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The Constitutionalism of Ruhollah Khomeini's Theory of Guardianship

  • Author(s): Hossainzadeh, Nura Alia
  • Advisor(s): Bevir, Mark
  • et al.

In this dissertation, I study the political thought of a scholar and political actor who has long been viewed as a cultural Other: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To understand Khomeini’s thought, or the thought of any other culturally unfamiliar author, I argue that it is essential to engage in a historical study of the traditions of thought that the author interprets and elaborates. Through a study of many of Khomeini’s political writings—written as early as 1943 and as late as 1989—I have determined that Khomeini was influenced by four traditions of thought: the Shi’a jurisprudential tradition of political theory, the Usuli legal tradition, the Islamic constitutionalist tradition, and more marginally, the Islamic mystical-philosophical tradition.

As a scholar of the Shi’a jurisprudential tradition of political theory, Khomeini holds that Islamic jurisprudents must be granted a powerful role in government. The secondary literature fails to recognize, however, the way in which Khomeini’s Islamic constitutionalist ideas impact his theorization of the political role of the jurisprudent, and at times, it incorrectly presumes that the guardian is the mystic or philosopher depicted in the Islamic mystical-philosophical tradition. As a constitutionalist, Khomeini argues that consent and popular representation are necessary ingredients of legitimate government and that the shari’a can be supplemented or aspects of it even suspended by law drafted in a parliament. Khomeini’s constitutionalism is based upon tenets of the Usuli legal tradition, which says that Islamic law is underwritten by principles from which can be deduced new law, law that is human and contestable.

The influence of the Islamic constitutionalist tradition on Khomeini’s thought is most evident in his 1943 work, The Unveiling of Secrets, as well as in his post-revolutionary writings. Khomeini’s more widely read work, Islamic Government, does not include manifestly constitutionalist themes, but I argue that it has been misinterpreted to espouse ideas that contradict Islamic constitutionalism. Khomeini’s writings, as well as the institutions of government that were inspired by his theory, continue to be subjects of interest for conservative and reformist scholars and actors, and his writings are invoked for support for perspectives across the political spectrum. Beyond helping us to understand contemporary debates in the Islamic Republic, Khomeini’s political writings are a source of concepts and arguments that may be marshaled and elaborated in novel Islamic theories of government and politics.

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