''Muslims Can Have Democracy without Having to Leave Islam''

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is one of the world's most significant contemporary Shia clerics. In the second part of this interview with Fatma Sagir, Shabestari speaks about the compatibility of Islam and Democracy, and about how the Iranian revolution affected his philosophy

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (photo: Fatma Sagir)
Mohammad Shabestari has been teaching Islamic philosophy at the University of Tehran since 1985. He is noted for his comments on the essentially limited nature of religious knowledge and rules

​​Is it necessary to separate state and religion in order to maintain one's faith?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: Yes. What that means is that religion can become a moral force exerting influence on politics, but when religious and political institutions, such as governments, are put on the same level, or when statements such as: our politics are our religion and our religion is our politics are used; that is not acceptable.

So, some serious thinking needs to be done, so that we may separate these things from one another and find our way back to faith.

Shabestari: That's right, they must be separated. That would benefit religion.

How can one make this clear to people who believe the opposite, who believe that that is the best way to fulfil and to strengthen their faith? How would you explain it to your students, for example?

Shabestari: Many of my students already understand what I am saying, because the changes that have taken place in Iran have led to a situation in which such statements are now much better understood than would have been the case 15 years ago. People have had to find out the hard way that political measures must always be criticised, that they need to be improved and changed. Those involved in politics are fallible human beings, irrespective of whether they are speaking in a religious context or not. These experiences have shown that one cannot apply the same standards to the religious discussion as to political problems, they are different and require to be dealt with as such – that means that religion and politics must be separated.

My students have understood that if they are going to be able to criticise politics, they have to see politics as the result of human efforts and not as the work of God or as something based on rules to be found in the Koran or Sunnah. Politics must not be sanctified. That is where the problem lies. No political leader should ever be sanctified, irrespective of who it is. Political actions must not be sanctified. But the proper worship of God in the mosque, that must be sanctified. It can function as a bridge, a provider of moral stimuli to the political scene, making sure it does not become amoral.

How can you justify such a statement? If you want to convince a Muslim of this you would have to have to be able to convince him of the compatibility of your statement with the teachings of Islam.

Shabestari: No, I don't see it that way. We don't speak like that in this situation, anyone who thinks in the way I do cannot say that his statement must be found in the Koran. This is an educated, independent, enlightened person, living in a modern world, who approaches the Koran and the Sunnah in a rational manner in order to understand them. In other words, my hermeneutics are secular hermeneutics. I try to apply an academic approach to understanding the Koran and the Sunnah. Because I believe in God, because I worship God, this does not mean that I may not use a secular hermeneutics to study the Koran. If you want to know how we make this understandable, the answer is, just in the same way as I have explained it now.

As a devout Muslim I pray and I fast, but as a man I have the right to use my reason when it comes to the Koran and to treat it as a historical document. I must be able to say that these religious precepts had their validity in a particular historical context. I am only able to recognise this historical aspect if I interpret what the Koran says. That is what text interpretation is all about.

We have discussed the separation of state and religion. I come back once more to the point that people are only able to do all these things if they have the freedom to do them. External and internal freedoms are dependent on one another.

Shabestari: That's right.

That poses a challenge everywhere in the world, but in Islamic countries it is a particular challenge because the social systems and structures, regardless of religion, tend to place emphasis on control. The question is: how can one get this idea of freedom across to the people? It's a real stalemate situation.

Shabestari: Yes. Exactly.

One would like to get this idea across, but if you have a social system and a state system in place that already restrict freedom, how is it possible to get the freedom message across?

Shabestari: What I want to emphasise finally is my belief that, before we are millions of Muslims in a society, we are people in a society. Before we go to the Koran and the Sunnah to find out what it is they have to say, we need a society, a social system, a social institution, within which to live. Only then does religion enter the equation, in second place. Then I ask myself, what standards should we apply to regulate this very important question of social coexistence.

One cannot say that the answer will be found in the Koran or the Sunnah. Because looked at logically and philosophically, the basis for our living together is order; that has priority. First of all we need to establish a standard by which we can define how we live alongside one another and how to establish order in our society, only then will we be ready to talk about the Koran and the Sunnah. We do not live in a vacuum.

