Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- No one knows Qom and its al Hawza al Ilmiya except those who have studied there; it is a difficult place to explore for strangers. One must remain in it for years to discover its hidden secrets, diversity and the truth about what goes on within it. Despite its fame, knowledge about its ideological trends is scarce, especially in light of the fact that Qom and al Hawza al Ilmiya are constantly changing. Hujjat al Islam Mohsen Kadivar may be the best person to speak about the hawza; he studied there for over 17 years, moving in the circles of various senior ayatollahs united by their reformative vision and critical thinking. Mohsen Kadivar, deemed one of Iran’s most prominent reformists, is a university professor and the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Iran, a non-governmental organization that was established to protect the freedom of the press. While engrossed in his busy academic and press schedules, Kadivar published a book called ‘Governance Theories in Shia Jurisprudence’ in which he tackled the most important Shia fiqh theories in relation to the Wilayat-e-Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist].
In his book he pointed out that the leader of the Iranian Revolution was not just one ‘Ayatollah Khomeini’ but that he could be regarded as fourfold: the Khomeini of Qom, the Khomeini of Paris, the Khomeini of Tehran and the Khomeini of Najaf. Kadivar criticizes the idea of developing a democracy that stems for the heart of Islam and says that it is much more apt to regard Islam and democracy as being parallel to one another, calling upon Islamic scholars to not waste their time trying to reconcile between the two, as he believes all attempts are doomed to fail. Kadivar had been formerly jailed in Tehran’s Evin prison for his ideas, however he refused to recant or change any of them, including his belief that the next Wali al Faqih [guardian jurist] will not be from Qom but rather from Tehran, and that the political Wilayah [guardianship] Wilayah may be understood through two different perspectives, ‘management’ and ‘hajr’ [limiting one’s power after declaring them incompetent]. Moreover, he holds that the post of Wali al Faqih requires political knowledge not religious or fiqh knowledge [Islamic jurisprudence].
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Kadivar in Tehran and spoke with him about Qom’s hidden issues and the hawza’s secrets, positions and its future. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: From the outside, Qom’s al Hawza al Ilmiya appears to be a stronghold for extremist Shia fiqh and yet conversing with the senior ayatollahs and with the students reveals a large diversity of ideas and inclinations – would you say that is accurate?
A: There are at least two interpretations to Islam, consequently it is only natural for there to be two types of Islam in accordance with the manner in which the Islamic text is interpreted – in Qom’s al Hawza al Ilmiya and the al Hawza al Ilmiya in Najaf, Iraq. Despite the existence of radical or conservative people in both the aforementioned hawzas, there also exist scholars and jurists who are moderate and who are affiliated to modern schools. I studied in al Hawza al Ilmiya in Qom for 17 years under some of the best reformist faqihs, such as the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri who has had the deepest influence on me. I was in his school for over 10 years, which is where I studied Shariah. I have also had numerous teachers in philosophy and Quranic exegesis in Qom, among them Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli who is Ayatollah Tabatabaei’s student.
From the different schools in Qom I chose a number of fiqh schools rather that just one, so for example I wanted to learn something about Ayatollah Borujerdi’s school of fiqh – he was Ayatollah Montazeri’s teacher but I attended Ayatollah Montazeri’s class to learn from him because Ayatollah Borujerdi’s had died 20 years before. I also wanted to learn more about Ayatollah Khomeini’s school and his jurisprudence relating to the Islamic government, in addition to Ayatollah Tabatabaei’s school. Montazeri was known to be the best student in both schools so I went to study the fiqh of the Islamic government in his class. Moreover, I wanted to learn more about the school of al Sayyed Mohammed Baqer al Sadr and thus attended al Sayyed Kazem al Haeri’s school; who is Moqtada al Sadr’s mentor, and al Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi [Shahroudi].
Qom’s hawza is like an ocean in which you can find anything you desire. For example, I studied Sunni ideology in Qom – it depends on the individual. The hardliner jurists and scholars’ camp is more powerful than that of the moderates or reformists, however the latter still exist in Qom and Najaf all the same.
Q: What about the traditions of studying in al Hawza al Ilmiya?
