''Islam Is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda''

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is one of the world's most important contemporary Shia clerics. In the first part of this lengthy interview with Fatma Sagir, the Iranian philosopher and theologian speaks about the complex relationship between state and religion, and about the effects of coercion and regulation in matters relating to faith

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (photo: Fatma Sagir)
"Religious absolutism is hermeneutically naive and realistically unworkable." According to Mohammad Shabestari, religion is perfect, but not all-encompassing

​​You were in Germany between 1968–1977. You were already involved in Christian-Islamic dialogue back then at a time when such a thing wasn't even being discussed. What memories do you have of that time?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: We got together at that time as Christians, Jews and Muslims to engage in interreligious dialogue. For us as Muslims this was still new, a novel experience for all of us. It made quite an impression on me. I discovered that it wasn't enough to study one another's sources or just simply to read things about others. These personal meetings were more important, more instructive. I have happy memories and I learned a lot from the experience.

You went from that experience back to an Iran that was undergoing some very turbulent times. You went through a lot there and decided to remain. The Islamic world claims that Islam is also political or that it could form the basis of a political system. This is a view that conflicts with how the West sees the role of the state and the belief that the state and religion should be separate. Is the situation in the Islamic world one that concerns you?

Shabestari: I understand what you are saying. It does greatly concern and worry me that there are many areas, be it in academic or political discourse, where Islam is seen more in terms of a political institution than a religion. In my opinion, Islam is a religion in every sense, not a political agenda. No, Islam is a world religion; as such it can give political impetus to Muslims today, but that is not the case with Islam only, Christianity and Judaism are also political in that sense. I see Islam as a religion with many dimensions: mystic, religious, artistic, philosophical, legal and so on. As a religion it can also provide inspiration for the creation of a fair and democratic state, but that the religion itself should constitute a political agenda, that is something that is incomprehensible to me.

Why do you think it is that this view is shared by large portions of the Islamic world, even by simple public opinion, and this has also been the reception in the West? There is the idea that an Islamic state is what is wanted and that the Koran is being used to validate this.

Shabestari: (Long pause) It could possibly be put down to the keenness of Islamic countries to modernise in the wake of their experiences with colonialism. Because this failed, however, some people have been won over to the idea that in order to preserve one's identity it is necessary to go back to the past, to return to one's roots, if we are to protect ourselves in a world of conflict. It is a way of thinking that I reject. If this kind of thinking means that we want to re-establish past political, social and economic systems because we have nothing new to put in their place, then I, like many others, do not accept it. If, however, a reorientation were to take place, a move towards developing political and moral principles and to erecting an appropriate contemporary state system on the basis of these principles, then I would be in favour. Many Muslims misguidedly believe that falling back on earlier systems is the best way of surviving the present.

Change, then, is necessary. On the one hand, you oppose recourse to the past. But how, then, can a change be brought about? Is a revolution a necessary prerequisite to change?

Shabestari: The first priority for the Islamic world today is that it should become aware of the present state of humanity. How can a person live today, if he does not distance himself from his earlier intellectual and spiritual roots? On the one hand, the past provides our spiritual roots, but on the other, the way of life nowadays in the modern world has changed profoundly. We must bring those two things together: living with modernity and preserving spirituality. To combine these is a crucial challenge that we have to face. But how can this be achieved? Experience has shown that revolution is not the way to do it. It can only be achieved if we have first attained a profound knowledge of the needs and of the crises affecting humanity in the present day and age and if we try to reassess and reorientate our ideas about our own past. This reorientation is a new interpretation of the past.

That means the Koran must be interpreted differently. This will require a certain amount of freedom, not only personal but spiritual freedom too. When one observes Islamic societies, their relationship to governmental authority, the question that arises is: does a lack of freedom, especially in religious matters, lead to unbelief?

Shabestari: Yes, that is a very important question. I have thought about this question in the past and have come up with an idea that could provide an answer. I believe that this new interpretation must involve the Koran and the Sunnah. According to my interpretation the Koran and Sunnah are not the sources of faith for a Muslim. You see, I believe that there is a great difference between Christianity and Islam. The Christian faith is based on Christianity's holy book, so the interpretation of that holy book is a matter of sensitivity. Whatever one says about the book, one must be careful to avoid interpreting it in such a way as to diminish faith. I believe it to be different in the case of Islam. According to Islamic belief, every human being possesses a natural, innate ability to find the path to God. And this does not rely on revelation. It is simply because of his fitrah, his innate human nature. Revelation is an aid to finding this reasonable way to God, and a way of consolidating this knowledge of a reasonable God. The Mu'tazilis were the Islamic theologians responsible for this thesis.

I can already hear the chorus of ulema disapproval. "For heaven's sake, they will cry when they hear you say this.

Shabestari: (Laughs) Yes, well, never mind. Many such cries have come and gone in the course of Islamic history. That does not mean that revelation is not important, what it means is that the core of Islamic faith, according to the Islamic sources themselves, exists in the relationship between a human being and God, with or without revelation. That is a very important point. A new interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah using an academic approach would not do any harm, it would reveal to us the real elements that are present in the sources of revelation, in order to strengthen these fundamental beliefs.

