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Three Modern Iranian Seminarian Perspectives

by Lloyd Ridgeon

Format: Royal Hardback
Published: May 2021
Pages: 315
ISBN: 9781909942561

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No nation has suffered the same extent of sartorial conflict and confusion as Iran during the modern period, caused by the impact of Western views on the hijab in the 19th century, the decree to unveil that was issued by Riza Shah Pahlavi in 1936, and the imposition of the veil in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The differences of opinion among seminarians on the hijab in the Islamic Republic of Iran is undertaken herein with a particular focus on three representatives: Murtaza Mutahhari, who held veiling to be compulsory; Ahmad Qabil, who argued for the desirability of the hijab; and Muhsin Kadivar, who considers it neither necessary nor desirable.

The views of the three scholars are contextualised within the framework of ‘new religious thinking’ which is usually understood as a development in jurisprudence in post-Khomeini Iran.


Lloyd Ridgeon is a Reader in Islamic Studies and Head of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Jawanmardi: A Sufi Code of Honour (2011) and editor of Javanmardi: The Ethics and Practice of Persianate Perfection (2018).


Professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz in conversation with the author.


List of Illustrations



Introduction 1

Part 1

1. Sharia, Fiqh, and the New Religious Thinkers

Part 2: Hijab as Mandatory (vājib): The Views of Murtaza Mutahhari

  1. The Hijab in Iran from Pre-Modern Times to the 1960s
  2. The Life and Thought of Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari
  3. Translation of Mutahhari’s ‘The Philosophy of Covering in Islam’

Part 3: Hijab as Desirable (mustaḥabb): The Views of Ahmad Qabil

5. The Islamic Republic and the Hijab Controversy (1978–2012)

6. Mullas without Turbans and Women without Veils: The Life and
Thought of Ahmad Qabil

7. Translation of Qabil’s ‘The Desirability for Covering the Head
and Neck’

Part 4: Hijab Depending on Time and Place: The Views of Muhsin Kadivar

8. The Hijab Controversy Continues (2005–)

9. The Worldview of Muhsin Kadivar

10. Translation of Kadivar’s ‘Reflections on the Question of Hijab’


Appendix 268 Bibliography




Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be. Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.

So claimed Newt Gingrich in 2016, former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the US (1995–99), who also ran a presidential campaign in 2012. Gingrich’s comments in an interview with Fox News came in the wake of a terrorist attack in Nice which left 84 people dead. The act had been perpetrated by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who hailed from Tunisia but lived in France, and responsibility for his act was taken by ISIS. Gingrich’s reaction to the atrocity needs to be seen in the context of populist politics which had been making inroads in many parts of the West, resulting in electoral successes in Europe and North America for candidates who were unsympathetic to either Islam, or Muslims or states where Islam is entwined with the constitution. The list of leading political figures who have espoused such ideas includes the following: Viktor Orbán in Hungary (prime minister since 2010), who referred to refugees as ‘Muslim invaders’ who were not welcome in his country;1 Donald Trump (elected president of the United States in 2016), who famously instituted a ‘Muslim ban’ on nationals from seven predominantly Muslim states from entering the US;2 Marine le Pen in France, ‘campaigning under the threat of two “totalitarianisms” – economic globalisation and Islamic fundamentalism’,3 who was narrowly defeated in the first round of the presidential elections in 2017, scoring 21.53% compared with Emmanuel Macron’s 23.75%.4 To this list we may also add fringe parties and individuals, such as the leading figures of the British National Party which wants to ‘ban shariah law’.5 Populist politics and increasing nationalist sentiment have been concomitant with anti-Islamic and anti-sharia views in recent times, especially since the events associated with 9/11. Sharia in the Western popular imagination is arguably associated with the amputation of limbs, stoning of homosexuals, flogging for adultery, etc., and in the words of one British political journalist, ‘most non-Muslims in the West seem united with hardline Islamists in the misguided belief that there is one monolithic, unchanging sharia.’6 Such a view of the ‘mis- guided’ interpretation of sharia is echoed in Islamic lands too, typified by the comments of the reformist Iranian theologian Muhammad Mujtahid-Shabistari, who observed,

Europeans tend to regard the sharia as a solid edifice. But the sharia is not a solid edifice. It is dependent upon the fuqahā, Islamic legal scholars, who are allowed to issue a fatwa, i.e. an Islamic legal pronouncement. When these legal scholars are free-thinking individuals, then they can interpret Islamic law in such a way to present no hurdles to the establishment of democracy. Those who venture even further could say, ‘We can find passages in the Koran, the Sunna and the sharia that encourage us to adapt a democratic system.’7

This book expands upon the idea promulgated by Shabistari through assessing the claim of an interpretation of sharia that is ‘liberal, progressive and broad- minded’.8 The sharia is a complex subject, indeed the argument should more

specifically be one about fiqh, or jurisprudence, and this will be examined herein through the prism of a contemporary and controversial case study: how modern Iranian seminarians (the jurists, or fuqahā) have arrived at very different opinions about the necessity of women wearing a head-covering or hijab since the Iranian state demands that women’s head hair should be concealed. Understandings of the ‘clerics’ have been chosen because the opinions emanating from the seminary (typically the establishments in Qum or Mashhad) frequently carry significant weight.9 Of course, this is not to say that all seminarian views are the same or hold equal significance, and this study clearly shows there is great diversity.

Sharia is often understood as the pristine divine law that has been set out by God, traditionally interpreted by the religious authorities, or the seminarians. This human appreciation is known as fiqh (jurisprudence) and it has been considered an accumulation of opinions of individual scholars in the hawzas (seminaries). Following the success of the Islamic Revolution in 1978–79, there emerged a new configuration of interpreters and organisations (overseen to a large extent by the Leader (rahbar)), and composed of members of parliament (majlis), supervised by certain bodies (dominated by seminarians) appointment to which was restricted to those with the appropriate Islamic credentials. These bodies included the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, and the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qum. In other words, fiqh is now contested within the Iranian Parliament and its political structures, which are informed by the reasoning and declarations made by specific factions of senior figures in the seminaries.10

So it is here that the dilemma facing the Islamic Republic of Iran becomes apparent: on the one hand, the governmental machinery of the state and certain factions within the seminaries are the ultimate arbiters of Islam and fiqh, but traditionally jurists from the seminaries have remained independent from govern- mental structures, and therefore have enjoyed the freedom to express autonomous views on the religious legality of specific issues. The institutionalisation of Islam in Iran through executive, legislative and judicial organisations has in practice reduced this independence, but nevertheless some within the ulama have fiercely guarded and demanded the right to express views that have sometimes been contrary to that of the state (such as the necessity for women to wear the hijab). A contemporary group from the seminaries known as the ‘New Religious Thinkers’ have rejected the univocality of fiqh interpretation and implementation. They have set out diverse methods which promote a pluralist approach, as set out in chapter one of this book, which serves as the key to subsequent chapters.

As such the research and primary significance of this book is the demonstration of ‘fiqh plasticity’, and its responsiveness to the needs of the time. The book also informs the debate of ‘religious secularity’ (here indicating the separation of religion and state – not necessarily the decrease of religious sentiment) and shows how the imposition of state sponsored religiosity and piety has been challenged. Juristic hermeneutics are guided by the interplay between traditional ways that sacred scripture has been understood and the demands and customs of a society which in the 20th–21st centuries has witnessed change at an unprecedented speed. This book also shows how the jurists of the modern period have been influenced by the ‘ethical turn’ (in addition to the ‘linguistic turn’)11 in which the ‘literal’ understanding of sacred texts, the practice of reading verses in isolation from the overall message of the Qurʾan, and the foregrounding of rights and duties over ethics have been challenged.12 In practice this has resulted in arguments over how to define piety and the nature of an ‘Islamic’ way of life.13 The ‘ethical turn’

has resulted in interpretations that are diverse and contradictory, ranging from an understanding of piety and ethics that witnesses minute observance of every act being grounded in law to that which regards sacred texts and law as providing general guidance, allowing believers more freedom to choose from a range of ‘pious’ options. However, the relationship between law and ethics is not a simple binary one, and as Katz has astutely observed the dynamic between them is very complicated and defies simplistic categorisation. This being so, it is best just to ‘complicate the received narrative about Islamic law and ethics and draw attention to the wide range of relationships between these two fields before and after the advent of modernity’.14

The degree of fiqh plasticity and the influence of the ‘ethical turn’ among some modern Iranian seminarians are demonstrated in this book with reference to a case study of the hijab in Iran. In recent years the opinions about the hijab made by the ulama cover a range of possibilities for women, from the necessity to wear a head-covering, to the desirability to don the hijab, and finally to permitting women freedom of choice. And anyone who has been to Iran, or who has seen images of modern Iranian women, will know that the hijab is worn in different ways and that the law to cover all the hair is often flouted. Thus, the case study of the hijab offers an excellent illustration of fiqh in practice, and it is a good example of the dilemmas facing a people who hold a variety of perspectives, ranging from the ‘traditionalists’ who favour the hijab, to ‘modernists’ who do not feel any contra- diction about adopting ‘Western’ fashions and norms. The analysis in this book does not focus on the motivations of women for wearing or not wearing the hijab, as these are notoriously problematic to identify. Religious, cultural, and political factors are all relevant considerations, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially as definitions of these terms inevitably melt into one another.

The hijab represents a major point of discussion with regard to fiqh because the Iranian state’s policy of mandatory hijab and the imposition of punishments for non-observance typifies an approach that has been censured by Muslims and non-Muslims in contemporary times.15 As indicated at the very start of this

introduction, sharia has been the focus of attention in the West, where not only does it provoke emotions such as fear, outrage and disgust, but it has in recent times been the subject of constructive criticism from Muslims living in the West. That is to say, the criticism by reforming Western Muslims is levelled at specific interpretations of fiqh, rather than censure of sharia as God’s ideal law, referring to ‘the universal, innate, and natural laws of goodness’.16 Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Islamic Law at UCLA in the US, has referred to the implementation of ḥudūd punishments (corporal punishment, stoning, the death penalty, etc.) and has made associations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, remarking that these countries ‘have at different times and circumstances committed injustices that could only be described as thoroughly ugly’.17 In a similar fashion Tariq Ramadan, who was Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, declared publicly that ‘the application of the sharia today is used by repressive powers to abuse women, the poor and political opponents with a quasi-legal vacuum. Muslim conscience cannot accept this injustice.’18 Although both of these Muslim scholars follow Sunni Islam, it is just as easy to discover Muslim academics in the West who critique certain interpretations of fiqh and who adhere to Shiʿi Islam (making their evaluations more relevant to the Iranian case, which has been a Shiʿi majority region since the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries). For example, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Mason University, Virginia (who has been visiting lecturer in seminaries in Iran),19 speaks of an ‘epistemological crisis’ faced by jurists when it comes to legal matters pertaining to women, who have had restricted access to learning. Women’s voices are simply not heard when matters such as purity, equality or modesty are discussed. Sachedina observes, ‘There is no doubt that the tone of the rulings is set by the powerful male jurist who, in most cases, ignores the female evaluation of her

own social situation.’20 Another Western Shiʿi academic who advocates reform is Liyakat Takim, who has the Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University in Canada. Takim discusses the ‘failure of ejtehad’,21 which is basically the jurists’ inability to provide adequate solutions, based on rational investigation that does not contravene sacred scripture, to the challenges of modern situations and circumstances. These observations and criticisms by Western Muslim scholars reflect the concerns of the so-called ‘New Religious Thinkers’ among the ulama in Iran. Not only are the major issues the same, but the language used by the Western-based scholars mentioned above is similar to that of their Iranian counterparts who speak of the cruelty and the ugliness of recent applications of fiqh.


1 Emily Schultheis, ‘Viktor Orban: Hungary does not want “Muslim Invaders”’, Politico 1 August 2018, viktor-orban-hungary-doesnt-want-muslim-invaders/.
2 Moustafa Bayoumi, ‘The Muslim Ban ruling legitimates Trump’s bigotry’, The Guardian 27 June 2018, muslim-ban-ruling-trumps-bigotry.

3 Chloe Farand, ‘Marine le Pen launches presidential campaign with hardline speech’, The Independent 5 February 2017, pen-front-national-speech-campaign-launch-islamic-fundamentalism-french- elections-a7564051.html.

4 Henry Samuel, ‘French election 2017: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen through to presidential run off’, The Telegraph 24 April 2017, 2017/04/23/french-election-live-results-exit-polls.

6 Mehdi Hasan, ‘It’s time to lay the sharia bogeyman to rest’, New Statesman June 2011,
7 Jan Kuhlmann, interview with Muhammad Mujtahid-Shabestari (© 2012), ‘Why Islam and democracy go well together’, with-mohammad-mojtahed-shabestari-why-islam-and-democracy-go-well-together.

8 This is the claim made by Hassan Rouhani, who wrote his PhD thesis under the name Hassan Feridon, which is his birth-name. His father was called Haj Asadollah Feridoun. Hassan Feridon, ‘The Flexibility of Shariah (Islamic Law) with Reference to the Iranian Experience’, PhD thesis, University Glasgow Caledonian University 1998, 392.