A: There are several traditional schools in Qom and the communication between the ayatollahs, scholars and the theology students is very traditional. Modern equipment is being utilized, such as computers which have been used in Qom over the past two decades. I remember towards the end of my period of study we had a computer and modern means such as book publishing since most of the books in the hawza were handwritten, after which they were photocopied and distributed amongst the students. Reading these books was incredibly difficult and thus the books were edited, printed and distributed, which was another form of modernizing the hawza. All the studies, libraries and research in Qom is related to computers – if you do not have one you cannot study easily or access the information required of you. Furthermore, there are a number of new buildings in Qom that have been constructed for educational purposes.
When I started my studies in Qom, we would take our classes around the blessed sanctuary of the Sayyida al Masuma [the Infallible Lady who is Fatimah al Masuma] the sister of the 8th Shia Imam, Ali Reza but these rooms are for the graves of the faithful Muslim men and women – not for studying (laughs). We studied by the infallible lady’s mausoleum and the atmosphere was not suitable for studying but 10 years later, many classrooms were built and we were able to sit in Ayatollah Gulpaygani school who is one of hawza’s most renowned marja’a [the highest echelons of the Shia clergy] in tradition, in addition to being the most prominent religious marja’a after Khomeini and the one to lead the funeral prayer of Khomeini. This was Qom’s first religious school and it had approximately 100 classrooms. Prior to that we had the Fayzieah school, which was similar to Egypt’s Al Azhar University, however it only had two classrooms the remaining sections was comprised of the students’ living quarters.
Q: What are the criteria of stature among the religious marja’a in Qom, and on what basis do the students choose the teachers under which they will study?
A: The norm in Qom is that each student selects the scholar whom they seek to study under from the country from which they hail, so for example Turkish students in the hawza prefer to study in the school the school of the Turkish marja’a Mousavi Ardebili who is a native of Ardabil. Since he is Turkish they can converse in their native tongue in class. This was among the hawza’s traditions, but things are starting to change; I have studied in the schools of both Arab and Turkish marja’a and their countries of origin were not a matter of concern for me. I was born in Shiraz. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has a school and discipline in its hawza yet I did not choose to study there, instead I chose to study under Ayatollah al Tabrizi, a Turkish man from Tabriz. He passed away a few weeks ago. I also studied under Ayatollah Montazeri who is from Asfahan.
Q: How many students are there in Qom?
A: There are approximately 100,000 clerics in Iran and over 60,000 of them are in Qom. Most of them are theology students who have been studying there for many years, between 10-25 years on average. Teaching in Qom is very traditional; five days a week and tutorials are 2-3 hours long and are then followed by research. Every student has to study a minimum of 25 years before he can attain the status of ‘ayatollah’, however most students spend 10 years studying in the hawza. Studying here is like climbing a mountain; many people stop halfway and only a minority reached the summit – an average of 1-10 percent.
Each ayatollah has his own school and his rank is determined in accordance with the number of students he can accommodate in his classes. In an advanced level some of these classes are referred to as ‘kharij’ (outside), which means ‘outside of the books’ and it means that the a religious marja’a is undertaking a particular area of study that has not been researched or written about before. Each of these classes have 3,000 students, however they are not classes in the traditional sense of the word but are rather seminars for research, discussions and arguments. These kharij classes in Qom are available in the schools of Ayatollah Nasir Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Wahid Khurasani, and Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani. These classes hold up to 2,000-3,000 students while the rest of the classes have 200-300 students.
The number of students signifies the power and influence of every ayatollah in Qom; this is the first factor for determining their ranks. The second factor is the amount of money they can pay as wages for their students who study under them. Traditionally in Qom, the cost of living and studying for students is covered through what the Iranian people pay the ayatollahs as one-fifth of the Zakat, not the government. As such, what the ayatollahs receive is what they pay the students in their schools as wages and the amount that they pay reflects the amount that they receive from that one-fifth of the Zakat since each one gets a share that is equivalent to his stature and religious influence among the people. Despite the fact that the ayatollah’s pay their students wages, I believe it is less than the wage of a simple employee in Iran and as such, the students deliver religious preaching in the months of Moharam, Ramadan and Safar for which people pay a small sum in return for. Still, their financial income remains very modest.
