Religion played a role in Iranian revolution, and some people point to specific aspects of Shi’ite doctrine as contributing factors to the revolution. This video provides a very brief introduction to Shi’ism to provide context for our discussion of the revolution.
First a note on vocabulary: While there is some flexibility in usage, Shi’ism is the noun for the religion, Shi’ite is the adjective, and Shi’a tends to refer to the group of people who are Shi’ite (although Shi’a and Shi’ite tend to be used interchangeably).
The origins of Shi’ism are in the 7th century and the debate over the succession to the caliphate after Mohammad’s death. Shi’ites believe that Ali and Hussein formed the rightful line of succession, but Hussain was killed by the forces of the caliph Yazid at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
This is one reason why Shi’ism has many traditions associated with martyrdom – Ali and Hussein were the original martyrs and their deaths are commemorated during Ashura, which is in the Islamic month of Muhharam. The holiday is often marked by passion plays – sometimes bloody presentation focusing on the suffering of martyrs.
Most Iranians are what is called “Twelver” Shi’ites. This means they believe that there were twelve legitimate Imams who came after Prophet Mohammad. The 12th, however, who is called the Mahdi or the Imam-e Zaman. He disappeared and is currently in what is called occultation – the belief is that he will one day return to bring justice to the world. This messianic element of Shi’a Islam waxes and wanes over time. Former President Ahmadinejad was a prominent believer in the Mahdi and his messianic rhetoric contributed to the unification of international opposition against Iran during his administration.
Finally, a note on clerical ranks. While Shi’ism doesn’t have a formal clergy – the word “ulema” refers to the entire group of Islamic scholars – it does emphasize the role of marjas. A marja is a source of emulation. He isn’t chosen from above, but below – a scholar becomes a marja because people choose to follow him. There are several ranks for marjas:
(Grand) Ayatollah or Grand Ayatollah is the highest, attained by only a few. Ayatollah Khomeini was a Grand Ayatollah, as is Ali Sistani, who is based in Najaf in Iraq and is generally considered to be the most influential Shi’a cleric (or marja) alive today. Ali Khameini, Iran’s current supreme leader is also referred to as a Grand Ayatollah, but his religious credentials are relatively weak.
The other ranks include hojatoleslam and mujtahid – what is most notable here is that these ranks are chosen by acclamation of one’s peers, not by a more senior cleric.
The word mullah usually refers to a local cleric – the head of your neighborhood mosque and nowadays is sometimes used in a derogatory sense: referring to “those mullahs” in power in Iran.
And finally, sometimes you will hear Khomeini referred to as “Imam” in the Iranian context, elevating him to the status of one if Shi’ism’s original 12 leaders. This is an extreme honorific, but a common one – Iran named its main airport in Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport.