Mahmoud Sadri; (Intellectual Trends In Twentieth-Century Iran: A Critical Survey, Edited by Negin Nabavi, University Press of Florida, Gainesville Tallahassee Tampa Boca Raton Pensacola Orlando Miami Jacksonville Ft. Myers)

Sacral Defense of Secularism, Dissident Political Theology in Iran



This paper discusses thress post-revolutionary dissident political theologies in Iran. They all question the absoloutist theology of the ruling clerics and utilize indigenous sources of scholarship to oppose the clerical hegemony. They ahve complementary emphases: whereas Soroush highlights the variable nature of religious knowledge, Shabestari and Kadivar underline its limited and multiple nature. They represent the maturing of the dialogue of the Iranian-Islamic thought with Western Social and political philosophy, and as the coming of age of the indigenous Islamic political theology reclaiming its pluralistic and democratic elements. Together, they attack the totalitarian Islam, and call for a guarded and objective secularism, while preserving Islam’s spiritual and cultural identity.



Sacral Defense of Secularism, Dissident Political Theology in Iran
(full text)
By Mahmoud Sadri

(Intellectual Trends In Twentieth-Century Iran: A Critical Survey, Edited by Negin Nabavi, University Press of Florida, Gainesville Tallahassee Tampa Boca Raton Pensacola Orlando Miami Jacksonville Ft. Myers)


Continuity between Premodern and Modern Political Theologies of I ran

 Although this essay is devoted to the political theology of twentieth-century Iran, Iwould like to begin by highlighting some of the continuities that this theology shares with traditional Iranian political thought.  Iran, as I have argued elsewhere, may be dubbed the cradle of theocracy just as Greece is known as the cradle of democracy.[1] Three instances should suffice to illustrate the precedence in Iranian history for the idea of government by divine approval.  First, there is the mythological notion of farr-e izadi (divine grace) germane to the sources that the tenth-century poet Ferdawsi used to compose his Sbahnameh or Book of Kings.  Second, the sixteenth-century juxtaposition of the Shi’i utopian belief in the charismatic government of the infallible Imams with the ideology of the righteous stewardship of the Safavid kings, dubbed zilollah (the shadow of God), can be considered another manifestation of the same idea.[2] Finally, the concept of clerical guardianship on behalf of the absent Imam as crystallized in the notion of velayat-e ‘ammeh (general trusteeship) is another case in point.  Thus, one could argue that Ayatollah Khomeini’s thesis of velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih (the absolute mandate of the jurisconsult), while being a theological innovation, is not entirely alien to the Iranian political culture.  However, the counterforce to this belief, as seen in the burgeoning antiauthoritarian political theology of the last two decades, also draws upon Iran’s premodern political philosophy, in the form of the traditionally Shi’i pluralistic and historically rebellious tendencies.[3]With this as background, I will consider three distinct voices from among the innovative discourses of secularism in Iran‘s postrevolutionary political theology.[4]


‘Abdolkarim Sorush’ : The Luther of Islam

 ‘Abdolkarim Sorush’ was born in 1945 into a traditionally learned merchant family.  Educated at ‘Alavi’ high school (which in hindsight has proved to be the intellectual incubator of most of the Islamic revolution’s lay elite) and the pharmacology school of the University of Tehran, he emerged at the dawn of the Islamic revolution from his postgraduate studies in England, where he had integrated the theories of Willard Van Orman Quine, Pierre Duhem, Karl Popper, and others into the framework of his vast Islamic leaming.  Sorush soon came to be known as one of the most prolific and eloquent intellectuals of the nascent Islamic Republic and then as one of the most ebullient and learned critics of clerical rule in Iran.[5]

It is difficult to do justice to Sorush’s multifarious project; he is the most significant, the best known, and the most prolific of the three theologians under discussion here.[6] In this essay I will outline his major contributions to three fields, namely sociology of knowledge; philosophical anthropology; and ethics and social criticism.

