Faith, Freedom, and Reason

Can there be such a thing as Islamic human rights? Can the commandments set forth in the Koran be modified according to the demands of reason? Iranian clergyman Mohammad Shabestari has devoted his life to exploring these issues. By Roman Seidel

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

photo: Roman Seidel
Mohammad Shabestari

​​Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, born in 1936, moved to the city of Qom, the center of Shiite learning in Iran, in early years in order to embark on a religious career.

Studies at the theological seminaries consisted back then, as they still do today, primarily of the subjects of Islamic law, Islamic theology, mysticism, and philosophy, usually with a focus on jurisprudence.

Shabestari was among those young students who found a one-sided concentration on the dry legal compendia inadequate, and who more eagerly devoted their attention to the subjects of philosophy and mysticism, which have been marginalized by most Islamic legal scholars.

Two teachers in particular were prominent in these fields at that time and exercised a powerful attraction for students: the philosopher and author of a highly acclaimed Koran commentary, Allameh Tabataba'I, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the later revolutionary leader and "father" of the Islamic Republic.

From advocate of the Islamic Revolution to dissident

What impressed Shabestari and many other students about Khomeini, besides his philosophical and mystical teachings, was his political thinking. For Khomeini, Islamic ethics was not limited only to private personal relationships, but should also be reflected in the state and its form of government, a view that Khomeini began to combine with increasingly open criticism of the Shah’s regime starting in the 60s.

In the spirit of the political Shia in 60s and 70s Iran, Shabestari also felt closely associated with the thinking of religious intellectuals such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati, as well as the politically motivated cleric Morteza Motahhari.

In 1970 Shabestari became director of the Shiite Islamic Center in the Imam Ali Mosque in Hamburg, where he was later succeeded by current Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

During the period he spent in Hamburg, Shabestari strongly supported the Christian-Islamic dialogue and extended the mosque’s scope of influence by opening it up to all Muslims. He also learned German and was able to pursue his interest, already evident in Qom, in Western philosophy and Christian, especially Protestant, theology.

He studied the writings of theologians such as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, as well as the thinking of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

As a follower of Khomeini and a defender of the Islamic Revolution, Shabestari returned to Iran in 1979 and the following year was elected as representative of the province of Azerbaijan in the first parliament of the Islamic Republic.

However, he soon retired from politics and began to take a more skeptical view of the ideology of the Islamic Republic and its governmental practices.

His thinking underwent a transformation, from confidence in 'Islam as solution' to a more emancipatory and ideologically critical understanding of religion. This change of direction was virtually paradigmatic for a whole group of leading religious intellectuals and reformist thinkers of the time, all of whom had formerly been staunch supporters of Khomeini and proponents of the Islamic Republic.

Toward a more critical approach to religion

Shabestari has been a professor of Islamic philosophy at the University of Tehran since 1985, where he also teaches comparative religion and theology. He regularly organizes international conferences on the theme of Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Since the early 90s, he has been increasingly active in publishing articles in liberal daily papers and magazines in which he argues for a new, more critical approach to religion. With this journalistic work, as well as through a series of public lectures at universities and other public forums, he has played an active part in the religious and political discourse and has become one of the foremost religious intellectuals in contemporary Iran.

Iran's reformist thinkers and dissidents

The critical intellectual spectrum in Iran today is anything but homogeneous. At one end of the spectrum are secular human rights activists who, in their call for a state based on the rule of law, reject any recourse to religion out of principle, and invoke international law as the exclusive model for government.

Then there are activists who likewise plead for a comprehensive reform of the legal system in line with international standards, but do so from an Islamic standpoint.

These two groups, whose members frequently fight side by side, work on a small scale, for example as lawyers in court cases, for the freedom and rights of the individual. Secularist attorney Mehrangiz Kar and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi are glowing examples of this reformist current.

A somewhat different role is played by those religious intellectuals, political activists, and politicians who support the system of the Islamic Republic in their different ways – whether for pragmatic reasons or because of true conviction – but who advocate reforms to its constitution.

Prominent exponents of this groups are, for example, the journalist Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Kadivar, and not least President Mohammad Khatami himself.

Next to Abdol Karim Sorusch, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is one of the most prominent members of a group of Iranian religious intellectuals who seldom make concrete reference to day-to-day politics or plead for actual constitutional reforms.

Shabestari keeps his distance in particular from the discussions surrounding a new understanding of the state doctrine of the 'rule of the (highest) jurist' ("velayat-e faqih"), and he is careful not to criticize the representatives of the current religious political establishment.

It is perhaps thanks to this cautious attitude that he has not yet come into serious conflict with the Iranian legal system, which frequently tries to hush up critical voices by imposing long terms of imprisonment.

Nevertheless, a large portion of Shabestari’s writings can be understood in the political sense and in the context of the religious political discourse in Iran today. This is demonstrated not least of all in his arguments for the unconditional acknowledgement of universal human rights and democracy, without his trying to ascribe these to or to derive them from Islam, or even to try to limit them by it.

Historicizing and contemporary readings of the Koran

In Shabestari’s view, human rights and democracy are products of human reason that have developed during the course of time and continue to evolve. As such, they are not already prescribed in the Koran and Sunna.

Indeed, the Koran remains mute with regard to our modern understanding of human rights, and yet these do not in any way contradict the divine truth contained in the Koran. Drawing on modern hermeneutics, Shabestari dismisses any claim that man could ever come into direct possession of God’s absolute truth.

Making such a claim would be tantamount to the reification of God, thus constituting a violation of the principle of tauhid, the unity and transcendence of God. Our knowledge of God and his commandments is always mere human knowledge and as such is mutable and never absolute.

