Dissident political theology in contemporary Iran

By Mahmoud Sadri
February 13, 2002
The Iranian

In a recent trip to Amsterdam, I visited a diamond cutting factory where rapidly revolving disks coated with diamond dust and olive oil are used to cut facets on rough diamonds; which reminded me of the old saying: “Only diamond can cut diamond.” A dominant theology is more vulnerable to the challenge of a reformist theology from within the sphere of religious discourse than to secular attacks from without. It is true, Christianity had a secular “Renaissance” that attacked the established religion from without and a religious “Reformation” that attacked it from within. Can we expect such a two pronged attack in the case of traditional Islam? George Santayana the late Spanish-American philosopher offers a helpful hint:

“Christianity was at first a combination of Greek theology with Jewish morality; it was an unstable combination, in which one or the other element would eventually yield; in Catholicism the Greek and pagan element triumphed, in Protestantism, the stern Hebraic moral code. The one had a Renaissance, the other a Reformation.”(1)

If Santayana is correct, then in Islam, where the Greek pagan element was kept at bay (while its science and philosophy filtered through), we may expect more of a theological reformation than a humanistic renaissance to usher in modernity.

Back to the parable of diamonds: Dissident political theology grinding against established political theology. Exactly which brash new theology or which combination of theologies will succeed to nail the proverbial “95 theses” on the door of the mosque, only future will tell. (2) I argue, it is more likely to be a combination of dissident political theologies that will do the job. And this is why, even people not terribly interested in the intricacies of Islamic theology ought to keep an eye on its growing ends.

Here I will summarize three such complementary political theologies that have emerged from Iran’s two costly decades of struggle with democracy and theocracy:(3)
Abdolkarim Soroush: “Erasmus of Islam?”(4)

Abdolkarim Soroush, born in Tehran, in 1945, into a traditionally learned merchant family and educated at Alavi high school, (that proved, in hindsight, to have been the intellectual incubator of most of the Islamic revolution’s lay elites) and the school of pharmacology of the University of Tehran, emerged at the dawn of the Islamic Revolution from his post graduate studies in England, where he had integrated theories of Quine, Duem, Popper, and others within the framework of his vast Islamic learning.

Soroush soon came to be known, first as one of the most eloquent intellectuals of the nascent Islamic Republic and then as one of the most learned critics of the clerical rule in Iran. Soroush is, deservedly, the best known of the three dissident political theologians I will discuss; but for that very reason I will devote less space here to his thought than would otherwise be the case.

Soroush’s main thesis, entitled The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of Shari’a separates religion per se from religious knowledge. The former, the essence of religion, is perceived as beyond human reach, eternal and divine. The latter, religious knowledge, is a sincere and authentic but finite, limited, and fallible form of human knowledge.

Soroush’s political theory is in line with the modern tradition from Hobbes to the framers of the American constitution.(5) It portrays human beings are weak and susceptible to temptation, even predation. As such, they need a vigilant and transparent form of government. He believes that the assumption of innate goodness of mankind, shared by radical Utopians from anarchists to Islamic fundamentalists underestimates the staying power of social evil and discounts the necessity of a government of checks and balances to compensate for the weaknesses of human nature.

Soroush’s political philosophy, as well, remains close to the heart of the liberal tradition, ever championing the basic values of reason, liberty, freedom, and democracy. They are perceived as “primary values,” as independent virtues, not handmaidens of political maxims and religious dogma. Soroush entwines these basic values and beliefs in a rich tapestry of Islamic primary sources, literature, and poetry.

Abdolkarim Soroush is also one of the boldest social critics of post-revolutionary Iran. As such, he has questioned the legitimacy of the office of the clergy (rouhaniat) within the Islamic tradition where they perform no sacraments and have no mediating position in the relationship between man and God. He has also criticized the rule of what could be called “clerocracy” and its interference in the political and academic life in Iran.

