When people with Western sensibilities talk about the system of governance in Iran, two closely-related category errors are invariably present in the discourse. The first is that they fail to distinguish between Covenantal or Dispensational polities and Conventional ones; and this is because, secondly, they fail to distinguish between communities and societies, or, more specifically, between sacred communities and civil societies. Covenantal or Dispensational polities yield sacred communities, whereas Conventional polities yield civil societies; or, to put it slightly differently: sacred communities are the product of a communal consensus on a given Covenant (and on the Dispensation which ensues from that Covenant), whereas civil societies are the product of a Conventional communal consensus.
What is the nature of man and of the world in which he finds himself? Is there a God, and if so, what, if anything, does He want of me? What, if anything, is my purpose and the purpose of my nation? Different cosmologies or worldviews, having come up with different answers to these questions concerning existence and the world in which we find ourselves, will produce different sets of values and value priorities, which, in the context of nations and nation-states, will produce different legal constitutions, which are nothing other than the building blocks for the institutionalization of those value sets, enabling laws to be forged and enforced so that those values are protected and maintained. To put it slightly differently, cosmologies, theologies and spiritual anthropologies, or, in sum, one’s orientation in the world and sense of self-identity (i.e. the way the above basic questions are answered or assumed) are determinative of one’s national identity and of the polity of one’s nation. A “nation” of materialist atheists who do not believe in the existence of God, let alone believe that He might want His nation to behave in a certain purposive way collectively, will constitute a very different polity than that of a nation whose constituents believe, in unison, that there is a dispensation (or divinely sanctioned way of life) ordained by God for each individual and for their nation as a whole, and that their entire purpose in life is to live within the bounds of that dispensation in order for its salvific promise to be fulfilled.
In a world where the universe is believed to be created (and didn’t “just happen”) and the warps and woofs of whose fabric are utterly moral in their composition, and in a world whose creation is a program upon whose stage mankind is positioned front and center, and in which God is intimately involved by way of his comprehensive providential administration in the affairs of man and in the affairs of the world, the meaning and compass of religion are going to be very different and far more expansive than the conception of religion in a society whose citizens either do not believe in God, or believe that “religion” is a private affair and is best kept out of the public arena. (The decision of the relegation of religion to the confines of the private lives of the individual is itself a public affairs decision, making the attempt at such a separation infinitely regressive and therefore a logical impossibility, but that is a story for another day.)
From Sacred Community to Civil Society
Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses (1517), published 500 years ago this year, was the catalyst that started the Reformation, which set off a series of conflicts between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces within the ambit of the Holy Roman Empire, ending in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) wherein the principle of cuius regio, eius religio was adopted. This principle, (“Whose realm, his [right to impose his] religion”), went against what is now referred to as “religious uniformity”, but was in fact the decay, degeneration and ultimate ending of the state of the integrality of religion and state within the Holy Roman Empire. But the principle of cuius regio, eius religio was not enough to withstand the various Renaissance pressures and the floodgates which had temporarily been held in place by the Peace of Augsburg burst open throughout central Europe in The Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648) with the forces of the Protestant Union of the north waging war against the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in order to reassert what they saw as rights which had been granted to them in the Peace of Augsburg. And so it was not until the Peace of Westphalia (1644 to 48) where the European wars of religion were effectively ended and the natural state of the integrality of religion and state ended with a deteriorated and decayed state of the “separation of church and state”, putting an end to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the longer Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic. Now the reason this degeneration and decay from integrality to a chaotic modus vivendi (or from actual community to “Civil Society”) is not decried as a shame and is actually celebrated by the misinformed is because it is something that is seen as inevitable, given the history recalled in the above paragraph. But again, this did not have to be the case, and that history only came to pass because of the unique historical path that Western Christendom took which acted as an inevitable prelude to the rise of Neo-Pagan and Humanist ideas prior to the Reformation, and which saw their full bloom in the so-called Enlightenment.
