Iranian scholars in exile

The Shia shakedown

Religious scholars in exile are challenging the basic tenets of Shia Islam. Their professional authority is indisputable. And they are in close contact with Shia teaching activities in their homeland via the Internet. One of the heretical questions they are asking: is the Koran the word of God or a dream told by the Prophet? By Ali Sadrzadeh

"Kingdom without a heaven" is the title of the essay – a piece on religious history that is geared toward an academic audience. Not until he is halfway through the text does the reader learn where the said kingdom is located and why it has lost its heaven. The author tells therein of a personal encounter: he recently received a visit from a scholar from the holy Iranian city of Qom, who reported that these days many of the clerics there also believe that the Koran tells the story of a dream once dreamt by the Prophet.

"The scholars now too? I responded indignantly and asked my visitor to tell me on what basis they made this claim. It was all quite simple and understandable, he replied: to see or hear something that others do not perceive is, as we know, an illness. If someone claims he can hear or see something in a waking state that others cannot hear or see, we will most likely send him to see a psychiatrist. If we assume that the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – heard the Koran verses recited to him while in a waking state and others could not hear them, then – God forbid – we are dealing with a case of hallucination. But then the Prophet would have to be considered mentally ill – and what kind of scholar would ever come up with such a moronic idea?"

After recounting this episode, the author returns to the actual topic of his treatise, a philosopher from the 13th century.

A raging fire

The author who reported on his disturbing encounter is named Nassrollah Pour Djawadi and he is well-known to all theologians, writers and political activists in Iran. The 74-year-old earned a degree in philosophy in the USA and is author of dozens of books on the history of religion and philosophy. Being a poet as well, Pour Djawadi′s style of speech and writing is markedly singular.

In the early days of the Iranian revolution, he sat on the committee set up by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to purge the universities of "un-Islamic elements".  Later, Pour Djawadi headed an institute that oversaw university publications. The institute published nearly 2,000 books for the universities.

But those days are long past. Pour Djawadi was dismissed from his office a decade ago and sent into premature retirement. Now he is finding his voice again, especially when the need is pressing. And the situation at the moment is tantamount to a raging fire. Pour Djawadi's text, written only a month ago, deals with a fuse that was laid three years ago and has yet to be extinguished. On the contrary: according to the author, it has long since reached the heart of Shia scholarship in the holy city of Qom.

Anxious Muslims

Makarem Shirazi, Iranian Shia cleric and Mojtahed in Qom (photo: IRNA)
Muhammad a dreamer, the Koran merely a dream chronicle? No one in Iran can afford to ignore it – whether philosopher, theologian or scholar. Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, the most influential religious leader in Iran, was even compelled to write a detailed opinion on this "renegade and hostile" thesis

How did Muhammad come to write the Koran: in a dream or by divine inspiration in a waking state? Is the holy text the word of God, as Muslims worldwide believe, or is it Muhammad's recounting of a dream narrative? These are fundamental questions that the average Muslim needs to contemplate seriously, because they involve the very foundations of the faith. For a believer, the Koran is and will always be "کلام اله" ("kalam Allah": the word of God), conveyed in Arabic by the Archangel Gabriel and received by Muhammad in a waking state. For Muslims, there can be no doubt of this.

And yet, dream versus inspiration is a topic that even BBC Persian spotlighted last summer in two long rounds of discussion. The Persian-language station is regularly watched by 70 percent of Iranians, as Nosratollah Zarghami, former head of the Iranian state radio, admitted a year ago.

Dozens of posts on this hot-button topic can currently be read on the British station's website.

First the messenger, then the message

So Muhammad was a dreamer and the Koran but a dream story? If an atheist, an agnostic, a Western Orientalist or an ex-Muslim were ever to dare to foist such a monstrous claim onto the world, the Shia clergy would simply ignore it, or at the most shrug their shoulders. After all, nothing else is to be expected from adversaries such as these. And any attempt to refute everything that is currently being written and said against Islam nonstop worldwide would take an army of scholars and authors.

But this thesis comes instead from a faction that cannot be ignored. This is why the idea of the dream of the Prophet has become such a nightmare for Shia scholars. For the last three years, the assertion has stirred up a tempest that refuses to die down. No one can afford to ignore it – whether philosopher, theologian or scholar. Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, the most influential religious leader in Iran, was even compelled to write a detailed opinion on this "renegade and hostile" thesis.

The debate goes on. Every day someone somewhere feels called upon to bring forth a new argument for or against it. Searching for the two words "رویای رسولانه" ("royaye rassulaneh": prophetic dream) on Google, one can get an idea of the level of unease and insecurity that is spreading in particular among the Shia clergy.

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