Sorush’s magnum opus, The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of Shari’a, brings his almost encyclopedic knowledge of jurisprudence, history of ideas, hermeneutics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and sociology of knowledge to bear on such questions “as to what extent we ought to take the edicts deduced by Islamic jurisconsults as literal, and immediate divine commandments?” His argument is that religion, per se, should be separated from religious knowledge.  Religion, that is, the essence of religion, is perceived as being beyond human reach, hence eternal and divine, whereas religious knowledge is, by contrast, a sincere and authentic but finite, limited, and fallible form of human knowledge.  The clergy who have dealt with similar quandaries in their professional circles do not object to these discussions as such.  They are, however, outraged by Sorush’s recklessness for exposing the laity to such sensitive subjects.  Sorush, in turn, criticizes the practice of protecting humanly formulated knowledge by censoring its wider circulation.[7]

Sorush’s political theory starts with a philosophical anthropology concerning human mature.  In his rather pessimistic view of human nature, Sorush appears to have been influenced by a modern tradition that starts with Thomas Hobbes and finds expression in the ideas of the framers of the American Constitution.[8] That is, human beings are weak and susceptible to temptation, even predation.  As such, they need a vigilant and transparent form of government.  However, Sorush softens the pessimistic edge of this view of human nature with verses from the Qur’an and the poems of Rumi and Hafez concerning the fragility of the human condition.  Sorush believes that the assumption of the innate goodness of mankind, shared by anarchists, radical Marxists, and Islamic fundamentalists alike, underestimates the staying power of social evil, fosters the false hope that it can be extinguished, and discounts the necessity of a government of checks and balances to rein in the weaknesses of human nature.

Sorush’s political philosophy remains close to the heart of the liberal tradition, ever championing the basic values of reason, liberty, freedom, and democracy.  The main challenge is not to establish their value but to promote them as “primary values,” as independent virtues, and not handmaidens of political maxims and religious dogma.  In his essay “Reason and Freedom,”[9] Sorush is at pains to demonstrate that freedom and justice are values in their own right, regardless of their performance as instruments of attaining other ends.

Sorush is one of the boldest social critics of postrevolutionary Iran.  As such, he has not minced his words about the questionable office of the clergy (rawhaniyat) within the Islamic tradition where-they perform no sacraments and have no mediating position in the relationship between man and God.  He has also criticized the hegemony of what could be called clerocracy and its encroachment on the autonomy of the academy in Iran.  More specifically, he sees contemporary Iran as a society in the grip of massive disenchantment.  His own political theology is an expression of this despair that has come about as a result of the official Islam advocated by the government.

In short, Sorush is the intellectual face of a new kind of philosophical revivalism in Iran.  Its political face can be seen in the sweeping victory of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001 and the election of the new liberal-minded Parliament (Majles) in 2000.  But the significance of Sorush’s work goes beyond the realpolitik of contemporary Iran.  He belongs to a new and sophisticated brand of Islamic reformation that has its origins in the works of the late Mohammad lqbal.  Sorush’s views, informed by the Western experiences of modernization and secularization and influenced by the revolutionary and reform movements in the Islamic world, are not only illustrative and instructive from an intellectual point or view, but they are also potentially capable of revolutionizing Muslim theology and mass religiosity.


‘Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari’ : Harbinger of the New Kalam

Born in Tabriz in 1936 into a clerical family, Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari[10] was educated as a seminarian in Qom.  He stayed in the seminary for seventeen years, achieving the degrees of ejtehad and doctor of philosophy.  He was invited by Mohammad Beheshti (who was to become one of the main architects of the Islamic revolution of Iran) to take his place as the director of the Islamic Center of Hamburg.  Shabestari remained in that position from 1970 to 1979.  While in Germany, he immersed himself in German philosophy and Catholic as well as Protestant theology.[11] After the revolution he was briefly elected to the First Consultative Assembly (Majles) following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, but thereafter he avoided politics and turned his attention, instead, to editing journals, teaching, and writing.  At present, he holds a position as professor of theology at the University of Tehran.

Shabestari has made a modest contribution to the introduction and application of modern hermeneutics to traditional Shi’i theology and jurisprudence[12] and thus to the proposition of the variability of religious knowledge. However, his most significant contribution seems to be his authoritative commentary on the essentially limited nature of religious knowledge and rules and, therefore, the necessity of complementing it with extrareligious sources.  He argues that distinguishing the eternal (values) from the changeable (instances and applications) in religion requires a kind of knowledge that is not itself contained in the rules of jurisprudential adjudication as developed in Islamic law (feqh).He laments the lack of, such a body of knowledge in Islamic society: “Today, we are deprived of a systematic legal philosophy, a comprehensive philosophy of ethics, a political philosophy, and a sound science of economics.  Is it possible to talk about universal and eternal rules and values when we don’t have any definitive or defensible views of such disciplines?”

