What is the Hojjatieh Society?

Founded in 1953 as a specifically anti-Bahá'í organization by a charismatic Shiite Muslim cleric, the Hojjatieh Society has today re-emerged in Iran as an influential if secretive faction that has been linked in news articles and web blogs with the current Iranian administration.

During the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Society played an important role in stirring animosity against Bahá'ís. However, in part because of differences in theology—among other things the Hojjatieh believe a truly Islamic state cannot be established until the return of the 12th Imam—the Society fell into disfavor and was banned by the regime in 1984.

Outside observers have connected the Society’s re-emergence with the return of hardliners to positions of power in the government, including the president who has frequently stated his expectation that the 12th Imam will return soon.

The attached article, published in the Encyclopedia Iranica, provides a concise history of the Hojjatieh (Hojjatiya) Society. The Web site of the Encylopedia Iranica indicates that the encylopedia “is a multi-disciplinary reference work and research tool designed to record the facts of Iranian history and civilization. In fact, it is the only precisely documented reference work on the lands, life, culture and history of all Iranian peoples and their interaction with other societies.”

Following are a few additional references to the Hojjatieh Society:

Founded in 1953 and used by the Shah of Iran to try to eradicate followers of the Baha'i faith, the Hojjatieh Society is governed by the conviction that the 12th Imam’s return will be hastened by the creation of chaos on earth.

Hojjatieh was a semi-clandestine religious and political group that was set up in the early 1950s in Iran by Sheikh Mahmoud Tavallai, popularly known as Sheikh Halabi, an extremist Shiite cleric who founded the group to eradicate members of the Baha’i faith.

Friday Prayer leaders throughout Iran warned their congregations in early July of renewed activities on the part of the Hojjatieh Society—a strongly anti-Baha’i movement that has long been regarded as a potent, if secretive threat to the ruling elites (both imperial and clerical) that have run Iran since the Hojjatieh Society was created in the middle of the last century. In Shahrud, Ayatollah Abbas Amini said that Hojjatieh activists are recruiting new members in the city’s mosques, Radio Farda reported on 11 July.

The Hojjatieh Mahdavieh Society was established in 1953 by a preacher from Mashhad, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi, who supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mussadiq. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi allowed the society to pursue its anti-Baha’i activities after Mussadiq’s August 1953 ouster, in exchange for the clerical community’s support for his renewed reign. Society member Mohammad Taqi Falsafi’s anti-Baha’i sermons were broadcast by state radio, for example, and Tehran’s Military-Governor Teimour Bakhtiar took a pick-ax to the Baha’i temple in Tehran in May 1955. Around that time, Halabi persuaded the Marja-yi Taqlid (source of emulation) Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Tabatabai Borujerdi to issue a fatwa banning transactions with Baha’is, according to Baqer Moin’s “Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah” (1999).

After that, the Hojjatieh Society entered a period of relative inactivity, although the same cannot be said of Falsafi. The shah’s court minister, Assadollah Alam, wrote in his diaries that in 1963 Falsafi preached against the shah’s reform program and, after a June 1963 riot, Alam had Falsafi imprisoned (Assadollah Alam, “The Shah and I,” Alinaghi Alikhani, ed. [1991]).

There is more to the Hojjatieh Society than its anti-Baha’i beliefs, however, although the depths of those beliefs say a great deal about the society. While Baha’i leader Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri (1817–1892)—who declared himself a prophet known as Bahaullah (most Muslims view Muhammad as the final prophet in Islam)—disputed the existence of a hidden imam, Hojjatieh members believe that true Islamic government must await the return of the hidden imam, or Mahdi, who is currently in occultation. For much the same reasons, the Hojjatieh Society opposed Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of Islamic government and Vilayat-i Faqih (rule of the supreme jurisconsult). It favors collective leadership of the religious community, and opposes religious involvement in political affairs.

The Hojjatieh Society enjoyed a revival after the 1978–1979 Islamic revolution; fearing a communist takeover, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi urged his followers to vote in favor of Vilayat-i Faqih in the December 1979 referendum on the country’s form of government. Moin writes that the society was well organized at the time and its members had “impeccable religious credentials,” so they were able to fill administrative gaps left by revolutionary purges, as was particularly the case in the educational sector. Some cabinet members allegedly had Hojjatieh links as well.

Prominent clerics of the revolutionary era who were Hojjatieh members or sympathizers included Ahmad Azari-Qomi, Ali-Akbar Parvaresh, Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, Abolqasem Khazali, and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, according to Mehdi Moslem’s “Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran” (2002). None of them acknowledged their relationship with the society, however, maintaining more open ties with the Islamic Coalition Association (now the Islamic Coalition Party) and with the bazaar sector.

Within a few years this situation changed. Concern arose about the society’s secretiveness, as did resentment of its members’ success. An increasingly intolerant Khomeini, Moin writes, attacked the society and what it stood for. He said in a 12 July 1983 speech: “Those who believe we should allow sins to increase until the Twelfth Imam reappears should modify and reconsider their position.... If you believe in your country [then] get rid of this factionalism and join the wave that is carrying the nation forward, otherwise it will break you.” The Hojjatieh Society announced its dissolution on the same day, according to Moin. The formal end of the Hojjatieh Society did not necessarily mean the end to its role in politics. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, for example, became the speaker of the fifth parliament and currently serves on the Expediency Council and as an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ali-Akbar Parvaresh served as deputy speaker of parliament and education minister. Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi-Bigdeli served as public prosecutor, represented Khomeini during a parliamentary review of the constitution, represented Qom in the legislature, served on the Assembly of Experts, and headed the Resalat Foundation (the regime eventually put him under house arrest for questioning the system of Vilayat-i Faqih and questioning the qualifications of Supreme Leader Khamenei; he died in 1999).

