If you're skeptical of the recent coverage from Iranian government sources showing how enthusiastic crowds greeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on his recent trip to Qom, one of the theological centers of Shiite Islam, you should be.
Photos and film from IRNA, Iran's state news agency, depict him meeting thousands of cheering admirers, arms waving with fervor. Last week, IRNA published a blizzard of stories running down Khamenei's meetings with religious scholars and seminary students, all intended to send the message that the leader is not only firmly in charge of his country, but also revered as its highest religious authority.
But when one takes into consideration that many of those supporters were not spontaneously assembled masses, but rather basiji (members of the paid militia that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), the waving crowds are suddenly less impressive. True, Khamenei's real mission was to secure the blessings of Qom's top ayatollahs, and he did meet some important ones: Loftollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Nuri Hamadani, Mohammed Hosseini Shahroudi, Naser Makarem Shirazi, and Mousa Shobeiri Zanjani.
But the most senior and influential grand ayatollahs stayed away in droves. Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Bayat Asadullah, Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, Mohammad, Muhammad Ali Gerami Qomi, Sadegh Rouhani, Yusef Sanei, and Seyed Hosseini Shirazi, among others, would not meet with Khamenei. One press account by the Tabnak website, closely associated with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, noted that Khamenei met with the children of prominent cleric and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, but not with the ayatollah himself, a prominent critic. The supreme leader -- a man who rose to his exalted position through political hardball, not religious scholarship -- had clearly hoped to shore up his shaky religious stature during his trip to Qom. Instead, he only showed just how isolated he has become.
The story of the Qom clerics' rejection of Khamenei, a biting irony in a theocracy, stretches back decades and is entangled in the opaque intricacies of Shiite Islam as practiced in post-revolutionary Iran.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran's constitution mandated that the supreme leader be a cleric of senior rank, a major mujtahid. A major mujtahid is a cleric whose collected judicial rulings in all areas of life have been popularly acclaimed as demonstrating ijtihad, a comprehensive expertise in interpreting Islamic law. The position of the Supreme Leader was restricted to those very few senior clerics who could be deemed a marja, a major mujtahid universally recognized as being highly worthy of emulation. Such marjas usually have very large and devoted personal followings; they are theological rock stars. There are no exact rules, but generally speaking, major mujtahids are usually grand ayatollahs. Below that rank is ayatollah, and below that rank is hojjatoleslam, a rank similar to a monsignor or minor bishop in Catholicism. Each of those ranks is usually separated by years of study, thought, and an accumulation of judicial rulings examined for theological soundness in "peer review" by the clerical establishment. Anyone designated as a mere hojjatoleslam should therefore have fallen far short of the theological horsepower and popular following required by law.
How then, did Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei come to be the supreme leader, and what does that have to do with his October 2010 trip to Qom?