Soroush’s massively detailed dissident political theology is an expression of the Iranian despair from the official Islam advocated by the government. (6)

Let me bring this brief introduction to an end with an anecdote: I once heard a street-wise friend of mine “explain” Soroush’s philosophy to me in one sentence. “You know what Soroush is all about?” He asked me didactically, “He wants to tell us that Islam is something other than what these (expletive deleted) Akhounds (clergymen) tell us it is!” A few months later I had an opportunity to relate this succinct summary of Soroush’s philosophy to the philosopher himself. He chuckled softly and nodded.
Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: Champion of the New “Kalam”(7)

Born in Tabriz, in 1936, into a clerical family, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari was educated as a seminarian in Qum. He stayed in the seminary for seventeen years, achieving both degrees of Ijtihad (religious adjudication) and Doctor of Philosophy. He was invited by Mohammad Beheshti (who was to become one of the main architects of the Islamic revolution of Iran) to take his place as the director of the Islamic center at Hamburg. Shabestari remained in that position from 1970 to 1979.

While in Germany, Shabestari immersed himself in German philosophy and Catholic as well as Protestant Theology.(8) After the revolution he was briefly elected to the first consultative assembly (Majles) after the establishment of the Islamic republic, but thereafter he avoided politics and returned to editing journals, teaching, and writing. At present, he is a professor of theology in the University of Tehran.

Although Shabestari has made a modest contribution to the introduction and application of modern hermeneutics to traditional Shiite theology and jurisprudence, (9) and thus to the proposition of variability of religious knowledge, his most significant contribution seems to be his authoritative commentary on the essentially limited nature of religious knowledge and rules, and thus the necessity of complementing it with extra-religious sources.

Shabestari argues that distinguishing the eternal (values), from the changeable (instances and applications) in religion needs a kind of knowledge that is not, itself, contained in the rules developed in Islamic law (Figh’h). He laments the lack of such a body of knowledge in Islamic society: In the same vein, he underscores the limited nature of religious knowledge in general, and religious jurisprudence, in particular.(10) In Shabestari’s view, what is essential and eternal is the general values of Islam not particular forms of their realization in any particular historic time, (including the time of the prophet)(11):

“The meaning of perfection of religion (Ekmal e Din) is not that it contains everything under the sun, so that if we were unable to find a specific item in it, we could go off calling it imperfect. It is not perfection for religion to function as a substitute for science, technology, and human deliberation.”(12)

Shabestari even suggests that there has been a divine providence for a separation of religious values and secular realities:(13) In his latest book, “Naghdi Bar Ghera’at e Rasmi az Din” (A Critique of the Official Reading of Religion, December, 2000) Shabestari pursues his critique of religious absolutism as hermeneutically naive and realistically unworkable. Also, he launches a major defense of modern concepts of individualism, democracy, and human rights, although they have not been articulated as such in Islamic sources. (14)

Still, as he explained to me in an interview in his living room in the north of Tehran,(15) his endeavor is one undertaken from within the Islamic tradition not from without. This reminds one of the profound and far reaching accomplishments of the Christian theologians with whose works he is so intimately familiar. He has chosen the path of soft and learned yet relentless persuasion and argumentation to achieve his goal.
Mohsen Kadivar: Wielder of the ‘Two-edged Sword’ (16)

Mohsen Kadivar, born in Fasa in central Iran in 1959, left the university of Shiraz after a brief stint as a student of electrical engineering, and moved to the holy city of Qum to pursue classical clerical learning. He graduated at the top of his cohort and entered the post graduate (dars e kharej) studies from which he emerged with a “permission” of Ijtihad, the highest level of Shiite learning. He comes from a politically active family. His grandfather was a dissident under Reza Shah and his father under Mohammad Reza Shah.

