A Conversation with an Iranian Ayatollah

Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi. He sees secularism as more dangerous than Islamic extremism.
Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi. He sees secularism as more dangerous than Islamic extremism. (photo: Register Files)

It’s not often that an Iranian Ayatollah addresses a Synod at the Vatican – in fact, until last week, it had never happened. But on Oct. 14, Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, popularly known as Mohaghegh Damad, gave an intervention at the Synod on the Middle East currently taking place in Rome, becoming the first Iranian Shi’ite Muslim ever to do so.

Speaking with him shortly after his speech, he discussed his relationship with the Iranian government and his controversial views on Israel but he also expressed concerns that secularism is leading to godless societies without values.  A genial and somewhat eccentric Islamic scholar, he has a doctorate in law from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and currently teaches law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. A co-founder of the Common Word initiative which is trying to foster closer Catholic-Muslim relations, he said he has personally invited the Pope to visit Iran.

He was speaking Oct. 15 under the supervision of an Iranian government official at the country’s embassy to the Holy See in Rome.

In your speech yesterday, you said “an ideal world” would be one in which believers of any faith could live “without fear” according to the their traditions. But how does this square with the reality in your country and in most Middle Eastern countries where there are restrictions on religious freedom?

Firstly, I [believe] that Christians are members of my country, they are brothers and sisters. A lot of Christians are friends of mine – I have very many friends who are Christian and Jewish in Iran, and there’s no problem between us. All of them live under the same protection as Muslims. They are no different. They have the right to worship, freedom of speech, freedom to go to their churches.

But Muslims who convert to Christianity are reported to suffer restrictions in Iran [some say they are treated as renegades and traitors to Islam].

Freedom to choose a religion is one thing, conversion is something else. You need to differentiate between them. What does conversion mean? If I’m a Christian, for example, and after one or two years suddenly I declare that I am now outside the faith and tell everyone that they shouldn’t be a Christian, that Christianity is a hateful religion, then any Christian person would be bothered by such statements.

Yet they should still be free to make them?

If conversion means taking action against Islam, then it’s not permissible. You are not allowed to take action against Islam by propaganda. We don’t allow such acts to be made against Christianity in Iran either.

So if someone converted quietly without making public statements, would that be OK?

Yes, nobody can ask someone else what their religion is. This is forbidden. But if they make propaganda against any religion including Islam, then that’s not allowed.

You also said in your speech that today’s rapid communications are having “a qualitative effect on the relationship between religions.” But do you perhaps see these trends also as a threat to Islam, bringing foreign thinking and influences into the religion?

No, [we] should draw on the benefits of technology to bring about brotherhood. Technology should not make us suffer. If it’s used against humanity it’s not good, not fair.

But there are some restrictions on internet access in Iran, there are reports of some censorship of blogs.

I don’t know – I can connect to any website in my home. Perhaps others can’t but I have no problem.

The relationship between Islam and politics is a close one, particularly in Iran. Just how close are you to the political class in the country?

Religion and politics were very close before [the Iranian Revolution] because every law that couldn’t be affirmed by Islam had to be removed. This is in the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.  According to the current Constitution, every election should be free, there should be a parliamentary democracy. There are some problems, but freedom of speech, freedom of writing, freedom to have political parties [are allowed] so I don’t see any difference between what we have in Iran and other democratic countries.

Do you ever speak out against government policies, for example on the nuclear issue?

That is something to ask the ambassador.

What is your view on the Israeli-Palestinian question?

The nation’s point of view, that of the people of Iran, is that they want justice and to see justice realized. In Palestine, we favour democracy. But the Iranian people also say that the government of Israel is not elected by the people of that place [the Palestinians]. It is a racial government and we can’t accept that.

Do you share President Ahmadinejad’s views on Israel?

I don’t know, I haven’t seen what he said – I was here when he went there [on a recent visit to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad said Israel was “doomed”. Previously, he has called for the nation to be wiped off the map].

You had a private audience with Benedict XVI – can you tell us what happened during the meeting?

Yes, he shook my hand, and said: “I agree one hundred percent with what you said in your speech and I wish you had more time to speak”. We’ve known each other for many years; I was his guest when he hosted a conference at the Vatican about human rights among religions. I made a presentation there. He remembered me at that event, and said he hoped to see me again. We said we hoped to see him in Iran, but that is in the hand of God!

Do you think Catholic-Islamic relations are much better than in the past?

Yes, everyday they are getting better. I cannot agree with any extremist or fundamentalist of whatever religion. In any religion there is some fundamentalist thinking. But I want to say frankly that fundamentalism was started by the Zionists in Israel. We are not fundamentalists. I, as a Muslim, condemn any extremism or fundamentalism in any religion, not only in Islam. Our contemporary time is one of negotiation and dialogue.

But people would say that Ayatollah Khamanei is an extremist.

Ayatollah Khamanei recently issued a fatwa about reducing hate speech against other religions, especially within Islam. As you know, there are many struggles between Shia and Sunni. The struggle in Iraq is deeper than Islam and Christianity, so the Ayatollah recently issued a fatwa.

What will you personally take home from the Synod?

It was very interesting for me because it was the first time that a Shi’ite from Iran attends such a gathering at the Vatican, presents a lecture at it, and in front of His Holiness. It was very important for me. I return to Iran with a very nice memory.

It’s interesting that, at a press conference afterwards, I sensed some fear of Islam among the journalists. But one of them explicitly stressed that the real fear is when Christian values are forgotten. It reminded me that in all society, the danger is that of forgetting God, forgetting love, prayer, worship, friendship between each other. This is the real danger for us – for any religion. Because what is the difference between a religious man and a secular man? I believe the difference is that a religious person believes in some values, a secular man doesn’t. So if a religious man forgets his values, what’s the difference between him and a secular man?

So this is a common concern, some clear common ground, between Islam and Christianity.

Yes, both of them believe in values, and the need to protect values. Both of us should help each other to promote these values in society.