To begin with, could you please tell us
a bit about what you’ve been doing in terms of research and
academic activities while you’ve been away from
I’ve been away from Iran for two and
a half years. During
the first year, I was working at an institute in the Netherlands by the name of ISIM
(International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern
World). The ISIM was
operating in the Netherlands for
a number of years.
Unfortunately, in January 2009, it was closed for financial
reasons. In the
course of the ISIM’s 10- or 12-year lifetime, it was engaged
both in research and in higher education.
And I heard that, after I left, Ms Fatemeh Sadeqi,
Ayatollah Khalkhali’s daughter, was working there.
There were students there from throughout the world of
Islam and they used to carry out research and write their theses
there. In view of
the historical-colonial relationship between the
there were many Indonesian students at the ISIM.
But there were also Turkish students, Arab students and,
occasionally, Iranian students.
In addition to the students, the ISIM used to invite
Muslim researchers to carry out their research work there or, on
occasion, to present public lectures or lectures at
universities. I was
at the ISIM for 10 months.
In fact, I was both at the ISIM, which was in
Leiden, and at the
At the University
of Amsterdam, I was
teaching Islamic political philosophy and, at the ISIM, in
Leiden, I was engaged in research for my
own books. I was
also in touch with a group of Afghan intellectuals and a group
of Iranian students, and I was doing a regular series of talks
for them. There were
also a number of conferences and I also had the pleasure of the
company of Mr Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd on a regular basis.
Abu Zayd is the well-known Egyptian expert on the Qur’an.
Because of political pressures, he had to leave Egypt and he took up residence in the Netherlands.
Fortunately, the head of
the ISIM was an Iranian, by the name of Dr Asef Bayat.
He, too, was interested in the question of democracy in
Islamic countries and, while I was at the ISIM, an important
book by him on this subject was published.
While I was there, I signed the contract with Brill -
which is one of the oldest publishers in the
and possibly in the world - for the publication of the
English-language version of The Expansion of Prophetic
happy to say that the book was published in January 2009.
After the Netherlands, I went to the United States.
I had invitations from two universities.
One was Columbia
University in New York.
I spent a few months there. I was not lecturing there;
I was doing research work.
Then, I went to Georgetown
University in Washington, where I was lecturing.
And I’m still based in the United States.
What was the upshot of your meetings and
discussions with Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd?
What affinities and/or differences are
there between your research project and Abu Zayd’s research
The affinities are many, but the difference is that I’m
much more familiar with Mr Abu Zayd’s views than he is with
mine. And the reason
for this is simple:
his writings are in Arabic, which I can easily read.
But my writings are mainly in Persian - except the bits
that have been published in English - and he doesn’t read
Persian. But many
points can and did become clear in the course of our
example, in Germany, in the discussions between
Messrs Abu Zayd and Muhammad Arkoun and I, Mr Abu Zayd
vehemently rejected the idea that the Arabic language is an
accidental aspect of the Qur’an;
he believes that it is essential and he’d said as much in
one of his interviews.
But, based on the definition that I’ve set out in an
article entitled “Essentials and Accidentals in Religions”, I’m
of the view that Arabic is one of Islam’s accidentals, like many
of its other accidentals.
Both Mr Abu Zayd and I are
pluralists. So, from
this perspective, there isn’t a great deal of difference between
the way we approach religion.
But there are also differences between us.
In any case, he is a Sunni and I was raised as a Shi’i.
Inevitably, there are differences between the way we view
Both Mr Abu Zayd and I
believe that, at least in the first century after the Prophet,
there was no clear-cut delineation between Shi’is and Sunnis.
In 2004, when I’d gone to Amsterdam to receive the Erasmus prize, a
seminar was held at which Messrs Abu Zayd and Sadiq al-Azam and
I were in the panel.
Mr Sadiq al-Azam concluded his talk with a strange point.
He said: “I’d
like to put forward a proposal aimed at establishing peace in
the world of Islam and resolving the Sunni-Shi’i dispute.
I propose that Sunnis apologize to Shi’is for killing
Imam Hussein.” Abu
Zayd was sitting next to me.
He turned towards me and, half jokingly, half seriously,
said to me: “I
didn’t kill Imam Hussein and Sunnis didn’t kill him either;
so no there’s no call for an apology.”
Then, in the comments he made on Mr Sadiq al-Azam’s talk,
he said that, when the events of Ashura unfolded, the clear-cut
distinction that we have today between Shi’is and Sunnis did not
exist. In much the
same way, it has become clearer now
than it was in the past that the Mu’tazilites fell
somewhere halfway between Shi’is and Sunnis.
