While the world is justly focusing on the movement of terrorists and weapons from Iran into newly liberated Iraq, a movement of ideas and those who preach them traveling in the opposite direction may prove to have more lasting consequences in the long run.
The ideas are coming from Najaf, a dusty nondescript town in southern Iraq which is re-emerging as the principal center of Shi'ite Islam after a hiatus of more than three decades. The men who are taking those ideas into Iran are Iranian and Iraqi clerics who believe that Khomeinism -- the official religion of the Islamic Republic in Tehran -- represents a betrayal of their faith.
The man in whose name the doctrinal challenge to Khomeinism is launched is 73-year old Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Hussein Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi'ite theologians in Najaf.
Until Iraq's liberation last year, Ayatollah Sistani was under restrictions imposed by Saddam Hussein, and unable to communicate with his native Iran. In the final years of the Saddam regime, the grand ayatollah was not even allowed to teach.
In the past 15 months, however, Ayatollah Sistani has resumed contact with Shi'ite communities throughout the world, the first of which was Iran. Ayatollah Sistani has been sending emissaries to Iran to renew contact with the clergy, the bazaars, and the thousands of non-governmental organizations that have sprung up in recent years.
By the end of June Ayatollah Sistani had named representatives in 67 Iranian towns and cities, including the capital Tehran. At the same time a stream of visitors from Iran, including many clerics, are received by the ayatollah in his mud-brick home in downtown Najaf each day. Ayatollah Sistani's Persian-language Web site is attracting more than three millions visitors each month from Iran.
"Today, Sistani is probably the most influential Shi'ite [religious] leader in the world," says Sabah Zangeneh, who was Tehran's ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Conference until last year. "Many Iranians see in him a revival of the mainstream Shi'ite theology."
Many clerics agree. "It is now clear to most Shi'ites that Khomeinism is a political ideology and a deviation [from the faith]," says Ayatollah Mahmoud Qomi-Tabatabi. "Those who represent authentic Shi'ism cannot speak out in Iran. This is why the Najaf clergy, especially Sistani, are emerging as a pole of attraction for Iranians."
Another Iranian cleric, Hadi Qabel, says that Khomeinism should be regarded as "a political ideology" while Shi'ism, as a religious faith, is represented by "theologians like Sistani who do not seek power."
Hassan Sanai, a prominent mullah in Qom, sees the liberation of Najaf as "a gift from God." "Shi'ism needs a theological center that is not controlled by a government," Ayatollah Sanai says. "It is natural that Najaf should play that role. With Sistani now able to address the [Shi'ite] community, the faith could resume its natural course."
But in what way does Sistanism -- if such a term is allowed -- differ from Khomeinism? Some secular Shi'ite intellectuals claim that there is no difference. "A mullah is a mullah under any guise," says sociologist Nasser Zamani. "All mullahs want [political] power. Some, like Khomeini, seek it directly; others like Sistani, indirectly."
But this is precisely what makes Ayatollah Sistani's version of Shi'ism attractive to many. In Shi'ism all power belongs to God and is exercised by the 12 "immaculate" Imams, the last of whom disappeared in Iraq in the 9th century. In the absence of the Imam, the community rules itself as best as it can. The tasks of the government are limited to law and order, defending the community against aggression, and maintaining a minimum of administration. The believers could consult the clergy on matters about which they themselves cannot form a judgment. But here a free market of ideas exists in the sense that the believer can choose whom to consult and whether or not to accept the views of the clerics.
Khomeinism, however, is a totalitarian ideology in which the clergy have a monopoly on power. They name one of their own as "Faqih al-Wali" ("theological guide") who is given absolute power for life. Designated as "The Supreme Guide," he could even order a suspension of the basic rules of Islam.
Khomeinism describes the people as "mustazafeen" (the feeble ones) who are incapable of discerning good from evil for themselves. Although Khomeinism uses part of the Shiite mythology, religious vocabulary and iconography, it must be treated as a distinct doctrine. The key slogans of Khomeinism make this clear. Everywhere in Iran one sees giant slogans reading: God, Quran, Khomeini!
Mainstream Shiites, as well as other Muslims, see these slogans as forms of "kufr" (impiety) because they associate a mortal, in this case Khomeini, with God while making no mention of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Inspired by North Korean and Maoist models, images of Khomeini have been carved in mountains or grown as mini-forests, visible even from the skies -- a cult of personality bordering on idolatry.
Khomeinism is a cocktail in which Shi'ism is an almost accidental ingredient. Its basic ingredient is a hatred of the West, especially the United States. It is also influenced by Marxism, with such ideas as thought control, single-party rule and the command of the economy by the state.
The contrast between the Khomeini and Ayatollah Sistani versions of Shi'ism was illustrated in a recent debate on whether or not smoking was allowed under Islam. The Iranian Students' Association put the question to both Ayatollah Sistani and the Khomeini's clerics in Qom. Qom's answer was that smoking should be banned by the government, and smokers punished by pubic flogging. Ayatollah Sistani's answer was that the decision must be taken by the individual smoker with full knowledge of the latest medical research on the subject. This was one way of castigating the Khomeinist regime that insists on dictating every aspect of individual life. (There are Khomeinist laws on women's clothes, men's beards, the orientation of a toilette seat, and the amount of alcohol to use in cleaning a wound.)
Ayatollah Sistani's answers to more than 10,000 questions on numerous issues put the emphasis on "wisdom, moderation and caution" in deciding social, cultural and political issues. "When there is no consensus on a matter," Ayatollah Sistani says, "it is best left undecided until there is further discussion, study and research." In other words: no Khomeinist diktat.
The mainstream Shi'ism represented by Ayatollah Sistani was developed in the 20th century by ayatollahs such as Kazem Shirazi and Abol-Hassan Isfahani. The Shi'ite clerics supported the constitutional revolution in both the Ottoman Empire and Persia because they believed that no earthly despot had the right to usurp power that, in the absence of the Imam, belonged only to the people.
Ayatollah Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Mussavi-Khoi, the last of the great Shi'ite theologians of the 20th century. Between 1975 and 1991, Khoi had the largest following of any ayatollah in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
Khoi was put under house arrest by Saddam and stopped from teaching in 1990. When Khoi died in mysterious circumstances in Baghdad in 1991, Ayatollah Sistani took over as his spiritual heir.
What Ayatollah Sistani is now doing is to revive Khoi's network in Iran and to offer Shiites an opportunity to practice their faith as they had done before Khomeini seized power in 1979. And that, in political terms, is the most serious challenge that Iran's ruling mullahs have faced in a quarter of a century.
Mr. Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on Islam and the Middle East.