The German philosopher and sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855 – 1936) distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft (often translated as community or left untranslated) and Gesellschaft (often translated as society). Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft describe the crucial distinction between community and “Civil Society”; community being characterized by a dispensationalist consensus or a sacred communal consensus on a dispensation sent down from on high, and the latter being characterized as a consensus to “agree to disagree” and to agree that a consensus in any meaningful form can no longer be reached, paving the way to a “conventional” polity (agreed to by secular-humanist convention). This “agreement to disagree” which crystalized between the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and the Peace of Westphalia (1644 – 1648) was, in effect, the West’s long and excruciating decision to throw out the baby of Community with the bathwater of the Church’s malfeasance in the revolutionary fervor of the Reformation and the “Enlightenment” that followed in its wake.
But whereas the integrality of church and state was lost with the Peace of Westphalia (1644 – 1648) whereat pre-Westphalian communities gave way to the Westphalian order of “Civil Societies”, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 restored community to the Moslem nation of Iran. Imām Khomeinī comments with respect to this difference:
The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to Almighty God. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator.
The Covenantal polity and the constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on the theory of Velāyat-e Faqīh which is a theory which addresses man’s basic and existential questions in a way that is suited not to any and all people, but to people who share a broad spectrum of basic first principles or creedal beliefs and who have achieved the high plateau of “religious uniformity”; for people, in other words, who have attained to faith in and have sworn allegiance to and have dedicated themselves to living their lives in accordance with a divine dispensation ordained by God. To say the same thing from its opposite and negative rather than affirmative perspective, this political theory is suitable for a community of faith and is not suitable for an aggregation of atomized and supra-individuated persons who have pilfered away the sacred revealed guidance and teachings which are the bindings that provide for social cohesion against the centrifugal forces of excessive individualism and social alienation, and who consequently find themselves in the geographical confines of a given location which they share (through no choice of their own) with other individuals with which they have little in common other than the fact that each of their individual interests are at variance and indeed at loggerheads with those others with whom they are condemned to share the confines of their geographical as well as their emotional and cognitive spaces. Failing to attain to a collective faith, man finds himself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, in a state where there is “no society [in the true sense of the word, by which he means community, as opposed to what has come to be known as “civil society” in the post-Westphalian order], and … [where] the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (This state, Hobbes erroneously characterized as a state of nature, whereas in fact, it is the state of denatured man.) This is the definition which society has slouched down to after the diluvium which followed the Peace of Augsburg and the ascendancy of the Westphalian order that followed it.
From Civil Society to Sacred Community
Contrary to this, the Islamic vision, which was to bring about a social transformation which founded the life of the community on divine norms, had to be acknowledged by society as a whole (as a logical outcome of the nascent community’s faith in that vision and program). Here is Imam Khomeinī again:
The body of Islamic laws that exist in the Quran and the Sonnaᵗ has been accepted by the Moslems and recognized by them as worthy of obedience. This consent and acceptance facilitates the task of government and makes it truly belong to the people. In contrast, in a republic or a constitutional monarchy, most of those claiming to be representatives of the majority of the people will approve anything they wish as law and then impose it on the entire population [whereas in Islam, the yoke of compliance with the Law is taken on willingly by the community of those who have attained to faith.]
Here Imām Khomeinī, the greatest man the modern era has witnessed, has placed his finger on the crux of the difference between simply democratic forms of government and ones based on divine law: the latter is sacred to those who have attained to faith in it, while the former can at best be characterized as optimally coercive. The only way to escape from the tyranny of the absolutism of law is for that absolutism to have absolute legitimacy; is for society to go back to being a community; for there to be consensus, in other words, and for that consensus to be sacred, to have consensus upon the sacred, to hold values in common that are inviolable in their sacrosanctity. Without consensus upon the sacred, authority will always be illegitimate or a conventionally agreed upon approximation of legitimacy which nonetheless will always be a locus of individual resentment. Man’s failure to achieve sacred consensus dooms him to a life of tyranny. Legislation can be just, have full efficacy and be capable of fulfilling man’s quest for happiness only when it is in accord with man’s primordial constitution: with his fetraᵗ. [12:40] Judgment [as to what is right and what is wrong] rests with God alone, meaning that the creation of laws that will enable him to reach his intended perfection in this world and bring felicity for man in the hereafter is God’s exclusive prerogative, for no one but He has the competence for this undertaking.
