Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist

Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist
Author Ruhollah Khomeini; translated by Hamid Algar
Country Iran and United Kingdom
Language Translated into English
Subject Islam and state
Publisher Alhoda UK
Publication date
Republished in 2002 in the United Kingdom[1]
Pages 139 pages
ISBN 964-335-499-7
OCLC 254905140

Velayat-e faqih (Persian: ولایت فقیه, velāyat-e faqīh), also known as Islamic Government (Persian: حکومت اسلامی, Hokumat-i Eslami), is a book by the Iranian Muslim cleric and revolutionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, first published in 1970, and probably the most influential document written in modern times in support of theocratic rule.

The book argues that government should be run in accordance with traditional Islamic law (sharia), and for this to happen a leading Islamic jurist (faqih) must provide political "guardianship" (wilayat or velayat) over the people and nation. A modified form of this doctrine was incorporated into the 1979 Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran[2] following the Iranian Revolution, with the doctrine's author, Ayatollah Khomeini, as the first faqih "guardian" or Supreme Leader of Iran.


Ruhollah Khomeini, anti-secularism leader of Iranian revolution

While in exile in Iraq in the holy city of Najaf, Khomeini gave a series of 19 lectures to a group of his students from January 21 to February 8, 1970 on Islamic Government. Notes of the lectures were soon made into a book that appeared under three different titles: The Islamic Government, Authority of the Jurist, and A Letter from Imam Musavi Kashef al-Qita[3] (to deceive Iranian censors). The small book (fewer than 150 pages) was smuggled into Iran and "widely distributed" to Khomeini supporters before the revolution.[4]

Controversy surrounds how much of the book's success came from its persuasive power, and how much from the political skill and power of its author, who is generally considered to have been the "undisputed" leader of the Iranian Revolution. Many observers of the revolution maintain that while the book was distributed to Khomeini's core supporters in Iran, Khomeini and his aides were careful not to publicize the book or the idea of wilayat al-faqih to outsiders,[5] knowing that groups crucial to the revolution's success—secular and Islamic Modernist Iranians—were likely to be irreconcilably opposed to theocracy. It was only when Khomeini's core supporters had consolidated their hold on power that wilayat al-faqih was made known to the general public and written into the country's new Islamic constitution.[6]

The book has been translated into several languages including French, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu.[7] The one reliable translation in English is generally agreed to be that of Hamid Algar,[8] an English-born convert to Islam, scholar of Iran and the Middle East, and supporter of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution.[9] It can be found in his book Islam and Revolution or on the internet at The one other English language edition of the book, also titled Islamic Government, is a stand-alone edition, translated by the U.S. government's Joint Publications Research Service. Algar considers this to be an inferior work, being based on Arabic translation rather than the original Persian as well as being "crude" and "unreliable", and claims its publication by Manor books is "vulgar" and "sensational" in its attacks on the Ayatollah Khomeini.[10]


Importance of Islamic Government

Khomeini believed that the need for governance of the faqih was obvious to good Muslims. That "anyone who has some general awareness of the beliefs and ordinances of Islam" would "unhesitatingly give his assent to the principle of the governance of the faqih as soon as he encounters it," because the principle has "little need of demonstration, for anyone who has some general awareness of the beliefs and ordinances of Islam ...." (p. 27)

Nonetheless he lists several reasons why Islamic government is necessary:

Khomeini further believed that Islamic government was, in its operation, superior to non-Islamic government in many ways. Additionally, though Islamic government is to be universal, Khomeini sometimes compares it to (allegedly) un-Islamic governments in general throughout the Muslim world and more often contrasts it specifically with the Shah's government in Iran—though he doesn't mention the Shah by name.

In regard to non-Islamic governments, the work states "Non-islamic government..."

While some might think the complexity of the modern world would move Muslims to learn from countries that have modernized ahead of them, and even borrow laws from them, this is not only un-Islamic but also entirely unnecessary. The laws of God (Shariah), cover "all human affairs ... There is not a single topic in human life for which Islam has not provided instruction and established a norm." (p. 29-30, also p. 44) As a result, Islamic government will be much easier than some might think.

