Obituary: Grand Ayatollah Rohani

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Rohani was one of the principal religious scholars and jurists of Shia Islam.

As a marja (religious authority), numerous Imami - Twelver Shia Muslims - followed his directives in the practical application of their faith. He was a sayyid and thus a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and his genealogy can be traced back to the Prophet's great-grandson, Ali Zayn al-Abidin, the fourth Imam of the Ahl al-Bayt (the Progeny of the Prophet). His father, Sayyid Mahmud, was a prominent scholar who played an instrumental role in founding the modern Theological Academy (the Howzeh- ye Elmiyeh) at Qum, in Iran, and his grandfather Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq, who died in the year of Rohani's birth, was a great marja and leader of the uelma (the religious scholars) in Qum.

With such a background, it is not surprising that he embarked, when a young boy, upon a traditional religious education. In his mid-teens he travelled to Iraq to complete his studies. He studied for a while at Karbala under Sayyid Muhammad Hadi Milani after which he moved to the 1,000-year-old Hawzah at Najaf (throughout history, the principal seat of learning for Shia Islam). There his teachers, among them the great marja Shaykh Muhammad Husayn al-Isfahani, were quick to recognise the intellectual potential of this gifted young man.

For his advanced studies, Rohani was a pupil of the late Sayyid Abul- Qasim al-Khoi, who was to become one of the most renowned marjas of modern times. These latter studies under Khoi lasted seven years: only three other students shared this great privilege with Rohani throughout this time. The close pupil-teacher relationship between Rohani and Khoi developed later into a friendship and close scholarly co-operation which continued uninterruptedly until the death of Khoi in 1992.

Not yet 30, Rohani was a muj- tahid (competent to make independent juridical decisions) and was well known throughout Najaf both as a scholar and teacher of exceptional ability. It was unusual for a man of his age to be recognised already as an authority in his chosen specialised fields of jurisprudence (fiqh) and the bases of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh). His precision and exactitude attracted only the most brilliant students and those with the most stamina since his course would last 13 years instead of the normal six or seven.

Among Rohani's students were numbered Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the future philosopher and intellectual who was murdered by the Baathist regime while in prison, Sayyid Abd al-Sahib al-Hakim (the son of Khoi's predecessor, Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim), who suffered the same fate as al-Sadr, and the two Lebanese Shia leaders Shaykh Mahdi Shams al-Din and Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl-Allah.

Rohani refused to be drawn into any political activity. This was the traditional standpoint of most of the Imami Shia ulema. While in Iraq, he never co-operated with the Baathist regime and in Qum he distanced himself from the Iranian revolutionary government but did not speak out publicly against it. Nevertheless, it was no secret that he did not subscribe to the concept of velayat-e motlaq-e faqih, known popularly as simply velayat-e faqih, that is he did not believe that an Islamic state should be governed by a jurist (faqih) who exerts absolute (motlaq) power and demands an absolute allegiance: privileges which, in the opinion of his mentor Khoi and the vast majority of the Shia scholars, are the prerogatives alone of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12 infallible Imams. The concept of velayat-e faqih was adopted by the late Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeni as the basis of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In 1976, Rohani together with other Shia ulema was expelled from Iraq by the Baathist regime. He returned to his native Qum, where he taught the Howzeh until his death. Such was his self-effacing character and humility that he refused to be known as a marja nor did he disseminate his juridical decisions until the death of his beloved Khoi.

Rohani as marja had a following throughout the world. Although many of the Shia ulema mostly in Iran itself thought Rohani to be the most knowledgeable of all the marjas of his day and thus the most worthy to be followed by Shia Muslims, the Iranian leadership did not, for obviously political reasons, even recognise his status as marja although, paradoxically, they never would have dared to question his academic excellence. Despite the restrictions imposed upon him, Rohani managed to keep in constant contact with his followers, especially by means of his representatives abroad who had established offices in Kuwait, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Syria, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

In addition to his published Risalah (the collection of his juridical edicts) in two volumes in 1992, called Minjaj al-Saliheen, and abridged versions of it in Arabic and Persian as well as a book on the rituals of the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Rohani compiled some 14 works on topics relating to jurisprudence, most of which remain in manuscript form, several of them in his own hand.

Rohani was a man of considerable kindness and generosity, had a great sense of humour and was approachable to all. Above all, he was a man of faith. About seven years ago, his daughter, mother-in-law and brother- in-law were killed in a car crash in Iran on the Mashad-Tehran road. Rohani in another car arrived on the scene of the accident a few minutes later. His self-control and composure after this tragic incident and the fact that he busied himself looking after the many visitors who subsequently came to Qum to proffer him their condolences testify to his heroic submission to Divine Providence.

The Iranian authorities delayed the announcement of Grand Ayatollah Rohani's death for 36 hours when a brief statement was read on state television. However they did allow the funeral procession, which was charged with emotion, to take place and moreover permitted his brother Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq, who had been under house arrest for 14 years for being critical of the government, to lead the funeral prayer over his body in Qum before several thousand mourners. At his main mourning ceremony in Qum, a well- known religious orator, Shaykh Manakebi, who was subsequently taken into custody for a fortnight, openly criticised the authorities for their dishonourable treatment of an outstanding marja. Rohani was buried in the basement of his house, despite the fact that in his will he directed that he be buried next to his father in the cemetery by the sacred mausoleum of Fatima Masooma.

A. B. D. R. Eagle

Sayyid Muhammad Husayni Rohani, religious scholar and jurist: born Qum, Persia 30 March 1920; married Badro-Sadat Husayn Shahabadi (two sons, two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Qum 25 July 1997.

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