What happened in Najaf?                                

	Abdulaziz Sachedina 

The following report is being provided to all concerned
who, having known me for such a long time, have a right
to know what transpired in the presence of the Ayatollah Sistani,
the marja`, of the majority of the Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri 
communities around the world. I went with full confidence in the
integrity of the religious institution of the marja`iyya, and with the
hope of seeing that justice will be done in keeping with Islam's 
absolute commitment to that moral principle.  What took place
in the total time of three hours and ten minutes meeting in two
days in the city of Imam `Ali (a.s.) is now for the readers to
peruse and ponder.  

We arrived in Najaf on Tuesday, August 18, 1998.  On 
Wednesday August 19, 1998, Seyyid Muhammad Rizvi
made an appointment to meet with Ayatollah Sistani for
9:00 a.m. on Thursday August 20, 1998, while also 
delivering a blue binder containing selections from my 
lectures, books, and articles which were perceived by 
him and his colleagues as doctrinally "questionable" in
their content. Due to the tense political situation in Iraq, 
the Ayatollah does not frequently meet with guests and
thus a special meeting had to be arranged. Oddly enough, 
he was expecting us. As predicted by all parties involved, 
the Ayatollah had not received the package containing the 
binder and the letter from Toronto. Nonetheless, soon after 
Seyyid Rizvi delivered his package of letters and the binder, 
I personally delivered three letters related to my stance in 
matters of the faith and the community in North America.  
However, Seyyid Rizvi did not have a copy of the letter that 
was written by Nazir Gulamhussein, the president of the 
Toronto Jamaat, asking the Ayatollah to intervene in the 
dispute regarding my lecturing in the community.  Apparently,
as alluded Seyyid Rizvi, the latter had been asked by the
Ayatollah's son to compose a letter to which the Ayatollah 
would respond.  I offered to give him my copy of the
president's letter to make things easier for him.          

On Thursday, August 20, 1998, at 8:50 a.m. Seyyid Rizvi, 
Alireza, my son, and I left the Hotel Yamama and were 
driven to Bab al-Qibla of the Haram of Imam Ali (a.s.). 
Walking up an alleyway, Seyyid Rizvi stopped at a door
marked with the number "18" and rang the bell. We
were ushered into a room, where we took seats on
cushions on the ground. This was the room in which 
the Ayatollah met his guests.  Soon after our arrival,
around 9:02 a.m., the Ayatollah walked down the 
stairs and made the appropriate greetings and took
his place in the front.  His son, Muhammadreza 
followed him, standing near the door.  Alireza opened 
his journal and started taking notes about the meeting. 
The Ayatollah opened his remarks by stating that he was 
not in a position to comment on the contents of the
binder.  Such matters were not within the jurisdiction 
of his authority as the marja`.  However, he asked me if
I had seen the package and whether I agreed that the 
contents were, as asserted, written or spoken by me. I 
informed him that I had glanced through it and they were
from me.  I further added that the materials compiled and 
presented to him were subject to different interpretation 
and needed to be examined in their proper context of the
entire subject covered in the articles and lectures.
This was especially true of the selections of the lectures
given by me at various times, including those of the 1998
Muharram lectures from Brampton. 
The Ayatollah then engaged in a long forty-minute 
monologue in which he exclusively addressed me,
telling me that he did not doubt my faith and was not 
even in a position to "try" me in the matter in which he
had no jurisdiction.  Moreover, the Ayatollah asserted
that he respected my position as a scholar but there were
issues in the package that were of concern to him.  The
book (on Islamic messianism), he said, was written under
the influence of Western orientalist treatment of Islam,
and was not based on the Qur'an and the Sunna.  And 
although the Orientalists had done a great service to
Islamic scholarship their conclusions were not in accord 
with our accepted doctrines in religion.  

For the Ayatollah Sistani, the more important was the issue
of "religious pluralism" and my treatment of all Abrahamic
religions (Judaism,Christianity and Islam) as equal in the
matter of truth. Such an interpretation, contended the
Ayatollah, would encourage Muslim youths to convert
to Christianity or Judaism because I regarded these
other so- called "Abrahamic" religions as valid.  In
addition, my interpretation of the word islam (in my
1998 Muharram lecture) as not being the name of religion
and just the name of an act of `submission' was not 
supported by grammatical rules about indefinite and 
definite noun in Arabic.  

Throughout the monologue, I was astonished to note
that no mention was made by the Ayatollah about my
comments on Ghadir or wilayat of Imam Ali (a.s.), for
which Seyyid Rizvi painstakingly provided detailed and
translated transcript of the internet debates and the final
resolution articulated in the 1998 Muharram lectures.  
It is important to bear in mind that it was the issue of 
wilayat, as a consequence of my article on ISLAM in
the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, which was the main 
reason behind launching of this enquiry with the 
Ayatollah.  It was noticeable that the Ayatollah had 
examined the binder prepared and had read the letter 
prepared by me explaining the academic study of religion.          

The Ayatollah then took up the subject of my disagreement 
with the Ayatollah Khui's position on slavery that I
articulated in the 1998 Muharram lectures.  Seyyid Rizvi
transcribed and translated a small section from that lecture
as an example of my disrespect for the late marja`.  The
Ayatollah said that even he disagreed with his own teacher,
Ayatollah Khui, on certain matters related to the juridical 
principles.  However, Ayatollah Sistani contended that he
had abstained from mentioning these disagreements in public,
as required by the social conventions prevalent among 
seminarians.  Later on, when I was afforded an opportunity 
to speak, I denied any intended insult to the late Ayatollah 
Khui.  The tone of my lecture and even hesitation in 
mentioning the disagreement, which naturally could 
not be transcribed on paper, I argued, reveals clearly 
my intention of mentioning the point about slavery 
in the context of the tensions that we as Muslims face 
today in explaining some past institutions to our youth.         

In the light of my alleged questionable interpretations 
of established Shi`ite doctrinal positions, the Ayatollah 
went on to suggest that I should commit myself and abstain 
from lecturing and writing on Islamic matters.  In this 
suggestion, the Ayatollah clarified, being his muqallid 
had no relevance.  The fact that I was in his taqlid is an
evidence of my practice; but I was not obliged to follow
him in the matter of my faith.  Therefore, because he has
no jurisdiction over such matters, it was a matter of my
personal faith that I should abstain from lecturing 
writing on Islamic matters.         

After some forty-five minutes, I interrupted the Ayatollah 
to explain a statement made by me at a 1988 lecture on 
the occasion of the birthday celebrations of the Twelfth
Imam (a.s.) in Toronto.  A transcript of this statement
was part of the binder.  The statement in question concerned 
the ability of a single woman to provide an authentic 
shahada on a matter,  which is seemingly in contradiction
to the Qur'anic statement requiring the testimony of two 
women for every one man in matters of contractual debts.
I attempted to explain the context of the statement made
at the lecture in lieu of the Sharia.  Specifically, I noted 
that a single woman's testimony would be equally valid if 
not more valid than a man's where she is the "expert witness 
in that domain," such as in the case in the case of pregnancy.
I also pointed out that in the West Islam is criticized as denying 
woman an equal dignity and the example concerning the laws of 
testimony is typically cited as evidence of such inequality.  Thus,
I further contended, in the context of that lecture, I was 
engaged in establishing the unusual position of one woman,
Hakima,  the daughter of Imam Muhammad Taqi (a.s.), as
an eye-witness reporter who had actually witnessed the
birth of the Twelfth Imam (a.s.).  The Ayatollah promptly 
interrupted and dismissed the explanation, questioning how 
I could not simply accept what the Qur'an had said in this matter. 
I pointed out that there were other views open to interpretation.
Again, the Ayatollah explained that he did not want to engage
in the specifics of the points raised in the binder, since there
was no time for that.  Again and again, the Ayatollah noted 
that he had tremendous "ihtiram" or respect for "janab-ali"
(the respected sir).  There was no questioning of my faith, 
only the statements of interpretation made by me.  
The Ayatollah, focusing on the potential of confusion caused
by what he felt was a wrong interpretation, wanted me to 
unilaterally abstain from lecture.  (I got the impression that 
Ayatollah Sistani did not want his name on any statement 
banning me from lecturing.)  The Ayatollah simply wanted 
me to write something to the effect of voluntarily abstaining 
from lecturing and writing on Islamic matters.         

There seemed very little reason to continue the debate when
there was no systematic defence of issues permitted.  In 
any case, I raised the question about the effectiveness of my 
written statement in solving the problem of disunity in the 
community.  I made it clear to the Ayatollah that without his
written opinion the community would not agree to anything.
At that point I asked Seyyid Rizvi to say something.  Seyyid 
Rizvi told the Ayatollah that the community needs him to write
something or at least respond to Nazir Gulamhussein's letter, a
copy of which I had provided.          

At that point Seyyid Rizvi produced Nazir Gulamhussein's letter. 
The letter was first handed to Seyyid Muhammadreza, who 
glanced at it, and handed it to his father.  The Ayatollah read
the letter.  He again asserted his desire not to get involved in
this matter.  He further reiterated that I should write the letter.
Some time ago, explained the Ayatollah, there was a request 
from Iran to evaluate another scholar's work (I assume he meant 
Dr.  Soroush).  He had received almost two thousand pages of
that scholar's writings, and he had refused to give his opinion.
(Then what was the basis of judging a binder of a selected and 
translated few pages of my written or spoken ideas, mostly 
negative and out of general context, that stretched from 1981-1998?
The Ayatollah's judgement, even in the form of "recommendation"
could not be merely based on my "incorrect" interpretations.  
There had to be more to this than what appeared on the surface.)          

The next point that I raised was about the matter of intellectual 
development in any scholar who begins a career and matures in
the process.  I cited the example of Shaykh Tusi who held 
certain opinions in his earlier work and then corrected or revised 
them in his later works. I had also gone through that myself, I said,
and I had undertaken to translate Ayatollah Amini's book on the
Twelfth Imam as part of my mature statement about my personal faith. 
I showed him the book.  The Ayatollah dismissed the point by
saying that Ayatollah Amini's book was not an important work 
and that the whole matter of my translating it was politically 
motivated, including the letter that was written by Ayatollah 
Safi Golpaygani following its publication, retracting his earlier
comments regarding my faith and credibility in speaking for
the school of Ahlul-Bayt.  According to the Ayatollah, the letter 
by Ayatollah Safi in my support was written under the pressure
exerted on him by Ayatollah Amini.  In other words, what they
had said or written in my favor had no religious value because 
their motives were "political" to begin with.  At that point
Seyyid Rizvi interrupted and pointed out that I had in that
translation of Ayatollah Amini's book asserted the validity 
of my earlier academic work.  As such, my claim to my 
maturity in scholarship was unfounded.  To this charge
I responded that I had simply compared and collated the 
conclusion of the two works and not the entire research.            

The Ayatollah then ordered his son, Seyyid Rizvi and 
myself to write out a written statement to resolve the
matter.  So we began to draft a letter that would satisfy me
and the Ayatollah. I would sign that letter and he would
endorse by putting his signature on it.  Upto this point, I
cooperated fully in coming up with a reasonable 
statement which would resolve the stalemate.  Fortunately,
I kept all the drafts of the letter that were written at that time.          

In my first attempt I drafted my commitment to abstain from
lecturing among the Khoja Shia community of Europe and
North America.  The Ayatollah insisted that my commitment
not to lecture had to be general.  Moreover, it had to include
abstention from writing and expressing opinions about Islam.
I protested that I teach, and I lead prayers and deliver Friday
sermons to the Sunni community in Charlottesville and other 
places.  He said that I could lead the prayers; but I could not
express any opinions in matters dealing with Islam, its religion
and its teachings. I pointed out that the request to bar me
from speaking was from the Khoja community.  What had 
that to do with the Sunni community?  The Ayatollah said 
that he spoke for the entire Muslim community and not
just for the Shia.  In order to resolve the impasse I was 
willing to compromise but the Ayatollah's demands were
unreasonable, to say the least.  What, for example, was I
supposed to do in the university which requires me to 
express my views on issues relating to my subject of teaching,
namely, Islam?  He said that I could teach as usual, but not
express any opinions!  How can I do my teaching without 
expressing my opinions?  In response, the Ayatollah and his
son dictated to me the following version:         

In view of the negotiations that took place in the presence 
of the Ayatollah Sistani, I commit myself that as from today 
I will abstain from lecturing, expressing opinions on issues 
related to Islamic faith.  Of course, I will continue to teach in 
the university.          

The above draft was ambiguous.  How can I abstain myself from 
lecturing and expressing my opinions on issues relating to 
Islamic faith and continue, in good conscience, to teach in
the university?  Moreover, there was still the question of 
my writing articles and reviews, etc.  I once again raised 
the matter that in the university I was supposed to write 
articles and review books as part of my academic obligations; 
whereas writing the above letter would be a false statement 
on my part because I would not be able to fulfill its terms.  
The Ayatollah insisted that I would have to stop doing ALL that. 
The matter got complicated and after two hours we could not 
come up with a draft of the letter which would satisfy both our
concerns.  Even the Ayatollah's son, Seyyid Muhammadreza, 
made a personal effort at drafting the letter.  But to no avail. 
Finally, by virtue of a collaboration between the Ayatollah 
and his son, they presented the following draft for my consideration:          

In view of the negotiations with Ayatollah Sistani that took
place, I have committed myself that as of today I will not 
lecture and will abstain from expressing opinions on matters
related to Islamic faith, religion, and jurisprudence.          

However, even this revised version was not responding to 
my objections.  I could not see myself clear in living by the
terms and conditions of this latest draft. I was certain that 
I would not be in a position to carry out its terms and I 
would end up making a false commitment which would 
be impossible for me to live by.  It appeared to me that 
the Ayatollah had already made up his mind about his
decision on the matter.  The only question that remained 
unresolved, in my opinion, was the course of action.  
Having had met a number of leading mujtahids in my 
long term interaction with the ulama, I could see most
explicitly the Ayatollah's disability to remain neutral in
the matter or adopt more prudent approach until more
substantial evidence was available to him to resolve the
impasse.  From all that he had so far discussed there was 
absolutely no ground, whether in Islamic law or ethics, to
silence me.   Indeed, Islam is not Catholicism where there
is no room for another interpretation or dissension in the 
authoritative system of the "church."          

The session was brought to an end abruptly because the 
Ayatollah was feeling tired and I was asked to make yet 
another attempt at drafting the letter in consultation with
Seyyid Rizvi and present it the following day.  We left 
the residence of the Ayatollah at almost precisely 11:00a.m.
after having spent in all two hours.         

In the afternoon I started thinking about the letter which
was being demanded from me. I had already sensed that
something was fundamentally wrong with that demand 
because it involved giving up my freedom of conscience
and expression that were not, as far as my inalienable 
human rights were concerned, for negotiations at any cost.
The entire exercise was designed to deny me the freedom 
of conscience and to coerce me to surrender my right to
speak with the youth of my community, including my own
children, through my own act.  I understood the full 
implications of the plot for the first time in those terms. 
I checked with my son, Alireza, to see if I was right.  
We realized that there was no religious or ethical ground
for me to even consider writing the letter.  I firmly 
resolved that I would not write the letter and instead 
I would ask Seyyid Rizvi to demand from the Ayatollah 
a response to the letter from the president of the
Toronto Jamaat.         

Later in the afternoon, at around 5:30 p.m., on our 
way to Karbala, I told Seyyid Rizvi about my dilemma
in consenting to write the letter.   Instead, I told him
that he should actively seek response to the letter
from Toronto.  At that point it was obvious to me
that the Ayatollah had been thoroughly poisoned to
cut my influence in the community by denying me the
platform in the name of service to God.          

On Friday, August 21, 1998, at 9:00 a.m. we returned
to the same residence and soon after our arrival were
met by Ayatollah Sistani.  After the exchange of pleasantries, 
the Ayatollah asked me if I had written the letter.  At this
point, Seyyid Rizvi explained to him my academic dilemma
and went on to ask me to present my case.  After his brief 
statement, I explained that I had done much soul searching 
and my conscience reminded me that writing such a letter 
would lead to a decision not to talk to my own son, that is
the youth of this community.  The Ayatollah's son
immediately angrily attacked me saying that I had turned 
back from my commitment that I had made the previous day. 
I protested in no uncertain terms that he was accusing 
me of something that I had not done.  I explained once a
gain to the Ayatollah that if I were to give such a commitment
to silence myself I could not function in the university and 
more importantly, I would be making a commitment that 
would be false.  The Ayatollah said that it was not my son 
whom I loved; rather, it was my "opinions about coexistence
and pluralism, ideas that people loved"  to hear from me, that 
I loved.  With much forbearance, I once again explained my
academic responsibilities.  For instance, I informed the 
Ayatollah that I was among the seven American professors
who were invited by the Iran to participate in a workshop
in Tehran (at the Institute for Political and International 
Studies) and Qumm (Imam Khomeini Institute) on "Civil 
Society and Civilizational Dialogue," in the next two weeks,
and that I strongly felt the responsibility of participating
and contributing in that conference.  He interrupted me 
saying that I could speak on civilization because that "is
not Islam."  "Civilization and Islam are two different 
things," he said.  Therefore, I could speak about civilization
which was, according to the Ayatollah, my area of 
specialization.  I explained that the subject of civil society
deals with coexistence with other religions and communities
who do not share with us our religion.  I looked at Seyyid 
Rizvi and asked him to explain the Ayatollah the meaning of 
"civil society."  Seyyid Rizvi kept quiet.  At that point the 
Ayatollah criticized Iran and president Khatami's liberal
views and added: "You love this idea of coexistence 
and pluralism.  What is this nonsense about Abrahamic religions?"         

We were all listening in silence and shock as he kept on 
attacking all kinds of issues, and even falsely attributing
to me some ideas for which I produced immediate
documentation.  For instance, he accused me that I
had contradicted myself when I said the Prophet 
was not "religious" (?) or that he was political.  
This was contrary to the statement in my lecture that 
was transcribed by Seyyid Rizvi.  He also asserted that
no Sunni believed in such things.  I immediately
produced the two pages of the book authored by a
prominent Sunni Egytian Azhari scholar, Dr. Muhammad 
Salim al-`Awwa, about the difficulty of maintaining the 
political role of the Prophet when the Qur'an insisted that
he was rasulallah.  It was not only the Sunnis, I explained,
who had maintained the religious role of the Prophet as a
primary one; it was also maintained by the Shia.  I produced 
an Urdu book by one of the most profound scholars of Shia
Islam in this century, Sayyid Ali Naqi Naqavi, and gave it
to Seyyid Rizvi to read.  In this book Sayyid Naqavi had
explained the dual aspect of the prophetic role and the 
religious role being the essential pillar of the prophethood, 
as Imam Ali had understood and explained in Nahj al- Balagha.         

The Ayatollah was getting irritated with my producing of 
documents to defend my stance in matters on which he was 
questioning my understanding.  Indeed he was angry with me
for making his task a very difficult one indeed.  The 
conversation dragged on for a while.  At one point, his son
intervened drawing the attention of the Ayatollah about 
the prevailing impasse - that my responsibilities in the 
university did not allow me to make the commitment 
required by him because I had to write, and comment 
on my students' and colleagues' work.  Then the Ayatollah 
asked me how much was I making at the university.  For 
a moment I felt embarrassed to speak about such personal 
matters.  However, I conveyed that information through 
Seyyid Rizvi.  The Ayatollah proposed that I should resign
from the university and he would guarantee half of that 
salary every year.  I was astounded by the proposal.  It was
obvious to me that I was a considerable threat to the religious
establishment of the Ayatollah to offer me such a generous
pension.  I could never contemplate to live on khums for the
rest of my life. When I shook my head in disagreement to his
proposal he faulted me of being in "love with this world" and
not having control over my nafs.  But I had made up my mind
not to give in to anything that would compromise my fundamental
freedom of conscience.  The Ayatollah was determined to silence 
me anyway.  He made indirect reference to all other sources that 
had given him information about my stance and influence in the 
community at large and in the academic world.  Finally, he
"assured" me, at least twice, that if I hear the negative
response from him I should not construe it as stemming 
from animosity towards me.  "I am your brother," he repeated 
several times.  "I shall fulfill my obligation as required by the
Shari`a," he said.         

It was around 10:15 a.m. and Alireza and I left the Ayatollah
bidding him farewell.  The Ayatollah said to Alireza that he 
thought Alireza would take his side in the issue.  Alireza just
shook his head in negative.   Seyyid Rizvi was initially asked 
to return at 11 a.m. whence a written statement would be
prepared. However, as we were leaving, Seyyid Muhammadreza 
took Seyyid Rizvi aside and the two of us let go.          

When he came to the hotel and as we were preparing to depart
for Karbala I asked him about the response.  He said he
had obtained it.  According to Seyyid Rizvi, the Ayatollah
had emphatically asked him not to publicize or circulate the
note.  Moreover, as Seyyid Rizvi informed me, in accordance 
with the Ayatollah's instructions, he was to instruct the 
president of Toronto jamaat to announce the content of 
the letter once in front of the community and then hide it
away.  This instruction from the Ayatollah,  Seyyid Rizvi 
informed me, was to preserve my dignity and respect! 
However, I pointed out to Seyyid Rizvi that it was my
right to see the response for, after all, I had come with
that purpose to see the Ayatollah.  He told me that he 
would show it to me in Karbala and he did.          

The rest is the story that Seyyid Rizvi will have to tell
after consulting his own conscience and the role he
and his colleagues played in the ultimate outcome of 
this meeting. In short, this issue which was of a theological
nature, never got discussed or challenged on its alleged merit.
The Ayatollah, who kept on insisting that he did not want 
to get involved in this matter was motivated by reasons 
beyond theology and "recommended" to Nazir Gulamhussein 
that I should not be invited to speak in the community of 
the faithful and should not be consulted in matters of belief
because of my "incorrect" opinions about Islam.  Whether I 
hold "incorrect" opinions about Islam or about mostly 
irrelevant religious establishment is a matter in which only
God has the knowledge and jurisdiction to pass His judgement, 
for on the level of human performance, however fallibly, I have 
served my fellow believers in all sincerity and devotion.        

It is worth remembering that the judgment of human beings 
and the judgment of God are two different things, and while 
we are all too aware of the first, the second is almost always
unknown to us.  Every decision of God's has no precedent but 
His will.  The future is in the hands of God, who alone controls
its unfolding.  ====================================================================  

Copy Sent by G. Dhala, Los Abgeles