Human Rights and the Dissident Grand Ayatullah Hussain Ali Montazeri

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I call you father because I learned from you how to defend the oppressed without using violence against the oppressor. I learned from you that being silent means helping the oppressor… . You are the father of Human Rights in Iran and I and million others are your children and disciples.1

With these words Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Noble Peace Prize winner, mourned the passing of Hussain Ali Montazeri (1922–2009), a Shia grand ayatullah, and a onetime designated successor to Ayatullah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was a leading jurisprudent, a dedicated revolutionary, and one of the most influential architects of the Islamic Republic. Despite this record, Montazeri was dismissed from his position as the designated successor in 1989 due to his criticisms of the state's actions including the treatment of political prisoners. After his dismissal and for the rest of his life, he functioned as a political dissident calling for substantial democratic reform. The evolution of his positions, from supporting the most elitist version of the rule of the Islamic Jurisprudent to accepting the people as the ultimate political sovereign, and from emphasizing human duty to focusing on human rights, were indeed significant, and were the reasons for Ebadi's recognition of him. Ebadi was not alone in paying homage to Montazeri for the latter attention to the plight of the vulnerable. In 2009, shortly before his death, Montazeri received the award for “the man of the year” from the Center of Defenders of Human Rights, a reformist and nongovernmental body.

Yet, in some areas Montazeri's position remained in conflict with certain articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). So, what, we might ask, accounts for all the accolades he received from supporters of the UDHR? What were Montazeri's actual stands on human rights? Is traditional Islamic jurisprudence, to which Montazeri was deeply committed, compatible with the underlying principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights? These questions inform the direction of this article.




Hartford Seminary

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The Muslim World