The Religious Dimensions of Social Justice in Post-Revolutionary Iranian Discourse and Praxis

Scholarly experts from different disciplines examine the Shi‘i origins of the discourse of social justice, a subject that has been debated at both the political and popular levels in Iran since 1979. The fist speaker will examines the origins of the idea that Shi‘ism is the religion of ‘reason’ [‘aql] and assesses its contemporary influence on Shi‘i self-views and popular discourse. Next, the second speaker will reflect on the concept of rationality and social justice in the work of Ahmad Qabel within the context of religious rationality or “Shari`at-e `Aqlani. Our third presenter will assess the sociological implications of religious practices among low-income Iranian women, who form institutions such as religious charities and rotating savings and credit associations (RSCAs) that effectively function as social safety nets. Her paper is based on empirical data gathered during field research in Tehran and several other cities during the past two years.


by /

In streams of Shiism prior to the eleventh century and so-called Extremist sects today, Reason or ‘aql has the meaning of mystical insight, parallel to the Enlightened Reason of Neo-Platonism, and is identified with the persons of the Imams. From the tenth or eleventh century, there is a shift in the meaning of ‘aql among Twelvers; it comes to signify rationalism in theology and ratiocination in Law. Legal ‘aql in particular then becomes the special instrument of the successors of the Imams, the learned ulema. In the 20th century, ‘aql takes on a third life, descended from but distinct from the first two, as rationality or reasonableness. What has happened is that (Twelver) Shiites have seized on ‘aql as a distinctive feature of their tradition and re-interpreted it - or rather re-cast it, since the move is more imaginative than systematic - as a resource to meet the modern world. “Reason” in this guise is being used in innovative ways to advance modern ideas, including in the law, and we now routinely hear that Shiism is uniquely reasonable, progressive, and so on due to the heritage of ‘aql. In this paper, I discuss treatments of ‘aql by Shiite scholars, principally the Lebanese cleric Muhammad Jawad Maghniyah (d. 1979), but also Iranian figures such as Ayatollah Morteza Mutahhari (d. 1979). I will also consider how the idea of Shiism as the ‘religion of reason’ has influenced Shiite self-views and entered popular discourse.

by /

Social justice is one of those rich and multifaceted concepts that get rendered into many contingent interpretations. Its contingency is arguably demonstrable in the discourses of modern Iranian Muslim revivalist and reformist scholars. Prior to the 1979 Revolution, discussions of social justice were heavily influenced by the Marxist and socialist discourse that focused on broad economic inequalities and class distinctions of the rich and the poor as “Mustakberin” and “Mustaz`afin”. In the post-Revolution era, however, this focus has shifted to more specific categories of social injustice such as gender inequalities and social rights of the “individual” versus the power structure of a ruling theocracy.

It is through this trajectory that more than ever before in the modern times, the necessity of new interpretations of Islamic law is felt. While the relation between religion, reason, individual’s freedom and human rights, etc., has been abundantly discussed and while many have attempted to prove their compatibility with Islam “in theory”, there have been few attempts to apply “rationality” to the existing traditional laws of the Shari`ah in such a way that would lead to new and original interpretations thereof. In the last decade, the late Ahmad Qabel, from the younger generation of Shi`i jurists, turned to be a very controversial mujtahed by offering such original fatwas. While staying within the framework of traditional methods of juridical debates, he employed rational methods of argumentation to reach different results or fatwas on issues such as hejab. He called his project “Shari`at-e `Aqlani” (rational Shari`ah). This paper examines Ahmad Qabel’s theory of Shari`at-e `Aqlani focusing on his reformist approach to interpretations of certain Shari`ah laws and their implications for social justice.

by /

Social economy refers to the sector of the economy that is neither part of the government or the private sector but primarily is rooted in the community. It can be applied to a range of practices, from volunteer groups, to not-for-profit associations, to community-based organizations to social safety nets. This paper examines one aspect of the social economy, the social safety net, which relies on social networks among Iranian women in low-income households. I argue that the social safety net in Iran is spread widely and is especially strong among Islamist women who tend to be the majority of those living in low-income households. The paper documents their role as part of the social economy, filling the gap between both welfare state and formal safety net institutions. This is not to overlook the fact that there are non-religious safety nets, nor does it suggest that middle and higher income women are excluded from the social economy. Yet, since the majority of those who need help are low income, and they tend to be more inclined to embrace religious values, the emphasis will remain on low-income Islamic women’s ways of building safety net. This can be argued to be similar to examples in other parts of world where religion, especially, established formal churches, has played a role in social economy, such as Quebec in Canada and in most of Latin America, where the social economy and