Christian-Muslim Dialogue: My Conversation with Islamic Scholar Mohsen Kadivar

Although he is known by many as a political dissident, Islamic scholar Mohsen Kadivar emphasized to me over lunch recently, “I never wanted to get involved in politics. I just wanted to be a scholar of religion.” But when the intelligence service in his home country of Iran killed at least four dissidents accused with apostasy and claimed a fatwa of unknown religious authority to justify the killings, Kadivar objected. In articles he wrote and speeches he delivered at a mosque to several thousands of believers during the holy nights of Ramadan, Kadivar argued that according to the Qur’an and the authentic tradition of the prophet Muhammad “terror is forbidden in Islam.” Punishment, he argued, is only the job of the court, not anyone else. It is not lawful, he argued, to kill dissidents for religious crimes.

Because he was already a well-known scholar by that time, his statements were interpreted as a challenge to the regime’s authority. In punishment for what he wrote, the regime sent him to jail for eighteen months.

“I had lots of time to read while in jail,” he explained, “When I got I had all the notes I needed to write another book where I further argued why Islam should not be used to justify violence. I also argued that in contrast to traditional Islam, where there is no separation between religious law and the civil law, Islam need a reform that would separate religious law from civil law and separate crime and sin.”

I first heard of Mohsen Kadivar, now a visiting professor of religious studies at Duke University, on an NPR interview in early January 2012. Based on his name and biography, I realized he must be the father of a graduate student in the UNC Department of Sociology where I teach, so I asked that student to arrange a meeting.

Before meeting Kadivar, I read an excellent review of his work in English by Japanese scholar Yasuyuki Matsunaga. I was excited to talk with a Muslim scholar who writes about issues that I know Christians have debated for centuries, such as human rights, natural reason, and religious freedom. I also deeply admire someone like Kadivar who has the courage to stand up to a dictator in the name of freedom.

In fact, Kadivar’s comment about never wanting to get involved politics reminded me of many Catholic lay faithful in Cuba and some Cuban bishops who have told me they never wanted to be political. But nor could they stand by silently and watch the Cuban regime imprison and kill people. Their conscience demanded they speak, even if doing so politicized their religion and endangered their lives.

After many visits to Cuba to see family and friends, I explained to Kadivar how I realized that politicians in dictatorial states get scared of religion because, when taken seriously, religion makes you think. “Exactly,” Kadivar agreed. I continued, “The Cuban government doesn’t want people to think freely. They can take away your house, they can censor your books, but they can’t control your mind. And religion leads people to critique what the government in Cuba does. So they threaten you and manipulate you to try to get you to back down.” Kadivar nodded knowingly and replied, “This is exactly the same for reformist Islam in Iran.”

After many attempts to get Kadivar to back down–censoring his work, jailing him, interrogating him–the government finally allowed him to leave Iran in 2008. Since coming to the U.S., he taught first at the University of Virginia and now at Duke University. In teaching the Qur’an to students in the U.S., he realized that he had to learn more about Christianity, as his students always compared his statements about Islam to Christian concepts of God, salvation, and sin.

For Kadivar, believing Christians and Muslims cannot believe that their faiths profess the same thing. For example, Muslims do see not Jesus as the son of God nor do they believe he died to save us from our sins. But, he emphasized, there are many parallels in how Christian and Muslim scholars think about salvation, freedom, human rights and human dignity. And Kadivar believes that even if Christianity does not have the full Truth about God, Christians can be saved. He also does not believe it is a crime to leave Islam.

By listening to Kadivar’s NPR interview, reading the summary of his work, and talking to him over lunch, I learned more about Islam as a religion in just a few hours than I have in many years. Unfortunately, for many Americans, Islam only entered our minds after the events of 9-11. Because of that event, it is hard to get beyond concerns about political Islam, Islam that does not respect human rights, Islam that does not respect religious freedom, Islam that does not separate religious and civil law, in order to hear Islamic voices of reform like Kadivar’s.

But, if I as a Catholic believe in natural reason, if I believe that people from other faiths can be saved, then I must believe that I can dialogue with believing Muslims about the right and the good in society and how to organize societies in order to respect religion. If we believe in democracy, human rights and religious freedom for Americans, why do we not believe that many Muslims also want to live in democracies that respect religious freedom, promote human rights, and have democratic governments? Granted, the movement for political Islam is stronger right now than Kadivar’s reformist Islam. While acknowledging this, we should not overlook the tremendous possibility for reform from within Islam represented by scholars like Kadivar.

I explained to Kadivar how councils like Vatican II contribute to the development of doctrine, which is what he seems to be engaged in within Islam. When I told him that the Catholic Church’s position supporting religious freedom was only made official doctrine in the 1960s with Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, he seemed to think that conservative Islam, Al-Azhar or Qom and Najaf seminaries could learn from how Christians have reformed from within on these important issues.

What about natural reason, a term Kadivar uses in his writing? Not unlike the Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Faith and Reason, Kadivar explained that he believes faith and reason give us different pieces of truth. Faith and reason complement each other, they do not contradict each other. If we believe in natural reason, Kadivar argues, then we can believe in human rights and in democracy. But traditional Islam has not yet come to believe in natural reason, and hence struggles to accept human rights and democracy.

In the little time we had, I tried to answer Kadivar’s questions about Christian theology. For example, he asked: How do Christians understand how actions contribute to salvation? Although I’m not a theologian, I have read the Joint Declaration on Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church which summarizes centuries of thought on this issue and attempts to clarify misunderstandings between some Protestants and Catholics on the question of justification by faith or works.

Kadivar and I concluded our conversation by noting many similarities in the theological topics debated among Muslims and Christians and by affirming how important it is for Christians and Muslims to get to know each other’s belief systems and internal debates. Part of the reason I wanted to meet Kadivar was that Pope John Paul II believed that the third Christian millennium would be a time for world religious dialogue. 9-11 and the surging political Islam in the Middle East has made Muslim-Christian dialogue a real necessity for peace and security, and I was searching from someone like Kadivar to explain to me how Islam can be compatible with human rights, democracy, and religious freedom.

Kadivar has great respect for Pope John Paul II; in fact when he died, Kadivar and his reformist friends organized a prayer service for the deceased Pope at Hosseinie Ersshad (a reformist Muslim center in Tehran), which the Vatican representative to Iran attended. “Many Muslims did not understand why we did that, but I think John Paul II was a great thinker and really tried to understand Muslims.” Undoubtedly, our conversation showed that Kadivar wants to understand Christians, and there is no doubt Kadivar can help Christians understand Muslims. Perhaps more importantly, Kadivar can help other Muslims build what he calls an Islam of mercy and compassion so needed today in Iran and many other parts of the world.



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