The Mufti Who Is More Khomeinist Than A Mullah: Assad's Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun
16 June 2014
By Amir Taheri
Having written about politicians of many nationalities
for decades, I thought I had become vaccinated against
being surprised by how low they could wallow in
cynicism. And yet last week I was surprised to learn I
was not beyond being surprised.
Here's why: In the past few days, the official media
in Tehran have published a number of accounts by an
Iranian delegation sent to Syria to monitor the
so-called presidential election won by President
Bashar Al-Assad with 88.7 percent of the votes. The
first surprise came when Assad, a weakling with an ego
the size of Everest, told the visitors that he owed
his "victory" to "guidance by Imam Khamenei."
This was a surprise because exactly at the time that
Assad was making his sycophantic remarks, Ali Khamenei
was ordering his minions to stop calling him "Imam." A
statement issued by his office insisted: "The Leader
does not counsel the use of the title of ‘Imam' . . .
The title ‘Ayatollah Al-Ozma' [Grand Ayatollah] is
The Supreme Leader was reacting to a number of thinly
disguised attacks from senior clerics in Qom who have
never recognized him as a religious leader, although
they accept him as the Islamic Republic's chief
political figure. Last month, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad
Wahidi warned against those who "leapfrog and call
themselves Hojjat Al-Islam, then Ayatollah, then Grand
Ayatollah." He did not name Khamenei, but everyone
recognized the target.
Another Grand Ayatollah, Shobeiri Zanjani, has
reminded everyone that Iran practices Twelver Shi'ism,
meaning it has only 12 imams, the last of whom is
"Hidden" and will return at the end of time.
Everyone knows that if Assad is still around, it is
largely thanks to support from Tehran. Thus he has
every reason to be grateful to the leadership in
Tehran. What he is not obliged to do, however, is to
be the "bowl that is hotter than the soup," as we say
in Persian, or "more Catholic than the Pope," as they
say in the West.
Assad is an ophthalmologist with no knowledge of
Islamic theology. He is also the leader of a
Nationalist-Socialist Ba'ath Party, a supposedly
secularist outfit. The religious sect to which he
belongs, the Alawites, has never been recognized as
part of Islam by the Twelver Shi'ite clergy. So he
could be excused for not knowing the difference
between an imam and an ayatollah.
But if Assad has the excuse of his ignorance of Islam,
what about Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, who bears the
lofty title of Grand Mufti of Syria? This gentleman
provided the second surprise of the week by offering a
weird narrative of early Islamic history. In a meeting
with the Khomeinist parliamentary delegation, Hassoun
described Assad's "victory" as a "blessing for Syrian
people." That much is understandable insofar as the
gentleman is an employee of the Assad government. What
is not understandable, let alone justifiable, is his
attempt to put a religious gloss on what is an example
of naked political cynicism.
According to accounts published by members of the
Iranian delegation in the official media in Tehran,
Hassoun claimed that after the Prophet's death,
Muslims developed the concepts of "caliph" and "imam"
side by side. In that system, Hassoun went on, the
imam was chosen "with assent from Allah," while the
people chose the "caliph" by swearing bay'ah (fealty).
In other words, God and people made different choices.
In that dualist system, the "caliph" could not fulfill
his duties without the backing of the "imam." Thus the
first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, needed
Ali as "imam." (Hassoun does not say what happened
when Ali himself became caliph.)
Trying to apply his theory to the present power
structure in Iran and Syria, Hassoun claims that the
"admirable success" of the Islamic Republic in Iran
was due to "Imam" Khomeini and, after him, "Imam"
Khamenei. According to Hassoun, The Islamic Republic's
various presidents, including Akbar Rafsanjani,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani, are modern
versions of the "caliph," while Khomeini and Khamenei
have played the "imam."
Hassoun then claims that in Syria today, Assad plays
the role of a "caliph" sustained by Khamenei's "imam."
Leaving aside Hassoun's pseudo-Islamic jargon, his
analysis is correct. Assad is sustained by Khamenei.
However, Assad's position is best described by a pure
Persian word: satrap, a provincial governor. He is
satrap of Syria, with Khamenei playing the Shahanshah,
the King of Kings. There is nothing new there; for
almost 1,000 years Syria was an Iranian satrapy. What
is new, however, is that Assad is as much a caricature
of a satrap as Khamenei is of a King of Kings.
Hassoun's despicable sycophancy does not stop there.
In the meeting with Khomeinist parliamentarians, he
asked them whether they had heard Khamenei's latest
speech. They replied that they had not because they
were in Syria monitoring the presidential "election."
Hearing that, Hassoun feigns surprise and hurt. "What
is more important than hearing the latest guidance of
the Imam?" he demands. "I will never miss the Imam's
speeches," Hassoun boasts. "Each time I listen, I
learn a world of wisdom."
Now, don't get me wrong. I understand that Khamenei,
as the political leader of a beleaguered regime facing
growing discontent within and sustained pressure from
without needs whatever alliances it can make, even
with a discredited dictator such as Assad. I also
understand why Hassoun, whose fortune—maybe even
life—depends on the continuation of the Assad regime,
should try to curry favor with the foreign patron of
that regime. Both positions make sense in terms of
What I object to is mixing religion with naked
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz,
southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and
Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle
East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he
served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and
2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald
Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal,
the New York Post, the New York Times, the London
Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale,
and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been
translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist
for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in
London and New York.