From a June 19 speech by Hashem Aghajari delivered in Hamedan, Iran, on the 25th anniversary of the death of controversial Islamic scholar Ali Shariati. Translated from the Farsi.
Historic Islam is a culmination of what the spiritual thinkers [clergy] have experienced and considered through the ages and centuries past. Over time, the accumulated traditions become holy and are adorned in religious garb. At times the historical elements of these traditions and understandings become so credible that revisions become truly extraordinary events. Consider changes over the last century: Replacing traditional public baths with showers and modern water works was initially considered against the sharia [Islamic law]. Only bathing in traditional public pools was considered sufficient for meeting the Islamic cleansing requirements. Similarly, around the time of our constitutional revolution [in the early 20th century] one of the spiritual gentlemen issued an article condemning chemistry, physics and modern sciences, stating that, "Chemistry declares there is no god." Today, however, these same gentlemen do not oppose sciences, as they ride in late-model automobiles and have developed a taste for such things.
The understandings and interpretations of spiritual thinkers are irrelevant to Islam. These are their understandings. As they had the right to read and understand the Koran, so do we. We have the right to read the Koran and develop our own understanding. This understanding cannot be decreed to us. We separate historical Islam from essential Islam through analysis. We refer to the original text and [strive to] define the original content in today's terminology. . . .
It is obvious that one who desires to be a Muslim in the 20th and 21st centuries is a different person from those living in Mecca and Medina of 1,400 years ago, [which had] populations similar to small villages in modern Iran. It is obvious that we have different ways and methods of understanding in all areas including economics and politics. To understand Islam today, and in every generation, one must consider himself the direct recipient of the Holy book, a recipient of God's [message] and the prophets. . . . We have the right to receive and interpret this message on our own and based on our own circumstances. Accepting ancient and accumulated traditions just because they are historical is regressive. It is mimicry.
For years the youth were discouraged from reading the Koran. They were told that understanding the Koran requires 101 levels of thinking not available to commoners. [Islamic scholar Ali] Shariati, however, told his students to read the Koran themselves and to develop scientific methods for the study and scholarly interpretations. These methods can lead to deeper and better understanding of many topics. The clergy carrying tons of ancient baggage cannot compete in this arena. Therefore, students engaging in discovery and developing their own understanding are committing major crimes, as their activities may be bad for the gentlemen's business. . . . The whole Spiritual class would be out of work. In Islam there is no such class. The clergy and many of the titles and the hierarchy are new -- In many cases no more than 50 to 60 years since their invention. . . . The spiritual clergy relates to historical Islam. In essential Islam, there is no such entity.
Dr. Shariati told us that in Islam, there exists a teaching relationship. An Islamic scholar does not need followers and does not consider his knowledge a means of leadership. Neither does the student worship the teacher. The relationship is an educational one. Today's student can be tomorrow's teacher. This relationship includes criticism. . . . It is not mimicry. People are not circus monkeys to mimic without understanding. A student must comprehend and practice and strive to increase his understanding until he is independent of his teacher.
Today religion controls the government and the spiritual clergy occupies the seat of power. . . . The Islam we encounter is not the traditional Islam, but a fundamentalist one. In contrast, Islamic Protestantism [reformist Islam] is intellectual, practical and humane and as such is a progressive religion. . . .
The religion we need today is one that respects human beings and values human [rights]. Compared with traditional religions, the fundamentalists are prone to harsh violations of human rights. Relying on their fundamentals, it is easy for them to declare, "Anyone who is not with us is our enemy.". . .
Islamic Protestantism is an ongoing project, as we have a constant need to adapt. If our understanding and religious thinking become inflexible and spurious, we are subject to decline. As our needs and circumstances change, we must constantly critique and adjust the framework of our religious thinking.