initiative of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and
with the cooperation of the Centre national de la recherche
scientifique (CNRS), a three-day
conference on “Shi’ism Today” opened at
CERI-Science Po centre in
on Monday 27 April.
Dr Abdulkarim Soroush and
Professor Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari were the two Iranian
intellectuals who addressed the opening session.
Speaking to them afterwards,
I first asked Dr Soroush to summarize the main points of his talk,
which was delivered in English.
Dr Soroush replied:
"My talk was about the challenges that Shi’ism is faced with
in the modern world. I
divided these challenges into several categories:
theological, historical, legal-jurisprudential, and
"Regarding the legal
category, I said that, although Shi’i jurists do occasionally issue
new fatwas now on penal matters, women’s rights, etc., which seem to
be progressive, since they have not been constructed on well
thought-out foundations and since no new theories on law and the
philosophy of law have entered our fiqh [henceforth, jurisprudence],
these new fatwas will remain rootless until our jurisprudence is
fundamentally reassessed and modernized.
In other words, modern philosophical and theological tenets
have to brought into our theory of jurisprudence.
"Regarding politics, I said
that the Islamic Revolution was, in all earnest, a revolution that
lacked a theory; especially so if we compare it to the French
Revolution and the Russian Revolution.
In the Russian Revolution, the main idea was to create a
classless society and, ultimately, to move towards socialism and,
then, on to communism.
And in the French Revolution, the ideas of the philosophers who had
been working in the preceding centuries, were summed up in the
ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
But in Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the
catchphrase was simply 'Islam', which only had a vague meaning.
Subsequently, we realized that this 'Islam' had no
clearly-defined blueprint for the economy; nor had our jurisprudence
developed to a point where it could tackle the problems of the
modern world and govern the state and society.
So, this, too, is a new challenge for Shi’ism; especially so
since, in our jurisprudence and in the jurisprudential questions
that arise for us, justice, human rights and the public interest are
all concepts that remain undefined.
"As for the historical
category, I said that Shi’ism bears its own historical legacy.
Notwithstanding the positive aspects of this legacy, one of
its problematic aspects is the disproportionate emphasis that is
placed on martyrdom and the events of Ashura.
In my talk, I said that Imam Hussein was an exception in the
ranks of the Shi’i Imams, but he has been turned into the rule.
One of the people who did this before the revolution was the
late Dr Shariati, but it is a centuries-old practice.
In the past, there were historical reasons for doing this.
The Shi’is were in the minority and they had to highlight the
tragic aspect of their history.
But, in the modern world, maybe there is no need for this and
we should be turning to other aspects of Shi’ism.
"There is also the practice
of 'cursing the companions', that is to say, speaking ill of the
Prophet’s companions and being disrespectful to them, which is,
again, something that is practised in Shi’i societies nowadays.
Of course, it is a practice that has been prohibited by the
ulema, but no one listens.
The reason for this is that Shi’is need to reassess their
theory on the subject of the caliphate."
Next, I asked Professor
Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari about his talk, which was delivered in
replied: "What I
discussed was that, so far, in the world of Shi’ism - for a long
time and over the course of centuries - a particular jurisprudential
technique has been used for understanding the Koran and, especially,
for understanding the verses of the Koran that relate to
"I explained the mechanism
of this jurisprudential technique and I also said that, when jurists
realize that fundamental social changes have occurred in Muslim
societies, they try to use particular methods to issue new fatwas in
a way, in order to solve some of the problems that arise in modern
life. But these new
fatwas are incapable of solving many problems because they are, at
any rate, trying to remain true to that same trusty jurisprudential
technique that took shape among Muslims more than ten centuries ago.
And the underlying tenet of the technique is that, for any of
life’s many occurrences, there is one true, divine ruling and the
jurist must strive to find it. However, since experience shows that
commitment to this jurisprudential method, which rests on this
tenet, cannot solve modern problems, you begin to wonder:
Can the verses of the Koran that concern transactions and
politics be read in some other way?
And I answered this question in the affirmative.
I believe that these verses can be read in another way and I
call this new reading “the moral historical reading”.
And it demands that we refer to the Koran with the aim of
understanding the moral meanings and aims of these rulings, as they
were formulated in the time of the Prophet in Hijaz.
The determining factor for us today is to abide by those
moral meanings and those principles, not the specific form of the
rulings, because the forms are as they are in order to fulfil those
moral aims in that age and in that society.
"So, the main thing for us,
in our age, is to abide by those moral aims, even though those aims
may be achieved for us today through different laws.
I call this reading “the moral historical reading” of the
Koran’s verses and rulings.
I explained what I meant by this. And, with many citations
from the Koran itself, I argued that, possibly in the case of more
than 90 per cent of the rulings that we find in the Koran on social
matters, etc., the relevant verses contain very clear moral
justifications and the rulings fall under a series of general, moral
principles. So, if,
today, Muslims or Muslim ulema judge that those moral aims can be
achieved by different means, it goes without saying that there will
be no need to implement those rulings in those forms.
"I concluded my talk by
saying there is no reason why we shouldn’t read the Koran today
using this moral-historical technique, and this is what I support.
This is an important development which, if it is followed
through, will open the way for Muslims to bring about correct
social, political and economic changes in society."
Mohammad Bahr Al-Olom, one of the
well-known clerics of the Najaf Seminary, was the other speaker at
the conference’s opening session.
He spoke about the role and position of the Najaf school of
** Translated from the
Persian by Nilou Mobasser