"Being a Muslim Doesn’t Mean Living by Laws of 1400 Years Ago"
Cultures Create Civil Laws
Interview with Taghi Rahmani
Friday 6 July 2007
By: Somaiyeh Farid
Translated by: SZ
Taghi Rahmani is an independent journalist and a Religious-Nationalist activist. He is the author of 26 books and pamphlets as well as numerous articles in newspapers and magazines. The Human Rights Watch recognized Taghi Rahmani with the Helmut-Hemet Award on March 7, 2005; he was in prison at the time. Mr. Rahmani addressed some of the demands of the Campaign in this interview.
Considering that you are one of the supporters of the Campaign, please state your reasons for signing the petition first and then tell us what, in your view, the strengths and weaknesses of this social movement are.
o I will begin my discussion with my criticisms of the campaign. The reason that I signed the petition was the fact that the Campaign addresses the basic demands and issues of women. Parts of the demands of the Campaign are quite legitimate, but in my view, the methods of achieving the goals are very important. Trying to justify the legitimacy of the demands is a very good thing, but the lack of coordination and a series of secondary issues give rise to the concerns that the efforts of the Campaign may be derailed. I believe that for some of your demands, such as blood money (diah) or the issue of father’s custody of children; you need to do more intellectual work and thinking. In this regard, even the religious leaders have a reformist view close to yours. The issue of equal blood money (diah) for women and men is currently under review by the Expediency Council.
On the other hand, although I support any movement that strives for more involvement of women in the society, based on the principles and traditions that I believe in, in my opinion, one cannot fight against or stop the demands of the majority; however, one can be critical of such demands in an informed way. Apart from the fact that I believe that the social movements in Iran are usually excitement-ridden, fierce and extremist, and follow a problematic process of moving from rights towards values and beliefs, they are nevertheless struggles that take place in the society. There is also the fact that when women enter the job market and find a role in the process of production and power, many of their rights undergo a process of change and transformation.
Do you mean to say that in your view the issue is just the presence of women in the job market, and that this presence can impact discriminatory laws?
o Laws are a product of the implementation of rights and responsibility. Rights have a moralistic and humanistic source whereas responsibility has a social and realistic source which leads to empowerment. In this way, by virtue of their power in society, women can defend their human rights and change discriminatory laws.
Are the religious matters stated in the Campaign’s petition changeable?
o In the view of the progressive religious thinkers, these matters are changeable even beyond the Campaign’s demands; however, these matters are also deemed changeable from a conventional religious viewpoint. I will give an example that will illustrate both these points. In 1936, a collection of speeches by Iqbal Lahori was published in the form of a book named "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam." In that book, Iqbal states that Quran’s teachings regarding worship are eternal and unchangeable, but its social laws are changeable according to time and place. Because prophets have an all-embracing message, they cannot create social laws that are static. Social laws are laws that describe the relationships of individuals to each other and to society and they also include politics, power, government, etc. Unlike prayers (namaz) and fasting (roozeh), these laws are not static.
Here we need to determine whether these discriminatory laws are in the realm of the relationship of God to human beings or the relationship of man to woman. At the same time that Islam is separate from cultures and social conditions, it is cultures that make civil laws. Just because I am a Muslim, it does not mean that my laws should be the same as the society of 1400 years ago.
God says: "we have created you all from one breath of life" and every time this breath of life is taken away from a human being, it is as if the life of the whole humanity has been taken. So, why is it that the punishment for killing a woman is less than the punishment for the killing of a man while the retributive justice teachings of the Quran do not even distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims?
In the current structure of the religious government, there is a council named the Expediency Council which is vested with the power to determine what is expedient in regards to religious and Shari’a laws. Mr. Khomeini also raised the issue of primary and secondary principles.
Our argument is why we should retreat when we run into obstacles. At times, we can act ahead of time, think, and basically change the laws sooner. Many of the social laws of the Shari’a are subject to expediency and circumstances. For example, the law of cutting off the arms of a thief has never been implemented in Iran because the circumstances for its implementation have never been created in Iran. Incidentally, in Islamic jurisprudence we have a principle that indicates that the law can be changed based on the need for expediency. For example, regarding the issue of stoning, Mr. Shahroudi, the highest judicial authority in the country, has issued his interpretation of the stoning law based on the need for expediency, stating that enforcing the stoning law will have a bad effect and therefore must not be enforced. Notwithstanding that the stoning law is enforced (which is part of the question of the powers of a judge to make decisions), I want to say that we have religious laws the enforcement of which have not been in the interest of anyone for a thousand years.
The laws concerning witness and inheritance are two examples in the Quran which give women half the rights of men. What is your view on this?
o I believe that these matters should change according to time and place, but the conventional belief is that these laws must remain the same forever. I see an evolutionary viewpoint in the Quran. I believe the overall spirit of the Quran is important. Look at the marriages at the advent of Islam. You will definitely notice some sort of emotional and judicial support both in the Quran and in the tradition of the Prophet. In the Al-Omran sura in the Quran, God tells Mary’s mother: "I give you a child who is a child close to God." The child turns out to be a girl and Mary’s mother asks: " How can a daughter ever be as good as a son?!" But in God’s view, there is equality. God says: "Each according to the level of their dedication." At that time, by giving women the right to testify, God gave them a position which stemmed from their gender, not their high esteem in society or family. Or in the case of inheritance, a woman who had had no role in the process of production was given a right she did not have before. The importance of a woman such as Hend was not on account of being a woman, but because of being the wife of Abu-Sofyan. The Quran changes this interpretation, but the conventional thinking reproduces it again and says that for example, Fatima and Zaynab are a different gender. The Quran’s view is not like that at all. Inheritance in this form was a progressive idea in its time and women were given a right they did not have before. The verses which pertain to the rights of women came down to the Prophet after women demanded those rights from him. As an example, after the verses about inheritance were sent down to the Prophet from God, men came to the Prophet and said: "We shall resign from our religion. Is it even possible to give women inheritance?" And the Prophet said that this is the order of God. If the Prophet’s tradition had continued, and the door of exertion (Ijtehad) had remained open, wouldn’t some social laws have changed in favor of women in the first few centuries of Islam?
