The highest level of study at Shia seminaries is known as Kharij-e Fiqh, “Beyond Fiqh”. If successfully understood, it qualifies a person in the eyes of his religious peers to formulate his own independent opinion on Islamic matters.
To become a marja, or “source of emulation”, one has to have taught Kharij-e Fiqh for a considerable amount of time, published a collection of juridical edicts, and been recognized by one or more established marjas. In other words, teaching Kharij-e Fiqh is the road to becoming an Ayatollah.
Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, started teaching Kharij-e Fiqh in around 2009. At the time, a number of established marjas objected as they did not believe he was qualified. Like father, like son.
That controversy has now been reignited in Iran, amid recent, fresh warnings from reformist and conservative politicians alike that leadership of the Islamic Republic might be on the way to becoming hereditary, and after a registration link for classes led by Mojtaba was posted online.
A Link - But No Evidence of Teachings
In the aftermath of disputed 2009 presidential election, when among the slogans being chanted in the streets by protesters was a call for Mojtaba Khamenei to step down, the website Jahan News reported that Mojtaba Khamenei was teaching Kharij-e Fiqh.
Marjas, Jahan claimed, were alarmed “because he is not qualified to teach this course” and because Mojtaba was reportedly using the Supreme Leader’s office in the holy city of Qom to hold the classes.
In fairness to him, Jahan News added, Khamenei had reportedly not wanted this to be made known, or to publicize or draw public attention to himself. Evidently those days are now over, as Mojtaba this week shared a link for new would-be students to register.
The same article in Jahan News had lambasted those clerics who complained at the time, saying they had done no such thing when Hassan Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, had started teaching Kharij-e Fiqh the previous year. Some even controversially call the latter “Ayatollah”.
Another potentially telling difference is that, then and now, Hassan Khomeini shares material from his classes – audio files and PowerPoint slides, for instance – on his own website, where Mojtaba does not.
Nor does Ali Khamenei. The Islamic theologian Mohsen Kadivar has pointed out that over 25 years of teaching, no recording or detailed explanation of the Supreme Leader’s Kharij-e Fiqh teachings has been published; the few texts available are preliminary and incomplete. One possible assumption, of course, is that the Khameneis are afraid that to do so would expose deficiencies in their own learning.
Who Were Mojtaba's Teachers?
Both Mojtaba and his oldest brother Mostafa Khamenei went to Tehran’s Alavi High School before studying at Shahid Motahari and Ayatollah Mojtahedi universities, both seminaries in Tehran
It has been reported in Iranian media that Ayatollah Khamenei’s son was a student of Ayatollah Moussa Shubairi Zanjani. No detail about that period of study has been published. Like his own teacher Grand Ayatollah Abolghasem Khoei, Ayatollah Moussa Shubairi Zanjani does not believe in Velayat-e Faqih (the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, the founding principle of the Islamic Republic), making the association unlikely if not actually impossible.
In recent years, Shubairi Zanjani has been active in efforts to secure the release of political figures such as Ahmad Montazeri, the son of revolutionary-era cleric and founding father of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Montazeri, and the reformist politician Ali Shakouri-Rad, from prison.
Failed Sweet-Talking Gives Way to Political Pragmatism
Rasoul Jafarian, a former president of the Iranian parliamentary library, has claimed that in 2010, a high-up Qom Seminary leader named Morteza Moghtadaei “went to the homes of marjas to encourage them to license Mr. Mojtaba Khamenei as a marja”.
Among them, reportedly, were Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Musa Shubairi Zanjani and Abdollah Javadi-Amoli. Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani is understood to have refused to meet them, while the others declined to give their assent to the license.
That same year, there were reports that Ali Khamenei had also traveled to Qom for the same purpose. He himself had been once snubbed by Ayatollah Azari Qomi when he was seeking to be recognized as an Ayatollah.
Use of the title Ayatollah has been a politicized matter since the 1979 revolution and especially under Khamenei’s leadership. In the Shia world, religious titles and honorifics are bestowed not by a central authority by custom and a certain degree of consensus.
A Shia clergyman is called a Hojatoleslam ("authority on Islam" or "proof of Islam") if he meets the basic requirements of practicing Islamic jurisprudence, an Ayatollah (“sign of god”) if he is accepted as a religious authority after a long period of teaching Kharij-e Fiqh, and a Grand Ayatollah if he is recognized by his peers as exceptional.
As Hassan Fereshtian, a religious scholar and jurist, has noted, before the 1979 revolution these titles were bestowed based on the three factors of religious knowledge and education, the social standing of the clergyman in question and his age. After the revolution, however, a fourth factor – politics – was added to the mix.
In the traditional world of Shia seminaries, a prominent student was deemed to have qualified as a marja after years of studying, dissemination and debate. The position cannot be obtained through exams, grades or a single gesture, but through an extended record of service.
Naturally, though, Mojtaba may have no intention of pursuing this. The religious scholar Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari has suggested that Mojtaba Khamenei is in the same situation as President Ebrahim Raisi when it comes to knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence: ultimately his ascension will have nothing to do with his actual seminary qualifications, and everything to do with political factors.
In the aftermath of the controversy in 2010, Mohsen Kadivar wrote that possible successors to Ayatollah Khamenei, including his son, might nonetheless have started teaching Kharij-e Fiqh in order to give themselves a veneer of religious respectability. Were Khamenei to be succeeded by his son, he wrote, the system would probably be ruled by a new principle: “Guardianship of the Corrupt” or a “Guardianship of the Tyrant”.