Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Death Penalty

Supremely Bad Reasoning from the Head of the Judiciary

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari
Rah-e Digar /Translation by ABF
December 16, 2013
Newspaper article

In his recent speech, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Chief Judge has said: “When you remind these pseudo-intellectuals of what Islamic principles actually are, they say: ‘which Islam are you talking about, because there are different interpretations of Islam’, whereas the real Islam is nothing but what the late Imam called ‘pure Mohammedan Islam’, that is, the Islam that contains [the elements of] strong faith, unity, glory, jihad, and defense, the true experts of which are seminary specialists and religious authorities who are the sources of imitation [by the rest of the Moslem population]…[And there are of course] firm and convincing responses to relativism in the realm of understanding and epistemology, and the subject has been discussed and analyzed [at great length] in its proper place…Opposing the death penalty is in fact opposing Islamic law, since Qesas is the Koran’s express decree, and when it comes to Islamic decrees such as Qesas, one cannot claim that such and such interpretation says this and that, because we have but one single Islam, and the valid and authoritative source for its accuracy and its interpretation is the methodical and collected understanding of the great religious scholars.” (ISNA News Agency).

With the bully pulpit the Chief Judge has at his disposal, he flies off the handle once in a while and attacks intellectualist theologians who are proponents of human rights, accuses them of being under the influence of the West, of [aiding in] cultural invasion, of being pseudo-intellectuals, of false relativism, and the like, thereby further limiting their already limited space for breathing in this society.

A Chief Judge’s duty is the impartial protection of the intellectual and material rights of all of the country’s citizens, without the slightest discrimination. But lately, our Chief Judge has himself become a party to the litigation, fueling the fire that was lit by individuals and groups who have been conducting spiritual and, at times, physical terror upon dissenters in this country for the last 35 years.

Regarding new interpretations of Koranic decrees that Mr. Larijani is attacking, the following three completely different subject matters must be distinguished from one another:

a)     What decrees exist in Islam’s religious texts?

b)      Are Moslems duty-bound to heed those decrees in all eras?

c)     How does new interpretation of religious texts take shape?

The hugely fallacious reasoning that the likes of Mr. Larijani promote is [the result of] the inadmissible mingling and confusion of the first two subjects. They say since the order of Qesas (capital punishment) exists in the Koran, contemporary Moslems are also obligated to carry out the death penalty without question. This reasoning is fallacious because you cannot deduce an obligation to carry out a certain decree in all eras just because that decree exists in the Koran. You cannot extract a “must” (an obligation) from that “exists” [in the former sentence]. This very basic premise is the starting point of the theoretical differences between Iran’s religious intellectualists with the likes of the Chief Judge regarding Islamic decrees.

It is obvious that no decree can be derived from the Qesas verse unless one interprets it. The fundamental issue is that the Qesas verse and other similar verses, do not have just one single interpretation. Two types of interpretation can be made from the Koran’s verses issuing decrees: a “historic interpretation” and a “non-historic” interpretation. The traditional way of our religious scholars’ interpretation of decree verses is a non-historic one (they consider the decrees contained in the Koran as eternal) but the religious intellectualists’ interpretation of those verses is a historical one (they do not consider those verses to be eternal, and on that basis, they set aside the death penalty and the like.). Both groups utilize methodical theories and ways of understanding and interpretation. There are [therefore] two distinct ways of interpretation.

