apparatuses and the relationship which was established between clerics and state institutions. What is remarkable about the reign of Ardashir I is that his principal focus was on religion. He revived Zoroastrianism, demolished idols, and removed pictures. More importantly, he granted clerics extensive authority  to run the state and  allowed them to have positions within its apparatuses and administrations  to establish leadership  which was inspired by religious principles.

In laying the foundations for the most remarkable aspects of his rule, Ardashir I believed that religion and the state were indivisibly intertwined and could not be separated. This was made clear in his statement: “Know that rule and religion are identical twins. Neither can survive without the other.” Therefore, he believed in the necessity of merging religion with politics and that religion should rest only with the ruler because —according to him— “When there is a ruler over religion and a ruler over government in one kingdom, the ruler over religion takes away what is in the ruler over government’s hands. This is because religion is a foundation and rule is a pillar.”

 According to his viewpoint, the reason why people are influenced by religion is because “religion is a foundation and rule is a pillar.” Therefore, rule guards  over religion, hence  rule should have its foundation, and religion should have its guard (rule cannot be separated from its foundation, and religion cannot relinquish  its guard).

Ardashir I feared the rise of an alternative  force capable of taking control of religion or speaking in the name of God with interpretations different  to those of the existing political authority. This —according to him— is “a leadership appealing  to the public.” It poses  a threat to the ruling system; the way to avert this is to prevent the seeking of  religious understandings beyond state control. “My deepest fear for you is that those morally inferior among you come forth to study, recite and acquire vast knowledge of religion.”

Hence, Ardashir I was aware of  religion’s influential role  and the powerful impact clerics had on the people.  Therefore, he advised that the state must wrest full control over religion, shape its own religious  discourse and approve a  standardized religious interpretation. This is like what the Iranian state is doing today with the dominance of Velayat-e Faqih, including the guardianship and the imposition of a  standardized cultural pattern which was described by Mahmoud Shabestari as “cultural guardianship.”

Moreover, Ardashir I did not stop at this — preventing the rise of alternative religious  forces  adopting different interpretations  to those of the state — but he continued to  employ religion throughout his official institutions to wipe out his rivals after labeling them as “heresiarchs.”

He stated, “Then religion is the one that kills them and rids kings of them.” This reminds us  today of Iranian laws such as  “spreading mischief on Earth” which have resulted in the persecution of hundreds of Iranians every year and their imprisonment in the name of religion.

However, Ardashir I realized early on that religion alone — or the ideology of the state —  was not sufficient to ensure the survival and continuation of  his regime. There must  be a protecting force, and vigilant soldiers. Hence, he reminded those that would succeed him of the importance of establishing an army that guards the ideology and protects the state from its foes  at home and overseas.

He was attentive towards the army to ensure it was a source of help and a means to strengthen his rule.  Consequently, Ardashir I did not hesitate to use excessive force and resort to repression and killing to achieve his desired goal: to guarantee the continuation of his rule. For him, preserving his hold on power was only achievable through shedding blood and indoctrinating minds. Hence, he projected his ruthlessness towards his foes and opponents as “a way of mercifulness towards subjects.”  He urged his successors to inflict repression without fear or remorse. He said: “They say I fear [imposing] repression [on subjects]. Those who fear repression are the ones who fear the consequences of repression on themselves.  If  repression against some  subjects  will result in others remaining  obedient and  allow the ruler — as well as the rest of his subjects — to remain protected from mischief, deceit and corruption, the ruler should quickly  resort to  repression over anything else.”

The foregoing quote  reminds us of a statement by cleric Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (1935-2021) — who was one of the staunchest advocates of the Iranian government. He argued for torture and repression. He said: “The quantity (number of supporters) is not a  criterion for  preserving the government. But the  criterion is that a number of  supporters of the Imam (peace be upon him) or  stalwarts of  the legitimate Velayat-e Faqih should offer their support  to preserve the government.” Sometimes, the percentage of the government’s supporters  is 90 percent, 50 percent, or 40 percent. It is the guardian jurist who is responsible for preserving the Islamic government. As long as there are people  who support the preservation of the Islamic government, the guardian jurist is obliged to preserve it. Therefore, the number of supporters has no significance. On the use of force against opposition forces, he said:  “If you want to live in this country, you must accept the Islamic government even if it resorts to the use of force against you. Whoever opposes the Islamic state is condemned and should be fought — even if there will remain only one person in this country.”

He developed  this line of thinking  from Ardashir I who always distrusted the public.  Regarding the public he said: “The well-established custom of the people is that they converge on despising rulers and expressing envy/anger at them.”

Therefore, he warned against them  reaching a consensus or  developing a unified objective. He said: “The enormity of their numbers leads kings to refrain from acting repressively against them.  A king repressing his subjects, cements himself and his rule. Hence, they should be confronted and dealt with repressively before they become enormous in numbers, reach a consensus or have a unified objective.”

When looking at the philosophy of Khomeini (1902-1989), we find that he pursued an approach close to that of Ardashir I on matters of governance. He made religion a focal point in the state and held both religious and political authority in the same way as Ardashir I had advised.  He also made sure that  a jurist assumed the position of guardianship and permitted  other pro-Velayat-e Faqih jurists to partake in running state affairs, and strengthened the position of the IRGC  inside the Iranian state.

As for the public,  Khomeini denied them authority.  A ruler — according to him — is fashioned/appointed by God, not by the people through selection or election.  The people have no sovereignty.  The latter is for God only and  the guardian jurist  rules on behalf of the Infallible Imam —  hence God —firstly on religious matters and then worldly affairs.  

Hence, Khomeini upheld a negative position  — as recorded in his book “The Islamic Government” —towards the Constitutional Movement of 1905 and the constitution that resulted from it. He accused the movement’s members of being loyal to Britain and attempting to Westernize  Iranian cultural and political life.

Accordingly, it was commonplace to see Khomeini adopting a positive  stance towards Sheikh Fazlollah Noori —the one who spearheaded  the campaign against the Constitutional Movement.

Khomeini  speaking of the 1906 constitution said: “Is there any link between all the provisions of that constitution and Islam? There is a substantial difference between the Islamic government on the one hand, and the constitutional monarchy or republic on the other. The representatives of the people or the monarch in these government systems possess full legislative authority, the legislative authority in Islam rests with God — the Creator and Omnipotent — exclusively. None has the right to legislate, and no law shall be issued from anybody other than God’s heavenly legislative authority.”

Khomeini  highlighted the main bone of contention between him and the Constitutional Movement. The latter gave the masses the right to choose and elect, and hence legislative authority. Khomeini rejected this right and deprived the public  of it because legislative authority — according to his viewpoint — rests with God exclusively and is implemented through the guardian jurist. This principal forms the basis on  which the contemporary Iranian state is established and remains a moot point, breaking with the modern constitutional civilian state. Velayat-e Faqih loyalists are keen to emphasize this distinction as it ensures their continuation in power as guardians over the people and rulers over them by heavenly command, not by the  public’s choice.

Khomeini  agreed with the viewpoint of Sheikh Fazlollah Noori and believed that the Constitutional Movement’s popularity was wholly manufactured due to the influence of princes, khans,  stooges and foreigners over it. It was genuine only in some aspects. The Constitutional Revolution was a political movement established in Iran in 1905 to demand the end of dictatorship and the implementation of Shura. Regarding this matter,  Iranian jurists and the Iranian people  were divided into two camps: one camp was supportive of it and embraced the concept of a constitution and  a representative government.  This camp’s members were labeled as supporters of “the pro-constitution/constitutional movement.” The other camp despised and rejected it. Its members were called “the anti-constitutionalists.”

But Khomeini at the same time was unable to  entirely oppose the movement since there were supreme marjayas who partook and threw their weight behind the Constitutional Movement. He justified this stance as pragmatic. Those clerics — in his view — supported the Constitutional Movement to reduce the injustices and despotism after they were  unable to raise the issue of establishing an Islamic government.

In fact, whoever  looks at the approach of Akhund Khurasani and his students — like Muhammad Hossein Naini, Muhammad Husayn Gharawi Isfahani and others in Najaf — and the constitutionalist community of clerics in Iran such as Muhammad Baqir Behbahani and Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai — will realize that they had the capability  to raise the issue of establishing an Islamic government. Instead, their convictions were based on civil politics and establishing a  civilian state. This  led Naini himself to find no substantial difference between nationalistic secular ideology and Islamic rule.

Khomeini combined religious, political and military power because he realized early on that the only  way to  concentrate power in the hands of the guardian jurist was not only to align himself with the ruler —as was the case with Ali Alkaraki (1463-1534) under the Safavids – but  also to amass power exclusively in  the hands  of the jurist to enable him to stay in power, exercise his duty, impose his own religious and political interpretations, prevent any attempt to distribute power or set up genuine external curbs that constrain the core essence of his sovereignty, domination and guardianship over all institutions.

Hence, members of the so-called “Islamic Revolutionary Guard” and representatives of the guardian jurist were appointed  within  institutions belonging to the army and the Revolutionary Guard as well as  within security and political institutions.  Khomeini tightened his grip on the army and organized the army in an unfamiliar fashion in terms of obedience, religiosity, and effectiveness of missions at home and overseas.

All in all, Khomeini, and  contemporary Velayat-e Faqih loyalists base their approach to governance  on an extremist  interpretation of religion and sect —  thus rejecting  the religious seminary’s legacy  regarding political thought.

Moreover, this extremist version of religion overlaps and intersects with  the extremist version of the Persian Empire’s political legacy. This has impacted Iranian public affairs and the vision of the ruling religious elite on all contentious issues at home and abroad.

The results of the latest presidential election reflect an assertion of power by  Velayat-e Faqih loyalists who are adhering to their approach regarding the relationship between religion and the state and their position in relation to the role of the people in governance,  hence setting the parameters  for an upcoming phase that will  strengthen and continue  Ardashir I-Khomeini’s political thought.  President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is one of the most prominent leaders of the “conservative” current who won after the Guardian Council was accused of engineering the election. A significant percentage of the Iranian people boycotted the election.  This phase is likely to last for a long time, given the longevity and survivability of  the ideology-inspired  interpretation of religion, sect, culture and history.  

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Mohammad Al-Sayyad
Mohammad Al-Sayyad
A researcher of ideological studies at Rasanah