The third generation does not disappoint. Both Mohsen and his sister Jamileh (17) are vocal critics of the official ideology of the Islamic Republic. Compared to Soroush and Shabestari, Kadivar’s views are less well known in the West but they are by no means less significant. I will argue that there is a pronounced convergence and complementarity between his ideas and those of Soroush and Shabestari. What is distinct about Kadivar is his sole reliance on Islamic and Shiite sources of scholarship. This constitutes, at once, his weakness and his strength.(18)

Of nine published books of Kadivar, four are on political theology. Of these, three comprise a trilogy: The first volume of the trilogy, entitled “The Theories of State in the Shiite Jurisprudence” (Nazarrieh haye Doulat dar Figh’h e Shi’eh) encompasses a broad typology of religious opinions on the desired or permissible types of government in Shiite theology. Every single instance in this typology is either proposed or endorsed by the highest authorities in Shiite jurisprudence. Given the significance of this typology I will summarize it here:(19)

A. Theories of State based on Immediate Divine Legitimacy

Four theocratic types, in chronological order:

1. Appointed Mandate of Jurisconsult in Religious Matters (Shari’at) along with the Monarchic Mandate of Muslim Potentates in Secular Matters

(Saltanat E Mashrou’eh)

Advocates: Mohammad Bagher Majlesi, Mirza ye Ghomi, Seyed e Kashfi, Sheikh Fadl ollah Nouri, Ayatollah Abdolkarim Haeri Yazdi.

2. “General Appointed Mandate of Jurissonsults

(Velayat E Entesabi Ye Ammeh)

Advocates: Molla Ahmad Naraghi, Sheikh Mohammad Hassan Najafi (Saheb Javaher) Ayatollahs Borujerdi,Golpayegani, Khomeini, (before the revolution)


3. General Appointed Mandate of the Council of the ‘Sources of Imitation’

(Velayat E Entesabi Ye Ammeh Ye Shora Ye Marje’eh Taghlid)

Advocates: Ayatollahs: Javadi Amoli, Beheshti, Taheri Khorram Abadi


4. “Absolute Appointed Mandate of Jurisconsult

(Velayat e Entesabi ye Motlaghe ye Faghihan)

Advocate: Ayatollah Khomeini (after revolution)

B. Theories of State Based on Divine-popular Legitimacy

Five democratic types, in chronological order:

5. “Constitutional State (with the permission and supervision of Jurisprudents)

(Dowlat e Mashrouteh)

Advocates: Sheikh Esma’il Mahllati, Ayatollahs: Mazandarani, Tehrani, Tabataba’i, Khorasani, Na’ini


6. “Popular Stewardship along with Clerical Oversight

(Khelafat e Mardom ba Nezarat e Marjaiat)

Advocate: Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Sadr


7. Elective Limited Mandate of Jurisprudents

(Velayat e Entekhabi ye Moghayyadeh ye Faghih)

Advocate: Ayatollahs Motahhari, Montazeri


8. “Islamic elective State” (Dowlat e Entekhabi ye Eslami)

Advocate: Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Sadr


9. “Collective Government by Proxy” (Vekalat e Malekan e Shakhsi ye Mosha)

Advocate: Ayatollah Mehdi Ha’eri Yazdi


The significance of this typology in the context of the contemporary Iranian political discourse cannot be overestimated. Shiite political theology, which the ruling clerics present as a monolith, an obelisk on which the hieroglyph of absolute mandate of the jurisconsult “Velayat e Motlaghe ye Faghih” is etched, turns into a beguiling prism in Kadivar’s nimble hands, reflecting no less than nine distinct possible forms of government, all proposed and supported by most revered religious scholars and texts. Having revealed a spectrum of authoritative options for Islamic society, Kadivar launches his criticism of the most absolutist thesis among them, that is Ayatollah Khomeini’s theology.

The second volume of the trilogy, is entitled “Hokumat e Vela’i” or Government by mandate. This 432-page opus which Kadivar considers as the heart of his trilogy and the most scholarly book he has written (20) contains a frontal and unabashed attack on the thesis of the “Velayat e Motlagheh ye Faghih” introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini and enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The work unfolds in two phases: the first, lays bare the presuppositions of the concept of Velayat, which concerns the meaning of the term, its interpretation in mysticism (Irfan), philosophy (Kalam), jurisprudence (Figh’h), The Qur’an, and Tradition (Sonnat). In every instance, Kadivar discounts political implications of the term. He traces the first indication of the thesis to the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century jurists namely, Mohaghegh e Karaki, Shahid Thani, and Ahmad Naraghi. Kadivar, thus determines the age of the concept as less than two centuries, a mere blinking of an eye compared to the history of Shiite jurisprudence (21)

But he reserves his most devastating attacks for the second part of the book that is devoted to the critical analysis of the proofs and confirmations of the principle of government by divine mandate. Here Kadivar proceeds in four sections; following the sources of adjudication in Shiite theology he sets up and knocks down the arguments for the Velayat e Faghih adduced from Quran, Tradition, (Sonnat) consensus of the Ulama, (Ijma‘) and reason (Aghl), He thus concludes:

“The principle of Velayat e Faghih is neither intuitively obvious, nor rationally necessary. It is neither a requirement of religion (Din) nor a necessity for denomination (Mazhab). It is neither a part of Shiite general principles (Osoul), nor a component of detailed observances (Forou‘) It is, by near consensus of Shiite Ulama, nothing more than a jurisprudential minor hypothesis.”(22)

The third volume of Kadivar’s trilogy is entitled: Government by Appointment. (Hokoumat e Entesabi.) It deals with practical consequences, disappointments, and disenchantments that the Government based on divine mandate has brought about

In Kadivar’s career we witness not only the voice of a gifted and brave clergyman, but a tradition of pluralism and debate in Shiite theology that allows such utterances. Once a Mojtahed, one is allowed, indeed expected, to contest the opinions of one’s colleagues and the received wisdom of one’s predecessors.

Indeed, as radical as Kadivar’s political theology is, due to his status as a Mojtahed with the right to issue verdicts and edicts, he has not been molested for these crucial writings that constitute the most specific and explicit refutation of the cornerstone of the theocratic element in Iran’s constitution and form of government.

Instead, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to18 months imprisonment, because of a sermon in which he railed against the so called “serial murders” of Iranian intellectuals and an interview in which he alluded that the Islamic Republic partially replicates the absolutist authority relations of the former monarchic regime.( 23) But even against these charges Kadivar has cited his authority as a Mojtahed to adjudicate and to inform:

“As a ëstudent’ of religion, who, according to the explicit statement of my professors and mentors, has achieved the right to express jurisprudential opinion, I have announced that terrorism (known in classical text as “gheliah” and “efk“) is religiously prohibited.” (24)

Since I have argued that the varieties of political theology in Iran complement each other (25), I would like to suggest the following table to compare the three I have introduced here:

Primarydiscipline Dialogue of influences Primarycontribution
Abdolkarim Soroush Philosophy Islam – critical rationalism(British) Variable nature of religious knowledge
Mohammad Shabestari Theology Islam – Hermaneutics(German) Limited nature of religious knowledge
Mohsen Kadivar Jurisprudence Islam – Internal debates on the causity of application Plural nature of religious knowledge



The complementarity and convergence of the three political theologies discussed here is evident in the above table. Whereas Soroush emphasizes the variable nature of religious knowledge and Shabestari underlines the limited nature of it, Kadivar demonstrates the multiple nature of religious theses. Each in his own way questions the absolutist and totalitarian theology of the ruling clerical elites in the Islamic Republic; and each utilizes indigenous sources of scholarship and erudition to oppose the hegemony of clerocarcy in Iran.

Soroush and Shabestari represent the maturing of the dialogue of the Iranian-Islamic thought with Western social and political philosophy and theology, while Kadivar represents the coming of age of indigenous Islamic and Shiite political theology reclaiming and reinterpreting its pluralistic and democratic elements and relying on the contested nature of knowledge it produces. Together, they aim to criticize the totalitarian Islam; and thus to usher in a guarded and objective secularism, (26) while preserving Islam’s spiritual precepts and cultural identity. Hence my designation of “Islamic Reformation.”

And now let me end with a note of pessimism to offset my general optimism concerning the prospects of a “velvet” Islamic Reformation in Iran. The intransigence of the clerical establishment against the decisive electoral will of the people, expressed in two rounds of election for the parliament and presidency, its crackdown against reform-minded newspapers, its jailing of journalists, intellectuals, and student leaders, and its increasingly hostile tone against democracy and reform is radicalizing the reform movement and its theological and political rhetoric.