Warnings of renewed Hojjatieh Society activism appeared again in 2002. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told a press conference that a group of people in Qom was arrested on charges of supporting the society and trying to fuel religious discord, and their books and pamphlets were confiscated, “Toseh” reported on 27 August 2002. Rudsar and Amlash parliamentary representative Davud Hasanzadegan-Rudsari said a little later that the revived Hojjatieh Society is “exacerbating the Shi’a-Sunni conflict,” “Aftab-i Yazd” reported on 1 September 2002. Hasanzadegan described the society as “the embodiment of obscurantism.”

An editorial in the 1 September 2002 issue of the conservative “Kayhan” newspaper took a very different tack when discussing reports of renewed political activity by the Hojjatieh Society. It claimed there are many similarities between the reformist 2nd of Khordad grouping and the Hojjatieh Society. Both advocate the separation of politics and religion; just as the society opposes creation of an Islamic government, the reformists are “trying to separate the Islamic from the republic and then gradually turn the Islamic system into a secular system of government.” Society members and reformists enjoy luxury and wealth, according to the editorial, and they both opposed Vilayat-i Faqih.

The editorial went on to claim that both groups accept all sorts of sin and social corruption. “The only difference is that association members say we should not fight vice so that it spreads and the Mahdi will emerge, while certain reformers say that the democratic principle demands that the people be left alone to do as they please, even if it means loose morals and social corruption.” The Hojjatieh Society, mainly because it opposes Marxism, is pro-Western, according to the editorial, as is the 2nd of Khordad grouping.

The Hojjatieh Society was also mentioned occasionally in 2003. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 8 January that Hojjatieh Society members who infiltrate the government would be dealt with in the same way as other citizens, “Iran Daily” reported the next day. Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Hashem Hashemzadeh-Harisi said in the same newspaper that the infiltration of the government by such “radicals” threatens the Islamic system and undermines national solidarity. On the sidelines of the 9 March legislative session, Tehran representative Ali Shakuri-Rad allegedly said that the Hojjatieh Society should be licensed as a political party, “Resalat” reported on 10 March (“Towseh” put this into context on 10 March, when it reported that Shakuri-Rad was comparing his political opponents to the Hojjatieh Society).

“Aftab-i Yazd” on 7 October 2003 criticized an unnamed cleric for defending the Hojjatieh Society. This cleric reportedly claimed that Ayatollah Khomeini was deceived into criticizing the Hojjatieh Society.

Sectarian conflicts reemerged in spring 2004 (see “RFE/RL Iran Report,” 6 September 2004), which some sources linked to the Hojjatieh Society. Rasul Montajabnia wrote in a commentary for “Nasim-i Saba” on 4 May that members or supporters of the society have stopped their fight against the Baha’i faith and have turned their attention to creating divisions between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Montajabnia repeated this concern in the 12 May “Hambastegi.”

Hussein Shariatmadari, director of the “Kayhan” newspaper, said, “The Hojjatieh Society has always been active as a creeping current,” “Aftab-i Yazd” reported on 31 May 2004. Turning to its renewed activism, Shariatmadari warned, “In these days all the currents that suggest a secular establishment are the supporters of this society.”

Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali, who served on the Guardians Council, defended the Hojjatieh Society in the 18 May 2004 “Aftab-i Yazd.” He said that stories of its renewed activism are “completely a lie.” “I know these people [society members] very well. They are not working. They would have worked if they had known it was good for Islam. Therefore it is a complete lie when they say they have become active again.”

It is difficult to verify if the Hojjatieh Society really has become more active as an organization or if recent warnings about it relate to something completely different and this is another case of governmental scapegoating.

Members of the Hojjatieh Society, according to Radio Farda, are followers of the Iranian-born but Al-Najaf-based Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani . Such a claim has not been reported elsewhere, but it is not impossible and goes some way in explaining official Iranian concern. The Iranian regime bases much of its legitimacy on its religious credentials and connection with Qom. The Qom howzeh would fear the transfer of prominence to the Al-Najaf howzeh. As suggested by an editorial in the 8 June “Farhang-i Ashti,” Al-Najaf is the “new Islamic Vatican” and it rivals Qom. Mashhad—birthplace of the Hojjatieh Society—also rivals Qom, especially because, according to the editorial, it views Islamic rule with “deep suspicion.” The editorial explains: “Qom looks to merge religion and politics, while Mashhad thinks of separating the two.”

A potential link to the Hojjatieh Society is not the only cause of concern on the part of the Iranian government about Ayatollah al-Sistani. Like the Hojjatieh Society, al-Sistani does not advocate Vilayat-i Faqih. The government’s concern about a religio-political organization that questions the basis of its theocratic system is therefore understandable. The society’s anti-Baha’i message may not find much of an audience in modern Iran, and the right-wing tendencies of prominent members may not jibe with overall public sentiment. Its opposition to the system, however, may very well strike a chord with an unhappy public. (Bill Samii)