Before his 15 Shaban sermon on the occasion of the birth of the Shiite Imam Mahdi, Nazy Kaviani and I were given the opportunity to ask questions from Dr. Mohsen Kadivar in an informal setting for the readers of Iranian.com. Nazy and I split up the interview between us with Nazy drawing a personal portrait of Dr. Kadivar while I focused on his political thinking. Here is Nazy’s interview, which includes a background biography. Below is my interview with Dr. Kadivar. Though he is fluent in English, we spoke in Farsi. This interview is given in translation, however, so that it will be accessible to more readers.
Q: From your understanding of Islam, particularly Shiism, does it logically follow that the religion mandates democracy? I mean by democracy a government that gets its legitimacy from the people.
A: Of course I cannot speak for all Islamic scholars, but from my point of view the consent of the people is the first pillar of governance. For this reason if a ruler does not have the consent of the people, consent that these days we call democracy I don’t see it as legitimate. We don’t have words like democracy or mardom saalaari in religious literature; we do have words that are close to this meaning. At the very least I believe that no one has the right to rule over people without obtaining their consent. I have compiled a theoretical basis for this: determining the people’s destiny is the right of the people, just as someone’s property belongs to that person. The Prophet has confirmed that people have dominion over their own property and that no one has the right to seize it without the permission of the owner. Well, the public domain is the property of all the citizens of that country. This is a theory similar to what John Locke arrived at, and before me it has been mentioned by Dr. Mehdi Ha’eri Yazdi who is the son of the founder of the Qom Seminary (Howzeh e Elmieh Qom), Haj sheikh Abdul- Karim Ha’eri Yazdi, a teacher of Mr. Khomeini. He has mentioned that the ruler is the agent of the owners of the public domain. This means that all the people of Iran are the owners of Iran and any one who wishes to do anything with this country has to get the permission of the owners. The owners are just these people. And the head of government, who makes decisions, is the agency representing the people. The answer to your question is yes, this is correct. My article on “Islam and Democracy, Compatible or Incompatible?” in English will be published this year. Its Persian version is available on my website.
You extend Islamic guidance directed at the individual to the political sphere. Do you view political activism as your religious duty?
My religious duty has several facets. One facet is my ethical duty. I cannot accept any principle or religious imperative outside its ethical boundaries. Activism is also a rational imperative, as I will detail later this evening in my sermon. From this perspective, yes, it is my civil right, my religious right and moral duty. My rights as a citizen and my ethical and religious duties are intermingled because I exercise them all at the same time.
What guidance does Shiism offer as to when it is appropriate to take up arms against an unjust ruler?
We have two sets of conditions in this matter. The first is the conditions you pointed out, that are the conditions of armed rebellion. The other is peaceful change. We are in the second, not the first. In the current environment, taking the matter to the first situation is problematic. However in both cases we can utilize Islamic teachings from very distinguished sources including Shiite teachings and interpretations. In the conclusion to the first volume of his book titled The Principles of Islamic Governance, the late Ayatollah Montazeri puts the question that let’s say none of our approaches were effective in brining a ruler to the straight path, can we take up arms against him in rebellion?
Most Sunni scholars — a near unanimous majority — forbid rebellion against a ruler. They regard rebellion against a ruler as being similar to warring against God. Just like the statements that the Islamic Republic has been making. This Sunni Ash’arite school of thought effectively endorses any existing political condition—The dissenting minority Sunni school, Mo’tazeli, is, however, close to Shiism on this issue. The Sunni Ash’arites do not permit any sort of rebellion even if the ruler is completely unjust. They say that it’s up to God to fix things; you should just go pray. We don’t have this in Shiism theoretically therefore rebellion is permitted.
But our current position is peaceful reform because our nation is not ready for more than this, and we don’t have the potential for such action. Anyway, even if we were to resort to arms we would need an organization, and we don’t have such an organization. We would be repeating the situation of 32 years ago, and they say no generation has it in itself to carry out more than one revolution. In addition the end of revolution is not predictable. The slogan of this movement is non-violence and peace. Let’s just see if we can raise the child we birthed and see where it goes.
What aspects of Islam’s gender related doctrines are essential and which aspects are open to adaptation to the times and the environment?
