The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Iranian Studies Unit hosted Babak Rahimi, Director of the Program for the Study of Religion and Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego, on 11 March 2021. Rahimi’s lecture was titled “Shiʿi Iranian Clerical Authority at Play in the Age of Digital Media.” The event was chaired by Mehran Kamrava, head of the unit and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.

Rahimi discussed how Shiʿi clerics have managed through the centuries to maintain and combine various forms of authority. According to Rahimi, Shiʿi clerics have benefited from a technical component of authority in addition to Max Weber’s three ideal types of traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic authority: “In order to have authority, one should have interpretation and application skills.” Despite being in fact dynamic, traditional authority manages to portray itself as static. Elaborating, Rahimi observed that “at the heart of traditional authority is the technical dimension and the skill to maintain the aura of being stable while at the same time being very dynamic in terms of interpretation and applying your authority in everyday life”.

After providing a historical overview of Shiʿi clerics’ use of modern technology for connection with their followers, Rahimi analyzed the participation of clerical authorities on Instagram in recent years. By 2016, “Instagram had become the most famous social media site for [mid-ranking and Qum-based] clerics, perhaps because the platform is unfiltered and visually centric”. Tulab seminary students use Instagram as both a commercial and religious site through which they conduct their classes.

These Instagram accounts are personalized and linked in individualized networks through which many Shiʿi clerics discuss their everyday lives and display pictures of their families, an uncommon practice until the late 2000s. This personification of accounts became normalized as a novel phenomenon of clerics becoming influencers. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Shiʿi clerics organized online activities, such as celebrations of important religious events, book competitions, live programs, and even virtual visits to holy shrines. Rahimi also highlighted the emergence on Instagram of “critical clerics” who critique the state and share their political views.

The clerics reconstruct authority through innovative practices as clerics in public life. There are complex and performative ways in which the identity of clerical authority is being negotiated anew and undergoing change in response to late capitalism’s acceleration of life. Rahimi explained that with social media and other developments, human experience has increasingly become temporally and spatially compressed in life’s economic, cultural, political, and religious spheres. Instagram is an example of the acceleration of life in a modern condition. “It provides a visual cultural space of temporal acceleration for a renewed representation of clerical authority, in performances modeling correct conduct in domains of piety, hospitality or enjoyment.”

In his closing remarks, Rahimi emphasized that we must problematize the binary of Islamism and “fun,” by asking the following question: “In the process of engaging in ‘fun,’ to what extent does social media commodify religion?” The answer begs further exploration: “What we can see is that social media has become cultural capital in the age of late capitalism, and this cultural capital may not be divorced from state power,” he said.