December 1, 2002 No.

The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence

By: A. Savyon*

Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a University of Hamedan history lecturer, journalist, and active member of the reformist Islamic Revolution's Mujahideen Organization (IRMO), was arrested in August 2002 and sentenced to death on November 6, 2002, because of a June address he gave commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Dr. 'Ali Shari'ati, one of the ideologues of the Islamic Revolution. In his speech, Aghajari built on the foundation of Shari'ati's thoughts to achieve legitimacy for his own ideas, but actually presented his own perception of "Islamic Protestantism" and reform in Islam;[1] he also criticized Iran's ruling religious establishment.

In his speech, Aghajari argued that a mediating echelon of clerics had developed in Islam that stood between God and the believers - something which runs completely counter to the nature of Islam, which differs from Christianity in this aspect. Aghajari sharply criticized this echelon, which is today in power in Iran, for its conservativism and petrifaction, for blocking society's advancement, and for exploiting the name of God. He also attacked it for its willingness to accept technology, usually rejected on religious grounds, in special cases - such as when it comes in the form of luxury cars. These clerics, says Aghajari, see themselves as above the people, as sanctified; they exploit their status in the regime to ensure their own survival and their hold on power, while corrupting Islam and Islamic values.

Agharaji maintained that these corrupt clerics are blocking the people's, and primarily the young people's, access to the Koran and to understanding it, and preventing them from developing independent thought. He claimed that they have created a state monopoly on the religion. Worst of all, they are changing the essential nature of Shi'ite Islam by imposing a single government interpretation of the religion that perpetuates their status, and by denying other high-ranking clerics' the right to issue religious rulings on the basis that their rulings "are not Islam."

Aghajari was directing his criticism at the low-level clerics who despite their under-qualification nonetheless hold key positions throughout the regime and presume to lead the country in the spirit of Islam. These clerics range from Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, now head of the extremely powerful Expediency Council,[2] down to the lowest echelons of the regime.

In his speech, Aghajari suggested differentiating between what he calls "core Islam," the best of the Islamic religious ideas, and "traditional Islam," which includes various additions to "core Islam" that have occurred over the years. In his opinion, these additions are damaging and are not genuinely based on "core Islam." He said that Islam could be interpreted in accordance with the zeitgeist, and that changes over time necessarily dictated changes in interpreting Islamic precepts.

Agharahji spoke against the "principle of emulation" (Taqlid) in Shi'ite Islam,[3] saying that because of it, the people would always remain enslaved by the clerics' interpretation and would never be able to develop independent thought. He called for a new kind of emulation to underpin the relationship between the clerics and the people: the new model would be the relationship between teacher and pupil - in which the pupil eventually becomes independent - instead of imitation, that is, the relationship between master and servant.

Further, Aghajari said that an essential part of "core Islam" was "Islamic humanism," which would give equal rights to men and women, and to Muslims and non-Muslims, and respect the rights of all. He said that the essence of Islamic humanism is the principle of human rights - treating every person as a human being, even if he is a political dissident. Aghajari also criticized the regime for violating the human rights of political activists, particularly with the use of torture. Click here to read the text of the speech, or scroll down.

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project

[1] Aghajari clarified that religion had always occupied a central role in Iranian society. For the past two centuries, Shi'ite clerics have enjoyed the status of guardians of the Iranian public.

[2] Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds the low rank of Hujjat ul-Islam, was pushed upwards to the rank of Ayatollah when he was appointed Iran's Spiritual Leader, because according to Ayatollah Khomenei's doctrine of "Rule of the Jurisprudent," the jurisprudent who is a source of authority, knowledge and justice is the one worthy of leading the country. No jurisprudent with such qualifications could be found to succeed Khomenei after his death. As will be recalled, Ayatollah Hussein 'Ali Montazari was ousted from his position as Khomenei's successor for criticizing the regime. Rafsanjani is also a Hujjat ul-Islam, even though the conservative press refers to him as an Ayatollah.

[3] According to taqlid (the "principle of emulation") in Shi'ite Islam, society is divided between two categories of religious status. The first group is highly exclusive - the Maraje Taqlid, or "sources of emulation," several Mujtaheds of the rank of Ayatollah Ozma (Grand Ayatollah). These Mujtaheds have the right of Ijtehad. Each of them may issue independent rulings, which applies only to his particular followers. The second group, the "emulators," is the masses. Each Shi'ite Muslim chooses a Marja-e Taqlid, and follows his rulings. In practice, the right of Ijtehad, or the right to issue fatwas, and the principle of emulation contributed to a close relationship between the follower and the leader he chose, and reinforced the Ayatollahs' power to defend society, socially and morally, against oppression by the ruler. It is worth noting that Shi'ite Islam never endorsed any one interpretation of an issue, and no one Ayatollah was officially more senior than another.

Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a University of Hamedan history lecturer, journalist, and active member of the reformist Islamic Revolution's Mujahideen Organization (IRMO), is a disabled veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. In June 2002, Aghajari delivered an address commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Dr. 'Ali Shari'ati, a prominent intellectual and one of the ideologues of the Islamic Revolution.[1] In August 2002, Aghajari was arrested; on November 6 he was sentenced to death by a Hamedan court for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad, insulting the Shi'ite imams, and insulting top state religious authorities.[2]

In his speech, Aghajari used Shar'iati's legacy to express his own criticism of the relations between the state and religion in contemporary Iran. He began his speech by addressing the need to rejuvenate Islam with "Islamic Protestantism" (which Shari'ati had advocated[3]), and reviewed Iran's contemporary history, including the period from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution through the late 1960s and 1970s, saying:

"Some people thought that a military overthrow of the Shah's regime would bring the dawn of a new era… because in Iranian society and Iranian culture, religion is and has been the main core throughout the ages, before Islam [began] and after, before the Safavid dynasty[4] [early 16th century] and after, when the majority of Iranians became Shi'ite Muslims. The following is the text of his speech.[5]

The Concept of Protestantism
In his address, Dr. Aghajari described Christianity prior to Protestantism, focusing on the Church hierarchy and the corruption rampant among the clergy. He said that Islam is in a different position than Christianity: "The Protestant movement wanted to rescue Christianity from the clergy and the Church hierarchy - [Christians] must save religion from the pope. We [Muslims] do not need mediators between us and God. We do not need mediators to understand God's holy books. The Prophet [Jesus] spoke to the people directly… We don't need to go to the clergy; each person is his own clergy."

"Shari'ati maintained that all the religious messages offered by formal and traditional religious organizations were antiquated, and that any protest against [these traditional religious organizations] was [regarded by the clerics as] a protest against Islam itself.

"Core Islam" and "Traditional Islam"
"Part of Dr. Shari'ati's work was to separate [what he called] 'core Islam' from [what he called] 'traditional Islam.' Many additions were added to Islam's core, [but] they were not part of the core; they were merely historical additions. It must be kept in mind that 70 or 80 years ago, the Shi'ite Muslim clergy was opposed to eliminating public bathhouses where one could immerse oneself in large containers of water and replacing them with showers and modern bathing facilities. But, of course, they have made some concessions to modernity when it comes to their own lifestyles, such as owning a car."

The Role of the Traditional Clerics
"At the time of the Constitutional Revolution [1905-1907], the Islamic clergy was opposed to modern sciences such as chemistry and physics… [In their eyes], chemistry meant that there is no God. But in today's world the clerics take what suits them. If I drive a Peykan [a cheap Iranian-made car] they drive the latest model luxury cars (audience applause). Is this right? They have made these concessions because they use [modernity for their own benefit]; they taste it and then decide that it isn't such a bad thing (smiles in the audience). Seventy or 80 years ago, they opposed these things in the name of Islam; they called it Haraam [forbidden in Islam]. Up until very recently, learning English in Islamic religious institutes of higher learning was forbidden."

The Need to Separate "Core Islam" from "Traditional Islam"
"Dr. Shari'ati would have said that this clergy has not descended from Heaven; it is contemporary, but their minds are medieval. As long as this mindset does not change, and these leaders do not change, the people who follow their interpretation will continue to think that Shi'ite Islam cannot be a modern religion, and [Shi'ite Islam] will be used by the misguided. Instead of serving as a driving force for progress and advancement, it will become a cause of continued backwardness."

"Dr. Shari'ati sought to fight this attitude. He wanted to separate 'core Islam' from the 'traditional Islam' which is comprised of interpretation of Islam by the leaders of previous generations - because he believed that 'traditional Islam' was merely the result of the experiences of some people from generations past and that it should not be sanctified. [The clerics'] thinking is inflexible and incomplete. In our tradition, Shi'ites wear a ring on the middle finger of the left hand. This is a symbol of being a Muslim. If you ask one of these clerics [about it], they say it is an obligation and a religious principle. Look at the writings of Alameh Majlesi and the book of Halieh Al-Motaqin - the book that guided Muslims 1400 years ago. Now imagine that today a Muslim wants to dress like they did then, eat like they used to, act like they used to. Is this Islam?"

