Pondering the Modern Secularity

  November 27, 2021   Read time 3 min
Pondering the Modern Secularity
Poetry, satire, music, journalism, and later literary studies and lexicography, remarkable though they were in defining the national culture of the period, could not fill the visible lacuna in the theoretical grounding of the constitutional order.

Throughout, there was precious little articulation of political thought: democratic rule versus despotism, civil and human rights versus power of the state, legislated human law versus the primacy of divine law, and secular values of the emerging society versus requirements of the shari‘a. The paucity is all the more puzzling given Iran’s tradition of Islamic philosophy and its grounding in Platonic and Aristotelian thought (to the extent they were selectively known through classical Arabic translations). Moreover, Iranians had long produced in the genre of “mirrors,” advising rulers on the theory and practice of government. Most cursory references to such theoretical concerns, often by political activists, were to be found in musing of such writers as Malkom Khan and ‘Abd al-Rahim Talibov Tabrizi (1834–1911), works that even at the time of the Constitutional Revolution were not widely available in print.

In part, such disinterest toward modern political philosophy can be attributed to the petrified scholastic tradition, which had prevailed since the late seventeenth century, especially in Isfahan, where students of Mulla Sadra abandoned the pursuit of political philosophy and hindered any potential for an indigenous alternative thought such as the one that flickered on the speculative horizon of their teacher. In trembling fear of jurists’ censure, most philosophers of the Qajar period and the constitutional era avoided engaging, even on their own terms, with notions conducive to individual rights, toleration, and social contracts. Nor were there the forum or the patronage to translate, articulate, and indigenize such notions from European sources. Constitutionalism and its corollaries thus were seen as commodities to be imported and implemented, often regardless of their theoretical underpinnings.

Even before the raging debate over the legitimacy of constitutionalism, its protagonists were anxious to define it as a notion that concerned only the sphere of government and the restriction of the authority of the ruler, while in reality the adopted constitution reached beyond the political sphere into areas that traditionally were claimed by shari‘a. Constitutionalists insisted that reforms to the institutions of the state would in no way interfere with Islamic principals and the requirements of the shari‘a, and they repeatedly claimed that mashruteh was concomitant with the teachings of Islam and its true spirit. They dismissed anticonstitutional attacks of jurists like Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri as merely shortsighted and based on intraclerical rivalries.

Whatever the sincerity of such interpretations and its necessity so as to ward off the clerical cudgel of heresy, there was little effort in earnest to articulate theoretical boundaries of liberal democracy. In other words, Islam as a comprehensive divine order with claims over the individual, the government, and the community was never seriously dealt with in the constitutional period, nor was an effort made to spell out a workable compromise. At the time, constitutionalists did not see any urgency for speculative debates, nor could they see a paradox in complying with Islam as a comprehensive social order on the one hand and advocating secular modernity on the other.

A notable exception, however, was Mohammad Hosain Na’ini (1860– 1936), a high-ranking jurist then residing in Najaf. During 1908, while the civil war was raging in his homeland, Na’ini argued in his book Tanbih alUmma wa Tanzih al-Milla (Alerting the community and purifying the nation)—which was written in relatively accessible Persian, a rarity among jurists at the time—that constitutionalism is compatible with the teachings of Shi‘i Islam. He argued that in the absence of the just and equitable rule of the Imam of the Age, constitutionalism is the lesser of the evils and the most viable alternative to autocratic rule, despite its shortcomings. The deputies of the Majles, he proposed, collectively represented an institution that in the absence of the Imam could attend to “public affairs” so long as they acted under the supervision of the mojtaheds.