Life for the Hawza al Ilmiya students is very modest and very difficult and that is something that not a lot of people know. They see clerics working in the government who are rich and who own cars but they only form five percent of religious clerics while the other 95 percent are not wealthy and work hard performing humble jobs. Following the Iranian revolution, the government financial resources increased in the hawza, which is a dangerous thing because the al Hawza al Ilmiya’s power source lies in its independence from governmental interference. But following the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, there were two sides to Ayatollah Khomeini; the ayatollah and the political leader, which made his power and influence, exceed all other ayatollahs in the hawza. After his death, Ayatollah Khamenei was not able to attain that same standing; he was called ‘hujjat al Islam’ and some have called him the ‘political ayatollah’ since he is not like Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani or Ayatollah Montazeri, both of whom became ayatollahs by virtue of their studies not because they were appointed by the state. However, Khamenei can pay his students more than the other ayatollahs, so on the financial side he is superior. Additionally, Khamenei’s tutorials are different from the rest of the ayatollahs; he does not live in Qom and does not teach on a regular basis. He teaches once a week to affirm his status in the hawza and many government employees attend his tutorials not students seeking knowledge.
The third factor that determines the ayatollah’s standing is that he must publish a book containing his thoughts on fiqh-related issues. If you seek to become an ayatollah, you must contribute your thoughts and fatwas on every fiqh matter that concerns the daily affairs of Muslims. They must write ‘I agree with this and disagree with that’, so that they write their own fatwa book and after that’s published they can become ayatollahs. All the senior ayatollahs in Qom have published their own fatwa books and these people acknowledge each as ‘mujtahid’ [an individual who makes independent interpretations based on the Quran and the Sunnah] and marja’a in matters of religion. The disciples are deemed ‘muqaledin’ [imitators, those who follow the mujtahids] and they give the ayatollahs one-fifth of the Zakat, which is allocated to their students. Thus the grand ayatollahs have three main criteria: To have a kharij-level educational class, that they are capable of paying each of their students monthly wages, and third and most important; that they publish their book of fatwa on Islamic jurisprudence presenting their logic or ‘empirical fiqh’ (based on Aristotelian logic where the premises lead to conclusions).
The average time it takes to publish a ‘fatwa book’ is 25 years of study. A few years after its publication, the individual is considered to be halfway to becoming an ayatollah. Presently, Ayatollah al Sistani is considered to be one of the greatest ayatollahs. Before him there was Ayatollah Khoei in Najaf and now among the grand ayatollahs today are Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, and Ayatollah Wahid Khurasani. Ayatollah Khurasani has over 3,000 students in his class and thus judging by the number of students he is considered to be the best amongst the ayatollahs. Also renowned are Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah al Tabrizi in Qom, and Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut. Ayatollah Saanei is currently among the distinguished ones in Qom, but he is not in the first line of Ayatollahs according to the popular schools. He has fresh ideas, which is not very common in Qom and at 60 years of age is young in comparison to the rest of the ayatollahs. The highest ranking ayatollahs include: Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, and Ayatollah al Sistani in Najaf. If we form a list of the 15 most important Ayatollahs in Qom, Ayatollah Saanei will be among them, however he wouldn’t rank in a list comprised of the seven most important names in Qom.
Q: You have your own ideas regarding Wilayat-e-Faqih and you believe that this concept is confronted by a problem, in what way?
A: I believe the Wilayat-e-Faqih stage in Iran is drawing to a close and if indeed it did have any future, I believe that the next Wali al Faqih will be from Tehran not Qom because governing society requires more than knowledge of jurisprudential knowledge. It is common knowledge that if we wanted to use al Sayyed Khamenei as a benchmark for a jurist, we would find that he is not one but instead is an individual who has some knowledge of fight. However, I believe he has managed the society in the same way that Ayatollah Khomeini did; his method was good but that depends on his political experience since Khamenei was the president of Iran for eight years and he also held other political positions. The applies to al Sayyed Mohammed Khatemi and al Sayyed Hashemi Rafsanjani both of whom have political experience and have held the post of president, as well as ministerial positions.
However, society is in greater need of these positions than the hawza is. In the future, Qom may not have a role in Wilayat-e-Faqih. It may come as a surprise to you if I told you that some of Qom’s grand ayatollahs do not believe in Wilayat-e-Faqih at all, such as Ayatollah Wahid Khurasani and Ayatollah al Khoei. In my book ‘Governance Theories in Shia Jurisprudence’, I have explained that the theory of Imam Ruhullah Khomeini regarding Wilayat-e-Faqih is one of many theories on the subject. This means that there is more than just one theory, view or perspective.
