In these years we have witnessed [Qābel’s] bravery in explaining some jurisprudential and religious positions. It isn’t important whether such a new theory is correct and indisputable. Rather the importance is in thinking in new ways, breaking taboos, and thinking outside of the box of dogmatism, sclerosis, and prejudice; it is a quality that is really vital and valuable for new thinking, and it must be valued. Just as Qābel was courageous in remonstrating against injustice, he was also courageous and resolute in [his] research and innovative ideas.Footnote 1
In truth [Qābel] was not interested in politics. He [tried] to flee from politics. He was not the kind of person who wanted to be a representative, or a minister, or a member of some highfalutin organization. Basically, he wanted to flee from politics, but the suffering and the misery of the people affected him greatly. It was so important and significant to him that it resulted in [him being cast into] prison, [and suffering] torture, injury, and persecution.Footnote 2
The citations above, from two of Iran’s leading intellectuals, encapsulate the defining characteristics of Ahmad Qābel. They foreground the originality and the brave public expression of his views which frequently crossed redlines that brought him into conflict with the ruling authorities. Through this biographical chapter Qābel’s career as a seminarian will be investigated, and in so doing, prominence is given to the latter period of his life when the Principlists viewed him as a dissident and transgressor of the values that they had established in Iran.
Qābel was a young seminarian when opposition to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, erupted in the late 1970s. He was an ardent supporter of the movement popularly associated with Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) to Islamicize the country, and yet by 1989, ten years after a referendum which showed overwhelming support for the creation of an Islamic Republic, Qābel had intense misgivings about the nature of the ongoing revolution. In particular, he was concerned how the ruling establishment concentrated and restricted power in the hands of the few. Over the course of the next twenty years, he consistently rebuked and lambasted the leadership of the country with stinging criticisms for its tendency to autarchy, use of violence in the exercise of political power, and the mass execution of prisoners. His open letters and interviews resulted in him being recognized as one of the major voices that expressed dissent against the Principlists within the Iranian regime. At the same time Qābel also propounded a version of shariah that he considered perfectly rational, and which harmonized with modern conceptions of human rights. In effect, he believed his “rational shariah” offered Iranian Shiʿas a path that was more conducive to individual freedoms than that offered by the Principlists. Such a perspective has frequently been described with the term “New Religious Thinking” which, after Khomeini’s death, was increasingly espoused by seminarians who were considered “reformists.” It is critical to appreciate that this rational shariah included two vital aspects of Qābel’s thought: his faith in what he considered traditional seminarian values and a strict adherence to rationalism. These values were combined with justice and compassion, and resulted in his transgression of the Principlists’ redlines.Footnote 3
Even though his juristic conclusions on many issues dovetailed neatly with secular perspectives (or “religious secularity”)Footnote 4 Qābel eschewed debate from a secular standpoint; his argumentation was deeply rooted in the sciences of the seminary, and his texts are loaded with Qurʾānic citations, hadiths, sayings of the Imams, and opinions of past great scholars whose views corroborated his own. He preferred to be recognized as a scholar and believer in Islam rather than as a secular intellectual, or lay religious thinker, such as Abdolkarim Soroush.Footnote 5 From a non-seminarian background, Soroush’s foundation for the amelioration of Iranian society does not start with jurisprudence, but in ethics and ʿerfān (gnosis).Footnote 6 Qābel departed from the secular thinkers at this point. His rationalist jurisprudential methods resulted in a minimalist Islamic approach in which a prescriptive interpretation of religion has a much lesser role than that overseen by the Iranian state authorities. In an interview in 2011 he was asked about the role of the religious mazhab in everyday life,Footnote 7 and whether it should interfere in all aspects of human life or whether it should be limited to individual ethics and otherworldly matters. Qābel responded that mazhab should not be understood as a concrete imposition with specific rules and prescriptions for all human actions. Rather, it should be thought of as an abstract guiding principle which served as a determining spirit animating individuals and society, and therefore it could still be a motivating force:
one can accept “religion and mazhab” as the promoters of logical and restricted approaches in [various] dimensions of human life, and [one can] even think about mazhab’s presence as the “motive for observing human ethics in the social sphere.” It is important that “religion and mazhab are not transformed into a profitless and harmful vexation in human life”. However, it is with deep regret that they have made the current understandings of it persistent and annoying aggravations.Footnote 8
Although Qābel has often been positioned among the New Religious Thinkers, it is more useful to define his worldview by a term that he himself coined. He frequently employed the idiom “rational shariah” because it encapsulated both a rationalism that did not contradict jurisprudence, and the wider perspective of the shariah.Footnote 9 Qābel was not and is not the only seminarian to employ reason in promoting Islam; however, what distinguishes his argumentation is the extent to which he relied on rationalism to both investigate and usually reject the legacy of traditions and also demonstrate the inherent reason within Islamic scripture. Indeed, he has been considered an “extremist” in his advocacy of rationality and reason.Footnote 10
Qābel’s writings from 2000 to 2012 are significant for two reasons. First, they were a transparent threat to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ʿAli Khāmenei (who assumed the role on the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989). Second, and related to the first point above, he persistently selected controversial issues for topics of discussion (although many of the themes that he investigated were not the subject of long erudite monographs). In doing so, in his conclusions he crossed the redlines set by Khāmenei and the Principlists. In conjunction with his more explicit political criticisms of Khāmenei, it is easy to comprehend why the Principlists in the Iranian regime perceived him as such a threat and incarcerated him in the harshest of Iran’s prisons on several occasions before his untimely death in 2012.
In this first chapter, Qābel’s life and thought are examined in the context of the thirty-four-year time frame of the Islamic Revolution until his death, that is, between 1978 and 2012. The sections are largely chronological. The first examines Qābel’s revolutionary fervor, and his participation in the consolidation and defense of the regime during the first decade of the Islamic Republic’s existence. The second section analyses the “middle years” between 1997 and 2005 which coincided with the terms of office of the reformist president Mohammad Khātami. The section demonstrates how the Principlists resisted the attempts of the New Religious Thinkers to transform the nature of the Islamic revolution. The third section, Qābel’s “mature years,” highlights some of the redlines that he crossed. Indeed, Qābel transgressed the limits on so many occasions that it is impossible to include them all in this section; some of the most important are examined in detail as individual chapters in this book. This will be investigated with reference to the larger national and sometimes international context which framed the ways in which Qābel and the Principlists responded to each other. A final section lists Qābel’s compositions, and it also reflects on their salient features: the combination of jurisprudential and political themes, the rational approach, and the consistency of the message in a decade of writing.
