For many Shiite Muslims, whose religion was born of rebellion, last year's popular uprising in Iran was just the latest in a centuries-long struggle against injustice and tyranny. Now, as the clerical regime consolidates its grip on power a year after the tainted reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran remains torn by what seems to be a hopeless conflict between Islam and democracy. But the 2009 unrest and violent crackdown in Iran were actually battles in a larger war that has been raging for centuries within Shiism -- a war over who should rule the faithful, and how. There is a more moderate, democratic vision of Shiism -- one that has been stifled ever since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution -- that could ultimately resolve the current conflict.

Shiite clerics have long debated their role in politics. The "quietist" school -- rooted in the sect's tradition of seeking to avoid confrontation with powerful rulers -- argues against direct engagement in political matters. The more activist school emphasizes the martyrdom of Shiism's founding figure, Imam Hussein, who advocated rebellion and confrontation. But even within the activist school, there is a debate over the extent of clerical power.

The model of absolute rule that dominates Iran today is just one of several competing doctrines within the Shiite clergy. Wilayat al-faqih (velayat-e faqih in Farsi), or "guardianship of the jurist," triumphed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. He modeled his doctrine on the concept of absolute rule exercised by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the early days of Islam. Khomeini's charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shiism emanating from the Iraqi city of Najaf. By eclipsing the Najaf school, Khomeini succeeded in combining the role of Shiite theologian with that of political leader of the global Muslim community.

But contrary to popular perception, many Shiite clerics have long opposed Khomeini's vision of an all-powerful supreme leader. They do not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran, Iraq, or elsewhere. One faction believes that a group of senior clerics should rule by consensus, while another camp argues that leadership should be left to politicians who are devout but not necessarily clerics. The dominant Shiite theological school in Najaf, for example, rejects Khomeini's model. At its heart, the argument is over competing visions of Shiism's essence. Should the faith be defined by a diverse group of scholars living at seminaries and engaging in esoteric theological debates, or should it follow the tradition of absolute political and religious leadership advocated by Khomeini? The outcome of this debate will have profound consequences for Shiites in countries stretching from Lebanon to Pakistan, and especially for the futures of Iran and Iraq.

In the seventh century, there was a violent schism within Islam. One camp argued that the Prophet Muhammad's successor, or caliph, should be chosen from among his closest companions. The other camp insisted that any succession must preserve the prophet's bloodline and, therefore, that his rightful heir was his cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali. Shiism emerged as a movement called Shia Ali, or the Partisans of Ali. He was passed over three times in a row for the caliphate, until the year 656, when he became the fourth caliph of Islam. But a civil war soon erupted between Ali's partisans in Iraq and his opponents based in Damascus. In 661, Ali was assassinated by a disgruntled follower while praying at a mosque in southern Iraq. Ali was buried in Najaf, and theologians later flocked to the city to establish seminaries.

Nineteen years after Ali's death, his son Hussein led a rebellion against the caliph Yazid in Damascus. Yazid's troops besieged Hussein and a small band of supporters near the Iraqi town of Karbala. According to Shiite lore, Hussein and his followers were cut off from the water of the Euphrates River; over ten days, many starved or died from thirst. Yazid's troops eventually assassinated Hussein and displayed his severed head as they made their way back to Damascus -- a warning to anyone else who dared challenge the caliph's authority. The violent deaths of Ali and Hussein gave rise to the Shiite cult of martyrdom, and Shiism assumed the role of a "pious opposition" to the Sunni majority.

In the early 1500s, the Safavid dynasty established Shiism as the state religion in Iran. As most of the Muslim world fell under the Sunni Ottoman Empire, Shiism became identified with Persia. The Safavid rulers of Iran tried to win legitimacy for their rule from Shiite clerics in Iraq and Lebanon.

Until the nineteenth century, the quietist school of Shiism prevailed: most Shiite clerics steered clear of politics, and Shiites who lived under Ottoman rule in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere did not challenge the dominant Sunni regime. The concept of wilayat al-faqih dates back to the early nineteenth century, but Khomeini reinterpreted it in 1970 while he was exiled in Najaf. In a series of lectures, he grappled with the question of how to create an Islamic state without the Mahdi, the hidden 12th imam whom Shiites regard as infallible and the last rightful successor to the prophet. (Most Shiites believe that their Mahdi vanished in 874, remains in hiding, and will eventually return, like Jesus, to render final judgment on humanity.) Until the 12th imam's return, Khomeini argued, a divinely anointed senior cleric should rule in his stead.

Khomeini's innovation was dismissed by other theologians who argued that absolute authority granted to the supreme leader (rahbar in Farsi) goes against the traditional system for choosing a leader in Shiite society. The writings of the Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (the father-in-law of the contemporary Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr) inspired the drafters of a new Iranian constitution in 1979. But Baqir Sadr, who was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1980, had proposed a more democratic form of Islamic governance that requires the consent of the faithful and a consensus among Shiite clerics in choosing the preeminent religious leader. "The leader emerged historically through a long process in which followers professed allegiance, as well as through peer recognition," writes Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese scholar and leading authority on Shiism. "There is a wide discrepancy between the traditional way in which Shiite society chose a religious leader and the way it is done under the Iranian constitution."

