Educating Conservatives About Modern ‘Shi’ite Quietists’
The conservative take on Iranian theology and motives is not exactly correct.
March 14, 2014 - 12:00 am
And following Montazeri’s death, Choksy made this sobering observation:
[T]he religious minorities in Iran see little theological difference and only a marginal pragmatism among the various Shiite views. Montazeri’s opinion was characterized by one Iranian Christian clergyman as “…rubbing salt into our wounds.” Ultimately, Montazeri’s tolerance of differences, especially religious ones, was far from acceptance.
Ze’ev Maghen, Professor of Persian Language and Islamic History, during an online symposium published October 9, 2012, made this trenchant reference to Montazeri’s alleged “moderation,” in the context of Iran’s dogged quest for nuclear weapons capability:
Now the Jewish state is facing a regime the most moderate elements of which regularly threaten to wipe Israel off the map and repeat citations of the following sort: “His Excellency [the sixth Shi‘ite Imam Ja’far] al-Sadiq affirmed thrice that those who will ultimately exterminate the Jews will be the clerics of [the Iranian Shiite shrine city of] Qom” (cited approvingly in a public forum by supporter of the “Green Movement” Ayatollah Ali Hosayn Montazeri, Memoirs). Now those clerics are enriching uranium at a dizzying pace just outside of Qom at Fordu [Fordow].[Emphases added]
Without doubt, the most instructive illustrations of modern Shiite “quietism” are manifest in the writings of Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (d. 1981), specifically, his glosses on important Koranic verses addressing jihad, and Islamic Jew-hatred. A brief biographical introduction to Tabatabai is in order to appreciate the unique significance of his doctrinal interpretations. Also known as Allamah Tabatabai, he was a prolific writer whose influential Koranic studies, and philosophical works, remain widely read. Tabatabai’s monumental twenty volume Al-Mizān fi Tafsir al-Qur’an (“The measure of balance in the interpretation of the Quran”), is generally regarded as the most important 20th century Shiite Koranic commentary. Jane Dammen McCauliffe, an internationally recognized scholar of Koranic exegesis, is editor of both the six-volume Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, and The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Noting Tabatabai’s Koranic commentary, “included with some frequency…excerpts from hadith collections and from previous commentaries, particularly those of al-Ayyashi (d. 932), al-Qummi (d. 939), and al-Tabarsi (d. 1153),” McCauliffe concluded that the massive work
… testifies to his [Tabatabai’s] broad scholarly background and abiding interest in comparative religion and philosophy. In addition to etymological and grammatical discussions, it combines his own thoughts and elucidations of the passage under consideration with discourses on its moral implications or mystical-philosophical ramifications. [emphasis added]
Renowned Iranian Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, and prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, translated and wrote the preface to Tabatabai’s treatise, Shi’ite Islam. Professor Nasr referred to Tabatabai as, “a man who has devoted his whole life to the study of religion, in whom humility and the power of intellectual analysis are combined,” a “celebrated Shi’ite authority,” who produced the “monumental Quranic commentary, al-Mizan.”And Nasr reverently summarized Tabatabai’s purported unique combination of scholarship and spirituality, as follows:
Allamah Tabatabai represents that central and intellectually dominating class of Shi’ite ulama who have combined interest in jurisprudence and Quranic commentary with philosophy, theosophy, and Sufism and who represent a more universal interpretation of the Shi’ite point of view. Within the class of the traditional ulama, ’Allamah Tabatabai possesses the distinction of being a master of both the Shari’ite and esoteric sciences and at the same time he is an outstanding hakim or traditional Islamic philosopher (or more exactly, “theosopher”).
Allameh [Allamah] Tabatabaei [Tabatabai] University, named in honor of this celebrated Shiite authority and “theosopher,” is the largest specialized state social sciences university in Iran and the Middle East, with 17000 students and 500 full-time faculty members. Affirming his continued lofty stature, and relevance, an Iranian national conference was held on May 3, 2012, in Qom, dedicated to “recognizing the interpretative methods and principles used by Allameh [Allamah] Tabatabaee [Tabatabai] in [his] Al-Mizan exegesis.”
Below are extracts from Tabatabai’s “monumental” Koranic commentary revealing how this learned Shiite paragon of the “mystical-philosophical” implications of the Koran, interpreted Koran 2:193/8:39, and related verses, especially 9:29, pertaining to jihad. Tabatabai’s glosses merely reiterated the traditionalist Islamic supremacist Weltanschauung which sanctions aggressive jihad to impose an Islamic order on all “unjust” disbelievers in the Muslim creed.
Koran: “And fight with them until there is no more mischief (disbelief) and the religion be only for Allah.” This defines the time-limit of the fighting. Fitnah (translated here as ‘disbelief ’ and ‘mischief ’) means here ‘ascribing a partner to Allah and worshipping idols’, as was the custom of the polytheists of Mecca, who compelled others to do likewise. This meaning is inferred from the next sentence, and religion be only for Allah. This verse is similar to the verse: “And fight with them until there is no mischief (disbelief), and the religion be only for Allah; but if they desist, then verily Allah sees what they do. And if they turn back, then know that Allah is your Master; The Most Excellent Master and the Most Excellent Helper” (8:39-40). This verse shows that it is obligatory to call them to the right path before the war. If they accept the call, there will be no fighting; but if they reject it then there is no Master except Allah, and He is the most excellent Master and the most excellent Helper ;He helps his believing servants. It is known that fighting is prescribed so that the religion be only for Allah. Such a fighting cannot be started until the adversaries are first invited to come onto the right path, i.e. the religion based upon monotheism. Some people wrote that this verse was abrogated by the verse: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, from among those who were given the Book, until they pay the jizyah (tributory tax) with their hand while they are in a state of subjection” (9:29). But there is no question of either verse abrogating the other, because they deal with different subjects. The verse under discussion is, as explained earlier, about the Meccan polytheists and does not cover the People of the Book who are referred to in verse 9:29. And the religion be only for Allah means that idol-worship be abolished and the oneness of Allah be accepted. The people of the Book do believe in One Creator. We know their belief is in reality disbelief as Allah says that they: do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth. But Islam is content with their mere profession of monotheism. Fighting with them was ordained not to make them believe in monotheism, but simply so that they might pay tribute to the Muslims, thus raising the true creed above their creed and making Islam victorious over all religions.
Islam proceeds by degrees in these three methods. First comes good exhortation and peaceful invitation. If it fails to repulse the unjust people and to remove their corruption and despotism, then the second method is adopted, and that is peaceful boycott, passive resistance and noncooperation with them, withholding all assistance from them. If this too proves ineffective, then the only alternative is the third one, that is, armed confrontation, because Allah is never pleased with injustice; and he who silently agrees with an unjust person, is his partner in injustice. Even when Islam drew sword and took up arms against the unjust people (who had disregarded the divine communications and proofs), it used the force only to remove those who had become like stumbling blocks in the way of the Call of the truth. In other words, it used the arms to repel the enemies’ mischief, not to make them enter the fold of Islam. Allah says: And fight with them until there is no more mischief [2:193].
Tabatabai’s exegesis on 9:29 merits particular consideration because this verse is not only the eternal jihad directive against Jews, Christians, (and Zoroastrians), but the ultimate rationale for the discriminatory system of governance imposed upon the survivors of these creeds vanquished by fighting, or those groups of these “real infidels” who submit without a fight. His gloss opens by identifying the specific “People of the Book,” i.e., those with “revealed” scriptures, who nonetheless must be subjected by jihad:
These verses speak of battling the People of the Book, namely those who managed to withhold the jizya, and it recalls matters pertaining to ways in which they deviate from the truth, both in belief and in action.
As for the words of the Almighty: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have declared unlawful and who do not apply the religion of truth among those who were given the Scripture,” [i.e., Koran 9:29] these ‘People of the Book’ are the Jews and the Christians to whom many verses in the Holy Quran are dedicated, as well as the Zoroastrians who are mentioned or alluded to by the words of the Almighty [Koran 22:17]: “Indeed, those who have believed and those who practice Judaism and the Sabeans and the Christians and the Zoroastrians and those who associate with Allah – Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed Allah is, over all things, Witness,” where they are listed among the other representatives of heavenly [inspired] creeds…
Tabatabai then elaborates, at some length, why despite being “People of the Book,” they are ultimately considered “real infidels”:
The Almighty does not differentiate in His Word between belief in Him and belief in the Last Day. Therefore disbelief in one of these two things constitutes disbelief in God, and disbelief in God constitutes disbelief in these two things together. So the rule about someone who differentiates between God and His messenger, and believes in one without the other, is that he is [considered] an infidel, as it says [Koran 4:150-151]: “Indeed, those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers and wish to discriminate between Allah and His messengers and say, ‘We believe in some and disbelieve in others,’ and wish to adopt a way in between; Those are the disbelievers, truly. And We have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment.”