You’ll find that most fiqh students do not believe in Wilayat-e-Faqih or do so under the constraint of authorities. I believe that many of the current ayatollahs do not believe in Khomeini’s interpretation of Wilayat-e-Faqih. For example, my respected mentor Ayatollah Montazeri believes in Wilayat-e-Faqih but he has two points of contention with his teacher Khomeini’s theories: He refutes Ayatollah Khomeini’s belief that the Guardian Jurist is appointed by God, the Prophet, or the 12th Imam and says that the Wali al Faqih is popularly elected by representatives of the public or by the Assembly of Experts, thus making it the choice of the people and not God. The second point on which he disagrees with his teacher over is the authority of the Wali al Faqih; Khomeini deemed it absolute and unrestrained by anything in the same way that the Prophet’s authority is, while Ayatollah Montazeri disagrees and upholds that it is bound by laws, which are the condition between the Guardian Jurist and the people. Both are governed by this law and neither are above it.
I told my teacher Ayatollah Montazeri, you criticized your teacher on two issues and I would like to criticize you in another two, to which he replied: after four criticisms there will be no meaning left for the Wilayat-e-Faqih. Yes, I responded. I said to him that Khomeini believed the Wilayah delegated a ‘revealed and absolute’ authority to the Guardian Jurist, you believe the Wilaya to be ‘restrained and elected’, I do not believe in the notion of Wilaya but I believe in fiqh. There is no correlation between the two and furthermore, the relationship between the people and the ruler is not that if a ‘Wilayah’ but rather a wikala [appointing representatives, delegation and procurement] – which means popularly elected representatives like parliament.
The notion of a religious guardianship does not figure into the relationship between the people and the ruler, moreover, it is not like the guardianship a father has over his son. The concept of guardianship is a religious one that is very dangerous in politics. Writing about Wilayat-e-Faqih in his book, Ayatollah Khomeini likened it to the guardianship a father has over his children and I have criticized that in my book saying that we are not children. I wrote that there are two types of incompetence; those who are declared incompetent by reason of insanity or by virtue of young age and as such, others take decisions on their behalf. The two types are: those deemed publicly incompetent and who are incompetent on a private level. Those who are incompetent on a public level cannot make their own decisions and other must make their decisions for them – others who are appointed by God, the Prophet, or the Mehdi. I told Montazeri, although he personally does not believe in this view, that the Wilayah may be understood through two different perspectives, ‘management’ and ‘hajr’ [limiting one’s power after declaring incompetent]. I said to him, by Wilayah you mean management so let us use another expression, additionally, ‘wilaya’ is a Quranic concept and because of the complexity of its meaning it has been used differently in accordance with the interpretation.
My main objection to my teacher Ayatollah Montazeri is regarding his statement that the most important characteristic for leadership or Wilayah is the knowledge of fiqh. I told him that a leader can have a consultative council of Shariah jurists but that the leader himself must have experience in managing society – which is not a jurist’s job. A Wali may be well versed in fiqh but that is not a prerequisite for ruling. If you seek to become a grand ayatollah then it would require 50 years of experience in learning and teaching theology, to read a huge amount of material and to write a book on fatwa and fiqh, however managing a society is an objective political matter. If you want to be versed in politics then you must have the relevant political expertise –which an ayatollah wouldn’t have.
Q: Why do you say that the time of Wilayat-e-Faqih in Iran will not endure much longer, is it because the Ayatollahs in Qom will no longer support the principle in the future, or because the Iranian people will exert pressure to decrease the authority of the Guardian Jurist by binding him to elections and laws?
A: Each will play a role: In Qom there are at least two schools, those who believe in Wilayat-e-Faqih, and they are financially and politically supported by the government and have many resources, and others who do not believe in it. I think that the school that does not believe in the Wilayat-e-Faqih is a considerable one that is not weak but strong and also has an ‘influence’ that is more important than power. The first school has ‘power and authority’, money, security and intelligence systems and suchlike – they are strong. The second school has ‘ideological and religious influence’ that is greater than the first.
There is a famous story in Iran that illustrates the authority of religion versus the regime’s authority: A century ago and during his reign, Nasser al Din Shah, one of al Qajar dynasty’s rulers wanted to start a tobacco trade in Iran and monopolize it after exporting it from England. He gave a large sum of money to the English to purchase it and told the Iranians who were in possession of tobacco to hand it over to him. Ayatollah Mirza Hasan Shirazi was the most important Ayatollah in Iran at the time, he issued a written decree that said: “In the name of God the merciful, the usage of tobacco in any way is equal to denouncing God and fighting against the 12th imam [known as the ‘hidden imam or the Mehdi who is the holiest figure in Shia Islam]. One day when Nasser al Din Shah asked one of his wives to bring his pipe so that he may smoke, she replied by saying that tobacco was forbidden. When he told her, “I am the king and your husband and I order you to bring the pipe, so bring it.” She answered, “He who has deemed me lawful as your wife has said that tobacco is forbidden for you.
In Iran the power of religion is greater than the power of government. The Iranian revolution in 1979 was the people’s revolution, 18-year-old Iranian university students were among those who led it ¬– it was a true revolution that come through the majority of society, however the political system that was pledged before it was not the same as what came after it. In my book ‘Governance Theories in Shia Jurisprudence’, I wrote that we have four different versions of Imam Khomeini: the ‘Imam of Qom’, when Khomeini was in Qom; the ‘Imam of Najaf’, when he was forced to leave to Najaf and remained there for 15 years; the ‘Imam of Paris’, when he traveled to Paris from Najaf to remain there for a year, and the ‘Imam of Tehran’, when he returned following the success of the revolution and became the Wali al Faqih for 10 years before his died.
When Imam Khomeini was in Al Hawzah al Ilmiya in Qom and was not very well-known, he believed like other ayatollahs in Qom in the limited constitutional monarchy for authority. In 1906, the Iranians carried out a people’s revolution, with the support of clerics, to limit the powers of the king. While Khomeini was in Qom, in his book entitled ‘Discovery of Secrets’ that was published in Persian, he said, “There is no role for jurists in running the affairs of governance, as this is the task of the king, but the king must adhere to Islam. When Khomeini was forced to leave for Najaf under pressure from the king, at which point he became more popular and one of the most important ayatollahs in Iran, he wrote his famous theory on ‘Wilayat-e-Faqih’ or the general absolute guardianship of jurists, that is that jurists are appointed by God and have similar authority to the Prophet and may do anything they deem fit. Khomeini then headed to Paris where he said that his régime would be “an Islamic republic” that is modern and democratic, in which he would have no role. In Paris he signed the first draft of the new Iranian constitution, in which there was no mention at all of Wilayat-e-Faqih but only a reference to the presidential post, similar to the French system. Khomeini and other ayatollahs signed that draft; however, Khomeini’s opinions began to change slowly as time went on. Khomeini, as the third Imam or the “Imam of Paris”, became well-known to the Iranians as his speeches and press interviews were published and distributed publicly all over Iran. When I wrote that Khomeini believed in the principle of absolute power for Waliyat-e-Faqih and that the Supreme Guide is appointed by God and not the people, the public responded by disagreeing and saying that he did not believe that and that the public had heard Khomeini speaking of a conditional guardianship. The public was correct because it had only heard the Imam of Paris. Al Khomeini said: I rule because the people chose me, therefore the people are correct, however there were two dimensions to Khomeini; he truly believed he was the people’s choice, but he also believed that he was appointed by God. Before the revolution, Khomeini would show the first dimension and hid the second dimension, whereas after the revolution, he focused more on portraying the second dimension. From a political point of view, what he did was correct, and I think that we may reexamine his position and situation before the revolution and his method of administration.