In the same vein, Shabestari underscores the limited nature of religious Knowledge in general, and religious jurisprudence in particular. He argues, “the role of the Qur’an, the tradition (sonnat), and religious jurisprudence (feqh) in economic transactions and politics has been one of organizing and orienting, not one of establishing…. The science of jurisprudence emerged … [in order] to channel the flow of change not to it.” He thus concludes, “We are permitted, nay obligated to cast a w glance at the current problems of life and to expose the Qur’an and tradition to the questions of the modern man.”[13]

In Shabestari’s view, therefore, what is essential and eternal are the general values of Islam, not the particular forms in which they are realized at any given time (including the time of the Prophet).[14] He writes, “When we talk about kamal-e din (the perfection of religion), we do not mean that everything and anything has to be found in religion, and that if we don’t find a specific item in religion, then we should call it ‘imperfect.’ The perfection of religion does not imply that it should be seen as a substitute for science, technology, and human deliberation.”[15]

Shabestari goes a step further than any of his clerical colleagues by suggesting that there has been a divine decree for a separation of religious values and secular realities.  “God has accepted the world for what it is (in the secular sense of the term).  He has decreed that the world just be.[16]

 Having established the foundation of his argument concerning the boundaries of religious knowledge, Shabestari then proceeds to explore the link between freedom, democracy, and Islam, Here, Shabestari makes an innovative leap:


It is high time that we let the people know the extent to which they can rely on religion to solve their worldly problems and expect it to [help them] establish an advanced society. . The need for a democratic government cannot be derived from the meaning of faith or of the religious texts.  However, since social realities demand such a form of government, people of faith must -forge a relationship with this reality, reconcile themselves with its requirements, and follow a faithful life along its riverbed.[17]

In his latest book, Naqdi bar qera’at-e rasmi az din (A critique of the official reading of religion), Shabestari pursues his critique of religious absolutism as hermeneutically naive and realistically unworkable.  He also launches a major defense of the modern concept of human rights, although they have not been articulated in religious sources.[18]

Still, as he told me in an interview in January 2001,[19] his endeavor is one undertaken from within the Islamic tradition, not from without.  He hopes to transform the nature of religiosity without destroying its essential contours.  This reminds one of the profound and far-reaching accomplishments of the Christian theologians with whose works he is so intimately familiar. He has chosen the path of quiet, learned -and brave-persuasion and argumentation to achieve his goal.


The Political Theology of ‘Mohsen Kadivar’ : The Two-Edged Sword

Mohsen Kadivar, born in Fasa in central Iran in 1959, left the University of Shiraz after a brief stint as a student of electrical engineering and moved to the holy city of Qom to pursue classical clerical learning.[20] He graduated at the top of his cohort and entered postgraduate studies (dars-e kharej) from which he emerged with a “license” to practice ejtehad, the highest level of Shi’i learning.  His family was politically active; his grandfather was a-dissident under Reza Shah, and his father, similarly, was considered a dissident under Mohammad Reza Shah.

Compared with Sorush and Shabestari, Kadivar’s views are less well known in the West, but they are by no means less significant.  There is a pronounced convergence and complementarity between his ideas and those of Sorush and Shabestari.  What is distinct about Kadivar, however, is his sole reliance on Islamic sources of scholarship.  Even his use of Farsi sources is minimal.  This constitutes, at once, his weakness as Well as his strength.[21]

Of the nine books that he has published, four are on political theology.  Of these, one is a collection of essays, lectures, and articles, and the other three comprise a trilogy.  The first volume of the trilogy, Nazariyehha-ye dawlat dar feqh-e shieh (The theories of state in Shi’i jurisprudence), encompasses a broad typology of religious opinions on the desired or permissible types of government in Shi’i theology.  Every single instance in this typology is either proposed or endorsed by the highest authorities in Shi’i jurisprudence.  Kadivar suggests two reasons for the underdevelopment of Shi’i political philosophy: the messianic hope for the imminent return o-the Hidden Imam and the stipulation of infallibility for the charismatic leaders (the twelve Imams) in the traditional Shi’i casuistry.  He discerns four periods in the history of Shi’i cogitation concerning political matters: (1) the era of the development of the private and individual aspects of feqh from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries; (2) the era of the coexistence of the clerics and kings; (3) the era of the constitutional government along with clerical supervision in the early twentieth century; and (4) the era of the Islamic Republic of Iran, from 1963 to the present.  The most important feature of the first volume of Kadivar’s trilogy is a typology of the forms of government adumbrated in Shi’i jurisprudential sources.  Given the significance of this typology, I will summarize it here.

 Theories of state based on immediate divine legitimacy (four theocratic types, in chronological order)

1.      Appointed mandate of the jurisconsult in religious matters (Shari’a), along with the monarchic mandate of Muslim potentates in secular matters (saltanat-e mashru’eh)

Proponents: Mohammad Baqer Majlesi, Mirza-ye Qomi, Seyyed

Kashfi, Sheykh Fazlollah Nuri, Ayatollah ‘Abdolkarim Ha’eri Yazdi

2. General appointed mandate of the jurisconsults (velayat-e entesabi-ye ‘ammeh)

Proponents:   Molla Ahmad Naraqi, Sheykh Mohammad Hasan Najafi (Saheb javaher), Ayatollah Borujerdi, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpayegarni, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (before the revo- lution)

3.      General appointed mandate of the Council of the “Sources of Imitation” (Velayat-e entesabi-ye ‘ammeh-ye shawra-ye marja’e taqlid)

Proponents: Ayatollah javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Beheshti, Ayatollah Taheri-Khorramabadi

4. Absolute appointed mandate of the jurisconsults (velayat-e entesabi-ye motlaqeh-ye faqihan)

Proponent: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (after the revolution)


Theories of state based on divine-popular legitimacy (five democratic types, in chronological order)

1. Constitutional state (with the permission and supervision of jurisprudents) (Dawlat-e masruteh)

Proponents: Sheykh Esma’il Mahallati, Ayatollah ‘Abdollah Mazandarani, Ayatollah Aqa Bozorg Tehrani, Ayatollah Ahmad Tabataba’i, Ayatollah Kazem Khorasani, Ayatollah Hoseyn Na’ini

2. Popular stewardship along with clerical supervision (Khelafate mardom ba nezarat-e marja’iyat) 

Proponent:   Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Sadr

3. Elective limited mandate of jurisprudents (Velayat-e entekhabiye moqayyadeh-ye faqih)

 Proponents:   Ayatollah Motahhari, Ayatollah Hoseyn’ali Montazeri

4.   Islamic elective state (Dawlat-e entekhabi-ye eslami)

Proponents:   Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Sadr, Ayatollah Mohammad javad Moghniyeh, Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Shamsal-Din

 5. Collective government by proxy (Vekalat-e malekan-e shakhsiye mosha’

Proponent: Ayatollah Mehdi Ha’eri Yazdi

This typology does not include completely the apolitical views of the grand ayatollahs such as Sheykh Morteza Ansari, Seyyed ja’far Kashef alGheta’, and Abolqasem Kho’i, who opposed any legitimate or clerically legitimized form of government in the absence of the infallible Imams or on the basis of clerical mandate over mature and sane individuals.  Through their negative political theology, they lend support to the purely democratic and objectively secular form of government (the last form enumerated in the above typology) as proposed by Ayatollah Mehdi Ha’eri Yazdi.[22]

The significance of this typology in the context of the contemporary Iranian political discourse cannot be overestimated.  The corpus of Shi’i political theology, which the ruling clerics present as a monolith, an obelisk on which the hieroglyph of the absolute mandate of the jurisconsult, “velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih,” is etched, turns into a fascinating prism in Kadivar’s adroit hands, reflecting no less than nine distinct possible forms of government, all proposed and supported by the most revered religious scholars and texts.  Having revealed a menu of authoritative options for Islamic society, Kadivar launches his criticism of the most absolutist thesis.

