In fact, the Sharia as Muslim thinkers have conceived it is the law which God has revealed and made available for human kind through the person of the Prophet Muhammad. They reveal his — God revealed the law through the text of the Quran, the book revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and then distributed to the community to which he was preaching at that time. And also through the Prophet Muhammad’s actions, what’s known as the Sunnah. Muslim jurists, Muslim thinkers when they’ve conceived of the Sharia have thought of it as God’s perfect law. But most Muslim jurist when they’ve thought about the Sharia have realized that it’s actually quite difficult to know for certain all the elements of the Sharia because the texts that we have, the text of the Quran and the actions of the Prophet Muhammad are at times not entirely clear as to what God’s rule might be. And so what’s needed is people who interprets these texts in order to make them understandable for human kind. And these interpreters, the scholars, the ulema, as they’re known within the Islamic tradition, are crucial for interpreting the text and making this message available to the population in the Muslim community.
The Saffavid Iran and Shia Islam
Within the early period of Shii Islam you have centers of knowledge transmission within Iran, but it would be wrong to say that Iran was dominated by Shii scholars or Shii influence at this time. And Iran was a mixture of all sorts of scholars Sunni, Shii, and various other groups, all of whom were operating in different centers throughout the whole of the country that we today called Iran. And so the Shia were one of the groups that were operating there but they weren’t the only one which was operating. I’m talking up to around about the 12th century, 12th or 13th century. And that actually there were Shia communities in Iran after that, but up until the coming of the Mongols in 1258, you can say that the Sunni community or the leadership in Iran, the government of Iran, the various governments of Iran were Sunni dominated. …That’s not to say that Shia didn’t exist in the population but that the main ruling government of Iran at that time was Sunni dominated, and after the coming of the Mongol’s, a period of devastation, the rebuilding if you like of governmental structures, state structures in the Middle East, was also Sunni dominated, and it wasn’t until the very beginning of the 16th century do we see in Iran the emergence of a truly Shiite dynasty in the form of Safavid.
The Akhbari-Usuli dispute was crucial, and it was a debate around how do we interpret the sacred text of Shiism, what are the mechanisms whereby we might make those texts relevant. The Akhbaris lost the argument. In the early 19th century, their opponents, the Usulis who placed a great emphasis upon the role of the scholar as the interpreter of the text, they eventually established themselves, and the Akhbaris were marginalizes within the Shii intellectual world. This establishment of the scholar as the person who is primarily responsible for the mediation of God’s message from the texts to the people was a fundamental building block of… the ability to claim that they should be the natural political leaders in any Islamic state. So, establishing the position of the scholar as the interpreter of God’s will, and which occurred with the Usulis victories over the Akhbaris in the early 19th century lay the foundation for later developments of ulema authority in the 20th century including Vilayat-e Faqih and the doctrine which was proposed by Ayatollah Khomeini. So, the intellectual debates of the early 19th century were crucially important for understanding the development of Shii jurisprudent which made Vilayat-e Faqih possible.