The People of the Book are counted, like [others] who do not believe in the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), as real infidels, even though [in reality] they do have belief in God and in the Last Day. The formulation is not that they only deny one of God’s wonders, namely the wonder of prophecy, rather the way it is formulated is that they reject belief in God [Himself]. Therefore [the Quran states that] they do not believe in God and in the Last Day, in the same way as the polytheists who have idols deny God, since they [too] do not see Him as one but instead they see one godhead above [other] multiple gods. Even though they establish as a principle [belief in] creation and resurrection [their belief system] does not agree with the truth at all, like their claim that the Messiah is the son of God or that Ezra is the son of God. They resemble in this the words of those infidels who worship statues and idols, namely that among the gods this one is a god who is the father of a god, and that one is a god who is the son of a god…
Therefore is it obvious that belief in God and in the Last Day is banished from the People of the Book. Verily they cannot see the truth of the matter concerning the Oneness of God and the resurrection, even if they acknowledge that the Word has a divine source. It is not that some of them [openly] deny that the Word is divinely inspired by God, praised be He, or that they would deny the resurrection. They actually confirm what the Quran tells about them even though in reality, the Torah as we have it today does not have any information about the resurrection.
[Let’s] now [look at] their second feature [as described] in the text: “who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His messenger have declared unlawful”. This is like what the Jews said to allow things [that are really forbidden] which the Quran enumerates and recalls about them in Surah 2, 4 and others, and what the Christians say to allow wine and pork. Surely the prohibition of these two things is established in the laws of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them), and [also] for them to consume the wealth of the people unjustly.
What is meant with the [term] “messenger” in the phrase “what Allah and His messenger have declared unlawful” is a messenger from among themselves spoke through his [own] prophecy, like Moses who addressed the Jews, and Jesus who addressed the Christians. The meaning thus is that none of these communities is upholding the prohibitions that their messengers had imposed on them (while speaking) through prophecy. They [theoretically] acknowledge his validity and therefore [should put] an end to daringly challenging God and His prophet, and playing around with truth and verity. As for the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who they can find described in their Scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel, he allows them what is good and forbids them what is bad. He takes away their burden [covenant] and their shackles that were on them.
Tabatabai elucidates the “purpose” for the permanent designation of the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians as genuine infidels: objects of chastisement, the Muslims are to be incited against these reprobates, and violently subject them to an Islamic order, which features, prominently, enforced payment of the blood ransom, jizya.
So then the purpose for describing them as not forbidding what God and His messenger forbade, is to rebuke and defame them, and to arouse the believers and incite them towards battling them for not submitting to God’s and His prophet’s prohibitions in their religious practice, and for allowing themselves to fall into Divinely forbidden practices and violating [dishonoring, raping] what is sacrosanct.
However one who contemplates the overall objectives of Islam should not be confused thinking that the purpose of battling the People of the Book until they pay the jizya is for the pleasure of the supporters of Islam… Rather the goal of [our] religion in this [respect] is for the religion of truth [Islam], and the enactment of righteousness, and the word of godliness to triumph over falsehood, iniquity and immorality… As far as the jizya is concerned, this is a financial donation [i.e., blood ransom!], taken from them and allocated towards upholding their protection [i.e., “protection,” from, primarily, the resumption of the jihad against them!] and towards their proper management. An independent government cannot annul this kind of practice, either in an overt or in a concealed manner… they [the Muslims] should battle them [only] in order to bring them [Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians] under the dhimma so that they will no [longer] openly practice any immorality and evil will be contained among them.
The concluding summary of Tabatabai’s gloss on Koran 9:29 enumerates three key points of (re-)emphasis, which all hinge on this overarching principle: Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians—People of the Book—must be fought, subdued, and humbled because they constitute a chronic danger to an Islamic, Sharia-based society, and its mores.
Firstly, What is meant with the People of the Book not believing in God and in the Last Day is that they do not envelope themselves in the faith [i.e., Islam] that is acceptable for God, and that they do not forbid what God and His messenger forbade, that they are inconsiderate by publicly committing these forbidden things and by doing so they demoralize human society and undermine the current rightful government1. Also, [it means] that they do not profess the religion of truth, and they do not follow the true practice that conforms to creation and with which creation and the universe are consistent.
Secondly, the phrase “who do not believe in God… (until the end of their three characteristics),” comes to explain the wisdom in the commandment to fight them, and from this follows the moral benefit of instigation and incitement to do so.