It is a portent of the darkening horizons of peaceful political reform that Kadivar in an interview remarked that the attempt by Khatami to rehabilitate the regime of Velayat e Faghi’h may have reached an impasse. (27) But, then again, Reformation in the West was not an entirely peaceful affair either. Buckle up, bumpy road ahead, but “ahead” is the only conceivable way.


Mahmoud Sadri is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas Women’s University. He has a doctorate in sociology from New York’s New School for Social Research. He is the coauthor, with Aruthur Stinchcombe, of an ariticle in “Durkheim’s Divison of Labor: 1893-1993” Presses Universitaires de France, 1993. For more information see his page at the Texas Women’s University.


1. George Santayana, in Reason in Religion, Quoted from: Will Durant: Story of Philosophy. 1927. Washington Square Press, New York. p. 498.

2. The reference is to Martin Luther, a German theologian and monk, (1483-1546) who nailed 95 theses criticizing the practices of the Catholic church on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. This event is generally acknowledged as the opening salvo of Reformation struggles in Europe.

3. This discussion is limited to the Iranian version of the new Islamic theology. For a survey of the other varieties of modern Islamic theology see: Charles Kurzman (ed), Liberal Islam, 1998, Oxford University Press, New York.

4. American Journalist Robin Wright and many after her have referred to Soroush as the Luther of Islam. A designation that indicates, above all, the level of attention Soroush’s thought has deservedly found in the West. Recently, another Western critic observed that Soroush is more like the Erasmus of Islam, bravely and wittily challenging the tradition rather than battling it outright. Erasmus (1466-1536) unlike Luther did not break from the church but remained a vocal and influential critic of traditional religion.

5. Hobbes, Leviathan, Part one; Hamilton in: Federalist Papers. no. 10, 51.

6. For a more extensive discussion of Soroush’s work see: Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri, (ed.) Freedom, Reason and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. 2000, Oxford University Press, New York.

7. Shabestari identifies himself as a “Motekallem“, a practitioner of “Kalam,” a discipline, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that seeks to determine “the relationship between the consciousness of divine revelation and the consciousness of human philosophy.” Shabestari calls for a renewal of Kalam (Kalam e Jadid). Such a discipline would undertake a new assessment of the relationship between the divine and the human. Din va Azadi, p. 64.

8. There is ample evidence in his works that indicates that not only he has come into contact with the works of such contemporary Protestant theologians as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth and Catholic thinkers as Tyrell, but that he has engaged in comparing their contributions and opinions with such Islamic thinkers as Ibn Arabi. (Hermeneutic, Ketab, Va Sonnat, p. 132), He has published an essay entitled “Christian Theology” as well. Reprinted in Iman va Azadi, pp. 157-162.

9. For example, he unabashedly poses two of the most revered components of Shiite theology, that is, Ijtihad (religious adjudication) and Tafsir, (exegesis) as instances of the discipline of hermeneutics and urges the Islamic seminaries to “welcome hermeneutics with all their power and with utmost enthusiasm.” True to his hermeneutic stance he argues: “It is a delusion to believe that one can empty the mind of all assumptions and suppositions and to access the Quran and tradition directly. Nobody can show an example of the success of such an endeavor … all commentators have reached conclusions based on their necessary mental limitations. (Ibid p.8, 31, 135)

10.(Hermeneutic, Ketab, Va Sonnat pp. 47, 49, 56, 54, 62)

11. “The status of the Quran and the (prophet and Imam’s) tradition is to inspire us as the eternal sources of value not to instruct us as to specific forms and manners of life” (Ibid. p.90). It is in this context that Shabestari argues that such issues as “Ghesas” (laws pertaining to revenge and restitution) were not legislated by the Quran but simply regulated, modified, and rationalized.

12. Ibid. p. 234. This is where he comes closest to the theology of Harvey Cox, Niebuhr, Tillich, and Barth.

13.Iman va Azadi, p. 67.

14. Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, A Critique of the Official Reading of Religion, 2000, Tarh e No Publications, Tehran. pp. 18, 22-29, 199-312.

