Shabbat with a Shi’ite Cleric

I spent a remarkable Shabbat lunch yesterday at the home of JRC members Mark and Margie Zivin, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk with prominent Iranian cleric, Dr. Mohsen Kadivar.  Those who assume all Iranian Shi’ite clergy are fundamentalist totalitarians would do well to learn about figures such as Dr. Kadivar, who is both a respected Muslim scholar and a vocal proponent for religious and political reform in his home country.

Among other things, Dr. Kadivar is well-known for his important three-volume treatise in which he sets forth a religious argument for the creation of an Iranian state based on the values of human rights, freedom and democracy.  He also has the dubious honor of having been jailed twice for his activism: once by the Shah and once by the Islamic regime.

During the latter imprisonment, he spent 18 months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where he repeatedly rejected offers of clemency if he renounced his religious ideas.  Political pressure has led Dr. Kadivar to leave his post at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. He is currently serving as a visiting professor of Religious Studies at Duke University.

Our lunch conversation ran the gamut from political discussions of the current nuclear standoff, to human rights, to the political realities in Iran post-election.   For me, however, the most fascinating element of our discussion came when  Dr. Kadivar expressed his religious views.

Indeed, his dissent is notable because it is essentially spiritual rather than political. At the core of his critique is a challenge to the concept of velayat-e faqih, the religious rationale that was used by the Ayatollah Khomeini to grant absolute power to a Supreme Leader:

Kadivar argues that because the concept was conceived by clerics rather than by Allah, it cannot be considered sacred or infallible. And if clerics have no God-given right to rule, he says, that means that Muslims may freely select their government in a democratic Islamic republic. Kadivar has also formulated a theory on why terrorism is forbidden in Islam—an indirect reproach to an Iranian regime that is widely accused of backing terrorist groups (from Time Magazine, 2004.)

I find the notion of religious reform in Iran to be immensely exciting and I am eager to learn more. In the meantime, our conversation provided yet one more reminder for me that it is enormously important for us – as Americans and as Jews – to make the effort to understand the rich complexities of Iranian society. I am more convinced than ever that the most important way we can engage with Iran is by reaching out to and supporting of courageous individuals such as Dr. Kadivar.

2 thoughts on “Shabbat with a Shi’ite Cleric

  1. Mick Verran

    You write of the importance of understanding Iranian culture, and in the next sentence you pick a side and advocate active support of a specific cause. No need to learn any more about that issue, then!

    Be honest. When you say “engage with Iran”, you really mean “continue to push for changes in Iranian society.”

    Given that much of the hostility to the US in Islamic countries arises because the US continually interferes in the affairs of other countries, how can yet more external interference in Iranian affairs possibly help?

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I fully agree with you that the US should refrain from interfering with Iranian affairs. This is what I wrote upon returning from Iran last year:

      We’d be foolish to deny that there are troubling human rights issues that Iran would do well to address. But at the end of the day, the solutions to these problems are certainly not ours to impose.

      However having said this, I don’t see any shame in supporting the struggle of Iranian human rights activists. I’d also say that holding the Iranian regime accountable for human rights abuse is a very appropriate diplomatic stick, if wielded wisely.

      I’ll quote from one of Iran’s most prominent human rights activists, Shirin Ebadi:

      Most important, the West can keep Iran’s human rights record in the spotlight, for the Islamic system has shown itself to be sensitive to such criticism. The Islamic Republic may hold firm to its right to nuclear power, even if it means suffering sanctions at the hands of the international community. But its more rational policy makers see a tainted human rights record as a self-inflicted wound that weakens Iran’s bargaining power…I see foreign pressure as useful, but it must be the right kind of pressure, targeted and with a purpose.


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