Theological Innovations in the Islamic Republic of Iran

The four papers in this panel proposal are tied together by telling the story of how theological innovations in post-revolutionary Iran have come to replace legal tweaking as a vehicle for change from within. The first paper by Takim “Ethics as Guide in Legal Innovation” starts the conversation off by examining legal innovations in Qum seminaries. Still considered to be the dominant vehicle for change in orthodoxy, legal reformulations are the natural place to start a conversation about theological innovations in uṣūl, because they point to the limitations in jurisprudence. By looking at the rulings of several well-established clerics, Takim presents the important finding that: failing to extract workable models from the traditional primary sources, jurists are now resorting to ethical readings of the Qur'an and the Sunna as opposed to literal ones. This turn to ethics as theological innovation is continued in the second paper by Madaninejad: “Ijtihad as Ethically Falsifiable: The New Jurisprudence of Abolqassem Fanaei,” where she presents the work of a contemporary Shi‘i ethicist (PhD from UK) and cleric Abolqassem Fanaei. Fanaei has suggested a new methodology for ijtihad. He proposes that the interpretation of religious primary sources should be ethically falsifiable because a mujtahid should be able to trust his ethical intuition. In essence, if a certain interpretation does not pass the test of the mujtahid’s intuition, it fails to be a viable reading. Fanaei’s choice to allow the mujtahid’s intellect and ethical intuitionism to sit in judgment of the Qur’an has far-reaching theological implications. A turn to ethics has been a theological trend in Iran but so has religious secularity. Kadivar’s paper “Secular Islam” attempts to define religious secularity as a category. This definition, promises not only a “clerically-certified” application of secularity into the Muslim lifeworld but a long overdue and urgently needed blueprint for countering the growing threat of political Islam. Up to this point, the innovations visited have operated within the margins of orthodoxy. Anzali’s paper “The Making of a New Religious Movement in Iran: the Case of the School of “Inter-Universal Mysticism (IM)” (‘Irfān-e Kayhānī)” speaks of a syncretic/hybrid movement whom many would argue takes theological innovation out of the ballpark. This is an alternative theology which is an innovative blend of multiple discursive traditions: Shī‘īsm, Sufi traditions, the rational-scientific tradition and the so-called New Age tradition.


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Ijtihad as Ethically Falsifiable: The New Jurisprudence of Abolqassem Fanaei,” presents and builds on the work of a contemporary Shi‘i ethicist and innovative ex-mujtahid from Iran, Abolqassem Fanaei (Ethics PhD from UK). Fanaei, taking ethical intuitionism seriously, suggests a new methodology for ijtihād. He proposes that the interpretation of religious primary sources should be ethically falsifiable because a mujtahid should be able to trust his ethical intuition. In essence, if a certain interpretation does not pass the test of a mujtahid’s intuition, it fails to be a viable reading.

To create a new Islam, Fanaei suggests, we need to create a new methodology for ijtihād and in order to do that we need to allow the primary sources to be ethically falsifiable and in order to do that a mujtahid needs to trust that his intellectual supposition (ẓann ‘aqlī) which is based on observation (shuhūd) and reasoning (istidlāl ‘aqlānī) is a good enough proof (hujja). One of the more important presuppositions a cleric holds is the circumstances, under which, it is morally wrong (or epistemically irrational, or imprudent) to hold a belief on insufficient evidence. Fanaei claims that the current rules of ijtihad give no credence to suppositions that can be logically derived from the intellect and empirical data. When the choice to pick between rationality and tradition presents itself, tradition (literal readings of primary sources) always takes the upper hand. It is true that Shi‘i clerics are taught to use their judgement in coming up with innovative solutions, but in reality, Fanaei contends, they always take the conservative route because they are simultaneously taught that as fallible human beings, their intuition cannot be trusted. The result is a Shi‘ī orthodoxy, that has few to no tools for innovation.

Fanaei’s epistemological innovation is to suggest that a certain number of rational and empirical suppositions do in fact have value and validity and so do a certain number of transmitted conjectures. But in the case of opposition (ta‘āruḍ) between the conjectures, the supposition with greater epistemological support is the one that should be given preference. At the end of the day, our intellect must win and it wins because we intuitively know the difference between wrong and right.

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As a theocracy, the guardians of Shi’ite orthodoxy in Iran have been quite diligent in making sure that organized deviance from the state sanctioned religious norms is not tolerated. Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Sufis, and other religious minorities are often subjects of persecution and discrimination. At the same time, a deep sense of discontent with the state religion has been growing among middle/upper class Iranians have created an urge to read Shi’ism, Islam, and religion in general in a new way. Disenchanted with what they perceive as a disastrous and failed mix of politics and religion shoved down their throats for decades, many have started looking for alternative frameworks of religiosity and spirituality. The purpose of this paper is to introduce and offer a preliminary analysis of one such alternative.
As an indigenous Iranian New Religious Movement (NRM), the School of Inter-Universal Mysticism (IM) was founded by Muhammad-Ali Taheri (1956 – present) purportedly around the same year that the revolution happened but the movement only grew in popularity and became a socially visible actor in the 2000s. This, until its founder was prisoned, tried, and found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities.” IM continues to grow underground in spite of state hostility. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on two tasks: First, I will offer a brief account of IM’s theology from a comparative perspective, parsing out various traditions – the Shi’ite-Islamic, the rational-scientific, the Sufi-New Age – that have been brought together in an innovative blend to construct a syncretistic religious worldview. Second, I will focus on some central tenets of this worldview and try to offer an analysis of the reasons behind their appeal to constituents with a particular profile (in terms of class, education, and gender) among Iranians in the political, cultural, and social context of life in the Islamic Republic. I will end with some remarks about the potential implications of the study of this movement for broader debates in the study of NRMS.