There are many among the ulema as well as many lay people who do not see it that way. They believe that there is compulsion in religion. The passage in the Koran that states that "there is no compulsion in religion, for example, is interpreted as being valid only in respect to non-Muslims, not to Muslims. Muslims are not permitted to change faith. The Koran is viewed as if it were a law, in particular with regard to what it has to say on marriage laws, family laws, dress codes etc. These are key issues, matters currently being debated throughout the entire world. We are really talking about three areas: politics, personal religious freedom and the right to choose one's own lifestyle. The Islamic world, with the exception of only a few protesting voices, seems determined to hold on to particular areas where liberty, as we would define it, is lacking: the lack of freedom to change one's faith, for example, or compulsory wearing of the veil, or the hudud punishments in Saudi Arabia, to mention only a few. This lack of freedom is backed up by verses from, and interpretations of, the Koran. I have the impression that this compulsion, this lack of freedom, creates an irreligious society, one that no longer has any sense of what religion is, treats religion with indifference.

Shabestari: That's true. And that is just what has happened. I would like to clarify something first of all and then I will answer your question. A historical-critical approach to the sources, one that deals with the Koran and Sunnah in an academic way, does not harm faith. Unfortunately, in the course of Islamic history, a negative, injurious and distorting influence on the Islamic faith has, I believe, been exercised for political reasons. During the time of the Prophet, faith alone was important, the belief in God, life with God, the praise of God, those were the important things. These are of course the main elements of religion. The other things such as how women should veil themselves – well, of course, there is no mention of wearing of veils in the Koran. There is an expression in the Koran that says that one should keep a dignified appearance. That refers to a way of life for a particular society and the Prophet's precepts were intended to be appropriate for that society at that time. But that does not mean that these precepts with regard to ritual or the other points mentioned belong to the core of the faith. Over time, for political reasons, especially during the Abbasid period, a clear distortion occurred. The idea of faith as a way of life declined and it was the formal rules that began to be seen as the essential core of Islam. The Abbasid dynasty encouraged this as a way of legitimising their rule. This legitimisation process depended on laws, which for them became an indispensable part of the religion.

This is still happening today.

Shabestari: Yes, that is right, I agree. To my mind, that was a distortion. We don't see the Prophet criticising any woman because she is not wearing a veil, nor do any of the other caliphs. The beginning of this distortion came with the Abbasid period. The situation did improve subsequently, but the last 23 years have once more seen an increasing deterioration.

My impression is that many of the curbs on freedom in Muslim societies have been justified on religious grounds and that this has resulted in societies that reject religion, although it is something that is constantly spoken about. It's a schizophrenic situation.

Shabestari: Yes, that is absolutely correct.

Is it a dangerous situation, do you think?

Shabestari: I see this as very negative. What we are seeing in Islamic countries is that the young people especially have turned their backs on religion completely because this kind of religion, formulated and interpreted as a number of compulsory laws, just is not acceptable. That is the challenge. It is a situation that needs to be rectified. That is what we are doing. What we are saying is that these rules from earlier times, for example, do not represent a basis for faith. They were something specifically intended for a particular society and are only comprehensible within their own historical context. If that were understood in the historical context, it would mean that, in a religious sense, Muslims nowadays could have a different social system in a political and economic sense, different from what it was back then.

Does this then mean that Islam, contrary to the assertion that it is the origin of everything from politics to science, is just another category, one amongst many, which determine how we live our public and private lives?

Shabestari: Back then these were not separate spheres. These distinctions between religion, politics and economics did not exist. This was true almost everywhere in the world. Religion was a sort of great umbrella under which politics and economics were joined. That was also the case with Christianity. Over time we began to create distinctions within religion. Nowadays, people see religion, art, economics and politics as very different things. Nowadays, they are separate entities. Now our task is one of specifying and clarifying, defining what the core of faith is, and what it is that God requires of us as religious beings.

Interview Fatma Sagir

© Qantara.de 2008

Fatma Sagir is a Turkish-born Islam expert and freelance journalist, based in Freiburg, Germany. She is currently engaged in a Ph.D. project about applied Koranic interpretation in Hindu-Muslim dialogue.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker


Mohammad Shabestari
Faith, Freedom, and Reason
Can there be such a thing as Islamic human rights? Do the commandments set forth in the Koran have eternal validity, or can they be modified according to the demands of reason? Iranian clergyman Mohammad Shabestari has devoted his life to exploring these issues in modern religious and political Islamic thinking. By Roman Seidel

Abdolkarim Sorush
For an Open Interpretation of the Koran
The reformist thinker and philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush is one of a new generation of theologians that openly speaks out in favour of human rights and secularism in Iran. Katajun Amirpur about an awkward Iranian intellectual.

Religious Reformist Thinkers in Iran
Intellectually Victorious, but Politically Defeated
A wave of hope carried the reformist Mohammed Khatami into the office of president. But since then resignation has spread among the Iranian people as well as among critical religious leaders. An inside report from Ghom by Navid Kermani