In 1991 or ’92 I attended a talk by a Muslim academic at the University of Edinburgh on a topic related to Islam, the specifics of which escape me. Relevant is that the talk took place in Ramadan. He started by explaining to his audience, with more than a little pride of distinction, that he had sought and received special dispensation from a local cleric to be exempted from fasting that day on account of the talk he’d have to give that evening. I remember being struck by the idea of an academic at one of the most esteemed universities in 20th century Britain having to beg some mediaeval ignoramus for permission to eat. I wondered whether the one possessed of such power over the one possessed of such learning could even read.
I was reminded of this proudly-declared indignity again recently, when I came across What happened in Najaf? an account of Abdulaziz Sachedina’s inadvertent submission to an inquisition by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. On 20 August 1998, with staggering naivety, Sachedina sought out the Ayatollah to clear up a small misunderstanding concerning the former’s lectures at the University of Toronto. If Sachedina were familiar with Galileo’s little run-in with the Pope, he might have thought better of going to any such trouble at all. Galileo, at least, did not kowtow to the Holy See. In a series of deepening humiliations over the course of a “total time of three hours and ten minutes” stretched out over two days, during which Sachedina tried to explain his job as an academic to the Ayatollah and the latter tried, with increasing irritation and rudeness, to prohibit Sachedina from ever saying anything about Islam again. Sachedina, growing increasingly exasperated, recalls:
I informed the Ayatollah that I was among the seven American professors who were invited …to participate in a workshop in Tehran …on Civil Society and Civilizational Dialogue… He [Ayatollah Sistani] interrupted me saying that I could speak on civilization because that “is not Islam.” “Civilization and Islam are two different things,”