The Historian Who Has Been Sentenced to Death


Mr. Cole is professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002). His web site is www.juancole.com.

Breaking News: Mr. Cole informs HNN that twenty profesors at Tarbiyat Mudarris University--where Aghajari teaches--have resigned in protest.

The death sentence passed against a professor of history at Tehran's Tarbiyat Mudarris University has provoked justified rage and indignation throughout the world and even in Iran itself. Hashem Aghajari stands accused of advocating disrespect for religious figures.

Since the death sentence was confirmed in early November, student demonstrations have been held daily, not just in Tehran but also at provincial universities such as Hamedan. The student slogans have included, "Execution of Aghajari is execution of thought in Iran!" "Political prisoners should be released!" "Freedom of thought forever!" "Our problem is the judiciary!" Twenty of his colleagues on the faculty have tendered their resignations in solidarity with him.

Aghajari's case gathers up a number of important strands in modern Iranian history. He did not, of course, actually blaspheme against Islam. What he did was call for an end to blind obedience (taqlid) on the part of the laity.

The prevailing school of jurisprudence in Shiite Islam demands that laypersons without any formal seminary training in the law defer to experts on its meaning. They are to choose a family cleric in the same way that one might choose a family physician. They abide unquestioningly by his rulings. Is it all right for a Shiite man to wear Western cologne? The cleric will decide.

This traditional authority over the details of the law has dovetailed with a new and broader political authority since Ruhullah Khomeini's Islamic Republic was established in 1979. The whole country must now defer to the rulings of Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei. If the laity does not owe blind obedience to the clerics, the reasoning of the hardline judiciary goes, then the very foundations of the Iranian theocracy would be shaken.

Aghajari's dilemma recalls several important episodes in Iranian reformism. The great nineteenth-century Iranian thinker, Sayyid Jamal al-Din "al-Afghani" (d. 1897) gave a similarly controversial talk in Istanbul in 1870. There he praised philosophy and suggested that prophets are a kind of philosopher who employ images and emotionally laden rhetoric to convey truths to the masses. (This view had been put forward by medieval thinkers such as Avicenna and Averrroes.) Al-Afghani was summarily expelled from the Ottoman capital.

Aghajari himself edited a new Persian edition of the Travel Diary of Ibrahim Beg, a late nineteenth century imaginary account of the travels through Iran of a reformer critical of what he sees.

The speech that Aghajari gave in late June commemorated the death of the revolutionary thinker Ali Shariati, an opponent of the shah trained in France in the 1960s, who was inspired by existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Islamics specialist Henri Massignon, and the Algerian Revolution. Shariati (d. 1977) also advocated an end to blind obedience to religious authority. He believed that every Shiite had the right to engage in his or her own independent jurisprudential reasoning about the meaning of the holy law. Shariati represented a leftist strand of thinking within reformist Shiism that was brutally suppressed after the 1979 revolution. Aghajari's speech was thus very much a tribute to Shariati.

Aghajari, a war veteran who lost a leg fighting Saddam Hussein's forces, is himself a member of the left-wing Mujahidin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. He has been critical of the right in Iran for idolizing the Chinese model of economic development that allows capitalism but retains authoritarian government. Aghajari dreams of a political opening and of social democracy. He foresees the "accumulation of small but social capital, management, expertise, innovative job creation and the workforce of the entire society. In such a model, the prospect of our economy and politics can be a democratic one or in other words democracy in economy and democracy in politics."

Many believe that the death sentence passed on Aghajari is actually an attempt to make sure that the left remains dead in Iran, and that it cannot form a social democratic party that might appeal to Iran's youth. Although Khamenei has ordered a judicial review of the case, Aghajari's health remains in danger because his leg has become infected while in prison.

The death sentence has had the opposite effect of the one intended by the hardliners. Aghajari has declined to appeal it, and has refused to be silenced. His case has brought angry students out onto the streets for the first time in two years. It has also put Iran back in the international spotlight as a repressive regime rather than as a liberalizing one. It may well be that Iranians have had their fill of heresy trials, and of the ayatollahs who prosecute them. Nor should the rest of the world let this outrage pass.

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Mohammed Alavi - 12/1/2002

I think the verdict passed on Mr. Aghajari is unjust, as long as it has violated the freedom of speech. People can be the best judge and thay can decide on the accuracy of his speach.

Allen Stout - 11/27/2002

I'm not sure that changes are not likely from within Iran. Whether they will pay off in the longer or shorter
term, movements toward greater democratization in Iran have been evident for some time. There is also a
literature on how revolutions evolve over time, and history does not seem to be on the side of the radicals.
I would also point out that student demonstrations are unheard of in Iraq or North Korea. Despite its flaws,
Iran is one of the most truly democratic states in the Middle East or North Africa. I suspect that they are a
part of the "axis of evil" (when authoritarian Egypt is not) because of their unremitting hostility to Israel, which
is a key ally of the present administration.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/22/2002

Mr. Gallatin, The President would be horrified to know that you identified only one of the three "axis of evil" countries. Turkey is an ally. North Viet Nam is now simply Viet Nam. They are not part of the "axis of evil." You missed Iran and North Korea.

Thomas Gallatin - 11/21/2002

Well, for starters, some of us might learn a lesson about the advantages of restraint in foreign affairs, e.g. what a Nobel Peace prize winning U.S. president called "speaking softly and carrying a big stick". If the U.S. had responded to the 1979 embassy seizure in Teheran by announcing a "war on hostage-taking", debating minute details of civil service procedure in a new department of Homegrown Security, ignoring the connection between U.S. energy wastage and Mideast dictatorships, declaring Iran, Turkey and North Vietnam to be part of an "axis of evil", and sending cruise missiles to "disarm Khomeini", would there even be a persecuted democratic movement within Iran to worry about what to do with ?

Steve Russell - 11/21/2002

May I ask whether there is anything to be done about this matter in addition to paying attention to it?

The people who have decided to condemn this man in the literal sense for his opinions seem unlikely to be moved by any number of petitions from within Iran. Petitions from outside Iran only confirm their worst fears.

Is there anything to be done?

Michael Budd - 11/21/2002

The Iranian case illustrates the fundamental significance of open historical interpretation in building & sustaining a free society - but your comment reminds me of the importance for us of recognizing that the "semi-informed back-and-forth pot shots" are effects rather than causes. Although the "stretchable fabric" of a civil society enabling intellectual freedom and individual liberty does not entail the simple right to say or do absolutely anything, you are right in that it is sustained through endless non-violent conflicts of conscience between & among individuals & groups. In that regard, I am interested in what indentifiable social structures & cultural assumptions apart from our media circus of "legislative melodrama" (which doesn't seem any more representative nor any less corrupt than the later Roman republic) make that possible - what do people think are the real bases & limits of civil society - to continue the metaphor, when does the fabric no longer stretch and begin to tear? What defines the pattern and the weave, and should it be the same in any human culture?

k.k.sharmir - 11/21/2002

i condemn the death sentence as it is against the God's will

Alexander Anderson - 11/20/2002

While the case of Aghajari does not have any obvious direct bearing on the short term fortunes of any Washington politician, thus sparing us here the torrent of semi-informed back-and-forth pot shots typical of many HNN postings, this is a serious case to which historians and scholars should pay closer attention. Intellectual freedom and civil liberties are not generally a product of poll-driven political campaign marketing strategies, but are advanced and protected by innumerable small individual efforts such as those outlined in this piece.