The Early Years
Ahmad Qābel was born in 1957 in Farimān, a town close to the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran, and he learnt Islam as a child from his devout father, Shir Mohammad Qābel, a middle-ranking seminarian who had moved from the holy city of Najaf in south Iraq to educate the local people at the request of Ayatollah Shāhrudi. (Indeed, Shir Mohammad must have enjoyed an impeccable religious reputation, for after the Islamic Revolution he was appointed Friday prayer leader in Farimān.Footnote 11 Subsequently he established a small religious school.) The family commitment to Islam was also evident when two of Shir Mohammad’s sons,Footnote 12 Hādi and Ahmad, entered seminaries in Mashhad for their preliminary Islamic studies in 1971 and then Qom, the center of Shiʿa learning in Iran, in 1975.Footnote 13 Qābel noted retrospectively that during this prerevolutionary period the contemporary political authors whom he studied did not include Ayatollah Khomeini, or the doctrine commonly associated with him, velāyat-e faqih. He claimed that he was captivated by the writings of lay religious thinkers including Dr. ʿAli Shariʿati (d. 1977) and Mehdi Bāzargān (d. 1995), and the senior seminarian Ayatollah Tāleqāni (d. 1979) who had offered a modern and scientific understanding of Islam that even accommodated topics that might be considered controversial, such as evolution.Footnote 14 Nevertheless, it has been claimed that Qābel was a devoted follower (moqalled) of Khomeini,Footnote 15 and in the years leading up to the revolution not only did he have a deep affection for Khomeini, but he also participated in the protests and demonstrations that erupted throughout Iran.Footnote 16 Qābel himself was later to claim in 2010 that he had never been a supporter of velāyat-e faqih.Footnote 17
On the success of the Islamic movement in 1979, Qābel was engaged in defending the revolution. He claimed that he was made an honorary member of the Revolutionary Guards (Sepāh) – which had been created to protect the Islamic Revolution from its internal opponents. He served in this capacity for three months until the summer of 1980 in the province of Nāʾin. Subsequently, he was officially employed by Sepāh in Mashhad for another three months until the autumn of 1980 when he resigned from the organization following a dispute with senior management when an attempt was made to impose authority from the top, rather than have officials elected by the members.Footnote 18 Qābel was expelled from Sepāh, and the incident should be seen as an early indication of his preparedness to engage those in authority if they overstepped their remit.
At some point in the early 1980s (the documentation does not specify dates) he was given charge of political ideology for the Nuzheh Air Base in Hamadān. This was an important position if only because of the attempted coup d’état against the regime in 1980, which had been launched from the very same air base.Footnote 19 Qābel also served periods of time at the warfront during the Iran-Iraq conflict which lasted from 1980 to 1988.Footnote 20 The war galvanized Iranian Islamic and nationalist sentiment, as it was seen as an “imposed” war that was sponsored and facilitated by the West and the Arab states who either supported Saddam Hussein, or else sold weapons to the Iraqis.Footnote 21 The war exacted a horrendous toll on the Iranians who endured bombings of major urban areas, large numbers of civil fatalities, chemical warfare, recruitment of children for the warfront,Footnote 22 and the destruction of the Iranian infrastructure and economy, already ravaged by the revolutionary years. Nevertheless, like many Iranians, Qābel remained attached to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, which were manifested between 1981 and 1982 in his work as an investigator (bāz-ju) in an organization based in Qom that considered the offences of judges and seminarians (the organization later turned into the Special Clerical Courts).Footnote 23 By the end of the war in 1989 Qābel and his family must have felt that they had more than served as faithful defenders of Islam and the Iranian regime. The Qābel family suffered during the war with Iraq; in addition to Ahmad’s injury in which shrapnel was embedded near his spine, one brother had been severely wounded,Footnote 24 and another brother and a nephew were martyred.Footnote 25
During the war years Qābel commenced his “khārej” (or advanced) studies in Qom, where the most outstanding of his teachers at the advanced level in feqh was Ayatollah Montazeri, whom he referred to as “the most learned master” (ostād-e ʿallāmeh).Footnote 26 The mid-to-late 1980s were a difficult time for Montazeri because in October 1986 he had expressed his concern to Ayatollah Khomeini about the direction of the Islamic Revolution (in particular, he disliked the mass executions that were taking place in Iranian prisons).Footnote 27 In 1985, Montazeri had been designated successor, or deputy, to Khomeini as Leader of the Islamic Republic, and so his misgiving about certain methods being used to attain the goals of the revolution caused great consternation within the governmental apparatus.Footnote 28 Moreover, it was not simply methods, for more seriously, it was the system that was at fault: Montazeri began a series of lectures in 1985 that he later developed into four volumes in Arabic about the velāyat-e faqih in which he offered a version of the doctrine that limited the powers of the ruling jurist by making it an elected post. In 1989 Montazeri was deposed as Khomeini’s successor, but it is unclear if and how this had an effect upon his students such as Qābel. Ahmad’s own brother, Hādi, has described Ahmad’s relationship with Montazeri as one that resembled the connection between a son and a father.Footnote 29 (Interestingly, another of Montazeri’s well-known students, Mohsen Kadivar, expressed similar sentiments: “He [Montazeri] was my teacher, my spiritual guide, my father – the most important person in my life.”Footnote 30) The sentiments that Qābel felt may have been heightened by his own father’s death in 1993.Footnote 31 In any case, in addition to the official classes in Qom, Qābel also attended Montazeri’s private jurisprudential meetings with a select handful of others. By 1993, Montazeri had verbally authorized the sufficiently competent Qābel to issue his own opinions (ejtehād)Footnote 32 and by the autumn of 1998 the Ayatollah gave written permission for this, not only in jurisprudence, but also in hadith and theology.Footnote 33 It is noteworthy that Kadivar described Qābel as an “Ayatollah,” a term given to an individual who has earned the right to exercise ejtehād.Footnote 34 (Qābel himself denied that he was an Ayatollah and never used the title.Footnote 35) His acquisition of this level of learning permitted him to step out of Montazeri’s shadow; Qābel was free to express his own opinions on the topics mentioned above, and not slavishly imitate and repeat the views of his master. He acknowledged this point on several occasions and his opinion below is indicative of this, when asked about his difference of perspective on the hijab with that of Montazeri:
I asked my master several times in a written fashion about a number of issues including the question of the hijab. Some friends outside of the country, some Arab, some even Persian speakers, [had] asked him, “To what extent is this opinion of Ahmad Qābel related to your [opinion]?” [Montazeri] explained that even if a person is a student of someone, this does not mean that his or her jurisprudential perspective should be the same. Anyway, my opinion with my master on the question of the hijab was not the only difference. On other jurisprudential topics [differences] appeared, and although I am a student of my master, his opinion … is not the same as mine.Footnote 36
Qābel’s intellectual independence from Montazeri was also evident in his decision in the summer of 1991 to cease wearing the distinctive clerical gown and turban. He offered four reasons for his actions: the cumbersome nature of the gown, especially in the heat of Iran’s exceedingly hot summers; the desire to cast aside hypocritical sentiments of superiority engendered by a supposedly humble morality by which a seminarian should abide; the lack of interest shown by the Prophet and the Imams to distinctive clothing; and narrations from the Imams that indicated that the best clothing was that of ordinary people.Footnote 37 In photographs subsequent to 1991, Qābel is seen in a simple shirt and trousers, even in his meetings with his respected teacher, Ayatollah Montazeri. This move not only demonstrates independence from Montazeri, but it indicates a bold and self-assured defiance of a well-established seminarian tradition. Qābel believed it needed a change in image and orientation. It prefigured the kind of thinking that he was to produce in his more mature years.