The fourth Imam or the “Imam of Tehran” is Khomeini at the point in which he became the supreme commander and the supreme leader in Tehran. I believe that he was a political leader of the people who had charisma and leadership skills similar to Gandhi in India, Mao Zedong in China, or Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt; people admired and obeyed Khomeini. At that time however, Khomeini began to believe in absolute power for the supreme leader and he also focused on being appointed by God and like a prophet, he could govern outside the boundaries of religious ruling if he deemed it in the interest of the Islamic system or the Islamic nation. Furthermore, some of his comments demonstrated that he believed in democracy. Because of the ambiguity and contradictions between Khomeini’s words and actions, there are now two schools of thought in Iran today; the school of the great Ayatollah Montazeri, and the school of Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, the latter of whom understood that Khomeini was appointed by God and the public had no say or role in selecting him, saying that if any of Khomeini’s words were found that contradict this ruling then they are false and are only for the sake of argument. As for Montazeri, from his perspective, Khomeini believed in a limited Wilayat-e-Faqih, and in the people’s role. In fact Khomeini made many statements that support Montazeri’s explanation regarding democracy, such as his saying “the balance is the nation’s opinion,” meaning that the criterion with which to judge is the public’s vote. However, Khomeini also made statements that would support Yazdi’s interpretation such as, “the rule of supreme leader cannot be objected by any person.” Thus both ayatollahs quote Khomeini to support their arguments which each state as “accurate” (from the text), while describing other positions that do not support their claims as “doubtful” (outside of the text) and consequently are not to be used as a reference. Misbah Yazdi’s school states that “what is accurate is that Khomeini was appointed by God and what are doubtful are the situations that depict Khomeini to be a believer in democracy.” Thus, the doubtful issue is democracy (he laughs). The school of Ayatollah Montazeri contradicts this standpoint and claims the opposite; what is correct is that the guardianship is limited and that anything that claims the opposite is “doubtful”. I think that from a historical viewpoint, the interpretation of Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi is correct, but from a practical viewpoint, Ayatollah Montazeri is more accurate; practically, Khomeini was more democratic than the people who obeyed his orders, yet theoretically he was not. Khomeini was very skillful and like every charismatic leader, he wanted to please all his supporters so he established some kind of balance between the two camps that believed in him. After that, matters changed, Sayyed Khamanei does not have that same influence upon the scholars of Al Hawzah al Ilmiya in Qom or the same power in religious background. He was criticized by the democratic camp during the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, therefore, practically, Khamanei belongs to the first camp; he is closer to the school of Misbah Yazdi than he is to the school of Ayatollah Montazeri.
In turn, Montazeri’s school is divided into several visions or branches, some of which regard Khomeini as a charismatic hero, such as Seyed Mohammad Khatami and the officials of Al Musharaka party, Seyed Mehdi Karroubi and the Etemad Melli party, and others from the same school who view Khomeini as a part of our history that we admire, yet also criticize. We admire him for his independence of the West and his struggle against Israel and America, but we require another kind of management of society because our time is perhaps different from his own. Personally, I do not believe in Wilayat-e-Faqih at all; I believe that we should have a democratic system that must respect Islamic values; we are Muslims with a Shia majority, and the situation is such that every government must respect the values of Islam and Shiism. In the Shura council (the parliament), it is normal to have several parties; each party can have a majority vote in the elections, form a government, and protect the rights of minorities. In doing so, I think we can protect our Islamic values whilst at the same time, have a democratic nation.
Q: Is it a generalization to say that there are three schools of thought in Iran regarding the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih? The first believes in a Supreme Guide with unlimited power (the school of Misbah Yazdi), the second believes in the Supreme Guide with limited power (Khatemi and Karroubi for example), and the third school does not believe in the concept at all and considers it possible to establish an Islamic democracy without a Supreme Guide at all, such as yourself?
A: Firstly the juristic source for both the second and third streams is Ayatollah Montazeri, and both streams believe in elected guardianship or the jurist being elected by the nation, or by the people. The political symbols of that school are Khatami and Karroubi who do not believe in Montazeri, which is odd since they depend on his theory. Khatami and Karroubi believe that during the conflict between Khomeini and Montazeri, the latter was incorrect; I disagree. To be honest, I believe that those who criticized Montazeri were politicians loyal to Khomeini but did not want to leave the political arena because Montazeri criticized Khomeini candidly. I think he was very brave and through these criticisms he lost his position as Iran’s Supreme Leader after Khomeini, which is not easy. After that Montazeri remained a prisoner in Qom for five years, he became very ill and was unable to continue his lessons in al Hawzah because of his illness. He is now roughly 82-years-old.
I think that the division is correct, but what I have mentioned about an Islamic democracy requires clarification; I do not think that democracy comes from Islam; we have no democracy in Islam. I said that we could have democracy and Islam at the same time. My interpretation of Islam is in harmony with democracy, but I do not claim that democracy comes from within Islam. In that regard I differ with Abul A’la al Maududi because he said that there is an Islamic democracy, and that democracy comes from the Quranic verse from Surah Ashura (…and their rule is to take counsel among themselves; 42:38). In my opinion I think that Shura does not conflict with democracy, but this does not mean that every person who believes in Shura also believes in democracy because Shura does not depend on the votes of electors.
