Analyzing the Disparagement of Unorthodox Scholars (Part 1)

Translated by Muhammad Jaffer and edited by Sayyid Burair Abbas


Unfortunately, a trend that has been becoming increasingly prevalent within the English-speaking Shī’ah community has been the character assassination of unorthodox scholars. While establishing a healthy environment of critique is important, we ought to abstain from employing ad hominem and personal disparagement. Attempts to disenfranchise those who have unorthodox views from their scholarly credentials poses a significant danger to intellectual evolution in Shī’ism. In this light, we found translating this piece from the writings of Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh particularly expedient. We have added our own translator’s notes where deemed appropriate for further clarification. We hope and pray that the reader will benefit from the Shaykh’s analysis of this deconstructive practice.

Analyzing the Justifications Provided in Suppressing Divergent Views[1]

Q: We have repeatedly heard of the religious seminaries employing various forms of suppression upon those with divergent views: from psychological pressure, to expulsion, to suspending the salaries of critics and dissenters.  This type of practice occurs even against some of the marāji’ who adopt views that are unorthodox or unconventional in the ḥawzah. The question is: is there any legitimate basis for this practice of cutting off the pensions of those who present unconventional ideas? Is there any basis for expelling people from their religious positions under the pretext of divergent views? Do these practices of censorship—varying as they do from violent to peaceful—pose any danger to our religious relationships? Are these phenomena novel, or did they exist previously and are just manifesting more prominently now that the seminaries are publicly accessible?

A: We would like to draw the attention of the reader to the following twelve points:

1. The manifestations of suppression that you have mentioned are present in the seminaries, but they are certainly not unique to them. They are present in other academic centers, including scientific and university settings; indeed, they even transcend the merely religious domain. This is not at all a new development. For instance, there is a historical precedent of students in the religious sciences having their pensions suspended. This phenomenon persists today more or less, although it may not be quite as widespread any longer. Nonetheless, the license for freedom of thought has never been particularly wide in religious seminaries.

2. Those who adopt this repressive approach in dealing with divergent views present justifications which they surmise are religiously grounded. These various forms of censorship are justified as attempts to confront innovation (al-bid’ah) and combat deviance (al-munkar) (e.g., social ostracization, material disenfranchisement, boycotting dissenters from intellectual conferences, expelling them from the religious seminaries, censoring their content online, pressuring others to avoid them, banning and criminalizing their publications, etc.). Of course, they note that this practice should be employed only after one has exhausted all other means of enjoining towards good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-ma’rūf and al-nahy ‘an al-munkar), both by heart and tongue.

This group of scholars advances the notion that allowing these personalities to go unchecked will cause the spread of perversion in the Islamic society. It is perceived that not saying anything shall imply that the religious seminaries and the marja’iyyah condone these divergent ideas and believe in their legitimacy; hence, these deviant and erroneous ideas will be inadvertently empowered. Therefore, it is imperative to completely uproot their mischief since they ought not to be granted any opportunity to exert their influence. In turn, this is deemed one of the applications of enjoining righteousness and forbidding evil.

Sometimes we find other pretexts employed for this behavior. For instance, when pensions are revoked, we see this being justified in that the approval of the Imām (as) for funding controversial individuals cannot be underwritten. Some of the latter-day jurists have ruled that khums must be allocated only to initiatives that one is confident would receive approval from Imām al-Mahdī (as). Therefore, when a marja’ doubts about whether the Imām would consent in financially supporting such individuals, it becomes necessary to halt their funding and suspend their pensions from the religious seminary.

3. This style of repression is not exclusive to the conservative elements within the religious institutions as some individuals may imagine—rather we find it present as well among the groups that claim to support freedom of expression and portray themselves as open-minded. We witness another form of reasoning employed by this group: they say that if you do not expel a given controversial figure from his position, then it will imply to others that you condone his views. Hence those in positions of power must obviate these suspicions and protect their own intellectual initiatives by expelling these discordant voices. We have actionably seen that both the conservatives and the reformists in the religious sphere have employed these self-same practices, even if it be to a relatively lesser degree among the reformist elements.

4. Therefore, this strategy in dealing with divergent views has emerged from pretexts that we ought to analyze objectively, even if we ourselves and those around us should fall victim to its purview. I do believe there are some rare circumstances where there should not be any qualms about employing this style of censorship.[2] However, in my humble opinion, there are some key observations that ought to be clarified regarding this suppressive methodology. These observations are grounded in both a prospective and a practical understanding of the current religious clime.

5. As it pertains to the prospective observations, we ought to ask ourselves: is this type of approach really expected to yield any tangible benefit in the long-term? Is this style productive in any capacity? Have we truly read through history and examined the major transformations that have occurred therein? Have any of us examined the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in the Christian religious tradition to see if this suppressive paradigm has ever availed?[3] I do not believe that our current age will benefit from implementing this style; rather, it is on the same trajectory as the dictatorial governments in the Arab and Islamic world. We have witnessed time and again that this type of discourse—no matter how enduring—will engender public anger and increasing opposition, especially in the wake of a world where knowledge is now freely dispersed at an unprecedented magnitude.

6. When we apply this type of discourse within religious and educational institutions, it will result in a monolithic system of thought that will impede students from exercising the courage needed to present novel ideas. As we have seen throughout the course of history, it will engender a sense of terror in scholars such that they will hesitate to question any of the ever-burgeoning taboos in their midst. Can this type of policy in the religious seminaries really be expected to breathe any spirit of enthusiasm into the body of intellectual inquiry? Rather, we will witness that religious dogma shall join cultural customs (al-a’rāf) and politics (al-siyāsah) to form an unquestionable trinity: a trinity whose tentacles will subsume every major aspect of our practical lives in the Islamic world.

Let us reflect over history and consider why the Buyid Shī’ah empire was considered the Golden Age of Islamic intellectualism. This only happened after it opened its gates for scholars, literarians, poets, philosophers, theologians, jurists, traditionists, scientists, and mathematicians to debate and express all that they desired. Even the most harshly critical scholars of Islamic history have interpreted this period as the “Age of Humanism” in Muslim history.[4] Meanwhile, the Umayyad and Seljuk Empires are taken as classic archetypes of suppression and intimidation of sects, scholars, jurists, and philosophers (as well as the Abbasid Empire during the period of Qur’ānic createdness[5]). Anyone reading through the pages of history will appreciate to what degree the Islamic sciences regressed in the wake of this complete hostility to facilitating intellectual diversity. Garnering these insights from the past is crucial in guiding our decisions today; we ought to apply this hindsight in understanding the current trajectory within our religious seminaries.

Imām Khāmeneī (may God preserve him) has mentioned that it is inappropriate for us to react with violence and emotional outrage whenever a student or scholar presents a new idea or thesis. Rather, we ought to engage with him through intellectual conferences and civilized discussions, without endeavoring to discredit him.[6] By doing so, we will be able to properly benefit from what he has presented and correct the lapses of thought, whether they be present in our own understanding or in his thesis. In addition, everyone will come to attest that his respective viewpoint has critics who are civilized and intellectual in their critique of others.

However, by pouring our vitriol upon divergent thinkers and behaving impulsively, we will inadvertently transform them into oppressed figures in the public eye—people will sympathize with them, and we will build them into figureheads and icons for our enemies to rally behind![7] Simply engaging with others via civilized and cultured discourse will eliminate these persecutory perceptions; when we attempt to attack in a way that marginalizes, demeans, and disparages, it will sooner or later result in the Muslim world aligning themselves with the persecuted—even if it be only due to sympathy.

7. We can identify a great number of personalities who would not have become so polarized to the left or the right, had they only been dealt with in a conscientious manner from the beginning. If they had been bestowed the opportunity for freedom of expression, they would not have become such an impediment for religious thought and the institution of the marja’iyyah. The acrimonious critiques which they have launched upon the religious establishment are wrought out by the unethical manner with which they have been dealt. As a result, they develop this disestablishmentarianism which only intensifies the language of their critique. Our violent response to them therefore engenders nothing but ruin and destruction for our own selves. Of course, I do not want to morally exculpate the critics here; we have seen amidst them laughingstocks, scoundrels, and headhunters alike.[8] However we are concerned here to address the duty of the religious seminary in addressing this reality.

8. The crux of the matter is what I have alluded to time and again: admitting that the tables have completely turned in the modern-day. We must establish the new rules of the game gleaned through closely examining the current milieu. The historical paradigms of marginalizing dissenting voices are no longer fruitful; rather they will bear ill fruit for us in the long-term, especially with the new generation. Understanding the exigencies of this new era and appreciating its complexities will assist in developing modern paradigms in dealing with conflict.

Another crucial point we need to understand is the nature of the critiques that are prevalent today; we are in an age where the contentions, doubts, and frustrations are entirely unique. We need to follow the current trends of criticism against religious thought—even those which are issuing from within the religious seminaries themselves.[9] If we properly digest these contexts, we will apprehend a great deal of the challenges facing our youth—some of whom are seminarians themselves. We will be able to navigate these challenges with a more integrated discussion rather than resorting to attacks and attempts to discredit. Understanding the current era is of key importance and helps us appreciate that the wide-spanning critique against religion has stemmed from certain deep-standing conventions and complications within our own societies. We need to address these issues like a physician who understands and analyzes the causes for a pathology, even if he may not necessarily have a prescription. Our dearth of expertise in these domains and the lack of diplomacy in addressing issues of contention often precipitates catastrophic collisions of personalities.

