Mohsen Kadivar

Adapting to Contemporary Islam

Is Islamic law compatible with democracy and human rights? One of Iran's best-known reformist clerics has an answer to this question – an answer that challenges Islamic orthodoxy. Bahman Nirumand reports on a reformist theologian.

Is Islamic law compatible with democracy and human rights? One of Iran’s best-known reformist clerics has an answer to this question – an answer that challenges Islamic orthodoxy. Journalist Bahman Nirumand reports on a progressive and uncomfortable reformist theologian.

photo: AP
Iranian clerics read papers as they wait for the house arrest to be lifted in order to meet Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, January 2003

​​Born in 1959, Mohsen Kadivar originally wanted to be an electronic engineer. However, after only a few semesters, he turned his back on the Technical University in the south Iranian city of Shiraz and made his way to the holy city of Ghom, where he devoted 17 years of his life to studying Islamic law, philosophy and mysticism at the Theological Centre.

Two years later he received a doctorate from the Teaching Training College. He spent the years that followed working as a teacher and researcher. To date, he has published twelve books and written numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. He is currently lecturing at the Teaching Training College’s Department of Philosophy.

The trials and tribulations of a pugnacious cleric

A hallmark of Kadivar’s character is his habit of bluntly and consistently transposing his theological/philosophical knowledge into the political sphere, even into everyday politics – a highly risky strategy to pursue in view of the ruling Islamists’ ruthless and brutal manner of dealing with their critics.

This is borne out by the fact that he spent 18 months in prison as a result of an interview he gave the daily newspaper Khordad. The reason for his incarceration was his review of the Islamic Republic’s achievements in the twenty years since its proclamation and a lecture entitled ‘Condemnation of terrorism from a religious point of view’.

But despite all attempts to hinder him, Kadivar refused to be intimidated. At a remembrance service for the 1998 series of murders in which the political couple Forouhar and the two writers Mohammad Mokhtari und Mohammad Dajafar Pujandeh lost their lives, he said: ‘Five years ago I was sentenced to 18 months in prison because I protested against these bestial murders. Today, I would like to repeat what I said back then.’

Kadivar, a member of the board of the Association for the Defence of Freedom of Expression, says that some of the perpetrators were subjected to show trials, but those on whose orders they were acting were not. He demands that those who pulled the strings behind the scenes be brought to court.

Two interpretations of Islam

Like most reformers, Islamic law is one of Kadivar’s main preoccupations. The debate hinges on the question as to whether Islamic law, the Sharia, is compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of democracy. Kadivar’s point of view is one of the most radical to be expressed in public to date. He says that there are two ways of interpreting Islam: a traditional and a modern way.

In an interview with the Iranian magazine Aftab, he stated that the traditional interpretation of Islam is completely incompatible with the principles of human rights and democracy. However, he went on to say that this incompatibility applies not only to interpretations that have repeatedly misled the faithful down through history, but also to the most important pillars of the Islamic faith, in other words to the Koran, and the sayings and doings of the Prophet (Hadith).

This assessment is more than revolutionary when one considers that Muslims believe that the Koran is the word of God and that the testimony of the Prophet was given by inspiration of God. To illustrate his point, Kadivar points out that Islam has different laws for different groups of people: i.e. for members of the Islamic community, Christians and Jews, men and women.

However, there are no universally applicable laws for all people, independent of their religious beliefs, gender and social position. Without human rights, says Kadivar, there can be no democracy.

Islam and human rights: an irresolvable conflict?

But how can this dilemma be resolved? Kadivar writes that scholars who aim to adapt Islam to suit democracy and human rights are going about the matter in different ways. Some scholars, he says, are trying ‘to justify or shift the focus on Islam away from’ rules that stand in contradiction to human rights while others ‘are trying to emphasise those parts of existing scriptures that are in accord with human rights’.

But Kadivar refuses to make do with such slapdash solutions. He says that there can be no doubt that not only religious traditions, but also the Koran itself, contain certain rules that are at variance with human rights. In his opinion, the decisive issue is how to deal with these rules. Traditional Islam considers the Koran to be the word of God: words that are inviolable and will endure for all eternity. Modern Islam rejects this stance on certain issues.

The ideal solution: putting Islamic law into a historical context

Kadivar says that the entire teachings of Islam can be divided up into four different parts: the first three parts relate to belief in God

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and the prophets, ethics and morality, and prayer. These parts, he says, are inviolable and will endure for all eternity. This is not the case with the fourth part, which governs the way people live together in a community, i.e. commercial law, individual law, criminal law etc.

Modernists believe that all rules in these teachings relate to a specific era and can and must be adapted to meet the specific requirements of the day, even if they are written in the Koran.

Putting Islamic law into a historical context in this way is the key that opens the door to the modern world, to human rights and democracy. The way people live in a community – in other words, how they shape politics, education and upbringing and how they punish crimes and offences – is regulated by intellect, reason, experience and science on the basis of real circumstances, which are in a permanent state of flux.

Ultimately, however, this means that Islamic legislation should be rewritten and religion should be separated from politics.

Bahman Nirumand, © Qantara.de 2003

Bahman Nirumand has read German studies, Philosophy and Iranian studies in Munich, Tübingen and Berlin. He was a victim of political persecution under the Shah’s regime and was forced to leave Iran in the 1960s. He now works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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