February 21, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 937

Liberal Iraqi Shi'ite Scholar Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji Calls For Reason In Islamic Discourse and Jurisprudence

February 21, 2013 | By Y. Feldner*
Iraq, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 937


On February 18, 2013, the Iraqi media reported that the liberal Iraqi Shi'ite scholar Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji had been arrested the previous day in Qom,[1] Iran, while visiting family.[2]

Sayyed Al-Qabbanji's revolutionary ideas, especially his focus in the last few years on the need to rationalize Islamic religious discourse and jurisprudence, have made him the bane of the powerful Shi'ite clergy in Iraq, and have sparked accusations of heresy against him there – particularly in the months prior to his arrest in Iran.

The news of the arrest was received with mixed reactions by the Iraqi intelligentsia. While his supporters and fellow liberal scholars and politicians have called for his immediate release,[3] some among the Shi'ite clergy have demanded that Iran prosecute him for "his violations of the sanctity of his [Shi'ite] denomination."[4]

Following the arrest, Iranian intelligence services deputy director Mohammad Mosajadi was quoted as telling Tehran Radio that Al-Qabbanji was spying for Israel and transmitting "coded information" to it. If found guilty of this, he said, Iran would cooperate with the Iraqi government in carrying out the death penalty.[5]

Meanwhile, in the five days since Al-Qabbanji's arrest, the Iraqi authorities have refrained from commenting on the matter.

The following is a review of the philosophy of Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji.

Who Is Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji?

Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji is perhaps the most innovative of modern Islamic scholars. His defiance of conventional Islamic beliefs has made him persona non grata in Iraqi television studios. Eventually, Al-Qabbanji turned to the Internet, launching a series of weekly public lectures, which were filmed and posted on a dedicated YouTube channel.[6]

Born in Najaf, Iraq in 1958, Al-Qabbanji studied Islamic jurisprudence at the Shi'ite Hawza of his hometown in the 1970s. In 1979, when Saddam Hussein became president, he left Iraq for Syria and Lebanon, and eventually settled in the holy city of Qom, Iran, where he continued his religious education. After returning to post-Saddam Iraq in 2008, he founded and headed the Liberal Islamic Movement in Iraq.[7] He translated into Arabic several books by the renowned Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush, and authored many of his own books presenting his views.

According to some accounts, Al-Qabbanji fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war when he was a believer in the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and lost the use of his right arm during that time.[8]

Since returning to Iraq, Al-Qabbanji has been provoking Islamist ire, challenging the basic precepts of Islam, and demanding that they be modified in accordance with modern-day reason. In October 2012, he clashed with his elder brother, Sadr Al-Din Al-Qabbanji, who is the Friday prayer imam of Najaf and a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The latter issued a fatwa declaring that "the ideas promoted by Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji are distorted and un-Islamic... these ideas are part of the war waged by the enemies of Islam, in order to cast doubt on the Islamic religion and its principles."[9]

Soon after the fatwa was made public, Al-Qabbanji responded, saying: "My honorable [brother] was right. I have deviated from his religion, every bit of which I reject. Let them say that I am an apostate and a heretic. It is true. I am an apostate from their religion, which stirs nothing but hatred of the other – a religion devoid of beauty, devoid of love, devoid of humanity... You have made people hate Allah and Islam. You have turned yourselves into Allah's police, proclaiming who is a deviant and who is an apostate…"[10]

Al-Qabbanji's Political Views: Hostility Towards Iran And America

In his lectures, Al-Qabbanji has generally refrained from expressing political views, stating that he would prefer to keep his criticism of Islam apolitical. His public altercation with his brother, however, prompted him to address his brother and to state – rather insipidly for someone of such bold and groundbreaking theological thought – that "The enemies of Islam benefit from the ignorance you spread among the people." He continued: "By Allah, Israel is happy about the existence of that Hawza, and is hostile to the ideas that I present, and so is America. America and Israel have an interest in keeping our people ignorant... When you summon millions of people to perform the tatbir,[11] and all those superstitious rites that were added to our religion, it of course benefits America,. America does not want our people to develop and become like Korea or Japan."[12]

In 2011, Al-Qabbanji's Twitter account began operating;[13] at first, its content mirrored that of his YouTube channel, and then it became an outlet for his harsh criticism of Iran. Al-Qabbanji's tweets about Iran revealed a deep ethnic partiality that does not surface in his public lectures. For example, he tweeted that Iran "sees the Arabs as insects, no more and no less,"[14] and that "Ahmadinejad shakes King Abdallah's right hand, and stabs him with his left hand… On Qom's instructions, he orders his beasts to kidnap Arabs in Lebanon. Away with hypocrisy!"[15] Also in a tweet, he called Ayatollahs Khomeini, Khamenei, and Sistani "liars" for claiming to be the descendants of Prophet Muhammad. "How can an Arab prophet, whose sons were Arab, have non-Arab descendants?" he wrote. "May Allah cut out their tongues. They are filthy Persians."[16]

Al-Qabbanji's Critique Of Conventional Jurisprudence

It is mostly Al-Qabbanji's theological ideas – not his below-the-belt punches at Iran, and occasionally at Saudi Arabia – that have sparked all this antagonism. Al-Qabbanji's take on the Islamic religion is deeply unorthodox. In his lectures, he methodically deconstructs the Islamic perceptions of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the Koran, the shari'a, and all the taboos of conventional Islam. His underlying assumption is that nothing in religion can be true – not even the Koran – if it does not pass the litmus test of reason.

In a lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," Al-Qabbanji explained the difference between his own perception of the shari'a and that of conventional Islamist scholars. He broke down the conventional perception of the shari'a into the following five principles: The shari'a: 1) is eternal; 2) is total; 3) is beneficial; 4) is uninferable; and 5) trumps reason.

In other words, he explained, conventional Islam holds that:

1) The shari'a transcends time and place; it is as applicable in modern times as it was in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, and will continue to be so until the Day of Judgment.

2) The shari'a encompasses all aspects of life – economy, society, education, family, politics, and moral values.

3) The sharia's rulings reflect benefits and detriments to mankind. If Allah forbids alcohol, for example, it is because alcohol is harmful; if He decrees that prayer and fasting are obligatory, it is because they are beneficial to the worshipper.

4) Human beings are incapable of inferring these benefits and detriments through the use of reason – otherwise, there would be no need for the shari'a. For instance, since the human mind is too feeble to understand the necessity of prayer, the shari'a strengthens it, so that it can comprehend this necessity.

5) Whenever contradiction arises, the shari'a takes precedence over reason.

Al-Qabbanji explained that the Wahhabis openly adhere to this fifth principle, which is conceptualized in Ibn Taymiyyah's book The Rejection of the Conflict between Reason and the Revelation. "Saudi Arabia is a desert, and their brains have become flat like the desert," he said, again punching below the belt but this time at Iran's nemesis across the Gulf: "They are all extremists. All the Saudis, even the Shi'ites... They have no scholar, no philosopher. They are all superficial."[17]

Modifiable Jurisprudence

As an alternative to the conventional five principles of jurisprudence, Al-Qabbanji proposes a modifiable religious ruling based on fiqh al-maqasid, or the Jurisprudence of the Meaning. According to this theory, jurisprudence should address the meaning conveyed by the revelation, rather than adhere blindly to its literal wording, with no regard for reality or reason. He said: "It is like a man who has a lantern. His friend wants to light his cigarette and asks him: 'Do you have a lighter?' The man answers: 'No, I don't.' It is true that he doesn't have a lighter, but, using reason, he could let his friend light his cigarette with the lantern. A reasonable man would understand that what the man wanted was a light, not a lighter. The Wahhabis and most clerics say: No, we must adhere to the text."[18]

Al-Qabbanji does not entirely write off the sacred texts, but he rejects the first principle of conventional jurisprudence. For him, the shari'a is not always and everywhere valid and reflective of justice. His position does not entail a belief in the relativity of justice. According to Al-Qabbanji, the essence of justice today remains the same as at the advent of Islam, and human beings have not changed either; what has changed, in keeping with the tremendous development of human civilization, is the interpretation of justice and people's perception of it.

Al-Qabbanji believes that at the advent of Islam, there was rationality in the shari'a, which was "the best of the best of that time."[19] The shari'a, he says, was certainly an improvement over the contemporary Byzantine and Farsi laws, because it treated the ruler and the peasant equally. But humanity has progressed since then, and the Islamic code of 14 centuries ago does not meet the moral standards dictated by today's modern values. Islamic law, therefore, should be modified, he says.

Al-Qabbanji's proposed principles of jurisprudence are based first and foremost on reason, which is "the basis for everything in the modern age."[20]In order to produce viable rulings, there must be harmony between reality and the text, with the nature of Man taken into consideration. When contradiction arises, reason takes precedence over text – first reason, then the Koran, and then the Sunna, he says, because reason is the only means by which is it possible to divine whether something in the Koran is relevant to us or belongs in the past.

The Koran As The (Interpretation Of The) Word Of God

The mere suggestion that anything in the Koran is a thing of the past defies the conventional Islamic belief that views the Koran as the literal word of God, as revealed to the illiterate Prophet Muhammad. But Al-Qabbanji rejects the concept of the Koran as the word of Allah, saying instead that it is full of untruths, contradiction, superstition, and immoral behavior. When the Koran was formed, he says, "there was not a single iota of falsehood in it. It was all true." Today, however, it must be accepted that the Koran rulings were appropriate for their time.[21]

The treatment of women, justification of slavery, and jizya poll tax for Christians and Jews are frequently cited by Al-Qabbanji as examples of how the Koran's rulings were in keeping with what was deemed just and reasonable at the time, but which today are considered unjust, irrational, and immoral .

So if the Koran is not the word of Allah, what is it? Al-Qabbanji believes that the Koran was created by the Prophet Muhammad, and that the contradictions within it, which are clear to all, attest to its man-made origin. Different intellectuals, however, react differently to those contradictions. He says"The secularists, the Communists, and the atheists say that Muhammad lied to people, which leads them to reject Allah, the Koran, and Islam. The Islamists, on the other hand, say that it is all true and all from Allah. Thus, they deceive themselves, refusing to see the problems. They say: Don't ask, don't raise doubts. They choose blindness. They are all blind. They do not want to use their brains."[22]

Al-Qabbanji believes that "the Koran was created by the Prophet Muhammad, but was driven by Allah. Thus, even though it is not the word of Allah, it is still divine."[23] He believes that the Prophet Muhammad was honest, even though his presentation of the Koran as the word of Allah was false: "He believed from the bottom of his heart that this came from Allah. The divine conscience was talking to him, telling him what to say."[24] He says that the Koran is the Prophet Muhammad's interpretation of the word of Allah, of the divine inspiration, and of the Prophet's experience with Allah; therefore, all ensuing exegeses are "interpretations of an interpretation."[25]

In light of the above, Al-Qabbanji believes that the teachings of Islam should be constantly modified in keeping with the reason of the time: "The problem is that with the passing of time, human conscience has become more sublime. Human reason developed. Values developed. Rights developed. But our jurisprudents maintained the same rulings."

He continues, "That is the problem. The problem does not lie in the source of Islam. The structure of Islam is in keeping with rationality, with modernity. If we want Islam to be eternal even though reality is mobile, then Islam must also be mobile. It cannot stagnate. The scholars in the religious institutions view Islam as stagnant teachings."[26]

Al-Qabbanji holds Sunni and Shi'ite scholars of conventional Islam responsible for Muslims' backwardness, because they insist on forcing a stagnant Islam upon the public. "Satan is seated in the Hawza and in Al-Azhar," he said, "and his spokesmen are the preachers, who spread superstition."[27]

From The Prophet Muhammad To Osama Bin Laden

Al-Qabbanji's concept of adjustable interpretations of justice and perceptions of reason is also evident in his treatment of the Prophet Muhammad . He rejects the notion that anyone can be infallible – not even the Prophet Muhammad or Imam Ali.[28] He believes that the Prophet was indeed just, but only according to the standard of his time, and only if a distinction is drawn between Muhammad the prophet and Muhammad the political ruler.

