On April 7th Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani presented a gift to the Baha’i faith, an intricate work of calligraphy citing a passage from the faith’s holy scripture. In doing so, the cleric sent a remarkable message of support to Iran’s own Baha’i minority, which continues to face intimidation and arbitrary arrests. No senior cleric in the Islamic republic had done such a thing before—nor are they likely to do anything similar soon.
The gesture met with considerable praise, not only from Baha’is but also from religious figures around the world, including Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian communities in India and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, who called it an act of “immense significance.”
In a statement published on his website, Ayatollah Tehrani called the gift “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship—to all the Baha’is of the world, particularly to the Baha’is of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”
Tehrani is an accomplished calligrapher and has produced similar works from the Book of Ezra, the Psalms, the New Testament, as well as from the Koran. His unorthodox positions—for example that stoning for adultery is unIslamic—and his critical stance towards the establishment have led to his arrest on a number of occasions.
His groundbreaking gesture might prove to be more symbolic than anything else. Yet its significance must be appreciated in the context of persecution of Baha’is in Iran today. Despite reports by the UN Human Rights Council and others on the dire human rights situation for Baha’is in Iran, the Islamic Republic continues to deny all claims. “Our system has generously defended the Baha’is, has protected them and has given them security,” said Mohammad Javad Larijani, Head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council. “We have no one in prison for being a Baha’i. We have not persecuted a single person for being a Baha’i.”
Ayatollah Tehrani talked to IranWire about his gift to Baha’is and the motivation behind this unprecedented act.
What made you decide to turn a passage from the Book of Aqdas into a calligraphic, illuminated page and give it to the Baha’i House of Justice as a gift?
I had done this before with the texts of other religions but not the Baha’is’ Book of Aghdas. I was negligent. Of course I had talked about the Baha’is many times before. A few years ago I wrote a letter to Mr. Mohseni-Ejei [the prosecutor general of the Islamic Republic], in which I alluded to Baha’ism and mentioned violations against the rights of these children of God. But recently, after some Baha’i gentlemen came to visit me, I thought: I have worked with the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament and the Psalms. Why not do the same with the Baha’i texts to complete the set and soothe them in some way?
I knew nothing about Baha’ism and during their visit I told them so. It was only after our meeting that I opened the Book of Aqdas. The truth is that my physical condition no longer allows me to turn the whole book into calligraphy as I did with the others. For this reason I selected one passage, turned it into calligraphy and sent it to the House of Justice.
You are a Shi’a and have researched Abrahamic religions. But Shi’as reject Baha’ism completely. What you did is a violation of your own religious teachings. What is your response to this?
To believe in a religion is not to deny the human rights of people who believe in other religions. We follow Imam Ali [for Shi’as, the first imam after Mohammad], who told his loyal companion Malik Al-Ashtar in his famous letter that people are brothers, whether by religion or by creation. I am not a believer in Baha’ism but this is no reason to deny and ignore their humanity and their God-given rights. Do we have to believe in other people’s religions to defend their human rights? Respecting the inborn dignity of humans must not be polluted by religious or ethnic loyalties.
One fatwa against the Baha’is states: “All Baha’is are unclean. If they touch anything, observing all rules on cleansing is obligatory.” What do you think about this religious edict?
This is a personal edict and has no basis in Islamic jurisprudence. No human being is physically unclean or untouchable. Belief in a religion does not make one clean or unclean. These kinds of edicts mostly result from a consensus between clerics and they are usually modified with the passage of time. Even before there were any Baha’is, a group of jurists considered all non-Muslims to be unclean—although this is against both the Koran and the narratives of the Prophet. I utterly reject it, not only where Baha’is are concerned but about all non-Muslims. This is not just my personal view. The late Ayatollah Khoei (1899-1992) wrote a lengthy and well-documented discussion on the subject and rebutted the notion that infidels are unclean. Of course, he eventually came to the conclusion that, since other religious leaders insist that unbelievers are unclean, we should say the same thing. Ayatollah Jannaati has refuted the idea completely.
Some clerics, hardliner politicians and Iranian media outlets refer to you as unorthodox. Do you think your way of thinking goes against traditional religious leaders?
Unfortunately religious teachings have been overshadowed by exaggerations and false interpretations, so if one refers back to the original teachings, everybody is unorthodox. This of course does not mean that we should not review traditional teachings, but we can’t call this unorthodoxy. There are many traditional senior jurists whose views on certain subjects might seem different and unorthodox.
What do traditional religious leaders think about your views?
There might be differences of opinion in some areas but this does mean necessarily mean there is disrespect among religious leaders. For example, Ayatollah Rouhani believes that taking a woman as a concubine does not require the the permission of her father, but others object to such an interpretation. There would be no question over Baha’ism if people refrained from making false statements about Islamic beliefs. Religious leaders would be happy to solve these quarrels and differences.
Ayatollah Montazeri took the first step, by defending the rights of Baha’is. Hossein Nasr took the second step, and said not only that it was permissable for Muslims and the followers of other religions to cooperate and socialize, but that it is incumbent on Muslims to uphold the principles of justice and equality. Discrimination and persecution of other religions is not acceptable. Now that the door has been opened, the old prejudices among the traditional religious leaders are no longer dominant. In the past, Baha’is have been accused of trying to uproot the Shi’a religion, but now such statements are less common. These problems must be solved. We should be able to live together in peace, regardless of religion, like many other societies do.
If this is the case, why don’t religious leaders react to discrimination against the Baha’is?
Maybe those who are in positions of power see the world differently. When I’m asked why clerics are silent, I say that the expectation that they should speak up is somewhat absurd. The clergy has faced attacks over the past few years. Who can guarantee that if a cleric speaks up, his door won’t be broken down by people who disagree with him? They are afraid too. What can they do? Our government is run by a group of clerics who have different views, but the clerics on the other side, who have spoken up, have invited a lot of trouble for themselves. Wasn’t Ayatollah Shariatmadari (1905-1986; known for his liberal views] a cleric? Isn’t [reformist politician] Mehdi Karroubi a cleric? These days all protesters are treated the same way and it does not matter whether he is a Shi’a or a Sunni, a cleric or a non-cleric.
The silence of the dissident clergy might lead people to believe that all clerics support the government, leading them to distance themselves from them more and more.
You are right. People believe in the message of religion but they don’t believe in the messengers. Some days ago Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and a few others advised people not to accept subsidies. They don’t understand that the time of figures like Ayatollah Mirza Shirazi [a famous cleric of the late Qajar era] are gone. When Shirazi issued his edict[against the monopoly granted by the king to the British Imperial Tobacco Company in the 19th century], people broke hookahs to show they accepted the pronouncement, even in the king’s palace. But now nobody cares about mullahs’ edicts—because some of those who wear the mantle have lied and deceived. Instead of living simply, they live in grandeur. People notice these things. I have said it before: If this continues, people will not want to bandage a wound on someone’s head, lest they be mistaken for someone wearing a turban.
After you met with the Baha’is, was there any direct response from leading clerics?
No. Of course, I expected to be summoned. But it seems it has dawned on them that they cannot pressure me. With all the things that have gone on before, why should they want to come and take me away?
So you have no fears of government action?
None for myself, but I am definitely worried for my mother.