The Liminal Identity of the Reformist Theologian Sayyid Asad Allah Kharaghani

By Mina Yazdani
Submitted to Session P3102 (Political and Ideological Reform in the Modern Shi'i Muslim World, 2012 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The Liminal Identity of the Reformist Theologian Sayyid Asad Allah Kharaghani
The first decades that followed the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11) saw the rise of a number of reformist ulama in Iran who created a salient current of religious modernity in that country. One of the most influential and equally understudied among these reformist theologians was Sayyid Asad Allah Kharaghani (d. 1936). Having received his license for ijtihad, in Najaf, he returned to Iran and entered the circle of the unorthodox theologian Shaykh Hadi Najmabadi (d.1902). Later, he went from being a constitutionalist who closely collaborated with Azali-Babi activists during the constitutional movement, to becoming a reformist theologian who as early as 1918 envisioned the establishment of “Islamic politics” (siyast-i islami) in Iran. On the one hand he was accused of being a “Babi,” and on the other hand, as a Shi`i theologian, his propositions regarding Islamic governance were clearly informed by elements of Sunni political theory. Nevertheless, His thoughts were of great appeal to some of the major figures of Islamism in mid-twentieth century Iran, not the least of whom were Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani (d. 1979), the second most important spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Mahdi Bazargan (d. 1995 ), the first head of the interim government.
Using Kharaghani as the focus of a case study, this paper will re-examine the reformist current he championed. Conducting an in-depth analysis of Kharaghani’s life and works such as Ruh al-tamaddun wa-huwiyyat al-Islam [The Spirit of the Civilization and the Identity of Islam] (Tehran, 1918); Risalah-yi nubuwwat-i khassah va abadiyyat-i Islam va hamasah ba adyan [The Treatise on (Muhammad’s) Specific Prophethood, the Infinite Duration of Islam and the Challenge of Other Religions] (Tehran: 1933); and Mahw al-mawhum wa sahw al-ma`lum [The Nullification of Idle Speculation and the Realization of the Object of Real Knowledge] (Tehran: 1960), I argue that the Kharaghani ’s liminal identity problematizes the notion that one can simply assign essentialist identities to those who are the bearers of reformist ideas. By using him as an example, I suggest that Iranian religious modernity in the early decades of the twentieth century was a result of the crisscrossing of orthodoxies and heterodoxies which provided multiple scenarios of self-refashioning. Furthermore, I argue that the study of Iranian modernity must move beyond the binary opposition between true Muslim and infidel or even between Shi`i and Sunni.