That wall was fundamental to Twelver Shiite belief, which holds that as long as the so-called 12th Imam has not revealed himself, no other political authority may either stand in for him or be recognized as legitimate.
So how did Khomeini invent the theory?
Shiites didn’t reject spiritual authority by any means. They recalibrated it to fit the narrative, or legend, of the hidden imam, giving prominence to independent reasoning, or ijtihad, in interpreting Islamic thought. That intellectual pluralism narrowed considerably beginning in 18th century, narrowing further in the 19th, as Twelver philosophy restricted the right to interpret Islamic law to a few mujtahids, or expert imams, who claimed that their teachings were infallible. Believers were then compelled to choose one of those mujtahids as their “source of emulation.”
By that gradual process, spiritual power devolved from a form of rich, pluralistic inquiry—which, not coincidentally, produced Islam’s most learned, enlightened and tolerant period in the middle ages—into a form of authoritarian imamism. Nevertheless, the imams continued to reject the reins of power—if not scorn them—and never claimed to derive their authority from God, but rather from their lineage. They claimed to be the descendants in a long line of infallible imams.
Khomeini's Inveterate Tinkering
Basing himself loosely on Shiite jurisprudence but mostly on novel, circuitous and largely self-serving theorizing of his own, Khomeini, in 1969, invented the theory of the “guardianship of the jurist,” or wilayat al-faqih. Not only were Muslims required to assume political power, he argued. They were required to submit to the will of the supreme imam, or supreme leader, who himself drew his authority from God.
The theory was a remarkably bold up-ending of centuries of Shiite jurisprudence. Khomeini first presented the theory in the form of lectures to his students in Najaf, the Iraqi city. Khomeini’s followers did not realize the theory’s controlling (and often irreligious) implications until Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979. Nor did Khomeini himself likely imagine that he would get the chance to enact it on much of a scale even as the revolution was unfolding in its first bloody months: his hold on power was anything but assured.
An inveterate tinkerer in his own theories as means of preserving power, Khomeini never stopped amending the powers of the “supreme leader,” either to eliminate theological and political opposition or to justify his own rule’s violent excesses in the revolution’s first decade. Those excesses included endorsing the taking of American hostages in Tehran, ordering the taking of hostages in Lebanon, the scabrous use of tens of thousands of child soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war, and the death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the British author The Satanic Verses. None of those methods are admissible in the teachings of Muhammad.
Paradox of "Supreme Leader"
The invention of the post of “supreme leader” was a central paradox of the Iranian revolution. By solidifying absolute temporal and spiritual power in the hands of one man, it was both Khomeini’s way of solidifying power but also an implicit admission that spiritual powers as he interpreted them—uncompromising and closed to interpretation—would not be accepted from the bottom up. So they’d have to be imposed from the top down.
It’s more than a rejection of traditional Shiite thought, which once made room for a considerable range of interpretations. It’s a wholesale theocratic invention in the guise of Shiite-Islamic garb and language. The result has been more morally garbled than coherent, let alone defensible.
From One Supreme Leader to Another
Khomeini tinkered with the theory until his last breath, when he named Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to succeed him in the position. His original choice, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, had complained too loudly about Khomeini’s frequent executions of dissidents.
So when Ayatollah Khamenei said, during a Friday-prayer sermon in May 1989, that “a single person must be in charge,” and that “people must make demands of him, protest to him, make him responsible,” he was not speaking either of Islamic thought as Prophet Muhammad taught it or Islamic jurisprudence as Shiite clerics had applied it for centuries. He was summing up the ideology of political Islam as Khomeini had reinvented it, mostly to the benefit of his authority, through the Iranian revolution. Speaking those words, Khamenei was announcing to hard-liners that he would be a worthy successor to Khomeini, a “supreme leader” in the original supreme’s image.