Someone might come to me and ask for my advice and I have deliberated with everyone but in the end, I am the one who decides. We listen to others around us, but at the end the decision is ours alone. Shura then is another matter. It is not a democracy but it can be transformed into a democratic system, yet not every Shura is necessarily a democracy. That is why when I begun writing, I wrote that we can design a new form of democracy that is derived from Islam, but I was young then and when I began reading more and more I became more convinced and begun to believe that the principles of democracy are not part of our religious heritage, yet the latter can be interpreted in a way that agrees with the modern world. It is for this reason that we can have a new interpretation of Islam that is suitable to human rights, but that does not mean in our Islamic heritage we hold all the principles of human rights.
I wrote a research paper in which I identified six points in Islamic heritage that do not include the values of human rights; for example: the rights of women in Islam are not exactly like those outlined in the international human rights treaty. The second point is the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims; in the first act of the human rights treaty there is a statement of equality among all regardless of religion, color, race, or nationality. However, in the Islamic heritage, whether Shia or Sunni, there are rights for Muslims that are not afforded to non-Muslims; I say Islamic heritage because in my opinion Islam is the greatest, and that our interpretation of Islam whether Sunni or Shia, does not mean that we have understood real Islam as traditions, national and historical customs, as well as other things often overlap with Islam or our interpretation of it; therefore what we say is our interpretation of Islam according to traditions, customs, and history, but Islam is another matter. I took part in a discussion with some active members of the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood organizations and they were searching for a democratic example derived from Islam so I said to them, “We already did what you are trying to do now in Iran 30 years ago and we failed so do not follow the same path, which is to try and harmonize between the interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself, and democracy.” Having criticized some interpretations in Islam, I also object to some of the human rights principles in the West; I do not approve of homosexuality, as it is not correct religiously and intellectually; or pre-marital sex or [sexual] relations outside of marriage, the West says that these values and principles are correct, but I say no. I have criticized the modern Western values as well as traditional values of our own at the same time; I think we must assess both matters; we must have a mixture of Islamic and Western values but only after analysis and examination.
Q: You call for a democratic system in Iran, but if a democratic republic is established in Iran, would women still be forced to wear Chador or not, and would women be given their rights according to human rights treaties?
A: I think that Islamic rules should be deconstructed and rebuilt once again to revive religious intellect. Meaning to revisit and re-interpret religious rules. We have two kinds of religious rules, those that are fixed and others that are temporary. The task of the “Mujtahid” is to differentiate between these two types of ruling. Regarding the rights of women, there are permanent and temporary rules, for example, I believe that women have political and financial rights equal to men, and there is no difference between men and women in that regard. In the Quran it says, “The soul gets every good that it earns and suffers every ill that it earns” [2:286]. This is very clear, consequently women can become presidents, governors, and judges if people elect them, because there is no difference. I believe that men and women can have equal rights in marriage and divorce, also a woman’s custody of her children is equal to man, and the question is one of suitability for custody. Also religious rights of women and men are the same. We can reinterpret Islam in this manner; these rulings regarding women are not among the firm issues of Quran.
Q: What about Chador?
A: Chador is not an Islamic hijab (veil); it is national attire. If a woman chooses to wear chador or to take it off then that is her right. But we have some Quranic verses regarding the restriction of women’s clothing, and I think that most or all verses from Quran regarding hijab are fixed, unless a Mujtahid can argue that they were only temporary rules and instructions for the Prophet relevant to his era. In my opinion, the rules regarding hijab are fixed and women must adhere to the restrictions of dress code and to preserve their hijab. The dress code is a common issue in all societies; it is different in America to Germany. The United States is more conservative than Europe; I think that this minimum required conduct is necessary for establishing a secure society and a secure family, but if a woman says she does not believe in hijab we cannot force her to wear it. Religiously she would be committing a sin, but in terms of law, it would depend. If the law states that women must adhere to a minimum standard, which is less than the religious standard, then it must be obeyed.
