Wilāyat al-Faqīh and Collecting the Fifth: A Theory of Khums

By Mohammad Sagha

The issue this paper seeks to address is how Ayatollāh Sayyīd Rūhullāh Khumaynī (d. 1386 sh./1989) conceptualized the collection of khums under the theory of the “Guardianship of the Jurisprudent” (wilāyat al-faqīh). The theory asserts the spiritual and practical authority of the Shīʿī jurist to govern in the absence of the twelfth Imām, and marks the first time in history that a Shīʿī jurist directly governed a polity as the supreme political authority.[1] The system of the Guardianship of the Jurist was first systematically outlined by Ayatullāh Khumaynī in a series of lectures in Najaf, Iraq in early 1970.[2] That system was later adopted in Iran’s constitution following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This post asserts that Khumaynī’s opinions on khums are a reflection of his broader political theory regarding the necessity of government and leadership in the Islamic world to counter corrupt and illegitimate regimes which ruled Muslim lands.

In one of Ayatullāh Khumaynī’s earliest works in Persian, Kashf al-Asrār (pr. 1322 sh./1944), he expresses his theories on taxation and the role of an ideal Islamic state or government in a section regarding the “budget of an Islamic government/state.” [3] Khumaynī categorizes Islamic taxes into five legitimate categories,[4] and assigns broad powers to the Islamic state to explicitly recognize and encourage the right of an Islamic government to collect Islamic taxes. This stance is atypical, as Shīʿī jurists before him generally both mistrusted the state due to political persecution, and likewise theologically opposed any claims to administering a just government in place of an infallible Imām.[5] Instead, Ayatullāh Khumaynī makes both a historical and theological argument regarding Islamic taxes, stating that the types of taxes which the early Islamic state collected were not meant just to provide for those in dire financial need, nor necessarily to be specifically administered by the Imām.[6] Instead the collection of zakāt and khums was meant for the bayt al-māl[7] to be used for society’s benefit and for the establishment of a just government:

The taxes Islam levies and the form of budget it has established are not merely for the sake of providing subsistence to the poor or feeding the indigent among the descendants of the Prophet (s); they are also intended to make possible, the establishment of a great government and to assure its essential expenditures. For example, khums is a [tremendous] source of income that accrues to the treasury and represents one item in the budget… [But] how could the sayyids ever need so vast a budget?… The provision of such a huge budget must obviously be for the purpose of forming a government and administering the Islamic lands. It was established with the aim of providing for the needs of the people, for public services relating to health, education, defense, and economic development. Now, should we cast this huge treasury into the ocean, or bury it until the Imām returns, or just spend it on fifty sayyids a day until they have all eaten their fill?[8]

Ayatullāh Khumaynī directly challenged many of the standing Shīʿī juristic arguments in the literature which tended to focus on details regarding the divisions and expenditure of zakāt and khums and whether it is even lawful during the time of occultation[9] for Shīʿīs to pay these taxes.[10] Ayatullāh Khumaynī does not entertain the traditional discussions which Shīʿī jurists tended to engage in regarding the “sahm al-Imām” and “sahm al-sadāt,[11] instead practically merging both portions and recognizing the role of the Islamic political ruler (ḥākim-i islāmī) in the collection and distribution of khums.[12] This conforms to Khumaynī’s larger political disposition and theory that the absence of the Imām should not result in any aspect of the sharīʿa to remain unenforced, and the enforcement of sharīʿa necessitates a just government in order to function properly whether the Imām be in occultation or not.[13] Khums as such is not specific to the responsibility of the Imām, but rather to the responsibility of the leader of an Islamic country which had been rightly delegated to the Imām and needs to be re-established in his absence.[14] This theorization legitimizes a full recapturing of aspects of sharīʿa that jurists before him had considered sāqiṭ (or “suspended”) during the occultation of the Imām.[15]

Ayatullāh Khumaynī further states that taxes (mālīyāt) in Islamic law[16] are of two types: those that are compulsory and those that are non-compulsory. He asserts that an Islamic state may undertake compulsory taxation in extraordinary circumstances such as foreign invasions or internal rebellions/revolutions and that these types of taxes are unbounded (ghayr-i madūd) and appropriated at the discretion of the Islamic state.[17] Moreover, for the independence of the Islamic lands, he writes that all the people are obliged to mobilize and fight for its freedom, in the process appropriating extraordinary powers for his conception of Islamic government.[18]

These strong statements may in fact reflect the unique geo-political circumstances in which Muslims found themselves at the time of Ayatullāh Khumaynī’s writing in which Western colonial projects and global power imbalances gave many Muslims an acute sense of subjection and political consciousness.[19] These strong statements by Ayatullāh Khumaynī perhaps, then, do not solely reflect internal Shīʿī scholarly debates over tax obligations but also take into consideration the social and political circumstances of the day in which religiously minded Shīʿīs and Sunnīs (together) had to confront a dual challenge of secularist military-dictatorship regimes as well as the threat or reality of foreign domination.[20]

Following the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, however, Ayatullāh Khumaynī’s theory has not been fully realized, likely due to Khumaynī’s pragmatic policies in order not to alienate the clerical class in Iran. Since the time of Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Anṣārī (d. 1281/1864), it has been standard practice for observant Shīʿīs to donate their khums to the Grand Ayatullāh or religious exemplar (marjaʿ) of their choice.[21] The theory of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent thus poses a challenge to the theory of emulation (taqlīd) in that under the former, individuals would be obliged to pay their khums to the Islamic political ruler, whereas under the latter they would be free to choose to donate among various Grand Ayatullāhs. The tension has been (at least temporarily) resolved by Ayatullāh ʿAlī Khāmeneī, Iran’s current Supreme Leader following Khumaynī, who has given a fatwā that belief in the theory of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent is not incumbent on Shīʿīs and that in cases of a difference of opinion between the Jurist-Guardian and one’s own Grand Ayatullāh,[22] one must follow the latter – unless it is in regards to issues of state administration or the defense of Islam against transgressors.[23]  Khāmeneī thus allows for khums to be paid to one’s own marjaʿ and not necessarily the Jurist-Guardian.