"The entire system of government and administration, together with necessary laws, lies ready for you. If the administration of the country calls for taxes, Islam has made the necessary provision; and if laws are needed, Islam has established them all. ... Everything is ready and waiting." [p.137-8]

For this reason Khomeini declines "to go into details" on such things as "how the penal provisions of the law are to be implemented"(p. 124)

In addition to the functional reasons above offered for guardianship of the jurist, Khomeini also gives much space to doctrinal ones that he argues establish proof that the rule of jurists is required by Islam. No sacred texts of Shia Islam specifically state that jurists should rule Muslims. Traditionally Shia Islam follows a crucial hadith where the Prophet Muhammad passes on his power to command Muslims to his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first of twelve "Imams" descended in a line that stopped with the occultation of the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, in 939 AD and who is not expected back until end times, (see: Muhammad al-Mahdi#Birth and early life according to Twelver Shi'a). Shia jurists have tended to stick to one of three approaches to the state: cooperated with it, try to influence policies by becoming active in politics, or most commonly, remaining aloof from it.[12]

Khomeini, however, endeavours to prove a leading jurist or jurists also have inherited the Prophet's political authority by explicating several ahadith of the Shi'a Imams. An example is his analysis of a saying attributed to the first Imam, ‘Ali who in addressing a judge said:

The seat you are occupying is filled by someone who is a prophet, the legatee of a prophet, or else a sinful wretch. (p.81) [13]

Khomeini reasons that the term judges must refer to trained jurists (fuqaha) as they are "by definition learned in matters pertaining to the function of judge" (p. 84), and since trained jurists are neither sinful wretches nor prophets, by process of elimination "we deduce from the tradition quoted above that the fuqaha are the legatees." (p. 84) He explains legatees of the prophet have the same power to command Muslims as the Prophet Muhammad and (in Shia Muslim belief) the Imams. Thus, the saying, `The seat you are occupying is filled by someone who is a prophet, the legatee of a prophet, or else a sinful wretch,` demonstrates that Islamic jurists have the power to rule Muslims.

The level of importance accorded rule of jurists and obedience to them by Khomeini in Waliyat al-faqih is as high as any religious duty a Muslim has. "Our obeying holders of authority" like jurists "is actually an expression of obedience to God." (p. 91) Preserving Islam "is more necessary even than prayer and fasting" (p. 75) and without Islamic government Islam cannot be preserved.

What is Islamic Government?

The basis of Islamic government is exclusive adherence to Sharia, or Islamic law. Those holding government posts should have knowledge of Sharia (Islamic jurists are such people), and the country's ruler should be a faqih[14] who "surpasses all others in knowledge" of Islamic law and justice (p. 59) -- known as a marja`—as well as having intelligence and administrative ability.

And while this faqih rules, it might be said that the ruler is actually sharia law itself because, "the law of Islam, divine command, has absolute authority over all individuals and the Islamic government. Everyone, including the Most Noble Messenger [Prophet Muhammad] and his successors, is subject to law and will remain so for all eternity ... " (p. 56)

"The governance of the faqih" is equivalent to "the appointment of a guardian for a minor." Just as God established the Prophet Mohammad as the "leader and ruler" of early Muslims, "making obedience to him obligatory, so, too, the fuqaha (plural of faqih) must be leaders and rulers" over Muslims today. (p. 63) While the "spiritual virtues" and "status" of the Prophet and the Imams are greater than those of contemporary faqih, their power is not, because this virtue "does not confer increased governmental powers". (p. 62)

Islamic government is constitutional, but "not constitutional in the current sense of word, i.e., based on the approval of laws in accordance with the opinion of the majority." Instead of the customary executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, "in an Islamic government, a simple planning body takes the place of the legislative assembly that is one of the three branches of government"—a legislature being unnecessary because "no one has the right to legislate ... except ... the Divine Legislator" (p. 56).[15]

Islamic government raises revenue "on the basis of the taxes that Islam has established - khums, zakat ... jizya, and kharaj." (p. 45) This will be plenty because "khums is a huge source of income" (p. 44-5)

Islamic Government will be just but it will also be unsparing with "troublesome" groups that cause "corruption in Muslim society," and damage "Islam and the Islamic state." In this regard it will follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad who eliminated the tribe heads of Bani Qurayza, (p. 89) after their murderous treachery.

Islamic government will follow the unflinching courage and rectitude of Imam ‘Ali. His seat of command was simply the corner of a mosque (p. 86); he threatened to have the hand of his daughter cut off if she did not pay back a loan from the treasury (p. 130); and he "lived more frugally than the most impoverished of our students." (p. 57) Islamic government will follow the "victorious and triumphant" armies of early Muslims who set "out from the mosque to go into battle" and "fear only God," (p. 131) and follow the Quranic command "Prepare against them whatever force you can muster and horses tethered" (8:60). In fact, "if the form of government willed by Islam were to come into being, none of the governments now existing in the world would be able to resist it; they would all capitulate" (p. 122)

Why has Islamic Government not been established?

Khomeini spends a large part of his book explaining why Islamic government had not yet been established, despite the fact that the need for governance of the faqih is obvious to "anyone who has some general awareness of the beliefs and ordinances of Islam." (p. 27)

The "historical roots" of the opposition are Western unbelievers who want

to keep us backward, to keep us in our present miserable state so they can exploit our riches, our underground wealth, our lands and our human resources. They want us to remain afflicted and wretched, and our poor to be trapped in their misery ... they and their agents wish to go on living in huge palaces and enjoying lives of abominable luxury. (p.34)
"Foreign experts have studied our country and have discovered all our mineral reserves -- gold, copper, petroleum, and so on. They have also made an assessment of our people’s intelligence and come to the conclusion that the only barrier blocking their way are Islam and the religious leadership." (p.139-40)

These Westerners "have known the power of Islam themselves for it once ruled part of Europe, and ... know that true Islam is opposed to their activities."(p. 140) Making people think that "Islam has laid down no laws for the practice of usury, for banking on the basis of usury, for the consumption of alcohol, or for the cultivation of sexual vice" and wishing "to promote these vices in the Islamic world", (p. 31-2) Westerns have set about deceiving Muslims, using their "agents" to telling them that "that Islam consists of a few ordinances concerning menstruation and parturition." (p. 29-30)

The enemies of Islam target the vulnerable young: "The agents of imperialism are busy in every corner of the Islamic world drawing our youth away from us with their evil propaganda." (p. 127)

This imperialist attack on Islam is not some ad hoc tactic to assist the imperial pursuit of power or profit, but an elaborate, 300-year-long plan.

The British imperialists penetrated the countries of the East more than 300 years ago. Being knowledgeable about all aspects of these countries, they drew up elaborate plans for assuming control of them. (p.139, also p.27-28, p.34, p.38).

In addition to the British there are the Jews:

From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present. (p.27-8)
We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world. (p.127)

While the main danger of unbelievers comes from foreign (European and American) imperialists, non-Muslims in Iran and other Muslim countries pose a danger too,

centers of evil propaganda run by the churches, the Zionists, and the Baha’is in order to lead our people astray and make them abandon the ordinances and teaching of Islam ... These centers must be destroyed. (p.128)

Perhaps most alarmingly, in Khomeini's view, the imperialist war against Islam has even penetrated the seminaries where, Khomeini noted disapprovingly, "If someone wishes to speak about Islamic government and the establishment of the Islamic government, he must observe the principles of taqiyya, [i.e. dissimulation, the permission to lie when one's life is in danger or in defence of Islam], and count upon the opposition of those who have sold themselves to imperialism" (p. 34) If these "pseudo-saints do not wake up" Khomeini hints darkly, "we will adopt a different attitude toward them." (p. 143)

As for those clerics who serve the government, "they do not need to be beaten much," but "our youths must strip them of their turbans." (p. 145)



Khomeini himself claims Mirza Hasan Shirazi, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shriazi, Kashif al-Ghita, (p. 124) as clerics preceding him who made what were "in effect" (p. 124) government rulings, thus establishing de facto Islamic Government by Islamic jurists. Some credit "earlier notions of political and juridical authority" in Iran's Safavid period. Khomeini is said to have cited nineteenth-century Shi'i jurist Mulla Ahmad Naraqi (d.1829) and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Na'ini (d.1936) as authorities who held a similar view to himself on the political role of the ulama.[16][17] An older influence is Abu Nasr Al-Farabi, and his book, The Principles of the People of the Virtuous City, (al-madina[t] al-fadila,[18] which has been called "a Muslim version of Plato's Republic").[19]

Another influence is said to be Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, a cleric and author of books on developing Islamic alternatives to capitalism and socialism, who Khomeini met in Najaf.[20]


Other observers credit the "Islamic Left," specifically Ali Shariati, as the origin of important concepts of Khomeini's Waliyat al-faqih, particularly abolition of monarchy and the idea that an "economic order" has divided the people "into two groups: oppressors and oppressed." (p. 49) [21] The Confederation of Iranian Students in Exile and the famous pamphlet Gharbzadegi by the ex-Tudeh writer Jalal Al-e-Ahmad are also thought to have influence Khomeini.[22] This is in spite of the fact that Khomeini loathed Marxism in general,[23] and is said to have had misgivings about un-Islamic sources of some of Shariati's ideas.

