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Iran: Reinterpreting Ashura

The West may not have noticed -- and nor, perhaps, may many Muslims -- but a range of Islamic thinkers are currently trying to raise awareness and understanding of the Islamic tradition of pacifism, tolerance, and rationality. Among them is Emad Baghi, an Iranian scholar of Islam, previously himself imprisoned for his writings about the killing of critics of the regime in the 1990 and now the head of the Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights. Fatemah Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda spoke with him about some of the roots of militant Islam, but particularly about his new and provocative interpretation of Ashura, one of key moments in the history of Islam and a date of particular significance to Shi'ites. Here, he suggests that the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Islam's first leaders, should be seen as a symbol of pacifism and rationality rather than as a symbol of tragedy, resistance, and revolution.

RFE/RL: In recent years, tensions between the Islamic world and Western civilization have been rising. Many analysts reluctantly admit that the prediction by the U.S. academic Samuel Huntington of a pending clash of civilizations may be on the verge of coming true. How did we get here, and who is to blame? 

Emad Baghi: Toward the end of the 20th century philosophers and social scientists suggested that, with the advent of the third millennium, the whole world would be moving toward greater harmony and mutual understanding. Concepts such as the global village raised an expectation that peace and tolerance would prevail. But the events of September 11 altered this trend. The terrorist attacks of September 11 were not only a human tragedy, but also a catastrophe that deflected the course of history in the third millennium. After September 11, Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism became the dominant face of Islam. As a result, anti-Islamic sentiment rose in the West. The Western public was told that the West was now in a war against Islam. The term "crusade" was commonly used in the media and even by George Bush, although he later distanced himself from that statement.

But the truth is that Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism, long before declaring war to the Western civilization, had started a massive offensive against a large portion of Muslims, modern Muslims, those who want to show the peaceful nature of Islam. Examples are the conflicts between different Islamic groups in Afghanistan and the Taliban's cruel violence against Iranians and other Muslim nationalities. The horrible crime that these people committed on September 11 completely eclipsed the peaceful face of Islam.


Violence In Shi'ite Islam

RFE/RL: But don't we also see elements of violence in the Shi'ite interpretation of Islam?

Baghi: Well, there has been a long tradition of a revolutionary and militant interpretation of the Shi'ism, although this interpretation has always been very different from Bin Laden-ism. The concept of Alavi Shi'ism or "red Shi'ism" [a concept propounded by the Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati that contrasts Alavite Shi'ism or Red Shi'ism -- the religion of martyrdom -- with Safavid Shi’ism or Black Shi'ism, the religion of mourning] was in fact a response to totalitarian regimes and was primarily represented by freedom fighters. Religious intellectuals wanted to use this instrument to mobilize the masses against tyranny. They therefore exaggerated the militant and revolutionary aspect of the Ashura, the movement of Imam Hussein [the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third of the Muslim leaders -- imams -- who, as descendents of the Prophet, are the key interpreters of God's will]. Other aspects of Ashura were forgotten and a violent and revolutionary picture of Islam was painted, a revolutionary Islam that advocates martyrdom as offering the key to heaven. Martyrdom and jihad [the concept of holy war] became limited to violent struggle against one's enemies. This picture was in sharp contrast with the spirit of religion. The spirit of all religions is the protection of human dignity. All prophets came to undo injustice against humans. All Islamic texts start with the phrase "in the name of God, the merciful." In Islamic teaching, jihad is not limited to fighting the enemy with violent means. According to Islam, even if you are struggling to put food on your family's table, or if you are writing to spread knowledge and awareness, you are engaged in the jihad.

I think the growing anti-Islamic sentiment is rooted primarily in the reaction to this violent picture depicted by Islam. Even the recent caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that led to a major crisis were not, in essence, an insult to the real prophet, but rather to the Muhammad that Bin Laden-ism had pictured for us. This was aimed at a fake Muhammad forged by violent and extremist groups, and not the prophet known for centuries by Muslims as the symbol of peace and compassion.

A Third Interpretation Of Ashura 
RFE/RL:You mentioned that the militant interpretation of Ashura, Imam Hussein's uprising [in 680 AD, which ended with his death in battle with the ruling caliph at Al-Karbala], was an exaggeration by Islamic intellectuals. You recently made a speech entitled "Imam Hussein's Peace", a term normally applied to Imam Hassan [the second imam and the brother of Imam Hussein], who made peace with his rivals. This is a very new and provocative concept. Could you elaborate on that? 

Baghi: There has been two approaches to Ashura, an emotional approach and a political one. In the emotional approach, which dominated for centuries, the tragic element of Ashura became prominent. Ashura was simplified as a tragedy. In the political approach, Imam Hussein became the symbol of resistance and revolution. In the emotional approach, Ashura is about tears and sympathy; in the political approach it is about the struggle for freedom. The emotional approach to Ashura and to Islam as a whole is misinterpreted. This gave rise to rituals in which people beat themselves to the point of fainting. In this interpretation, mourning -- and extreme expressions of that -- become virtues. The political approach has introduced other misinterpretations of its own -- to the extent that Imam Hussein is turned into a symbol of war and revolution while Imam Hassan represents pacifism and compromise. The political interpretation has so deeply engraved these concepts upon our psyche that my title, "Imam Hussein's Peace," sounds strange even to many of my friends. 

I am advocating a different view of Ashura, a view that is free of emotionally and politically tainted interpretations. In my view of Ashura, two elements -- rationality and pacifism -- characterize Imam Hussein. If we study history free from emotional or political agendas, we realize that Imam Hussein was more of a pacifist than a militant. The Imam had repeatedly offered ceasefires and peace negotiations to the enemy that had surrounded him. The Imam was a true believer in human dignity and knew that wars destroy human dignity. It was only when all his efforts remained unfruitful that he chose death with dignity over capitulation. That is the real heroism of Ashura.

In this alternative [third] view, Imam Hussein becomes an ordinary, but intelligent, man whose actions are based on reason. He tries to avoid war because he knows the consequences.

RFE/RL: Are you trying to raise an academic point or do you feel that this new view has an immediate implication for the realities of today?

Baghi: Today, in our modern world, the West is advocating a fight against terrorism. I want to raise the point that, 1,350 years ago [at a time when both Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein were alive], when killing was common practice and often praised, Imam Hussein rose up against both war and terror. This may surprise many in the West. Imam Hussein's representative in Kufa [a city in modern Iraq whose population invited Imam Hussein to lead it], when faced with conditions unfavorable for victory over the enemy, suggests to Muslim ibn Aqil, Imam's deputy, that he assassinate Obaidollah Ibn-e Ziad [the provincial governor of Kufa]. That assassination would have changed the course of history and Imam's supporters, who had infiltrated the enemy, were fully capable of executing it. However, Muslim ibn Aqil, who knew Imam Hussein's philosophy very well, vehemently rejected the idea, arguing that "in Islam terror is illegal."

Reversing The Rise In Extremism

RFE/RL: Do you think the rise of extremism is an irreversible process? How can we stop this?

Baghi: I think the West has made a big mistake by falling into the trap of Bin Laden-ism since the tragedy of September 11. In fact, this policy played perfectly into the hands of those who want to destroy Western civilization. By polarizing the world between the civilized camp and the Islamic camp, a Bin Laden-ist definition of Islam, policymakers in the West paved the way for the extremists to gain ground. All Western media have unintentionally been serving the cause of these extremist groups. This type of blind conflict is exactly what the Bin Laden-ists want. I believe some politicians may have pushed this for political gains. Because their approach was not one based on human rights but rather a political approach, they thought they could use this situation to promote a plan for a new political geography in the Middle East. Some may have seen this as a golden opportunity to gain access to the enormous wealth that is lying underground in this region. But I don't think that the entire Western world thinks like this group of politicians. But, unfortunately, most Western media resources are directly or indirectly serving this approach.

RFE/RL: And the solution?

Baghi: The simple solution is that these resources be used to introduce and promote the other interpretation of Islam. Instead of providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts, let the world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the peaceful face of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and political activists in the Islamic world.

These people are largely unknown to the Western public. The reason is that, unfortunately, we have a one-sided flow of translations. If you go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the number of books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been translated into Farsi. But this is not a mutual relationship. The West does not know much about the evolution of thought and philosophy in the Islamic world. There are very few who would reflect these thought products in the West.

RFE/RL: I want to go back to your provocative new interpretation of Ashura. Can we expand this new approach to other religious issues and texts and come up with novel interpretations?

Baghi: Yes. In the new discourse that is under way in Iran, we are witnessing many novel interpretations of religious principles by prominent religious leaders. For example, Ayatollah Montazeri has challenged one principle that has been conserved for centuries in Islamic jurisprudence: he has criticized Islamic jurisprudence for being based on a recognition of believers' rights rather than on human rights. Mr. Montazeri [under whom Baghi studied for 10 years in Iran's clerical capital, Qom] puts very strong evidence on the table -- and from the Koran itself -- that supports the notion that human rights are a central principle in Islam. In fact, he shows that, in this regard, we have deviated from the true teachings of Islam.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

... Payvand News - 3/23/06 ... --

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