The Middle Years: Facing the Principlists
In the summer of 1997 Mohammad Khātami, a reformist candidate in the presidential elections, advocating rule according to law at home and “dialogue among civilizations” abroad, captured 69.1 percent of votes cast in a landslide victory that surprised the Principlists and the Leader.Footnote 38 The Khātami years (1997–2005) ushered in a period when reformists hoped for change and found opportunities to articulate their opposition to Principlists.Footnote 39 Khātami’s allies included Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who had stepped into the political fray by writing a letter to him in which he encouraged the new president to uphold the law. Montazeri wrote that “the rights and powers of the nation … and even the revolutionary leader have been defined in the constitution,”Footnote 40 which in effect was an encouragement to the rule of law, and to put the republic back into the Islamic government in Iran. This was a response to Khāmenei’s policy of appointing sympathetic Principlists to governmental positions. It was copies of Montazeri’s letter of advice, or congratulations, to Khātami that Qābel and some friends were distributing in northeast Iran in the summer of 1997 which resulted in the disquiet by the Principlists. Qābel was arrested and held for four days before being released. However, Montazeri reacted to the attempts to intimidate him and his circle by declaring in the Friday prayers of November 14, 1997, that Khāmenei did not qualify to be a marjaʿ taqlid, the highest clerical ranking within Shiʿa Islam, to which Khāmenei aspired (see Chapter 4).Footnote 41 Montazeri’s house was subsequently ransacked, and he was placed under house arrest, while Qābel was arrested again and held for forty-six days by Mashhad’s security forces.Footnote 42 In the spring of 1998, he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, although this was suspended for five years.Footnote 43 Challenged both by the likes of Montazeri and also the new generation of reformist clerics in the Parliament (majles), the Principlists restricted the attempts of the reformers to change the nature of Iranian politics. The Principlists employed several methods to silence opposition.
First, the Principlists were assisted by the Council of Guardians which had the constitutional authority (Article 110, Clause 9) to supervise all elections. In practice, this meant that it was able to check the “Islamic” credentials of all candidates and weed out those who failed to meet their stringent criteria. The Council of Guardians was a body composed of twelve jurists; six of whom were appointed by the Leader, and the other six were jurists elected by the Parliament. This meant that the Leader had a determining influence upon the body, and from the time of Khātami’s election onward, the Council of Guardians was proactive in filtering out those candidates whose Islamic credentials did not satisfy them. Even Khāmenei’s own brother (considered a reformist)Footnote 44 criticized the harsh vetting of candidates in 2000.Footnote 45 The Principlists had failed miserably in the parliamentary elections of 2000, despite the fact that some 650 candidates were not permitted to run by the Council of Guardians.Footnote 46 The latter body ensured the reformists did not gain a victory in the subsequent parliamentary elections of 2004, as 3,600 candidates were rejected,Footnote 47 nearly a third of all candidates.Footnote 48
A second policy employed by the Principlists, which again relied upon the Council of Guardians, was to block reformist legislation, as the Council had the authority under the constitution to review all laws for their compatibility with Islam. Matters had come to a head under Khātami’s presidency with his attempts to ratify two bills which sought to abolish the Council of Guardian’s power to reject candidates for election and to strengthen the president’s power. Although both bills were passed by the Parliament, inevitably they were blocked by the Council of Guardians.Footnote 49
Third, the Principlists had recourse to the Special Clerical Courts which had been established in the wake of the revolution, but had assumed more importance in the last few years of Khomeini’s life, ostensibly to promote a sense of unity among the various religious and political factions in Iran. By the late 1990s the Special Clerical Courts were utilized by the Principlists to clamp down on dissent. Of particular interest is the case of Mohsen Kadivar,Footnote 50 who in a series of articles in February 1999 questioned the republican nature of the regime and argued that a monarchical mentality still pervaded the Islamic Republic. Kadivar was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment by the Special Clerical Court. At a similar time, Hassan Yousefi Eshkavari, another reformist cleric, fell victim to the Principlists’ ire,Footnote 51 following controversial remarks he had made at a conference held in Berlin in 2000 about how some Qurʾānic verses were not immutable but were subject to change.Footnote 52 On his return to Iran, Eshkevari was arrested and at his trial at the Special Clerical Court he was defrocked and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Qābel was not to be left unscathed by the determination of the Principlists to hit back against their critics.Footnote 53 On December 31, 2001, he was arrested “on the orders of the Special Court for the Clergy. [He] had just given an interview to RFE/RL’s Persian Service (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) in which he blamed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the Judiciary’s activities.”Footnote 54 Qābel was held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and he was placed in ward 240,Footnote 55 where there are 700–800 solitary confinement cells.Footnote 56 He spent 125 days in solitary isolation, and whittled away some of the time in composing poetry, using the pen name “The Prisoner” (asir).Footnote 57 He was released on bail on May 6, 2002. Over the next decade, Qābel persistently held the Judiciary, and in particular Khāmenei, responsible for not maintaining the impartiality of the Judiciary, and he criticized the Special Clerical Courts for not functioning within the remit of the law.Footnote 58 Qābel did not consider receiving justice from the Special Clerical Courts as a possibility, as he commented:
They are the plaintiff and the judge! Well, it is natural that any shop owner would not admit that his yoghurt has gone sour. So how can one hope for justice from this judicial organization? From the beginning you [might as well] say that we condemn [you].Footnote 59
Despite the relative freedoms of the Khātami period, the Principlists had shown how they were able to constrain the reformists, and intimidate their opponents with either house arrests (Montazeri), prison sentences for both clerics (Kadivar, Eshkevari, and Qābel), and secular thinkers (Akbar Ganji),Footnote 60 and they were even prepared to carry out terror attacks (Saʿid Hajjāriān).Footnote 61 It was during this period that the broad umbrella term “New Religious Thinkers” became increasingly prominent, and Qābel too became associated with such reformists, having published essays and given interviews that criticized certain aspects of the government and the clerical establishment, and having expressed a jurisprudential response to the challenges of modernity that were creeping into Iran and the Middle East. During this “middle period” the ground was prepared for his intransigent resistance to the Principlists, and his stepping over so many of their redlines.
The Mature Years: Crossing Redlines
The individual chapters in this book that come after the present biography outline the redlines that Qābel crossed, in terms of his controversial academic writings on jurisprudence, politics (velāyat-e faqih), religious history (the understanding of Imam Hosayn), gender, freedom of religion, his views on society, and superstition. It is therefore not necessary to review these redlines at this point. Rather, the discussion in this section focuses on the day-to-day political development in the years when Qābel became a recognized figure in Iran. His rise to fame arguably came about as a result of his fatwa on the hijab which he issued in 2004. Even prior to his brave fatwa in which he rejected the need for compulsory veiling, he had been reflecting upon the issue. During his hajj to Mecca in 1999, when he journeyed to Saudi Arabia via Dubai, he made an interesting observation that informed his views of sartorial customs.
