A.A Khalid has contributed this post for PTH. The central message is: With Iijtihad, rationality and pluralism, Muslim societies can counter violent forms of religious fanaticism Raza Rumi
By now we would have all heard about in one way or another about the death of one of Iran’s leading dissident senior clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri. However, few will recognize some of the lessons that can be learnt from his career and religious thought. The story oft-repeated is that Montazeri was much loved by Khomeini designated to be his successor; he was one of the architects of the Revolution, propping up the theory of Vilayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Jurisprudent). But he fell out with Khomeini over issues of human right abuses and the draconian treatment of political opponents and prisoners.
Montazeri once described as ‘’the fruit of my life’’ by Khomeini is stripped of his position and put under house arrest for more than a decade. In the end Montazeri turns against the very thing he sought to establish. He opposes his own creation for what it has become. This perhaps showed the Grand Ayatollah’s intellectual integrity and moral courage, which is found lacking in many religious leaders across the Muslim World today.
Montazeri was the spiritual head, and one of the intellectual and religious leaders of the Green Movement. An inspirational figure that argued for democracy, a form of secularism compatible with religious sensibilities and greater human rights. He was the ruling regime’s worst nightmare; a cleric with such distinguished learning is not so easy to brush away. Montazeri’s religious and revolutionary credentials were impeccable, so he could never be accused of being a ‘’liberal agent’’ something which Muslim reformers face from their more conservative and radical co-religionists.
But the lesson to be learnt from this is to be careful for what you wish for. Montazeri campaigned passionately for an ‘’Islamic Revolution’’, but in the end he protested that the state:
“The System Has No Religious Merit”
His damming fatwa of the regime was one of the sharpest criticisms by a member of the clergy, and other clerics follow his example:
The fact of the matter is that many clerical figures and religious intellectuals in Iran are now severely criticising the regime and calling for a reform of religious knowledge and encouraging rationalism within the Muslim faith. There are also calls for a secularism which is compatible with religious sensibilities, not because religion is deficient but because it is sacred and needs to be protected from the stain of power politics. Religion in the hands of those drunk with power debases religion, portraying it as a system of totalitarianism rather than a source of spiritual nourishment and ethical elevation.
The lesson not just for those in Iran but also for the whole Muslim World is to be careful for what you wish for. There are parties in Pakistan calling for an ‘’Islamic Revolution’’, but take heed of what is happening just across the border. Furthermore, the presence of courageous clerics and astute religious intellectuals in Iran such as the late Montazeri must make Pakistanis aware of the dearth of a sensible religious discourse in Pakistan. Within Pakistan there is a dearth of sensible and articulate religious personalities. Most indulge in demagoguery, are unlearned which is in complete contrast with the theoretical sophistication of the Iranian reformist clergy. The reformists in Iran may be politically over-powered but intellectually and religiously speaking they are on more solid ground:
For Pakistanis this must be a wake up call, given the religious fanaticism and intolerance across some sections of society. Where are the Pakistani religious intellectuals calling for a union of faith and rationality, democracy and spirituality, human rights and compassion? With many religious leaders still thinking the Taliban are a conspiracy made up of outside agents, it just shows the inadequacies of the religious classes. Unable to articulate a coherent and pluralistic discourse, it creates a vacuum, which the Taliban and its supporters are only too happy to fill. Intellectuals are meant to channel the conscience of a people and of a nation, and in a religious society, religious intellectuals are best placed to carry out critique and dissent.
But perhaps the biggest lesson Pakistanis can learn from their neighbours is that a discourse of religious intellectualism, which emphasizes ijtihad (in the sense of an open intellectual pursuit, criticism and debate), rationality and pluralism, is the biggest weapon a society can possess against religious fanaticism. Without it bullets and rockets are useless, since it is not just terrorists and religious fanatacists we confront but their mutated and distorted religious ideology.
One of the biggest verdicts Montazeri passed was to call for the acceptance and recognition of the Baha’i (an offshoot similar to that of the Ahmedi faith which is seen as heretical by most mainstream Muslims) as Iranian citizens deserving of equal rights and responsibilities:
‘’They (the Baha’i) are the citizens of this country; they have the right of citizenship and to live in this country. Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in Quran and by the religious authorities’’
Such a verdict issued by a Pakistani religious authority would seem impossible given the current climate.
In Iran there is a recognizable school of thought which can be termed as progressive and liberal yet solidly grounded in the religious tradition, indeed there is even an association of clerics in Iran called the Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers (also Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom), who are pro-reform and are critical of authoritarianism in the name of faith. A Pakistani equivalent is hard to find, and the reasons why Iran has a thriving discourse of religious reformism and liberalism while Pakistan lags behind is curious as both countries share some commonalities, is something which must require some introspection.
What’s more apart from a reformist faction of clerics Iran has religious intellectuals like AbdolKarim Soroush. Soroush in fact has a theory that the reason in Pakistan and indeed Afghanistan radical and puritanical ideologies seem to flourish is there because there is no discourse of ‘’religious intellectualism’’.
Until Pakistanis realise the need for a sensible and articulate religious discourse inspired by Montazeri and other clerics in Iran, the Taliban and the very ideology they represent will not easily go away. There also many lessons we can learn from this ‘’Good Ayatollah’’.
Until Pakistanis realise that it not the state which makes society religious, but rather the society which makes the state religious and that religious faith cannot be instituted and imposed by the State but rather must be allowed to grow freely like a beautiful rose free from coercion as the Quran emphasizes time and time again, Pakistanis will not be able to get past the multitude of distorted ‘’Islamic’’ ideologies plaguing Pakistani discourse.