The rationalist philosophers believe that the natural order of the universe is an ontological necessity and that its phenomena are governed by the rules of causality. In this context, if we were to properly digest the context in which the Muslim ummah today finds itself, we would realize that the wide-spanning trend towards criticism has resulted from certain causes. When we understand the general milieu that has been affecting the ummah for more than a century, we will understand that these critical schools of thought within religion are completely expected, and we ought to accept their existence. It is incorrect for us to naively approach these schools of thought as if they had emerged out of nowhere and without any precedent. There is a difference between understanding the causes for the emergence of a particular phenomenon and morally affirming its legitimacy. It is entirely possible for me to judge that a certain intellectual trend is completely unsound; however, this does not mean that I should not labor to understand the reasons for its existence.

9. Consider that many of these critics who have been banished and persecuted are a minority that usually do not possess any significant political or religious authority. What should we expect as the social repercussions when religious seminaries attempt to marginalize them? It will naturally portray a sense of weakness and impotence in dealing with the criticism being presented; it will convey the sense that since I am unable to address this view rationally, I am instead taking recourse in suppression, boycotting, and intimidation. Should we expect this to be understood more as a point of strength or as a point of weakness? If my view is the valid one, then why am I incapable of confronting these movements through establishing counter-intellectual enterprises and training a generation of young scholars to surmount these challenges? Why can’t I establish forums, conferences, magazines, television channels, newspapers, books, and educational cadres to combat these trends that are deemed “perverse?”

We have seen that the religious seminary has split into two camps in dealing with this situation. We have seen a faction that has expended every effort in entering such initiatives with every form of zeal to nurture a generation that are true intellectuals (e.g., the Muṭahharī movement, the Ṣadran movement, etc.). Then there is another group which we reproach: those who just stay seated lamenting about Islām and issuing fatwās without offering any serious intellectual contributions—their discourse is peppered with the old-style polemics of yester-year, embodied by displaying tact more than pure intellectualism.

10. Aside from these considerations regarding the future of religion as well as the exigencies of its present-day, we should take pause to reflect on the level of moral depravity embedded in the repressive style of dealing with divergent views. If we explore the Internet, television channels, books, and the media, the conflict between religious adherents forces us to shake our heads out of embarrassment. The expressions that have developed have morphed into a jargon of intellectual dispute that is catastrophically degenerate across the entire spectrum. In turn, those who are ridiculed and made the subject of condemnatory fatwās naturally react with acrimony, worsening the vicious cycle. Can we truly claim to have been successful when we consider how the polemic has deteriorated to this abysmal state? Are the paradigms being employed amenable for us to venture into a stage of ethically constructive and healthy debate? At times, the language is vulgar and completely decrepit; what is stranger still is that there are some personalities who disseminate this unethical discourse in their writings and then relish in it, as though it were some type of intellectual achievement!

11. As for the excuses that the relatively more open-minded lot present to justify suppressing other thinkers with their compatriots, whether they be more liberal or more conservative: they are not tenable. Instead, they ought to requite vice with virtue. They should aim to be exemplars and demonstrate that their mannerisms do not mirror others; that even when they feel particularly constrained by the criticisms being leveled at them, they do not resort to these failed repressive strategies. They must cultivate the view that they respect a difference of opinion and style between themselves, even though they do not necessarily agree with all those who belong to their intellectual camp. They must pioneer this course through visible demonstration.

We must also understand that intellectual movements are not political organizations such that we need to censor divergent views because we are working with their proponents. Just because someone belongs to our religious faction does not give us the right to ostracize him when he voices divergent views about issues that do not bear any connection to his religious capacity.[10]

12. I believe that the solution to this issue must lie in a far-sighted initiative. Thank God we have already begun to see some of its signs in the religious seminaries. This project should begin via an admission by the ḥawzah that the religious marja’iyyah should unanimously endorse: that we need to re-envision the paradigm of instruction and pedagogy from the ground up. We must rescue the ḥawzah and its students from remaining confined to the vicegrip of fiqh and uṣūl so that they can emerge into the realm of holistic thought. We are in dire need of an intellectual movement that considers the entire world and does not limit itself to partisanship and partiality. By necessity, intellectual compartmentalization will lead to a compartmentalized Islam. We also need to prepare a troop of clerics with expertise in modern-day intellectual currents; we need to build the intellectual confidence to remove ourselves from this crisis of mere self-preservation. It is imperative that we reflect in a far-sighted and serious manner about how to foster these strategies that will resolve our internal conflicts. As for tactfully defending a certain agenda under the guise of enjoining righteousness and forbidding evil, then I only fear its catastrophic conclusion—may God grant us protection!

To be continued…

[1] The original Arabic may be found in Ḥubbullāh’s book “Al-Iḍā’āt fī al-Fikr wa al-Dīn wa al-Ijtimā’” (Illuminations: On Thought, Religion, and Society) volume 2, page 508, question # 356.

It may also be accessed here:

[2] This may apply in the case of movements that are not rooted in the religious tradition and are attempting to forcibly impose foreign views onto the religious corpus. The attempts of certain individuals to obfuscate Qur’ānic verses condemning homosexuality is particularly instructive; this type of reasoning should be summarily dismissed. Nonetheless, employing suppressive methodologies even against these folks is not the solution, as the Shaykh will clarify further in the subsequent points.

[3] One may consider for instance the attempts of the Church to suppress religious scientists such as Galileo and Copernicus. Unfortunately, this type of suppression eventually precipitated anti-religious trends in Western thought. For more information, we would invite the reader to read through Muṭahharī’s essay “The Causes Responsible for Materialistic Tendencies in the West,” translated by Mujahid Husayn.

[4] The Buyids were an Iranian-Daylamite dynasty that ruled over Iraq and Iran in the 3rd and 4th centuries AH. Although they were initially Zaydī Shī’ahs, they converted to Twelver Shī’ism during the occultation period. They were well-known for their intellectualism and their religious tolerance. For details regarding their humanistic spirit, the reader is encouraged to review the work of the Orientalist scholar Dr. Joel Kraemer entitled, “Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival during the Buyid Age” (1st edition, 1986). 

[5] This was a famous dispute that occurred during the early Abbasid dynasty regarding whether the Qur’ān was eternal or created. It was intimately tied into another theological discussion regarding the nature of God’s speech. Unfortunately, the debate went to the extreme of excommunication and resulted in the death of several Muslim scholars. Most of the Sunni scholars particularly the Ḥanābilah during 3rd century hijri has insisted on the takfīr of anyone who doesn’t believe that Qur’ān is qadīm(eternal).

[6] Sayyid Khāmeneī has alluded to this in his speeches a number of times; Arabic readers may refer to the book “Mashārī’ al-Iṣlāḥ wa al-Tajdīd fī al-Ḥawzah al-‘Ilmiyyah” which has complied these various pronouncements. Here, we will suffice here in quoting one of the statements from a speech he delivered entitled “Bayānāt dar Āghāz-e-Dars-e-Khārij-e-Fiqh” dated 1373 SH:

در حوزه‌ها باید روح تطوّر علمی و فقهی وجود داشته باشد. حالا یک وقت به قدر فتوا مواد آماده نمیشود. خوب؛ نشود. بحث علمی را بکنند. من میبینم گاهی چند نفر در یک بحث فقهی، حرف جدیدی را مطرح میکنند. بعد، از اطراف به اینها حمله میشود که «شما چرا این حرف را زدید!؟» در این اواخر، بعضی از فقهای فاضلِ خوبِ دارای فکرِ نو، بعضی از حرفها را مطرح کردند که مطرح کردنش ایرادی ندارد. در حوزه علمیه، باید طاقتِ شنیدنِ حرفهای جدید، زیاد باشد؛ ولو به حدی نرسد که این فقیه فتوا بدهد. ممکن است دیگری، چیزی بر آن بیفزاید؛ فتوا بدهد.

“In the ḥawzah, it is imperative for there to be a spirit of intellectual and jurisprudential development. At times enough source material is not available to issue a religious edict; let that be the case then, we ought to still intellectually present our thoughts. We sometimes see that people in a fiqhī discussion will suggest a new idea and then afterwards they are attacked from the sidelines: “Why did you say such-and-such?!” Just recently, some excellent and adept jurisconsults have presented novel ideas that have absolutely nothing objectionable about them. In the religious seminary, we need to cultivate this ability to listen to these new theses; even if they may not be strong enough for jurist x to issue a fatwā, it is possible that jurist y will be able to append his own observations and develop it further enough to eventually issue a fatwā.”

[7] In the modern-day, we can cite the example of the Shirāzīs, who altogether have been scapegoated as the icons of “British Shī’ism” by some recent commentators. By relegating this entire group to this role, we are inadvertently creating enemies for our own selves and helping to sow further division.

[8] In Arabic, Ḥubbullāh uses some idioms that would lose their significance if translated word-for-word; therefore, we are aiming to convey the general gist.

[9] Among such examples include the likes of Ṣāleḥī Najafābādī, Muḥsin Kadivar, Abdolkarīm Soroush, and Hossein Modarressi.

[10] For example, consider how some take any political critique of Iran as a sign that a scholar is “illegitimate” or “untrustworthy.” It is as though one’s political affiliation must be verified before affirming his religious legitimacy! Another example is the late Ayatullah Ṣāne’ei, whose marja’iyyah was declared invalid by Jāmi’ah al-Mudarrisin due to his political support for reformists.