Thirdly, the intention is to battle all People of the Book, not just some of them, as [would be the case] by taking [the word] “among” in the phrase “among those who were given the Book” as a differentiation.
Considering the word of the Almighty “…until they give the jizya from their hands while they are humbled”, Al-Rāghib said in [his book] ‘Al-Mufradat’: “Jizya is what is taken from the Ahl adh-Dhimma, and it is called this way because of being a reimbursement for sparing their lives” [literally, “blood’]. It is a special [obligatory] donation [that works] as a penalty for holding on to unbelief, i.e. as a punishment…
Relying on what Al-Rāghib mentions, this supports what we brought forward before namely that this financial contribution is allocated towards upholding their protection [again, from resumption of the jihad] and saving their lives and towards their proper management. Al-Rāghib also says: “Smallness (or insignificance) versus greatness are opposite terms used to qualify one [concept] or the other. Something can be small in one aspect and great in another.” He continues: “There is a saying: ‘He is small’ (ṣaghura ṣaghiran, [the second word] first with an ‘a’ and then an ‘i’) as opposite to great. And another expression: ‘He is small and despised’ (ṣaghura ṣagharan wa-ṣaghāran, with two times ‘a’ in both words), referring to [a low level of] gratification. The acceptable kind of [being] humiliated in terms of a religious status is: “…until they give the jizya from their hands while they are humbled”… The “hand”: A human limb that aims at power and pleasure. Therefore it says: : “…until they give the jizya from their hands…” which refers to its first meaning, namely ‘until they give the jizya which is passed from their hand into your hand’, while there is a reference to a second meaning namely ‘until they give the jizya because of your power and authority over them’, while they are humbled and cannot rise above you nor become haughty towards you.
Regarding their characteristics that necessitate fighting them, as mentioned in the beginning of the verse, followed by them giving the jizya to uphold their protection, it informs [us] that the purpose of humiliating them is their submission to an Islamic lifestyle and to a righteous religious government within an Islamic society. They shall not be equal to Muslims nor stand out against with them as an independent identity, free to express anything their souls feel like, nor to publicize the doctrines and activities invented by their lunacies that corrupt human societies. This all relates to them handing over money from their hands out of a contemptible position.
So the meaning of the verse (and God knows best) is: Fight the People of the Book who do not [truly] believe in God or in the Last Day, with a faith that is acceptable and uncorrupted from being proper, and who do not forbid what is forbidden in Islam namely those [crimes] that, when committed, corrupt human society, and who do not abide by a religion that conforms with the divine creation. Fight them and persist in fighting them until they are humbled among you, and submit to your rule. In this [condition] they shall give a defined financial contribution signifying their humbled position which is allocated towards upholding their position and sparing their lives and towards the necessary expenses for managing their affairs.
Tabatabai’s gloss on Koran 5:5 adds a related caveat in discussing the possibility of allowing Shiite Muslim men to marry women from among the subjected “People of the Book,” which validates the jihad-related concepts of “harbis,” and collecting jizya:
the Prophet…said, “Verily the marriage is allowed with only those People of the Book who pay jizya; marriage with others is not lawful” The author [Tabatabai] says: It is because without payment of jizya they will be counted among kafir harbi [infidels in “lands of war,” whose lives and property are licit for the Muslims].
Allamah Tabatabai, modern doyen of Shiite Koranic exegesis, and “theosopher,” provides this general description of the Koranic portrayal of the Jews, beginning at Koran 2:40 to 2:44, and continuing for over a hundred verses thereafter:
Now begins the rebuking of the Jews that continues for more than a hundred verses. Allah reminds them of the bounties bestowed, of the honors given; contrasting it with their ingratitude and disobedience; showing how at every juncture they paid the favours of Allah with disregard of their covenant, open rebellion against divine commands and even with polytheism. The series reminds them of twelve events of their history — … all of which shows how they were chosen to receive the especial favors of Allah. But their ingratitude runs parallel to it. They repeatedly broke the covenants made with Allah, committed capital sins, heinous crimes and shameful deeds; more despicable was their spiritual poverty and moral bankruptcy — in open defiance to their book and total disregard to reason. It was all because their hearts were hardened, their souls lost and their endeavors worthless.
Tabatabai’s gloss on Koran 2:75 emphasizes the Jews alleged hostility to Islam’s prophet, and his new creed:
The pagan tribes of Aws and Khazraj lived with the Jews of Medina, and they knew that the latter followed a divine religion and a revealed book. Thus it was not too much to expect them to believe in the latest in the series of divine religions and books. This was the basis of their hope that the Jews would accept the Apostle of Allah as the true prophet, and would strengthen the cause of religion, and actively participate in the propagation of truth. But no sooner did the Prophet migrate to Medina than the Jews showed their latent hostility. The hope was shattered and the expectation turned to disappointment. That is why Allah addresses the believers, saying: “Do you then hope that they would believe in you?” Concealment of truth and alteration of divine words was their deep-rooted life pattern. Why wonder if they go back on what they used to say before the advent of Islam?
Tabatabai also offers a traditionalist gloss on Koran 2:61, 2:88-2:93, and 3:112-3:116, which accuse the Jews of “prophet-killing,” “disbelief” in, and “disobedience” to, Allah, engendering His wrath, “hatching conspiracies” against Islam and the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and therefore, deserving permanent abasement, which was indeed “stamped” upon them.
[2:61] Their disobedience and perennial excesses caused them to reject the signs of Allah and kill the prophets… Needless to say that murder, and especially of the prophets, and rejection of the signs of Allah cannot be termed as mere disobedience. It should be the other way round. But if we take the disobedience to mean disclosing the secrets then it would be perfectly right to say that they killed the prophets, because they (disobeyed them and) did not keep their secrets and thus delivered them into the hands of their enemies who killed them.
[2:89-2:93] They knew that Muhammad was the awaited Prophet, because all the attributes and particulars mentioned in their books fitted on him perfectly. And yet they denied his truth… [T]hey returned doubly enraged. It may also mean that they invited double wrath of Allah upon themselves — the first because they disbelieved in Torah and the second because they disbelieved in the Quran. The verse says that they were partisans of the Prophet long before he was born; they prayed to Allah for victory by his name and his Book. When the Prophet was sent and the Quran was revealed, they very well recognized that he was the Prophet in whose name they used to pray for victory, and whose coming they awaited. But they were overwhelmed by envy and arrogance. No sooner did the Prophet begin his call then they denied his truth, and forgot all that they used to tell about the awaited prophet. It was not surprising as they had earlier disbelieved in Torah too. Thus they committed disbelief after disbelief, and invited the wrath of Allah upon themselves, not once but twice…“We believe in that which was revealed to us”. If this claim of yours is correct then why did you kill the prophets of Allah? And why did you disbelieve in Musa [Moses] by taking the calf for a god? And why did you say, “We hear and disobey”, when We took a promise from you and lifted the mountain over you?… “Evil is that which your belief bids you . . .”: It is a derisive expression ridiculing them for their killings of the prophets, their disbelief in Musa and their arrogance in committing sin after sin and then claiming that they were the true believers. The verse tauntingly asks them: Is this what your belief bids you?
[3:112-3:116] The verses, as you see, now revert to the original theme, describing the behavior of the People of the Book — and particularly the Jews —exposing their disbelief in the Divine Revelation, their going astray and their hindering the believers from the way of Allah… Abasement is stamped on them as a design is stamped on a coin, or it encompasses them as a tent encompasses a man. Anyhow, they are either branded with, or overwhelmed by abasement and humiliation — except when they get a protection or guarantee from Allah and a protection or guarantee from men. The word ‘‘protection’’ is repeated when referring to Allah and then to men, because the connotation differs from one place to the other. Protection* given by Allah is His decree and command, either creative or legislative; and that provided by men is their decision and action. Abasement is stamped on them; it means that Allah has ordained a law affirming their abasement. This meaning is supported by the proviso ‘‘wherever they are found’’. Obviously, it means that wherever the believers find them and subjugate them; this proviso is obviously more appropriate to legislative abasement, one of whose effects is the payment of the jizya. The meaning of the verse therefore is as follows: They are abased and humiliated, according to the law of Islamic Sharia…‘‘those who disbelieve’’ refers to the other groups of the People of the Book which did not respond to the call of the Prophet; those were the people who used to hatch conspiracies against Islam and had left no stone unturned in extinguishing the light of the truth… Obviously it describes the Jews’ behavior with the Muslims
In his gloss on Koran 3:181-185/189, Tabatabai reiterates these interpretations, (again) labeling the Jews as “prophet killers” who acted “knowingly and intentionally.” He also repeats the accusations of their “upsetting the Muslims affairs, rejecting the evidence of messenger-ship, and hiding what they had been enjoined to make known.”