"[The way in which] the religious scholars of previous generations understood and interpreted Islam is not Islam. It was their interpretation of Islam; [however] just as they had the right to interpret the Koran [in their way], we have the same right. Their interpretation of Islam is not an article of faith for us. We must return to the separation of 'core Islam' and 'traditional Islam.' Part of Shari'ati's struggle concerned the interpretation of Islam and how someone who wants to be a Muslim in the 20th and 21st centuries [cannot do so in accordance with] the Islam that prevailed in Mecca and Medina 1400 years ago - [towns] with fewer residents than some of today's smaller Iranian villages."

Islam Must Suit the Thoughts and Reality of Today
"The Islam of today is different. It is very clear that we have a different understanding of it in all areas, including economics. It has to suit the thoughts and realities of today… Just as people at the dawn of Islam conversed with the Prophet, we have the right to do this today. Just as they interpreted what was conveyed [to them] at historical junctures, we must do the same. We cannot say: 'Because this is the past we must accept it without question.' This is putting too much emphasis on the past. This is not logical…"

"For years, young people were afraid to open a Koran. They said, 'We must go ask the Mullahs what the Koran says,' [since] it was used primarily in mosques and cemeteries. The new generation was not allowed to come near the Koran; [young people] were told that [first] they needed [training in] 101 methods of thought and they did not possess them. Consequently, [the young people] feared reading the Koran. Then came Shari'ati, and he told the young people that these ideas were bankrupt; [he said] you could understand the Koran using your own methods - you could understand as well as the religious leaders who claim to have a ton of knowledge. The religious leaders taught that if you understand the Koran on your own, you have committed a crime. They feared that their racket would cease to exist if young people learned [Koran] on their own…"

The Clerics Have Become a Ruling Class
"In Islam, we never had a class of clergy; some clerical titles were created as recently as 50 or 60 years ago. Where did we have a clerical class in the Safavid dynasty? [Today's titles for Islamic clergy] are like the Church hierarchy - bishops, cardinals, priests. This type of hierarchy in [contemporary Shi'ite Islam] is an imitation of the Church. [Today], this clerical hierarchy is headed by the Ayatollah Ozma [i.e. the 'Grand Ayatollah']… And a level down you have an ayatollah, Hujjat ul Islam, Thaqqat ul Islam, and so on."

"In the past few years, [the religious institutions] have become a sort of government institution, and the issue has become more sensitive. Is there anyone in our society who understands the distinction between a Hujjat ul Islam and an Ayatollah?[6] Shari'ati said that in Islam we do not have a class of religious leaders. This is not the 'core Islam.' It is a development of historical Islam, and, fortunately, we have not yet seen [in Iran the establishment of] a single central apparatus based on the ranks of clerical titles. For years, there were many parallel [Marja-e Taqlid] institutions,[7] and each Marja-e Taqlid [Ayatollah Ozma] [Grand Ayatollah] had his own structure."

"Today, [the ruling clergy] in Iran wants to consolidate all the Ayatollah Ozma organizations under a single rule. (The audience applauds wildly.) Shari'ati said that in Iran, we have never had a true clerical class. This is what they want to do in our country. I doubt whether they will succeed because of our independence and the elements that we have in Shi'ite Islam. The divisions and the hierarchies they wanted to create are Catholic [and not Islamic]… Some of the clergy are so engrossed in what they are trying to do that they start thinking of themselves as icons…"

A Cleric is Not a Divine Being
"Shari'ati used to say that the relationship between [the clergy] and the people should be like the relationship between teacher and pupil - not between leader and follower, not between icon and imitator; the people are not monkeys who merely imitate. The pupils understand and react, and they try to expand their own understanding, so that someday they will not need the teacher. The relationship that the fundamentalist religious people [seek] is one of master and follower; the master must always remain master and the follower will always remain follower. This is like shackles around the neck [i.e. eternal slavery]. We must understand that the master is not a holy, divine being, and we cannot grant him that status. They [the Iranian ruling clergy], however, want to exercise total power. Shari'ati did something about it; he told the religious leaders: 'You are not imams, you are not prophets, [you] cannot consider the people a subhuman species.' They are born the same way we all are, their blood is the same color as yours; they are born like you; they issue from their mothers' wombs… They are the same creatures of God that you are…'"

Non-Muslims Too Have Inalienable Rights
"If we, as Muslims of divine and perfect Islam, value mankind, and say that [people] are human beings regardless of religion, even if they are not Muslims, even if they are not Iranians, such as Turks, Kurds and Lurs,[8] whatever they may be - [we should say that] they are human and they have inalienable rights. Dr. Shari'ati believed that in the Western world, humanism is not strongly rooted because it is not based on religious principles. But in Islam, humanism is God's creation; it is by God's grace that we are here. These should not be merely nice words that we utter, like saying people have rights. Such words are vitally important - they are crowns on our heads. [Therefore], when [ordinary people] want to express an opinion, [the clerics cannot say] they haven't the power to decide and don't know what's good for them."

