Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Unholy Smokes

Amir Taheri, writing in Gulf News, has an interesting article which shows the difference between the Najafi and Qomi schools of Shi'ite jurisprudence through the issue of smoking. Ayatollah Shirazi, from Qom, argues that smoking is a sin because of the Qur'anin injunction against doing harm to oneself. Ayatollah Sistani, whom regular readers will recognize as the leading authority in Najaf, says smoking isn't actually a sin, but is pretty stupid and people should know better.

Taheri interprets this as the difference between a Qomi view in which people cannot exercise their own moral judgements, and must instead rely on clerics who interpret sacred tradition, and a Najafi view that people can interpret Islam on their own. I think in some ways he's making too much out of the theological distinctions, because while it's true that Sistani invokes modern science directly, it definitely lies behind Shirazi's view that smoking is harmful and thus sinful. The style differences, however, are definitely interesting, as is the idea Taheri attributes to Sistani that if the clergy claim blind obedience, they are introducing an intercessor through which people are only indirectly answerable for their own conduct.

There are political implications to all this, as well. Commentators such as Steve Gilliard during his Daily Kos period often lumped all Shi'ite clerics together, blurring the difference between direct rule by the ulama and elevating the authority of shari'a (Islamic law) interpreted by the ulama. However, these two views are an outgrowth of completely different worldviews of the relationship among religious knowledge, believers, and the ulama. And those differences can lead to very different societies and political systems.


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