Grand Ayatullah Hossein 'Ali Montazeri, 87, Iran's leading dissident Twelver Shi'i religious scholar and critic of the ruling regime headed by "supreme leader" al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, has passed away, reportedly of natural causes. A recent Associated Press story cites the late grand ayatullah's grandson, Nasir Montazeri, as saying that he passed away in his sleep last night. The story also notes that the "Islamic" Republic of Iran's official news agency, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), has run a two-line, clinical report on Montazeri's death (see HERE).
In the English-language IRNA report, he is demoted to "ayatullah", though this is perhaps not surprising considering many of the current power brokers in the country elevated Khamenei to the rank of grand ayatullah and marja' al-taqlid (literally, "reference point for emulation"), despite his thin scholarly credentials. As of the time I write this, the Persian and Arabic IRNA web sites are down, so I could not check the wording of the story on either. It will be interesting and instructive to see how other state institutions and stalwarts, such as Khamenei and state newspapers, as well as pro-regime clerics such as Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and Ayatullah Ahmad Jannati, react to Montazeri's passing. The Iranian government-funded, English-language Press TV on its web site also demotes him to "ayatullah" and reports that his son Ahmad told them that his father died of cardiac arrest at 1:30 A.M. this morning.
A marja' al-taqlid is the highest-ranking Twelver Shi'i cleric who lay Shi'is follow because of their personal piety and lifetime of religious learning. Khamenei, at the time of his former teacher Grand Ayatullah Ruhullah Khumayni's death in 1989, was a mid-level Shi'i cleric, a hujjat al-Islam. The constitution of the republic was amended so that the supreme leader of the republic (rahbar-e jumhuri-ye Islami) no longer had to be a marja', though this contradicts Khumayni's stance when he gave the series of lectures in 1970 that formed the basis of his revolutionary political ideology, which would later be published in book-form as Hukumat-e Islami ["Islamic Government"]. Khumayni also wrote a defense of the amendment, which is featured prominently on the main page of Khamenei's web site.
Once the heir apparent to Khumayni as supreme leader-jurisprudent (faqih) of the republic, Montazeri was forced to resign in 1989 after he criticized his onetime friend following the mass execution of political prisoners and militant dissidents in the summer and autumn of 1988. Thousands of prisoners were executed, though the exact number remains unknown. Montazeri was not the first Iranian religious scholar to be marginalized by Khumayni and his allies. In 1979, Ayatullah Mahmoud Taliqani's recommendation that a truly representative parliamentary system was adopted was ignored by Khumayni and his acolytes in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) headed by his student, Ayatullah Muhammad Beheshti. Taliqani withdrew from public life following this rebuke and died later that year. The Iranian revolutionary movement, which included a wide variety of groups, including many secular and even Marxist elements, was then Islamized by Khumayni and the IRP.
In the mid-1980s, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Shari'atmadari, Iran's senior Shi'i religious scholar, was stripped of his scholarly title and rank (at least in name) in an unprecedented move by the revolutionary government, with Khumayni's blessing. Shari'atmadari opposed the system of government Khumayni and his IRP supporters sought to solidify. The government alleged that he had supported Azeri protesters in Iranian Azerbaijan (Shari'atmadari was an ethnic Azeri), though this was little more than a pretense used to marginalize a potentially dangerous critic.
Montazeri withdrew from public life and returned to teaching in the famous seminaries of the Iranian shrine city of Qum (Qom), the main center of Twelver Shi'i learning since the 1970s following the closing of Iraq's famous Shi'i seminaries in al-Najaf, Karbala, al-Kufa, and other cities by the former dictator Saddam Husayn. After criticizing Khamenei in 1997, Montazeri was placed under house arrest and remained so until 2003. Shortly after his criticism, Montazeri's office was ransacked by pro-regime forces from the paramilitary elements of the Basij and the Ansar-e Hizbullah ["partisans of God's party"], which is different from the Lebanese Shi'i socio-political movement Hizbullah. Vulgar graffiti was spray-painted on the office walls, including statements calling him a pig and saying "death to the American spy." The grand ayatullah was frequently maligned in state-controlled media outlets.