I always say that these ideas and standards that we need to take care of first are nothing other than universal human rights. We need, first of all, to put things right by means of justice and human rights. Societies are made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists – all sorts of people. They need to find a way of living together before they need to know what is in the Koran. And the formula for living alongside one another can only be found in human rights.

No one religion, then, can …

Shabestari: … be made dominant by force.

... or set up as a political system?

Shabestari: No, no, no, that's not on. There are always going to be people who do not want to follow that religion, who want to do it differently, and so forth.

What, then, in your opinion, represents a fair form of government?

Shabestari: In my opinion the only criterion we can use is the measure of respect that is shown for the preservation of universal human rights, though I am aware that the 30 articles of the 1948 declaration are neither interpreted nor treated in the same way in every country. However, I see no other option.

That means that a Muslim can, in good conscience, say: democracy is a fair form of government that I as Muslim …

Shabestari:... accept! Not, that that is what it says in the Koran, but rather, that I, as Muslim, accept it.

Human rights and democracy are in keeping with Islam. Is that a misapprehension?

Shabestari: What do you mean by "in keeping with Islam"?

There is a form of argumentation amongst Muslims along the lines of: this is already in the Koran, or God can't have anything against this, it's fair. There are those who say that the shura principle in Islam is democracy, others claim that it is to be found in the spirit of the book.

Shabestari: I believe that Muslims today can have democracy, without having to leave Islam. I tend towards the second of these opinions.

I am interested in finding out how you came to this kind of thinking.

Shabestari: (Laughs) I could write a book about that.

You've witnessed momentous events. During the last 30 years you have witnessed the Islamic revolution. That is a unique phenomenon in modern times. It was an exciting time. You must have felt like a pioneer and you were still relatively young in the early stages. Your thinking has evolved. I am interested to find out how much that revolution affected and influenced you and whether there were any crucial experiences that shaped your thinking?

Shabestari: That is a complicated question and one that would require a great deal of time to answer. I can tell you, however, that besides my studies, the things that have had the biggest effect on me are the political changes and events of the last 28 years since the revolution. I came to my present outlook and to my ideas over time and after lots of good and bad experiences. Such experiences have always played a role in the development of my ideas. I believe that our philosophical, religious and theological beliefs cannot be seen as something distinct from our personal experiences. When one comes to a certain way of thinking it has a lot to do with one's life and with one's experiences of revolution, politics, etc. I have been very much influenced by my experiences.

You have also had disappointments. There are some who would react by turning their backs on the people, the country or even on their faith. Why do you think it is that you have continued to develop your ideas? What was it that gave you the strength to decide not to leave Iran, not to desert your faith?

Shabestari: From my youth, from the time I was 20, through the revolution, right up till today, almost 40 years, I have always been involved in religion and politics. After the revolution, we began to look upon it as our child, so to speak, raised by our people. That was what it was to us. I could not just say: That's it! I'm going! Something has happened but it didn't turn out the way it should have. I couldn't turn my back on the great Iranian people after all their efforts, a people who have sacrificed so much, even in ancient times and then experienced this revolution.

Revolution was a problem child for us, a child with many defects, who caused us a great deal of trouble and misery in the course of its growing up. I could not just go; my heart was bound to the revolution, as a political happening, and one that strove for freedom. I could not simply withdraw from Islam. I grew up in a religious household. I have always been closely bound up with religion. For these two reasons, thank God, I was never tempted to abandon my faith. I thought long and hard and found my way.

How does one sustain hope under such difficult conditions?

Shabestari: I hope that as long as I live I will not despair. No, I cannot leave my country. That is inconceivable to me. I've had offers here in Europe to take on long-term teaching jobs at universities, but I have turned them down. I cannot leave my country. I intend to stay in my country and do my duty. In any case, I am too close to my family.

One holds on to hope, builds it up. The current international debate on Iran worries me. But I hope that things will turn out well.

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


Interview with Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (Part 1)
"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 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

Reformist Islam
What possibilities does Islam offer for the reform and democratisation of modern Muslim societies? Qantara.de presents the opinions and initiatives of renowned thinkers from the Islamic world