The position on khums under the theory of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent– and on the theory of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent itself – has in many ways remained unfulfilled. The political exigencies facing Iran’s Supreme Leadership both under Khumaynī and Khameneī have resulted in compromises on theoretical positions, including on that of the giving of khums. Nonetheless, the theory marked a significant evolution in the history of Shīʿī juridical thought regarding khums and transcended the traditional boundaries of juristic debate by conceptualizing the necessity of Islamic government and leadership in the face of theretofore unseen Eurocentric-secularist Muslim dictatorships.


[1] Ayatollāh ʿAlī Khāmeneī, the current Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989, defines the concept simply as “the government of the just and religiously conscious jurist” (ḥukūmat-i faqīh-i ʿādil va dīn shenās); Daftar-i Maqām-i Muʿaẓam-i Rahbarī (1393) Risāle-ye Amūzesh, Vilāyat-i Faqīh va Rahbarī.

[2] Amr GE Sabet, Wilayat al-Faqih and the Meaning of Islamic Government in Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (ed.) A Critical Introduction to Khomeini (2014).

[3] Ayatullāh Rūhullah Khumaynī, Kashf al-Asrār 255-260 (1322 sh./1944).

[4] These include: taxes on kharāj lands, khums, zakāt, jizya, and wealth of inheritances without owners; Ayatullāh Rūhullah Khumaynī, Kashf al-Asrār 256-258 (1322 sh./1944).

[5] One scholar states: “The praxis of Khomeini underscored that intizar (or ‘quietism’) should not be construed as the passive awaiting of the Imam, but as ‘an active effort of preparing the way’ for such a return – hence Wilayat al-Faqīh as deputyship [of the twelfth Imām]”; Amr GE Sabet, Wilayat al-Faqih and the Meaning of Islamic Government 87, in Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (ed.) A Critical Introduction to Khomeini (2014).

[6] Shīʿīs today believe in a line of twelve consecutive Imāms who were the legitimate successors to the Prophet after his death in 632 CE. Sunnīs, on the other hand, believe in a different line of legitimate rulers after the Prophet’s death. For a general overview of Shīʽīsm, see Najam Haidar, Shi’i Islam: An Introduction (2014).

[7] For more information on the concept of the “bayt al-māl,” see: Mahmood Namazi, Bayt al-Mal and Distribution of Zakat (2010). An approximate translation of bayt al-māl may be “public treasury.”

[8] Imām Khomeini, Islamic Government (tr. by Hamid Algar) 20-21, The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s works.

[9] The occultation (ghayba) refers to the physical disappearance and inaccessibility of the Twelfth Imām following the death of his father, the previously accepted Imām among the Shīʽī community. Given the doctrinal adherence of the Shīʽīs to the Imām as the sole legitimate leader and religious guide of the Muslim community, the occultation confronted the Shīʽīs with unprecedented challenges both doctrinally and socially. For a detailed study on this subject, see: Hossein Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʻite Islam (1993).

[10] For more context on the historical debates surrounding these taxes and Shīʿī juristic opinions see <<previous posts 1-3>>.

[11] For a discussion of the sahm al-Imām and sahm al-sadāt see <<post 3>>.

[12] Ḥamīd Anṣarī, Marjaʿīyyat va Rahbarī (1994).

[13] Otherwise, a non-Islamic government results in the “non-Islamic political order”; Imām Khomeini, Islamic Government (tr. by Hamid Algar) 23, The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s works.

[14] Ḥamīd Anṣarī, Marjaʿīyyat va Rahbarī (1994).

[15] Norman Calder, Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 469 (1981).

[16] Here, Khumaynī uses the phrase “dar ghanūn-i Islām” which may gesture towards a different usage and conception of law that just “fiqh” but is more likely used in a general and colloquial sense to refer to Islamic law; Ayatullāh Rūhullah Khumaynī, Kashf al-Asrār 255 (1322/1944).

[17] Ayatullāh Rūhullah Khumaynī, Kashf al-Asrār 255 (1322/1944).

[18] Ayatullāh Rūhullah Khumaynī, Kashf al-Asrār 256 (1322/1944).

[19] For a thorough treatment of this topic see: Salman Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (2004).

[20] Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, Chapter 8: Ayatollah Khomeini: The Theologian of Discontent (2005).

[21] Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet 211 (2002).

[22] The “source of emulation/Grand Ayatollah” or marjaʽ is the highest rank a Shīʽī jurist can currently attain which privileges him as a representative of the Hidden Imām to collect khums from believers, and in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to attain leadership of the country. For a lengthy discussion of the modern institution of Marjaʽīya see: Linda Walbridge, Thread of Muʼawiya (2014); and Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet (2002).

[23] Daftar-i Maqām-i Muʿaẓam-i Rahbarī (1393) Risāle-ye Amūzesh, Vilāyat-i Faqīh va Rahbarī.

Leave a Reply