December 26, 2009 Is Shi'ism the Iranian Regime's Achilles' Heel? By Andrew G. Bostom The death of Iran's Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri at age 87 on December 20, 2009 has been followed by decidedly hagiographic post-mortems. But perhaps the most curious of these assessments, by Michael Rubin, includes a contention that "the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism." This odd viewpoint is merely the extension of a profoundly flawed, ahistorical mindset which denies the living legacy of Shi'ite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in Iran, particularly since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the very beginning of the 16th century.
The great Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher -- a renowned Islamophile -- believed that Shi'ism manifested greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, compared to Sunni Islam. Goldziher observed,
On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi'i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs...Of the severe rule in the Qur'an (9:28) that "unbelievers are unclean", Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi'i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa [najis], ritual impurity.
At the outset of the 16th century, Iran's Safavid rulers formally established Shi'a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi'ite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (although it was interrupted between 1722-1795 during a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle), through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:
The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics ...
These Shi'ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews in particular, but also of Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najis conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), "Sheikh Ismail ... never spares the life of any Jew," while another European travelogue makes note of "the great hatred [Ismail I] bears against the Jews[.]" During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the Shah,
... was required to wear 'basmackes' (a kind of over-shoes), because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts ... when he was dismissed from the Shah's presence, [Jenkinson stated] 'after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace' -- as though covering something unclean.
The writings and career of Mohammad Baqer Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Shi'ite dhimmitude in Iran. Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi'ite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century, al-Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran -- the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi'a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise "Lightning Bolts Against the Jews," despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi'ite theocracy. In this treatise, al-Majlisi describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari'a -- first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, or poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi'ite impurity or "najis" regulations. According to Al-Majlisi,
And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths ... It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal's being slaughtered [according to the Shari'a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, ... and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them ... It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.
The dehumanizing character of these popularized "impurity" regulations fomented recurring Muslim violence against Iran's non-Muslims -- including pogroms, forced conversions, and expropriations -- throughout the 17th through the early 20th centuries.
The so-called "Khomeini revolution," which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shi'ite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly BahÃ¡'Ãs and Jews, rapidly deteriorated. Historian David Littman recounts the Jews' immediate plight: