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

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.