15. Unpublished interview, January 3, 2001, Tehran.

16. In the text of his defense in the “Special Court of the Clergy” Kadivar made a statement that symbolizes both the source of his authority and the potential danger he poses to the theocratic rule in Iran: “To attribute to the Mojtahed who rejects the veracity of the principle of the trusteeship of the jurist (Velayat E Faghih) a basic lack of jurisprudential knack is wielding a two edged sword, for the accused Mojtahed has the power to pay back in kind.” (Baha ye Azadi, p. 231)

17. See: Jamileh Kadivar, Transformation of the Shiite Political Dialogue in Iran (Tahavvol e Gofteman e Siasi ye Shi’eh dar Iran” 2000, Tarh e No, Tehran.

18. Even his reliance on Farsi sources is minimal. His most pivotal book, Hokumat e Velai, has eleven pages of Arabic references and only three pages of Farsi references. Infrequent references to Western sources (for example, in his book entitled Nazarihe ha ye Hokumat dar Figh’h e Shi’eh, pp, 45, 113) are to translations. Kadivar’s lack of contact with the West may explain the fact that on social issues, he is more conservative than Soroush and Shabestari, even though politically he is in complete agreement with them.

19.This typology does not include completely a-political views of grand Ayatollahs such as Sheikh Morteza Ansari, Sayed Ja’far Kashef ol Gheta’, and Abolghasem Khou’i who opposed any legitimate or clerically legitimized form of government in the absence of the infallible Imams or on the basis of clerical mandate over mature and sane individuals. The latter, through their negative political theology lend support to the purely democratic and objectively secular form of government (the last form enumerated in the above typology) proposed by Ayatollah Mehdi Yazdi. (Kadivar elaborates on this view in the second book in his trilogy, under the rubric of “the principle of no-mandate” Asl e Adam e Velayat) Hokumat e Vela’i, ch. 7, 8.

20. Baha ye Azadi p. 97.

21. It is noteworthy that Kadivar discerns four periods in the history of Shiite Political Theory: 1) The era of development of the private and individual aspects of Figh’h from 11th to 17th centuries, 2) the era of coexistence of clerics and kings, from 17th to 19th centuries. 3) the era of constitutional government along with clerical oversight in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. 4) the era of the Islamic republic of Iran, from 1965 to the present.

22. Ibid pp, 237. Kadivar reiterates the same statement in a variety of other arguments in this book: pp. 81, 98, 107, 232, 334. From among those who recognized any kind of trusteeship for jurists, the obvious majority of the experts’ verdict limited such a mandate only to the cases of death, (vali ye dam, vali ye ers) juniority, or imbecility of the client. (vali ye seghar, vali ye majnoon) (ibid, p.74)

23. The sermon, entitled: “The religious prohibition of terrorism” was delivered in the Hossein Abad Mosque of Isfahan, in December of 1998 and the Interview was granted to “Khordad” a reformist newspaper, in January of 1999. The charges against Kadivar, as specified in the court verdict against him were: “1) propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and 2) spreading falsehoods and disturbing the public opinion” Baha ye Azadi, p. 121.

24. Ibid. p. 119.

25. Dissident Political theology in Iran is not limited to the above three examples. Indeed, there are other varieties including those of Abdollah Nouri and Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari (both high ranking clergymen languishing in jail) and Said Hajjarian (recovering from a terrorist assassination attempt) who endorse the letter of the principle of Velayat e Motlagheh ye Faghih but who argue that “logically” it can not be an autocratic but a democratic institution. They suggest the principle can be upheld in literal terms but given a thoroughly democratic interpretation.

26. I use the term “objective secularism” to denote institutional and functional separation of religion from politics. As such, it is distinct from “subjective secularism” which entails eradication of religion from culture and mind of the people. There is no evidence the two are linked either analytically or historically. Indeed, the experience of the West has demonstrated that subjective secularism did not result from the radical objective secularization of the society. Political Theology of Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar advocate only the former variety of secularism.

27. Interview with Christiane Hoffman, for Frankfurter Algemeine, August 2, 2000.