The religious intellectualists’ very serious question from Foqaha (“Islamic scholars”) is this: why should they set aside their opinions and their methodological means of understanding and interpretation, and follow the views of the religious scholars? Mr. Larijani expressly says “the valid and authoritative source for the accuracy and interpretation (of Islam) is the methodical and collected understanding of the great religious scholars.” Our question is, what possible reason is there to make the validity and accuracy of Islam the sole premise of the official scholars and authorities and their understanding and method [of the religion]? Does Islam have a Catholic Church of its own so that the Church can say “everyone must follow our interpretation of religious texts”?! The main point in the difference of opinion between religious intellectualists and religious scholars is the very question I posed. If our Chief Judge considers the intellectualists’ fundamental, serious, and philosophical question to be [an instance of] Western influence, cultural invasion, false relativism, pseudo-intellectualism, and the like, then he is either feigning ignorance or …

As for the third subject, that is, the historical formation and cultural acceptance of interpretations of religious texts, that is an altogether different story that goes beyond pure theoretical and interpretational discussions. Although interpretation of religious texts is the work of experts, its transformation into an accepted theological and religious tradition in the culture of a particular society occurs over time and can take centuries. Is our own religious scholars’ method (their interpretation of Koranic decrees) anything other than a historical phenomenon that has taken shape over the course of many centuries? It is only through historical analysis that one can understand and ascertain what historical reasons and causes have intervened and influenced the acceptance of such interpretations, and how that which was initially considered heresy and even blasphemy, has become [an integral] part of a religion over time. The history of religions shows that new interpretations initially face very tough resistance and are attacked by fundamentalists and conservatives, and considered heresy or blasphemy. In societies where religion and political power have become a singular entity, those who hold power prevent the new voices from being heard with all their might and at all costs; they create pandemonium in order to prevent a just, philosophical, and theological consideration of the new interpretation, and in order to hide its potential and efficiency in positing religious truth, knowledge and insight, and its practical aspects in social life. They do not give the new interpreters time to understand the mistakes in their work, polish their arguments, test it in the actual realities of man’s historical and social life through trial and error, and reform it so that it can attain historical growth and finally become a powerful movement and [perhaps] become the final word in answering theoretical and practical questions.

Luck, however, sometimes comes to the aid of the new thinkers’ interpretation; various historical causes and factors come to assist and strengthen it; that interpretation remains standing in spite of all the attacks and continues to grow, to expand historically and to take root in society’s culture and tradition and comes to be recognized as an official interpretation. The truth is, the more religious power and political power are separated from each other, the more the analysis of the foundations and the theoretical arguments of the new interpretation with more scientific fairness, becomes possible; theology will be tested based on its own logic, and politics based on its own. The advent of Protestantism in Europe is a prime example of the historical process that I described.


What I stated, clearly shows that, judged scientifically, it is possible for an interpretation to be completely defensible; [it is also possible,] however, for fundamentalist and conservative power holders to crush [the new and defensible interpretation] in the womb and prevent its historical growth and its acceptance in society’s culture and tradition.

Unfortunately, after the victory of the revolution in Iran, the authoritarians have not allowed the voice and the logic of new thinkers to be heard properly in society. They have prevented this thought from becoming a cultural movement with all their might, resorting to any means at their disposal, and in order to obscure the claim of its proponents, prevent its foundations and arguments from being tested in the laboratory of the Iranian people’s lives, and hide its potentials and practicalities, so that it forever remains a malformed premature baby, eventually die and be buried! That, is what has happened these past 35 years.

Had Mr. Larijani stated ‘we have not allowed and we will not allow a new interpretation of Islam to take shape’ he would have said something that was one hundred percent true. But he misleads, so to say, and says that Islam does not have different interpretations!

Can one hold out hope that these swords they keep hanging over the heads of the proponents of a humanist interpretation of religion will be taken away in a few decades, and not over centuries, and that they will become active from a theoretical and practical standpoint, and the interpretation will finally be able to show what it has going for it, what its content is, and what its theoretical, political, and social ramifications are?!

I believe that the continuing developments of recent years in Moslem countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc., are toward the creation of a human-based interpretation of the religion of Islam. My reason is this: What the Moslem and non-Moslem people of these countries want is not to set Islam aside, but to live with human rights, to live with the dignity that is worthy of human beings. This is nothing but a demand for a human-centered (and not a power-centered) interpretation of Islam. That is precisely the Iranian people’s demand. So I am right to be hopeful about the future.