Do you believe that democracy and Islamic law (Sharia) law can coexist?
Yes and no. It would depend on which model of democracy you mean. On the other hand, we have many different interpretations of Islam. Which interpretation do you mean? Which interpretation of Islam is compatible with which model of democracy? I say the question is so general that it doesn't make sense to me.
Can you be more specific, then?
I focus on a special interpretation of Islam on this end and a minimal form of democracy on that end. I call it Iranian democracy, or domestic democracy, because of the special religious, cultural background of Iran.
We need the equality of all citizens in the public domain, and to acknowledge that the government is the representative of these citizens. They are not appointed by any supernatural force like God, or the Prophet, or the Hidden Imam. So it means the government's power comes from the people and that the leaders should be limited in their designs, their plans, and their programs. The majority of the citizens will determine everything in the public domain.
What about religion?
A democracy also can be religious if the majority of the people in that country are religious. That means we will only have Sharia law when it is supported by the majority of the community.
It is similar to what John Locke wrote about the social contract, about ownership. Ownership in Islam is very important; you cannot violate it. I write that ownership is not exclusive to property, to material, to money, but also to managing the nation-state. It is a common ownership; everyone is the owner of their country. Anyone who wants to do something to the country has to have the permission of its citizens, of its owners.
Who makes these kinds of determinations?
It depends on the citizens: If they want, if they desire, if they support religious laws, we can practice this. As I've written, it means that every time the people can control, they can check and balance, and if it is not fit for their country, they can change it. It's the meaning of democracy. It doesn't mean that because our fathers decided something about these rules you should do it. If you want to change it, it's all right.
I focus on the equality of all citizens. We are citizens, they were citizens. Now is our time, not their time. I believe this is the minimum of democracy.
So how does this kind of society determine its laws?
The authorities in Islam, especially Shia Islam, are called ulemas; they are Islamic specialists, Islamic scientists, Islamic jurists. In Shia Islam, we accept plurality—it's not like the Vatican in Catholicism. In this way, it is like Protestant Christianity. It means that we have a lot of authorities, not one authority. In Shia Islam we have about twenty clerics in the highest level of authority, some of them in the city of Qom [Iran], some of them in Najaf [Iraq], and some in Beirut.
All the Shia Muslim believers are free to refer to each of them. It doesn't depend on your nationality or your social status. It is religious freedom for all believers.
In Shia Islam, there are four sources of Sharia law. The first is the Qur'an, the second is the tradition of the Prophet, the third source is what all religious authorities believe in a case, and the fourth is reason.
By reason, it means that if you can prove that something is completely irrational, it means it could not be divine. And if you can prove that something is completely rational, we should have some kind of religious ruling in this case. Because of this, I think human rights are rationally accepted. I can say it could be divine because we have a good source in this case. The creator of reason and revelation is one person: It's God. The book of God and the book of reason could not contradict each other.
Would you give me an example of how this works?
Take slavery. About two centuries ago, there was no difficulty with slavery in all of the world, in this country or in other countries. We can find many philosophers who wrote things supporting slavery. They thought it was natural. So, it shows that reason can depend on the times. And we have things about slavery in the Islamic tradition. So I ask the jurists to be honest: "Do you believe in slavery now or not?" I think they would answer, "No, we do not believe in it." I say, "Why?" They say, "It's irrational."
So I tell them now, I have something else that is irrational, like slavery: the treatment of women.
And do these jurists accept what you have to say?
I say that we have two kinds of laws in Sharia. The first kind is permanent, or timeless, and the second kind is time-bounded. The mistake is that many jurists imagine all rules that we have in Islamic jurisprudence are timeless. It's not right. It is the role of the jurists to distinguish between timeless and time-bounded rules.
There is a part of Islamic law that governs human interactions. The difficulty here is not with the rules of worship. Those are timeless, for the most part. With human interactions, some rules are timeless, and some are not. The fundamentalists, like in Pakistan, believe that all of these rules are timeless. They want to fit their communities to the beginning of Islam. At that time, there was a simple community with a small population and a different situation.
And there's scriptural backing for this?
Yes. It's not only my theory—I draw it from the writings of jurists. Because of this, my papers are widely read in Iran. I highlight those things that are familiar to the grand ayatollahs, so when I mention these points, they say, "Yes, he could be right."
My audience, at the first level, is Shia leaders. On the next level are the ordinary people, the masses. So when my books are published, I have a lot of readers in the Qom seminary, the Najaf seminary. They say, "We've read your books." They criticize me on some points, but criticism means that they understand some things, they accept some things, and they challenge me on the other things. It is great for me. I can see the influence of what I wrote in my papers after six months, one year, three years, in what issues from those grand ayatollahs.
Is the same true for democracy?
A jurist from six centuries ago wrote, "You cannot govern without satisfying the community." Finding this, I became so happy, and I was surprised, because it was the point that I needed. I wrote a letter to my teacher, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and I said, "I found this point. What do you think about it? I think it could be the base of Islamic democracy." And that's where it started.
Q & A: Iranian Democracy
October 1, 2009