Morteza Motahhari (مرتضی مطهری) and Criticisms of Shi’i Clerical Establishment: Some Thoughts on Sahm Al-Imam (سهم الإمام)

June 14, 2012


Morteza Mothhari (1920-1979) is widely acknowledged as having played a seminal role in the build-up to the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979. Born in 1920 in a small village not too far from Mashad, the capital of Khorsan province, Mothhari grew up deeply influenced by his study of philosophy. (Dabashi, 148). His major contribution was a commentary of the late Muhammad Husayn Tabatabaei (1892—1981) (علامه سید محمد حسین طباطبائی‎), The Principles of Philosophy and the Realistic Method, in which Mothhari expands heavily on the original text by introducing additional arguments refuting Marxism and its dialectical materialism foundations. (Dabashi, 153). But apart from his well-known philosophical discourses (which are often quite dense and impenetrable without a sufficient background in the topics of concern), Mothhari also authored an immensely important article in 1962, entitled “The Principle Problem in the Clerical Establishment.”  The publication of the article was largely spurred by the death of Ayatollah Burujirdi (died, 1961) (آیت الله العظمی سید حسین طباطبایی بروجردی‎), who had a strong influence on him. (Walbridge, 162-163).

Motahhri’s essay both criticizes the manner in which the Sh’i Islamic educational system (the Hawza) presently functions, and proposes practical and concrete measures for reformation. Motahhri points out that in the seminary system, there are no entrance examinations, which basically renders everyone eligible to enter into the ranks of clerical establishment without rigorous background checks. “Because there is no entrance exam,” noted Motahhri, “it is possible for an unqualified student to enter this sacred institution. Moreover, because there are no examinations, seminarians are free to advance from lower texts to advanced texts.” (Walbridge, 168). He also criticized the “freedom with which people wear the clerical robe,” a distinctive kind of clothing that is put on by students without possessing the requisite knowledge, faith and piety that comes from adorning such a religious uniform. He was so concerned about this pervasive feature of the seminary system that he lamented it as an “embarrassment.” (Debshi, 168). Motahhri also noted how the student is not evalaution according to specific talents, and especially directed his most heated criticism at the blinded emphasis in the educational system on fiqh (jurisprudence) to the neglect of other fields of study, including commentaries on the Koran and history of the Prophet (seerah).

Motahhari also severely advanced harsh criticisms against relatively lax attention paid to the Arabic language. Because the majority of students he affiliated with were Iranians in Qom and Mashad, Mottahiri felt that “after years of studying Arabic literature, Arabic grammar…[most] cannot speak Arabic and are unable to use it or write it eloquently.” (Walbridge, 168). Much of this neglect of Arabic was the result of the almost-obsessive focus on learning usul al-fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence), and distancing themselves from the practical concerns of daily life.  Finally, Mottahiri also voiced concern with the hawza system’s lack of concern with learning principles of logic. Although this has improved somewhat with the introduction of Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr’s book, Al-Usus al-Mantiqiyyah lil-Istiqra’ (The Logical Basis of Induction), students in the seminary still engage in futile polemical disputations causing them to become insensitive to more pressing contemporary concerns. (Dabashi, 168).

The most severe criticism Mottahiri directed against the Hawza was the question of finance–that is, how the clerical profession is funded and manages its income and distribution of assets. Mottahiri notes that in the early Islamic period, scholars were not needed as much and therefore they didn’t need to devote their entire day toward addressing issues of concern to the community. But with the increase of enemies to the religion, as well as the increasing complexity of legal, social, political and moral issues confronting the believers, the need for an institutionalized clerical establishment became necessary. According to the Shi’i understanding, khums is a special, Koranic-mandated tax on all believers (separate from zakat) levied on mined resources, net annual profits, and certain other things, minus personal expenses. This religious tax is required to be given to the clerical establishment. One half of the khums is to be spent on the needy descendants of the Prophet (ulul-qurba, as specified in the Koranic verse), and the other portion, most relevant to our discussion here, is what is called sahm al-imam (سهم الإمام). As Motahhari explains, “the single source for the management of clerical establishment, and upon which the establishment is based, and from which our establishment has obtained its organizational formation, and which has also heavily influenced all our religious affairs, is the sahm al-imam.” (Walbridge, 171).

