More than four months after the US killed Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike, debates about his legacy continue. His last will and testament, published in February 40 days after his death, has not received much attention in the US. The will reflects the mentality of a dedicated Islamist who believes, or at least wants the reader to believe, that the regime faces existential threats. Declaring the state itself a religious marker, he directly tied the survival of Islam to the Islamic Republic. Tailoring his message to a variety of audiences, he wanted to inspire and mobilize support for the government.
Soleimani began the will by expressing gratitude to God for being a Shiite Muslim and follower of “righteous servant” Islamic Republic founder Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He beseeched forgiveness and for the acceptance of deeds such as “taking up arms to defend [God’s] religion.” He expressed sorrow that he has been long left behind the “caravan” of his comrades who have fallen in battle, referring to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s to the Iraq and Syria wars of the 2010’s.
Soleimani tied the Islamic Republic to the survival of Islam itself. Addressing “my mujahid brothers and sisters,” he wrote that “the base of Hossein ibn Ali is Iran,” referring to third Shia Imam Hossein whose death at the battle of Karbala in the 7th century at the hands of the forces of Umayyad dynasty Caliph Yazid sealed the Shia-Sunni schism. Shiites call the Imam the “master of martyrs,” or Seyyed ol-Shuhada, and believe his sacrifice at Karbala in the face of certain death to stand against injustice sets the ultimate example for humanity. Soleimani called the Islamic Republic “the center of Islam and Shiism,” saying that the state is “the shrine […] if the enemy destroys this shrine, no shrine would remain, neither Abrahamic nor Muhammadean.” Crediting Khomeini with “reviving Islam,” Soleimani called the guardianship of the jurisprudence – the founding ideology of the Islamic Republic that puts the spiritual and material affairs of the state at the hands of a cleric until the arrival of the 12th Shiite Imam Mahdi – as “the only prescription for saving” the Islamic community. He addressed Shias who believe in the ideology as a matter of religious belief, as well Sunnis who believe in it as a matter of “rational belief” – an interesting phrase because fully accepting the ideology would translate to converting to Twelver Shiism, or belief in line of succession of 12 Imams after the Prophet Muhammad, because the Supreme Leader is in charge of affairs while the 12th Imam is in occultation. Soleimani called on Shias and Sunnis alike who support the Islamic Republic to defend the state. He told to not abandon the Supreme Leader’s “tent,” which is “the tent of the Prophet of Allah.” Soleimani continued that “the enemy’s hostility with the Islamic Republic is to set fire and destroy this tent.” If the Supreme Leader falls, then the Ka’ba, the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, and other holy shrines would “not remain,” and “Quran is harmed.”
Addressing the clergy, Soleimani again warned about the tie between Islam and the state. He told them that “if this system is harmed, the religion and everything that you have strived for in the seminaries will be destroyed. This era is different than other eras. If they [others] are dominant this time, nothing will be left of Islam. The correct path is […] support of the revolution, the Islamic Republic, and the guardian of the jurisprudence.” He also admonished clerics who want to “invite effective clergy” to “silence.” Soleimani added that “I see Grand Ayatollah Khamenei very alone and oppressed,” and that “he needs your support.” Khamenei is only recognized as a Grand Ayatollah among his most ardent supporters. That title is on his website, but even state media carry his title as Ayatollah. Earlier, Khamenei had also warned clerics including skeptics of the Islamic Republic that their fate is directly tied with the survival of the state in order to keep them in line, as Washington Institute scholar Mehdi Khalaji has explained in an in-depth research on the clergy’s transformation under Khamenei.
Soleimani built upon the potent narrative of the Syria and Iraq war of the 2010’s. Soleimani and the Islamic Republic leadership justified their intervention to prevent the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the battle cry of defending the holy shrine of Hazrat-e Zeynab, the sister of Imam Hossein, as well as Hazrat-e Roqayya, the daughter of the Imam, against Sunni extremists. Both of the shrines are in Damascus. After the Islamic State incursion into Iraq in 2014, this narrative expanded to defending holy shrines in Iraq. Shia history has witnessed the desecration and destruction of shrines, such as the 2006 al-Qaeda bombing of the Askari mosque in Iraq that set off bloody sectarian violence. Defending the shrine has proven to be a powerful narrative to mobilize supporters at home and fighters abroad, even as many deployed to Syria for other incentives, such as the Afghans who fought for money or residency permits in Iran. The narrative has also injected new blood into the Islamic Republic’s propagation of Shia-Islamist culture, presenting a new stage for the re-enactment of Karbala.
Soleimani’s assertion that the Islamic Republic is a “shrine” is an iteration of Khomeini’s guardianship of jurisprudence. In a letter addressed to then-president Khamenei in 1988, Khomeini told him that if the state deemed it “expedient,” it could suspends Islamic law and mandatory religious duties such as prayer. In other words, preserving and advancing the cause of the secular state is the highest religious duty, an irony of the theocracy.
Soleimani’s assertions are meant to mobilize supporters to defend and prevent the fall of the Islamic Republic at any cost. After four decades, the state faces a plethora of deep challenges. Soleimani’s wording and characterizing of the threats in existential terms speak volume. His argument tying Islam and the Islamic Republic, however, are specious at best. Throughout Islamic history, empires and dynasties have risen and fallen and there have been destructive events like the Mongol invasion. Yet, Islam has endured. Soleimani’s argument means that the Islamic Republic’s fall triggers a domino effect that would lead to the destruction of holy shrines, the fall of states in the region (Saudi ruler is responsible for protecting two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina), and Islam’s end. Soleimani does not describe how or who would sweep in to destroy these shrines. The audience in the letter, however, is well familiar with the enemies – both real and imagined – of the Islamic Republic, ranging from activists in Iran to the US and the Islamic Republic. What matters for Soleimani is conveying to supporters that the fight for the Islamic Republic is not merely for the soul of Islam, but for the existence of the religion itself.
Soleimani conveyed that message in the portion of the letter addressed to “his Iranian brother sisters.” He said that Khomeini’s “art” was that he put Islam as the backbone of Iran and “then put Iran at the service of Islam.” He said that without Islam, “Saddam would have ripped this country like a wolf, and America would have done the same like a rabid dog.” This portion is also geared to more nationalist Iranians to argue that Iran itself would not have survived without the Islamic Republic. Previously, Soleimani called nationalism in Iran as a “lie” that started in order to undermine “Islam and religion.”
There is a perception among some Iranians as well as in the US national security community that Soleimani was a nationalist and patriot. By Soleimani’s own definition, however, he is not a one: a nationalist puts the nation as the most important priority above all else, whereas an Islamist cannot put a nation above religion and the broader Islamic community. Soleimani was aware of the inherent contradiction between nationalism and Islamism. He believed himself a warrior in the divine path and follower of Khomeini’s brand of Islamism that has morphed into the objective of preserving the state at all costs.