The Islamic Revolution vested Iran with great authority in the Shiite world. Beginning in the 1980s, the Iranian city of Qom eclipsed Najaf as the leading center of Shiite study, when thousands of Iraqi scholars fled there to escape a brutal anti-Shiite crackdown by Saddam's government. With Khomeini's vision of the faith ascendant, Shiism came to be viewed in many parts of the world as a fanatically violent movement extending from Iran to Lebanon. But Iran's spiritual influence diminished after Khomeini's death in 1989 and the selection of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as his successor. The lackluster Khamenei does not have the scholarly record that is normally required to attain the rank of ayatollah; he was elevated to the position shortly before a committee of senior clerics chose him as supreme leader. He was a compromise candidate among various clerical factions that did not want a leader as charismatic or influential as Khomeini.

Under Khamenei, the regime in Tehran continued to export Khomeini's vision of the Islamic Revolution, including to neighboring Iraq, where Shiites comprise nearly two-thirds of the country's population but have rarely held power until now. Many of the Shiite politicians who rule Iraq today spent their formative years as exiles in Iran. After Saddam was ousted by the United States in 2003, Iraqi clerics began debating their role in politics. Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters argued that clerics must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They also defied the U.S. occupation and its plan to install an interim government of mostly exiled, secular Iraqi politicians such as Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi. On the other side were the Najaf traditionalists and disciples of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, who viewed political power as fleeting. Sistani urged his followers to vote in Iraq's first parliamentary elections in January 2005, but he has since withdrawn from political life, going back to his roots in the quietist school.

Today, Iran exerts influence on Shiite groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by the cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who is ironically backed by both the United States and Iran. Both groups accept the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih. (The Supreme Council, whose leaders lived in Iran for more than 20 years, dropped the term "Islamic Revolution" from its name in 2007 to avoid being identified with the Iranian regime.)

During Lebanon's parliamentary elections last year, Christian and Sunni leaders raised fears about Iran's influence over Hezbollah. A Hezbollah-led coalition was expected to win a majority in the parliament but fell short. After the election, Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, warned his opponents not to question his group's allegiance to the Iranian doctrine. "For us, wilayat al-faqih and such matters are part of our religious beliefs," he said. "Insulting this doctrine is an insult to our beliefs."

But Nasrallah's choice to adopt the Iranian regime's line is far from universal. Even some scholars in Qom oppose Khomeini's vision and the authoritarian state it has produced but have withdrawn from public life to avoid a confrontation with the regime. For years, Iran has waged a war against its dissident clerics, imprisoning many and placing others under house arrest.

Emboldened by last year's protests, some dissident scholars spoke out forcefully. One month after the disputed presidential election, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri issued a religious ruling that did not mention Khamenei by name but declared Iran's leaders no longer fit to rule. It was the strongest criticism by a fellow cleric in 20 years. Montazeri said leaders who put their own interests above those of the people breach the implicit trust between ruler and ruled. "Those leaders are transgressors and usurpers, and therefore lose their right to rule," he wrote. "It is incumbent upon the people to call for their removal from office."

Montazeri, who died last December at the age of 87, was one of the most senior clerics in Iran. He was Khomeini's designated heir until the late 1980s, when he condemned the violence committed in the name of the revolution. In his critiques of Khamenei last year, Montazeri reiterated an argument he and other clerics had advanced for years: that an Islamic system of governance must rest on the sovereignty of God as well as the sovereignty of the people. "The government will not achieve legitimacy without the support of the people," he wrote. "As the necessary and obligatory condition for the legitimacy of the ruler is his popularity and the people's satisfaction with him."

After the disputed election, there were reports that former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had reached out to some dissident scholars in Qom. Rafsanjani leads the Assembly of Experts, a group of senior theologians who appoint -- and have the power to remove -- the supreme leader. The idea of removing Khamenei was always highly unlikely, and Rafsanjani appears to have recently reached an accommodation with him. (Rafsanjani initially supported the opposition after the presidential election but, as the regime's crackdown intensified, turned back toward the supreme leader.)

One possibility that has emerged over the past year is for senior clerics to redefine the position of supreme leader, forcing him to share power with a small council of other clerics. That concept of shared power is closer to the traditional interpretation of wilayat al-faqih, before Khomeini redefined it. As things stand now, Khamenei has further consolidated his power as supreme leader and is very unlikely to give it up. Such a change would therefore have to wait until Khamenei dies or becomes too frail or ill to hold office, or the Assembly of Experts declares him incompetent to rule. As improbable as it seems today, this is not a revolutionary idea that will require massive social upheaval; the notion is a part of Shiite culture that has been systematically suppressed since 1979.

A reinterpretation of wilayat al-faqih could offer a way out of Iran's crisis: the clergy would keep control over religious and social matters while giving up some political power. There is ample historical and theological precedent in Shiism to justify such a compromise.

Ultimately, Khomeini's vision of an all-powerful leader is bound to be modified. Iranians could reach back into Shiite history for the basis of a new political system that remains Islamic but is also genuinely democratic.

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  • MOHAMAD BAZZI is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.
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