Thus, contrary to their Sunni brothers, where the clerical authorities are said to be appointed by the political State and receive their funding from the State, Shi’i clerics possess independence from the political establishment. For example, in Egypt, the clerics at Al-Azhar University (جامعة الأزهر الشريف‎) are appointed by the Egyptian government and thus their independence is said to be compromised. As a vivid example, Mottahri recounts that he once seen a picture in the local newspaper displaying the then-Grand Mufti Mahmud Shaltut in his office with the picture right above his head of the late Jamal Abdl-Al-Nasser, the charismatic President of Egypt at the time. (Dabashi, 172). To be sure, Mottahiri recognized an advantage to the State-controlled Sunni clerical establishment–namely, the Sunni clerics need not rely on their Sunni followers for their livelihood and position” since “the populace has no control over them and therefore as a result are said to (theoretically, at least) possess freedom of thought. The clerics in the Sunni school of thoughts are not forced to hide the truth because of the likes and dislikes of their adherents.” On the other hand, because the Sahm Al-Imam comes directly from the lay people, a Shi’i clerical leader is inevitably constrained. No matter how open-minded, reform minded and pious he may be, a Shi’i cleric according to Mottahiri could never have issued a fatwa akin to the one issued by Sheik Shaltut that essentially recognized the legitimacy of the Shi’i Jaa’fari school of thought. (Dabashi, 170). The dependence of a Shi’i cleric on the sahm al imam from the population often renders him hostage to the ignorance of the masses, and therefore must play to their emotional (and often) surface level understanding of Islam.

The paradox becomes the following: When a cleric relies on the populace, he gains power but loses his freedom. If he has to rely on the State, he loses his power but maintains freedom. This is because although there are many well-intentioned and faithful believers, they are also ignorant and uninformed, and accordingly, opposed to reforms. (Walbridge, 172-173).

An eye-opening example Motahhari offers is the following. Ayatollah Abdu-Karim Ha’eri Al-Yazdi (عبد الكريم الحائري اليزدي‎) (1859 — 1937), a well-known cleric largely responsible for setting up the Qum, Iran seminary, once tried to introduce the study of modern sciences (e.g, physics, chemistry, European languages) into the hawza, but upon hearing of the increased opposition from the population, cancelled that idea. The people around Ayatollah Al-Yazdi claimed that the “money we give you  as sahm al-imam is not for seminarians to learn the language of the infidels. Should this continue,” they threatened, ” we will not give you the sahm.” (Dabashi, 171). Because of such state of affairs, Mottahiri observed that the educational establishment has become a college of jurisprudence, obsessed with the minute detail of legal issues dealing with menustratration and the times of prayer, for example, as opposed to paying attention to more pressing matters of contemporary relevance and importance. The issues of jurisprudence, it seems, are far more important to the lay audience to hear then the issues of social, individual and political reform in the Muslim community.

Given all the additional problems with the finance structure of the Shi’i clerical establishment, Mottahiri believed that the sahm al-imam arrangements required urgent reform. “The road to reform,” he suggested, “is only one thing: to give organization to the existing budget of the clerical order.” (Dabashi, 171). Instead, Mothhari believed that a collected fund needed to be instituted in which all religious contributions would be made and from which, under the supervision of “first ranking clerics,” every religious authority would receive a “sum proportionate to the service he provides.” (Dabashi, 171).  In a telling closing, Motahhai warned that the reformation of the religious establishment–freeing itself from the ignorant masses, organizing their forces, and intelligently taking charge–was a necessity that the continued vitality of Islam depended on. (Dabashi, 171).


Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York University Press, 1993).

Linda Walbridge, The Most Learned of the Shia: The Institution of Marja’ Al-Taqlid (Oxford University Press, 2001)


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