The Women’s Mufti: Interview with Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei
Tehran, Asharq Al Awsat – His madrasa at al Hawza al Ilmiya [religious seminary] in Qom is marked by an incredible simplicity; a building that bears a sign on which the words ‘Ayatollah Saanei’ are written. When he opened the door there was a large wooden cupboard that was stacked with shoes belonging to the students and visitors, a straw mat and a passage that lead to the classrooms or prayer rooms. The first floor of the modest building has several small, simple rooms. We entered a room that had a few chairs and a table on which stood glasses of light Iranian tea. Two of Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s assistants were setting up the video camera, the ease with which they were preparing evinced that Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei was accustomed to conducting video interviews with journalists.
Ayatollah Saanei entered the room smiling, dressed in a black cloak and white turban, his beard long and wispy. He said that the hawza was evolving with the times and that a few years back it would have been a problem to host a female reporter in his madrasa but that now it had become normal – even the ‘American’ Christiana Amanpour had visited his hawza lately. One of Qom’s most renowned Ayatollahs and a strong advocate of the women’s movement in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Saanei defended the rights of women in Islam, upholding that they are equal to men in every regard – except for two matters.
The grand ayatollah has relayed statements to Sunni clerics in the Muslim world pertaining to the rights of women in Islam and regarding the relations between Sunnis and Shia. He said that if America attacked the Iranian nuclear and military sites that Iran would retaliate in the same way but that if Washington launched its attack on Iranian civilians that the Iranian authorities would be required to stop their uranium enrichment program. He stressed the violation of sanctity entailed in spilling Muslim blood. He criticized some conservative ayatollahs in Qom who are calling for an ‘Islamic government’, especially after the election Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president. He added that those who are making the demand know nothing of the Iranian revolution  and that their views of Islam are faulty.
Following is the text of the interview conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat:
Q: You have a considerable following among the women in Iran by reason of your fatwas [Islamic decrees] relating to women, how did your thought develop?
A: First of all, I would like to clarify that my popularity is not limited to Muslim women only; my supporters extend to all women worldwide who have been deprived of their rights and who defend human rights. As a cleric, I have a huge following; through the Quran, the Prophet’s Sunna and my diligence I have written and proven in al Hawza al Ilmiya that men and women are equal and that there are no differences between them. I said that women are capable of becoming the Wali al Faqih [guardian jurist] and that they could lead the prayers while the men pray behind them. I wrote these statements in my scholarly thesis at the hawza and all my disciples act in accordance with this.
My book about women’s jurisprudence is one of the huwza’s principal books. Today, I have colleagues among the Sunni scholars who are starting to become convinced that women could lead men in prayer and that they can hold the office of president. Among them is former Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Ahmed Zaki Yamani who adopted most of my ideas in his book ‘al Mar’ah fi al Islam’ (Women in Islam). I hope that one day there can be a religious conference in which all the religious scholars, both Sunni and Shia, and human rights activists could attend so that it may be proven that the Quran has equated between the rights of men and women and that any interpretations that state otherwise could be right or wrong.
How can we agree that women are equal to men, as the Quran has decreed, then say that the women’s ‘diya’ [financial compensation paid for accidental killing by law] is half the sum of the compensation received for killing a man? How can we say that if a man kills a woman he can only be executed on condition that her family pays his family financial compensation that is the equivalent of half the sum of the diya but if a woman kills a man she is immediately sentenced to execution? How can we say that men can be judges but that women cannot be? The fundamental criterion is knowledge of the law and of the procedures. Women, like men, can acquire that knowledge.
I take this opportunity in which Asharq Al-Awsat is present to relay a message to Sunni scholars: Why is it that despite the existence of the famous Quranic verse that says “Oh mankind, we have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that ye may know one another. The noblest among you, in the eyes of Allah, is the most pious” [al Hujurat, verse 13]. Some believe that men and women are not equal; in Islam women’s rights differ from men’s in only two matters: the first is inheritance, the Quran clearly states that a man is entitled to double the woman’s share, and the second is in the case of divorce; men can divorce their wives while women cannot divorce their husbands. These two cases are clearly stated, however in all other rights they are equal.
I address the respectable Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and call upon it to show Muslim scholars that the Quran equates between men and women and gives everyone equal rights. Color, ethnicity, nationality and religion are not standards that can be used to discriminate between people when it comes to their rights. For example, regarding to the rights of non-Muslims, when the Quran refers to disbelievers, it does not mean those who follow a different religion than Islam. An infidel is someone who knows the Truth and conceals it; non-Muslims around the world are not infidels. Christians, Marxists, Jews, and Zoroastrians are all non-Muslims but they are not disbelievers. Unfortunately, the majority of Muslim clerics and scholars do not differentiate between disbelievers and non-Muslims, which is the root of many problems. This is a very important matter that must be discussed in a conference between Shia and Sunnis. All people are equal in their rights. Personally and from my perspective of Islam, I respect all mankind and the Quran respects all mankind not only Muslims.