The government's harassment did not succeed in cowing Montazeri. Following the disputed presidential elections in June 2009, he came out forcefully and repeatedly in his criticisms of the presidential administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the alleged electoral fraud. Montazeri also strongly criticized the government's violent suppression of political dissent using both official security forces and quasi-official yet sanctioned paramilitaries in the Basij and Ansar-e Hizbullah. He advised members of both to carefully consider what they were doing and avoid "going to Hell" for the worldly desire of others (the regime). The late grand ayatullah was, perhaps, the current governmental system's most senior and influential critic and he was and is much maligned by pro-regime elements.
It is fitting that Montazeri passed away during the month of Muharram and specifically during 'Ashura, the annual Shi'i commemoration of the martyrdom of their third Imam, Husayn bin 'Ali, who was killed with many of his companions on the barren plain of Karbala in Iraq by a much larger military force sent by the Umayyad ruler (caliph), Yazid bin Mu'awiya (Yazid I). Husayn and his band died while making a principled stand against injustice and tyranny. Although he did not die a violent death as did Husayn and his companions, Montazeri spent decades making a principled stand and speaking truth to power, even if it meant criticizing his onetime friends, and he had the courage and moral fortitude to continue doing so even when faced with intense government persecution and personal hardship, including threats to his life. In short, he embodied the Imam's, and the Prophet Muhammad's, legacy of principle by standing up for justice against some of the طاغوت العصر, the "tyrants of the age." May he be rewarded in the afterlife for it.
Grand Ayatullah Montazeri (left) with another dissident Iranian grand ayatullah, Yusuf Saanei. Read Saanei's statement about Montazeri's death HERE. In case the previous hyperlink does not work, see HERE.
UPDATE (2:43 P.M., December 20): Please see Alexander's excellent post on Grand Ayatullah Montazeri at The Ruh of Brown Folks.
UPDATE #2 (3:31 P.M.): Khamenei has issued a short "condolence" on the death of Grand Ayatullah Montazeri, which has been placed on the former's Persian-language web site. He does not refer to Montazeri as "grand ayatullah," though he does acknowledge (it would be impossible not to, without looking ridiculous) that he was a great and accomplished religious scholar and authority.
UPDATE #3 (4:49 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah Saafi Gulpaygani's condolences .
UPDATE #4 (4:51 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid 'Abdolkarim Musavi Ardabili's condolences .
UPDATE #5 (5:07 P.M.): Former Iranian president Hujjat al-Islam al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami's condolences .
UPDATE #6 (7:41 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah Nasir Makarem Shirazi's condolences .
UPDATE #7 (7:49 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah Asadullah Bayyat Zanjani arrives to pay his respects to Grand Ayatullah Montazeri.
UPDATE #8 (2:09 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah's condolences .
UPDATE #9 (8:19 P.M., Dec. 22): Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani's condolences . He, like Khamenei and Grand Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi, also refers to Montazeri as "ayatullah." Upon further reflection, this may be because the title of "grand ayatullah", as opposed to marja' al-taqlid, has not always been used. Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Fadlallah also did not use the title "grand ayatullah", but did note that Montazeri was a marja'.
UPDATE #10 (8:41 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Fadlallah's condolences have now been translated into English by his office.
UPDATE #11 (8:59 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah Hossein Nuri Hamedani's condolences.
UPDATE #12 (9:07 P.M.): Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad 'Ali Husayni Gorgani's condolences.
Grand Ayatullah Hossein Mazaheri's condolences.
UPDATE #13 (9:19 P.M.): More photographs of Grand Ayatullah Asadullah Bayyat Zanjani at Grand Ayatullah Montazeri's wake.
UPDATE #14 (9:31 P.M.): Official English translation of Grand Ayatullah Yusuf Saanei's condolences.