Iran Now a Hotbed of Islamic Reforms


Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei issues many of his fatwas sitting on the floor. Above him, a lone lightbulb dangles from the ceiling and a slow fan struggles to diminish the searing desert heat in this religious center of yellow-brick seminaries and mud-brick homes.

The austere setting seems appropriate for one of the dozen most revered clerics in Shiite Islam, a man who has spent more than half a century in rigorous study of his faith.

Yet Saanei, at 73, has turned out to be a thoroughly modern mullah.

“It’s my interpretation from the Koran that all people have equal rights. That means men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims too,” he explained with gentle certainty, stroking a wispy white beard that hangs like fringe under his chin. “And in a society where all people have equal rights, that means all people should make decisions equally.”


To help enshrine those rights, Saanei has issued a series of stunning religious edicts, or fatwas: He banned discrimination based on gender, race or ethnicity. He declared that women could hold any job, including his own. Although Islam has historically outlawed abortion, he even issued a fatwa allowing it in the first trimester--and not only due to a mother’s health or fetal abnormalities.

Two decades after its stunning revolution expanded the modern political spectrum by creating a theocracy, Iran is once again shaking up the Muslim world. Its role, however, has reversed. Once widely feared as the hub of Islamic militancy and the training center for martyrs to the cause, Iran has increasingly become the intellectual breeding ground for the religion’s most innovative reforms.

For Islam, which literally means “submission,” the change is so profound that Iran is now credited with spearheading a full-fledged Islamic Reformation--an event comparable in many ways to the Christian Reformation of the 16th century, which paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of modern democracy in the West.

Iran’s reform movement still has a long way to go and faces enormous obstacles from conservatives willing to engage in sabotage, subterfuge and assassination. In a telling incident, after the grand ayatollah agreed to an interview, his aide called back. “If you get a call canceling this appointment, don’t believe it,” the aide said. “He wants to talk to you.”

Revolutionaries Have Made a U-Turn

Yet the inevitability of reform is reflected in Qom. This holy city, which once provided the mullahs who mobilized millions to rise up against the shah of Iran and end 2,500 years of monarchy, is producing clerics who are challenging and redefining the world’s only theocracy. Many who were the most zealous revolutionaries two decades ago are the most ardent reformers today.

In the 1980s, Saanei served on the first Council of Guardians, the conservative 12-member body that is now a leading roadblock to reform. Then he was chief prosecutor. The late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once boasted that he brought up Saanei, his protege, “as a son.”


A generation later, however, Saanei has issued a bold fatwa challenging both the powers and the selection of the nation’s supreme leader.

Iran’s senior cleric, who is chosen by 86 of his peers, has veto power over the elected president and parliament, makes top judicial appointments and serves as commander in chief. His powers are the closest thing in Islam to the Roman Catholic papacy.

But Saanei has ruled that no one is infallible. The supreme leader’s right to hold office and his actions “depend on the endorsement by the public as a whole,” Saanei declared.

“Humans can always make mistakes. And no one leader or group of people is above the law or ‘more equal’ than anyone else,” he said in an interview. “So power must rest with the people, the majority, not individuals or institutions.”

On abortion, he acknowledges that it is generally forbidden.

‘Reinterpreting’ to Match the Times

“But Islam is also a religion of compassion, and if there are serious problems, God sometimes doesn’t require his creatures to practice his law. So under some conditions--such as parents’ poverty or overpopulation--then abortion is allowed,” said Saanei, who even writes letters of consent for women to take to their doctors.

“This doesn’t mean that we’re changing God’s law,” he cautioned. “It just means we’re reinterpreting laws according to the development of science--and the realities of the times.”


Saanei is unusual among grand ayatollahs, but he’s hardly a lone voice among Iran’s 180,000 mullahs. Because of the Shiite clergy’s special powers, Iran was in fact a logical place to energize a reform movement that has been struggling to take off from Egypt to India for more than a century--just as Tehran was the most logical place for an Islamic revolution.

In contrast to the advisory role of clerics among mainstream Sunni Muslims, who account for more than 80% of the Islamic world, Shiite clerics are mandated to interpret God’s word and direct the faithful. The more senior the clerics, the more importance their fatwas carry in directing public behavior.

So, whether it be the rallying cry of revolution from Khomeini or the reform fatwas of Saanei, the Shiite clergy wields far more authority than its Sunni counterpart in shaping public thinking and actions. That’s particularly true in Iran, the world’s largest predominantly Shiite country.

Among the growing number of clerics willing to exert that clout, in defiance of their peers and at great personal risk, is Abdollah Nouri. He is a former vice president and interior minister who published the most popular reformist newspaper. He’s also a hojatoleslam, or “authority on Islam,” one rank below an ayatollah.

“Religion should not be an instrument of power,” he wrote last year.

Nouri probably would have been speaker of the new parliament that opened last summer--had he been allowed to run. But in a blatant move to get him out of the way, the Special Court for Clergy last year charged him with apostasy and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Mohsen Kadivar, a charismatic young seminary professor, is another. He has written daringly about the separation of mosque and state, and compared the theocracy’s record on freedom of expression with the shah’s era. The same special court last year charged Kadivar with “disseminating lies and disturbing public opinion” and sentenced him to 18 months in jail.


The most unusual case, however, may be that of Hadi Khamenei, a tall man with an elegant, leonine face who can often be found in his office wearing an open-neck shirt with rolled-up sleeves. A clerical robe and a long piece of cloth that is his unwound turban--black, denoting his descent from the prophet Muhammad--hang on a coatrack.

“The most important thing we’re looking for today in Iran is the rule of law. And that means no one, whatever his position, is above it. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there are still people at the top who don’t accept that basic right,” Khamenei said, peering from behind large aviator glasses.

“The political right in this country says that the supreme leader is above the law, that he can change the law, that he can decree anything he feels is right.”

What makes Khamenei so riveting is the fact that Iran’s supreme leader is his older brother by eight years: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The younger Khamenei has taken his message to seminaries around the country. He launched a newspaper to provide alternative coverage to the mainstream media, which is dominated by conservative clerics. He became a top advisor to reformist President Mohammad Khatami after Khatami’s 1997 election. And he registered to run for the Assembly of Experts, which selects the supreme leader.

But Hadi Khamenei has paid a heavy price. He’s been attacked during lectures; head injuries suffered at a Qom mosque required hospitalization. His newspaper was banned. And the Council of Guardians disqualified him from running for the Assembly of Experts because he refused to accept the council’s right to test candidates.


Which of the Khamenei brothers could win more votes is much debated in Iran. In February, the younger Khamenei ran for the 290-seat parliament and garnered the fourth-highest tally. The only bigger winners were siblings of Nouri and Kadivar, the two imprisoned clerics, and the brother of President Khatami.

“No two fingers are the same,” Saanei explained with a sigh. “There are differences between members of the same family, including mine.”

Saanei’s brother heads the 15 Khordad Foundation, which in 1989 placed a bounty on Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses,” whom Khomeini charged with blasphemy.

“My brother is not as educated as I am,” Saanei said. “But in the end, each person is responsible for his own actions and thoughts. That’s diversity in an open society.”

From Hostage-Taker to Legislator

Mohsen Mirdamadi has come a long way from the chaotic days of 1979 when he and two other rather scruffy engineering students masterminded the takeover of the U.S. Embassy--and then held 52 Americans and a superpower hostage for 444 days. Afterward, he donned the beige fatigues of the Revolutionary Guards, the militant wing of Iran’s armed forces, and went off to fight Iraq.

But these days Mirdamadi, a diminutive man with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, prefers pinstriped shirts and somber gray suits. Once willing to take the law into his own hands, Mirdamadi earlier this year ran for parliament on a platform of restoring the rule of law. He won big and now heads parliament’s foreign relations committee.


“We’ve always wanted a country that had independence, freedoms and was an Islamic republic, though our emphasis originally was on winning independence from foreign influence and creating an Islamic state,” Mirdamadi reflected during an interview at his party’s headquarters, just two blocks from the old U.S. Embassy.

“But today our emphasis is on freedoms. And now we want to be more of a republic. Our tactics have shifted too. Before, we carried out a revolution. Today we’re trying evolution.”

The transformation of the former hostage-taker reflects the profound political change unleashed by the Islamic reform movement. As clerics reform the faith, politicos are trying to create a new model of democracy that combines freedom with Islamic values.

“The future now depends on what the people want, not what a few politicians or religious leaders prefer,” Mirdamadi said.

The impact of political change in Iran could be sweeping for the more than 50 nations of the Islamic world. Only a few of those countries--including Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen--have dabbled in democracy, and with mixed results. All have a long way to go; many have suffered military coups, civil wars or manipulated elections.

Iran is different because Islam here is the idiom of political transition. Instead of adopting or adapting political systems from the West, Iran is using Islam to define and justify a new kind of democracy.


The key is the idea of interpretation. For more than a millennium, Muslims have accepted the concept that Islam has a single path. Reformers contend, however, that Islam is adaptable through constant reinterpretation. In other words, reformers argue, Islam has many paths.

“The people have the right to listen to those different interpretations. No one has the right to impose his ideas on everyone else,” Mirdamadi said. “The same is true of political beliefs.”

Adapting to the times doesn’t mean diminishing the state’s Islamic identity, however.

Emergency listings in Iranian newspapers still include numbers for the 24-hour Dial-a-Koranic-Verse and a 24-hour prayer schedule. Last summer, Tehran hosted the Koranic Recitation Competition for members of the armed forces from Muslim states in the Mideast, Asia, Africa and Europe. TV news, official speeches and state documents all still begin with the phrase “In the name of God, the compassionate and merciful.” None of that is likely to change soon.

At the same time, Iran is now a society where Grand Ayatollah Saanei has his own Web site and communicates by e-mail. Ayatollah Ali Korani, another senior cleric who 15 years ago couldn’t type, has spent the last five years putting major writings on Islam--as well as Christianity, Judaism and other faiths--on the Internet for use by scholars worldwide.

Abdol Karim Soroush, Iran’s leading philosopher, is another former Khomeini ally turned reformer. He’s often compared to Martin Luther, the pioneering German theologian of the Christian Reformation.

“We’ve abandoned the export of the revolution, and now we’re thinking about the export of Islamic democracy,” he said in an interview at the Tehran institute he founded after conservatives squeezed him out of three university positions.


“We still need to do a lot of thinking about democracy, freedom and rights before these ideas are complete. But now we’re heading in the right direction.”

‘God Has Talked to All Human Beings’

Monireh Ghorji is a grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two with an appropriately wholesome face and gentle demeanor. She’s also a mojtahedeh--the female equivalent of an ayatollah--and a feisty advocate of women’s rights.

“God has talked to all human beings, not to a special gender,” she said with a trace of disdain for anyone who might say otherwise. “So there’s no question that women are equal to men. In fact, the Koran says in several places that women are actually more important because they have character and qualifications that men don’t have.”

For a country long deemed repressive to females, the most unexpected side of the Islamic Reformation is a spirited, even audacious, women’s movement. A whole new breed of Muslim feminists has emerged over the past three years to challenge revolutionary dictates that stripped women of rights in the family, segregated classrooms, imposed strict dress codes and endangered their lives. During the revolution’s early wave of retribution, the shah’s female education minister was executed for “promoting prostitution” among girls.

A generation later, record numbers of women have joined society and politics, become engineers, doctors and lawyers, and even entered seminaries.

Iran now has a female vice president, Masoumeh Ebtekar. About 500 women ran for parliament this year, and more than 5,000 ran in municipal elections last year. Almost half the university student body and a third of the faculty are female.


Revolutionaries once invoked religion to justify their clampdown on society; today reformers cite Islam to justify new activism and participation. For women, Islam has offered a sort of security blanket. Tra ditional families trusted an Islamic system to protect their daughters, so millions of families sent their girls to schools and universities for the first time after the revolution. And once educated, tens of thousands of women have joined the work force as professionals.

The result is a new class of educated women and their mentors, including about 100 mojtahedehs. Women are now one of the two most important blocs of voters; young people are the other. Women were key to President Khatami’s 1997 upset victory and the ouster of conservatives in parliament this year.

“No Muslim society is introducing more new ideas about women’s equality than Iran,” said Ghorji, who now teaches her own interpretations of Islam that grant women equal rights in matters of divorce, inheritance, child custody and employment.

‘The Religion Was Manipulated’

Yet Ghorji, the only woman appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini to help write Iran’s Islamic constitution, claims that the reformation is not changing the faith’s basic tenets.

“This isn’t a new face of Islam. We’re just removing a layer of traditions, most of which have nothing to do with Islam, or which predate the religion and which we Muslims imposed on Islam over the past 14 centuries. We covered the essence of Islam. The religion was manipulated,” she said.

One of those traditions is hejab, or modest Islamic dress, the ubiquitous symbol of Iranian women. Although she wears the all-enveloping black chador, over a head scarf and another layer of black clothing, Ghorji questions the revolution’s rules on female clothing. A 7th century Koranic verse instructs “believing women” to “lower their gaze, restrain their sexual passions, not display their adornments . . . and let them wear their head coverings over their bosoms.”


But aspects of that edict have been misunderstood, Ghorji and other female reformers say. “Wearing black comes from tradition. It has nothing to do with Islam. In fact, according to Islam, it’s not good to wear black,” said Ghorji, who carries a pocket-size Koran in a zippered leather case in her purse. She’s not alone.

Girls Get the Green Light to Wear Pink

Elaheh Koolaee, one of 11 new female members of parliament, shook up the chamber in June when she refused to wear a chador, instead donning a tight-fitting scarf and full body cover. Although a male lawmaker questioned whether Koolaee’s credentials should be accepted, two other female legislators immediately followed suit. The women prevailed.

Under pressure from women, the Ministry of Education announced in July that girls in primary schools would be allowed to wear “gay, bright colors,” including pink. And Tehran began to buzz with talk of putting hejab to a public referendum.

Koolaee, a Tehran University political scientist and administrator, plans to promote legislation on everything from equal pay for equal work to a mother’s right to child custody after divorce.

“Women have a very influential role as voters, so the political system should provide suitable answers to their demands,” she said.

Female reformers still face enormous obstacles. Mehranguiz Kar and Shireen Ebadi, champions of women’s rights and lawyers for reformists, were arrested last summer for sowing disorder. Yet the women’s movement has also gained critical support from Iran’s male clergy.


Ayatollah Mustafa Mohaqeqdamad, a dapper cleric with a full beard and an impish sense of humor, heads the Islamic Studies department of Iran’s Academy of Sciences in Tehran. His main focus for the past five years has been the state of Muslim women.

His recent fatwas have declared that no man can divorce his wife by simply saying “I divorce thee” three times, a long-standing practice that has often left ex-wives stranded. “If marriage is a bilateral act, the divorce certainly can’t be a unilateral act,” he said.

Mohaqeqdamad also issued a fatwa refuting a principle at the heart of the justice system that says the testimony of one man is equal to that of two female witnesses, which has long been interpreted to diminish the worth of women across the board.

“The Koran says, ‘Call in to witness from among your men two witnesses, but if there are not two men, then one man and two women.’ But that doesn’t mean that a woman is worth only half the value of a man,” Mohaqeqdamad said.

“Quite the contrary! My interpretation is that you need two females because women have so many responsibilities and one may be busy or not available to go to court. In fact, this verse actually shows that women are more important than men.”


About This Series

Islam’s centers of dynamism are shifting, changing the lives of the world’s 1 billion Muslims. This series examines an emerging generation of believers and their strikingly different goals:


* The New Activists: After an end to autocracy, Indonesia’s quest for political and economic solutions is shaping its Islamic identity.

* The New Threat: In Pakistan, a dangerous breed of Jihadis is looking beyond Muslim lands with an eye to changing the world.

* The New Reformers: As an intellectual hotbed for the faith’s most innovative ideas, Iran is redefining the Islamic movement. And despite their relatively small numbers, American Muslims are trying to influence their religious brethren worldwide.



American Muslims wield growing influence despite their relatively small numbers, A18