On the wide pavements of the city [i.e. Dubai], several times it occurred that groups of scantily clad (nimeh berahneh) Filipino women would pass groups of young Arab men, but they paid no attention to each other in contrast to the banter or behavior which unfortunately in Iran is evidence of Islamic culture and covering … The freedom of clothing and the absence of governmental duress in Dubai has led to a lack of concern among the young generation about sexual concerns in a public place. And governmental control in Iran has led to an inexhaustible appetite among the young for sexual concerns in public spaces.
Without a doubt, in terms of the security and safety necessary for raising public modesty in individual social behavior, society in Dubai is better by a mile than Tehran, Mashhad, and Esfahan.Footnote 62
In February 2004 Qābel was sufficiently courageous to issue his fatwa that rejected the compulsion for women to don the hijab.Footnote 63 In addition he verbalized the unspoken, and offered a jurisprudentially dense twenty-four-page explanation of his perspective on the hijab which he published in the summer of 2005 from Tajikistan.Footnote 64
Qābel’s decision to move to Tajikistan should be seen in the wake of the treatment meted out to dissenters of the authorities in Iran, and in particular to the seminarians who were punished or defrocked. Qābel himself suffered his own period in prison and solitary confinement. The e-books on the Shariʿat-e ʿaqlāni website do not reveal much about Qābel’s sojourn in Tajikistan (August 2004–July 2005), although it is to be wondered whether he wanted to campaign for rational shariah in an environment where he felt free. His brother remarked:
When he went to Tajikistan, his main purpose was not Tajikistan. [His aim] was to make a trip from there to a European country or America to continue his research and studies, and to live there. But the circumstances were not right, and so he stayed [in Tajikistan]. Ahmad Āqā’s aim was not to go somewhere as a refugee. He did not like the idea of being a refugee.Footnote 65
Mir-Hosseini has confirmed that during this year when Qābel was in Tajikistan, she had contact with him concerning the possibility of his participation in a conference, or a research sojourn of a month at the Wissenschaftkolleg in Berlin.Footnote 66 Qābel was unable to take up the suggestion, and to my knowledge he never had the opportunity to travel to the West.Footnote 67 Qābel himself did not elaborate on his reason for going to Tajikistan. He simply remarked that the cost of living in Tajikistan was cheap, so he could rent a house and live there (with the income accrued from an apartment that he owned in Tehran), and his wife and daughter felt no stress, and he was able to engage in research activities.Footnote 68
In Tajikistan, Qābel wrote a letter of virulent criticism, addressed to the Leader ʿAli Khāmenei, dated May 31, 2005.Footnote 69 This letter marked “a point of no return” for Qābel, due to the vociferous nature of the criticisms. The ghostwriter of Qābel’s life in “Sar-Gozasht” in the Yād-nāmeh uses the Persian idiom zabān-e sorkh (or statements that can land the speaker in deep trouble) to describe Qābel’s style of criticism.Footnote 70 Qābel himself recognized this point when he remarked, “The conflicts that have taken place between [the Principlists and] my brother were more political because of his membership in the Moshārekat Party, whereas the conflicts involving me have been more to do with [my] opinions and style of criticism.”Footnote 71 By this time Qābel’s political and jurisprudential arguments were sufficiently independent from those of Montazeri; he was no longer simply the Ayatollah’s acolyte, but an opponent of the Principlists who believed that he needed strict surveillance. The offending letter to Khāmenei included seven main criticisms. The first criticism did not explicitly address Khāmenei and is only a paragraph in length. In this first point Qābel was keen to disassociate himself from any censure of Khomeini:
The great error of our clergy was that it claimed government without having the knowledge of “management.” With a capital called “jurisprudence” … they nominated [themselves] for leadership and politics, were dominant over the [state] pillars of power, and demanded “absolute jurisdiction” (velāyat-e motlaqeh). A velāyat which according to the current reading of those in power neither has any logic nor is practical or academic, and in some areas it was the reason for “uneaten soup but burnt mouths” …
In the last years of his life, even the founder of the Islamic Republic [Khomeini] was aware of this point and he stated clearly that in the affairs of government “popular jurisprudence is not sufficient.”Footnote 72
In his second criticism, spread out over four pages, Qābel referred to the Iranian government falling into the trap of the cruel who adopted violent and murderous methods, and had decided to dishonor and eliminate political and creedal opponents. Qābel’s rhetoric and diction veers toward an impassioned cry of anguish: “They drove the country and the regime ruling over it down a deep and terrifying gorge of spite, revenge, cruelty, warmongering, and absolute insecurity.”Footnote 73 Without any reservation, Qābel included Khāmenei among such people. He called him out for crimes committed in the early years of the revolution, pointing to his advice to the Sepāh-e Pāsdārān (the Revolutionary Guards) in Khorasān to execute arbitrarily the prisoners of Bojnourd without referring them to the revolutionary courts. He also mentioned the circumstances of the silencing and murder of Habibollah Āshuri on the accusation of “apostasy.” Āshuri had been a friend and associate of Khāmenei prior to the revolution but had become the victim of Khāmenei’s wrath because the latter believed Āshuri had plagiarized his own lectures. But as Qābel noted, “It is amazing that of two people with the same perspective, one is murdered and the other is revered!!”Footnote 74 He concluded his second point with a general condemnation about the violence and bloodshed in contemporary Iran: “Doesn’t this unlawful bloodshed, and the blood of hundreds of other sinless people spilt in the political and security courts of the revolution in the years between 1981 and 1988, point to today’s serious situation?”Footnote 75
The twelve pages that make up his third criticism were also explicitly directed at Khāmenei. The general tenor of the point is reflected as follows:
In the period of your leadership (sixteen years) the tyranny of the judicial apparatus and of the branches of judiciary, information, and security has been increased more than before, and lawbreaking and lawlessness in them has changed in one way; your political opponents have been pulverized, and subject to all kinds of limitations in [their] personal and social rights.Footnote 76
Among the sixteen points of censure linking Khāmenei with illegal acts carried out by the Judiciary and Ministry of Intelligence and Security,Footnote 77 Qābel included acts of terror and assassination attempts against political opponents: these included the shooting of Saʿid Hajjāriān, a secular intellectual who helped to uncover the “chain murders” of six prominent intellectuals in 1998,Footnote 78 and who was also a political advisor to President Khātami; the torture and killing of Zahrā Kāzemi,Footnote 79 in which a criminal role was played by Saʿid Mortazavi (prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, and who was supported by Khāmenei); the verdict of death meted out to Hāshem Āqājari, a professor of history who caused controversy in 2002 in a speech in which he said that Iranians should not be monkeys that blindly followed the decisions of clerics;Footnote 80 the trial and imprisonment of Gholāmhosayn Karbāschi, the former mayor of Tehran and supporter of Khātami’s proposal for reform;Footnote 81 the illegal repression of religious figures, including the unethical treatment of Ayatollah Montazeri; the imprisonment of ʿAbdollah Nuri,Footnote 82 ʿEmād al-Din Bāqi,Footnote 83 and Akbar Ganji;Footnote 84 labeling reformist newspapers with terms such as “the foothold of the enemy” and forcing “confessions” from the reformist journalist and film critic Siamak Pourzand;Footnote 85 lack of effective support for the proposed reforms of President Khātami from 1997 by using the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, and the Judiciary;Footnote 86 and reluctance to prosecute Timsār Naqdi (who would be appointed by Khāmenei to head the Basij in 2009) who had been accused of making unlawful arrests and using torture.Footnote 87
