Why Mojtaba Khamenei is unlikely to be Iran’s next supreme leader

Why Mojtaba Khamenei is unlikely to be Iran’s next supreme leader

Why Mojtaba Khamenei is unlikely to be Iran’s next supreme leader
Observers believe that Khamenei will not pass on religious authority or position of supreme leader to his son Mojtaba. (Reuters)
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The late religious authority Muhsin Al-Tabatabaei Al-Hakim was leader of the hawza (a seminary where Shiite Muslim clerics are trained) in Najaf from 1946 until 1970 and was a great scholar revered by millions of Shiite Muslims around the world.
Al-Hakim, highly regarded by political leaders and governments in various countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, had many children who attained esteemed positions in science and religion. Some of his children eventually became prominent leaders in exile.
When Al-Hakim passed away in 1970, his absence left a big void. Delegations and tribes attended his house and chanted the name of his son, Youssef Al-Hakim, who was a knowledgeable scholar and a highly respected figure in Najaf.
The delegations that came continued to chant “Sayed Youssef, we pledge allegiance to you, Sayed Youssef, we follow you,” in a clear indication of their desire for Al-Hakim’s son to be a religious authority. However, the son was uninterested in the position and rejected all popular pressure, even though he met the legal requirements.
Youssef Al-Hakim did not accept the position of grand ayatollah not only because of his asceticism, but also due to the strict protocol followed in the religious seminary in Najaf, which was not easy to break.
It is customary in the hawza that the son does not become a religious authority after his father’s death because religious authority is not inherited. Rather, it is a responsibility that a knowledgeable scholar takes on after meeting the conditions recognized by senior scholars and distinguished researchers.
This also happened after the death of another religious authority, Mahmoud Ali Abdullah Al-Shahroudi, who died in Najaf in 1974. He was a religious authority and a professor for many scholars.
Al-Shahroudi had two highly knowledgeable sons, Mohammed and Hussein. Both of them were greatly respected due to their dedication to teaching, jurisprudence and their avoidance of positions of power. They were also known for their asceticism. Ayatollah Mohammed Shahroudi, who passed away five years ago, remained a teacher of jurisprudence only and did not become a religious authority for more than a quarter of a century after his father’s death.
Iraqi religious authority Mohammed Saeed Al-Hakim passed away in September 2021, causing widespread sadness among the Al-Hakim family and his followers worldwide. His sudden death shocked them, especially since he was considered the next highest authority after Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Al-Hakim, who came from a prestigious religious family, had several children, with four of them believed to have the potential to become influential religious figures. However, they closed their father’s fatwa offices and destroyed the stamp he used to sign fatwas to prevent any misuse in the future.
However, this solid tradition in the hawza has been broken more than once. One of the most prominent figures to defy this protocol was the religious authority Mohammed Al-Shirazi, who presented himself in the city of Karbala, Iraq, as a successor to his father, Mahdi Al-Shirazi, in 1960. This is despite the presence of senior religious authorities like Sayed Muhsin Al-Hakim, which at the time sparked many disapproving reactions. 

It is customary that the son does not become a religious authority after his father’s death because religious authority is not inherited.

Hassan Al-Mustafa

Al-Shirazi was more of a religious activist than a religious scholar. He introduced new ideas that can be classified as part of what is known as the “Shiite Awakening” or “political Islam,” influenced in one way or another by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Shirazi passed away in 2001 in the city of Qom, Iran, after a dispute with the Tehran government had led to years of house arrest. After his passing, his brother Sadiq Al-Shirazi succeeded him and he remains a religious authority to this day. However, unlike his brother, he stays away from politics.
Sadiq Al-Shirazi inherited religious authority from his brother. Currently, some of the sons of the two brothers are getting ready to succeed Sadiq after his departure. Thus, inheritance has become a tradition in the lineage of Ayatollah Mahdi Al-Shirazi, which is exceptional and does not receive support from scholars and senior professors in the religious hawzas of Shiite Muslims.
These previous events lead to the question: Which path will Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei take?
Observers believe that Khamenei will not pass on religious authority or the position of supreme leader to his son Mojtaba, despite media reports claiming otherwise. These reports are inaccurate and based on speculation, lacking a precise understanding of the hierarchy within the Shiite household.
Although he does not belong to the classical school of jurisprudence, Khamenei is aware that the two most important Shiite hawzas, in Najaf and Qom, reject the principle of inheritance. He knows that appointing his son as his successor would upset senior ayatollahs. At the same time, Khamenei understands that the Iranian people, who overthrew the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in a popular revolution in 1979, will not accept a new shah named Mojtaba, even if his father is the current supreme leader. The disillusioned public, fed up with the declining economy and clerical rule, will not tolerate replacing a crown-wearing heir with another one wearing a turban.
The late founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, also left a will advising his children to stay away from holding official positions in the state. This will be binding for Khamenei, who considers himself the guardian of Khomeini’s legacy. Therefore, it will be difficult for Mojtaba Khamenei to be the supreme leader in Iran after his father. He may settle for playing a role behind the scenes or being part of the influential core without being the sole decision-maker or having the final say.

Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran.
X: @Halmustafa

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