iranintl – What if a Sunni imam plays a central role in advocating for freedom in a Shia-majority country ruled by Shiite clerics and gains significant traction.
It may seem unlikely, especially in a country like Iran with a hostile regime. While suspicions about Iranian imams being conservative and reactionary are understandable, Mowlavi Abdolhamid (Abd ul-Hamid), a Sunni cleric in southeastern Iran, challenges these stereotypes. Contrary to the image of a radical jihadist, Abdolhamid seeks peace, an end to bloodshed, and has attracted fellow Iranians with his message.
If Iran’s ongoing revolution leads to the establishment of a secular government, promoting religious freedom, women’s rights, and ending the murderous mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities, one of its influential figures could be Sunni Muslim Abdolhamid. In fact, a Sunni Muslim is playing a central role in undoing the catastrophe of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Thousands of Iranians of diverse backgrounds flocked to his mosque, Makki, in Zahedan (capital of Sistan-Baluchestan province, southeast of Iran) in March 2023 to celebrate the Iranian new year (a secular celebration) and to hear his message of hope and resistance. Abdolhamid stands out as a cleric who is both hated by the current ruler Ali Khamenei and immensely popular among the Iranian people. Despite being a member of the Sunni minority, he is increasingly more popular and has become a symbol of an Iranian renaissance. Despite efforts to tarnish his reputation, leaked documents reveal Khamenei’s advice to ruin Abdolhamid’s standing has not diminished his popularity.
According to Abdolhamid’s office, the security forces of the Islamic Republic have been pursuing the assassination plot of this staunch mowlavi who has been defending of the rights of all Iranian citizens. Abdolhamid was one of the many Iranian Sunni imams in Shia-governed Iran who supported the ongoing uprising that began with the death of Masha Amini in September 2022. Abdolhamid has been repeatedly attacked by the authorities and the propaganda horns of the government, his assistants were prosecuted and jailed, and his loyalists were shot at.
Abdolhamid has notably broken traditional Shiite clerical taboos, such as welcoming women without hijab to his mosque during Iranian New Year travels and advocating for the equal rights of Baha’is and non-believers. His outspoken criticism extends to blaming Khamenei for the deaths of approximately 100 protesters in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, condemning the shooting of protesters, executing dissidents, and addressing issues of torture and rape in prisons.
A noteworthy outcome of the 2022 revolution is the participation of Iranian Sunni clerics in the national, secular, and freedom-oriented movement alongside the people. Unlike adherents of the Shiite political theory of governance and its sectarianism, Sunni clerics, particularly those aligning with the religious sentiments of their regions, swiftly joined the protesting masses. Abdolhamid, the imam of Zahedan’s Makki Mosque, stands out due to his clear articulation of the general demands of the people in Sistan-Baluchestan and across Iran.
Abdolhamid’s consistency in his positions, including abandoning previous stances, has garnered him popularity among protesters and regime opponents. Notably, he revisited past positions like congratulating the Taliban and supporting Ebrahim Raisi in the contested elections of 2021. Every Friday, during his leadership of prayers in Zahedan, Abdolhamid aligns himself with the positions of the protesters.
Paths to a world without Islamism
Following the onset of the Mahsa Revolution, Abdolhamid emerged as a staunch opponent of sectarianism and Islamism within the government. He guides Muslim believers toward the separation of religion and state. One path is to normalize and recognize intellectual and ethnic diversity in the Iranian public arena. “Religious views cannot create equality in this intellectual and ethnic diversity. The religious view in the country will eventually fail,” he says.
Focusing on government efficiency, he rightly points out the ineffectiveness of the Islamist government due to Islamist politics. He clearly identifies Islamism as responsible for the current failed state of governance: “What happened in Iran was due to a denominational view; denomination is a branch of religion. Denomination means a narrow perception and religion has a wider circle. The denominational view became dominant in Iran, and limited the view and opinion and limited the plans.” In this speech, he refers to Islamism as a [political] religion.
Abdolhamid highlights the contradiction between Islamism and meritocracy. He is well familiar with the dimensions and results of the anti-secular government in this area. From his point of view, the root of this ideological selection is the idea that the government represents God. “No one can claim to be God’s representative,” he argues.
He firmly opposes the involvement of clerics in governmental affairs and decision-making processes. Abdolhamid contends that the country’s challenges and protests cannot be addressed solely through lectures and sermons by preachers, or eulogists. Instead, he emphasizes the necessity of thoughtful minds, and experienced and compassionate individuals to tackle these issues.
Abdolhamid advocates for the legal equality of all citizens, rejecting notions of “insiders” and “outsiders,” as well as ideological and political supremacy within a patriarchal system. He underscores the idea that all Iranians are citizens of Iran, united as brothers and sisters, transcending sectarian distinctions. Abdolhamid dismisses concerns about differences between Shiites and Sunnis, asserting that there are no such distinctions, and emphasizes that all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity, aspire to enjoy equal rights.
Public education about secularism
Similar ideas have been articulated by Iranian political activists and analysts, both within and outside the country, for years. However, hearing these sentiments from a Sunni Friday Imam, who enjoys popularity not only among the Baluchis but also among Sunni Kurds, and others is particularly noteworthy. Abdolhamid’s influence extends to religious individuals opposed to the government. Since the Mahsa Revolution, he has skillfully primed the minds of millions of Sunni believers to embrace secularism. While he may not explicitly use the term “secularism,” he has gradually preached and elucidated the dimensions of this concept.
Failure of Shiite Reformist clerics
No Shiite cleric in the social and religious position that Abdolhamid enjoys has defended secularism to such an extent, including former ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami and other “progressive” clerics.
These reformists do not believe in the separation of religion and state because they want reforms for the survival of Islamist government and religious rule and their own return to power, and not for a secular system of government.
Abdolhamid, a thorn in the government’s throat
The government faces significant challenges in attempting to remove Abdolhamid, and such an action would come at a high cost for several reasons: 1) it would be difficult to close Friday prayers for a government claiming religious legitimacy, 2) he enjoys support from Baluch believers and leaders of Baluch clans and tribes, 3) the potential for a high cost in terms of security and potential backlash, as witnessed in the September 30, 2022, massacre, and 4) the resilience of the Baluch people for more than year of opposing the regime, gaining solidarity with other Iranians.
Today, Abdolhamid has garnered popularity among Iranians due to his ability to understand and echo the sentiments and demands of the majority of freedom-loving and secularist Iranians, despite being a traditionalist cleric. Any attempt to impose house arrest, terror, or exile, as used against opposition leaders in border regions, would pose considerable risks for the regime, especially when public sentiment is largely against the government.
The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran International.