"Today's Islam [should be] 'core Islam,' not 'traditional Islam.' Islamic Protestantism is logical, practical and humanist. It is thoughtful and progressive. In contrast to the days of Shari'ati and his followers - who were religious reformists, both clergy and non-clergy, in religious and university circles, such as [Ayatollah] Taleqani[9] and [Mahdi] Bazargan,[10] [Ayatollah] Beheshti[11] and [Ayatollah] Mottahari,[12] and the leader of them all, the great leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini [here, Aghajari did not pause long enough to allow the audience to praise Khomeini's name the customary three times, but only once], all of whom tried to say that Islam is connected to life, and is not indifferent to society and people, today we are facing a difficulty. Many people who were not even part of the Islamic Revolution have now come to center stage and say that 'traditional Islam' is true Islam. The difference between our time and Shari'ati's time is that then, the clergy did not have power. Today, Islam is in power; clerics are in the government. That is why Islamic Protestantism has become much more important today."

We Need a Religion that Respects the Rights of All
"We need a religion that respects the rights of all - a progressive religion, rather than a traditional religion that tramples the people. We cannot say 'Anyone who is not with me is against me.' One can be whatever one wants to be. One must be a good person, a pure person. We must not say that if you are not with us we can do whatever we want to you. By behaving as we do, we are trampling our own religious principles…"

The Clerics Don't Observe the Constitution - Flogging is Torture
"When someone says, 'I'm an [observant] Muslim,' you can no longer curse him, insult him, this is haraam, haraam [forbidden]. In our culture we need Islamic humanism; we need both religious culture and community culture. Every human being is worth something; none can be trampled. This principle is stated in our constitution. But unfortunately in the past decade, it has penetrated the minds of the people in the Islamic Republic that it needn't be so. This was their excuse for torture. They [the ruling clergy] say: 'We arrested someone, he has some information, he is a member of some group, he has been active in something. Under ordinary interrogation he isn't confessing, so we must torture him so he sings like a canary.' This is exactly what the constitution condemns - but the rulers do not observe it. Whipping is torture. They say that if someone is accused of a crime, he should be made to suffer so he doesn't do it again."

A Call for Islamic Humanism and Islamic Protestantism
"Today, more than ever, we need the 'Islamic humanism' and 'Islamic Protestantism' that Dr. Shari'ati advocated. Today, we need it more than ever. While [the leaders] of the Islamic Republic apparently do not recognize human rights, this principle has been recognized by our constitution. In many non-Islamic countries, they at least recognize these principles in dealing with their own people. Maybe when it comes to other people, they oppress them - [like] what Bush is doing, and most Western nations, if they had the power. Human rights have become so vital in some foreign countries that some of our own clergy, whom I see going for two or three weeks of medical treatment, become enchanted with how the authorities of those countries act towards their own people. About 150 years ago, [a Muslim cleric] went to Europe; when he came back, he said, 'I saw no Muslims in Europe, but I saw Islam' [i.e. he saw righteousness]. In our time, we see Muslims, but we don't see Islam (audience applause)."

Without Respect for Human Beings, There is No Islam
"The regime divides people into insiders and outsiders. They [the ruling clergy] can do whatever they want to the outsiders. They can go to their homes, steal their property, slander them, terrorize them, and kill them - like [the intellectual activists] Said Hejjarian, and the late [Dariush] Forouhar and his wife [Parvaneh Eskandari][13] - because they were outsiders. Is this Islamic logic? When there is no respect for human beings?""

When [Imam] 'Ali [the Prophet Muhammad's son in law and successor, according to Shi'ite Islam] sent an emissary to Egypt, he told him, 'You are a powerful man. Be good and just to the people. There are two groups of these people: Either they are Muslims, and therefore your brothers, or they are your fellow human beings. Behave towards them according to Islam.' Islam does not say Muslims and non-Muslims…"

