We met with Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad al-Shirazi at a nondescript house in a narrow alley near the street of ChaharMardan in Qom in 1994. I was part of a group of men visiting from eastern Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the visit was to meet Shirazi, the controversial figure who at that time was under house arrest due to disputes between him and the Iranian authorities.
Shirazi talked about the importance of writing and said it was important for the youth to read and spread intellectualism, as many of the wars throughout history were caused due to lack of awareness and lack of reading.
I disapproved of what he said then but did not say anything. At that time, I thought his vision was naïve as how can the world change only through books, without fighting and without a blazing revolutionary spirit? Before we left, Shirazi’s companions gifted us books. We didn’t notice any heightened security presence as we left his house where he held some classes and received people.
Although he was under house arrest for a long time, people who often saw him said he never insulted the former supreme guide, Khomeini, or the current one, Ali Khamenei, although his relations with them were not goodHassan Al Mustafa
There was a small Hussainia (congregation hall for Shiite commemoration ceremonies) next to his house. In 1987, it was packed with a group of refugees that included many children. A person who was there at the time narrated to me what happened when a missile fell nearby.
“A small group of us were with Shirazi. An Afghani cleric was with us too. We suddenly heard siren sounds. Seconds later, the entire place shook and children began to scream. Iraqi forces had shelled Qom and a missile fell nearby,” he said. This was during the first Gulf War.
“The Afghani cleric felt very afraid and began to scream ‘Oh God, Oh God,’ but Sayyid Shirazi calmly comforted the children,” he added.
The incident is significant considering what happened afterwards as Shirazi left Qom, which embraces the Hawza (seminary), and left to Mashhad as advised by those close to him as they feared for his life. They advised him to go to Mashhad considering its “sacred” status for the Shiites and since late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein promised not to shell it because the shrine of Ali al-Ridha, the eighth Shiite imam, was there.
Shirazi’s departure to Mashhad upset the Iranian authorities. They saw this as a “negative” move and thought it would’ve been better if he had stayed in Qom and raised the people’s morale.
On October 26, 1980, Iraqi forces invaded the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. Around 575 days later, on May 24, 1982, Iranian forces restored the city. This made Shirazi call for ending the war between Baghdad and Tehran considering that the Iranian regime had regained control of all the lands which Iraq had occupied. Imam Khomeini, however, refused to do so.
Shirazi’s change of heart
Shirazi, who met Imam Khomeini in Iraq in 1965, was a supporter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran when Khomeini had called for it. He believed in the theory of the ‘guardianship of the jurist’ and traveled to Iran following the revolution’s victory in 1979. However, Shirazi always advised his supporters to maintain their independence.
Shirazi was an untraditional reference. His supporters had political parties and religious and charity organizations inside and outside Iran and in Arab Gulf countries. He thus had his own political and religious ambitions - especially that Shiite references always had their traditions which are based on independence from political regimes. The two conflicting logics caused tension between Shirazi’s office in Qom and the authorities, specifically with Ettela’ at, i.e. the Iranian intelligence service.
The former wanted to maintain his independence and not submit to any authority that might limit his freedom and restrain his activity, while the latter wanted the state to impose its influence under the pretext of imposing the system on everyone. The authorities simply believed that Shirazi’s office should submit to Iranian law that governs society’s different categories.
This tense relation began to escalate until things took a turn for the worse in 1984, affecting relations between Shirazi and Khomeini. Shirazi then renounced the theory of the ‘guardianship of the jurist’ and adopted the theory of ‘shurat al-fuqaha’ as he believed that Khomeini had monopolized major decisions in the country.
During the last years of Khomeini’s rule, Iranian authorities put Shirazi under house arrest due to his critical statements against the regime’s domestic policies and following the repercussions of the case of Shiite cleric Mehdi Hashemi, who was executed in 1987. Hashemi was the head of the Liberation Movement Bureau of the Revolutionary Guards. A number of groups which followed Shirazi as a reference were part of these liberation movements.
Scions take on the regime
Shirazi remained under house arrest until he died in Qom in 2001. Although he was under house arrest for a long time, people who often saw him said he never insulted the former supreme guide, Khomeini, or the current one, Ali Khamenei, although his relations with them were not good. According to his visitors, he used to say: “Allah have mercy on a man who shows me my faults.”
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Some of his family members though did not stick to this rhetoric. For example, Ayatollah Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi’s son Sayyid Hussein Shirazi compared Khamenei to “the pharaoh” earlier this month resulting in his arrest.
Brawls during Sayyid Muhammad al-Shirazi’s funeral further worsened the already tense relation between al-Shirazi’s family and Tehran. One of those who attended the funeral told me that security forces intervened to bury the body at the Shrine of Fatima in Qom, contradictory to the family’s wishes as Shirazi had asked to be buried in his house so his remains can be transferred to Iraq if the regime ever shifts there. An Iranian opposition reporter told me that the authorities did not prevent the large crowds of people from attending the funeral.
Shirazi family’s “belligerent” and critical tone towards Tehran’s policy began to escalate. Sayyid Morteza Shirazi, the son of late Sayyid Muhammad al-Shirazi, was very critical of government policies. He was actually detained once and his supporters say he was humiliated and tortured. His uncle Ayatollah Mujtaba Shirazi, who lives in London and who is viewed as a radical figure, adopted an insulting rhetoric towards Iran’s politicians and their supporters and is never hesitant of using obscene language towards his political rivals and opponents from different Islamic sects.
The Shirazi succession
Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi succeeded his late brother Muhammad as reference in 2001. Sayyid Sadiq was well-known for being distant from politics and for being interested in religious matters and jurisprudence in general. He lacked the intellectual presence his brother had, so he was more of a classical reference. He returned to the scene again earlier in March, when his son Hussein was detained after the Special Clerical Court summoned him.
These are only few simple details of the conflict over power and influence between Al-Shirazi and the authorities in Iran. The appetite of Al-Shirazi family and its political, charity and economic wings to expand and gather more supporters was decisively addressed by Tehran which tried to impose the authority of “the state” and prevent any opposing voices that speak out against the ‘guardianship of the jurist’ from becoming strong or influential. Several factors further complicated this conflict which is much more than a few observers see as a mere dispute between two religious references.
Iran was not innocent and Al-Shirazi family did not hide its ambitions which exceeded its actual size in the Shiite community. Iranian security forces did not stand idle as opposing voices became stronger without being deterred.
Do the Shirazis constitute one movement? I’ll discuss this in the next series of articles which will highlight the Shirazi family that has occupied the Shiite public opinion for decades!
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.