The Mu’tazilites had some of the rationalist views of
Shi’is or the Shi’is had some of the rationalist views of the
Mu’tazilites. And on
the question of the caliphate, they believed that Ali was the
most righteous, although, in practice and in terms of the
historical sequence of events, he was not the first caliph.
They also had a great respect for the Ahl al-Bayt
[reference to the Prophet’s descendents, the Shi’i Imams].
All this to say that we must avoid anachronisms.
We mustn’t view historical events out of context.
By way of a footnote, let
me say that, in April, when I’m back in the US, I will
attend a conference that has the general title “The Qur’an in
its Historical Context”.
Abu Zayd and I are the conference’s first two speakers.
And I have to sum things up at the end of the conference.
Then, the articles presented there will be published in
the form of a book.
I should also add that Mr Abu Zayd has drawn up plans for a
Qur’anic studies institute, of which I am a member of the
academic advisory board.
All of this shows that there is a great deal of
like-mindedness between Abu Zayd and I, and that this drives us
to work together.
In circumstances in which you are
experiencing problems in working in Iran and having your books
published here, it seems as if you’re directing your efforts
towards gaining an international audience and the translation of
The Expansion of Prophetic Experience
has to be seen in this light.
Could you tell us a bit more in this
Fortunately, The Expansion of Prophetic Experience
was published in
10 years ago. And,
at the time, they didn’t impede its publication.
They did criticize some aspects of it but they didn’t
prevent its publication or distribution in any way.
An interview that I gave to a Dutch newspaper in 2008 -
and its translation by one of the foreign-based Persian radios -
elicited extensive reaction in Iran.
A number of senior clerics, especially Ayatollah Sobhani
and Ayatollah Montazeri, stepped into the debate; a debate that
caused quite a stir among Iranians at home and abroad.
There was also an article in The New York Times that gave
a rundown of the debate and this article, too, drew a great deal
of attention. In Iran, my recent
articles ran into some impediments and they were not
disseminated in the way that they should have been.
What I did in the English version of The Expansion of
Prophetic Experience was to include parts of another book,
Straight Paths, as well as my exchange of letters with Mr
Sobhani. I’d signed
the contract for it some time ago, but Brill had some problems
that delayed the publication of the book.
The additional material included in the book was the
blessing that resulted from the delay.
The English version of The Expansion of Prophetic
Experience includes the letters that were exchanged between
Mr Sobhani and I, whereas the Persian version does not.
The Culture Ministry has now compounded its unkindness
towards us and raised some new obstacles.
For example, it sent us a message recently, saying that
The Expansion of Prophetic Experience can no longer be
even in the original form of 10 years ago. I don’t know what
information their new decision is based on.
Has someone told them something to make them tremble with
redoubled zeal, so that they feel compelled to prevent the
republication of the book?
Of course, this isn’t the only act of unkindness directed
at us by the Culture Ministry’s current officials.
Another one of my books entitled Tales and Plaints
has been at the ministry for more than a year and they’ve yet to
tell us whether they will authorize its publication or not.
There’s no answer from them one way or the other.
Their silence is effectively their answer.
The book is a compilation of my political letters and
some interviews. It
is, in effect, the third volume of my political works.
I’m currently preparing a new book entitled God as
Love, which will be sent to the ministry soon.
May God induce the officials at the ministry not to
impede its publication and to peddle honey instead of vinegar
Although your recent theory about
revelation can be seen as a logical extension of
The Expansion of Prophetic Experience,
does the fact that you’ve expressed the theory so plainly now
result from your association and discussions with Mr Abu Zayd or
is it because you just decided that the time was right?
As you said yourself, my recent theory is the natural and
logical extension of my theories and statements in The
Expansion of Prophetic Experience.
In a sense, I’d already expressed my recent views in the
book, but in a very condensed way.
I’ve now fleshed them out.
As you may remember, I’d said briefly in the book, in a
few sentences, that the Prophet was the bearer of revelation and
prophetic experience as an active agent;
so, revelation was subject to the Prophet, not the other
way around. I also
said that the best way of explaining how God speaks is to say
that the Prophet speaks for Him.
This is the nub of the views that I subsequently fleshed
out, and I also provided the philosophical and mystical
corroboration for it.
So, in fact, I can say that, in my recent interviews and
writings, I haven’t added much to The Expansion of Prophetic
to why some people reacted in such a strong, occasionally,
unscholarly way to it now - it was just political and nothing
else. I’m not
talking about the senior clerics in
I’m talking about people lower down who would have best
refrained from making weak and disjointed comments once learned
people had entered the debate.
When I look at all the reactions, I scold neither myself
nor the others.
Social action evokes social reaction, and the reaction cannot be
meticulously controlled and recorded.
There are different reasons and causes for people’s
Sometimes, it is just their religious zeal that makes them speak
out. And sometimes there are political considerations or
personal motives involved.