I have written articles on this subject (the rights of women and Intellectual Islam) which can be found on my website for reference [see note 1]. These articles are about the rights of women and about human rights in general in English, and I have written them with frankness. That is, which parts of our traditional writings are compatible with human rights and which are not—or at least by which interpretation they can be made compatible? In our religious literature we have two different kinds of rulings regarding this subject. Some in my opinion are fundamental timeless rulings that are part of the eternal message of Islam. For example you may know that in Islam piety [Taghvaa] knows no gender. Knowledge, Piety and striving in the way of Allah (Jahad) have been enumerated as being part of the highest Virtue [Fazilat]. None of these are conditioned on gender and everyone is equal. There are sometimes bounded rules–not foundational ones– where one observes discrimination. These discriminations matched the time and place of the first people that Islam addressed. These were conditions where women had no human rights, would be buried alive, were always under the supervision of the men. Now Islam comes along and assigns the right of inheritance to someone who herself used to be part of a man’s inheritance. Since typically we read the text outside the context we do not notice all this progress. I mean when a man died in pre-Islam time, his wife would be part of his inheritance to his male progeny. Now Islam comes along and says just as a man inherits so should a woman. It stipulated a difference because it was not possible at the beginning to do this on an equal basis. I have explained in my articles that such legal issues are part of the adaptable aspects of Islam and subject to review. In fact, these reviews have already begun. For example in the matter of blood money (diyya ) there are Islamic scholars who have issued fatwas to establish equality between the genders. In the matter of court testimony, likewise there are proponents of equality. In the matter of eligibility to preside as a judge in a court of law there are fatwas in favor of equality. In all these cases I am a proponent of equality. I also believe we should enact certain protective measures in favor of women so as to eliminate discrimination against them. These measures would assign special security to women during pregnancy, and protect them against domestic abuse. As another example that has arisen in the modern world, I believe in positive reverse discrimination so that we can establish justice in its true meaning. We are obviously unable to uphold a physical equivalence between the genders; we can only uphold legal equality.
To what extent does the United States meet the conditions of democracy and where does she fail those conditions?
Well if for example you compared it with the Middle East then democracy is much more advanced in the US. On the other hand a point we should not forget is the issue of social justice. Social justice is not at an advanced state in the US. The gap between the richest and the poorest is among the widest in the world. And in this way the capitalists can easily interfere with the vote of the people, specifically through advertisement. And in other ways cartels and trusts (corporations), powerful in the US, adversely affect this country’s democracy. If we could have a society that had the same democratic values but its capitalism was not so irresponsible and reckless we would certainly have a stronger democracy. Also, the US constitution is among the first constitutions in world, and there are now constitutions in the world that are more progressive. However there is a belief in democracy that goes to the core of the American civilization in the minds of the people and the leaders of this country. This is because the US is the only country that seems to have been created by the will of these very people—of course there were immigrations. Most other countries were already established before there was a conscious will on the part of the people to create their nation. Therefore democracy in the United States ranks among the highest, and its flaw lies in the undue influence of capitalism on the democratic process.
You admire Ayatollah Montazeri and at the same time you believe that the Iranian people admire Ayatollah Khomeini. Keeping in mind that Ayatollah Khomeini was a very shrewd politician, on what basis did he distance Ayatollah Montazeri from himself to accept a successor that you consider unfit?
This is one of the enigmatic aspects of the diplomacy of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Apparently a certain security and intelligence process was followed and some wrong information was given to him. Also towards the end of his life he was ill. And he reached a decision. The decision process is not so clear to us. In my letter [see note 2] I have clearly stated this—and this was written when Ayatollah Monatzeri was no longer alive, so that that it can’t be said there were motives behind it. Even at the time I said that God showed mercy to Ayatollah Montazeri that he did not become the Leader. Because this system has theoretical problems, meaning that the velyat faghih system–or an absolute velayat faghih system–is fundamentally flawed. It is not clear whether anyone who occupies that position can preserve himself, so to speak. Ayatollah Montazeri’s father, a very decent and pure farmer, prostrated in thankful prayer when his son was dismissed as successor. He said his son was unburdened. And really this was the case. Looking at it from another angle, no one has the right to appoint a successor for himself. Now they’re trying to argue that since the Prophet did it so can we. But we argue that Shiism believes—in the readings anyway—that for the Prophet it was a divine matter. But government is a people’s matter and a person—at least a normal individual—doesn’t have the right to impose obligations on those who come after him, such as appointing an heir. I consider this one of the mistakes of Ayatollah Khomeini, and if the atmosphere were right I would write about both his strengths and his flaws.
The difficulty is that we—at least our youth—see things in black and white. Ayatollah Khomeini was neither the saint as some think of him in Iran and neither a slaughterer as some regard him outside the country. In his report card there are services and there are faults and we should put these side by side so that we can see them together. Meanwhile the events that are happening right now show that the theory to which he subscribed had difficulties, and the perfection that they attribute to him also has its difficulties. Well these are two major difficulties, which leave room for much discussion. Of course he had many positive attributes for which I have not had the opportunity–in this environment–to perform due diligence. However, enshallah, certainly I will discuss these matters. It will, of course, be hard to defend a man in a situation where some people refuse to appear in interviews without hanging his picture on the wall behind them—inside the country. And some people won’t even listen to you until you insult him—outside the country. He would have to be man of significance such that Mr. Mousavi feels obliged to have the picture over his head at all times in interviews, and others cannot bear to hear you out unless first you prove you are against him. My criticism of Khomeini’s theory was published several years ago in English [see note 3].
1. For Dr. Kadivar’s views on the rights of women in modern Islam including a discussion of the hejab issue see here.
2. Here’s Dr. Kadivar’s letter accusing The Assembly of Experts of negligence of duty regarding their supervisory role over the vali faghih. Fasl e chahaarom goes directly to doubts about the decision to appoint Khamenei.
3: For an English summary of this critique of absolute velayat faghih see here.
4: This is a Farsi text by Dr. Kadivar juxtaposing absolute monarchy with absolute velayat faghih: