Qom, Islam, views of democracy…

(Writing started Friday morning, Teheran airport.)

Yesterday, Thursday, was one of the most interesting days of this whole,
two-month-long visit to the Middle East. In the morning, Bill and
I went to Qom, the religious-studies center where Ayatollah Khomeini
and numerous other architects of Iran’s Islamic revolution received their
intellectual training. In the afternoon, we spent nearly four hours
at a conference in the Education Ministry where cutting-edge thinkers from
today’s Iran– including one wearing the robes of trained mullah– grappled
with fundamental issues in the relationship between religion and democracy.

But I guess that before I take you through that day, I’d better back up
a little…

When we arrived here at Teheran airport, Tuesday evening, we were still
confidently thinking we’d soon be boarding a car and making the drive to the
conference we’d been invited to at Ferdowsi University, in Mashhad. Eight
hours? 10 hours? Eleven? We really didn’t know how long
the drive would be, but we figured we could sleep through it and arrive sometime
the next morning for the two-day conference. Our dear friend from Charlottesville
Abdel-Aziz Sachedina, one of the conference organizers, had told us that his
Teheran-based friend F.H. would be helping us with the arrangements. Sure
enough, as we exited from the Customs area at the airport, a friendly
business executive in his late thirties came over to introduce himself to
us as F.H…

But F.H. had some slightly disturbing news. Something– we only learned
later what it was– had gone wrong with the arrangements in Mashhad. So
now, instead of a two-day conference on Religion and Democracy there, there
there would only be one short round-table discussion. Would it still
be worth our while making the long drive, just for that? he asked. He
seemed to think not, and he warmly invited us to stay with him for our time
in Iran, instead. After some to-ing and fro-ing, that was what we decided
to do.

He and his wife Rana were extraordinarily generous and kind to us. They
are very pious, observing Muslims who live with their three kids in a lovely
home in northern Teheran. In the basement of the home, there’s a guest
apartment, a large prayer room, an exercize-machine space, and a good-sized
indoor swimming pool. By the time we arrived, Rana had made the guest space
ready for us.

We spent some really interesting time visiting with the two of them and
their kids, and on Wednesday they arranged a driver and translator to take
us round Teheran a bit. We hadn’t prepared for that in even the most
basic way of getting a guidebook in advance, figuring out what we really wanted
to see, etc. Bill and I had each been to Teheran once before– separately,
and before the 1978-79 revolution… Anyway, we had an interesting time in the city Wednesday– and in the evening, we finally got to a bookstore where
we found a local edition of the 2002 edition of the Lonely Planet guide
to Iran to help refresh our very rusty memories of what’s good to see and
do in the country.

Based on that, a trip to Qom on Thursday definitely looked do-able. It’s
about 90-120 minutes’ drive from Teheran We thought we might also take
in Khashan, a small city a further hour away… F. immediately organized
a driver and the same translator as before, for that trip. So on Thursday,
we were just having breakfast prior to leaving for Qom when Aziz Sachedina called:
the organizers of the conference had made arrangements to hold a second, follow-up
session involving many of the participants, in Teheran, starting at
3 p.m. that day. And we were invited. It would be held at “a
location yet to be disclosed.”

I spoke with Sachedina during that call, and he confirmed the news we had
heard from F. during the two preceding days. The “trouble” the conference
had had at Mashhad had been the publication of threats of violence against
five of the invited participants
, should they be “bold” enough to make an
appearance at Ferdowsi University. One of those threatened was Dr. Abdelkarim
Soroush, an Iranian scholar of democracy and Islam who has worked at several
leading universities in the U.S., and who currently lives and works in Germany.
The issuance of these threats, and the failure of the local authorities
in Mashhad to guarantee the safety of the threatened scholars
meant that
the conference organizers had not felt confident of being able to assure
their safety if they should go there.

All this despite the fact that– as Sachedina explained to me later– the
organizers at Ferdowsi University had been planning the conference for a
year already, and had made sure to get all the relevant permissions for its
holding, including the visas for participants, etc. (Ferdowsi, like
all big universities in Iran is a government institution.)

Bill and I quickly figured we had time to get to Qom and back in time for
the afternoon conference session, and set out on the trip. Within Iran, Mashhad
and Qom are known as the two most important sites of Shi-ite pilgrimage and
learning– Qom, maybe, more for its learning, and Mashhad for its array of
pilgrimage sites. But we figured that since we hadn’t gotten to Mashhad, at least getting to Qom would be worthwhile, even though the
L.P. seemed to say that “nonbelievers” couldn’t get into the main central
shrine at all…

Well, that luckily proved not to be true.
We made a very lengthy
drive through Teheran, headed south past the huge, mosque-like complex at
Imam Khomeini’s burial site to the southwest of the city, and took an excellent,
modern highway through the stony desertto Qom, arriving on the outskirts
of the city at around 11 .a.m.

We had learned beforehand that Qom (pop. 270,000 — L.P.) is one of the most socially
conservative cities in the country. The measure that nearly all Iranians
use for that is the degree of hijab that women wear in public. And
though I’d vowed before going to Iran that I really didn’t want to get into
the minutiae of this most-discussed of all issues, I should just say here
there was indeed a notable contrast in dress-code between Teheran and Qom.
In Teheran, many women– the younger ones especially– appear in public
in tight blue jeans topped by some kind of a long shirt, usually black, that
comes down to the mid-thigh– and this is sometimes slit up the sides, as
well. In the colder weather we’re now exeriencing that item is often
topped off with a big down jacket. Then over their hair, they’d wear
a loose-ish scarf that would allow plenty of hair to show. In Teheran, you
can also see many more conservative versions of hijab, including the
all-enveloping chador cloth in plain black or sometimes a flowered

But on the streets of Qom as we drove in, all the women on the streets were
in full black chador.

We drove through broad areas lined with greasy car mechanics, small retail
stores, and two- and three-story housing blocks. Nearly everything in
Qom seems to be built of the light yellow brick that is used from Iran eastwards
through the rest of Central Asia…. As we got nearer the ciy center the
streets got busier, more filled up with cars, motor-bikes, and small vans loaded with
produce careening around every traffic circle. As we got nearer the shrine complex, too, the proportion amongst
the pedestrians and the other drivers of men wearing the turbans and flowing
brown or black robes of mullahs steadily increased…

In a cacophony of traffic we drove one time slowly right down the side
of the shrine complex, peering back at it out of the car windows. But
the driver knew where he was going: he drove on past the tiny alleys of the
teeming central bazaar, described a broad loop, and came back on the other
side of the shrine complex to dive down into a small yard that was being used
for parking. We walked up past a row of colorful candy stores to one
of the shrine entrances and were just making our way in when–

Before we left the house that morning, Rana, our hostess, had explained
the Qom dress code to me, and she loaned me a large, black, square headscarf
and a long monto (overcoat), of the type that usually satisfies all
hijab restrictions. She made sure I knew how to tie the scarf so
that none of my hair showed… So that’s how I was entering
the shrine in Qom: scarf tied just so; and just-above-the-ankles monto,
worn over baggy black pants. (Okay so the monto, being rendered
in a sort of leopard-skin print, wasn’t exactly the most conservative thing
on earth. At least it covered a lot– and it wasvery, very warm!)

But one of the guards at the entrance of the shrine had definite views
about the inappropriate way that both the translator–who was in a vastly
baggy big black monto, and a slightly bright-colored scarf– and
I were dressed. Before we were allowed into the shrine the driver had
to go back to one of the candy stores to rent out full-length black chadors
for both of us. I’ve never worn one before. It is simply a single
vast, almost semi-circular piece of fabric that is supported by divine power
atop the head and then has to be held–or sometimes, discreetly tucked–
into place around the whole of the female form. Since I was also holding
a purse and a small tote bag with a few things in, and since the chador
they brought me seemed extremely long and capacious, I had a terrible time
preventing the chador from all slithering to the floor, and also, preventing
the draping ends from trailing onto the floor to trip me as I walked.

Once the translator and I were “appropriately” wrapped up, the guard in question
went on, officiously waving a green feather duster in front of him, to
chide many other people about their dress. We were by no means the
only ones!

