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Will a woman’s murder topple a brutal Muslim regime?

The meaning of the protests in Iran and the future of Khamenei’s rule


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 12. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via Associated Press

Will a woman’s murder topple a brutal Muslim regime?
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Yesterday marked one month since the protests in Iran erupted against the Islamic Shiite regime.

Multitudes of angry Iranians—drawn from various social levels—took to the streets to demand the toppling of a regime that has been claiming to apply Islamic rules for over four decades. The triggering event for the protests was the brutal death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, who was arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for improperly wearing the Islamic hijab headscarf. The repeated chant of the protesters is, “Woman, life, freedom.”

While these protests are clearly triggered by the unjust death of Amini, they are a testimony of the absolute failure of Islamic law, in Iran’s case strictly applied, to enrich and flourish the lives of the Iranian people.

Iranians are not merely protesting the killing of an innocent woman—they are demanding the toppling of a brutal Islamic regime that has controlled the lives of citizens for decades. The death of Amini was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It brought Iranians together against a previously untouchable religious figure in their culture: the Ayatollah.

The “Ayatollah” is not a name of a person, but an honorific title given to the highest Islamic Shiite authority in Iran. While Iran has a prime minister and a government, nothing can surpass the power and authority of the most powerful political and religious authority of Ayatollah. The term Ayatollah literally means “The Sign of Allah” or “The Divine Sign” and can be rendered as “Allah’s Miracle.” The title is given only to the supreme leader of Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has had two Ayatollahs, Khomeini who led the revolution and died in 1989, followed by Ali Khamenei.

To understand the significance of the protests against Ayatollah, one needs to know the connotation and meaning of the honorific title.

In Shiite Islam, the term Ayatollah has only become widespread in the past century. However, it derives its significance and power from Islam’s history, particularly from the theological beliefs of Shiism, which is the branch of Islam followed by about 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. According to Shiism, after Muhammad’s death, twelve infallible imams succeeded him. They were both the spiritual and political leaders of the Muslims and their sayings and teachings are the absolute truthful guide in matters of worship and practice. These imams were all the descendants of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali.

For Shiites, the final Imam, the twelfth, did not die but went into disappearance by Allah’s determination in 874. His name is Mahdi and, for Shiites, he is alive and waiting for the right timing to appear to apply justice and Islam in the lands.

Many Iranians appeared in videos chanting “Death to the dictator,” in clear reference to the Ayatollah.

What is the connection between the twelve infallible Imams, the disappearing Mahdi, and Ayatollah?

In the absence of the twelfth imam, Mahdi, the Ayatollah is the representative not only of the infallible imams, but of Allah himself and is charged to rule by his laws. The Ayatollah is the ultimate authority and the supreme teacher of the Shiite Muslims. He is the final and definitive guide according to their beliefs. While he is merely a human, he is simply untouchable. At least, he has been untouchable until now.

The status of the Ayatollah has been challenged by political protests several times in the past four decades, especially in 2009 and 2019, but the brutal regime survived and flourished. However, Iranians now seem to have reached a turning point. They are done with a regime that has been using religious power to dictate politics and affect Iranian lives.

The news from Iran shows ordinary Iranians enraged and unafraid in many cities.

Iranian women, in particular, are done with the rule by Ayatollah and the control of Islamic rules. They were the first to take to the streets, ripping off or burning their Islamic hijab headscarves in protest to the murder of Amini and to stand in solidarity with all unjustly accused of improperly applying Islamic rules. Many women revealed their hair in public, and publicly cut their hair in defiance of the state rules. College students and university professors followed course. The message is clear: The Ayatollah must go. Many Iranians appeared in videos chanting “Death to the dictator,” in clear reference to the Ayatollah.

He is not untouchable anymore.

After four decades, Iranians appear to have realized they did not flourish under a strict application of Islamic Sharia. Apparently, the more a regime enforces Islamic religious rules the less interested Iranians have become in the faith itself.

Today we are witnessing a remarkable challenge to political dictatorship heavily relying on the authority of religious totalitarianism. While the religious rules have arguably oppressed Iranian women for years, it will be remarkable that, if the Ayatollah is toppled, the credit must go to an innocent woman killed by an unjust regime.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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