In his fourth criticism in the letter Qābel focused on foreign policy. He lambasted the leading figures (bozorgān) of the Islamic Republic for their mistaken policies that had led to insecurity in the region. He did not mention Khāmenei’s name in this criticism, although the events that he included were carried out during his leadership, such as the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Germany (where four Kurdish nationalists were gunned down), and the interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and Lebanon, and the shipment of arms to various groups in Saudi Arabia.Footnote 88
In his fifth criticism Qābel explicitly implicated Khāmenei for lying to the nation about the strength of Iran, whereas in reality,
In discussion with Europe, the Iranian government is in a weak position and has been obliged to concede and back down, but you do not tell this truth to the nation. In internal propaganda you make threats and give verbal snubs to international rivals so that people remain unaware of your broken and unrealistic policies in foreign politics, and so that you can rule over the nation in the old style.Footnote 89
In his sixth criticism Qābel alluded to the change in American foreign policy between March 2000 and February 2006. In March 2000, the US Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright had admitted American guilt and contrition in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister in 1953. This stood in contrast to the hostility of President George Bush whose anti-Iranian sentiments were made public in February 2006, and were understood as support for “regime change.” Qābel appears to attribute this change in foreign policy to the programs being pursued by KhāmeneiFootnote 90 (he overlooked the animosity also displayed by the Clinton administration, such as the economic sanctions of 1995). He also warned Khāmenei that the tone of the political opposition was growing fiercer, and he claimed that there were some inside the country who demanded a referendum about the continuation of the regime, or, at least, a change in the constitution. He observed with sharp wit that those who desired such change were not so few that the prisons of the Islamic Republic could accommodate them.Footnote 91
His final criticism was more of a list of recommendations to reform Iran. These included a general pardon for all political prisoners, the freedom for all kinds of publications, a guarantee for the security of Iranians abroad who wished to return to their country, and a written statement to guarantee that the program of the president (such as those of the reformist Khātami) would be carried out without the kinds of obstructions that the former president had encountered.Footnote 92 If these suggestions were implemented then Iran would be safe from the danger of falling into the circumstances suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Serbia.Footnote 93
The letter was posted on his website, which had been set up in 2004.Footnote 94 However, for unspecified medical reasons, Qābel was forced to return to Iran from Tajikistan in the summer of 2005 to seek treatment, but the authorities did not renew his passport in Iran and so he could not return to Tajikistan. It seems likely that the Principlists wished to silence Qābel in Iran and not make him a cause célèbre, like Akbar Ganji, who appeared in the headlines of the international press during his two-month hunger strike in prison in 2005. Qābel himself believed that the intelligence forces in Iran realized that they did not need to arrest him since they had other ways to make his life a misery,Footnote 95 such as having security officers sit at his feet during speeches and record the proceedings of his meetings.Footnote 96 Qābel was also denied permission to write and to publish in conventional formats, and so he was forced to disseminate his writings on his website.Footnote 97 In 2008 he reflected:
As a citizen of this country I have been faced with a “twenty-year prohibition on teaching in universities and seminaries; continued illegal arrest for speeches, writings and interviews, confiscation of some research documents and writings; the denial of authorization to publish in cultural and academic journals; the denial of permission to publish books; five and a half months imprisonment in solitary isolation; … insults and continual verbal abuse and threat to [my] life during [my] detention; … severe financial loss due to my being prevented from leaving the country, and the seizure of [my] passport.”Footnote 98
However, Qābel was not intimidated, and he continued to chastise Khāmenei and “his friends” in his writings, such as an article of June 2005 called, “The permanently unfree and unfair elections for the president of the Republic of Iran.”Footnote 99 From this point, Qābel consistently championed the cause of human rights and freedoms to the extent that by 2008 Kayhān, a newspaper that was representative of the vali-ye faqih (guardian jurist), called him one of the “greats” opposed to the revolution.Footnote 100
Qābel continued with his persistent criticism of the Principlists. The perception that he was in league with both Ayatollah Montazeri and the Green Movement culminated during the crisis of the 2009 presidential elections. The heart of the problem lay with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who rather precipitously declared victory over the other presidential candidates in the elections. Indeed, the leading “reformist” candidate, Mir-Hosayn Musavi, also claimed to have triumphed, and demanded a thorough check of the votes. It has been estimated that up to two million people marched in Tehran against the fraudulent victory of Ahmadinejad.Footnote 101 Protestors, in support of Musavi, chanted “death to the dictator” (i.e. Khāmenei). The situation was inflamed further by the capture on video and its subsequent posting on the Internet of the shooting and death of the twenty-eight-year-old Nedā Aghā-Soltān on the streets where demonstrations were taking place. In July 2009, Montazeri denounced Khāmenei and the government. He made his sentiments clear: “A regime based on violence, repression and the violation of rights which illegally seizes votes and falsifies results, which murders, detains and imprisons and employs medieval and Stalinist tortures, which censures the press and disturbs communication … is, according to religious laws and human reason, to be condemned and without value.”Footnote 102 The protestors coalesced into what became known as the “Green Movement,” as this was the color utilized by Musavi in his election campaign. Qābel was to be associated with the movement, although he had no formal ties with any party or any of their leaders. Nevertheless, his writings clearly indicate his support for the claims of democratic reform and for the movement. According to Eshkevari:
In recent years Qābel has also been among the well-known opposition leaders of the Green Movement. On this topic too, he was successful and dignified. In following Ayatollah Montazeri (his master and leader in jurisprudence, politics, piety, and morality) with his particular [form of] bravery, he clearly and firmly criticized and battled the political power and tyranny of the ruler in relation to religion and the shariah from basically a jurisprudential and religious perspective.Footnote 103
Qābel also composed essays in which he attempted to unify the different claims of the Green Movement,Footnote 104 which made him appear as a spokesperson for its various voices. So, for example, he claimed the five principles of the movement were the rejection of tyranny and the verification of the authority of the nation based upon democracy; laws based on human rights; the right to freedom of expression; “national unity, and the oneness of the land of Iran”; and the rejection of violence.Footnote 105 He also offered advice, which further contributed to the perception that he was a spokesperson:
