October 22, 2006 -- FOR the past two months, a tree- lined back alley in a quiet corner of Tehran, Iran's bustling megapolis of a capital, has been transformed into the scene of what looks like a daily carnival - until the arrests begin.
Each morning, busloads of men sporting bushy beards and women clad overall in black 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 neighborhood join the demonstration - which invariably ends with police intervention and dozens of arrest.
"The Master" whose abode has become a sort of shrine for the religious opponents of the Islamic Republic is one Muhammad-Hussein Kazemaini Borujerdi, a Shiite cleric in his 50s.
To the authorities, he is nothing but 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 - a Mahdi-figure who, according to Shiite lore, went into hiding in 940 A.D. and will someday return to preside over the end of the world.
The Islamic Republic's leadership is particularly annoyed at Borujerdi because he attracts the same type of people who swept the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979. The crowd at Borujerdi's villa on Sarv Lane consists of men, women and children from the poorest districts of Tehran, where the hope of the Mahdi's return often provides the sole solace for a life of poverty and frustration.
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" (jaber wa ja'er).
Under that doctrine, all that Shi'ites 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 toward it. In the absence of the imam, government is nothing but a necessary and temporary evil.
This classical Shiite doctrine, shared by the overwhelming majority 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 earlier this month, is not alone in arguing that Shiism provides for a separation of religion and government. His view is shared by more eminent theologians - Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, and, in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Hassan Qomi-Tabatabi in Mashad and Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Hassan San'ei in Qom.
This doctrine of separation does not mean that religion has no role in society. On the contrary, clerics like Borujerdi believe that the mullahs, having distanced themselves from day-to-day politics and government duties, would be in a stronger position to offer society the moral guidance that no secular authority can provide. The clergy would be a watchdog, overseeing the government, when 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. But 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 Muhammad Khatami - are recognized as politicians with a clerical background, but never as religious authorities.
OFTEN portrayed as a theoc racy, 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 more mullahs are in prison in Iran than other social strata.
Interestingly, Borujerdi's position is partly shared by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi - the man widely acknowledged as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Marjaa al-Taqlid (Source of Imitation). Unlike Borujerdi, Mesbah-Yazdi does not want to abolish the Islamic Republic outright - but he, too, insists that secular power should be exercised by politicians rather than clerics. (Critics of that view claim that mullahs like Borujerdi and Mesbah-Yazdi want power without responsibility while mullahs like Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami are prepared to assume both.)
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 reflect the views of Mesbah-Yazdi, by ending 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 who will fight tooth and nail to prevent the emergence of a distinctly political space as Mesbah-Yazdi and Borujerdi demand.
In the meantime, each of the factions involved in the power struggle is trying to claim the Hidden Imam for itself. Ahmadinejad claims that he receives periodical instructions from the Mahdi, while Borujerdi's associates insist that the Hidden Imam has chosen him as a mouthpiece.
IN mainstream Shiite lore, the Hidden Imam was initially in contact with just four pious men, known as The Nails (Owtad). But one of Shiism's most prominent theologians in the last century, the late Imadeddin Assar, rejected the idea of limited contact. He argued that the Imam was in contact with 36 pious men, six for each of the six directions, while reserving his right to contact anyone else he deemed necessary.
According to Assar, the Hidden Imam could approach any believer at night and whisper instructions in his ears. Thus, there is no reason to doubt claims of contacts with the Mahdi made by Ahmadinejad or Borujerdi or Khatami or anybody else.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.