The second volume of the trilogy is Hokumat-e vela’i (Government by mandate).  This 432-page opus, which Kadivar considers the heart of his trilogy and the most scholarly book he has written,[23] comprises a frontal and unabashed attack on the thesis of the velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini and enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The work unfolds in two stages.  The first lays bare the presuppositions of the concept of velayat, which concerns the etymology of the term and its interpretation in mysticism (erfan), philosophy (kalam), jurisprudence (feqh), the Qur’an, and tradition (sonnat).  In every instance, Kadivar discounts political implications of the term.  He traces the first indication of his thesis to the writings of a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jurists, namely Mohaqqeq Karaki, Shahid Thani, and Ahmad Naraqi.  Kadivar thus determines the age of the concept as less than two centuries, a mere blinking of an eye compared with the age of Shi’i jurisprudence. [24] But he reserves his most devastating attacks for the second part of the book, which is devoted to the critical analysis of the proofs and confirmations of the principle of government by divine mandate.  Here, Kadivar proceeds in four sections.  Tracing the sources of adjudication in Shi’i theology, he sets up and knocks down the arguments for the velayat-e faqih adduced from the Qur’an, tradition (sonnat), consensus of the ‘ulama (ijma’a), and reason (aql).  He then concludes: The principle of velayat-e faqih is neither intuitively obvious nor rationally necessary.  It is neither a requirement of religion (din) nor a necessity for denomination (mazhab).  It is neither a part of the Shi’i general Principles (osul) nor a component of the detailed observances (foru). It is, by near consensus of Shi’i ‘ulama, nothing more than a jurisprudential minor hypothesis, and its proof is contingent upon reasons adduced from the four categories of the Qur’an, tradition, consensus, and reason.[25]

The third volume of Kadivar’s trilogy, “Hokumat-e entesabi” (Government by appointment), deals with the practical consequences, disappointments, and disenchantment brought about by the government based on a divine mandate.

In Kadivar’s career, we witness not only the voice of a gifted and brave clergyman but also a tradition of pluralism and debate in Shi’i theology that allows such utterances.  Having achieved the status of eitehad, one is allowed, indeed expected, to contest the opinions of colleagues and the received wisdom of one’s predecessors.  Indeed, as radical as Kadivar’s political theology is, due to his status as a mojtahed with the right to issue verdicts and edicts, he has not been molested for these crucial writings that constitute the most specific and explicit refutation of the cornerstone of the theocratic element in Iran’s Constitution and form of government.  Instead, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment because of a sermon in which he railed against the so-called serial murders of Iranian intellectuals and an interview in which he implied that the Islamic Republic could be said to have partially reproduced the absolutist authority relations reminiscent of the monarchic rule.[26] He was thus charged with having implicitly implicated the clerical leadership of Iran in authorizing the murders, and his comparison of the Islamic Republic to the imperial regime of Iran had, it was charged, verged on sedition.  Yet in spite of such accusations, Kadivar continued to cite his authority as a mojtahed to adjudicate and to inform.  He argued, “As a student of religion, who according to the explicit statemen of my professors has achieved the right to express jurisprudential opinion, I have announced that terrorism is religiously prohibited.[27] Even though this essay is limited to a comparison of Sorush, Shabestari, and Kadivar, I would be remiss if I failed to mention an intriguing related line of reasoning in Iran‘s postrevolutionary political theology.


Comparative philosophies of three prominent theologians


Primary discipline

Dialogue of influences

Primary contribution



Islam-critical rationalism (British)

Variable nature of religious knowledge



Islam-hermeneutics (German)

Limited Nature of religious knowledge



Islam-casuistry of application

Plural nature of religious knowledge

 Table 1


That is the sophisticated and, one might argue, almost sophistic position of Sa’id Hajjarian and ‘Abdollah Nuri, who endorse the letter of the principle of velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih but argue that “logically” it cannot be an autocratic institution, for in that case it would be indistinguishable from tyranny.  They suggest that the principle be upheld in literal terms but given a thoroughly democratic interpretation.  Table 1, Provides a brief comparative outline of the above-mentioned theologies.



The complementarity and convergence of the three political theologies discussed in this chapter are evident in the above table.  Whereas Sorush emphasizes the variable nature of religious knowledge and Shabestari underlines its limited nature, Kadivar substantiates the multiple natures of religious theses.  Each theologian questions the absolutist and totalitarian theology of the ruling clerical elite in the Islamic Republic, and each utilizes the indigenous sources of scholarship and erudition to oppose the hegemony of -clerocracy” in Iran.  Sorush and Shabestari represent the maturing of the dialogue of Iranian-Islamic’ thought with Western social and political philosophy and theology, while Kadivar represents the coming of age of indigenous Islamic political theology, reclaiming and reinterpreting its pluralistic and democratic elements and relying on the contested nature of the knowledge it produces.

