Q. I’d like to begin by asking you about the background to the
materialization of Kiyan as a journal and as a circle of people. How
did you become associated with this circle and even become its
A. It’s really nice to have religious intellectuals’ background
judged on the basis of what they produced. The good friends who laid
the foundations for Kiyan began their work with another journal
called Kayhan Farhangi (Cultural Universe). Kayhan Farhangi was
Kiyan’s mother and father, and Kiyan was born out of it. Kayhan
Farhangi was one of the most auspicious intellectual journals to be
born after the revolution; at a time when, otherwise, emotions had
the upper hand. It was in these circumstances that the people who
ran Kayhan Farhangi opened an avenue to rationality, and religious
rationality at that. The gentlemen who established Kayhan Farhangi
were Messrs Rokhsefat, Tehrani and Shamsolvaezin. I became
acquainted with all three of them after the revolution; I didn’t
know them before. And this was because I was absent from Iran’s
cultural scene before the revolution, because I was in Britain.
After I returned to Iran, after the revolution, I began working at
the Cultural Revolution Institute and I delivered some talks on
radio and TV. My acquaintance with many of these friends dates from
this time. They were people who were active in the religious sphere
and three of them began publishing Kayhan Farhangi based on new,
well thought out ideas. One of their innovations at Kayhan Farhangi
consisted of the interviews that they published in each issue with
one of the country’s intellectual-academic figures, presenting a
correct, first-hand exposition of their works and views. Many of
these figures have now passed away but their interviews are
available in Kayhan Farhangi as a valuable and authoritative source.
The second thing that Kayhan Farhangi did was to introduce the
cultural and literary works that were being published in the
country. Bear in mind that this was not a calm period. Iran was at
war and the effects of the recent revolution were still being felt.
So, it was not all that easy to open a way forward. Be that as it
may, Kayhan Farhangi succeeded in being innovative and initiating
new debates, and, at times, this even stirred up controversy.
Q. Can you give an example of these controversies?
A. Controversial works were published in Kayhan Farhangi which might
not have been published at any other time; nor stirred up such
controversy. One example was a series of articles on religious
theory in which I had a hand. Another consisted of some arguments
over Popper which engaged many minds. On Popper, I think Kayhan
Farhangi opted for a very journalistic approach. It raised some
aspects, which had little intrinsic value, in a sensational way and
attracted a great deal of attention. On the whole, it was very
positive and illuminating. Our other friends at Kayhan Farhangi have
no doubt spoken about their own problems and why they were not
prepared to continue working with Kayhan Farhangi and broke away
from it. At any rate, they decided not to work with Kayhan Farhangi
and to establish another journal instead.
Q. How did you become acquainted with the people at Kayhan
Farhangi and begin working with them? What was the background to it?
A. I didn’t go looking for them; they came looking for me. Mr
Rokhsefat was a cultural figure and showed a great deal of interest
in new ideas. He also used to attend some of my classes and was
interested in some of my ideas. So, after a while, he invited me to
appear in Kayhan Farhangi as one of the figures they were
interviewing and to have my picture on the cover. I wasn’t keen and
didn’t consider myself to have the appropriate stature. But I did
began working with them in the form of writing articles. On another
occasion, Mr Rokhsefat and Mr Tehrani asked me to be the interviewer
when they decided to publish an interview with Ayatollah
Javadi-Amoli, who is a very well-known figure. I went to Qom with Mr
Rokhsefat and I conducted a long interview with Mr Javadi-Amoli,
which was subsequently published in Kayhan Farhangi. My cooperation
with them began as simply as this. Of course, during the time when I
was teaching at the Teacher Training University, Messrs Rokhsefat
and Tehrani attended my classes. But I hadn’t met Mr Shamsolvaezin
yet; I became acquainted with him later, through Kiyan.
Q. Your “Contraction and Expansion” articles in Kayhan Farhangi
had also become controversial.
A. Yes, that’s true. When those articles were published, they
stirred up heated debates. It was quite costly for the journal too.
I subsequently expressed my gratitude to them in my writings and I’d
like to thank them again now, because they stood up to a great deal
of pressure. And the pressure didn’t always come from enemies and
opponents; I remember that Mr Khatami was culture minister at the
time or he was the head of the Kayhan Institute. He criticized some
of Kayhan Farhangi’s methods; quite fierce criticism. I know that Mr
Rokhsefat and Mr Khatami had some heated arguments. Nevertheless,
our friends at Kayhan Farhangi persisted in their mission and, when
the time came for them to break away, they didn’t hesitate and they
closed the file on Kayhan Farhangi. Of course, Kayhan Farhangi
continued to be published thereafter, but, as everyone can see for
themselves, it doesn’t resemble the former Kayhan Farhangi at all
Q. The intention was for Kiyan to continue Kayhan Farhangi’s way?
A. Yes, when these friends left Kayhan Farhangi and decided to start
a new journal, there was a great deal of discussion about what the
new journal should be called. They consulted me too. At one point,
they considered calling it Kiyan Farhangi, but, ultimately, they
settled for Kiyan and the journal came into being. Kiyan was more or
less like Kayhan Farhangi had been earlier and I continued working
Q. When was the Kiyan circle, consisting of individuals who
attended Kiyan meetings regularly, formed and with what aim?
A. We never used the term ‘the Kiyan circle’ in those days and I
don’t have any recollection of it ever being used by the people who
ran Kiyan. I always used the expression ‘the people who run Kiyan’
myself. ‘The Kiyan circle’ didn’t occur to me and wasn’t uttered by
me; just as it didn’t occur to the others and wasn’t uttered by
them. It was only after Kiyan was banned that the term ‘the Kiyan
circle’ was coined and used. Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi says that you
only become aware of your heart when you lose it. Similarly, it was
only after Kiyan disappeared that some people realized that there
was something known as ‘the Kiyan circle’ which was an influential
circle in the country’s culture. Of course, I welcome this term and
I don’t have any problem with it. But it was coined and circulated
by people outside the circle.
Q. Is it possible to offer a clear definition of the Kiyan
A. No and this is why I’ve noticed that the expression is exploited
in Iran and abroad; some people associate themselves with ‘the Kiyan
circle’ in order to forge an identity for themselves. ‘The Kiyan
circle’ has two meanings; one, general and, the other, specific. The
general meaning of ‘the Kiyan circle’ comprises all of Kiyan’s
readers and those who were interested in the ideas that were raised
in the journal; people who shared Kiyan’s joys and sorrows. Don’t
forget that Kiyan was subjected to many blows. I remember how there
were times when my friends there used to hide the fax and
lithography machine so that they wouldn’t be destroyed if Kiyan was
attacked. It was a time when they anticipated that some people might
come at any moment to attack them. The commotion over the journal
had reached a new peak, especially so because the people who ran
Kiyan had stepped into terrain that others didn’t dare enter. The
general Kiyan circle consisted of a 100,000-strong readership. In it
last issues, Kiyan carried a questionnaire which made it clear that
each copy of the journal was being read by an average of five
people. And Kiyan’s circulation figure was 20,000. But the specific
Kiyan circle consisted of the people who worked directly in the
Kiyan institute, including the editor in chief and the editorial
board and some of the journal’s writers. Of course, I have to add
that, shortly before Mr Khatami’s election, when I returned to Iran
after an 11-month forced stay abroad, a circle of friends was
established at Kiyan and they held weekly meetings, which I also
Q. What sort of things were discussed at these meetings?
A. I remember that, when I returned to Iran, I initiated a debate in
that circle entitled “Is fiqh possible?” The discussion lasted for
quite some time and everyone participated. My conclusions - and I
hope they can be published one day - were that fiqh either has to be
totally this-worldly or totally other-worldly, but that it is
impossible to have a fiqh that embraces both this-worldly and
other-worldly interests. In order for us to work our way to this
conclusion, some people from the religious sciences, specifically
Messrs Kadivar and Mojtaba Shobeiri, participated in those weekly
Q. Who else belonged to the circle?
A. In addition to Messrs Tehrani and Shamsolvaezin, Messrs
Hajjarian, Armin, Morteza Mardiha, Akbar Ganji, Arash Naraghi,
Ebrahim Soltani, Mohsen Sazegara, Javad Kashi, Hossein Ghazian,
Nasser Hadian, Mostafa Tajzadeh and, occasionally, my son, Soroush
Dabbagh, used to attend the meetings. I may have missed out a few
people, but these were the individuals who worked regularly with
Kiyan and their works were generally published in Kiyan. Maybe
nothing by Shobeiri or Hadian was published in Kiyan, but the others
were Kiyan writers. Mr Hajjarian, too, worked closely with Kiyan and
it’s an open secret that he used to write articles for Kiyan under
the name “Jahangir Salehpour”. It would be quite appropriate to call
this circle of people ‘the Kiyan circle’. But there were other
people who used to drop by - dropping by is the best way of putting
it - and who later described themselves as belonging to the Kiyan
circle, creating fraudulent identities for themselves. I don’t want
to mention their names. But they are fraudsters.
The Kiyan circle delineated itself and made itself felt over time.
Later, they even suggested that it had a political hue. In 1995, I
was attacked in Esfahan. Some of Kiyan’s close and not-so-close
friends published a letter with 107 signatures which may have been
the first open letter in that oppressive period. The letter
criticized that kind of thuggish behaviour and one of the
signatories was a man called Mehdi Tabeshian. He was not a member of
the Kiyan circle, nor did he ever make such a claim, but he was
favourably disposed towards the whole Kiyan enterprise. Mr Tabeshian
was deputy head of the state broadcasting organization. And his
signature on the letter earned him some criticism from his boss. I’m
saying this in order to explain that not all of that letter’s
signatories, for example, were members of the Kiyan circle.
Q. Did the Kiyan circle have clearly-defined lines and
boundaries? I’m asking because there were different viewpoints among
that group of people. For example, some of the more political
figures were closer to political parties, such as the Mojahedin of
the Islamic Revolution Organization, and they were critics of some
of your views. Did you not have a specific, defined relationship
with the members of the Kiyan circle?
A. It is exactly as you said. The Kiyan circle was not a
clearly-defined circle by any means. It was not like a political
party. There were no student-teacher or disciple-master
relationships. It was a door that was open to all those who were
interested in its line of thinking, even though their own ideas may
have been at a tangent to its line of thinking. We deliberately
didn’t have political discussions at our meetings; it was more a
question of dialogue and an exchange of ideas. There was no specific
line or track. And my friendship with many of those people dates
from those meetings. For example, I think I first met Mr Kadivar at
one of those meetings. In fact, he was a critic of some of my views
on religious pluralism and our exchanges were subsequently
published. Mr Mardiha or Mr Kashi, too, for example, had their own
particular political views. The people who were closest to me in
those meetings were Messrs Naraghi, Soltani and Tehrani. I had
differences with the others, but, fortunately, there were no
problems between us. We all recognized that a new avenue needed to
be opened up in religious intellectualism and that this new avenue
passed through modern rationality; an avenue which I dubbed
“renewing the Mu’tazilite experience” a while back.
Q. You mentioned Mr Hajjarian’s alias, Jahangir Salehpour. Mr
Ganji, for his part, wrote some critiques of your views using the
name “Hamid Paydar”. Why did Mr Ganji choose an alias?
A. I really don’t know. You have to ask him; just as I don’t know
why Mr Hajjarian used an alias. I remember that, at the time, Mr
Aghajari asked me who Mr Salehpour was and I explained to him that
he was Mr Hajjarian. It was his own choice. I didn’t interfere in
that sort of thing at all and it was up to the journal’s editorial
board and writers. You mentioned some critiques. Let me say here and
now that perhaps one of the most luminous aspects of Kiyan and,
later, Madreseh, was that they were never shy about publishing
criticism and, specifically, criticism of my views; they blazed a
trail that, unfortunately, not many people followed. As you’ve seen,
there are many publications that are headed by a single individual
and, throughout the publication’s lifetime, not a single critique of
that individual is published. Kiyan was openhanded in this respect
and, of course, Madreseh was even more generous and openhanded; in
order to avoid the charge of bias in my favour and with the aim of
encouraging open criticism of course. And criticism by friends such
as Majid Mohammadi, Jahangir Salehpour, Hamid Paydar and Arash
Naraghi not only helped others, but also helped me. I view those
critiques as the journals’ lasting legacy to me.
Q. Did you like Madreseh’s added generosity in publishing
A. I think that the people who were running Madreseh took the sneers
of the sneering too seriously, for fear of being accused of bias
towards me. They were very cautious; this was the approach they’d
opted for. For my own part, I thank them for running the journal.
Q. One of the points you mentioned was the politicization of the
Kiyan circle, especially after Mr Khatami’s election as president in
May 1997. Things were such that Mr Ganji conducted an interview with
you on the subject of politics and intellectualism, but it wasn’t
published in Kiyan. It was published later in one of your books.
What did you think of the political activities of the people who ran
Kiyan? Did you feel closer to one group of people in that circle?
Since, in the Kiyan circle, too, some people were politically
inclined to the left and some to the right.
A. As long as Kiyan was being published and the Kiyan circle was
meeting, I didn’t have political problems with anyone; we all felt a
sense of fellowship. As you can tell from the names, there were
different individuals in that circle and, consequently, different
viewpoints. Unfortunately, on the threshold of the election of Mr
Khatami and afterwards, a kind of openness came about in the
atmosphere which aggravated some slight, erstwhile disagreements.
Some of the disagreements were exaggerated and, in the Kiyan circle,
too, these kinds of disagreements flared up between some of our
friends. I tried not to become embroiled in the disputes and my
efforts to solve the disputes also proved unsuccessful. The
disagreement became particularly heated between two of those
friends. One of them conducted a conversation with me on the subject
of intellectuals. The other one read it and made some suggestions,
which I added to the text of the interview. In this form, the
interview didn’t find favour and, so, I didn’t publish it in Kiyan.
Later, I included it in my book.
Q. What was the cause of the disagreements?
A. Kiyan lost out from the political openness. I’m mentioning this
as a social ill. We have an unfortunate problem that we need to
solve. All of us, who do not favour the country’s prevailing
policies and sometimes write things or do things to express our
opposition - when we find ourselves faced with a period of political
openness, instead of becoming more united, we start attacking each
other. It’s as if we think that our mission is to prove our
superiority over the others. This problem caused some turbulence in
the Kiyan circle for a while and, in my view, this wasn’t a
desirable development. But calm was rapidly restored and all our
friends came to an unwritten agreement and the turbulence was
happily put behind us. We suffered some bruising, but it healed.
I’ve seen similar occurrences elsewhere. For example, some members
of the national-religious forces unfortunately substantially
sharpened their criticism of me after the political opening. I don’t
know why. When the atmosphere opens up, people should do more
positive things, rather than attack each other and try to prove
their superiority. Here, I’d like to say by way of a friendly
criticism that we mustn’t allow this to happen again. People mustn’t
start quarrelling and clawing at each other instead of clawing at
the country’s problems.
Q. So, you believe that the disagreements in that circle had no
serious basis and were groundless?
A. Yes, they were groundless. Maybe there were differences of
opinion on political matters, but there was no disagreement in the
Kiyan circle on religious modernism.
Q. The banning of Kiyan also put an end, in a way, to the
companionship of culture figures within the Kiyan circle.
A. Yes, that’s right.
Q. You made no comment after the recent banning of Madreseh.
What’s your assessment of Madreseh as a journal?
A. Madreseh began publishing at a time when I was abroad and, when
it was banned, I was still abroad. I would give Madreseh very good
marks. In just these two years, it won a great deal of favour. Both
the managing director and the editor in chief acted very wisely, and
they succeeded in opening a new window for our society to ideas and
intellectualism. They used new names and faces and they displayed
true pluralism. They tried not to give anyone any pretexts, but the
people who look for pretexts can usually fabricate their own. They
fabricated pretexts and boarded up Madreseh’s door. They deprived a
readership of a window and of the resulting air and light. I want to
tell our country’s cultural officials in all earnest that they ought
to reconsider these methods. Banning a paper or a publication
amounts to murder. We read in the Qur’an that, if an innocent person
is killed, it is as if a countless number of people have been
killed. Banning a journal is like banning a school; it is like
killing a countless number of people. It's not something that should
be done lightly. Deciding in haste in this respect and acting on the
decision is not prudent or wise. I hope that experiences of this
kind will not be repeated. I remember a time when a ministry forbade
me from writing articles for Kiyan. I hope we can entrust this sort
of thing to history. I hope that I’ll not be forced to experience
again the despair that I felt then.
** Translated from the Persian by Nilou