At a time that the ruling elite in Tehran were busy marking the anniversary of the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Khomeinist movement lost another of its iconic figures: Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (pictured). (Image source: Mostafameraji/Wikimedia Commons)
At a time that the ruling elite in Tehran were busy marking the anniversary of the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Khomeinist movement lost another of its iconic figures: Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
The 86-year-old cleric who changed his surname from Givehchi (sandal-maker) to Mesbah (Arabic for lamp) was alone among Khomeinist mullahs to have secured the title of "Super Scientist" (Allameh in Arabic) from the establishment. He was marketed as "the greatest living Islamic philosopher" and, as head of the Imam Khomeini Center of Studies, the custodian of Khomeini's theologico-political heritage.
However, Mesbah-Yazdi's chief distinction may well have been his role in providing a pseudo-religious basis for the cult of personality built around the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. This is perhaps why Khamenei took the unusual step of personally leading the "prayers on the mortal remains" of the cleric.
To enable Khamenei to perform the ritual, his security forces had to deal with complex logistics.
Since the "Supreme Guide" is in lockdown because of coronavirus pandemic, the corpse of the mullah had to be ferried in a military helicopter to Khamenei's palace, to be ferried back for burial in south Tehran.
The select group of individuals allowed to attend the ceremony had to pass infection tests and observe other protocols on wearing masks and social distancing. According to some accounts, when eulogizing "our elder brother" and "one of the greatest teachers in Islamic history", Khamenei was close to tears.
With a green light from the Leader's palace, other state-controlled clerics also issued statements praising Mesbah-Yazdi's mostly imaginary achievements in philosophy and theology. In another sign that the traditional Shiite clergy are distancing themselves from the regime, however, none of the non-state grand ayatollahs of Qom, Mashhad or Najaf chose even to note Mesbah-Yazdi's demise, let alone mourn him.
Outside the official clerical circles, Mesbah-Yazdi was, perhaps, the most hated figure in the Khomeinist sect, at times to a degree he didn't deserve.
His popular nickname was "crocodile" (timsah in Arabic) because the shape of his face reminded cartoonists of the amphibian beast with a bad reputation.
I first met Mesbah-Yazdi in the 1970s when he was a follower of the philosopher Ahmad Fardid who, in turn, cast himself as a disciple of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Because Fardid knew no German, his knowledge of Heidegger was based on scanty reading and misreading of French or Persian translations.
Fardid's understanding of Heidegger could be summed up in two erroneous beliefs: society's need for order and the need for an unimpeachable leader to impose that order. He also claimed a visceral hatred of Marxism in all its many different forms, a hatred that he transmitted to Mesbah-Yazdi and other disciples such as Muhammad-Reza Davari Ardakani who was to become the republic's official philosopher.
By the mid-1970s the group seemed prepared to accept the Shah as the unimpeachable leader who could ensure the desired social order. The Shah's regime saw the group as useful in combating Communism, which the security services wrongly identified as the main threat.
That was poor timing, however, as Iran soon entered a revolutionary moment and the Shah, rather than trying to protect the existing order, decided to throw in the towel and go into exile to avoid bloodshed.
As Khomeini emerged as the symbol of the revolution, the group began to see him as the ideal leader, a kind of Fuhrer with a turban.
To be sure some members of the group, including, Mesbah-Yazdi had Ardakani had professed sympathy for Khomeini in his first anti-Shah uprising in 1962 and had little difficulty to drop the Shah and follow the mullah.
Such a switch, however, was harder for Fardid who was an Aryan supremacist, seeing Islam as an Arab-Semitic phenomenon, and a man whose knowledge of French wines was unrivalled in the Persian Empire. Nevertheless, like his master Heidegger, who had discovered Hitler as the ideal leader, Fardid, too, started making pro-Khomeini noises, thus not only keeping his chair but, perhaps, even saving his life.
In the early years of the new regime, Mesbah-Yazdi became a TV star by taking part in a number of debates with leaders of various Communist groups, including the pro-Soviet Tudeh (Masses) Party.
By all accounts, "the crocodile" won most rounds. He had an advantage in the fact that the Communists had to acknowledge the "Islamic" nature of the revolution and new regime, plus Khomeini's infallibility (ismah in Arabic).
Mesbah-Yazdi's reputation as a great thinker soared when several prominent Communists, including Ishan Tabari, chief theoretician of the Tudeh Party, and Nureddin Kianuri, the party's leader, publicly renounced Marxism and converted to the Khomeinist version of Shiism. Other Marxist-Leninist protagonists such as Farrokh Negahdar, a guerrilla leader, transferred to Europe to defend the revolution from abroad.
Encouraged by those TV victories, Mesbah-Yazdi tried to find Islamic sources for his Heideggerite misunderstanding. He found them in the imami theory, according to which all power has a divine source and can only be exercised by infallible Imams or their worthy heirs who act as "nails" (mesmar in Arabic) that keep the world fixed and safe from falling into nothingness.
In that doctrine, ordinary folk are not qualified to take decisions beyond quotidian matters which they understand. Mesbah-Yazdi liked to quote the verse from the great Persian Sufi Molavi (Roumi in Arabic):
Oh God! Don't leave our affairs to us;
Woe betides us if you do.
Soon, Mesbah-Yazdi identified Khamenei as the "Ideal Leader" who must be obeyed on all matters without question. According to the official RJANEWS, Mesbah-Yazdi on his deathbed said he had only one regret: Having had the honor of kissing Leader's hand, he had not yet kissed his feet, which he longed to do.
Mesbah-Yazdi said: "Islam, today, can be summed up in one phrase: Absolute obedience to the Leader."
It was good of the Leader to allow elections for various positions but no one should forget that this is a favor, not a right. That Khamenei was the "Ideal Leader" until the return of the Hidden Imam was clear from the fact that he had not made a single mistake in four decades at the helm. Mankind today, is in a phase of "waiting" for the Twelfth Imam as part of a divine scheme that lesser mortals could never understand.
The choice offered to Iranians was between Marx and Heidegger, or between Communism and Nazism.
No one was allowed to join the debate and suggest, ever so modestly, that maybe it was time for Iranians to use their own heads and begin thinking themselves.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.