Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani was the first imam to hold the Friday prayer in Tehran on July 27, 1979. He was appointed by Ruhollah Khomeini only a few months after the revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and established the Islamic state.
The founder of the Islamic Republic wanted Friday sermons to become a public platform that promotes the policies of the Wilayat al-Faqih regime.
The Permanent Secretariat of the Friday and Congregational Prayer Imams across Iran was established during the reign of Khomeini in Qom city on August 20, 1984.
On January 27, 1990, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directed the appointment of its members, as well as members of its executive council.
On March 13, 1993, he ordered changing its name to “Friday Prayer Policy-Making Council” and appointed the new members of its executive council to serve between three to five-year terms.
The state allocated huge shares of its annual budget to the Council and the “Holding Prayer Authority.”
According to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), the government approved allocating 210 million rials for the Holding Prayer Authority and 353 million rials for the Friday Prayer Policy-Making Council in its 2021 budget.
Ayatollah Abdol-hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, the religious intellectual and critic of Wilayat al-Faqih theory, is one of the Iranian religious authorities who officially recognizes human rights and freedom of expression for all people regardless of their religious beliefs.
He was arrested and treated badly by Iranian security forces and religious courts and was subjected to many restrictions and pressures by the ruling authority.
In an interview with Majalla, the Tehran-based cleric said that the Friday Prayer Policy-Making Council sets the political frameworks for Friday sermons and hands them to the imams before delivering their sermons.
“For this reason, we notice that the subjects raised in Friday sermons across the country are somehow similar and revolve around a major issue,” he added.
Masoumi-Tehrani said Friday preachers are bound by the dictates of the ruling authority and have become promoters of the authority’s policies.
“Friday sermons in Iran have no actual influence because they reiterate what is broadcast by government media on its radio and television channels.”
He said Friday imams and the entire Friday prayer system and its dependencies are government-funded.
Masoumi-Tehrani referred to the prominent cleric, Taleghani, who was influential in the Hawza (the religious seminary) and was known for opposing the imposition of the veil and the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih.
“Taleghani was a secular democratic figure who expressed his opposition to the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih in the Assembly of Experts after the Islamic revolution.”
Masoumi-Tehrani said other figures affiliated with other revolutionary groups, such as the Tudeh Party (Party of the Masses), supported the principle, noting that if Taleghani were still alive he wouldn’t allow the Assembly to approve it.
Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri succeeded Taleghani after his death and became Tehran’s Friday preacher. He asked Khomeini to appoint Ali Khamenei to his post, which he later did.
At the time, Sheikh Ali Tehrani, Khamenei’s brother-in-law, sent a letter to Khomeini criticizing his decision, Masoumi told Mahalla.
“Khamenei does not have the required scientific and jurisprudential knowledge and morals to become the Friday imam,” the letter read.
Local newspapers published the letter, indicating that Tehrani envied Khamenei for taking over the post, while in fact he did not actually want to assume that post, Masoumi affirmed.
There are many well-educated, renowned and enlightened religious scholars in Qom who withdrew from the political scene or were banned from becoming Friday prayer imams for refusing to deliver the speech dictated to them by the ruling authority in their sermons, Masoumi told Majalla.
After the Islamic revolution, the Iranian regime disqualified many religious figures and clerics, placed them under house arrest, launched a fierce media campaign against them and stripped them of their religious credentials for slamming and opposing the policies of the ruling authority. These include Sayyid Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, Sheikh Mohammed Taher al-Khaghani, Sayyid Hassan Tabatabaei Qomi, Sayyid Mohammed-Sadegh Rouhani, and Sayyid Sadegh al-Shirazi.
Masoumi said Khamenei’s office appoints Friday imams, so whoever decides to join “this gang, which has a branch in every city and town, could become a Friday preacher.”
It is not about family ties among the pillars of the ruling authority, he affirmed, saying that what really matters is belonging to a system dubbed the Guide’s House.
“Even if you were an educated cleric but you have not joined this system, you cannot take part in the Friday sermons,” he stressed.
Statements by some Friday prayer preachers are laughable, he said, citing statements by the Shiraz Friday prayer preacher who said that the basis of the Iranian-Chinese ties is mentioned in the Quran.
These and other similar statements reflect various mental perceptions, Masoumi stressed, noting that by raising these issues, the preachers are not preserving the religion, doctrine and the status of religious scholars and are encouraging people to evade religion.
Masoumi also mentioned Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, who resigned after serving as Secretary-General of Iran’s Guardian Council for eight years.
During a meeting with head of the Shura council on October 21, Golpayegani criticized the regime’s foreign policy, saying that severing relations with many of the world’s nations is “not right.”
The hard-line affiliated media launched a fierce campaign against Golpayegani and slammed his remarks, Masoumi noted.
In recent years, almost all Friday preachers in Iran have not used this platform to defend protesters.
However, Isfahan city Friday prayer preacher Jalaleddin Taheri sent his resignation letter to Khamenei in 2002, protesting the authorities’ handling of critics, especially Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had then been placed under house arrest.
On July 17, 2009, only eight weeks after the controversial presidential elections, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then deputy head of the Assembly of Experts and the former head of the Expediency Discernment Council, expressed his support for the protesters who questioned the election results. This prompted the ruling authority to disqualify him from the Tehran Friday prayer sermon.
In September 2021, Saeed Hosseini-Lavasani, the Friday imam of Lavasan district, was also disqualified for condemning the land grab, the construction of luxurious holiday houses, and inequality.
The influence, capabilities and wealth of Friday prayer imams have increased in Iranian cities in recent years.
According to unofficial reports, many Friday preachers in the country were disqualified for suspicion of financial corruption or for being involved in huge financial deals and illegal economic activities.
A report published on the website of the Friday Prayer Policy-Making Council stated that Friday prayers are held in more than 880 areas across the country, yet the turnout is low, a fact confirmed by several Friday sermons and hardline religious figures.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of holding the first Friday prayer in Tehran under the Islamic Republic, hardline cleric Ahmed Khatami, who delivers Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, said on July 26, 2019, that the visual, audio, written and e-media must support Friday prayers.
Masoumi stressed that the current low turnout to Friday congregational prayer is certain. He compared it to the very high turnout to the Friday prayers held by late Taleghani, noting that all the streets around the University of Tehran used to be closed.
The authorities granted a covered grassland to hold Friday prayers in Tehran and brought Iraqi soldiers and prisoners to fill this square but their numbers failed to do so.
Masoumi finally noted that many people still attend Friday prayers because of their religious beliefs even if they are critics of the ruling authority.