As I pointed out earlier, people like Shabestari and Sorush are the intellectual faces of the massive disenchantment of Iranians with the promises of theocracy, while President Khatami and the new reformist Majles represent its political face.  As we enter a new millennium, the intransigence of the clerical establishment against the decisive electoral will of the people, as expressed in the election of Khatami and the reformist Majles, its crackdown against reform-minded newspapers, its jailing of journalists and intellectuals, and its increasingly belligerent and bellicose tone against democracy and reform is radicalizing the reform movement and its theological and political rhetoric.  It may have been a portent of the darkening horizons of peaceful political reform when Kadivar in an interview remarked that the attempt by Khatami to compromise with and to rehabilitate the regime of the velayat-e faqih might have reached an impasse.[28]




[1] At least, this is the way Greek philosophers understood the contrast between the two cultures.  See Mahmoud Sadri, “Tahlil-e jame’eh-shenakhti-ye maffium-e ‘farr-e izadi’ dar Shahnameh-ye Ferdawsi (The sociological implications of the notion of ‘farr-c izadi’ in Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh), Kiyan 5, no. 22 (fall 1996), pp. 54-9.

[2] Said Amir Arjomand, the Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago: University of Chicago.  Press, 1984).

[3] Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran: 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

[4] By secularism I mean the so-called objective secularism of Daniel Bell, Robert Bellah, and Peter Berger, in the sense of the modern differentiation of institutions, not the subjective secularism in the sense of cultural and psychological decimation of religion.  I define the term political theology, following Leo Strauss’s notion of political philosophy, as a form of theology that concerns religious legitimacy or admissibility of government.  Coining this term for the case of Iran, and maybe for other Oriental cultures as well, is useful in view of the fact that secular philosophical thought in the form of political philosophy is not indigenous to most nonwestern societies and thus political mediation has befallen theologians and religious thinkers.

[5] The American journalist Robin Wright and many others after her have referred to Sorush as the “Luther of Islam,” a designation that indicates, above all, the level -:’attention that Sorush’s thought has deservedly found in the West.

[6] Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: The Essential Writings of ‘Abdolkarim Sorush, trans. and ed.  Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (Oxford and New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2000).  This book includes eleven of his essays, as well as an introduction and interview concerning his intellectual biography.

[7] See Sorush’s essay, ‘What the University Expects from the Hawzeh, “in Sadri 1 and Sadri Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, pp. 171-83.

[8] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Penguin, 1985), part 1; Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Federalist Papers, no. 10 (New York: Modern Library, 1888), n. 51.

[9] Reason and Freedom,” in Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, pp.88 – 104

[10] Mojtahed-Shabestari identifies himself as a “motekallem,” that is, a practitioner of kalam, a discipline shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that seeks determine the “relationship between the consciousness of divine revelation and the consciousness of human philosophy.” Shabestari calls for a renewal of kalam (kalam-e jadid).  Such a discipline would undertake a new assessment of the relationship between the divine and the human.  Iman va azadi (Faith and freedom) (T’ehran: Tarh-e Naw, 1998), p. 64.

[11] There is ample evidence in his works that he not only has come into contact with the works of such contemporary Protestant theologians as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, as well as Catholic thinkers like Tyrell, but that he has also engaged in comparing their contributions and opinions with such Islamic thinkers as Ibn ‘Arabi.  See, for example, Mojtahed-Shabestari, Hermeneutics, ketab va sonnat: farayand-e tafsir va vahy (Hermeneutics, the Book, and the Tradition: The process of exegesis and revelation) (Tehran: Tarh-e Naw, 1999), p. 132.  He has also published an essay, “Christian Theology,’ which has been reprinted in Irnan va azadi, pp. lS7-62.

