Abdolhamid Masoumi-Tehrani is an Iranian Ayatollah based in Tehran, Iran. He is also a calligrapher and painter, who uses his art works to challenge openly Iran’s ruling clergy and power elite to adopt a more tolerant social and political order.
A recent calligraphic art work by Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani sent shock waves through Iran’s ruling elite and the country’s civil society. His calligraphic work featured a passage from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Book of Aqdas) written by the founder of the Bahai faith, Baha’u’llah, in the 19th-century in Iran. According to Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani, his work of calligraphy from the Book of Aqdas is “a call for peaceful coexistence among followers of all religions”.
The Bahá’ís are Iran’s largest religious minority with no legal protection because the Iranian constitution does not recognize them as a religious minority. In 2005, four years after the September 11 attacks in the United States, Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani presented to the Library of Congress one of his art works that featured calligraphic writings from Psalm in honor of those killed in the attacks. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams of Oystermouth, has called the calligraphy work of Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani dedicated to the Bahá’í community “immensely significant”.
Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani about the rights of religious minorities, Iran’s civil rights movement, and why it is important to have peaceful socio-political change in Iran. This discussion was conducted in Persian, then transcribed and translated into English by Foreign Policy Concepts.
You recently wrote a calligraphic rendering of a passage from Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Book of Aqdas) and donated it to the Bahá’ís of the world. You’ve also called for equal rights for Iran’s Bahá’í community, who make up the country’s largest religious minority. What you’ve done has jolted Iran’s civil society and the country’s power structure. It also has contributed to renewed debates about the rights of religious minorities in Iran. Please explain how you see the impact of you’ve made.
From this point I can only see positive impact. The way I see it, it has opened new debates in our society including among our religious class. I live in a religious neighborhood, where, as a result of what I’ve done, people have felt more comfortable talking about religious minorities and their civil rights. And I think in long-term, it will have its impact felt more visibly. This is just the start in our civil rights movement. The important thing is for such actions to take place.
The general public welcomes such moves, but not those who, in one way or another, are connected to a political faction in the government because they have vested interests in the status quo. In Iran, as you know, we call such connected people ahleh bond-baazi, people who are part of a band, or faction. I firmly believe that we will see the impact of what I’ve done and similar acts on these people, but at a slower pace.
What kind of reaction have you seen from the Iranian clergy and the country’s power elite?
I have not seen a negative reaction coming from the traditional religious class, who happen to be mostly unhappy with the country’s current political environment. For example, Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr in Najaf, Iraq, is a grand ayatollah and the most prominent Shiite cleric after Ayatollah Sistani. He has talked about the Bahá’í community very transparently. He has called for Muslims to treat the Bahá’ís the same way as others.
However, the religious leaders in Iran, for obvious reasons, do not express their mind as openly as those outside of the country, but the same clerics in Iran have shown privately their tacit support for equal treatment of the Bahá’ís. However, there are senior clerics in the government who have complained about what I’ve done and called it a step too far. The likes of Ayatollah Sanei and Makarem Shirazi, whom I personally know and have respect for, directly and indirectly told me that presenting the gift was a step too far, but they think defending the rights of the Bahá’ís is something that deserves support.
This is not the first time I have presented a gift to followers of a religion other than Islam. For example, in 2005, four years after the September 11 attacks, I presented a gift of calligraphic rendering of Psalmin honor of those lost in the attacks. This work currently sits in the Library of Congress, which I believe due to political reasons, some American authorities chose not to publicize it as widely as they should have. My action at the time in 2005 was met with criticism by certain clerics, but I told them that this is an expression of respect by Iranians to Christians in the U.S. who suffered a great loss. For me, it was much better than the images of Muslims beheading Christians; images that Americans see on their TV screens all the time.
I think the reaction to my work from the government authorities would come later. They will wait for a while before taking action because they don’t want to appear weak and against the civil society and religious minorities.
Do you believe that based on principles of state ideology in Iran there could be any room, however limited, for reconciliation with the country’s Bahá’í community?
No, I don’t think so. You see, Iran’s ruling elite have a particular reading of Islam, which is based on Shiite Jurisprudence of Velayat’eh Faqih. Forget about the Bahá’ís, they don’t even tolerate my views as a dissenting voice within the community of Shiite clerics. I have been stripped of my authority to lead prayers in the mosque and you expect them to accommodate the Bahá’ís? Let me put it this way, as long as this religious state ideology rules our government institutions, the rights of minorities will not be recognized and exercised unless the civil movement becomes strong enough to force the ruling elite to change their behavior and policies.
There’s also the issue of separation of powers. The separation of powers in Iran is fraught with gray areas. The Iranian clerics are pretty good at twisting the facts and presenting them to the public as truth and reality. That’s how you see the clerical influence in our constitution. That’s why our constitution resembles a Tozi’hol-Masaa’el, books on religious guidance written by Shiite clerics.
We have to accept that the clerics don’t belong to politics. The clerics should go back to their mosques. They have been in charge of running this country for 35 years and their record is pretty clear to everyone.
I’ve heard that Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has stated that Islam has a plan for everything. Are you kidding with me?! What plan? on the economy? finance? management? Well, I don’t see any of those plans.
Do you see a solution, either based on religious laws or civil laws, to the seemingly never-ending controversy around women’s compulsory wearing of Islamic Hejab in Iran?
This issue goes back to the kind of power structure and the political ideology we have in our government. As long as we don’t have a change in our political ideology, we can’t solve the issue of Hejab.
Fortunately, in the post-revolutionary period, our religious seminaries have extensively debated the Hejab and nearly all have agreed that it should be free and left to a woman’s choice and desire. For example, there are interpretations of the scripture (Koran) and their relevance to our time and day and how these new interpretations can be used to reflect modern day life and politics. If our hardworking clerics want to publicize their work about the Hejab, they will run into trouble and that’s why you don’t see their debates on such a sensitive issue as Hejab take place in public domain.
These are important developments taking place in our seminaries. I see the issue of Hejab as resolved. It’s just these developments have not made it to our legislative body and have not been adopted by our political elite, who have their own interpretation of religious laws with no room for debate and compromise. As long as we don’t see a change in our state political ideology, we will not see any resolution around sensitive and politically charged issues like Hejab and the rights of religious minorities.
How would you assess the future direction of Iran’s state ideology? Could there be a gradual adoption of a more Iranian nationalist tone as opposed to one based on principles of Shiite Islam?
Living under a religious ideology, many ordinary people have found a desire to nurture their nationalist sentiments. But I don’t see a change in state ideology based on Iranian nationalism. But the important thing about the state ideology in Iran is that it has turned into a tool for political manipulation. Even the ruling power elite do not believe in their ideology; they need it because it serves their interests.
For the adoption of an Iranian nationalist tone by the state we need change. I personally feel some kind of change is near, but I don’t know what shape it will have. The country’s socio-political atmosphere is very conducive to change, that’s for sure.
Is there a crisis of ethical values in today’s Iran? If there is one, do you see a way out of it?
I would not call it a crisis, but there is clearly a decline in our ethical values. People in Iran are frustrated; frustrated with economic difficulties in their lives, with the widespread corruption in the country’s management system. These are facts of life in our society. The question is how we change this situation and the answer lies in our civil movement and continuation of efforts in our civil society. What the Iranians have seen from the clergy is nothing but hypocrisy, lies, and double-standards. Through our civil society we can change this type of behavior.
I have warned those hardliners who desecrate the Bahá’í cemeteries. I’ve told them that one day it could happen to them. This is not civil and right. Through our civil movement we can teach them and educate them that these types of behavior are wrong and detrimental to the whole society.
For a long period of time in the United States, there was widespread racial prejudice against blacks, but the civil society changed that. The prejudice still exists, but it is not the way it was in the 50’s and the 60’s. Americans did not have the clerics we have in Iran who could procrastinate social change and insert gray areas in the American constitution and slow the pace of reform. So the Americans are lucky in that sense. In Iran we say “OK, the Bahá’ís are inferior, but we should recognize their rights”. It doesn’t work that way. In our constitution, we should recognize their civil rights as well as those of all other minorities as being equal by law.
We need action, not just talk. This is not right. When you make a promise, you have to execute on your promise. When you deliver on your promises, it leaves a long-lasting impact on people and they start to trust you.
Our problem in Iran is that we have incompetent rulers, who through their actions, have lost the trust of people and become symbols of ethical decline.