The whole issue of understanding the Shi'a and their belief in the validity of leadership by an Imamate is a difficult one for the Western mind to comprehend. On a basic level, refusal to give unquestioning allegiance to a spiritual head is one reason the Pilgrims fled England aboard their wooden ships. While the doctrinal strength is in no way comparable between the two, the rebellion against divine right fired the passions of the men and women who risked it all to chart a course based on free will. Our forefathers passed along their free-wheeling ways to the rest of us. Imamate is incomprehensible to our brains and we lack a compartment to conceptualize the structure.
The concept of Imamate is about the guardianship of a people by an infallible man. In the truest and broadest sense, Imamate includes elements of both political and intellectual leadership. These things can be grasped when reading the Friday sermons of the Grand Ayatollah community. (There are approximately twenty of these men scattered across the world.) One sermon will lean toward the concept of 'Adl (intellect) and the other will lean toward the political climate. Spiritual and political Islam are intertwined within the world of the ayatollahs.
The Grand Ayatollah have earned their right to rule by following well-established rules of educational ascension at the seminaries in Qom and Najaf. They publish opinions and learn the mechanics of jurisprudence long before receiving the widely acknowledged nod by their peers.
The Grand Ayatollah is believed to possess a divine gift for governance with an exalted position which secures a lifetime appointment. Their deputies fan out across the globe to secure their finances from the Shi'a diaspora who give to them their pledge. Interestingly, the Shi'a are allowed to switch their allegiance from one ayatollah to another. To place this on the most simple level, the fatwa given by one particular Grand Ayatollah does not have to be taken up by the composite whole of the Shi'a across the world. Only those aligned with that particular Grand Ayatollah are duty-bound to respond and be moved to action. To tamper with the immutability of a divine ordinance spoken from the mouth of a Grand Ayatollah is a vastly unpardonable offense. They are considered the true holders of authority of the state and the guardians of Shari'ah. These men are vastly powerful and capable of either calming or stoking the passions of their followers. They are intelligent, cunning and highly skilled. The survivability of the chain of command structure is not in question. So the question to be posed is the following:
Are we up to the challenge?