QOM – The Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s office in Qom – the second holiest city in Iran after Mashhad and the heartland of the Islamic revolution – is a shrine in itself. In a city that welcomes Shi’ite scholars and students from all over the world, and where every single woman is dressed in a head-to-toe black chador, to be received by the Grand Ayatollah is as auspicious an occasion as a visit to the fabulous Hazrat-e Masumeh, the shrine where Fatemah, sister of Imam Reza, the 8th century Shi’ite imam, is buried.
The Hazrat-e Masumeh is a dazzling complex, with an enormous tiled dome, beautiful minarets and large prayer rooms leading to Fatemah’s shrine – a mesmerizing jig-saw of carved mirrors. To give a measure of its importance, acccording to a famous hadith (saying) – enunciated with pleasure by the guardians of the shrine – we learn that “our sixth imam, Imam Sardeg, says that we have five definitive holy places that we respect very much. The first is Mecca, which belongs to God. The second is Medina, which belongs to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, the messenger of God. The third belongs to our first imam of Shia, Ali, which is in Najaf. The fourth belongs to our third imam, Hussein, in Kerbala. The last one belongs to the daughter of our seventh imam and sister of our eighth imam, who is called Fatemah, and will be buried in Qom. Pilgrims and those who visit her holy shrine, I promise to these men and women that God will open all the doors of Heaven to them.”
Ayatollah Khomeini started opening the doors of the Islamic revolution in Qom in 1979 – which, appropriately enough, means “uprising.” He lived in a simple brick house still standing not far from the Hazrat-e Masumeh. He had had plenty of time to build his power base among Shi’ite clerics before being forced into exile in 1963, first to Turkey and then to Najaf in Iraq.
In the small waiting room of Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s office, pilgrims from as far as Xinjiang in western China come with questions sealed in envelopes, ayatollahs memorize parts of the Koran for further debate, students arrive for their classes, and a dignified waiter serves endless glasses of tea. In more intimate surroundings than the Hazrat-e Masumeh, this is also an extraordinary place to monitor the power of Shi’ite faith in action.
In the absence of Khomeini, the Grand Ayatollah Saanei occupies the Everest of the Shi’ite theological scale. Khomeini’s words on him are framed with two photos above the place where he receives pilgrims and students alike: “I have raised him as my grandson … I was always very delighted with his words and his knowledge. I believe that he is considered to be one of the most prominent characters among the clergymen. He is a learned man, devoted and diligent.”
When the Shah’s regime was trying by all means to cast doubt on Khomeini’s position as a Marja’a (a top religious authority), Aayatollah Saanei’s academic weight was a decisive counteractive factor. He knows absolutely everything on Khomeini’s principles of doctrine and views on jurisprudence. And he is also a supreme authority on the issuing of fatwas (religious rulings).
On music, for instance, His Eminence has stated that “any sound and lyric and music which does not promote laxity and immorality and does not misguide human beings or blemish the visage of Islam is not forbidden.” On infidels, he has stated that “antagonists who fight Muslims because of their adherence to Islam or their belief in Islam [and not for any other reason] are deemed adversaries in religion who, like a few of the infidels that having gained certainty of the validity of Islam continue to deny it, are bound to be unclean.”
Grand Ayatollah Saanei has been a member of the Majlis (parliament), and was chief of justice in the 1980s. Now he is most of all a teacher. A private audience with him obviously does not fall into the parameters of a Western-formatted interview: it’s more like a theological-philosophical exposition, in a very relaxed manner, intermediated with those endless glasses of tea.
He spends a long time methodically clarifying main Islamic principles – justice, no discrimination among human beings and most of all “social human rights.” This latter concept is essential and is now being confronted with the concept of “religious civil society” – proposed by the heirs of the revolution who are not clerics.
The Grand Ayatollah states that “Islamic law does not allow any discrimination on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity, and in terms of human rights.” He adds that “all human beings are sons of Adam and Eve.”
How, then, do we explain the antagonism between Sunni and Shi’ite, between, for instance, wahhabism and the Shi’ite faith as practiced by nearly 90 percent of Iranians? “The antagonism exists in the way of thoughts, not in the roots and fundamentals of the religion.” So it is all a problem of intepretation. “Some of the theologists do not agree with my thoughts, and some, regarding to laws, want to regulate something other than what is mentioned in the constitution. The constitution will prevent them.” He does not say, though, whether he would be in favor of modifying the present constitution, arguing that this is a political matter.
The Grand Ayatollah says, “There is only one difference between men and women. In Islam, we believe we should respect women as well as men, in the same measure. The differentiation regards inheritance. The son will inherit two times in relation to a daughter. In other laws, there is no difference.” This means that when a man is married, he has to split his income with a woman, while a woman’s income from work should belong only to herself, according to the Holy Koran. But the fact remains, says the Grand Ayatollah, that “the principle of ownership in Islam is based upon equality.”
An explanation of tajavoz-e farhangi – a concept that can be defined as “cultural aggression” or “cultural invasion” is also crucial. “By cultural invasion, I mean incorrect and improper cultures that are full of loss, not profitable to human beings. Those who know this take the means to shape a culture against those who are ignorant. These kinds of improper and incorrect issues definitely originate unclear benefits and disadvantages. The agressor knows that and takes advantage of the ignorance of those who are not informed.”
But who defines what is improper or incorrect? Theologists, of course. “If a foreign aggressor wants to impose a culture war on the people, this is considered to be an injustice.” To fight “a culture which is wrong and improper, we should provide thoughtful information and knowledge.” The Grand Ayatollah acknowledges that “the superpowers have advantages to impose culture and thoughts against oppressed peoples. We consider this as manipulation of thoughts.” He evokes the Islamic principle of “fraud” and this aggression is also considered to be “a sin and a crime.” Although refraining from any political judgement during his talk, Ayatollah Saanei remarks that “history shows great powers do not do much for the benefit of the people.”
Khomeini once said that “the profession of the prophets is politics, and religion is the same as that kind of politics which arouses the people and leads them to what is in the interest of the nation and the public”. So one cannot help asking the Grand Ayatollah about his reaction to the inclusion of Iran in George W. Bush’s axis of evil. “If he means by axis of evil our nation, then our nation will say he is exactly the truest example of evil, not us. If he means our politicians and government bodies, then they will answer him in a straightforward manner, not me, because I’m not a politician.”
The Grand Ayatollah makes a point to tell “all human beings that in the Islamic Republic of Iran the aggression of human rights did not exist before and does not exist now. Any superpower which is willing to help our country should learn to respect the freedom of the people and their destiny, and to execute the divine ethics of God.”
The Grand Ayatollah bids farewell to his visitor with a message of peace and an invitation for further discussions. “We hope that all mankind will be very aware of all our human rights.” Maybe the invitation should be formally extended to Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.