9 The word cleric/clerics is a translation of the Persian and Arabic term ʿalim/ulama that denotes an individual or body of individuals who have trained in the seminary, and still maintain seminary methods and belief in Twelver Shiʿi Islam. Despite this, some of the contemporary ulama have expressed ‘radical’ and ‘modern’ views which depart significantly from ‘traditional’ understandings. The word ulama is an umbrella term that includes theologians (mutakallimūn), jurists ( fuqahā), philosophers (i.e. Islamic philosophers), hadith scholars (muḥaddithūn) and Qurʾanic exegetes (muffasirūn). It might be argued that the broadness of the term is too loose to fit comfortably over the main scholars in this study (Murtaza Mutahhari, Ahmad Qabil and Muhsin Kadivar). Certainly, Qabil and Kadivar have considered themselves as mujtahids (private email from Muhsin Kadivar, dated 7 November 2018). And yet categorising other leading scholars in this study poses other problems; Mutahhari was a theologian and philosopher, while Muhammad Mujtahid Shabistari considers himself a theologian. The difficulty of bunching this group together within a single term is recognised, and although ulama has its limitations, it is the best term that can be employed.

10 Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, ‘Women’s Rights, Shariʿa’ Law, and the Secularization of Islam in Iran’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 26.3, 2013, 237–53.

11 The influence of the ‘linguistic turn’ is most obvious in the ideas of Muhammad Mujtahid Shabistari, discussed in Part One.
12 Marion Katz observes this phenomenon in the Sunni tradition and says, ‘I would argue that one discernible and little-noticed phenomenon is that in some cases ethical themes have taken on a distinctly more prominent role in legal argumentation since the beginning of the twentieth century.’ See Ethics, gender, and the Islamic Legal Project, Yale Law School, Occasional Papers, 2015, 25.

13 Lara Deeb makes the pertinent point that a way forward in understanding Islamic societies is to trouble ‘or at least ethnographically unpack … our understandings of the boundary between what counts as piety or the pious and what does not, and by beginning to conceptualize that boundary itself as a moving target that is part of Muslims’ own ongoing discussions’. Lara Deeb, ‘Thinking piety and the everyday together: A response to Fadil and Fernando’, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5.2, 2015, 95.

14 Katz, Ethics, gender, and the Islamic Legal Project, 29.
15 Article 638 of Islamic Penal Code states that women who appear in public not wearing the hijab will receive a prison sentence of between 10 days to two months and a fine of between 50,000 to 500,000 rials (between $1.50 and $15 at the time of writing). (See ‘Iran’s Prosecutor Dismisses Hijab Protesters as Childish and Ignorant’, Iranwire 31 January 2018,

16 Khaled Abou El Fadl, Reasoning with God, London 2017, xxxii.
17 El Fadl, Reasoning with God, 291.
18 Tariq Ramadan, ‘We must not accept this repression’, The Guardian 30 March 2005. 19 Sachedina himself makes the following claim:

In Qom, among the traditional scholars, I have now given lectures about human rights, religious pluralism and the academic methodology I apply in my studies in Islamic law and ethics. I have lectured on bioethics and the methodology I use. And Iran has published my studies in those fields in Persian. Since I have been teaching in Persian, Iran has published my lectures and my specific take on Islamic texts as a guide to teach new students of seminary – the modern methodology.

See ‘An interview with Abdulaziz Sachedina on His Life and Scholarship’, Maydan 13 September 2017,

20 Abdulaziz Sachedina, ‘Woman, half-the-man? The Crisis of Male Epistemology in Islamic Jurisprudence’, Intellectual Traditions in Islam, ed. Farhad Daftary, London 2000, 175.
21 Liyakat Takim, ‘Islamic Law and Post-Ijtihadism’, unpublished paper, http://www.ltakim. com/Post-Islamism.pdf.



‘This excellent study is an examination of the evolving theological and juristic positions on hijab among seminarians in Iran. The author Lloyd Ridgeon provides the reader with valuable insights into the complexity of the juristic debates. Focusing on the work of three aptly-chosen scholars, he makes their juristic arguments available in English for the first time, as well as referencing the extensive literature on the topic in English and Persian. The writing is clear, the story unfolds systematically and cogently, and the book is a pleasure to read.’
–Ziba Mir-Hosseini, SOAS University of London

‘This study fills an important gap by discussing the views of three different Islamic scholars from Iran on the hijab. A particular strength of the book is that it covers scholars from both the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. The contributions of the scholars are contextualized by providing accessible introductions to the political, social and cultural developments in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution with a focus on gender issues and the question of the hijab. As such, the study illustrates quite well how Islamic jurisprudence is always situated in and responds to a particular context.’
–Oliver Scharbrodt, University of Birmingham