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Spring 2004

Rise of Iraqi Shiites Threatens Iranian Theocrats

Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian scholar of Islam, is widely regarded, by critics and supporters alike, as “the Martin Luther of Islam.” His most important work is The Hermeneutical Expansion and Contraction of the Theory of Shariah. Soroush is director of the Research Institute for Human Science in Tehran and is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University, from where he spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

NPQ | A distinction has been made between the so-called Najaf “school” of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, which supports separation of religion and state, and the so-called Qom “school” in Iran that affirms religious guidance—theocracy—over democratically legitimated government. Is this a correct distinction?

ABDOLKARIM SOROUSH | Well, it is an “uncareful” distinction. To start with, nine out of 10 of the grand ayatollahs in Najaf have been Iranian, with the exception of one, who was an Arab, properly speaking. Further, the idea of “separation of church and state” is an analogy from Christendom that does not adequately describe the pervasive role of religion in daily Islamic life. There is no parallel to “secularism” as understood in the West.

Most grand ayatollahs from Najaf—all Iranian—supported the establishment of a constitutional government and the first parliament in Iran in 1906. Ali al-Sistani’s grandfather—also a grand ayatollah in his time who predicted his grandson would replicate his role—opposed it, however. Nevertheless, like most other religious scholars, he believed Muslims could obey secular laws if they were in harmony with the sharia.

Najaf has been the revered center of Shiite Islam for 1,000 years; it is the most respected shrine. Qom seminary is barely 100 years old. Its most famous product, so to speak, was Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the revolution that established the religious guardianship in Iran today. Yet, his was a fringe point of view, an exception, among all the ulemas in Qom and Najaf alike.

Very few supported the idea of guardianship—Ayatollah Montazeri was another. It is an idea that has always been on shaky theological ground as far as a majority of religious scholars are concerned.

NPQ | If the Shiite majority under Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani comes to power in Iraq through direct elections, can we expect to see a regime closer to the theocrats in Iran under Ayatollah Ali Khameini, or more like the reformists under President Khatami seeking democratic legitimacy?

SOROUSH | I’m not sure that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is familiar with Khatami’s ideas completely, for example regarding constitutionalism. But, yes, he is a moderate in the sense that he has never made the point in any of his writings that clerics should have a divine right to rule, as Khomeini thought. Indeed, I don’t know of any grand ayatollah from Najaf who supports this idea of guardianship. This does not at all mean that they are “liberals” who would embrace the Western conception of secularism. These men want to see Islamic laws and customs observed in daily life.

These grand ayatollahs are not philosophers. They are scholars and jurists concerned with interpreting how religious law should be applied in the modern world. Their concerns are legalistic. That doesn’t make them illiberal either. I know that Ayatollah Ali Sistani did not take a position against my writings when they were presented to him. That, in itself, says a lot. He and the people around him are absolutely open, for example, to the education of women and promotion of women’s rights.

NPQ | If the Shiite majority under Ali al-Sistani comes to power, will that shift the overall balance among Shiites toward democratic legitimacy and away from the idea of clerical rule we see in Iran?

SOROUSH | Yes, I think so. One of the unintended consequences of the United States overthrow of Saddam and the wider influence of the Shiites in Iraq may well be to enhance the democratic prospects in Iran. Let us see.