The Supreme Guide and the Substance of the Angels
01 October 2015
By Amir Taheri
Is Iran's ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei created from the same substance as
The question is part of a galaxy of theories and counter-theories used to
build up his personality cult as a figure beyond and above mere mortals. In
the 17th century the theologian of Isfahan Mullah Muhammad-Baqer Majlisi
devised the theory according to which God created the whole of universe for
the sake of the descendants of Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, and her cousin
and husband Ali Ibn Abi Taleb. The 11 Imams who followed Ali were ''special
fruits of creation.''
Since then the theory has been extended to all other descendants of the
Last Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared that praying at the tombs of
all descendants of the Imams was a sure sign of ''true commitment to the
Qur'an.'' Earlier, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani went even further by
claiming that visiting those tombs was ''an integral part of Islamic
worship'' and that Khamenei, as a descendant of Hussein, the third Imam of
Shi'ism, should be regarded as a figure ''on par with the Prophet.'' For his
part, Ayatollah Reza Taqawi, head of the National Council of Friday Prayer
Leaders, said in a sermon last Friday that the key purpose of collective
prayers in mosques was to ''renew and reassert the bond that Muslims have
with the Vali-e Faqih,'' that is to say Khamenei as the current
representative of the Ali-and-Fatima lineage.
That lineage is blessed with special attributes that border on the
miraculous. The daily Kayhan, published under the supervision of Khamenei's
office, ran an editorial about a visit the ''Supreme Guide'' paid to Shiraz,
Iran's ancient cultural capital.
''Though it was not spring, flowers were already in bloom and nightingales
were chirping,'' the editorial said. ''The air was filled with a pleasant
scent and the sun was shining brighter than ever.'' The reason? ''Agha [the
Master] was coming.''
''That kind of sycophancy has always been practiced in Iran and other
'oriental' lands,'' says Hamid Daneshvar, a researcher in Islamic traditions.
''However, traditional boot-lickers did so for material gain and did not mix
their cocktail of inanities with religious themes. What is new and
potentially problematic is the attempt to give Khamenei a prophetic status.
For most Muslims, that would be sailing too close to the wind.''
To be fair, Khamenei himself has on occasions expressed discomfort with the
excesses of his followers.
On at least two occasions he publicly demanded not to be called ''Imam,''
reserving the title for Ali and his 11 male descendants. According to sources
close to his entourage he was also opposed to a scheme to draw his portrait
by growing trees in many of Iran's foothills so that people looking down from
aircrafts flying above would see the image of the ''Supreme Guide''
everywhere. (In the end only one such project was completed.)
Each year, the Leader's Office receives thousands of odes (qasidas) praising
Khamenei's supernatural qualities, but few are included in his official
website. One ode, published last spring, compares Khamenei to ''divine wine''
that when drunk by true believers brings them closer to the ''Absolute
Truth.'' A Chinese lady, Amineh Hua, newly converted to Islam, has written a
poem in Chinese and Persian, relating how she ''bursts out into tears of
joy'' when she pronounces the Leaders' name. Another gentleman, Taraz,
labeled ''Qatar's National Poet'' by the Iranian media, describes Khamenei as
''the Heaven in which all Muslims shine as a billion stars.''
''The least one can say is that Khamenei, while titillated by such flattery,
is also embarrassed by it,'' says a theologian—speaking on condition of
anonymity—who knows the Leader. ''My guess is that he is not sure whether
such flattery is prompted by self-interest or genuine belief.''
However, on that score he has been ignored by many of his real or pretending
admirers. Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is one such. For him the
word ''Imam'' is synonymous with Khamenei. Nasrallah is also record-holder in
the number of superlative adjectives he has used to praise the Iranian
Nasrallah's deputy Naim Qassem has gone further by writing a book,
commissioned by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, with the title The
In it he claims that Islam was either dead or moribund when the late
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Tehran. However, Khomeini had to
cope with post-revolution turmoil and the eight-year war with Iraq and
couldn't devote all his attention to bringing Islam back to life. That
''divine task'' was left for Khamenei, who, thanks to his exceptional
qualities, gave Islam a new life which has helped it ''humble the kuffar
[infidels] and expand in all directions.''
Whether or not Khamenei is embarrassed by his cult of personality remains a
matter of speculation. There is evidence that he is not embarrassed and maybe
even encouraging his adulators.
For example, when the ''Arab Spring'' started he claimed that the uprisings
were inspired by the Khomeinist revolution and his leadership of it. He
created a special unit, headed by his foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar
Velayati, named the Islamic Awakening Office, to ''lead and manage'' the Arab
uprisings. He then dictated a letter, signed by Velayati, to Muslim
Brotherhood leaders in Egypt telling them how to ''manage the revolution'' by
purging the armed forces, setting up revolutionary courts, and liquidating
opponents as the Khomeinists had done in Iran.
Earlier this year, Khamenei published an ''open letter'' to the ''Western
Youth'' inviting them to adopt his ideology. Last month a special office was
created to translate and distribute that letter and recruit people in the
West to pursue its goals. Another ''research center'' employing dozens of
people is devoted to ''seeking the deepest meanings'' of Khamenei's writings.
The trouble is, apart from more than 1,000 speeches he has made since 1979,
he has no writings of his own. He has also translated one book by Pakistani
Islamist Abul-A'la Maududi, two books by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood
ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and a few poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Khamenei's personality cult hit a new low last month when his office
organized an international conference of Muslim medical doctors. Over 400
doctors from 68 countries came to Tehran, all expenses paid, to learn from ''Khamenei's
thoughts'' how to ''push the frontiers of medical knowledge beyond imaginable
''Though he knows nothing about medicine, the Leader was not embarrassed,''
says a former Khomeinist official now in exile in London. ''He may have
fallen for his own personality cult.''
Khamenei is certainly better educated than the late Khomeini. At least he can
speak and write correct Persian and Arabic, something the late Ayatollah
never managed. From available evidence Khamenei also has a better knowledge
of Islam and its history than Khomeini did. Nevertheless, Khamenei has never
been accepted as a theologian or Islamic scholar, but as a political leader,
bestowing on him a degree of dangerous ambiguity.
That ambiguity enables him to hit much higher than his weight by using his
political position as long as the going is good. However, the slightest sign
that his political power may be on the wane or seriously challenged could
expose him as a prophet without armor.
And that, in the context of Iran's violent politics, created of the same
substance as angels or not, is a dicey situation to be in, to say the least.
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.