One of the major figures within contemporary Shi’a Islamic philosophy is Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, an Iranian conservative politician, Islamic scholar, and Shi’a cleric. Mesbah-Yazdi is widely considered to be Iran’s most conservative cleric and has a high level of influence within Iran’s leading center of religious scholarship, the city of Qom. Mesbah-Yazdi is the author of many books on fiqh (the theory or philosophy of Islamic law), divinity, and general topics within Islam. His 1999 book “Amuzesh-e Falsafeh” (Teaching Philosophy) is used widely in the religious school in Qom, Mashhad, and Najaf. In terms of politics, Mesbah-Yazdi believes the Iranian people are moving away from religion and values of Islamic Revolution and is a strong critic of both Westernization and the Iranian Reform Movement, arguing that such changes will harm and weaken Iranian society.
Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi was born in the city of Yazd on January 31, 1934, to a religious family active in the local Baazar. In 1947, he entered Khān School, a seminary in his hometown and remained there until 1950, when he moved to Hindi School, located in Najaf, Iraq. Yazdi’s study in Iraq lasted 7 months and he then moved to Qom to study in Qom Seminary, where he continued his education in fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence). He studied works of Avicenna and Mulla Sadra and his teachers included prominent figures such as Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Bahjat Foumani. He was also among the students of Ayatollah Allameh Tabatabaei, the author of Tafsir al-Mizan, the influential Shi’a explanation of Qur’an. Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi graduated in 1960 and soon began working with other clerics such as Mohammad Beheshti (the head of the Iranian Judiciary from February 1980 until his assassination in June 1981) and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the Iranian President from 1989-1997), in publishing two journals called “Mission of Prophet Muhammad” and “Revenge.”
Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi became politically active in the early 1960s in response to the growing authoritarianism of the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the increasing influence of countries such as the US and Israel within Iranian society, and the decline in support for traditional values in Iran since the Pahlavi Monarchy assumed power in 1925. Mesbah-Yazdi was an active opponent of the “White Revolution” (a series of wide-ranging reforms implemented by the Shah between 1962 and 1978) and worked with Ayatollah Khomeini to rally public support against such proposals. Mesbah-Yazdi also participated in the June 5, 1963, uprising against the Shah (which resulted in the imprisonment of Ayatollah Khomeini). After Khomeini’s release from prison and subsequent exile to Iraq in 1964, Mesbah-Yazdi’s political activities declined. With the exception of writing a series of articles critical of Ali Shariati and his “modernist” and progressive interpretation of Shi’a Islam, Mesbah-Yazdi remained an obscure figure within the context of Iranian politics until the 1990s.
In 1991, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi was elected to the Assembly of Experts, serving in that capacity for the next 25 years. Throughout his position in the Assembly of Experts, Yazdi emerged as a major critic of Mohammed Khatami, the Iranian President from 1997-2005 and a strong proponent of the Iranian Reform movement. Mesbah Yazdi encouraged the Revolutionary Guards to actively work against the Iranian Reform Movement. In 2004, Mesbah Yazdi’s supporters made gains in the Iranian Parliamentary Elections and worked to elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Iranian President in 2005. In recent years, Mesbah Yazdi’s influence in Iran has wained due to the growing popularity of the reformist faction led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. Despite a decline in support, Mesbah Yazdi has ambitions to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader and is rumored to have “packed” the Assembly of Experts with his supporters. Additionally, reformist journalists such as Akbar Ganji have accused Mesbah Yazdi of being directly involved with the 1988-98 Chain Murder assassinations of five Iranian dissidents as well as encouraging violence against peaceful protestors during the 2009 and 2017 Iranian protests.
In terms of his individual philosophy, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi takes a conservative approach in contrast to other well-known Iranian religious scholars such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Yousef Saanei. Mesbah Yazdi supports literal interpretations of verses of the Qur’an and narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi opposes bida’a (innovations) in religion which he believes includes new interpretations of the Sunna and Qur’an based on societal changes and new religious scholarship. He has been quoted as saying “If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, sock him in the mouth.”
Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi feels that the Iranian people have all but abandoned the values promoted during the 1978-79 Revolution and that only a return to such values will preserve and strengthen Iranian society in the long-run. Mesbah-Yazdi believes that the term “Islamic Republic” is an inconsistent and contradictory idea, as he feels that a truly Islamic government would not hold elections and allow voters to choose their leaders, but to merely express their allegiance to a Supreme Islamic jurist. As such, Mesbah Yazdi feels that the “republican component” within the Iranian Consitution needs to be stripped away to leave the true essence of an Islamic system of governance.
In terms of his political persuasions, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi is firmly aligned with the Principalist factions within Iran and is a determined opponent of the Reformist Movement, which he feels the Iranian government must work to discourage as a way to preserve political peace and stability. He strongly supported President Mohammed Ahmadinejad and issued Fatawas urging Iranians to vote for Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative candidate in the most recent Iranian Presidential Election. Like many Iranian politicians on all sides of the political spectrum, Mesbah-Yazdi is a strong opponent of the ideas of political Zionism, which he considers to be a tool used by colonial powers to expand their influence in the Middle East. Additionally, Mesbah-Yazdi differs from most mainstream Iranian public figures in that he believes that Iran has the right to produce “special weapons” that are a monopoly of a few nations (a veiled reference to nuclear weapons). By possessing nuclear weapons, Mesbah-Yazdi feels that Iran will be able to stand up to powerful nations that seek to subjugate it and be able to emerge as a regional superpower.
In conclusion, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi is a polarizing figure in contemporary Iranian politics, with a majority of reformists viewing his influence as negative and most principalists considering his contributions to be positive on balance. The split in support for Mesbah is indicative of the overall divisive political situation in Iran today and reveals that Iranian society is undergoing a profound level of change in response to demographic shifts, outside pressures, and changes in values.