AL-Monitor – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing a backlash over his latest comments about no one being above criticism — including Islamic rulers. Rouhani’s claims that even Prophet Muhammad welcomed criticism by others has raised many objections among Iranian clerics who are now demanding that the president take back his words and not comment on religious matters in the future.
In a speech delivered on Jan. 8, following the recent wave of protests in Iran, Rouhani voiced his disapproval over the filtering of social media networks in Iran and said everyone in the Islamic Republic could be criticized, without any exceptions: “All the officials in the country can be criticized. No one in the country is infallible.” Attempting to justify his statement, Rouhani referred to religious figures throughout Islam and added: “If one day the [hidden] 12th Imam [Mahdi] reappears, then we can criticize [him] too. … Even the Prophet of Islam [Muhammad] allowed [others] to criticize him. … People would ask him if his words were his own or revealed to him by God. If he said my own, they could criticize even his opinion. We don’t have anyone above the prophet in history.”
This statement soon sparked a wave of attacks and condemnations against Rouhani from religious and radical circles. The pivotal point in the objections, however, was perhaps the Jan. 14 statement by the influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, which is headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a veteran cleric who is viewed as one of not just Rouhani’s but the Reformists’ toughest critics. The statement described the rejection of Prophet Muhammad and the Shiite imams’ infallibility as an explicit opposition to Islam and the Shiite faith and said: “We strongly recommend that some officials refrain from entering issues related to [people’s] beliefs in their speeches and instead focus on solving issues related to their livelihood.”
In an effort to explain Rouhani’s comment, the president’s office issued a statement one day later on Jan. 15 that said, “Attributing the sentence that ‘even Imam Mahdi can be criticized’ to the president is a complete lie. Such words were never stated by the president nor can such a meaning be inferred from his speech.”
This is while video of Rouhani’s speech shows him making that exact remark. Yet the president’s office maintained its position and explained that Rouhani had meant people could criticize infallibles but that this did not necessarily justify the legitimacy of their action. However, the statement was not very successful in calming down the atmosphere of opposition against Rouhani, and instead it led to a second round of attacks by the more hard-line religious classes in Iran.
In an editorial published on Jan. 16, Hossein Shariatmadari, the chief editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, severely attacked Rouhani’s words and the subsequent explanation offered by his office while questioning the rightfulness of people criticizing prophets and infallibles. Shariatmadari also commented on Rouhani’s narration of Prophet Muhammad being open to criticism and said, “The fact that some individuals would ask the prophet if his words were his own or revealed to him by God, shows that even at that time, there were some individuals that despite God’s orders and the explicit text of the Quran, did not truly follow the opinion of the prophet! Regardless of what the president was presumably trying to prove, such questions do not mean that God’s prophet can be criticized. Also, Mr. Rouhani should be asked if God’s prophet viewed their questions as commendable and necessary. Or if he felt sorry for them and was disappointed by their lack of faith?”
The clergy also responded harshly to Rouhani’s comments. Sheikh Mehdi Shabzendedar Jahromi, a member of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, said on Jan.16, “Those who critique Imams are not familiar with their stature or are up to no good. Imams are beyond criticism. They are infallible. Those officials who talk of such things should remember that the clergy does not joke over Shiite beliefs with anyone.”
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a top Shiite cleric in Qom, on Jan. 17, said, “The infallible Imams are our red line. Their being free from mistakes or wrongdoings is one of the principles of the Shiite faith.” Ayatollah Shirazi then addressed Rouhani and said: “You can say no one is infallible in the country and everyone is subject to criticism. [However] why [do you need to] refer to the time of the infallibles? What is the necessity for your comment and action?”
So why did Rouhani make such a controversial comment when he himself is a cleric and knows full well the sensitivity of such topics among the clergy and religious figures? Perhaps the economic hardships and domestic defeats Rouhani has faced during his time in office, which in turn have led to domestic dissatisfaction and criticism, could be viewed as one reason. It may be that the president is trying to win back the support of at least a portion of the critical public opinion through new avenues, which is to attack his opposition. Rouhani, who is considered a clever player in Iran’s political scene, is also a skillful speaker and most of his speeches have delighted his supporters. And although his statements do not necessarily lead to actual change in his policies, they do, at least, have the effect of lessening the wave of criticisms and hopelessness among his supporters.
It seems Rouhani is fully aware of the religious red lines in Iran and will never truly cross them, unlike former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who at the end of his presidency practically stepped on everything. Rouhani has a clear range of movements and maneuvers within that framework. This way, his supporters will not accuse him of lack of action or weakness and at the same time he will avoid becoming the wrath of the conservatives.