[12] For example, he unabashedly posits two of the most revered components of Shi’i theology, that is, ejtehad (religious adjudication) and tafsir (exegesis), as instances of the discipline of hermeneutics and urges the Islamic seminaries to ‘welcome hermeneutics with all their power and with utmost enthusiasm.” True to this hermeneutic stance, he argues, “It is a delusion to believe that one can empty the mind of all assumptions and suppositions and to access the Qur’an and tradition directly.  Nobody can show an example of the success of such an endeavor . . . all commentators have reached conclusions based on their necessary mental limitations.’ Iman va azadi, pp. 8, 31, 135.

[13] Hermenutik, ketab va sonnat, pp. 47, 49, 56, 54, 62.

[14] He writes, for example, “The Qur’an and the tradition (of the Prophet and the Imams) are to inspire us, as [they provide] the eternal source of values; they are not to instruct us as to the specific forms and manners of life.” Hermenutik, ketab va sonnat, p. 90.  It is in this context that Shabestari argues that such issues as qesas, that is, the laws pertaining to revenge and restitution, were not legislated by the Qur’an but simply regulated, modified, and rationalized.

[15] Ibid., p. 234.  It is here that he comes closest to the theology of Harvey Cox, Reinhold Niebuhr, Tillich, and Barth.

[16] Iman va azadi p. 67.

[17] Ibid., pp. 1345 192.

[18] Mojtahed-Shabestari,, Naqdi bar qera’at-e rasmi az din (A critique of the official reading of religion) (Tehran: Tarh-e Naw, 2000). pp. 18, 22-9, 199-312.

[19] Unpublished interview, Tehran, 3 January 2001.

[20] In the text of his defense in the Special Court of the Clergy, Kadivar made a statement that symbolizes both the source of his authority and the potential danger that he poses to the theocratic rule in Iran: “To attribute to the mojtahed who rejects the veracity of the principle of the trusteeship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih), a basic lack of jurisprudential knack is wielding a two-edged sword, for the accused mojtahed has the power to pay back in kind.” Baha-ye azadi: defa’iyat-e Mohsen Kadivar (The price of freedom: The text of Mohsen Kadivar’s defense in the Special Court of the Clergy) (Tehran: Nashr-e Ney, 1999).

[21] His most pivotal book, Hokumat-e vela’I (Government by mandate), has eleven pages of Arabic references and only three pages of Farsi references.  Infrequent references to Western sources (as in, for example, his book Nazariyehha-ye hokumat dar feqh-e shieh [Theories of government in the Shi’i jurisprudence]) tend to be to translations.  Kadivar’s lack of contact with the West may explain why he is more conservative than Sorush and Shabestari with regard to social issues, even though he is in complete agreement with them on political matters.

[22] Kadivar elaborates on this view in the second book in his trilogy, under the rubric of “the principle of no mandate” (asl-e ‘adam-e velayat).  See Hokumat-e vela’i                                       (Government by mandate) (Tehran: Nashr-e Ney, 1999), chaps. 7 and 8.

[23] Baha-ye azadi, p. 97.

[24] Those in favor of this concept include Seyyed Mohammad Hasan Najafi, Seyyed Mohammad Hoseyn Borujerdi, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  The opposing camp is equally replete with religious authorities, such as the following grand ayatollahs: Sheykh Morteza Ansari, the author of one of the most revered advanced texts of Shi’i jurisprudence, Akhund Molla Mohammad Kazem Khorasani, Seyyed Mohsen Hakim, Seyyed Ahmad Khonsari, and Seyyed Abolqasem Kho’i

[25] Hokumat-e vela’i, p. 237.  Kadivar reiterates the same statement in a variety of other arguments in this book (see, for example, pp. 81, 98, 107, 232, 334).  From among those who recognized any kind of trusteeship for jurists, the verdict of the obvious majority of the experts limited such a mandate only to the cases of death (vali-ye dam, vali-ye ers) or when a client is a minor or an imebecile (vali-ye seghar, vali-ye majnun) (p. 74).

[26] The sermon, The Religious Prohibition of Terrorism,” was delivered in the Hoseynabad Mosque of Esfahan in December 1998, and the interview was granted to the reformist newspaper Khordad in January 1999.  The charges against Kadivar as specified in the court verdict against him included propagandizing against the Islamic Republic of Iran and spreading falsehoods and disturbing the public opinion.  See Baha-ye azadi, p. 121.

[27] Ibid., p. 129.

[28] Interview with Christiane Hoffman, Frankfurter Allgemeine (2 August 2000).