I could see all these factors in the responses, taken as
a whole, that my views elicited.
For my own part, I did my best not to react sharply or
fiercely to the responses.
And, so far, I think that the debate has flowed down a
good course. If we
remove the specks and scraps that are floating on the surface,
there’s clean water underneath.
It can be cleansed even further to produce a refreshing
drink for anyone who is interested.
your years abroad, how have you followed
social and theoretical developments, and how have you
participated in them so as not to be a mere spectator?
Whether in Iran or abroad, my position is
somewhere between an actor and a spectator.
I’m neither an absolute
spectator, nor an absolute actor.
I try to do what I can under the banner of justice, which
is the fountainhead of both morality and politics.
This has also been the case in my years abroad.
I’ve watched developments from afar and fretted about the
country and the people.
I’ve tried to follow the news and to keep myself informed
about what people have been living through in Iran.
And if ever there’s been something that I could say to
help in some way, I haven’t hesitated from doing so.
But, since I want to be sure that I’m aware of all the
different aspects of an issue before I speak and, God forbid,
don’t make an ill-informed comment, it may be that I’m silent
more often than not.
And I don’t consider this reprehensible in any way.
Over the past decade, there have been
various debates about the relationship between religious
intellectuals and the reform movement.
Various views have been expressed in
As the most prominent religious
intellectual, you’ve so far preferred not to express a clear-cut
view on this subject.
If you consider it appropriate now,
could you tell us your view on the relationship between the
reform movement and religious intellectuals?
Do you think that the reform movement
was the offspring of religious intellectualism or do you have a
different view of the relationship between the two?
First, let me say that the argument among Iranians about
whether religious intellectualism is a coherent term or not is
futile. It makes no
difference - at least as far as I’m concerned - whether we say
“religious intellectuals” or “modern religious thinkers”.
Why do you think it’s a futile argument?
Because it deflects attention from the real debate and
the real issues to a futile argument about terminology.
It makes no different whether you call it “religious
intellectualism” or “modern religious thinking” or whatever
else. There is a
group of people in Iran who view
religion in a scholarly and thoughtful way.
I call this religious intellectualism or religious
modernism. When you
look at the arguments of those who oppose religious
intellectuals, you’ll see that they’re of the view that thinking
and reasoning cannot be combined with religion at all.
So, from this perspective, it makes no difference whether
you use the term “intellectuals” or “neo-thinkers” or “modern
thinkers”. What I
find amazing is that our distinguished friend, Mr Mostafa
Malekian, is of the opinion that reasoning and worship - hence,
thinking and religion - cannot be combined.
If, today, he is a critic of religious intellectualism,
it won’t make any difference to his argument if we change its
name to “neo-religious thinkers” or “modern religious thinkers”.
But Mr Malekian considers himself to be
a religious neo-thinker and is of the opinion that you can
combine rationality with spirituality, which isn’t that
different from your project.
I was talking about where the logic of his argument leads
to. In his recent
interview, he said that reasoning and worship cannot be
combined. He means
that thinking and religion cannot be combined.
If religion is set aside and replaced with spirituality,
then that’s a different matter.
Mr Malekian himself is of the view that spirituality is a
different matter and is not bound by religion’s perimeters.
At any rate, he is not a religious intellectual because
he is not a critic of politics and the state, and criticism is
one of the main elements of intellectualism.
I don’t want to discuss this issue at length.
I’m of the view that we mustn’t spend a lot of time on
debates about terminology.
There is a group of people in our country who have a
example, they want to rid religion of the superstitious beliefs
that people have attached to it.
They want to make religion minimal.
They want to harmonize religion with justice.
They want to view religion historically.
And so on.
All of this, taken as a whole, becomes the project of religious
intellectuals (religious modernists).
People like this, with this project and these ideas,
actually exist in society and they have had an impact.
The project has followers. Many people have gathered
around it and are nourished by it.
It predates the revolution.
But it has undergone changes.
There have been new insights.
Some of its shortcomings have been redressed and some new
elements and components have been added to it.
It is like a flowing river and it gradually rids itself
of any grime or specks and scraps.
If we agree to set the
starting point of religious intellectualism at Mehdi Bazargan
and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani’s movement, then, it has had a
relationship with politics from the start.
This is because there is an undeniable relationship
between politics and religion in Iran;
sometimes politics is allied with religion and sometimes
it’s opposed to it.
And everyone who has entered this current has highlighted this
relationship. As it
happens, religious intellectualism (religious modernism) has
always highlighted the need for freedom, and this has been and
continues to be the notable difference between the supporters of
religious intellectualism and the supporters of traditional
religion. I don’t
know when this issue will be resolved.
Of course, freedom is one of the components of human
rights; today, the tale of human rights is broader and deeper
than this. So,
religious intellectuals’ project also includes human rights.
intellectualism has some kind of relationship with politics, it
inevitably comes up against power holders.
And the project of religious intellectualism on occasion
generates political consequences and corollaries.
These political consequences and corollaries are
One of them is that it officially takes stances on some issues
that relate to the state and it criticizes - from a religious
perspective - some of the state’s actions.
Secondly, it gives religious people the courage to put
behind them some of traditional religion’s stances without any
harm to their faith.
So, those who formulate reasoned opinions on religious matters [ijtihad]
have an open hand within the project of religious
when it teaches believers that they do not have a duty to be
obedient emulators in politics and so on and so forth, these
stances give learned believers the courage to criticize religion
and undertake political actions from a position of religiosity
Criticism is something that
has sadly been neglected in our society.
Both from the perspective of religion and from the
perspective of intellectualism, religious intellectualism firmly
highlights the importance of criticism.
In a talk entitled “Minimal Democracy” that I delivered
once at the University of Tehran, I said that it is the duty and
the right of all Muslims to enjoin the good and proscribe the
bad. And enjoining
the good and proscribing the bad in modern-day parlance means
criticizing. And the
highest criticism is criticism of rulers, because rulers have
more power and are, therefore, more likely to err.
On this basis, they need to be criticized more firmly and
this firmer criticism is both the right and the duty of
believers. And this
right and duty emerges both from the heart of intellectualism
and from the heart of religion.
All this drives religious intellectualism to grapple with
the state and power and politics now and then;
sometimes in a positive way and sometimes negatively.
On this basis, if you’re suggesting that the reform
movement emerged out of religious intellectualism, I would
phrase it in the following way:
religious intellectualism gave some believers the courage
to criticize and this courage to criticize gradually led to a
serious development in society whereby, far from believing that
criticism of the state conflicts with their religiosity,
religious people felt that it was demanded by their religiosity
and tantamount to worship.
Heidegger has been quoted as saying:
“Questioning is the piety of thought.”
What I'm saying is:
"Criticizing is the piety of politics.”
In other words, if politicians want to be pious and
observe piety in their capacity as politicians, they must allow
criticism and open themselves up to criticism.
One way of opening up to criticism is to have a free
press. In modern
society, criticism is not whispered, it is public, because
governing is public too.
Even the theoretical bases of the state have to be
publicly criticized because everyone is exposed to the harms and
benefits of power.
So, the reform movement fed
off religious intellectualism and it did so in an auspicious
way. But the reform
movement was just one of the products of religious
we can’t say that, if the reform movement ran into problems
along its way, then, religious intellectualism has come to a
halt. We also can’t
say that the reform movement was a test for religious
intellectualism and that, in the light of this test, religious
intellectualism has failed.
is fundamentally a theoretical current but, like any other
theoretical current, it can have social and political
consequences, especially in our society, where we claim that
religiosity is politics and politics is religiosity.
In other words, these two things are inextricably
intertwined, like the body and the soul.
So, if one of them is gladdened or saddened by something,
the other one will be too.
Hence, religious intellectualism will drive on and modern
religious thinking will not come to a halt - as you can see.
And more blessings will result from it.
The people who are unkind
to religious intellectualism, first, do not know religious
intellectualism well and haven’t defined it well for themselves.
Secondly, they have inappropriate expectations.
Thirdly, they have failed to take a good look at our
country’s recent history and they assume that they can determine
how things are in the external world with a series of conceptual
additions and subtractions in their minds.
As you said, the reform movement fed off
religious intellectualism and its theoretical foundations were
based on the teachings of religious intellectualism.
So, the expectation was that, after its
victory, religious intellectualism would try to do even more to
strengthen the foundations of the reform movement and that the
movement would, in turn, be further nourished by religious
But, in practice, the relationship
became more distant.
Religious intellectuals were even
treated unkindly in a way.
Why did this happen and why did the
reform movement forget religious intellectualism?
No, the reform movement can’t ignore religious
intellectualism and treat it unkindly and forget about it. The
reform movement has no other foundation and it will undoubtedly
return to its mother (religious intellectualism).
We don’t expect everyone to have a uniform view of
The intellectual current can’t be cohesive, uniform and
By its very nature, intellectual work is varied and
heterogeneous, because intellectuals don’t take orders from
anyone and don’t adjust their thinking to any uniform criterion.
They follow reasons and argumentation.
So, they can think differently and come to different
conclusions, which is not to say that all the different
conclusions are necessarily right. In other words, religious
intellectualism is not a party, with a leader whom everyone
intellectuals are not a congregation of parrots;
they’re a congregation of bees, in both senses:
they produce honey and they sting.
And they don’t have a queen.
So, you hear and see a variety of views from religious
this congregation of bees constitutes society’s honey peddlers
and they will rein in the vinegar peddlers.
You said earlier that one of the most
important achievements of religious intellectualism has been to
give religious people the courage to criticize.
But religious people had the courage to
criticize even before the emergence of religious intellectuals.
In other words, the traditional reading
of religion, too, has had the ability to criticize; especially,
to criticize the state.
Both in the past, before the birth of
religious intellectualism, and at present, there are
traditionalists who are very brave in criticizing the government
and the state.
It depends on what the criticism is based on;
religious intellectualism’s criticism is based on
modernity. We can
have reactionary criticism too.
As one of our clerics put it, some people criticize the
current state for not beheading offenders.
What we mean to say is, apart from the
courage to criticize, has religious intellectualism had other
Of course it has.
I’ve enumerated them before.
They include combating superstitions and harmonizing
religiosity with modern life.
Let’s go back to our previous topic.
Why was it that, during the reform
period, religious intellectuals didn’t become more active and
And why did the reformists take little
advantage of religious intellectuals’ ideas?
Was it political pragmatism that reduced
the link between the two groups or were there other reasons?
intellectualism doesn’t wait for anyone’s endorsement.
Others may come and pick a fruit from its tree or they
may not. Religious
intellectualism does not produce anything to order.
So, it's not as if it was waiting to see whether the
reformists would be pleased with it or not.
Not at all.
Sometimes others may sit in the shade under its branches and
sometimes they may not.
Reformism isn’t a homogeneous current either.
It isn’t as if they think alike from start to finish.
The reformists, too, have experienced and will experience
and development is imperative for them too.
This is why these two lines (religious intellectualism
and the reform movement) sometimes run parallel and sometimes
perpendicular, and sometimes they may head in two opposite
these things may happen in our society.
But one thing is clear to me:
reform in our society will come about through religious
reform. In other
words, the thinking of our religious people must change and
develop. I think
that, if we look at religious intellectualism closely, we’ll see
that it has really had important effects.
Once, people used to speak about the need for ijtihad
in fiqh [formulating reasoned opinions on matters relating
to Islamic jurisprudence], but, today, you hear it being said in
seminary itself that, unless developments come about in the
fields that precede fiqh (i.e., theology, philosophy, exegesis,
etc.), there will be no development in fiqh either.
And this idea has trickled down to young seminary
students too. They
believe that if a faqih [Islamic jurist] is not skilled in the
field of theology, he cannot be a good faqih.
I believe that these are very important points and they
are gradually becoming axiomatic.
Our seminaries had been functioning for years but these
ideas had no takers.
But, today, they are gradually taking these ideas on board.
I believe that religious
intellectualism before the revolution - and, especially, its two
prominent figures, i.e., Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shariati - tried
to acquaint believers with their political duties.
You might say that these issues were always discussed and
politics was always mentioned and believers had written about it
in their books. But,
first, these issues had been neglected in the realm of practice.
And, secondly, in the realm of theory, too, the criticism
Bazargan and Shariati tried to explain to believers that
religiosity and revolution are not two conflicting things;
on the contrary, they may coincide.
They said that political action is part of a believer’s
duties. Mr Bazargan
used to work very hard to drive this point home to believers:
even if you leave politics alone, politics won’t leave
you alone. So,
opting for seclusion doesn’t solve anything.
Of course, Bazargan and Shariati succeeded in their aim.
After the revolution, the situation was reversed.
In other words, a series of religious intellectualism’s
ideas materialized in practice and Shariati achieved his dream.
Revolution and religion coincided and were reconciled,
and revolutionary Islam came to power.
The only thing that
revolutionary Islam had in its rucksack was traditional fiqh and
it believed that its duty was to implement fiqh throughout
this fiqh was one of religious intellectualism’s visible
not just negative criticism in the sense of criticizing what it
is, but also positive criticism in the sense of saying what it
ought to become. It
not only spoke of its shortcomings, but also pointed out the way
In this way, after the
revolution, religious intellectualism tried to bring about
serious reforms and it will continue to do so.
Religious intellectualism will drive on and its work will
gradually bear fruit.
Let’s speak in more concrete terms if
you don’t mind.
Were you consulted by the reformists?
For example, did Mr Khatami hold
specific meetings and consultations with you while he was
The first time I saw Mr Khatami after his election in
1997 was in
And it was after the end of his second term as president.
During his presidency, there were no meetings whatsoever
As for any of my friends
who were in power, I only had a distant link with them, because
I was abroad most of that time, apart from some short visits to Iran.
My situation did not
improve in any way during the reform years;
I was still unable to work, teach or give public talks in Iran,
and insecurity continued to hang over me.
Nor did I expect anyone to do anything for my benefit.
I was hoping, instead, that the general climate would
improve. On the
whole, I have to underline that the way that religious
intellectualism helps the state does not consist of
intellectuals coming to power or having close links to power
intellectuals’ main task is to generate and distribute ideas.
And others can use these ideas or not, as they wish.
Moreover, political decisions do not arise directly out
of the views of religious intellectuals and there isn’t any
logical or deductive link between the two.
Religious intellectualism produces the general climate,
which assists dialogue between civilizations and the concepts of
magnanimity and tolerance.
It can raise a series of general slogans and ideas in
society which may gradually attract people’s attention.
Once, a friend spoke to me about the possibility of Mr
Khatami entering the presidential race.
I said that it would be a good idea for him to adopt the
following verse by Hafez as one of his slogans: “With friends,
magnanimity; with enemies, tolerance.”
In fact, this is the crux of justice.
Whoever adopts this slogan is to be lauded, whether it is
Mr Khatami or Mr Musavi or Mr Karrubi or even Mr Ahmadinejad.
The important thing is to act on the slogan afterwards.
This proposition, put forward by religious intellectuals,
is more sincere and more agreeable than the actions of those who
have always shown that they care neither for magnanimity or
In your book, entitled
Knowledge, Intellectualism and Religiosity,
you said that intellectuals have power without position.
But, after Mr Khatami’s victory, the
expectation was that intellectuals would move a bit closer to
power and take more care of their offspring (the reform
Did religious intellectuals strive to
resolve the obstacles that the reformists encountered during
A. Everyone acted on their
own judgement. For
example, I wrote several letters to Mr Khatami.
Apart from this, I expressed my views about things now
and then, in the hope that things might improve.
I don’t know whether it had any impact or not.
I’m sure other individuals did this too;
it was no more than this.
If this is what you mean by taking care of and
protecting, we did this much.
But if you mean direct intervention in affairs of state,
then, that wasn’t the case; nor should it be.
I continue to believe that intellectuals have power
Their power consists of their intellectual work and it is from
this position that they can have a powerful impact on things.
Intellectuals address people’s minds and advise them on
how to think and how not to think.
Politicians address people’s limbs and tell them what to
do and what not to do.
Of course, thinking
ultimately translates into action, because people’s limbs are at
the disposal of their minds.
What intellectuals say can have an impact on legislation
and legislators’ thinking.
And in this way, they can guide society in a particular
If the reform movement was the offspring
of intellectualism, religious intellectualism should have rushed
to its assistance at sensitive and difficult junctures, because
it was following a course that religious intellectuals had set
What difficulties do you mean?
For example, on the subject of religious
democracy, which ran into problems in practice. The expectation
was that religious intellectuals would try to resolve these
As it happens, this is a subject that I have spoken about
a great deal in recent years - even to the point of tedium.
Actually, the other side - whether traditional believers
or people who fall outside the framework of religious thought -
directed most of their fire at the tale of democracy and
religion. So, I
think that religious intellectualism did its utmost to speak
about this subject and to do what it could.
Many of the broad brush strokes of the relationship
between democracy and religion have now become clear, and we’ve
moved on a great deal from what we were saying about the
relationship between democracy and Islam in the early days after
First, the term “religious democracy” should not lead people
astray. It doesn’t
mean deriving democracy from religion.
No one has suggested such a thing.
This is another one of the mistakes in Mr Malekian’s
interview. As an
initial categorization, governments are divided into the
democratic and the non-democratic.
Then, democratic governments can be religious or
other words, they may find favour with and appeal to religious
people or not. In
other words, it means a democratic government that is
established in a society of believers.
It doesn’t mean that the bases of democracy are derived
Governance needs to be made compatible with religion and, in
order to do this, we must have theories about fiqh, parliament,
law-making, voting and so on.
And, in fact, these are issues that religious
intellectualism has focused on.
It has not tried, naively, to derive democracy from the
Qur’an or from our religious narratives.
Of course, a few people have suggested that the pledge of
allegiance to the ruler roughly corresponds to a consultative
assembly, i.e., to
first, they are a minority.
And, secondly, they are traditionalists.
I have explicitly explained this point.
Pledging allegiance is based on duty, whereas elections
are based on right.
And there is a difference between these two things.
Moreover, parliament plays the role of legislator and
legislation must be binding.
If, in a Muslim society, parliament only acts as the
ruler’s helper or adviser, the meaning of legislation will not
really have been fulfilled.
So, all these concepts need to undergo change and
development, so that impediments can be removed.
A religious government or a
democratic government in a religious society is a thesis which I
still stand by.
Bringing it about needs theoretical and practical work.
We haven’t reduced our commitment to this idea.
Things have moved on to the point where even the
government that doesn’t accept us raises the slogan of religious
rule by the people.
This is no mean achievement.
As to whether they act on this slogan or not, that’s a
different issue. But
at least they show some respect for this concept and tend to buy
it. We hope that
they will one day start selling it too.
When that happens, we hope that they won’t short-change
people and that real rule by the people will materialize.
Setting all this aside, the relationship between religion
and the state has been reassessed in modern political literature
and the thick barrier that liberalism used to erect between the
two has crumbled.
Some time ago, you gave a talk in
about the relationship between Shi’ism and democracy.
Some critics interpreted it to mean that
you think Shi’ism is essentially incompatible with democracy.
It seems that those critics
misunderstood what you were saying and you’re still of the view
that Shi’ism can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with
Could you elaborate?
Yes, it is as you say.
In the response that I wrote at the time, I underlined
the point that the one who maintains that religion and democracy
are not compatible is Mr Mesbah-Yazdi, not I.
All the same, I believe that Shi’ism or one
interpretation of it can be incompatible with democracy, but
that there can be an alternative reading, which is both cohesive
and compatible with the history of Shi’ism and compatible with
democracy. In fact,
we can replace the term “governance” with “management” because
governance means managing the country as a whole.
And this management can be both democratic and compatible
with the people’s beliefs.
And people can welcome it not only as fair and just
management, but also as a matter of religious duty.
This is what Muslims did after the Prophet. They did not
expect their rulers to act as prophets.
After the 12th Imam disappeared, Shi’is, too, should live
as if they don’t expect another Imam and, so, they can organize
their worldly affairs in a democratic way.
I view as harmful to our
country the kind of traditionalist thinking that has emerged in
the form of Mr Ahmadinejad’s government.
That money should be extracted from oil wells and poured
into wells of Jamkaran - I consider this kind of superstitious
behaviour to be incompatible with civil society and a just
religious intellectualism criticizes religious superstitions.
Religious superstitions are amazingly current in our
society and even the top clerics do not speak out against this.
Even if they say a word or two here and there, it is very
weak; it doesn’t
stop believers in their tracks.
It is the responsibility of the top clerics, more than
anyone else, to react against these deviations;
whereas, in fact, religious intellectuals are having to
shoulder this responsibility too.
Now, if a government comes
to power which has half an eye on religious intellectualism -
not in the sense that it brings religious intellectuals to power
and gives them more rights, but in the sense that it pays
attention to and acts on their ideas - people will benefit from
its blessings. It
will make our country’s future brighter.
It will save young people from going astray and not
knowing what to do.
And it will return morality to our society.
I believe that religious rule by the people is the
guarantor of morality in our country and that tyranny is the
guarantor of immorality and duplicity.
Even if religious intellectualism had no virtue other
than this - that it underlines religious democracy with the aim
of establishing morality and virtue -, it would deserve praise
and respect for this one reason alone.
Some critics of religious
intellectualism try to equate the failure of the reform movement
with the end of the religious intellectualism project.
And they are of the view that the
ineffectiveness of the theory of “religious democracy” became
clear with the failure of the reform movement.
So, they consider the era of religious
intellectualism to have come to an end.
As a defender of religious
intellectualism, how would you rebut this argument?
Why do you say that the reform movement failed?
Mr Khatami was president for eight years.
He did many positive things.
There were also things that he failed to do.
And he made some management mistakes.
Can we describe this as the failure of the reform
example, if they arrest a group of strugglers and jail them,
does this mean the struggle has failed?
Can we describe it as a setback?
A setback is very different from failure.
Setback is like having a two-litre bottle and expecting
it to carry four litres.
But failure means the bottle is totally broken.
Both you and I agree that the reform movement had some
shortcomings and did not achieve all its aims.
But where will you find a government that has no
shortcomings and achieves all its aims?
But we must not overlook the fact that the reform
movement indigenized some ideas in this country and made them
take root. It opened
windows for the people that - now that they’ve been closed -
people still hope will be reopened one day.
Reforms have become a lasting tradition in our society
and the people want democracy;
a democracy that they no longer see as alien to their
religiosity. This is
why I believe that the reform movement rendered us many
services. And it
also made mistakes, which should be spoken about and criticized.
But describing it as failure is an exaggeration.
Let me return to your
question and ask you in turn, was religious democracy
established in our country during Mr Khatami’s reformist
presidency for us to be able to blame it for the setback to the
Wasn’t religious democracy the
theoretical basis of the reform movement?
The assumptions you’re making are incorrect.
Religious democracy was not established and it is very
strange to suggest that we had religious democracy during the
reformist period. Mr
Khatami came to power within the existing system.
All the state bodies functioned as before.
Newspapers were banned.
And so on so forth.
