For the past two months a tree-lined back alley in a quiet corner of Tehran has been transformed into the scene of what looks like a daily carnival. Each morning busloads of men sporting bushy beards and women clad in black overall hijab arrive before sunrise to perform the first of their five daily prayers in the courtyard of a villa known as Manzel Agha (The Master's Abode). Once the prayers end, the crowd starts shouting slogans against the rulers of the Islamic republic, starting with "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. Often, people from the neighbourhood join the demonstration that invariably ends with police intervention and dozens of arrests.
"The Master" whose abode has become a sort of shrine for the religious opponents of the Islamic republic is one Mohammad Hussain Kazemaini Borujerdi, a Shiite cleric in his fifties. To the authorities he is nothing hut a troublemaker wearing a black turban. His followers, however, refer to him as Grand Ayatollah and claim that he is in frequent contact with the "Hidden Imam", who, according to Shiites, went into hiding in 940 and is expected to return to preside over the end of the world.
Iran's leadership is particularly annoyed at Borujerdi because he attracts the same type of people who swept the late Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979.
Borujerdi's supporters claim that their leader has received specific instructions from the Hidden Imam to lead a campaign aimed at "separating religion from politics".
Their argument is based on a classical Shiite theological position that maintains that all governments formed in the absence of the Hidden Imam are "oppressive and illegitimate". According to that doctrine all that Shiites must do during the absence of the Imam is to tolerate the government in place, cooperate with it to the strict minimum necessary, but never pay taxes to it or feel any loyalty towards it. In the absence of the Imam, government is nothing but a necessary and temporary evil.
This classical Shiite doctrine, shared by more than 90 per cent of Shiite clerics since the 16th century, is in direct contradiction with the ideological matrix of the Khomeinist regime. Khomeinism is an innovation (bid'aa) in Shiism insofar as it claims that a mullah bearing the title of Faqih Al Wali (custodian jurisconsult) must rule on behalf of God, thus circumventing the Hidden Imam. The case for the Khomeinist doctrine was most cogently put recently by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, the powerful president of the Assembly of Experts that chooses the Faqih Al Wali.
"The Islamic republic is a continuation of God on earth," Meshkini said. "Thus any disobedience of its rules amounts to a revolt against God."
Most Shiite theologians find Mehskini's view, which reflects the official doctrine of the Islamic republic, as scandalous. Going further, Borujerdi describes that doctrine as a form of shirk (associating others with God).
Borujerdi, who was taken into custody recently, is not alone in arguing that Shiism provides for a separation of religion and government. His view is shared by more eminent theologians such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Al Sistani in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Hassan Qomi Tabatabi in Mash'had and Grand Ayatollah Hussain Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Hassan San'ei in Qom.
The doctrine of separation does not mean that religion has no role in society. On the contrary, clerics such as Borujerdi believe that the mullahs, once they have distanced themselves from day-to-day politics and governmental duties, would be in a stronger position to offer society the moral guidance that no secular authority can provide. In their system the clergy is a watchdog, overseeing the government and, when and if necessary, taking it to task or even calling for its overthrow.
It is virtually impossible to know what a majority of Iran's estimated 300,000 mullahs think about this debate. However, one thing is certain: not a single prominent Shiite cleric today is prepared to endorse the Khomeinist doctrine publicly and unequivocally. Some mid-ranking ayatollahs such as Fadil Lenkorani and Makarem Shirazi flirt with Khomeinism, largely for personal reasons but are not prepared to acknowledge the current "supreme guide" as anything but a political figure. The best-known mullahs within the regime, the "supreme guide" Ali Khamenei and the two former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, are recognised as politicians with a clerical background, but never as religious authorities.
Often portrayed as a theocracy, the Islamic republic is, in fact, a form of oriental despotism with a turban. A majority of Shiite clerics are opposed to the regime and its ideology. This is why proportionally speaking there are more mullahs in prison in Iran than other social strata.
The showdown between the two views will take place in December when a new Assembly of Experts is elected. The assembly is a crucial organ of the regime because it can dismiss the current "supreme guide" and pick a new one. It could also propose amending the constitution to end the organic link that Khomeini established between the mosque and the state. Such a separation is anathema to political mullahs such as Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami.
In the meantime each of the factions involved in the power struggle is trying to claim the Hidden Imam for itself.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims he receives periodical instructions from Imam Mehdi while Borujerdi's associates insist that the Hidden Imam has chosen him as a mouthpiece.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.