A question of power

In his essay, the renowned Shia theologian and philosopher Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari considers the significance of political power and violence in Islamic systems of government

By Hassan Yussefi Eshkevari

The question of a possible link between religion – in this case Islam – and violence is not a new one. Since the terrorist attacks of recent years in Europe and the USA, particularly after 9/11, it has been brought more sharply into the public focus worldwide. The question occupies both Muslims themselves and the citizens of non-Muslim countries, particularly in the West.

The late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri provides a fitting reference point. As a high-ranking cleric, he enjoyed great respect in Iran and among Shias. In addition to this, he helped found the Islamic Republic after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This all lends his religious and political attitude considerable significance.

Montazeri, who was originally envisaged as the successor to the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had differences of opinion with Khomeini from the outset and as a result was gradually shut out of the circles of power.  

One of the fundamental differences between the two Grand Ayatollahs was over how harshly an Islamic leadership should deal with its critics and people who thought differently.

The absolute governorship of the legal scholars

Demonstrator displaying a photo of Hussein-Ali Montazeri during anti-Ahmadinejad protests in summer 2009 (photo: AP)
Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri as standard-bearer for the "Green Movement": shortly before his death in 2009, the Grand Ayatollah came out in support of the Green Movement. In a fatwa he declared the presidential elections held that summer, from which the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged victorious, as "unlawful" and encouraged the Iranian people to use all ″legal means″ to rise up against the system

Khomeini was in agreement with Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in seeing the establishment of an Islamic government as a religious duty, which Muslims everywhere always had to strive for. This government would be legitimised by confirmation from legal scholars and only a legal scholar could be at its head. Guaranteeing the authority of this theocracy was the highest priority and justified any means necessary, according to the leader of the Revolution. Most importantly, he said, the Islamic legal system was the "signpost of government" and law-making was nothing other than the confirmation of religious commandments and prohibitions.

Ayatollah Khomeini′s vision set no limits on the authority of the leading legal scholar: this is the absolute governorship of the legal scholar.

The founder of the Islamic Republic thus believed in a totalitarian theocracy – a power that implemented religious commandments at any price. But in such a system of government, the human rights of non-Shias or non-Muslims are trampled underfoot and the freedom of opinion of those who think differently is harshly curtailed.

Montazeri, too, believed in a religious government with a legal scholar at its head. But his understanding of this differed greatly from that of his one-time tutor. Montazeri thought that the leading legal scholar should be democratically elected and should have to answer to the law and the people. The stability of the religious government should be guaranteed – but not at any price, according to the Grand Ayatollah.

Freedom of opinion played an important role for Montazeri. He saw the practice of criticism as a helpful tool on the path to a legitimate and transparent government. The Grand Ayatollah championed the rule of law and human rights in Iran and in the Islamic world and repeatedly spoke out in favour of a parliamentary multi-party state which respected free elections.  

Fundamentalism versus liberality

The comparison shows that a link between Islam and violence depends on differing interpretations. Anyone who orients himself by conservative Islam and sets out to defend his understanding of Islamic government by any means necessary, cannot square this stance with values such as democracy, free elections and human rights.

Khomeini′s conviction can be described as fundamentalist and traditional Islam, while Montazeri′s can be called a liberal version.  

Contemporary fundamentalist interpretations of Islam differ in some respects – particularly when it comes to the views of Sunni and Shia branches of the faith. Even so, they hardly differ at all with regard to the principle of Islamic rule and its unlimited claims to power, or on freedom of opinion for Muslim and non-Muslim people with different views.[embed:render:embedded:node:17553]

The group with the most radical understanding of government, politics and the unconditional implementation of Sharia is without a doubt the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). But organisations like the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Qaida, al-Shabab and other movements within the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East or the radical followers of Ayatollah Khomeini belong on their own spectrum.

These Islamist groups are linked by their advocacy of violence, political absolutism, religious fundamentalism and the oppression of those who think differently and they do not shy away from torture, executions and terrorism.

Violence in early Islam

These tendencies can also be found in the early years of Islamic history. If you take Islam to be the sum of the Koran′s commandments and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, these provide enough material for a broad palette of interpretations - which are sometimes contradictory.

Even in the time of the Prophet, Islam could be found in both strictly radical and moderate, humane and tolerant versions. After the Prophet′s death and in the course of the dispute over who would succeed him, an Arab-Islamic Caliphate was founded. With this, a totalitarian, violent Islam intent on conquering new territories won the upper hand.

This version of Islam runs through (among others) the Caliphates of the Umayyads (661 to 750 AD), the Abbasids (750 to 1571), the Ottoman Empire (1299 to 1922) and the history of some dynasties in Iran, such as the Safavids (1501 – 1722).

After the demise of the Caliphates

With the demise of the traditional, authoritarian Caliphates at the start of the 1920s, totalitarian Islam was expected to soften into Western-oriented semi-modern political systems. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire however caused a strong power vacuum in the Middle East. Over the last century various religious Islamic movements – for example the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 – have sought without success to revive the traditional power.

The conflict took on new dimensions following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the resultant campaigns by the USA and some European countries in the Middle East. In Islamic countries, old anti-colonial feelings were also reignited.

The "Arab Spring" of 2011 was another reaction to the lack of Islamic-Arab power in the region, which admittedly made the situation of Muslims and the Islamic world even more complicated.

Against this backdrop, we can see that:

Firstly: violence in the Islamic world today has its roots in political, social and economic problems – in short, the crisis of civilisation in the region. The principal cause lies in the power vacuum brought about by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The long tradition of Western colonialism and in particular the intervention by Western powers in the Islamic world that we have seen in recent years, have played a huge role in the outbreaks of violence that have arisen there.

Secondly: the exercise of violence and oppression are perpetuated as a result of religious and historical occurrences. There is no one Islam to which we can ascribe all the evil or all the good. Islam, like Christianity, is filled with different interpretations that come from historical traditions.

Ayatollah Khomeini following his return from exile to Tehran (photo: picture-alliance/AP/FY)
Absolute governorship by legal scholars rejected by the people: in Iran the majority of the Muslim population and the moderate forces within the ruling system think exactly like Ayatollah Montazeri and do not follow the extremist ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini

Thirdly: despite acts of violence and wars between Muslims, or between Muslims and non-Muslims, the peaceful, tolerant interpretation of the religion still has the upper hand. Most Muslims live in peace with each other – and with their non-Muslim neighbours.

A selective view of Islam

So-called "Islamic State" justifies its atrocities with historical religious evidence. But it is possible to prove from existing documents that such interpretations rely on weak arguments and evidence. Muslims who commit violent acts make use, on the one hand,  of the contradictory interpretations passed down to us by traditional Islamic sources and, on the other, they capitalise on the great conflicts of the Islamic world with the intervention-obsessed West and with the backward civilisations in some Islamic countries. For radical Islamists, an Islam without violence or political power is hollow and meaningless.

The fact is that the majority of Muslims still believe in a peaceful interpretation of Islam. In Iran, for instance, the majority of the Muslim population and the moderate forces within the ruling system think exactly like Ayatollah Montazeri and do not follow the extremist ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Muslims, including those in the West, are the ones who suffer most from the inhuman and anti-Islamic atrocities of terrorists acting in the name of Islam.

Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari

© Iran Journal 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin