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What Happend at the Meeting of Ayatollah Sistani and Sachedina

The following report is being provided to all concerned who, having known Abdulaziz Sachedina for such a long time, have a right to know what transpired in the presence of the Ayatollah Sistani, the marja`, of the majority of the Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri  communities around the world.

I (Abdulaziz Sachedina) went with full confidence in the integrity of the religious institution of the marja`iyya, and with the hope of seeing that justice will be done in keeping with Islam’s  absolute commitment to that moral principle.  What took place in the total time of three hours and ten minutes meeting in two days in the city of Imam `Ali (a.s.) is now for the readers to peruse and ponder.

We arrived in Najaf on Tuesday, August 18, 1998.  On  Wednesday August 19, 1998, Seyyid Muhammad Rizvi made an appointment to meet with Ayatollah Sistani for 9:00 a.m. on Thursday August 20, 1998, while also delivering a blue binder containing selections from my  lectures, books, and articles which were perceived by  him and his colleagues as doctrinally “questionable” in their content. Due to the tense political situation in Iraq, the Ayatollah does not frequently meet with guests and thus a special meeting had to be arranged. Oddly enough, he was expecting us. As predicted by all parties involved, the Ayatollah had not received the package containing the binder and the letter from Toronto. Nonetheless, soon after Seyyid Rizvi delivered his package of letters and the binder, I personally delivered three letters related to my stance in matters of the faith and the community in North America.  However, Seyyid Rizvi did not have a copy of the letter that was written by Nazir Gulamhussein, the president of the Toronto Jamaat, asking the Ayatollah to intervene in the dispute regarding my lecturing in the community.  Apparently, as alluded Seyyid Rizvi, the latter had been asked by the Ayatollah’s son to compose a letter to which the Ayatollah would respond.  I offered to give him my copy of the president’s letter to make things easier for him.

On Thursday, August 20, 1998, at 8:50 a.m. Seyyid Rizvi, Alireza, my son, and I left the Hotel Yamama and were driven to Bab al-Qibla of the Haram of Imam Ali (a.s.). Walking up an alleyway, Seyyid Rizvi stopped at a door marked with the number “18” and rang the bell. We were ushered into a room, where we took seats on cushions on the ground. This was the room in which the Ayatollah met his guests.  Soon after our arrival, around 9:02 a.m., the Ayatollah walked down the stairs and made the appropriate greetings and took his place in the front.  His son, Muhammadreza followed him, standing near the door.  Alireza opened his journal and started taking notes about the meeting. The Ayatollah opened his remarks by stating that he was not in a position to comment on the contents of the binder.  Such matters were not within the jurisdiction of his authority as the marja`.  However, he asked me if I had seen the package and whether I agreed that the contents were, as asserted, written or spoken by me. I informed him that I had glanced through it and they were from me.  I further added that the materials compiled and presented to him were subject to different interpretation and needed to be examined in their proper context of the entire subject covered in the articles and lectures.This was especially true of the selections of the lectures given by me at various times, including those of the 1998Muharram lectures from Brampton.

The Ayatollah then engaged in a long forty-minute monologue in which he exclusively addressed me, telling me that he did not doubt my faith and was not even in a position to “try” me in the matter in which he had no jurisdiction.  Moreover, the Ayatollah asserted that he respected my position as a scholar but there were issues in the package that were of concern to him.  The book (on Islamic messianism), he said, was written under the influence of Western orientalist treatment of Islam, and was not based on the Qur’an and the Sunna.  And  although the Orientalists had done a great service to Islamic scholarship their conclusions were not in accord with our accepted doctrines in religion.   For the Ayatollah Sistani, the more important was the issue of “religious pluralism” and my treatment of all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as equal in the matter of truth. Such an interpretation, contended the Ayatollah, would encourage Muslim youths to convert to Christianity or Judaism because I regarded these other so- called “Abrahamic” religions as valid.  In addition, my interpretation of the word Islam (in my 1998 Muharram lecture) as not being the name of religion and just the name of an act of `submission’ was not supported by grammatical rules about indefinite and definite noun in Arabic.   Throughout the monologue, I was astonished to note that no mention was made by the Ayatollah about my comments on Ghadir or wilayat of Imam Ali (a.s.), for which Seyyid Rizvi painstakingly provided detailed and translated transcript of the internet debates and the final resolution articulated in the 1998 Muharram lectures.  It is important to bear in mind that it was the issue of wilayat, as a consequence of my article on ISLAM in the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, which was the main reason behind launching of this enquiry with the Ayatollah. It was noticeable that the Ayatollah had examined the binder prepared and had read the letter prepared by me explaining the academic study of religion.

The Ayatollah then took up the subject of my disagreement with the Ayatollah Khui’s position on slavery that I articulated in the 1998 Muharram lectures.  Seyyid Rizvi transcribed and translated a small section from that lecture as an example of my disrespect for the late marja`.  The Ayatollah said that even he disagreed with his own teacher,Ayatollah Khui, on certain matters related to the juridical principles.  However, Ayatollah Sistani contended that he had abstained from mentioning these disagreements in public, as required by the social conventions prevalent among  seminarians.  Later on, when I was afforded an opportunity to speak, I denied any intended insult to the late Ayatollah Khui.  The tone of my lecture and even hesitation in mentioning the disagreement, which naturally could not be transcribed on paper, I argued, reveals clearly my intention of mentioning the point about slavery in the context of the tensions that we as Muslims face today in explaining some past institutions to our youth.

In the light of my alleged questionable interpretations of established Shi`ite doctrinal positions, the Ayatollah went on to suggest that I should commit myself and abstain from lecturing and writing on Islamic matters.  In this suggestion, the Ayatollah clarified, being his muqallid had no relevance.  The fact that I was in his taqlid is an evidence of my practice; but I was not obliged to follow him in the matter of my faith.  Therefore, because he has no jurisdiction over such matters, it was a matter of my personal faith that I should abstain from lecturing writing on Islamic matters.

After some forty-five minutes, I interrupted the Ayatollah to explain a statement made by me at a 1988 lecture on the occasion of the birthday celebrations of the Twelfth Imam (a.s.) in Toronto.  A transcript of this statement was part of the binder.  The statement in question concerned the ability of a single woman to provide an authentic shahada on a matter, which is seemingly in contradiction to the Qur’anic statement requiring the testimony of two women for every one man in matters of contractual debts.I attempted to explain the context of the statement made at the lecture in lieu of the Sharia.  Specifically, I noted that a single woman’s testimony would be equally valid if not more valid than a man’s where she is the “expert witness in that domain,” such as in the case in the case of pregnancy.I also pointed out that in the West Islam is criticized as denying woman an equal dignity and the example concerning the laws of testimony is typically cited as evidence of such inequality.

Thus,I further contended, in the context of that lecture, I was engaged in establishing the unusual position of one woman,Hakima, the daughter of Imam Muhammad Taqi (a.s.), asan eye-witness reporter who had actually witnessed the birth of the Twelfth Imam (a.s.).  The Ayatollah promptly interrupted and dismissed the explanation, questioning how I could not simply accept what the Qur’an had said in this matter. I pointed out that there were other views open to interpretation.Again, the Ayatollah explained that he did not want to engage in the specifics of the points raised in the binder, since there was no time for that.  Again and again, the Ayatollah noted that he had tremendous “ihtiram” or respect for “janab-ali” (the respected sir).  There was no questioning of my faith, only the statements of interpretation made by me.  The Ayatollah, focusing on the potential of confusion caused by what he felt was a wrong interpretation, wanted me to unilaterally abstain from lecture.  (I got the impression that Ayatollah Sistani did not want his name on any statement banning me from lecturing.)  The Ayatollah simply wanted me to write something to the effect of voluntarily abstaining from lecturing and writing on Islamic matters.

There seemed very little reason to continue the debate when there was no systematic defence of issues permitted.  In any case, I raised the question about the effectiveness of my written statement in solving the problem of disunity in the community.  I made it clear to the Ayatollah that without his written opinion the community would not agree to anything.At that point I asked Seyyid Rizvi to say something.  Seyyid Rizvi told the Ayatollah that the community needs him to writesomething or at least respond to Nazir Gulamhussein’s letter, acopy of which I had provided.

At that point Seyyid Rizvi produced Nazir Gulamhussein’s letter. The letter was first handed to Seyyid Muhammadreza, who glanced at it, and handed it to his father.  The Ayatollah read the letter.  He again asserted his desire not to get involved in this matter.  He further reiterated that I should write the letter.Some time ago, explained the Ayatollah, there was a request from Iran to evaluate another scholar’s work (I assume he meant Dr.  Soroush).  He had received almost two thousand pages of that scholar’s writings, and he had refused to give his opinion.(Then what was the basis of judging a binder of a selected and translated few pages of my written or spoken ideas, mostly negative and out of general context, that stretched from 1981-1998?The Ayatollah’s judgement, even in the form of “recommendation” could not be merely based on my “incorrect” interpretations.  There had to be more to this than what appeared on the surface.)

The next point that I raised was about the matter of intellectual development in any scholar who begins a career and matures in the process.  I cited the example of Shaykh Tusi who held certain opinions in his earlier work and then corrected or revised them in his later works. I had also gone through that myself, I said, and I had undertaken to translate Ayatollah Amini’s book on the Twelfth Imam as part of my mature statement about my personal faith. I showed him the book.  The Ayatollah dismissed the point by saying that Ayatollah Amini’s book was not an important work and that the whole matter of my translating it was politically motivated, including the letter that was written by Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani following its publication, retracting his earlier comments regarding my faith and credibility in speaking for the school of Ahlul-Bayt.  According to the Ayatollah, the letter by Ayatollah Safi in my support was written under the pressure exerted on him by Ayatollah Amini.  In other words, what they had said or written in my favor had no religious value because their motives were “political” to begin with.  At that point Seyyid Rizvi interrupted and pointed out that I had in that translation of Ayatollah Amini’s book asserted the validity of my earlier academic work.  As such, my claim to my maturity in scholarship was unfounded.  To this charge I responded that I had simply compared and collated the conclusion of the two works and not the entire research.

The Ayatollah then ordered his son, Seyyid Rizvi and myself to write out a written statement to resolve the matter.  So we began to draft a letter that would satisfy me and the Ayatollah. I would sign that letter and he would endorse by putting his signature on it. Up to this point, I cooperated fully in coming up with a reasonable statement which would resolve the stalemate.  Fortunately, I kept all the drafts of the letter that were written at that time.

In my first attempt I drafted my commitment to abstain from lecturing among the Khoja Shia community of Europe and North America.  The Ayatollah insisted that my commitment not to lecture had to be general.  Moreover, it had to include abstention from writing and expressing opinions about Islam.I protested that I teach, and I lead prayers and deliver Friday sermons to the Sunni community in Charlottesville and other places.  He said that I could lead the prayers; but I could not express any opinions in matters dealing with Islam, its religion and its teachings. I pointed out that the request to bar me from speaking was from the Khoja community.  What had that to do with the Sunni community?  The Ayatollah said that he spoke for the entire Muslim community and not just for the Shia.  In order to resolve the impasse I was willing to compromise but the Ayatollah’s demands were unreasonable, to say the least.  What, for example, was I supposed to do in the university which requires me to express my views on issues relating to my subject of teaching, namely, Islam?  He said that I could teach as usual, but not express any opinions!  How can I do my teaching without expressing my opinions?  In response, the Ayatollah and his son dictated to me the following version:

In view of the negotiations that took place in the presence of the Ayatollah Sistani, I commit myself that as from today I will abstain from lecturing, expressing opinions on issues related to Islamic faith.  Of course, I will continue to teach in the university.

The above draft was ambiguous.  How can I abstain myself from lecturing and expressing my opinions on issues relating to Islamic faith and continue, in good conscience, to teach in the university?  Moreover, there was still the question of my writing articles and reviews, etc.  I once again raised the matter that in the university I was supposed to write articles and review books as part of my academic obligations; whereas writing the above letter would be a false statement on my part because I would not be able to fulfill its terms.  The Ayatollah insisted that I would have to stop doing ALL that. The matter got complicated and after two hours we could not come up with a draft of the letter which would satisfy both our concerns.  Even the Ayatollah’s son, Seyyid Muhammadreza, made a personal effort at drafting the letter.  But to no avail.  Finally, by virtue of a collaboration between the Ayatollah and his son, they presented the following draft for my consideration:

In view of the negotiations with Ayatollah Sistani that took place, I have committed myself that as of today I will not lecture and will abstain from expressing opinions on matters related to Islamic faith, religion, and jurisprudence.

However, even this revised version was not responding to my objections.  I could not see myself clear in living by the terms and conditions of this latest draft. I was certain that I would not be in a position to carry out its terms and I would end up making a false commitment which would be impossible for me to live by.  It appeared to me that the Ayatollah had already made up his mind about his decision on the matter.  The only question that remained unresolved, in my opinion, was the course of action.  Having had met a number of leading mujtahids in my long term interaction with the ulama, I could see most explicitly the Ayatollah’s disability to remain neutral in the matter or adopt more prudent approach until more substantial evidence was available to him to resolve the impasse.  From all that he had so far discussed there was absolutely no ground, whether in Islamic law or ethics, to silence me.   Indeed, Islam is not Catholicism where there is no room for another interpretation or dissension in the authoritative system of the “church.”

The session was brought to an end abruptly because the Ayatollah was feeling tired and I was asked to make yet another attempt at drafting the letter in consultation with Seyyid Rizvi and present it the following day.  We left the residence of the Ayatollah at almost precisely 11:00a.m. after having spent in all two hours.

In the afternoon I started thinking about the letter which was being demanded from me. I had already sensed that something was fundamentally wrong with that demand because it involved giving up my freedom of conscience and expression that were not, as far as my inalienable human rights were concerned, for negotiations at any cost. The entire exercise was designed to deny me the freedom of conscience and to coerce me to surrender my right to speak with the youth of my community, including my own children, through my own act.  I understood the full implications of the plot for the first time in those terms. I checked with my son, Alireza, to see if I was right.  We realized that there was no religious or ethical ground for me to even consider writing the letter.  I firmly resolved that I would not write the letter and instead I would ask Seyyid Rizvi to demand from the Ayatollah a response to the letter from the president of theToronto Jamaat.

Later in the afternoon, at around 5:30 p.m., on our way to Karbala, I told Seyyid Rizvi about my dilemmain consenting to write the letter.   Instead, I told himthat he should actively seek response to the letter from Toronto.  At that point it was obvious to me that the Ayatollah had been thoroughly poisoned to cut my influence in the community by denying me the platform in the name of service to God.

On Friday, August 21, 1998, at 9:00 a.m. we returned to the same residence and soon after our arrival were met by Ayatollah Sistani.  After the exchange of pleasantries, the Ayatollah asked me if I had written the letter.  At this point, Seyyid Rizvi explained to him my academic dilemma and went on to ask me to present my case.  After his brief statement, I explained that I had done much soul searching and my conscience reminded me that writing such a letter would lead to a decision not to talk to my own son, that is the youth of this community.

The Ayatollah’s son immediately angrily attacked me saying that I had turned back from my commitment that I had made the previous day. I protested in no uncertain terms that he was accusing me of something that I had not done.  I explained once again to the Ayatollah that if I were to give such a commitment to silence myself I could not function in the university and more importantly, I would be making a commitment that would be false.  The Ayatollah said that it was not my son whom I loved; rather, it was my “opinions about coexistence and pluralism, ideas that people loved” to hear from me, that I loved.  With much forbearance, I once again explained my academic responsibilities.  For instance, I informed the Ayatollah that I was among the seven American professors who were invited by the Iran to participate in a workshop in Tehran (at the Institute for Political and International Studies) and Qumm (Imam Khomeini Institute) on “Civil Society and Civilizational Dialogue,” in the next two weeks,and that I strongly felt the responsibility of participating and contributing in that conference.  He interrupted me saying that I could speak on civilization because that “is not Islam.”  “Civilization and Islam are two different things,” he said.  Therefore, I could speak about civilization which was, according to the Ayatollah, my area of specialization.  I explained that the subject of civil society deals with coexistence with other religions and communities who do not share with us our religion.  I looked at Seyyid Rizvi and asked him to explain the Ayatollah the meaning of “civil society.”  Seyyid Rizvi kept quiet.  At that point the Ayatollah criticized Iran and president Khatami’s liberal views and added: “You love this idea of coexistence and pluralism.  What is this nonsense about Abrahamic religions?”         We were all listening in silence and shock as he kept on attacking all kinds of issues, and even falsely attributing to me some ideas for which I produced immediate documentation.  For instance, he accused me that I had contradicted myself when I said the Prophet was not “religious” (?) or that he was political.  This was contrary to the statement in my lecture that was transcribed by Seyyid Rizvi.  He also asserted that no Sunni believed in such things.  I immediately produced the two pages of the book authored by a prominent Sunni Egytian Azhari scholar, Dr. Muhammad Salim al-`Awwa, about the difficulty of maintaining the political role of the Prophet when the Qur’an insisted that he was rasulallah.  It was not only the Sunnis, I explained, who had maintained the religious role of the Prophet as a primary one; it was also maintained by the Shia.  I produced an Urdu book by one of the most profound scholars of Shia Islam in this century, Sayyid Ali Naqi Naqavi, and gave it to Seyyid Rizvi to read.  In this book Sayyid Naqavi had explained the dual aspect of the prophetic role and the religious role being the essential pillar of the prophethood, as Imam Ali had understood and explained in Nahj al- Balagha.

The Ayatollah was getting irritated with my producing of documents to defend my stance in matters on which he was questioning my understanding.  Indeed he was angry with me for making his task a very difficult one indeed.  The conversation dragged on for a while.  At one point, his son intervened drawing the attention of the Ayatollah about the prevailing impasse – that my responsibilities in the university did not allow me to make the commitment required by him because I had to write, and comment on my students’ and colleagues’ work.  Then the Ayatollah asked me how much was I making at the university.  For a moment I felt embarrassed to speak about such personal matters.  However, I conveyed that information through Seyyid Rizvi.  The Ayatollah proposed that I should resign from the university and he would guarantee half of that salary every year.  I was astounded by the proposal.  It was obvious to me that I was a considerable threat to the religious establishment of the Ayatollah to offer me such a generous pension.  I could never contemplate to live on khums for the rest of my life. When I shook my head in disagreement to his proposal he faulted me of being in “love with this world” and not having control over my nafs.  But I had made up my mind not to give in to anything that would compromise my fundamental freedom of conscience.

The Ayatollah was determined to silence me anyway.  He made indirect reference to all other sources that had given him information about my stance and influence in the community at large and in the academic world.  Finally, he “assured” me, at least twice, that if I hear the negative response from him I should not construe it as stemming from animosity towards me. “I am your brother,” he repeated several times.  “I shall fulfill my obligation as required by the Shari`a,” he said.

It was around 10:15 a.m. and Alireza and I left the Ayatollah bidding him farewell.  The Ayatollah said to Alireza that he thought Alireza would take his side in the issue.  Alireza just shook his head in negative.   Seyyid Rizvi was initially asked to return at 11 a.m. whence a written statement would be prepared. However, as we were leaving, Seyyid Muhammadreza took Seyyid Rizvi aside and the two of us let go.

When he came to the hotel and as we were preparing to depart for Karbala I asked him about the response.  He said he had obtained it.  According to Seyyid Rizvi, the Ayatollah had emphatically asked him not to publicize or circulate the note.  Moreover, as Seyyid Rizvi informed me, in accordance with the Ayatollah’s instructions, he was to instruct the president of Toronto jamaat to announce the content of the letter once in front of the community and then hide it away.  This instruction from the Ayatollah, Seyyid Rizvi informed me, was to preserve my dignity and respect! However, I pointed out to Seyyid Rizvi that it was my right to see the response for, after all, I had come with that purpose to see the Ayatollah.  He told me that he would show it to me in Karbala and he did.

The rest is the story that Seyyid Rizvi will have to tell after consulting his own conscience and the role he and his colleagues played in the ultimate outcome of this meeting. In short, this issue which was of a theological nature, never got discussed or challenged on its alleged merit.The Ayatollah, who kept on insisting that he did not want to get involved in this matter was motivated by reasons beyond theology and “recommended” to Nazir Gulamhussein that I should not be invited to speak in the community of the faithful and should not be consulted in matters of belief because of my “incorrect” opinions about Islam.  Whether I hold “incorrect” opinions about Islam or about mostly irrelevant religious establishment is a matter in which only God has the knowledge and jurisdiction to pass His judgment, for on the level of human performance, however fallibly, I have served my fellow believers in all sincerity and devotion.

It is worth remembering that the judgment of human beings and the judgment of God are two different things, and while we are all too aware of the first, the second is almost always unknown to us.  Every decision of God’s has no precedent but His will.  The future is in the hands of God, who alone controls its unfolding.

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