Governments based on constitutions, divided into three branches, and containing planning agencies, also belie a strict adherence to precedents set by the rule of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, 1400 years ago.[24]

Scholar Vali Nasr believes the ideal of an Islamic government ruled by the ulama "relied heavily" on Greek philosopher Plato's book The Republic, and its vision of "a specially educated `guardian` class led by a `philosopher-king`".[25]



Velayat-e Faqih has been praised as a "masterful construction of a relentless argument, supported by the most sacred canonical sources of Shi'i Islam ..." [26]

The response from high-level Shi'a clerics to Velayat-e Faqih was far more negative. Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei, the leading Shia ayatollah at the time the book was published rejected Khomeini's argument on the grounds that

Of the dozen Shia Grand Ayatollahs alive at the time of the Iranian Revolution, only one other grand ayatollah — Hussein-Ali Montazeri — approved of Khomeini's concept. He would later disavow it entirely in 1988.[28][29]

A non-clerical scholar of Shia Islam, Moojan Momen, has commented that Khomeini cites two earlier clerical authorities — Mulla Ahmad Naraqi (d.1829) and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Na'ini (d.1936) — as holding similar view to himself on the importance of the ulama holding political power, but neither made "it the central theme of their political theory as Khomeini does," although they may have hinted "at this in their writings." Momen also argues that the Hadith Khomeini quotes in support of his concept of velayat-e faqih, either have "a potential ambiguity which makes the meaning controversial," or are considered `weak` (Da'if) by virtue of their chain of transmitters.[30]

When a campaign started to install velayat-e faqih in the new Iranian revolution, critics complained that Khomeini had gone back on his word to advise, rather than rule the country.[31] This has sparked controversy.[32]

Despite having initially supported the Revolution, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah criticized what he saw as the Iranian clergy ruling with absolute power.[33] Rather he wanted a system of checks and balances that would prevent the scholars from becoming dictators.[33]

In a 2009 interview, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon (a supporter of the Iranian Revolution, "widely seen as the `godfather`" of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and one of only three Shia Maraji of Lebanon before he died in 2010), stated "without hesitation"

"I don't believe that Welayat al-Faqih has any role in Lebanon. Perhaps some Lebanese commit themselves to the policy of the Guardian Jurist, as some of them commit themselves to the policy of the Vatican [Lebanon's large Maronite community is Catholic]. My opinion is that I don't see the Guardianship of the Jurist as the definitive Islamic regime."[34][35]


Finally Islamic Government is criticised on utilitarian grounds by those who complain that Islamic government as established in Iran by Khomeini has simply not done what Khomeini said Islamic government by jurists would do.[36] The goals of ending poverty, corruption, national debt, or compelling un-Islamic government to capitulate before the Islamic government's armies, have not been met. But even more modest and basic goals like downsizing the government bureaucracy,[37] using only senior religious jurists or [marja]s for the post of faqih guardian/Supreme Leader,[38][39] or implementing sharia law and protecting it from innovation,[40] have not succeeded. While Khomeini promised, "The entire system of government and administration, together with the necessary laws, lies ready for you.... Islam has established them all," (p. 137) once in power Islamists found many frustrations in their attempts to implement the sharia, complaining that there were "many questions, laws and operational regulations ... that received no mention in the shari'a." [41] Disputes within the Islamic Government compelled Khomeini himself to proclaim in January 1988 that the interests of the Islamic state outranked "all secondary ordinances" of Islam, even "prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage." [42] The severe loss of prestige for the fuqaha (Islamic jurists) as a result of dissatisfaction with the application of clerical rule in Iran has been noted by many.[43] "In the early 1980s, clerics were generally treated with elaborate courtesy. Nowadays, clerics are sometimes insulted by schoolchildren and taxi drivers and they quite often put on normal clothes when venturing outside Qom."[44]

