Editorial, November 9, 2013
Ayatollah al Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al Sadr is the most senior Shi‘a cleric in Baghdad, Iraq. He heads the Ayatollah Seyyed Hussain Ismail al Sadr Foundation Trust, which runs humanitarian, development, and peace and reconciliation projects in Iraq. His role as a social leader and humanitarian has increased significantly during the recent hostilities in Iraq. The issue of reconciliation and dialogue between Iraq’s different religious and ethnic communities has featured heavily in the Ayatollah’s recent efforts.
On October 29, Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Sadr ( آيتالله سيد حسين صدر ), whose voice carries considerable weight in the Shiah world, issued a fatwa stating that God has commanded us (Muslims) to have good relationships with our brothers and sisters of others religions and schools of thought. An Iraqi Bahai had asked him to give his opinion on this matter, stating that some Muslims believed that they were required by the purity laws of their faith to avoid mixing with Bahais, and that certain religious leaders have issued fatwas saying that our religion is deviant and any sort of social intercourse with us is forbidden.
In his response the Ayatollah cites Surah 60:8, “As for those who neither fight you as a matter of religion, nor drive you from your homes, God does not hold you back from dealing kindly and justly with them.” Therefore, he concludes, there is nothing wrong with socialising with, and having dealings with, our brethren of other faiths, in accordance with the normal rules of human relationships. In fact, it is necessary to observe justice and equal rights and prevent discrimination or persecution against any of the followers of other religions.
On October 5, the Melli-Madhabi website published an interview between the film-maker and journalist Muhammad Nourizad ( محمد نوری زاد ) and `Ali Asghar Gharavi (علیاصغر غروی) of the Nationalist-religious coalition (Melli-Madhabi), which brings together a number of smaller parties, political activists, writers and intellectual figures. Mr Gharavi has been in the news more recently for an article in which he distinguished Imam `Ali’s role as religious leader from his role as a political leader. During this interview, Mr Nourizad asked him whether he would like to eat something that had been cooked by a Christian or a Bahai. This question goes directly to the superstitions about the clean and unclean which play such a strong role in Iranian culture and the teachings of most Shiah religious leaders today. Mr. Gharavi replies that he would eat food from a Christian or non-Christian (he cannot quite bring himself to say the word “Bahai”) providing his hands are not dirty. He cites Quran 5:6: “The food of the People of the Book is lawful to you, and yours is lawful to them.” And he adds: “the case of the Bahais is similar.”
The two pronouncements, from a religious leader and a leader in a reformist movement of religiously-committed laymen, suggest that the idea that Bahais are unclean is continuing to lose ground in Iran and in the Shiah world. Against this, a story has been circulating that Ayatollah Khamene’i has issued a new fatwa declaring the Bahais unclean and association with them to be religiously forbidden (haram), and that this might signal a new crackdown on the Bahais in Iran. I did not report that story here when it broke, because it appeared to me that it has been blown out of all proportion by the media. What actually happened was that a new collection of Khamene’is fatwas was issued, which is a regular event. This collection contained 493 fatwas on every subject under the sun, of which just one, number 260, stated that all forms of association with the deviant Bahai sect are to be avoided. This is not a new fatwa: Khamene’i had said it before, Khomeini said it in rather more detail, and Ayatollah Borujerdi before him. However an opposition web site went through this collection and selected six opinions which were particularly easy to ridicule, such as opinions about wearing jeans and ties, and fatwa 260, and published an article in English whose purpose was to show how backward the Iranian regime was. Mohbat news recycled that, in English, mentioning only fatwa 260, and this article was recycled in organs such as the Huffington Post, and a number of Israeli organs, they highlighted the “new fatwa” about the Bahais. And so a story was born. In fact the message conveyed by the publication of the fatwas was not “we will get the Bahais” but rather “Khamene’i is a religious scholar” (he has credibility problems in that respect), and the he has a claim to be the source of imitation for Shiah everywhere (of which the less said the better). This is a good example of how a message can become distorted when it is read without its context, translated, and passed from hand to hand without referring back to the original evidence.
So are there signs of hope? Not in the behaviour of the government and its organs, but yes, where it really matters, in the hearts of the people of Iran, prejudices against other peoples are fading and archaic superstitions are being distinguished from the light of faith.
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