He had seemed a little hostile to us altogether, but soon another shrine
official came and led us into the first of the courtyards. It was
a broad area of polished marble, surrounded by buildings that were faced
in beautifully intricate tilework in (mainly) aqua and white mosaic-ed tile,
and the whole thing was topped by two tall domed buildings: one with the
dome in the midstof being re-covered with gold leaf, the other with the
same kind of mosaic-ed tile decoration. Perhaps eighty yards by eighty,
perhaps, that first courtyard? Hundreds of pilgrims were milling about
it. Many in family groups; some with almost Chinese-like, or certainly
eastern Turkic faces; many in Afghan or Pakistani-style garb; all the women
in full chadors. Imagine tryng to push a stroller or control
an unruly child while managing a chador! There they were, doing
unbelievably difficult things like that.

We were led through the first courtyard into a second one beyond it, and
were taken to a reception room run by the “international relations department”
of the shrine. A friendly English-speaking guy in his late thirties
received us, and had us sit down while he told us about the shrine. I
would have told you more of the details he gave us except that I was still
trying how to figure out my chador, and also starting to overheat
from having that wrapped around me on top of the long monto and everything
else… He also gave us little packages of sugar candy that had been “blessed” by being touched to some portion of the shrine.

The shrine is old. It is built on the site of the grave of
Fatima al-Masuma, the sister of Imam Reza (the eighth of the historical
imams revered by Shi-ites, who is buried at Mashhad). Faima was on
her way from Medina to Mashhad when she fell sick near Qom and eventually
died there… sometime in the ninth century C.E.

Rather nice to have such an impressive shrine built to a woman, don’t you

So around the shrine, a lot of theological training institutions had grown
up over the years. I think the most important one in town is called
the Faiziyah. That’s where Khomeini and a lot of his colleagues had
studied. Later, we drove past a couple of the theological schools:
now, they are large, well-built complexes. The guy who talked to us
in the shrine said there are 70,000 students in all the schools and colleges
run under the auspices of the shrine, including special schools for non-Iranian
students, and for women.

The shrine was striking for a number of reasons. Architecturally,
it was certainly huge, distinctive, and generaly very lovely. (For
me, the only really discordant esthetic note was the couple of large archways
lined on the inside with complex, cascading arrays of mirrored glass… Extremely tacky, imho. But
I guess whoever designed them must have really liked the effect.) Then, I
always like visiting shrine sites and seeing the mix of other people who
have also traveled there… In Qom, in addition, there’s this strong
sense of this place– along with Najaf, where Khomieni also studied and
taught for, I think, about 16 years– having been the incubator for some
sets of ideas that ended up significantly changing the politics and
society in this part of the world.

We wandered over into the third of the big courtyards of the complex and
looked at the large mosque that fronts onto it, with its fabulous, slightly
onion-shaped, tiled dome and two stately minarets. We could not,
however, go into either the mosque or the mausoleum of Fatima al-Masouma,
these all being off-limits to non-believers…

Our next stop, once we’d deposited the chadors, was a visit to the
house Khomeini lived in during his time in Qom. We could not, alas,
get in there either– we were told they had just closed for lunch. But
it was a simple, one-story mud-brick house in a small alley not far from
the shrine. As we’d been told, a very modest little place.

We got on the road quickly back to Teheran, stopping just out of Qom at
a place that advertised itself as a “Fast food” restaurant. There, sure
enough, a smiling row of two scarved young women and one young man were waiting
to take orders for burgers, “Kentucky” chicken, pizzas, and fries… But
it wasn’t particularly “fast”. (I heard someone remark that these kinds
of places were becoming increasingly popular– “because the mullahs really
hate them, so you know if you go there you won’t find any of them there.”)

As we sped on back to Teheran with the sun behind us we had spectacular
views of the salt lakes and red hills that stretch to the north of Qom.

…The translator got on the phone with F.H., and was given details of
the “undisclosed location” at which the afternoon’s conference session would
be held. It was in a ninth-story conference room at the Education Ministry,
very close to Teheran University. The driver dropped us there, and
we entered the long, woode-paneled room just as (I think) the introductions
were coming to an end.

(Continued, on the Dubai-Beirut flight, Friday afternoon):

…Which was a pity, because it was hard after that to figure out who was
who. There were no name tents, and no name-badges. Oh well. There
were probably 15-20 people there when we arrived, all but one of them male.
Sachedine waved to us from the far side of the room and helped us get

I think that few or none of the people from Ferdowsi University had come
to Teheran for this session. But Sachedina and a couple of other people
associated with the (U.S.-based) Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy,
which had co-sponsored the conference, were certianly there. So were
Abdelkarim Soroush — who looks like a slightly younger version of Salman
Rushdie– and Mohsen Kadivar, a tall, gentle-looking figure in mullah’s robes.
Kadivar had also, with Soroush, been one of the targets of the threats
made in Mashhad. Later, we were told that the regime put him in jail
for two and a half years, a few years back, because of his writings.
(Also, much more recently, Soroush was heckled and physically harrassed during
a visit to Qom.)

These two both gave very insightful and clear presentations,
as I shall attempt to summarize in what follows. I wish, though, that
we could have had more time for discussion because there were certainly a
couple of questions I wanted to ask them.

(The proceedings were all bilingual, with the presentations given in either
English or Farsi and then afterwards rendered orally into the other language.
Here, I’m relying mainly on the notes I took during the session, though
I’ll also refer to the abstracts of the presentations distributed by the
conference organizers… Longer versions of the presentations will later
be published as a book, though I believe some of them may be available before
that on the CSID’s website.)

Soroush started out by saying that though there are two main kinds
of theries of democracy– those that look only at its formal or procedural
aspects, and those that attempt to build a full-blown theory of liberal democracy–
he wanted to concentrate at first on theories of formal democracy, and the
compatibility of Islam with such a theory. He asserted forcefully that
the era of seeking to “derive” theories of democracy from foundational Islamic
texts (the Qur’an, the hadith) is no past, “because we’d be trying to conflate
two different worlds, the traditonal and the modern”. He argued that,
“whatever is not incompatible with Islamic teaching can be called Islamic.”

He said many parts of the theory of formal democracy could quite easily
be seen as compatible with Islam, while other parts required more intellectual
exploration. For example, regarding the separation of powers,
he said that Ayatollah Mishkini had written broadly soon after the Islamic
revolution in Iran on how this could be clearly derived from various suras
and hadith. On the independence of the judiciary, he said that
Muslims had had no problem with that, from the days of the Imam Ali on.

However, the two parts of a theory of formal democracy where he said considerably
more work needed to be done by theorists of Islamic democracy were those relating
to issues of political representation, and those relating to the bindingness
of the decisions of a constituent assembly
. (These are, in a sense,
aspects of the same problem.)

He argued that in traditional Islamic theories of fiqh, there was
no theory of representation, but only a theory of agency (vekala)
which as he noted is something significantly different. This, in contrast
to European ideas of the vox populi, or of the “general will”, which
can serve as theories of representation. On bindingness, he noted the distinctive
differences between this and traditional Muslim theories of the purely advisory
role of a “consultative council”.

If Soroush was looking at the kind of intellectual work that theorists of
Islamic democracy (or, Islamic theorists of democracy) need to be doing, Kadivar
set out some of the intellectual/theological bases on which this work
could be done.

He said this work has gone through two main stages. In the first,
people looked at whether democracy was compatible with the kind of Islamic
practiced and presented in the days of the Prophet and the caliphs. “This
was not sophisticated,” he said, “but the answer was Yes. However, it
flew in the face of the evidence.”

Then, as a second stage, people got more sophisticated and started using
more detailed models. They started to understand that there are many
models of democracy and many models of Islam, so the question became to figure
out which of these could be identified as being compatible.

He then presented a theory of what he called “liberated democracy”, based
on six theses:

  1. All people are equal. (As opposed to the times of “historical
    Islam”, which saw differential status and power applied as between males
    and females, members of different religions, or slaves and freemen.)
  2. The freedom to choose and live the religion of your choice, with this
    being conceived of as a continuous right (i.e., people have the right to
    change their religions)
  3. Any intervention in the life of an individual requires his consent.
  4. All religious claims are open to critical evaluation and discussion;
    any statement contrary to reason cannot be called religious.. (In this
    regard, he said if a society using its collective reason comes to agreement
    on religious matters, then this would be close to the workings of a deliberative
  5. The view that there are two types of statements: those that are eternally
    true and those that are subject to change. Statements in the first
    group are all just, all rational, and all “better than alternative models”.
    “If any religious statement lacks any of these attributes, one can
    conclude that it was a temporary one, and its time is over.”
  6. Those statements meant to be eternal address issues above the understanding
    of most people. The other kind can be discerned through collective
    reasoning. The number of “eternal” statements is small. Therefore
    this leaves much, including the form of government, to be determined through
    collective reasoning.

He concluded by saying that democracy can’t necessarily be derived from
the inherited Islamic tradition but must be reasoned toward; and Islam itself
essentially carries the possibility of ijtihad (“interpretation”, a
key concept in Shi’i Islam). He therefore advocated the use of deliberative

… Well, we listened to four or five other papers almost all of which were
equally as interesting as these two, but these two are the only ones I have
time to write about here. One of the other presenters, Forough Jahanbakhsh
(all of whose paper was excellent) made the pertinent point that Iranians
are nowadays “showing the way” in developing theories of Islam and democracy,
and that “Religious intellectuals here have a better basis to do so than
others because we have 25 years of experience of Islamic government to
reflect on

(Finished writing this back in Beirut, Friday evening):

Well, I wish I’d had time to write more about the conference. And
I do have lots more observations to make about the little bit that we saw
of Iran, as well. (Who’d have thought that, as we went in through the
airport, almost all the immigration officials at the desks there would be female?
There’s only one other place that I know of in the Middle East where
thats the case… )

I’ll try to do all that later. But for now, I just want to quickly
put down a few of my own reactions to things that the people in the conference
were saying. One is that Mohsen Kadivar’s six points were all extremely
thought-provoking– and they all seemed to me to be totally compatible with
Quaker faith and practice. No, I’m not saying that maybe the guy’s
a closet Quaker and he never knew it. I’m saying that it was exciting
to hear him come out with so a set of propositions that are so congruent
with the principles the Quakers have arrived at, and tried to live by, over
the past 350 years. Especially (1), the fundamental principle of human equality,
(2 & 3) the importance of– as we understand it– freedom of conscience
and freedom of beief, (4 & 5) something akin to our principle of “continuing
revelation”, and (6), our own, Quaker-developed theories of internal and
external governance. (We would say that in reasoning together collectively,
our work is also guided by the Spirit. I imagine Kadivar might say
the same thing, too.)

I also note that, in regard to Forough Jahanbakhsh’s point, the Quakers also
went through a big experience of trying to run a wordly government: in our
case, that was William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania, which turned
out from many points of view to be a big disappointment. As I understood
what happened, the short version of the story is that the Quakers running
Pennsylvania were so liberal that– in addition to providing a haven for
members of other peace churches who were beng persecuted in Europe, like
the Amish– they also let a bunch of totally pacifistic, non-Quaker-like
settlers cme there, too; and soon enough they lost control over the government
of the colony.

Well, I think that maybe the point here is that if members of faith communities
want to keep true to their beliefs and their practices, they should not try
to run earthly governments, but rather try, firstly to live good, principled
lives themselves, and secondly to affect public policy without seeking
to take it over…

There’s a whole lot more I could say on this subject, and probably will (here,
or elsewhere; even better, perhaps in a continuing dialogue with Mohsen Kadivar?)
But I must say that my experience in Iran this time seemed to confirm
most of my general antipathy to the idea of a religious community trying
to take over the governance of a state: I suspect that it ends up being good
neither for the citizens of the state, nor for the state of actually religious
practice and thought within the faith community itself. (It was,
after all, a real setback for the actual practice of Christianity once the
Christians ceased being fed to the lions and took over the Empire instead…
Prime example of what went wrong there: it wasn’t till that point that the “Christians”
developed a concpet of a “just war” and abandoned the principled pacifism that had earlier
been embeded in the Christian message.)

Anyway, I need to get on with some things now. Including, catching
up with what’s been going on in the world in general while we’ve been in

6 thoughts on “Qom, Islam, views of democracy…”

  1. He argued that in traditional Islamic theories of fiqh, there was no theory of representation, but only a theory of agency (vekala) which as he noted is something significantly different.
    I would certainly like to hear a bit more about this.
    Taking all the political communities of the last 250 years into consideration, I have to say that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hasn’t done too badly. It was an early abolisher of slavery, after all, and a big incubator of anti-slavery thought and feeling.

  2. SM– I copied this comment into the bottom of this JWN post, which is mainly just a reprise of the last portion of the above post. I hope we can continue this discussion there.
    All readers: I want to have the discussion on the substance of the Islam and Democracy issue over on that other Comments board. Here, you can comment about other parts of the above post…

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