Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- It is difficult to meet Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi the symbol for conservatives in Qom and Iran. He has never allowed a journalist an interview and reportedly considers all journalists to be ‘spies’. The alternative solution was to interview his prominent disciple, Hujjat al Islam Muhsin Gharfian. Gharfian who is not fluent in spoken English can still understand it well. He also understands some Arabic but can only speak a basic level of the language.
Gharfian does not adopt the hardliner positions that can be expected from a fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and fatwa student tutored by Misbah Yazdi. Gharfian complained about the manner in which he was being represented and said that there were websites that posted thoughts and ideas that were falsely and inaccurately attributed to him. Speaking to Asharq al Awsat from his office in Qom, he said that he had voted for Hashemi Rafsanjani in last December’s Assembly of Experts’ election rather than vote for his mentor, Misbah Yazdi. Seeking to prove that he was not as conservative as has been reported, he added that he was not against a multi-party system and political pluralism. He did say, however, that he was opposed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to allow Iranian women entry into football stadiums with the men, pointing out that he, along with a number of other Qom scholars, had raised their objections with the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei [Wali al Faqih or guardian jurist, Ali Khamenei]. Gharfian added the hawza is the government’s think tank and that Ahmadinejad has his advisors in Qom, furthermore adding that the hawza is open to modern sciences and that the Wali al Faqih has the authority to suspend some Shariah decrees based on the rule of priorities.
Following is the text of the interview conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat:
Q: How would you describe the al Hawza al Ilmiya [religious seminary] in Qom?
A: The hawza in Qom is open to all schools [of thought] and we have students from all around the world. There is a scholarship program that enables students to study overseas, especially in Europe where they study philosophy and contemporary thought. If we want to respond to our critics we have to be conversant in all the modern sciences.
The hawza has scholarly diversity and vitality; it is not a closed place as some would imagine. According to Iran’s official statistics, Qom has the largest number of computers in Iran in comparison with the number of its population. All the hawza’s students are computer literate and use them in their studies and research. Today, there are various internet-enabled centers in Qom where the students go to access the latest research papers, scientific periodicals and the websites of foreign universities. The Iranian Revolution began in Qom; it is the academic center and is currently serving as the government’s think tank. All the religious references, scholars, writers and philosophers are based in Qom. Actually, we have two capitals: Tehran, the political capital, and Qom, the scientific one.
Q: What do you mean when you say that Qom has become the government’s think tank?
A: The head of the government, Ahmadinejad, has advisors from the circles of clerics in Qom. They have offices here and serve as a link between the hawza and the government. The second point is that the religious marja’a [the highest echelons of the Shia clergy] consider and discuss political and social issues at the hawza’s schools on a daily basis. They read books and newspapers and keep abreast with political developments. They know what is happening. If the parliament is debating a bill that has a religious aspect, these marja’a voice their opinions and their viewpoints are conveyed to newspapers and to the government.
Q: On several occasions you criticized former President Mohammad Khatami’s government. What exactly were you against in his government?
A: Our basic responsibility is to protect religion and moral values. We have always criticized Khatami’s government and Ahmadinejad’s current government for issues related to Islamic values. I was among those who wrote against Ahmadinejad’s decision to allow women to enter stadiums with men. I criticized the decision and upheld that it is a bad one. I criticized former President Muhammad Khatami’s government because we felt that during his presidency the religious values had deteriorated and that Iran was on the verge of becoming westernized. We are the teachers of religion and ethics and as such, it is in this field that we always declare our views openly.
Q: What specifically are you opposed to regarding women gaining admission into stadiums?
A: Football stadiums are customarily intended for men and women do not have the right to enter them. Shortly after his election, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that sections of these football stadiums would be exclusively reserved for women so that they may watch the matches. We criticized the decision because the atmosphere in football stadiums does not befit women, especially at the end of matches because fights could break out between the two teams or there could be quarrels and hooliganism. We were of the opinion that the environment was inappropriate and the decision would bring about more harm than benefit. Because of our objections, Ahmadinejad cancelled the decision following his consultation with Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who said that he should respect the opinions of scholars in Qom. Anyhow, women in Iran have their own stadiums where they can practice various sports and games. They are free to go to these stadiums whenever they please and to practice the sport of their choice. We are not against women who practice sports as such but we want women to preserve their decency.
Q: Some in Qom call for regarding Shariah decrees as something that changes in accordance with the social, political and cultural circumstances, based on what will best serve the interests of Muslims – what is your opinion?