Q: What is your view of the situation between the Shia and Sunnis, especially in light of the events in Iraq and what some are saying that the violence and sectarian struggle in Iraq is no longer between the West and Islam but rather between the Sunnis and the Shia?
A: Unfortunately, the source of all this conflict between the Sunnis and Shia is some major powers that do not want religious unity amongst Muslims. How can you say that the Shia are disbelievers when they perform their prayers and recite the same Quranic verses and the same prayers while standing side-by-side with the Sunni clerics in the Holy Mosque in Mecca?
Q: But it is not only limited to jurisprudence; there are clashes between the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq that are of a sectarian tendency, what can clerics do about that?
A: Differences in ideologies is always present, however the differences that we are practically witnessing now are the result of the policies of the major powers. They seek to separate the Shia from the Sunnis. To address this, it falls upon all the powers in the region to convene and discuss the matter together so as to put an end to it. It’s true that there are religious differences between the Shia and Sunnis, same as we know that Muslims and Christians differ when it comes to religion but are equal in terms of their rights. The policies of the major powers are responsible for making the situation to be one that is on the verge of war.
Today, the greatest threat facing people worldwide is terrorism. Bombings and terrorist attacks in Iraq are carried out by al Qaeda and all other terrorist organizations. When they execute terrorist operations they kill Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike, and Christians are also killed. Today, the security and media forces must unite to point accusing fingers at terrorism and the terrorists who engage in these practices. They must do something about terrorism rather than against each other. Today, all the Muslim clerics who give religious counsel during the Friday prayers must blame terrorism for all the criminal acts in Iraq.
I would like to acknowledge Saudi Arabia in particular, because of all the noble services it renders to Muslims. This year I was in Saudi performing the Hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage] and I witnessed all these services, Saudi has done much for Muslims and they are grateful in return. The management of 2 million pilgrims is hard work. I ask of Saudi to call upon scholars and clerics to stop accusing the Shia for the attacks taking place in Iraq and to accuse violence and terrorism instead. This is a request directed at all the Islamic world’s scholars but I have specified Saudi by virtue of its stature, importance and the role it plays. All the religious clerics and leaders in the region must set aside their differences to put an end to the violence in Iraq.
Q: You mentioned a reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia and yet there are no Sunni mosques in Tehran, is there a law against having them or is it simply unwritten instructions?
A: There is no law in Iran that prevents the building of Sunni mosques. This dispute has along history but the situation will change and we will resolve this issue.
Q: Some conservative scholars in Qom want to change the ‘Islamic Republic’ into the ‘Islamic government’, meaning to implement al hudud [the highest forms of punishment that are prescribed in accordance with Shariah] and to reduce the significance of institutions that are popularly elected, what is your opinion on the matter?
A: If there are some who call for this, they have no knowledge of the Iranian revolution, or the Iranian people and their views of Islam are erroneous.
Q: Do you believe that there is political interference in the academic hawza?
A: There are no interferences among the important figures in the hawza; only the backward narrow-minded individuals stand against the stability of al Hawza al Ilmiya. In every era there are always the regressive minds that are against the ideas of Imam Khomeini.
Q: Iran is passing through a sensitive time, which concerns you more: the internal or external problems?
A: Presently we are having problems. We do not want to say that the source of these problems is our situation internally or the Western governments or other governments. However, in all cases we must face the consequences of the sanctions.
Q: In your opinion, what are the causes of the problems confronting Iran?
A: The nuclear program and Iran’s peaceful use of it for civilian purposes is a large part of the problem. But there are other issues, among them are the status of democracy in Iran and the issue of human rights – which the West upholds that Iran has a bad record of ¬– however mainly, it is the nuclear issue. My message to the West is that it must take into account our interests and convey the true image of Iran: We are not a dictatorship.
Q: Would you stop the nuclear program if there were a threat of war against Iran?
A: First of all, nuclear weapons should not be used – Islam prohibits and condemns their use. Even in the case of self-defense using nuclear weapons is prohibited. From a Shariah standpoint if you are attacked by a major power you cannot use nuclear weapons in retaliation and self-defense because it would mean that a huge amount of innocent lives will be lost. Islam, and any liberal mind would concede that this is proscribed.
Q: So the development of a nuclear bomb is prohibited from the perspective of Islamic Shariah law?