So in this sense, walīyic Islam, which is the Guardianship-type of comprehensive authority God’s regent on earth is given in order to interpret and implement His dispensation, is not “democratic” in the sense of each person’s vote having been equally weighted in matters that require a high degree of religious expertise, but rather, is hierarchical based on a hierarchy of knowledge and learning. This of course applies to issues that fall within the aegis of the dispensation or within the jurisdiction circumscribed by the sacred law. For example, in this system, if “the people” want to marry persons of the same sex, then walīyic Islam, and specifically the walīy or faqīh will step in and remind or educate the Moslem, saying, ‘No, God’s law forbids you from doing so.’ But in areas where the sacred dispensation or sharīat is silent and has a neutral interest, say, on the matter of land use policy, for example, then a congress of “democratically” elected representatives of the people will decide such “regulations” (we use the word to distinguish between the jurisdiction of the people (،urfīāt) and sacred “laws” which are the domain of God) in accordance with the will of the people whom they are elected to represent. And the line as to where God’s jurisdiction ends and that of the people’s begins is static with respect to certain things but is wholly dynamic with respect to others, and is also determined by the fully-qualified magister.
But on the other hand, if we define the word democracy as a system of governance where the will of the people reigns supreme, then the system of walīyic Islam is indeed more democratic, because the people have willed, collectively, to submit their wills to the will of God and this consensus yields or at least tends toward the highest common factor rather than to the lowest common denominator which is the highest yield that can possibly be expected from the absence of consensus on major first principles, which is the state that is the norm and definition of secular democracies and which is a species of heteronomy that a failure to achieve sacred consensus will invariably yield. So in the strict sense of the word, walīyic Islam is maximally democratic whereas liberal democracy (even if we grant that, its misconceived anthropology notwithstanding, is capable somehow of immunizing itself from being hijacked by the creeping forces of covert de facto oligarchy) is at best minimally so.
Do me a Favor
Achieving sacred consensus on the divine dispensation is the only way in which a purposive community can be achieved, and as man was made to have purpose communally as well as individually, any polity that does not provide him with the means to achieve that common purpose will be heteronomous to his primordial disposition or original nature (fetrat), thereby annihilating it in time. And we would argue that not only is community not actually possible without man submitting and fettering his will to that of God’s dispensation, but that in the long run, even “civil society” (and the whole Faustian Westphalian project) is not sustainable either, because it will disintegrate into oligarchy or some other form of repressive system, or the 21st century equivalent of the Weimar Republic will turn into its analogue of 1933 Germany (wasn’t 9/11 our Reichstag fire?), or transmogrify into different and ever more exquisite forms of chaos and anarchy; because God has created man in such a way that he must necessarily have an umbilical relationship to his Maker at all times, such that any overplus of autonomy is ultimately false and therefore self-undermining; and in his arrogance, if man believes that he has been given the freedom to do whatever he wants, he should know that the nature of the world in which he finds himself is that the centrifugal forces of his unfettered lower or commanding self (an-nafs al-ammāra bi sū’) will inevitably burst the bindings of whatever system he has concocted for himself and ultimately cause him (and his so-called order), to quote the Qoran, [105:5] to become like a field of grain that has been eaten down to [noting but its] stubble: fa ja‘alahom ka ‘asfin ma‘kūl: a spent force.
Here are a couple of instances of the more obvious Qoranic evidences and warnings:
[75:36] Does man, then, think that he is to be left to himself?
[3:83] Do they seek, perchance, a religion other than God’s, although it is unto Him that whatever is in the heavens and on earth surrenders itself, willingly or unwillingly, since [it is] unto Him [that the affairs of] all shall be returned [for evaluation and judgment]?
And so, in conclusion, we say to those Johnny-come-lately liberal hawks who feel the urge of the “responsibility, to protect” us from ourselves by dragging us down to the minimalist version of their sham democracy is that, while we can and do appreciate their position (which is best summed up by the axiom ‘misery enjoys company’), our response must nevertheless remain: ‘Do me a favor; don’t do me any favors.’
By Blake Archer Williams
(Blake Archer Williams’ two books, Introduction to Walīyic Islam and Creedal Foundations of Walīyic Islam, which are the sources for the ideas presented in this essay – and where they are fully elaborated – can be found on Amazon.com, together with all 32 of his books on Walīyic Islam or the Shi’a Islam of Imam Khomeini which is the basis of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.)
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