What is Islam’s position on polygamy, and is polygamy acceptable at the present time?
o In the Quran, it has been stated that if you take four wives, you cannot maintain equality. In effect it reduces polygamy to quadrigamy and then further limits it to monogamy. Polygamy was for the tribal societies of 1400 years ago when the entrance of a few women into a large family did not have much of an effect, because husband and wife would not see each other day and night. They lived apart from each other. In other words, there was no nuclear family which included father, mother and children. In those times, marriage was a tribal and extended family matter, and the interactions of husband and wife in everyday life were not as intertwined, intense and intimate as today. Even families in Iran at that time were the same way.
In this verse in the Quran it is emphasized: "You can take four wives, but of course you cannot maintain equality." Now the conventional religious view insists upon the first part of this verse. Sometimes people by virtue of their power make the rule an exception and an exception the rule. In my view, the same thing has happened in this case, and now this has become a static rule. If you look at this rule with a rational view, it tells you that because you cannot maintain equality, you’d better take only one wife. I believe that women are humiliated in the same way that men are humiliated when they have a competitor. So it is better that neither woman nor man bring a competitor into their marriage. In my opinion, this is closer to religious morality.
On the basis of which verse of the Quran or an interpretation thereof is the right to divorce given exclusively to men?
o Of course the methodology of understanding or interpreting the Quran has its own place. But in general, the right to divorce or matters such as blood money and compensations are compared on the basis of the Aristotelian logic. This methodology has no compatibility with the culture of the Quran. For example, in the discussion of the forgiveness of the custodian, there is a part that is referred to, and on its basis it argued that the custodian has the right of killing the child!! This is not the Arabs’ logic. This logic is a Greek logic. In the case of divorce, they have given the right of divorce exclusively to men on the basis of the verse "men are custodians of women." The Quran also says that divorce is not desirable, but when two people hold a grudge against each other and cannot live together, the Quran advises that reconciliation should be tried, and if reconciliation does not work, then they should get a divorce. This in a sense indicates some kind of equality. But these verses have been ignored.
One of the criticisms directed at the Campaign is that the demands for change have been presented in the framework of the current regime. What is your view?
o Look, there are times when your demands are merely non-political group demands. In my view, the demands of women’s groups should not be politicized. Of course you need to have a dialog with everyone because your demands are entirely non-political group demands. This issue is beyond the secular, religious, and other issues. Group and trade union issues are one of the problems of our society. I am a political person myself, but I don’t recommend politicizing any group demands. In my view, a political party without groups is weak, and without civil society it is gravely sick!! It is not necessary for a group to become an arm of a political party. A political party should present a platform that for example includes the demands of women, so that women will vote for that party, and the same is true of other groups. In this case, the equilibrium that is achieved among groups, organizations, movements and political parties will be a realistic and positive force.
In your opinion, what consequences will ignoring social movements, such as women’s movements and their demands have for the civil society?
o Fundamentally, ignoring social movements such as movements associated with ethnicities, trade unions and women, with the excuse of or for the reason of magnifying the differences between freedom and dictatorship in the realm of political power is the wrong way to go. This has not yielded the desired result in the one hundred year history of our struggle. Ignoring these social movements for whatever reason has two major downfalls. Isolating these movements leads to the lack of development of civil society, and as a result of that, there will be no control on the government. The second downfall is some type of extremism and the lack of coordination among these movements and political issues. This absence of being pragmatic works in favor of the enemies of freedom. We have to choose a third way; being pragmatic. This means analyzing the various parts of the differences between dictatorship and freedom by leading the way in a pragmatic way. In the same way that violating the rights of ethnicities endangers national unity, and violating the rights of trade unions weakens the economy, withholding the long overdue rights of women and maintaining the discriminatory laws against them reduces the collective power of the society. Is it possible to further the cause of freedom without strengthening social movements so that they can take root? By explaining and comparing the concepts of freedom and dictatorship, we have to channel freedom through the conduits of ethnic issues, trade union issues, and gender issues.
Can utilizing creative methods such as face to face interaction during the Campaign to get one million signatures, and providing information about this to people be effective in reducing the undesirable consequences that you pointed out earlier? In other words, do you think that this method and relationship are effective?
o It is not enough. I think you provide information on certain points, which if combined with several other factors can be effective. Interacting and talking with people is good but it should be continuous. In parallel with providing information, the government must also be pressured. Of course this shouldn’t be done by pressuring the different layers of the government, but by promoting the favorable views of individuals such as the clergy so that they can have an effect on the different layers of the government.
In your opinion, what is the reason for the government’s harsh reaction and issuing heavy sentences against women’s rights activists?
o The problem is an issue of control. Because there has been a lot of activity with the demands of women, the reactions have become harsher. In this regard, before they deal with the issue in a religious or judicial manner, they respond to it in a political manner, and they justify their political ends by resorting to the religious reasoning. If a woman does not want her husband to have a second wife, how does that endanger national security? The question that I have for these gentlemen is that if at the present time women play a role in the process of production, management, and nurturing of the society, why can’t they have their rights so that they will serve the society more energetically and effectively. Isn’t such a behavior closer to justice?
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Mr. Rahmani, thank you for your time.