A: From an Islamic standpoint, merely developing a nuclear bomb, not using it, is prohibited by Shariah and is deemed a crime because a nuclear bomb could be developed today and then fall into the hands of an irresponsible individual who will use it. Islam proscribes alcoholic beverages and criminalizes those who sell, bear and drink it. The same applies to the nuclear program. Islam bans the use the development and use of nuclear weapons – how can it allow for a nuclear bomb to kill the innocent and annihilate life on earth?
Q: If you were capable of making the decision, would you stop the nuclear program to prevent a potential war?
A: Yes, I would. I wouldn’t be prepared to build it because it can be misused by our enemies and place the lives of the innocent in danger. It would be the same if the West threatened us to stop using oil or our people will be killed and our land destroyed. We would stop producing oil because that way we would show the world that we are victims of the policies of our enemies. If they want to destroy our power plants, we will destroy theirs but I have no intention of allowing the killing of the innocent – from an Islamic viewpoint it is forbidden.
Q: Do you believe that Iran should submit to what it describes as ‘international arrogance’, as represented through the US, and stop its nuclear program?
A: If America’s objective is to attack nuclear plants and military installations we will stand in defense of our country. This means that we will retaliate and their interests will be subjected to danger just as ours will be. If the aim is to attack Iranian civilians and we cannot confront them and put an end to it and the only way to stop the murdering of the innocent is to stop the nuclear program and the uranium enrichment then it must be done.
Of course the last word on all issues, including the nuclear one, belongs to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The president and the parliament are not the ones making the decisions relating to the nuclear program. A few weeks ago Khamenei said that if the US attacked us we would retaliate and that we would threaten its interests throughout the world. If a force seeks to confront our military, we will strike back but if it attacks our people then we will confront it and if we succeed we will continue our resistance. If we fail then we must halt the development of the nuclear program.
Q: In light of the internal situation in Iran and the criticism that has been directed and Ahmadinejad over his economic policies and the external pressures over the Iranian nuclear program, how do you regard the near future?
A: The nuclear crisis will progressively improve. Internally, there is talk pertaining to a relative retreat in the Iranian stance in terms of principals. Others will also retreat from in positions. The Americans cannot attack us militarily and they cannot impose any further sanctions on us either. From another perspective, we in Iran cannot hold steadfast in the face of these sanctions. Internally, Ahmadinejad’s power are shrinking and his government did not fulfill the pledges that he promised his voters. In the forthcoming elections the Iranians could elect someone like Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani who now has a following in Qom. When he recently visited to Qom to give a speech in the Sayyida Maasuma Mosque, there were those who were complaining because of his presence in the hawza and were speaking against the words he directed at the people – it nearly caused confrontations among the people, however when he recently came he was warmly welcomed by the majority. It is possible for the Iranians to elect Rafsanjani or another politician capable of steering Iran towards democracy. I am optimistic about the future. Rafsanjani ran in the Assembly of Experts election last December and proved that he was a cut above the rest. He is well educated and open and will outdo his contenders.
Q: So you don’t believe that the internal and external crises that Iran is going through will isolate it or could even perhaps threaten the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
A: No. Internally Iran will become more democratic.
Q: Do you think that Iran is approaching the phase of restricting the authority of the al Wali al Faqih [guardian jurist, Ali Khamenei] in accordance with the law?
A: Originally, according to the basic constitution the Wali al Faqih’s authority is limited by the elected institutions – the important thing is the way in which the constitution is interpreted.
Q: In Iran there are some who are suggesting that the Wali al Faqih be elected by the people rather than be appointed by the Assembly of Experts, what do you think?
A: Yes, I support that. The problem is this is not provided for in the law.
Q: Who changes the law and the constitution?
A: Everyone participates when they meet and decide upon that. This is the case in all other countries. The constitution is not Quran so that you wouldn’t be able to modify it.
Q: Do you think that there could be another Khamenei in the position of Wali al Faqih in Iran?
A: There are many ayatollahs in Iran there will be no problem in finding a Wali al Faqih after Khamenei. Those who are like Khamenei are rare but ayatollahs like Khamenei are numerous in Iran. The position of Wali al Faqih is provided for in the constitution and respecting and following the Iranian constitution is a must. In Iraq the constitution does not provide for Wilayat-e-Faqih (Guardianship of Islamic Jurists) and as such they do not have a Wali al Faqih. We must all respect the Wilayat-e-Faqih so long as it is part of the constitution.
Q: In the hawza you are known for your liberal thinking, do you consider the open, liberal trend that you follow to be the dominant one in the hawza or is it still reserved for a minority?
A: Presently I am a minority in the hawza but the trend will grow in strength in Iran. My thoughts will find their place in today’s world. Some of the conservative people in the hawza were against my press interview with Christiana Amanpour recently, but that does not concern me. Eight years ago, foreign female journalists could be subject to harassment in Qom because they were women but no matters are different. There was a thick wall of ice around the hawza but it is gradually thawing.