Clerical Auto-Criticism: A Religious Treatise on Secularism

The Shi'ite clergy, as the most influential of Iran's social institutions, became the problematic of a serious discourse only after the burgeoning of Iranians' interest in modernity beginning with the constitutional movement. Most of the leading members of Iranian Shi'ite clergy represented the most traditional interpretations of Islam and thus posed serious impediments to Iran's march toward modernity and secular government. There were, however, some clerics who braved the risks and attempted to shed some light on the hitherto darker corners of the clergy's conduct of their private and public lives. Such attempts, however, were few and far in between. In fact, following the constitutional period, no other tracts or essays of this genre are known to have been written, which is by itself an indication of a pervasive absence of intellectual curiosity about the subject in nearly a hundred years.

Perhaps one of the most critical essays on the inner life in Iranian Shi'ite seminaries is the autobiographical essay written by Sheikh Ebrahim Zanjani in early 20th century. A prominent religious leader of his time, Zanjani played an important role in the Iranian constitutional movement and was elected to the first four sessions of the Majles. In his political and ideological leanings, he was close to liberal and radical intellectuals such as Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh and was also a member of the Democrat Party whose platform included a call for the separation of religion from government. These tendencies are clearly and explicitly reflected in Znajani's recounting of his private as well as political life. While rejecting the claim of the clerical class to divine legitimacy, he decries the behavior of most of his peers as anathema to Islamic tenets and in no uncertain terms denies the validity of the theory of an Islamic government led by the clerical class. This genre of secularism, based solely on a novel interpretation of Islamic traditions, has not been explored either by Iran's religious seminarians or Iranian intellectuals.

Mohammad Mehdi Khalaji
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