By Javad Heirannia

World needs broader and more tolerant interpretation of religion: Jahanpour

October 21, 2018 - 11:36

TEHRAN - Professor Farhang Jahanpour, part-time tutor on Middle Eastern affairs in the Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford, and a member of Kellogg College says that religion has always been associated with politics.

Former Senior Research Scholar at Harvard adds that “What the world needs at the present time is a broader and more tolerant interpretation of religion that would include the whole of humanity, not divide people into various religious sects and groups.”
Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: When did scholars first start to associate religion with politics?

A: In a way, religion has always been associated with politics. Even according to the earliest records of ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Persian and Jewish histories, religions have always been closely tied up with politics. 

The earliest Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh that dates from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2100-2000 BC) speaks of Gilgamesh as a historical king of Uruk in Babylonia. It portrays him as a divine being who was granted eternal life. Hammurabi (died c. 1750 BC), the first person to provide a detailed codification of 282 laws, was the sixth Amorite king of Babylon (the First Babylonian Dynasty). He talks of himself as the representative of Anu and Bel, the gods of the Babylonians. In the introduction to his famous Code of Laws, he writes: “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers.”

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs portrayed themselves as gods or the representatives of the Supreme Being. The famous Book of the Dead coming from the Middle Kingdom period (about 2050-1750 BC) speaks about divine kings. The mythic scene of the book describes the story of the life, death and resurrection of the god Osiris. 

Long before Biblical times, we have the Tale of Aqhat (written before 1365 BC when Ugarit where the book was written was destroyed as the result of a major earthquake) whose life story has many resemblances both with the stories about the life of Abraham, as well as of Jesus. The Hebrew kings, Saul, David and Solomon, and others also speak of their intimate relationship with God. 

In our own history, both Cyrus and Darius represent themselves as being chosen by Ahura-Mazda. In his famous Behistun Inscription (522 B.C.), Darius the Great, writes: “King Darius says: By the grace of Ahura Mazda am I king. Ahura Mazda has granted unto me this empire. Ahura Mazda brought me help, until I gained the empire; by the grace of Ahura Mazda do I hold this empire.” 

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (c. fifth century BC) Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god. So, from the dawn of history, religion and politics have gone hand-in-hand and most rulers have tried to use religion in order to give themselves some element of divine rule and justify their legitimacy. 

Q: So, on the basis of what you say, is it always the case that religion and politics should go together?

A: It depends on what we mean by religion and politics. Some religions have been completely otherworldly, while others have involved themselves more in the affairs of the world. For instance, the teachings of Buddha in India or Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism in China (both of them from 6th century BC), have been more interested in spiritual and mystical issues, rather than material issues. For instance, Lao-Tzu argued that minimizing the role of government and letting individuals develop spontaneously would best achieve social and economic harmony. He was more interested in self-development, rather than in the role of the individual in society. Some have even called Lao-Tzu as one of the first anarchists. 

Some scholars argue that even Jesus was more concerned with the affairs of the soul, rather than with material issues, for instance when he said: “My kingdom is not of this world” or “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” In these verses, one can clearly see a complete separation of spiritual and material issues. 

Although ancient Iranian rulers used the name of Ahura Mazda to gain some legitimacy, or towards the end of the Sasanian period Zoroastrian clerics or the Magi achieved great power and interfered in political issues, there is nothing in Zoroaster’s teachings that justified that interpretation. His ethical teachings were summed up in “Good thoughts, good words and good deeds”.

One can even see similar verses in the Qur’an. The Qur’an insists on freedom of belief and condemns coercion of conscience, such as in 2: 256, where the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. Certainly, right has become clearly distinct from wrong. Whoever rejects false idols and believes in God has taken hold of the unbreakable, firm handle. God is All-hearing and knowing.” 

The Qur’an urges turning the other cheek and wishing peace even on persecutors who orally harass the believers. The verse 43:89 says of the militant pagans who rejected the Prophet’s message, “yet pardon them, and say, ‘Peace!’ Soon they will know.” When the Qur’an speaks about righteousness, it is a general concept of faith that is not limited to Muslims alone. For instance, in 2:62, the Qur’an promises salvation to righteous Jews and Christians, or to whoever lives a good life: “Those who believed, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, and whoever has believed in God and the Last Day and performed good works, they shall have their reward with their Lord.”

Q: Some scholars, such as Michael Allen Gillespie in his book “The Theological Origins of Modernity”, believe that modernity was not initially against religion, and in later years, as a result of social, cultural and political conditions, it has led to secularism. So, based on this conception, religion is not in conflict with modernity. Therefore, can it be said that religion is not in conflict with the international relations theory stemming from modernity?

A: There have been many scholars who have argued that religion has played a major role in creating the modern world. The late Professor Owen Chadwick’s important book, called “The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century” (1975), in fact argues that concepts of democracy and human rights emerged out of religious conflicts and disputes of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

I believe that he has a point, but of course he did not argue that because of the historical role that religion had played in ushering in modernism it means that religion should now interfere in politics. According to him, at a particular historical phase, religious disputes and conflicts led to the Renaissance and the Reformation, which paved the way for revolutionizing political and social ideas, and therefore played a role in shaping the modern world. 

Q: If religion can play a role in international relations, can it therefore be effective in resolving all the unresolved political issues and problems?

A: Again, it all depends on how one interprets religion. Various peaceful groups have used religion to advocate peaceful policies and coexistence, while others such as ISIS or some religious radicals and fundamentalists have used religion to justify their intolerant and hateful ideologies. I believe that if one goes to the essence of religions, which preach unity, tolerance, forgiveness, charity and justice, one can argue that religion can play a useful role in bringing peoples and nations closer together. At the same time, if one puts forward a narrow and fanatical interpretation of religion, one can justify disunity, hatred, divisions, violence and wars. After all, many wars have been fought in the course of history and even in our own time in the name of religion. 

What the world needs at the present time is a broader and more tolerant interpretation of religion that would include the whole of humanity, not divide people into various religious sects and groups. Religion is a very powerful force both for good or evil. If used correctly, it can be the source of unity and bringing various nations together, but if it is misused and misinterpreted it can be turned into a source of disunity, and even hostility and wars.

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