A Call for Ijtehad; Men and Women are Equal
"Finally, Islamic Protestantism is something we need because when our religious understanding and thought are betrayed, we must constantly refer back to our own religious frame of reference. In Shi'ite Islam they call it Ijtehad.[14] Shari'ati had some serious thoughts about Ijtehad. First, Ijtehad is not limited to one group. Second, Ijtehad does not mean that only one cleric is the well-versed expert [Marja-e Taqlid]. Unfortunately dishonesty, deception, and petrifaction happen when religiously observant people go to a Marja-e Taqlid ['Source of Emulation'] [of their choice], who issues a fatwa, and then other clergymen attack him or the fatwa. You saw what happened with Ayatollah Saneii. Some of the clergy say that a Mujtahed [high-ranking Ayatollah] can issue a fatwa. Then, when he issues a fatwa [that is counter to the ruling clerics' views] they [the ruling clergy] say: 'You may not do so and reinterpret [the Koran].' A Marja-e Taqlid may say: 'I have performed Ijtehad [and issued a fatwa] that contradicts what has been said before,' 'Women have as many rights as men and men and women have equal rights.' Then someone else [of the ruling clergy] attacks this Marja-e Taqlid, telling him, 'Who says that your opinion represents Islam? This is not Islamic.' So I [Aghajari] ask: 'Why is one more Islam than the other?"

Voices from the Audience:
Someone shouts: "Because one fatwa is the word of the Koran and the other is not." Someone else protests, calling "Aghajari namard" (you are not a man, therefore you are a scoundrel), and repeats, "You are a liar," "namard," and "You accuse God and the prophets of lying." At this point, Aghajari leaves the meeting.

[1] Shari'ati (b. 1933) was a political activist who called for moves against the Shah to be based on Islam, even though he was not a cleric. His anti-imperialist approach and condemnation of both liberal capitalism and Marxism attracted a strong student following. Shari'ati said that the solution for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East was "Islamic humanism." He attacked the traditionalist clergy and their fatalism towards and appeasement of the Shah's regime. Even though he rejected Marxism as a political system, he was profoundly influenced by Marx, and adopted his terminology. Shari'ati died in 1977 under mysterious circumstances.

[2] IRNA, November 13, 2002. According to IRNA, he was also sentenced to 74 lashes and eight years' imprisonment in desert cities, and banned from teaching for 10 years.

[3] The transcript of the speech includes the transcriber's comments on the audience's response to Aghajari's comments on various issues.

[4] From the time Shi'ite Islam was endorsed as Iran's state religion in 1501 by the Shah Isma'il, the founder of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), coexistence and peace reigned between the religious and political establishments. Not only did the shah reign, but he also sought religious legitimacy for his rule, and the clergy was given central posts in the government. During the Qajar Dynasty (1796-1925), major shifts became evident in the interrelations between state and religion; since the 19th century, the clergy has been at the forefront of popular anti-regime movements. These shifts were largely the result of changes in the religious establishment, as it increased the clergy's standing and power and encouraged it towards fundamentalism and political activism.

[5] For the complete speech see:

[6] i.e. between low-ranking religious scholars and the highest rank of all. Apparently hinting to the fact that several political leaders of Iran such as 'Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual Leader, and 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's former president and currently head of powerful 'Expediency Council,' carry the rank of Hujjat ul Islam without having the religious scholarly qualifications.

[7] Ijtehad is the right to issue fatwas based on the independent thinking and interpretation by an authorized cleric. According to taqlid (the "principle of emulation") in Shi'ite Islam, society is divided between two categories of religious status. The first group is highly exclusive - the Maraje Taqlid, or "sources of emulation," several Mujtaheds of the rank of Ayatollah Ozma (Grand Ayatollah). These Mujtaheds have the right of Ijtehad. Each of them may issue independent rulings, which apply only to his particular followers. The second group, the "emulators," is the masses. Each Shi'ite Muslim chooses a Marja-e Taqlid, and follows his rulings. In practice, the right of Ijtehad and the principle of emulation contributed to a close relationship between the follower and the religious leader he chose, and reinforced the Ayatollahs' power in society, socially and morally, against oppression by the ruler. It is worth noting that Shi'ite Islam never endorsed any one interpretation of an issue, and no one Ayatollah was officially more senior than another

[8] One of Iran's ethnic minorities.

[9] Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleqani, a well-liked liberal, progressive, and intellectual cleric. He was Ayatollah Khomenei's ally during the Islamic Revolution, although he had reservations about Khomenei's thought.

[10] The first prime minister under the Islamic regime, and one of the important intellectuals who supported the Islamic Revolution. He was later deposed by Ayatollah Khomenei.

[11] Another high-ranking Ayatollah who supported the Islamic Revolution.

[12] Ayatolla Morteza Mottahari, a leading cleric who was imprisoned by the Shah.

[13] The last two were murdered in November 1998 with the involvement of "rogue agents of the Intelligence Ministry." No one has been sentenced for the crime. Iran Daily (English), November 23, 2002.

[14] For explanation of terms, see Footnote No. 7.