NICOSIA, CYPRUS — "Khomeini's command is as good as that of the Prophet!" This slogan, shouted by students in Tehran on Jan. 13, is a monstrous sacrilege for most Muslims because the Prophet--Mohammed, founder of Islam--was the messenger of God to whom God's words were dictated and written down in the Koran.
The slogan was the outcome of a discussion during December among the Iranian Shia mullahs about the limits of governmental power. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brought it to an end this month with a directive claiming that the authority of Islamic government has supreme validity, overriding even the Koran.
The president of Iran, Ali Khamenei, unsuspecting, brought the debate into the open when he said, in a sermon Jan. 1, that according to Khomeini an Islamic government "has its authority within the framework of God's religious laws."
A week later a thunderbolt descended from on high. Khomeini, in a lengthy exposition, declared that the president's words were "a misquotation and misinterpretation and completely contradict my beliefs." Khomeini's exposition was so extraordinary as to deserve quotation at some length:
"I must reiterate that our government is a branch of Mohammed's vice-regency and is one of the first precepts of Islam. It takes precedence over all religious practices such as prayers, fasting or the Hajj pilgrimage . . . . I openly say that the government can stop any religious law if it feels that it is correct to do so . . . . The ruler can close or destroy the mosques whenever he sees fit . . . . The government can prohibit anything having to do with worship if these things would be against the interests of the country . . . . The Islamic government can unilaterally abrogate its contracts with and obligations towards the public whenever such contracts are against the interests of the country and Islam . . . . The government can prevent its citizens from performing the Hajj pilgrimage which is one of the divine duties . . . . Government is an institution ordained by the Almighty and founded with absolute power entrusted to the prophet Mohammed and as an entity it supplants as secondary statutes of the canonical law of Islam."
There are at least three startling and controversial elements in Khomeini's claim to totalitarian power. He bases this claim on what he calls "God's absolute velayet e-faqih, " that is, "the government of the jurisconsult" or the legally trained cleric; in other words, someone like Khomeini himself. The velayet e-faqih, he says, is "a divine gift which must not be denigrated." But this self-serving velayet e-faqih theory has no basis in the Koran; it was cooked up by Khomeini during years of exile in Iraq to fit his own personal political ambitions once he returned to Iran.
Perhaps the most heretical claim of all is Khomeini's dictate that his "Islamic" government can set aside three of the five pillars of Islam--daily prayers, the month of fasting and the pilgrimage (the other two pillars being the declaration of faith and the charitable tax). This amounts to a root-and-branch "denigration" of the core of Koranic practice.
Khomeini tried to camouflage his heresy by linking his velayet e-faqih with the government set up at Medina in AD 622. But Mohammed was the very opposite of the religious dictator Khomeini tries to describe. Mohammed was invited to rule in Medina by its people; he ruled them through their consensus and they at times overruled him.
Khomeini's claim to a status of at least co-equal prophethood has, in order of importance, religious, political and personal consequences. The religious aspect comes first because Islam, currently in its 14th century, is as alive and dynamic as Christianity was in its 14th century. In the Islamic world today, religious happenings and religious discussions are matters of passionate popular concern, not least because of the Islamic Republic of Iran. During these nearly 1,400 years there has been antagonism between the orthodox Sunnis, who now constitute 90% of all Muslims, and the heterodox 10% balance, the Shias now led by Iran. This antagonism has led to chronic, endemic violence between groups, especially on the Indian subcontinent. The Sunnis, increasingly, have questioned whether Shiism, which has added a great deal to original Koranic Islam, should be considered a separate faith.
After Khomeini's latest directive, the gap between Sunni Islam and Shiism will be widened into a deep chasm. To their Islamic credit, students in Qom, Khomeini's spiritual home, have protested against his directive. But if Shias outside Iran do not also reject the ayatollah's grandiose pretensions, this acceptance would, in the eyes of the Sunnis, be further proof that Shiism is indeed a different system of belief from Islam.