A: There are two types of rules; Shariah rules relating to worship and others that concern dealings. The worship decrees are ‘eternal and unchanging’, such as prayers and fasting, however the application of those pertaining to dealings is subject to the circumstances of time and place. In accordance with the circumstances some amendments may be introduced, as deemed appropriate by the guardian jurist who possesses the necessary knowledge to suspend some Shariah rules. Therefore, one cannot say that all Shariaa rules are unchangeable and neither can one uphold that they are all subject to change. For example, in medical sciences there are fixed rules that have remained unchanged since the time of Hippocrates, however there exist some that have changed with time. The same applies to Shariah decrees; some are variable while others are eternal.
Q: So the religious leader is the only one who has the authority to change the Shariah rules related to dealings if he deems it to be in the public’s best interest. Does this include the hadd penalty of stoning to death?
A: The religious leader does not change the rules of Shariah. In eternal rules and those prescribed in the Quran the religious leader cannot make any amendments. For instance, God said: “Allah has permitted trade and prohibited usury,” and “fulfill your pledges”, the religious leader cannot change these rules because they have been mentioned in the Quran. However, the religious leader is asked whether or not trading over the internet or e-commerce is considered trade. God said: “Allah has permitted trade”, so can this be considered trade or not? It is the spiritual guide who decides whether or not trading over the internet can be deemed as trade. He is the one to state his view as to whether an internet contract is a [real] contract and whether the pledges have been fulfilled or not. The religious leader, however, cannot change “fulfill your pledges”” into “do not fulfill pledges.”
Q: Did you say that the spiritual guide is capable of temporarily suspending Shariah rules, such as the stoning penalty, if he believes it will serve the higher interests of Muslims?
A: Yes, the religious leader may temporarily suspend a Shariah rule if it serves more important interests. Based on the priorities rule the religious leader is able to do that – it is within his capacity to suspend the Hajj [Muslim pilgrimage]. The stoning penalty was temporarily suspended in Iran. I do not have specific information or figures but the head of Iran’s judiciary said that stoning did not serve public interests and took the decision to suspend it and replace it with another penalty.
Q: Some criticize you and say that you are opposed to party pluralism in Iran, which you regard as a danger and that you are for strengthening the Wali al Faqih’s authority – is this true?
A: No. Some have affiliated me to that school but in reality I am not. My true ideas are different; I believe that under a democratic system there must be political parties and groups that entertain different ideologies. This is part of Imam Khomeini’s ideas. As such, all political parties and trends should exist but the atmosphere has to be a rational one. In the media worldwide, I am known as Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi’s student and it is assumed that I have no ideological criticisms of his ideologies. Yes, I am his student but he trained me to think critically. I have formerly criticized some of his ideas and I think independently. It is not true to say that Sayyed Yazdi and all his students think identically; I am one of the critics of his ideas.
During the Assembly of Experts’ election, many of Misbah Yazdi’s students said they were against Sayyed Hashemi Rafsanjani who contested in the election with Misbah Yazdi. However, I said I would support Rafsanjani in the election because I believe he has a moderate, contemporary approach. My view was different than the hardliners who were against him, and on several occasions proposed for there to be a form of debate between Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi and Sayyed Hashemi Rafsanjani. I said that they were both the students of Sayyed Khomeini and that they should unite. Aristotle was Plato’s student. Plato created the ideal philosophical theories in politics but Aristotle had a different point of view than his mentor. People came to Aristotle and asked him, “How can you disagree with your teacher’s ideas?”
Aristotle said a beautiful statement in response to that, he said: “Plato my teacher is a philosopher, a great man and I have a great fondness for him – however Truth is greater than Plato.” I hold my teacher Misbah Yazdi in high esteem and have great respect for him, however presently, I have criticisms against him.
Q: What exactly are your criticisms of Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi?
A: I need a lot of time to be able to answer this question, however mainly; I am critical of his ideology and political ideas.
Q: Iran is facing international difficulties because of its nuclear program. What is your opinion on nuclear activities in general, and regarding the production or use of nuclear weapons?
A: My opinion on nuclear energy is the same one I hold for water and wind [energy]. Water and wind are sources of energy and nuclear energy, like other sources of energy, should be used to serve peaceful and humanitarian activities. We are absolutely against the development of nuclear weapons. Our religion and Shariah prohibit us from developing nuclear weapons. We believe that no country in the world should possess nuclear weapons, because it is a danger that threatens the entire world.
Q: Regarding women’s rights, do you hold that women have equal rights as men or do they have different rights by reason of their gender?
A: Rights are based on humanity rather than gender; however, because men and women are different, we have respective rules for both. For instance, we have a rule regarding child custody whereby a woman is entitled to custody of her daughter until she is seven years old and for her son until he is two. These rules are in accordance with the accepted Shariah rules. It is best for the sons to remain in their mother’s custody at this age after which the custody is transferred to the father. Women and men have equal rights, but there exist differences based on gender.