By virtue of working at a university hospital, I often receive email forwards about events occurring on the academic campus. While most do not peak my interest or happen to fall outside of the eighty-hour work week as mandated federally for all physicians-in-training, I occasionally get to walk over in my green hospital scrubs to enrich that side of me that I reluctantly buried as my undergraduate studies ended in 1998. But I digress… On September 6, an email forward came through the Persian Cultural Society stating that there will be a talk the following day at the Law School given on Islam and women's rights, religious discrimination, and racial issues. The speaker was a professor of jurisprudence and Islamic law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Dr. Mohaghegh Damad.
The Law School at the University of Virginia is amongst the premier law schools in the nation. I parked my car in a “Reserved” spot and rushed in to make it as I was post-call and running late. The venue for the talk had changed three times because of growing interest and limited seating, but I managed to find the conference room that was fully packed with many students eager to hear the speech. It was hard to miss the black-turbaned, bearded, bespectacled, middle aged cleric amongst a crowd of mostly women audience with many mini-skirts and sleeveless attires. In the email, there was no mention that the professor was a Shi'i cleric, so I was quite surprised at the sight of his presence and even considered that perhaps he is one of the audiences.
Upon arrival, a copy of Dr. Damad's resume from his website was passed out, and the highlights were that he was born in Qum, holds a B.A. in Islamic philosophy from the University of Tehran, an M.A. in Islamic jurisprudence from the same institution, and a “Doctorat on droit” from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, which was obtained in 1996. Though I am not a French speaker, I believe that the correct spelling of a Doctorate in Law is “Doctorat en droit.”
The list went on that he is the author of fifteen volumes of books and many articles, and that he has been the head of many departments in various universities including departments of law and philosophy. His government related activities included: Chief of State Inspectorate Organization, head of the Department of Islamic Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Iran, head of Commission of Judicial Bill Collection of Iran, and finally head of Commission of Compiling Judicial Acts.
One of the faculty at the School of Law, Dr. Kim Forde-Mazrui, gave a glorious introduction to the speaker whose titles included doctor, professor, Seyed and ayatollah in sequence. For brevity, however, I will refer to him as Dr. Damad. As the writer of this article, it would only be fair that I expose my biases to the readership. I grew up in Iran and have my reservations about people who make a career out of their faith. Briefly, after the election of the now former president Khatami, I considered that perhaps there is intellectual elite amongst this group. But after eight years of essentially no progress in the rights of journalists, political activists, and religious minorities I became quite cynical about the role of clergy in modern day Iran.
With a graceful motion of the hand, Dr. Damad draped his black 'aba (cape) over his shoulders and walked with a great composure to the podium. His ice breaker was that he had not been in any western country for fifteen years, though his 'Doctorat on droit” was from Belgium in 1996, and that his English might be a bit rusty. He had a reassuring voice and a quite comprehensible Persian accent. He continued that since his English is much better than the audiences' Persian, he will give the rest of the talk in English. He read most of his talk verbatim from his manuscript and occasionally stumbled on pronunciation of a word or phrase, which he remedied with a gentle smile. Many of the audiences were taking notes.
Dr. Damad essentially laid out an optimistic view about Islamic nations and their attitudes towards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Noting the Qur'anic and traditional references used by many clerics to declare this document incompatible with Islam, he offered a broader view of Shi'i interpretation of the text. He stated that since one of the pillars of Shi's Islam is justice, based on our modern day understanding of justice there are no irreconcilable differences between this document and Islamic jurisprudence. He offered other views as 'pessimistic” and 'extremist” and far from the inherent tenets of Islam.
On women's rights, he quoted a Qur'anic reference that states, “Men are superior to women.” But by varying interpretations of such verses in light of Islamic justice, Muslim women especially in Iran have enjoyed an increasing number of rights, including their right to vote, right to serve in parliament, and the right to apply for a divorce. Concerning polygamy, Damad stated that a man cannot marry his second wife without permission of his current wife.
According to Damad, different eras and historical conditions affect Islamic scholars' interpretations, and many gains have resulted in women's rights. He acknowledged that all Islamic nations are not following this trend at the same pace and that Iranian women enjoy more rights than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia. Damad pointed out that the reason for such differences may be hidden in the Shi'i and Sunni approach to interpretation of Islamic texts. He stated that Shiites believe in a “continuous ijtihad,” in which Islamic mujtahids rely on 'Aql or reason for interpretation, whereas Sunnis tend not to engage in continuous reexamination and reinterpretation of the Qur'an because they believe that human reason is incapable and imperfect.
On the subject of religious freedom, Islamic interpretations also differ. While some Islamic theologians believe that apostasy deserves capital punishment, a competing interpretation holds that simply abandoning the faith is not a crime. The more 'optimistic” interpretation is that only “practical apostasy,” in which one undertakes actions to destabilize the social order, may be punished. Damad further stated that “The innate nature of any religion is voluntary,” and no compulsion is permissible.
Regarding racial discrimination, he gave the example of Bilal, a black man, whom Muhammad appointed as the muezzin to call the believers to prayer. He further quoted the tradition that no one is superior to another and that piety is the only distinguishing factor amongst the believers.
At the end of the talk, I managed to make my way through the audience and present a few questions to Dr. Damad. Regarding women's issues, I asked about the compulsory nature of Islamic covering in light of his understanding of Islamic jurisprudence. He responded, “Nothing should be forced on the people by the government, not even daily prayers.” When I inquired about the Bahai situation and its adherents' lack of rights, he responded in a calm manner, “As I said, nothing should be forced on the people.” He further stated that eventually as Iran follows on the path of reform, the “members of that faith” will also have equal rights.
I asked regarding justice as a pillar in Shi'i tradition and how it is upheld if a person appointed by the members of the Counsel of Experts has more say than a person elected by millions in Iran. He smiled and stated, “Are you asking of my opinion or the official position of the Iranian government?” Then he followed that justice will eventually be served and that patience is needed. I further told Dr. Damad that his thoughts remind me of those of Abdul-Karim Soroush and whether he is afraid of being harassed like him when he goes back to Iran. He smiled and responded that he respects the contributions of Soroush to our understanding of modern Islam, and that much of what he has said is written in his books. “No threats. At least not yet,” he said and got onto the car to leave for Maryland, caring that his 'aba does not get caught in the door.
And, in case you are wondering, no one had ticketed my car!