Iranians mourn the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazari

One of Shia Islam’s most revered jurists and theologians died over the weekend in Iran’s holy city of Qom. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazari, aged 87, is said to have died of heart failure in his sleep on the evening of Dec. 19. From the Guardian:

He was born into a poor peasant family in Najafabad, studied under Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Borujerdi, and moved to Qom. Montazeri was an independent thinker who had his occasional bursts of temper: as a farmer’s son, he continued to be a straight talker. By the age of 24, he was regarded as a bright Islamic scholar. His interest in mysticism and ethics led him to join Khomeini’s small circle of private and trusted students, and he established himself as a respected teacher of theology.

In 1962, when the Shah arrested Khomeini for his opposition to his “white revolution”, whose measures included land reform and the introduction of votes for women, some feared for Khomeini’s life. Montazeri and others issued a statement that Khomeini was a figure whose example should be followed, and could not be tried by the state.

In later years, Montazeri campaigned for the return of Khomeini from exile, mostly in Iraq, from 1964 onwards. He also became politically more active in opposing the Shah and his authoritarian style of rule. He was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and sent into internal exile – a painful period that proved to be very influential in Montazeri’s intellectual development. Prison forced him to experience the tyranny of the state and the abuse of human rights. He also had to live in the same cell and argue with leftwingers and nationalists, and acquire a better understanding of their causes – an opportunity experienced by very few leading ayatollahs.

His political opposition to injustice may represent an important act of defiance. But what Montazeri would wish to be remembered for may be his attempt to change the basis of Shia jurisprudence from protecting the right of the faithful to protecting the right of the citizens. This made him issue a historic statement earlier this year calling for respect for the right of the Baha’i people in Iran as citizens of the country. No other leading theologian has ever dared to issue such fatwa. He expanded the boundaries of Shia jurisprudence into the realm of human rights and wrote a book on the subject. He may not have become the leader of Iran, but he led conservative jurists into new areas in order to reform old rules.

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