While Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has encountered limited success in Iran's political sphere of late, he is nevertheless exerting considerable influence in the realm of theology. To some, he is striving to promote a reformation in Iran designed to bring Sh'ia Islam into the modern age.
In 2008, Rafsanjani, himself an ayatollah, made two important theological statements, which according to religious scholars can have far-reaching consequences for the future development of Sh'ia theology and jurisprudence. The first occasion was the sixth gathering of Qum's Seminary Teachers Association. During that June gathering, he called for the creation of a completely new body of religious doctrine that he referred to as State Theology, or Political Theology. Under his proposed new system, a body of top religious scholars would establish a new theological framework to guide the formulation of specific state policies.
The second statement was made during a late December scholarly conference on Sh'ia Islam at Tehran University. There, Rafsanjani suggested the establishment of a "Fatwa Council" that would comprise the country's grand ayatollahs. He also called for an overhaul of the curriculum at seminaries, and for the reliance on specialists in the formulation of religious edicts.
One of the chief features of Sh'ia theology -- which distinguishes it from its Sunni counterpart -- is in the doctrine of Ijtihad, or innovative interpretation. According to this doctrine, qualified Sh'ia religious scholars can reinterpret Sh'ia theology and jurisprudence in order to enable the faith to keep pace with changing circumstances.
"There is general consensus among all religious modernizers in Iran -- whether of the reformist, pragmatist, or even fundamentalist varietym -- that we are at an important juncture, that we should keep up theologically with the times, or we run the risk of losing the masses of the faithful to secularizing tendencies and pressures," a religious scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.
The scholar added that Rafsanjani's positions had drawn widespread praise and support. "Rafsanjani is speaking of the obvious and in the eyes of non-partisan clerics at least, he has proven himself a true defender of the faith," the scholar said.
According to the August 3 issue of the now-banned pro-Rafsanjani news magazine Shahrvand Emruz, Rafsanjani's pronouncements on issues like the innovative Ijtihad or on the Fatwa Council were motivated by several factors. One was to give a rational foundation to the institutional link between society and the seminaries. The second was to introduce innovations in some of the antiquated aspects of the Sh'ia branch of Islam that date to the Middle Ages.
For example, differences among grand ayatollahs, some of whom decline to use telescopes in order to sight the new moon, (which marks the start of the month in the Islamic calendar), has in recent years caused confusion as to when Eid-ul-Fitr begins. Eid-ul-Fitr is the festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Rafsanjani's proposal would systematize such determinations, thus avoiding disruptions that have brought some disrepute upon clerics. In recent years, public notification about the start of the festival has sometimes been delayed until the pre-dawn hours of the day itself. This lack of clarity has wrought havoc with work and school schedules.
Of course, there has been a subtext to Rafsanjani's theological initiatives -- one that he and his supporters have not tried to publicize. At present, there is a fierce struggle for power going on in Iran among the radical Right, the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader on the one hand, and the pragmatists like Rafsanjani and his reformist allies on the other. The theological reforms, if implemented, could weaken hardliner and neo-conservative elements in the government.
Rafsanjani has studiously tried to adopt a non-partisan position amid the ongoing theological debates. At the same time, the now-banned Shahrvand Emruz published some eye-popping statements attributed to Rafsanjani. For example, he said democratic systems were in general preferable to "dictatorial Islamic states." He also took a swipe at the hardliner-dominated watchdog group, the Guardian Council, which has veto power over parliamentary legislation, and vets political candidates in elections. The council almost single-handedly thwarted reform efforts that former president Mohammad Khatami attempted to push through earlier this decade. "The Fatwa Council should help the Guardian Council," Rafsanjani remarked. "What the Guardian Council has done in investigating problems in the Islamic realm is not what was supposed to have happened. Things could have been much better now."
While Rafsanjani's statement on State Theology was not particularly divisive -- since at least one prominent hard-line ayatollah, the former head of the judiciary, Mohammad Yazdi, had already spoken of it -- his proposal for a Fatwa Council, specifically the desire to have specialists gain responsibility for issuing religious orders, created a behind-the-scenes firestorm. Many people interpreted this as an attack on the Supreme Leader's authority. For example, Gholam Reza Elham, Ahmadinejad's spokesman, said in an interview that he thought it was "an attempt to weaken the institution of the [Supreme] Leader."
Rafsanjani's statements appear to have resonated with many clerics, particularly younger imams. For instance, Ahmad Rahdar, a prominent religious scholar at the arch-conservative Imam Khomeini Research Institute, told the newspaper Etemad Meli on January 24 that he thought the idea of a Fatwa Council was "quite sound."
Even so, Rafsanjani still has plenty of detractors. Another scholar at same research institute, Mahmood Dehghani, who is an editor-in-chief of a far-right newspaper, Parto, remains one of Rafsanjani's critics.
The religious scholar interviewed by EurasiaNet, meanwhile, suggested that Rafsanjani is gaining momentum. "Ayatollah Rafsanjani has now established himself as a major voice of reason in the clerical establishment," the scholar said. "Now even his detractors would find it hard to attack him for lack of fealty."
While there have been very many isolated and largely marginal attempts by Iranian clerics to modernize Sh'ia theology in a systematic way -- something akin to an Islamic version of the Reformation -- Rafsanjani's effort marks an entirely new chapter in this regard. It marks the first time that such a reform platform has enjoyed support from at least part of the country's religious and political hierarchy. Given Rafsanjani's influence, along with his penchant for pragmatism, it is safe to assume that the formulations he is advancing must have the support of a significant number of influential Sh'ia clerics both in and outside of Iran.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.