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Ebrahim Raisi's Miraculous Progress from Junior Cleric to Ayatollah

June 24, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
8 min read
Reporters from hardline media addressed Raisi as “ayatollah” in his press conference in Tehran – but is he really an ayatollah?
Reporters from hardline media addressed Raisi as “ayatollah” in his press conference in Tehran – but is he really an ayatollah?
Mohsen Kadivar, a scholar of Islam, writes that Raisi is neither a faqih (Islamic jurist) nor a mujtahid (religious authority or a “source of emulation”)
Mohsen Kadivar, a scholar of Islam, writes that Raisi is neither a faqih (Islamic jurist) nor a mujtahid (religious authority or a “source of emulation”)
Hasan Fereshtian, a jurist and religious scholar, says Raisi is a mujtahid according to the Islamic Republic’s criteria if not by the standards of religious authorities
Hasan Fereshtian, a jurist and religious scholar, says Raisi is a mujtahid according to the Islamic Republic’s criteria if not by the standards of religious authorities

During Ebrahim Raisi's first press conference as President-elect, the moderator and some reporters from media associated with hardline elements of the regime addressed Raisi as “Doctor” or “Dr. Ayatollah”. The deference was a clear reaction to an incident during the first presidential debate – when rival candidate Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh said Raisi had only a “sixth grade” education”.

Raisi also has the same handicap in his seminary training. He was a seminarian for only five years: the rest of his religious studies were pursued as he held various positions in the judiciary in Tehran and not in the main seminary centers of Qom or Mashhad. Nor did he study advanced religious courses, called “Kharej,” in these two holy cities. Even though Raisi has been occupied with his judiciary duties over the past 41 years, he claims that not only has he completed his seminary education, but that he is teaching Kharej and has received his doctorate.

The “Miracle” of the Islamic Republic

“This is a miracle of the Islamic Republic,” quips Mohsen Kadivar, a scholar of Islam, who writes that Raisi is neither a faqih, an Islamic jurist, nor a mujtahid, a religious authority or a “source of emulation” for Shia Muslims to follow.

But Hasan Fereshtian, a jurist and religious scholar, says that, according to the Islamic Republic’s criteria, Raisi is considered a mujtahid. Heading the judiciary and a holding a seat on the Assembly of Experts both make him a mujtahid as far as the ruling establishment is concerned – even though he is not recognized as such by the seminaries.

In the past, Fereshtian says, senior clerics permitted students whom they had known for years to become mujtahids after these authorities had decided they were qualified to issue fatwas. But, he adds, the criteria within the power structures of the Islamic Republic is different. For instance, in elections for the Assembly of Experts the candidates must past a written exam to be considered mujtahids; whereas, in the seminaries, top students become mujtahids after studying Kharej and engaging in a process of dialogue and discourse with other students and their teachers.

Raisi is therefore a mujtahid by the standards of Iran’s government but not by the standards of traditional seminaries. But even within the Islamic Republic’s establishment, and among judiciary heads since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Raisi still holds the lowest seminary ranking.

Raisi says he first studied at Javadieh primary school, then went to Navvab Seminary in the holy city of Mashhad, later moving to Ayatollah Mousavinejad Religious School in the same city and then, on the advice of his older brother, went on to Qom.

In a Shia seminary, students advance through different “levels”. Their education starts with the “Basics” and then moves to what is called Level 1. Mohsen Kadivar reports that it is unknown whether Raisi ever finished Level 1 – as this usually takes eight or nine years. And Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, a religious scholar, says that, considering the time Raisi spent at the Qom seminary, he could have only finished the Basics. But he was appointed to various positions in the Islamic Republic judiciary when he was not even 20 years old.

Raisi claims that when he was appointed as the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Karaj, near Tehran, he and three other students attended a course in Islamic jurisprudence taught by Ayatollah Modarresi; to avoid disrupting his work, Raisi arranged to attend the ayatollah’s course course early in the mornings. He also claims that he studied with other mujtahids during weekends and holidays. But the time Raisi refers to saw intense and widespread clashes between security forces and opponents of the Islamic Republic: judiciary officials have often said they were consumed day and night during those years.