The Green Movement must not use “red paraphernalia.” Its paraphernalia must be the deepest green, and it must not think of using violence because “tyranny is Satan’s trap” and supporting tyrants makes people fall into the well of tyranny and oppression.Footnote 106
On December 19, 2009, Montazeri passed away in his sleep in Qom. Qābel was in Mashhad when he received the news, and on the next day he set out for Qom to be a pallbearer at the funeral. However, he was arrested on the way and taken back to Mashhad. Qābel was kept in prison for several months before being taking to court in chains.Footnote 107
On his release Qābel refused to remain silent and he accused Khāmenei of signing the order for the killing of prisoners after the 2009 presidential elections, and he insisted that executions of prisoners were taking place in Mashhad. The background to this started ten days after Montazeri’s death, on ʿĀshurāʾ, the most sacred day in the Iranian year, when mass demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people protesting the “rigging” of the presidential elections took place in major Iranian cities. The protests were brutally suppressed, with reports of 300 arrests (including senior opposition figures) and at least 8 killings.Footnote 108 Subsequently, it was reported that state authorities had detained and tortured many of those arrested in Kahrizak Detention Center, south of Tehran, which had been constructed several years earlier. It was in this context of Montazeri’s death and the 2009 “ʿĀshurāʾ protests” that the sensitivity around Qābel assumes greater significance. He was accused of taking steps against internal security, such as spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic, insulting the Leader, publishing falsehoods, upsetting the public, and possessing a satellite dish.Footnote 109 Qābel believed that during his arrest and questioning, one of the chief concerns of his interrogators was his interviews and contacts with foreign journalists, especially those in which he openly criticized Khāmenei.Footnote 110 Certainly, there are transcripts of his interviews with foreign radio stations, such as Radio Fardā (conducted prior to 2010), which is a twenty-four-hour Persian language radio station based in Prague and funded by the United States.Footnote 111
During his interrogation, Qābel refused to answer questions on personal belief (such as “controversial” subjects including the hijab and mourning),Footnote 112 and maintained that the examination of belief was against the constitution. He even questioned his interrogators’ right to cross-examine him, mentioning his own entitlement to exercise ejtehād and thereby express his opinions. Indicative of his bravery and willingness to confront his accusers, Qābel gave an example of his ejtehād and stated that he believed that Mary was a prophet of God, which no doubt would have caused some consternation, given the traditional understanding that the prophets have been male – Qābel made the point explicit by referring to her female sex (jens-e zan). He argued that his opinion had “nothing to do with the Judiciary,” but such claims needed to be settled with reasoned arguments in Qom or Najaf.Footnote 113
Qābel was released on bail of $50,000 in early summer 2010.Footnote 114 It was at this time, according to his wife, that the first signs of his illness appeared; he had some discomfort in his chest and his eyesight weakened.Footnote 115 In addition to health worries, Qābel was concerned with the troubles that the security forces were giving his family and friends.Footnote 116 He mentioned phone-tapping of family members, the psychological pressure and the threat of his arrest that his wife endured, surveillance, telephone threats, and verbal warnings about making contact with him and his family, and summoning his mother, sister, and friends to the security offices for repeated questioning about him and his activities.Footnote 117 However, Qābel refused to be intimidated despite the atmosphere of fear that circulated around Iran post-2009. No doubt rumors were running wild at this moment, and the following anecdote illustrates such trepidation. Qābel said:
When I came out of prison [in 2010] I heard that one of the ʿolemā and marjaʿs said in a meeting with Mr. Khāmenei, “Politics after the [presidential] elections have not been good, and also not to your advantage. Set the people free, and end this [policy] of seize and detain. At least roll out another carpet [i.e. do something else].” In reply, Mr. Khāmenei said, “Recently they brought a list of fifty people, but I did not sign it.” His words mean that he had signed previous lists and they had also arrested people.Footnote 118
Qābel continued to issue his criticisms of the regime, including accounts of his interrogation and his brave defense at the Special Clerical Court,Footnote 119 and he even published an article in which he reprimanded the policy of occupying the American embassy in the early days of the revolution.Footnote 120 Toward the end of August 2010 he antagonized the Principlists further by revealing the atrocities and executions that had taken place in Vakilābād prison in Khorasān, while he himself had been incarcerated there.Footnote 121 He accused the authorities of executing up to fifty prisoners, although the security officials reported in the local media that only five international drug dealers had been executed.Footnote 122 His revelations were supported by the public letters of Hāshem Khāstār, a member of Mashhad Teacher’s Union, who had spent some time as a prisoner in Vakilābād and had described the condition there as “the shame of the Iranian nation and for humanity” and compared it to “Hitler’s death camps.”Footnote 123 Qābel portrayed what he felt were the worst conditions and aspects of prison life in the following manner:
Several times I was taken to court in ankle and wrist chains which is against the law of the country. The worst [occasions were] the body searches (after going to the court [to have] meetings in the presence of family members and/or a lawyer). They strip the prisoner to search his body. [The prisoner] only has his underpants on. They have commanded the soldiers that in addition to frisking all the prisoner’s limbs, they even look inside his underpants. This is not permissible, either in religion or in law; rather looking at someone’s private parts is forbidden …
In the final days [of my imprisonment] the restrictions increased. I was forbidden [the use of a] telephone and meetings. After my release I heard that my friends and roommates’ turn [to use] the telephone was reduced to three days a week, the use of ventilators was strictly limited and was reduced to an hour a day, and the right to use the kitchen was also curtailed.Footnote 124
Qābel was not the first to draw attention to the atrocities carried out in Iran’s jails. Montazeri had been sufficiently concerned to make such revelations in 1986 and Mehdi Karroubi had made accusations of rape and mistreatment of prisoners in 2009.Footnote 125 Nevertheless, on December 14, 2010, Qābel was summoned again to the courts and he was sentenced to twenty months in jail, and he was banned for three years from giving interviews and delivering lectures.Footnote 126 Qābel was returned to Vakilābād where he was held until January 2011. Even at this point, he continued to castigate and criticize the Principlists with interviews in which he rejected the aforementioned policies and plans to “Islamicize” state institutions such as universities, which Khāmenei claimed were heavily influenced by the West.
Qābel was obliged to return to prison on July 31 to complete his sentence. In prison Qābel’s illness became more apparent; his eyesight worsened, and several times he became unconscious and slipped on the ground.Footnote 127 He was not given medical leave until September 8, 2011, when he went into hospital in Mashhad to undergo a five-hour operation on his brain. He had a second operation on July 6, 2012, but it was not sufficiently timely to save him from a malignant tumor. Qābel passed away on October 22, 2012.
Qābel did not die a forgotten man. His family received formal condolences from senior clerical figures including marjaʿs such as the reformist Grand Ayatollah Bayāt Zanjāni and Ayatollah Sāneʿi, from seminarians including Mohsen Kadivar and Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, from the family of the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and from clerical politicians including Mohammad Khātami and ʿAbdollah Nuri. Even leading figures among secular-religious intellectuals and dissidents contributed essays that gave their positive reflections on Qābel’s life and writings, including Soroush, Mostafā Malakiyān, and Sediqeh Vasmaqi.Footnote 128 His legacy survives in his writings and the example of his life, which are consistent with his insistence on truth, sincerity, and rationality. Although Qābel did not cause a violent national uprising against the Principlists (for which he never advocated), it is highly probable that his deepest satisfaction would have been in never surrendering his high principles. He could even have included himself among those to whom he referred in 2010:
In prison and in the security detention centers I saw people without names but who were so strong and hopeful. There is not the slightest trace of them in the media, and if [there is] it is in passing. [But] I am sure of this point: “No force can prevail over hope, even if time and time again it is defeated.”Footnote 129
Qābel’s determination to stick to his principles, most notably “commanding the good,” which was a traditional way for the pious to express their disapproval of rulers,Footnote 130 is evident throughout his works. The following is a typical, if short, example:
I, and others like me, have endured and [continue] to endure all kinds of deprivations for the crime of criticizing the oppression of government officials. But we will not stop from expressing our religious and legal duty and the right to freedom. We will not close our eyes to deviations, tyranny, oppression, lies, and deceit, and we will not toe the line of silence together with satisfaction even if we are invited, time and time again, to relax with some of the rulers in luxury, and take advantage of public facilities.Footnote 131
His models in adopting such a nonviolent perspective were the Imams. Consider his following description of Imam ʿAli:
The martyrdom of [Imam ʿAli], this noble individual in the history of Islam and humankind, is an example of … [a] determined stand for justice. He did not accept tyranny in any form, and he warned oppressors, either with his forehead calloused by [performance of] prayer or in the form of religious dispute, with his eyes fixed upon the realities and rights due to God’s creation. If [circumstances] required he prevented tyranny and oppression by taking practical steps. In the name of defending the rights of God and his messenger, he sacrificed his security and comfort to defend the rights of like-minded people, reappropriated public wealth, and nullified claims that allowed all kinds of tyranny upon citizens. With his precious soul, he exposed his breast in this way (to God’s satisfaction) to a bloody death.Footnote 132
It is striking that Qābel maintained respect for his adversaries who imprisoned him, refusing to regard them as tyrants and despots but believers who had gone astray. Interestingly he utilized the very same kind of language for the opponents of Imam ʿAli:
[ʿAli] called [his opponents] neither hypocrite nor unbeliever, rather he called them believing brothers who had oppressed the Muslims. After [their defeat] and with complete justice and love of freedom, he neither cut their official right to the treasury, nor did he put them in jail or condemn them to exile.Footnote 133
Qābel clearly used the honesty and bravery of the Imams as models for his own confrontation with tyranny, which is typified in another anecdote, reported by Hādi Qābel when his brother was taken before the Ministry of Security (in May 2010). Ahmad Qābel said:
In the Ministry of Security, the prosecutor suggested that I should put on a pretense (taqiyyeh)! I said to him, “Do you know what you are asking? Masquerade before a government where tyranny and despotism rule! I don’t consider the gentlemen (āqāyān) as tyrants or despots; rather they are believers who do the wrong thing and have gone astray. For this reason, I have reminded [them] about ‘commanding the good and forbidding evil”! I have performed my duty in giving ‘the advice of the Muslim Imams.’ [So] I am so sorry that you [have to] ask me to put on a pretense!”Footnote 134
And perhaps most poignant of all is Hādi Qābel’s recollection of meeting his brother in the Revolutionary Courthouse in Mashhad on May 19, 2010, their first reunion in five months:
Suddenly a group of prisoners came in together with the soldiers. I saw Ahmad Āqā who shuffled forward with chains around his ankles … Pointing to his chains on his ankles he said, “These are the badges of glory that the Islamic Republic has awarded me!” I said, “Don’t worry. God is great. It won’t be like this [forever].” Of course, he was not concerned. He was proud that he had met this kind of experience so he could stand up for his belief and humble himself!Footnote 135
Ahmad Qābel’s writings are found on his website, Shariʿat-e ʿaqlāni.Footnote 136 He started disseminating his work on the Internet in 2003–4,Footnote 137 but as of this writing (2021) most of his “books” have been posted posthumously on the Internet by his friend and co-seminarian, Mohsen Kadivar. The majority of these are not books in the conventional sense of having been planned and structured by Qābel himself. Rather, they are edited collections of his articles that have been arranged thematically by Kadivar. The only works that were published by Qābel himself are Naqd-e farhang-e khoshunat (1381/2002) (A Critique of the Culture of Violence) and Islam va taʾmin-e ejtemāʿi (Islam and Social Security) (1383/2004), which predate his sojourn in Tajikistan. Kadivar has admitted that he had conversations with Qābel when the latter was very ill about the publication in book form of Mabāni-ye shariʿat. The e-book of Mabāni-ye shariʿat is not Qābel’s final draft, as he passed away before it was possible to produce a definitive version. Although the discussions between Qābel and Kadivar did not include an explicit agreement that his other writings should be edited in book form, Kadivar took a tacit acceptance (which he referred to as his “ejtehād”)Footnote 138 to arrange these compositions into book form. The majority of these writings that comprise the e-books are essays of short and medium length, although there are also a few longer pieces. The “political” works include interviews for newspapers and radio stations.
The e-books may be categorized into works of a political orientation, general jurisprudential, and religious writings and essays on specific jurisprudential matters. The list below is indicative of this taxonomy (which is my own):
4. Fear and Hopes of Piety (speeches, 1383–88 [2004–2009])Footnote 142
5. Rational Shariah (articles on the relation between reason and the law)Footnote 143
6. Jurisprudence, Products, and Potentialities (jurisprudential articles and answers to religious questions, 1382–89 [2003–2010])Footnote 144
7. Foundations of the Shariah (discussion on the basis and principles of jurisprudence)Footnote 145
8. Islam and Social SecurityFootnote 146
9. Commands Pertaining to Women in the Mohammadan Law (the non-superiority of men, inheritance, the veil, temporary marriage, divorce …)Footnote 147
10. The Commands of Punishment in the Mohammadan Shariah (apostasy, stoning, death penalty, temporary detention, capital punishment, unlawful taking of confession, and judgment)Footnote 148
The Shariʿat-e ʿaqlāni website also contains one more “book”; a commemorative volume called Yād-nāmeh (Memoir) which is composed of writings by family, friends, and colleagues.
There are several distinguishing features of these works listed above. The first is that there is no substantial development or change in Qābel’s thinking. This is not to denigrate his intellectual production, but rather to highlight the consistency that runs throughout his oeuvre, whether it is political theorizing about the nature of the Iranian government, or the general contours of Shiʿi jurisprudence,Footnote 149 to more specific jurisprudential analysis on controversial issues that have arisen in the modern age.Footnote 150 His jurisprudential position is simply illustrated by his insistence on the compatibility of reason and revelation, that is, scripture conforms to modern rational thinking, which is the distinguishing feature of the Iranian New Religious Thinkers. This consistency in Qābel’s thought stands in contrast to the views of other seminarians, such as Mohsen Kadivar, whose jurisprudential perspectives have undergone profound changes (such as his view on the hijab, which has developed from the “traditional” extreme (compulsory hijab) to the position that veiling is not mandatory but desirable (the latter being Qābel’s position), and finally that modesty simply requires recognition of the circumstances, or to use the Islamic terminology, the right “time and place” (zamān va makān)).Footnote 151
The second point is that Qābel wrote very much in a juristic manner (in Persian), and he frequently displayed his mastery of the Qurʾān and hadith, and the kind of Arabized terminology beloved of jurists. This feature of his writing style is reflected in the observation by Eshkevari that Qābel was very much a product of the hawza: “At the same time as having basic loyalty to the traditional thinking and approaches of the hawza, [Qābel] took great strides with such bravery in rethinking this sclerotic tradition.”Footnote 152 Qābel took great pride in his jurisprudential learning, and he once boasted, “If there are ten specialists on hadith in Iran who have carefully studied all the hadith, then I am one of them.”Footnote 153 His receipt from Montazeri of a license for ejtehād in hadith did not mean that he stopped studying the discipline. He stated:
One of my tasks (from the beginning of the summer of 1985 until now) has been a study, line by line, of about 250,000 Shiʿi narrations, some repeated and some not, and more than 100,000 Sunni hadiths, and making multiple indices of them. This is unusual among the students and researchers of the seminary in relation to Shiʿa and Sunni narrations. At most they suffice with about 30,000 Shiʿi hadith which are included in the book Vasāʾil al-shiʿa, and [the number] reaches about 35,000 hadith due to much repetition of the narrations in the various chapters. I am still periodically busy with this task. Due to software which has been produced in recent years, carrying out this task is not such a difficult chore for a researcher.Footnote 154
Such was his attachment to jurisprudence that he took the effort to disassociate himself from secular scholarship. He observed that he was not one of the “secular intellectuals” who argued that reform would compel religion to withdraw from the public sphere. He argued that such a perspective was due to an unawareness of the correct understanding of Islam.Footnote 155 Moreover, on being asked about cultural erosion and his use of foreign learning, Qābel pointed to his Islamic studies, and also to the weakness of his opponents’ accusations, with reference to the “Arab Spring” which erupted in 2010:
You see that I, Ahmad Qābel, have not derived my ideas from non-Islamic books. [For] the whole of my studies, perhaps I can say the only place and reference books that I use are Islamic books. Now, I am opposed to rulers’ tyranny, which I consider my duty. Have I used foreign books as a model? … On the basis of religious teachings … [it is] stressed repeatedly in the Qurʾān and our narrations that you should stand up to tyranny … We have [the following narration]: “Both the tyrant and he who accepts tyranny are in the Fire.” Just as we should not be tyrants, we should neither accept tyranny. These are instances that are included in the texts of our shariah and have no relation to foreign teachings. If the teachings do exist in foreign books, doesn’t it mean that this is [also] the way of foreign thinking?
If this was the situation for the Prophet who struggled against the polytheists, oppression, and tyranny, then what? At that time did they send books from foreign [countries] and did the Prophet come under their influence? Are these gentlemen ready to say that any struggle against oppression and tyranny that breaks out in an Islamic region has come under the influence of foreign teachings? So why then do they support the movement of the Egyptian people and the movement of the people of Tunis?Footnote 156
But this does not mean that he was averse to contributions from modern learning as the following indicates:
In my opinion, the perspectives of experts in human sciences (economics, statistics, management, politics, law, sociology, psychology, culture, literature, art, etc.) have a key role and are of much importance in affirming and discerning many subjects about shariah commands, because basically perfect ejtehād and all dimensions [of the topic] will remain left uncertain by not paying attention to them.Footnote 157
The third point to be highlighted in Qābel’s writings is that the thread weaving through all of his works and interviews is the primary commitment to reason. Typifying this is the simple but clear comment he made in 2012: “I believe that nothing irrational exists in the shariah. The foundation of religious thinking is based upon ‘rationality.’”Footnote 158 He believed that reason was a God-given faculty in humans, and that all the prophets and the various divine laws have jurisdiction only in the realm outside of matters where reason does not operate, such as ritual worship (for example, why Muslims must pray five times a day and not four or six times).Footnote 159 He also attempted to minimize the role of the shariah in everyday life; he claimed that “a majority of more than 90 percent of [Qurʾānic] verses … have no use in [everyday] life.”Footnote 160 Moreover, on matters other than worship, Qābel believed the shariah was congruent with the rationality of wise men during the time of revelation,Footnote 161 and so he attempted to maintain the relationship between shariah and rationality of contemporary wise men: “the obligation is that [the relationship] must be completely rational … But if [the relationship] does not agree with common rationality of humans today and is contrary to their approaches, [if] it is assessed, and [if] it does not have sufficient power of demonstration to satisfy rational people, of necessity it must be changed.”Footnote 162 In effect, Qābel was attempting to hand over the choice of action to rational humans, instead of offering the people a prescriptive version of Islam. This accorded with another juristic method that he advanced, esālat al-ebāhat ʿaqliyeh (the principle of rational permissibility), which he defined as “the principle for the permission of everything except special and defined cases which have been determined as forbidden with reliable proofs.”Footnote 163 Qābel argued that this principle was one that had been accepted by many past jurists, indeed they have “said things that no other ‘new thinker’ has said.” He added, “these are discussions that some of our contemporary thinkers don’t have the courage to set out as blueprints in the hawza, and some of our modern clerics don’t even have the courage to repeat a single sentence of the discussion that has been set out by Moqaddas Ardabili.”Footnote 164 This jurisprudential commitment to reason and speaking forthrightly resulted in Qābel taking some very dangerous political pathways in the context of postrevolutionary Iran. The following comments epitomize Qābel’s zabān-e sorkh:
I believe that life conditions in this world, and in particular in Iran, have turned out such that one has to apostatize (din-gorizi). That is, right now I believe that in Iran a religion has been constructed from which one must flee. If the youth and people of this country do not decide to apostatize, [then] I have my doubts about their reason (ʿaql). In other words, whoever possesses reason must apostatize from this religion that has been, and is, delivered [to them]. When they present a religion to you which omits rationality, you can do nothing except apostatize. Some [people] say we should wage war [with that religion]. But we are not warmongers, and we do not encourage violence in society. The very least thing that we can do in a wise manner is to engage in battle with it in a logical way. We flee from it, and we say to the youth, “don’t have anything to do with this religion.”Footnote 165
The rationality that Qābel discussed was universal and applicable across all cultures. He believed that all religious traditions had received a pathway (shariah) from God: “In my opinion, on differences among the wise, the followers of each shariah must follow the rational approach that their shariah has confirmed,” and he listed the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions as examples. However, Qābel extended his argument to include Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans, and more interestingly he added:
Those who do not believe in any shariah or do not believe in God must also act on the requirements of learning and logic that have been accepted by the wise in their societies. If they ask for both cooperation and assistance at the international level, they must behave according to “the academic and logical commonalities of all approaches.” In a situation when “the necessity for unity among human societies” has been accepted as “the basis of a subject,” and “general agreement and consensus” is not possible because of diffuse perspectives and various opinions, it is necessary to conform to “the majority vote” according to reason and the sharʿ.Footnote 166
The commitment to reason is one of the reasons why Qābel insisted that it is necessary to pass beyond the externalities of religion, which is a theme that occurs repeatedly in his works. His frustration with those that cling to such externalities, those that adhere to the mazhab, is clear in the following, which laments the tendency to focus on pious rituals, such as mourning and weeping for the Imams:
Don’t the gentlemen scholars of religion feel a responsibility …? Do they believe that sorrow and sadness are desirable from a religious perspective? Have they reached this conclusion with academic verification that the responsibility of the Shiʿas is spreading the culture of mourning, sorrow, and sadness? Do they evaluate sorrow and sadness from an academic perspective as being in human interests in this world and the next, so that they can furnish the ground for their dominance over religious culture?Footnote 167