The minimal prerequisite
for democracy (whether religious or non-religious) is the
circulation of free criticism and the bearer of this criticism
has to be a free press.
Newspapers are society’s lungs and society can only
breathe through them.
We had press freedom only at the start of Mr Khatami’s
first term as president.
Immediately thereafter, newspapers were banned one after
the other. The reform movement’s lungs were blocked and it was
pushed to the point of asphyxiation.
In view of the fact that the prerequisites didn’t exist,
how can it be said that we had religious democracy during that
period? There was no
religious democracy, so it isn’t possible to say whether it
succeeded or not.
Some people who have a more cultural
interpretation of intellectualism are of the view that, during
the reform period, religious intellectualism tended to focus on
its political functions rather than its cultural functions.
People like Mostafa Malekian maintain
that, in the political interpretation of intellectualism, the
three concepts of failure, victory and pragmatism are recurring
But that, in the cultural
interpretation, it is more a question of truth and falsehood and
striving for truth, and there is a preference for cultural
judgements rather than political judgements.
In your view, over the past decade, has
religious intellectualism been addressing the people and or
I think it’s been a combination of the two.
And even if it has only done one of these things, it is
still no mean feat.
Intellectualism is not a movement that has come about only for
the sake of uttering truths.
If it were just a question of uttering truths, then,
philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, traditional ulema,
etc., too, utter truths.
Everyone, in every field, is trying to utter truths.
But not everyone is considered to be an intellectual.
This is by no means an adequate definition of
intellectualism and intellectuals’ duties.
Everyone knows this and we mustn’t spend time on it
truths is a necessary condition of intellectualism; it is, by no
means, a sufficient condition.
Intellectuals are interested in truths that help advance
and improve society.
One of these truths, for example, is the presence or absence of
freedoms in society.
The responsible intellectual considers himself committed to this
issue. And it is
this presence or absence of freedoms that brings the
intellectual directly up against power or the state.
Dealing with power is more a
politician’s duty, not an intellectuals.
No, a politician is an executor, not a thinker.
Always remember the example that Popper gave:
“Lenin is Marx’s executor.”
I think that this statement is very correct. Marx was a
thinker. He was never a power holder.
But when Lenin came to power, it was Marx’s brain that
dictated his actions.
Democracy in the West was the product of philosophers,
First, they made society liberal; then, a liberal state came
into being. So, you
mustn’t overlook the indirect role that thinkers play in society
and in politics.
This is what defines intellectuals.
Intellectuals tackle these issues and these issues are
very sensitive; so, intellectuals pay the cost and, inevitably,
grapple with the state.
As to whether intellectuals
have addressed the people as much as they’ve addressed the
state, it depends on the society that you’re talking about.
In a society where the state is all-pervasive and casts
its shadow over everything, you’ll see its shadow wherever you
go. And even if you
want to address the people, you’ll come up against the state.
But if you’re in a relatively democratic society, where
the state has handed over many affairs to the people, then,
sometimes you’ll address the state and sometimes you’ll address
the people. First,
we have to see how pervasive the state has made itself.
In fact, this is one of the demands of intellectuals:
that the state should become less pervasive and that it
should become minimal, not maximal.
Why do you think the reform movement
suffered a setback?
I don’t really want to go into this now, because the
concepts of democracy and human rights themselves have
shortcomings that need to be redressed.
These are issues that are being discussed by philosophers
of law, ethicists and so on.
But let me begin by reminding you that not every fault
can be attributed to the state;
this is not at all the case.
We, the people, have shortcomings that we must
example, the disregard for rules and laws that drivers display
on our streets cannot be blamed on our rulers.
There are problems in our conduct for which we are to
blame and we only attribute them to others to exonerate
Unfortunately, a kind of selfishness has become pervasive among
us which is the source of many ills.
One of the causes for the setback that the reform
movement suffered consisted of the big obstacles that they
placed in its way.
Another cause consisted of a series of factors that exist among
the people, making it difficult for them to act upon some ideas.
Another cause was the reformists’ practical and
What kind of reassessment do you think
is needed in order to revive the political reform movement and
how must the reformists use the eight years that they had in
power and the four years that they have spent on the sidelines?
Another question is:
how can religious intellectuals help
revive the reform movement?
I’d still prefer it, for now, if the reformists turn
towards civil society under a relatively moderate government,
adopt the patience of gardeners and sow seeds for the future.
In the last few days before the last
presidential election, you said that you thought Mr Karrubi was
the best choice for president.
Who do you think is the best choice now
and what do you think the consensus is among the reformists?
I really haven’t come to a particular conclusion in this
respect yet. So,
I’ll opt for silence now.
If I come to a decision, I’ll make it known.
**Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser
* Published in
E’temad newspaper on 16 April 2009.