There are two standards for attire, a religious Quranic standard derived from Surah Al Ahzab and Surah Al Nisa for example; it states that the hair must be covered and that the attire that is worn at home should be different to that which is worn outside. There are boundaries in law, which may be less commanding than religion, such as that women cover from the neck to the knee in public. I think that the statutory minimum standard is a mandatory issue; it is not voluntary or optional, but in religion the minimum is voluntary, and since there is “no compulsion in religion” [Quran 2:256], women who wish to wear hijab as the Quran prescribed it can do so and other women who have not reached this point cannot be forced to wear hijab. Prayer for example is mandatory in Islam but you cannot force someone to pray; the case is the same for hijab. It cannot be imposed by force, but those who do not observe it will be held accountable by God. However, in this life, issues depend on the laws of man, and not on religion. I do not believe in any forceful or coercive dialogue to push for the wearing of hijab; also women should not be dressed in a manner that conflicts with the guidelines set by the law if there was such a law that defines the minimum standard of attire according to the prevailing culture in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, or Turkey for instance. Turkey is a good example for us; Islamic hijab is on the increase in Turkey, but there are also women who wear outfits that resemble a Western style who live in the same society. I think that this is better than imposing hijab like in Iran. In Iran, one can see the deterioration in abiding by the values of Islam, while in Turkey, it is on the increase.
Q: What exactly do you mean by the deterioration in abiding by the rules of Islam in Iran?
A: Take the hijab for example, when comparing the streets of Tehran to those of Istanbul, you would find that there are more women with hijab than those who do not wear hijab. A woman in Turkey wearing hijab wears it properly. In Tehran, all women have some sort of head cover but it is not the full hijab. When something is imposed, complying with it feels more like a duty than a religious belief. If you do not believe in hijab, you should not comply with it.
Q: You are the chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Iran and you were jailed in Evin prison for speaking your mind. What is the status of the freedom of press, scientific research, and university teaching in Iran today?
A: Regarding democracy in the Middle East, Iran is the best, but that does not mean that the situation is good simply because the situation in other countries is bad. We have more elections in Iran than in any other country in our region. I think this is good but the independence and freedom of those elections must be improved. We also have an effective constitution, but it is not respected. Over 100 newspapers and magazines have been closed down in recent years; we have no truly independent newspaper, and the highest circulating newspaper distributes between 60 and 100 thousand copies per day, which is not much. Newspapers with high levels of circulation were shut down or suspended, and any newspaper of significant popularity awaits the decision for it to be shut down. During Khatami’s leadership, Sobhe-Emroze, published by Said Hajjarian, and which enjoyed distribution rates of one million copies per day, was suspended by the authorities. In addition, ‘Shargh’ newspaper, which distributed around 150 thousand copies per day, was also banned.
The best non-governmental Iranian newspaper is Etemad Melli, the editor-in-chief of which is Seyed Mehdi Karroubi. It distributes roughly 50 thousand copies a day. Another non-governmental newspaper is the conservative Jomhuri-e-Islami that distributes 10 thousand copies a day. As for government newspapers there is Kayhan, distributing roughly 50 thousand copies per day mainly in government institutions and ministries, Ettelaat, distributing approximately 150 thousand copies per day, and Jam-e-Jam (the newspaper of Iranian radio and television, which is attached to the Supreme Guide, Khamanei). Jam-e-Jam is a very cheap newspaper, about one fifth of the normal price of a newspaper and distributes about 200 thousand copies per day. There is also Ham-Shahri and Iran Newspaper, which are both official publications. In relation to the population, the rate of newspaper distribution in Iran is weak, especially that 80% of Iranians are literate, however, the reason behind this is censorship. Popular newspapers that existed were shut down, and any popular politician or newspaper with large readership is bound to be silenced or suspended.
Q: You criticize the period of Khatami’s rule. Do you believe that he did not deal with the circumstances in an appropriate manner during his rule?
A: Khatami is my friend. He is a very polite and amiable man but he did not enjoy sufficient political knowledge; in my opinion he could have performed his role in a better way, I was not in his place to understand the surrounding circumstances. Khatami faced many obstacles and he did his best, but could have done more.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Iran?
A: In Iran we say “today is better than tomorrow”; this is optimism because we do not want to say that today is worse than yesterday.
Q: That would be pessimism…
A: Yes. I think we do not have many choices for the near future, but we must try and look further than that. The near future has many problems such as not having political parties, and active organizations; we must be braver than we have been.