Websites supporting Raisi also claim that in the 1990s he resumed his seminary studies at a higher level – meaning Kharej. They write that he studied with Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Grand Ayatollah Agha Mojtaba Tehrani and Ali Khamenei who, a few years after becoming Supreme Leader, was teaching Kharej to bolster his credentials as a source of emulation. It is not known how many classes by these teachers were held in a week and how many of them Raisi attended.

Religious Classes for Political Networking

Starting in 2001, Raisi taught classes at Majd, Amir al-Mo’menin, Imam Hossein and Marvi seminary schools. But his purpose in holding these classes was to establish political relations among those present – not learning. One example was a judge, quoted by Morteza Lotfi, a student of Ayatollah Montazeri. According this judge, most of the students in one of his classes were judges who wanted to become “better acquainted” with Raisi or were looking for appointments in the judiciary.

Raisi was also studying for a master’s degree in law at Shahid Motahari University during this time.

Mohsen Kadivar writes it must have been “a miracle” that, although Raisi was first deputy to the judiciary chief, he found time to teach Fiqh and Kharej at the seminary, training master’s and doctoral students at Imam Sadegh, Shahid Motahari and Islamic Azad universities and, at the same time, to study for his PhD.

In 2006 the Guardian Council recognized Raisi as a mujtahid and qualified him to run in the election for the Assembly of Experts. According to the rules of the Guardian Council, one of the conditions for election to the Assembly of Experts which, in theory, elects and can remove the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, is “to have enough understanding of certain issues of Islamic jurisprudence as to be able to recognize a qualified” Supreme Leader. But the qualifications of candidature for the Assembly of Experts are more political than theological.

After Raisi was appointed as guardian of Astan Quds Razavi, the largest religious foundation in Iran, in 2016, he again started teaching Kharej to build a foundation for himself to win the title of “ayatollah”.

Following Raisi’s victory in the presidential election last week, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Noori-Hamedani addressed him as “hojatoleslam,” meaning “proof of Islam,” an honorific for mid-ranking clerics and distinctly lower than ayatollah. Ayatollah Khamenei, when he appointed Raisi as the guardian of Astan Quds Razavi, addressed him by the same title. But a year later, hardline media outlets started referring to him as “Ayatollah Raisi” and it was around that time that talk of Raisi as a possible successor to Khamenei began.

But then in 2019, in his decree appointing Raisi as the judiciary chief, Khamenei again address him as hojatoleslam. Khameini had addressed Raisi’s predecessor Sadegh Larijani the same way – both on his first five-year appointment and on his second term.

A number of young hardliners were unhappy that Raisi was being addressed as hojatoleslam. After his appointment, Tasnim news agency wrote that some people, “out of bias or out of ignorance,” had said Raisi as just a hojatoleslam was unqualified to be head of the judiciary. Without bothering to mention Raisi's seminary education, Tasnim reminded viewers that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, had used the title of hojatoleslam when appointing Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti and Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, respectively, as head of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice.

Before the appointment as judiciary chief, Mizan, the judiciary’s news agency, also referred to Raisi as hojatoleslam; after the appointment, it started calling him “Dr. Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi”.

The Political Dimension

Hasan Fereshtian says religious titles are based on tradition and, before the Islamic Revolution, seminary education, social standing and age were the three factors that decided how these titles were granted and used. A political factor was added to these after the Revolution.

He points out that calling somebody a hojatoleslam does not mean they are unqualified to be a mujtahid. The candidate may have the necessary knowledge and education but lack other aspects – so he is not called an ayatollah.

The process of assigning titles “has lost its traditional form” and “has become political to a large degree,” said Mohsen Gharavian, a teacher at Qom Seminary. According to him, in the past these titles were bestowed after a student received a permit from religious authorities to act as a mujtahid – but now “there is no set procedure”.

In this respect, the situation of Ebrahim Raisi as an “ayatollah” is similar to that of Khamenei, who has often been mocked as the “Overnight Ayatollah” and “Ayatollah in a Prance” during the past 30 years.

In 2014, bemoaning the situation, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, head of Qom Seminary, said: “The situation has become so bad that some people prance once, and they become ayatollahs; they prance twice and become grand ayatollahs; and now they are prancing because they want to become the top source of emulation.”

We must expect new exertions for Ebrahim Raisi if his plans to become Supreme Leader are to make any progress.

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