Assumptions and expectations or questions posed by the interpreter of the revelatory text are, however, not a shortcoming that clouds our right understanding of its message, but are rather the necessary requirements for any kind of understanding of the revelation.

Only through the questions posed by the interpreter and his attitude can the Koran be made to speak to us. However, it is necessary that the interpreter be as conscious as possible of the assumptions he brings to his reading.

A legal scholar, for example, who wishes to frame a legal opinion, must have good knowledge of the object of this expert opinion. This presumes that the scholar is able to draw on the pool of knowledge of his own times, taking into consideration the findings of the modern sciences. Mere recourse to traditional legal compendia is not sufficient.

It is likewise not enough to search the Koran and Sunna for precepts and legally relevant passages and then to take them out of their context for use as answers to contemporary questions. Because, as Shabestari explains, most of these commandments were answers to social questions pertinent in the days of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, and cannot simply be applied one-to-one to our present-day situation.

Shabestari thus advocates a historicization of revelation. The revelation contained in the Koran is an historical phenomenon, which took place in a specific place and time and under specific social conditions.

All of the verses of the Koran and all of the wisdom passed down by the prophet necessarily refer to the times of the prophet and are in their literal sense applicable without limitation only to those times.

Justice as eternal commandment

Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between two aspects of the revelation: on the one hand, the core of the divine message, and on the other hand, the social conditions that gave this message its specific form.

One must then abstract from this form in order to arrive at the actual aims and values on which the prophetic message is based. The form of the message – i.e. the law-like texts in the Koran and in the prophetic tradition – merely served the purpose of realizing the actual goals.

Shabestari does not deliver any binding catalogue of values and goals. He frequently refers to the concepts of freedom and responsibility. As what is perhaps the central value, Shabestari cites the principle of justice – one that is exemplary for Islamic thinking – a respect for which was imposed on mankind by God as an eternal precept.

However, no concrete rulership theory can be derived from the Koran. It is instead up to human reason to continually reinterpret the concept of just rulership, like justice itself.

The obvious question here is whether all that remains as the eternal and immutable object of revelation under these considerations is not a mere thin skeleton of abstract concepts. Is there not remarkably little left of this Koran that represents for all Muslims the eternal word of God?

In the tradition of Islamic mysticism

Shabestari counters this objection with a strong thesis. Namely, for Shabestari the revelatory text as such is not to be understood per se as the eternal word of God. It only constitutes the word of God insofar as it evokes a religious experience in the recipient. Consequently, this word exists in the present time only within the recipient. And it is this religious experience that Shabestari regards as the core of faith.

Faith is, according to Shabestari, neither a conviction nor a knowledge of something. Religious convictions, opinions, theories, etc. can be an expression of faith, but they are not themselves faith. Faith is instead complete submission to the existence of God, assurance in God, and thus an inner encounter between man and God. With this concept of faith, Shabestari draws on the tradition of Islamic mysticism, especially that of Ibn Arabi, as well as on the existentialist theology of Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.

What Shabestari is after here is to rehabilitate faith as the core of religion in place of a more legalistic understanding. Faith as religious experience should become the core pillar of a "New Theology" and replace or at least supplement the overemphasis of law on the one hand and metaphysical statements about God on the other.

Freedom as condition for true faith

Alongside the spiritual dimension, Shabestari also emphasizes a further aspect of faith. He sees faith as resting on free will, which is among the key traits characterizing humanity.

At the same time, however, man is an imperfect being, neither all-powerful, nor all-knowing, nor even immortal. Faith is the search for salvation from one’s own imperfection in the perfection of God.

Faith is a conscious decision for stability in God that is based on the inner freedom of man. This does not connote a one-time decision that is valid for all time, but instead one that, in face of the constantly changing conditions of life, must be renewed again and again.

The faithful must continually reflect upon what is a part of faith and what is not. This means that they must distinguish between behavior based on a freely made inner decision, which is hence the result of a spiritual or religious experience, and conduct that is ultimately a purely superficial imitation of religious acts and truisms.

In order to achieve such awareness, one must seriously and openly come to terms with contemporary criticisms of religious thinking – whether coming from Muslim or non-Muslim quarters. Shabestari thus combines highly self-critical and emancipatory aspirations with the concept of faith.

General human rights in the Islamic sense

The inner freedom of man must correspond with an outer freedom, because the inner decision for God cannot be forced upon people from the outside. All religious dogmas that prescribe what people should or should not believe in are thus not guideposts to true faith, but rather barriers that hinder the free development of faith.

As soon as a group that exercises extensive political and social influence claims to have a monopoly on the faculty for distinguishing what is right and wrong in the religious sense, and thus propounds an official reading of the religion, that religion becomes instrumentalized and robbed of its core, which is faith.

It is before this background that we can best understand Shabestari’s argumentation for the recognition of general and universal (and not specifically Islamic) human rights on the part of Muslims, and his plea for a democratic political system.

Human rights and democracy are in keeping with Islam, not because they have been dictated by the Koran or the prophetic tradition or legitimized by the Sharia, but because they are a sensible and contemporary interpretation of just rule.

Their realization enables us to create the basic political and social conditions under which a free and therefore true faith can be fostered rather than hindered. Democracy and human rights thus serve Islam much better than any "Islamic," yet authoritarian, system.

Roman Seidel

© 2004

Roman Seidel studied Islam, Iran, and philosophy in Mainz, Bochum, Tehran, and Berlin. He holds a post-doctoral position at the Institute for Islamic Studies of the Free University of Berlin and acts as coordinator of the interdisciplinary center "Bausteine zu einer Gesellschaftsgeschichte des Vorderen Orients" (Social and Cultural History of the Middle East).