TEHRAN — SIX years after his death, the man who triggered an Islamic revolution can still draw a crowd, even if his legacy is fraying at the edges.
Every week, thousands of Shiite Muslims arrive from all over Iran to pray inside a gilded shrine built here for the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The shrine's minarets, marble, and chandeliers stand as testament to his reputation in Iran as a saint-like religious and political revolutionary.
But a key part of Khomeini's legacy is under challenge today, threatening the very basis of the Islamic state that he founded after a revolution against the United States-backed Shah in 1979.
Although the former Islamic leader remains a source of spiritual inspiration in Iran, the present leaders are engaged in a quiet but fierce debate about how much political authority should be given the supreme Shiite leader, or velayat-e-faqih.
''There is a serious crisis in the present hierarchy,'' says an Iranian political analyst.
''There is not one cleric in Iran who can claim ultimate religious and political authority today,'' he adds.
''And the overlapping powers of the two impede the development of a modern civil society and political system,'' the analyst says.
Following the revolution, Khomeini, as velayat-e-faqih, became the ultimate authority -- every governmental decision had to be approved by him. He established offices for a president and prime minister who were responsible for running the ministries and executing government policy. And a 270-seat Majlis, the parliament, wrote and passed laws subject to his approval.
But a growing trend, said to be supported by President Hashemi Rafsanjani and several leading scholars, is to limit the authority of the religious leaders over the political establishment.
The power struggle around this debate will determine whether the elected president and his government, or the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will have the upper hand.
Mr. Khameini is not seen to have the religious status or power that Khomeini held, partly because he did not hold the title of marja-e-taklid (grand ayatollah, the person who interprets Islamic law and applies it to daily life).
According to Shiite tradition, a marja-e-taklid is selected through popular recognition and outstanding scholarly achievement, as a person whose practices should be followed.
Although there are always several marja-e-taklids at one time, Khomeini had the broadest following, enabling him to make important fatwas (religious decisions), such as charging novelist Salman Rushdie with blasphemy for writing ''The Satanic Verses,'' and urging Shiite believers to kill him.
Khamenei, whom Khomeini appointed as his successor, had not gained the popular and scholarly recognition to qualify as a marja-e-taklid.
The reformist-minded clerics in the establishment consequently have some space to maneuver with new ideas on the power structure in Iran.
Mohssen Kedavor, an Iranian Islamic scholar, recently published a lengthy article in which he supported the popular election of the supreme religious leader, and even hinted that Shiite political thought does not confine this post to religious scholars.
Mr. Kedavor states that there are two concepts of becoming velayat-e-faqih -- derived from either religious or popular legitimacy. He concludes that the selection of a velayat-e-faqih through popular choice would contribute to more favorable conditions for the safeguarding of human rights, advancing pluralism, civil society, and economic development.
Kedavor does not, however, put his stamp of approval on any of the theories, but calls for public debate on the issue.
''There is never a conclusive theory that ends all debates and interpretations,'' he writes.
''If we are concerned about political maturity it is crucial for us to acknowledge that there is no conclusive theory in any field,'' Kedavor goes on to say.
What gives Kedavor's article more weight is that it was published as the lead article in the quarterly magazine of the Iranian Strategic Studies Center's -- a think tank affiliated with the president's office.
''The gist of the ongoing debate over the nature of the Islamic state is the following: Are Iranians seeking the Islamitization of the state or the modernization of Islam,'' the Iranian political analyst says.
The argument in favor of a velayat-e-faqih elected through a democratic popular process is not new. Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who was at one time branded to become Khomeini's successor, expounded on this theory. But Mr. Montazeri's views partially caused him to be demoted by Khomeini, who then elevated Khameini as his sucessor.
''Rafsanjani and other reformists would very much like to restore Montazeri, but any move to accord Montazeri political importance will trigger a costly confrontation with the self-declared guardians of Khomeini's legacy,'' says a United States-based Iranian expert on Iran and the Arab world.
The December death of the last senior marja-e-taklid, Ayatollah Araka, intensified the debate and brought forth questions on the fundamentals of the Islamic state.
When Araki died, those who were arguing for the modernization of the Islamic state feared that Khameini would claim the senior marja-e-taklid position. If he were both marja-e-taklid and velayat-e-faqih, he possibly would have the same kind of power that Khomeini held.
''A strong maraj-e-taklid, whether assuming the role of a supreme leader or not, can make a fatwa that will place the system under immense pressure,'' said a political scientist from Tehran University.
Some of the most senior clerics who hold political positions in the state, like Ayatollah Yazdi (similar to a supreme court justice), supported Khamenei to become marja-e-taklid, while Rafsanjani remained ambiguous.
Faced with much opposition, even from traditional clerics, Khameini announced a compromise -- he said he would not become a a marja-e-taklid for Iranians, but for Shiites outside Iran.
One reason for the compromise was that Iranian clerics were afraid that if Khameini, or any other Iranian does not assume the position of marja-e-taklid, Iran would lose leadership over Shiites to Iraq.
Meanwhile, the internal power struggle continues. Analysts believe that those who would like to change the system will seek a redefinition of the supreme leader's role to limit his interference in the political and social decisions in the country. They expect Khameini, who is supported by many conservative clerics, and the bazaris (merchants), to resist.
''The first test that will be crucial to the ongoing debate will be the 1996 presidential elections,'' the US-based Iranian analyst says.
''If a new president who could be controlled by the supreme leader is elected, then it will be difficult to effect changes in the Iranian system through reforms for a long time to come,'' he goes on to say.