MOHAMMAD Reza Golpaygani was one of the last bastions of Shia orthodoxy and the senior religious leader for Shia Muslims.
He was born and brought up in Golpaygan, central Iran. Like his old friend Ayatollah Khomeini, he studied in Arak under Ayatollah Ha'eri-Yazdi. In 1922 they all moved to the holy city of Qom, which became the heartland of Shia Islam. Golpaygani was soon recognised as a religious scholar by students who attended his courses in jurisprudence and theology.
Golpaygani, Khomeini, Ayatollah Shariatmadari and other leading teachers at Qom had to wait for nearly three decades before gaining prominence in the Shia world. The towering figure of Ayatollah Borujerdi had overshadowed them all. Borujerdi died in March 1961. On the seventh day after his death, leading divines of Qom were invited to form a group to look after the theological colleges and possibly find a replacement for Borujerdi. There was no clear
The Shah of Iran, who had good relations with Borujerdi, appeared to favour Ayatollah Mohsen al-
Hakim, who lived in Najaf and to whom he sent a long telegram of condolence on Borujerdi's death. However Hakim was an Iraqi citizen popular among the Shia of Iraq and Lebanon. He did not have much of a following in Iran and the court's interference in an affair the mullahs considered to be their own caused considerable resentment. The clergy's meeting was therefore inconclusive and the whole issue was put aside for a time. This suited the Shah who wanted to introduce changes without having to take into account the clergy who had helped him in his difficult days in 1953 when he was under pressure from his prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq, and the Left.
Once the Shah announced his reforms in the early Sixties, principally land reform and giving women the right to vote and to be elected, he was challenged by the clergy led by Khomeini. Golpaygani joined Khomeini in criticising the Shah's 'White Revolution' but, as a cautious and conservative clergyman, he always acted with restraint. He was put under surveillance but never imprisoned or exiled. After the revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Golpaygani supported the Islamic government. His relations with Ayatollah Khomeini were correct but he also voiced the views of clergy who were unhappy with aspects of the regime such as the confiscation of property belonging to people accused of being
counter-revolutionary. Nor was he happy with Khomeini's attempt to relax some religious rules and regulations concerning taxation, music and chess. As a religio-political leader, Khomeini allowed radio and television to broadcast some music of which Golpaygani did not approve.
Golpaygani was also against Khomeini's attempt to brand all those who disagreed with his theory of 'the guardianship of the clergy'. Golpaygani also played a key role in the early days of the revolution to reconcile Ayatollahs Shariatmadari and Khomeini. Golpaygani's mediation failed. Khomeini won and Shariatmadari was defrocked and put under house arrest accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Golpaygani wrote to Khomeini objecting to the mistreatment of Shariatmadari at the hand of his fellow clergy.
When Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, some politicians thought Khomeini's mantle should be offered to Golpaygani but reportedly he refused. It was then that President Ali Khamenei was made the leader and the title of Ayatollah was given to him. However, since Khamenei was a middle-ranking clergyman, a senior mullah, Ayatollah Araki, was found to take Khomeini's religious mantle. But it was Ayatollah Golpaygani who was called from Qom to lead the memorial prayers in Tehran.
Following the death of Ayatollah al-Khoy last year, Ayatollah Golpaygani became the senior international Shia leader, presiding over several theological schools, charities, and Islamic centres. His death opens a new chapter in Shia history. The Islamic republic would like to institutionalise the appointment of religious leadership in its version of the College of the Cardinals or the Assembly of Experts. It was this assembly that dropped Ayatollah Montazeri as Khomeini's successor, but Montazeri, who is under house arrest, is still a force to be reckoned with. As the most respected teacher among the younger generation of theologians, Montazeri is one of the obstacles to the attempt to bring under government control this institution, which has given the clergy their financial and political independence from the governments. The irony is that the Islamic Revolution was about the supremacy of religion over state. But we are now witnessing the supremacy of state over religion, albeit in the name of Islam.
Ayatollah Golpaygani, who was suffering from bronchitis, was taken to hospital in Tehran earlier this week, where President Rafsanjani and the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei visited him on his death-bed. The Iranian government has announced a week of mourning, and Golpaygani is due to be buried today in Qom.