See also



  1. Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist
  2. Iranian Government Constitution, English Text
  3. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, (1993), p.437
  4. Moin, Khomeini, (2000), p.157
  5. ; Abrahamian, Iran, (1982) p.478-9
  6. Moin, Khomeini, (2000), p.218
  7. Islam and Revolution, (1981), p.25
  8. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent (1993), p.?
  9. Q&A: A conversation with Hamid Algar| By Russell Schoch | California Alumni Association| June 2003
  10. Islamic Government, (1981), p.25-6
  11. all page numbers refer to Hamid Algar's book, Islam and Revolution, Writings and Declarations Of Imam Khomeini
  12. Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, (1985), p.193
  13. the comment was directed at a judge by the name of Shurayh who was neither a prophet, nor a legatee of a prophet, and thus, 'Ali implied, was a sinful wretch (p.81, 158)
  14. Khomeini's English translator defines a faqih as a person "learned in the principles and ordinances of Islamic law, or more generally, in all aspects of the faith." (p.150)
  15. The Islamic Republic of Iran does have a legislature, though some have argued it has been kept in a very subordinate position in keeping with Khomeini's idea of wilayat al-faqih, (Shirazi, The Constitution of Iran, (1997), p.295)
  16. Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.196
  17. Dabashi, Hamid, `Early propagation of Wiliyat-i Faqih and Mullah Ahmad Naraqi` in Nasr, Dabashi and Nasr (eds), Expectations of the Millennium, pp.287-300.
  18. has been translated by Richard Walzer as Al-Farabi on the Perfect state, pp.34-35, 172
  19. Kadri, Sadakat (2012). Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia ... macmillan. p. 95. ISBN 9780099523277.
  20. The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism, ed by Roy Olivier and Antoine Sfeir, 2007, 144-5. Al-Sadr is author of Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy) and Iqtisaduna (Our Economics)
  21. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini, (2001) p.?; Dabashi, Theology of Discontent (1993), p.473
  22. Abrahamian, Khomeinism (1993), p.23
  23. Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nur, Vol. I, p.229
  24. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini, (2001) p.?; Dabashi, Theology of Discontent (1993), p.439, 461
  25. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.126
  26. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, (1993), p.447
  27. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p.158
  28. Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, (1994), p.173-4
  29. see, for example, Reza Zanjani
  30. Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.197-8
  31. Abrahamian, Iran (1982) p.534-5
  32. "Democracy? I meant theocracy", by Dr. Jalal Matini, Translation & Introduction by Farhad Mafie, August 5, 2003, The Iranian,
  33. 1 2 "Fadlallah's Death Leaves a Vacuum in the Islamic World". Middle East Online. Retrieved 2011-02-03.
  34. Pollock, Robert L. (March 14, 2009). "A Dialogue with Lebanon's Ayatollah". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  35. "Mixed legacy of Ayatollah Fadlallah". BBC News. 4 July 2010. Retrieved 4 November 2015. While he [Fadlallah] backed the Iranian revolution, he did not support the Iranian invention of the concept of Wilayet al-Faqih, which gives unchallengeable authority in temporal matters to the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was only a mid-ranking cleric when he attained the leadership.
  36. What Happens When Islamists Take Power? The Case of Iran
  37. Arjomand, Turban for the Crown (1988), p.173; Abrahamian, Khomeinism, (1993), p.55
  38. Abrahamian, Khomeinism, (1993), p.34-5
  39. On April 24, 1989, Article 109 of the Iranian constitution, requiring that the Leader be a marja'-e taqlid, was removed. New wording in constitutional articles 5, 107, 109, 111, required him to be `a pious and just faqih, aware of the exigencies of the time, courageous, and with good managerial skills and foresight.` If there are a number of candidates, the person with the best `political and jurisprudential` vision should have the priority.`
    According to biographer Baqer Moin, "The change was immense. [Khomeini's] theory of Islamic government was based on the principle that the right to rule is the exclusive right of the faqih, the expert on Islamic law." (quotes from Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah by Baqer Moin (Thomas Dunne Books, c2000) pp.293-4)
  40. "The Western Mind of Radical Islam" by Daniel Pipes, First Things, December 1995
  41. Ayatollah Behesti speaking in the Assembly of Experts in 1979, see Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran (1997) pp.161-174
  42. Keyhan, January 8, 1988
  43. Molavi, Afshin, The Soul of Iran, Norton, (2005), p.10
  44. Who Rules Iran?| Christopher de Bellaigue| New York Review of Books| June 27, 2002
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