As a seventh-century prophet, Muhammad was the epitome of justice, but in his capacity as a ruler, he did many things that from our modern perspective are immoral, Al-Qabbanji says: "For example, the killing of Bani Qurayza. He slaughtered 600 prisoners of war. This was not a divine decree, but the decision of a ruler... He ordered the killing of prisoners of war. According to Al-Tabari, he also ordered the torture of Jewish prisoners... In many cases, the prophet ordered assassinations.

"You ask, How did [modern] terrorists become terrorists? Have you seen what their Prophet did?!… The rule of the Prophet was in keeping with the reason of his time. If the Prophet were here today, he would absolutely not do what he did when he was a ruler – or else he would be like Osama bin Laden."[29]

Al-Qabbanji's interpretation of the Sunni-Shi'ite rift contributed greatly to his becoming the bête noire of the Shi'ite clergy. To their shock, he claims that Abu Bakr was a legitimate caliph. Again, as he did with the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Qabbanji projects the separation of religion and state onto seventh-century politics He believes that Ali bin Abu Taleb was the only possible choice as imam to succeed the Prophet Muhammad, but that Abu Bakr was the legitimate choice as a political ruler.[30]

21st-Century Humanistic Islam – God Serves Man, Not Vice Versa

According to Al-Qabbanji, modern Muslims should adhere to the reason and moral standards of the 21st century, not to those of 14 centuries ago. In a complete reversal of Islamic convention, he declares that Western laws are divine, whereas the laws of the shari'a are man-made. "The laws of the West are based on human rights, on natural rights, created by Allah," he explained. "Allah made Man love freedom. Allah gave Man dignity. Allah gave Man the right of speech. It is the laws that are derived from these rights that are divine."[31]

In Al-Qabbanji's view, the Islam that has developed since the seventh century focuses too much on God and too little on Man – with too much emphasis on ritual, which he deems "the chaff rather than the wheat."[32] He considers several Shi'ite practices, such as the khoms tax, the pilgrimage to numerous tombs, and the countless days of mourning, as a complete waste of time and of public and private funds. He is also critical of the hefty burdens that Islam imposes upon its followers, such as the duty of praying five times a day. "The Islam of Mecca was light," he said.[33] Al-Qabbanji went so far as to claim that 80% of the Islam of today has been added by the jurisprudents, because it serves their interests, increases their wealth, and improves their social status.

This focus on worship is not only wrong, he says, but has failed to produce the anticipated results, as the Muslims have become "the most morally debased people" engaged in terrorism.[34] God, said Al-Qabbanji, is manifest in one's heart, and has no need of all that worship. "Allah serves Man, not vice versa," he declares; [35] it is Man who is sacred and who bestows sanctity upon the texts,[36] and therefore any text that runs counter to one's humanity should be disregarded.

The same is true with regard to heritage. People are born human beings and only later become Muslims, and therefore they should take pride in their pre-Islamic culture, he says. He is critical of the effacement of Iraqi heritage by the totality of Islam; in a lecture in the province of Babel, he told the local audience that they should be proud of their Babylonian culture, of Hammurabi, and of Nebuchadnezzar, regardless of efforts by those who would like to limit Iraqi civilization to the period that followed "the Islamic occupation."[37]

Al-Qabbani explains that the Koran delivered the Arabs from barbarism and polytheism and turned them into a nation – but adds that by now we know that most of the stories that appear in it are incompatible with reason. "There is no point in interpreting them. We should simply omit what contradicts reason."[38] As an example of such unreasonable stories, Al-Qabbanji presents the conventional Islamic notions of Paradise and the Hellfire, stating that the two simply do not exist. For him, the conventional depiction of the Hellfire distorts the image of Allah, who emerges as "a torturing sadist like Saddam,"[39] and the depiction of Paradise is even worse – it is "a sheep pen," where there is "nothing but marriage, eating, and drinking alcohol. There is no feature of humanity there, no creativity, no feelings, no motherhood... nothing but bestial urges. If Allah tells me to enter Paradise, I will be the first to refuse. I would rather go to the Hellfire, because there are human feelings there."[40]


Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji's theological philosophy is unique among contemporary Islamic scholars, and its importance is further magnified by the fact that it emerged from the heart of Shi'ite erudition. Al-Qabbanji identifies modern Islam's insistence on adherence to the ancient texts as the leading reason for the backwardness of some Muslim populations. For him, this adherence to the texts is not in keeping with the spirit of true Islam. His idea of amending texts to conform to modern reason – an idea markedly premature in light of the intolerance of religious and political institutions – is a significant crack in the wall of the stagnant Islamic discourse. Cracking that wall, however, comes at a price – and that price is currently being paid by Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji.

[*] Yotam Feldner is the Director of MEMRI TV. This report is a preliminary version of a chapter in a forthcoming book about liberal scholars in the Arab world.


[1] According to another report, Al-Qabbanji was arrested in Tehran.

[2] Shafaq News, February 18, 2013.

[3] For example, Sayyed Ayad Jamal Al-Din., February 19, 2013.

[4] Iraqi Shi'ite leader Latif Al-'Amidi of the Kufa Islamic Supreme Council, February 18, 2013.

[7] Al-Arabiya TV (Dubai/Saudi Arabia), October 15, 2010.

[8] February 20, 2013.

[9] October 7, 2012. In a lecture, Al-Qabbanji related that another, younger, brother had said that "Sayyed Ahmad must be killed," but that this brother was too cowardly to act on his threat. Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012. Following Al-Qabbanji's arrest, one of his brothers, Baqr Al-Qabbanji, said that the family had renounced Ahmad Al-Qabbanji because of his defiance of Islam. February 18, 2013.

[10] Lecture on metaphysics in the Koran, February 2011.

[11] The Shi'ite practice of self-flagellation with chains and knives in order to cause bleeding as a sign of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his family in the Battle of Karbala.

[12] Lecture on metaphysics in the Koran, February 2011. On another occasion, again while engrossed in polemics with his rivals in the mainstream Islamic clergy, Al-Qabbanji compared the Sunni Al-Azhar University and the Shi'ite Hawza to Zionism. "Global Zionism is the source of evil in the world," he explained in the lecture. "They are the millionaires, the mafia, who want to attain hegemony over the world, over the people." Lecture segment titled "The Hawza and Al-Azhar Are the Real Satan," posted April 12, 2012.

[13], later replaced by It is not clear whether the Twitter account is operated by Al-Qabbanji himself or by someone else.

[14] September 1, 2012 tweet.

[15] August 15, 2012 tweet.

[16] August 22, 2012 tweet.

[17] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[18] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[19] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[20] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[21] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[22] Lecture segment titled "It is Impossible that the Koran Is from Allah," posted on the Internet in October, 2011.

[23] Lecture segment titled "It is Impossible that the Koran Is from Allah," posted on the Internet in October, 2011.

[24] Lecture segment titled "It is Impossible that the Koran Is from Allah," posted on the Internet in October, 2011.

[25] Lecture segment titled "It is Impossible that the Koran Is from Allah," posted on the Internet in October, 2011.

[26] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[27] "The Hawza and Al-Azhar Are the Real Satan," posted April 12, 2012.

[28] Lecture on metaphysics in the Koran, February 2011.

[29] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[30] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), September 1, 2010.

[31] Lecture on "Rationality in Jurisprudence," October 13, 2012.

[32] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), September 1, 2010.

[33] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), September 1, 2010.

[34] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), September 1, 2010.

[35] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), September 1, 2010.

[36] Lecture on "Placing Humanity in the Center," October 6, 2012.

[37] Lecture on "Placing Humanity in the Center," October 6, 2012.

[38] Lecture on "Rationality in Religious Doctrines," October 20, 2012.

[39] Lecture on metaphysics in the Koran, February 2011.

[40] Lecture segment titled "Shi'ite Scholar Compares Paradise to a Sheep Pen," November 15, 2010.

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