Maulana Abdolhamid, popularly known as Shaikh al-Islam Maulana Abdolhamid among Iranian Sunnis, is one of the outstanding and most influential figures of the Sunni community in Iran.
The people of Baluchistan in southeastern Iran know him as the Friday imam of the Grand Makki Mosque and the president-rector of Darul Uloom Zahedan, an educational center that leads social, cultural and even media activities. Major decisions, such as those on national and regional elections, are made by the same institution. Dozens of citizens -- Sunnis, Shias and even non-Muslims -- often knock on the doors of Darul Uloom Zahedan to find solutions to their problems.
The Grand Makki Mosque is the biggest Sunni mosque inside Iran, which is architecturally similar to the Sultan Ahmad Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Asst. Prof. Abdol Moghset Bani Kamal from Ankara's Yildirim Beyazit University's International Relations Department interviews the Maulana on behalf of Anadolu Agency, and asks him about Baluchistan and the Iranian Sunni community.
Abdul Moghset Bani Kamal: First of all, could you please tell us about the Iranian Sunnis and their population?
Maulana Abdolhamid: According to the statistics we have, Sunnis in Iran constitute 20 percent of the whole population. Most of the Iranian Sunnis live in frontier areas near borders. They also live in central cities and regions; in a city like Tehran, for example, their population is above one million. They live also in Esfahan and Shiraz. So we can say that there is basically no city where there are no Sunnis. Although their numbers may be smaller in those cities [Esfahan and Shiraz], they may exceed 100 thousand. Sunnis live in every corner of Iran. There is no ethnic group in Iran without Sunni citizens. As far as jurisprudence is concerned, they practice the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools, with a smaller community following the Hanbali school. Most Hanafis live in the eastern part of Iran from south to north. While the Shafi’i Sunnis live mainly in the west and northwest of Iran. The Hanbalis live in Ahwaz and Abadan. Salafis, who live in different parts of the country, are much smaller in number. The majority are Hanafi and Shafi’i Sunnis. The Sunnis of Iran are mostly engaged in business and marketing. They have access to university education. Shias and Sunnis are (living) together, and they are even partners in some businesses. Common people have no difference and they cooperate with each other.
AMBK: How is the situation in Baluchistan politically, socially and economically?
MA: Praise be to Allah, the situation is good in Baluchistan. Baluch people have gone to universities for education. They are active in political and economic issues. Economically, however, people suffer from unemployment. Yet the biggest positive point of Baluchistan is the 1,370-kilometer (851-mile) long border; 370 kilometers (230 miles) of the border is a maritime border. This is the biggest potential for Baluchistan. The condition of the maritime border is not bad, but there are problems with the other border. We are struggling to see to it that these borders are managed with a correct policy. Their capacities should be utilized to the maximum extent possible.
AMBK: What are the biggest problems in the above-mentioned areas and how do the Baluch people cope with them?
MA: Sunnis have problems in employment and official posts. They have been striving to have a share in higher administrative positions, such as minister, vice-minister, ambassador and provincial governor. The Iranian Sunnis also want a balance in provincial offices between Shias and Sunnis. In most of the Sunni-populated districts and provincial capitals, people suffer from discrimination in employment. We, the Sunnis, want this discrimination to be done away with because poverty, illiteracy, and all other problems have roots in these discriminations. Sunnis suffer from these problems.
Another problem is the shortage of religious freedom in metropolises, and particularly where Sunnis are in minority. Sunnis are not allowed to have mosques in metropolises and they make their prayers in their houses.
AMBK: You have been demanding the employment of Sunnis and Baluchis in higher official positions. Why have the demands been refused until now?
MA: The prevailing atmosphere in Iran does not allow these demands to be accepted. The country, whose level of advancement is not enough, suffers from intolerance and bigotry. In addition, there are hardline tendencies among Shias and Sunnis. As the Shia brothers control the power, some elements illegally put pressure (on Sunnis) through invented rulings. Bigotry and extremism in any country hamper the development of that country and nation. Tendencies and bigotries should be mild. Harsh bigotries have been refused by the Almighty Allah, the Messenger of Allah and Islam. Our Beloved Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) placed the Jews under the umbrella of justice. He even believed in the rights of the Arab disbelievers, who inked up agreements with him. Religious extremism, from any side, is not in accordance with the path of Islam. We think the extremists in both sects, Shias and Sunnis, do harm to Islam. It is our wish to see Iran moving toward awareness in this regard; we are not alone and many Shia intellectuals and clerics support our viewpoint to pull back the country towards "sobriety".
AMBK: Dr. Rouhani has been ruling as president for more than four years; has there been any development in Baluchistan?
MA: There have been few changes. Most of the district governors in Baluchistan are Baluchis. Only one of the vice-governors is a Baluch. In Zahedan, the provincial capital, Baluchs occupy only a few percentage of directorates. They have not obtained their due rights here even though it is the center of the province where the decisions for the province are made. Baluchis constitute about 70 percent of the population in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, but their presence in the destiny of their province seems pallid. We hope to see more positive changes in accordance with the population of both sects in the next four years.
You have repeatedly asked for a revision of a number of articles and paragraphs of the constitution. Have you received any response?
MA: We have not received any response yet, but we are optimistic about getting results in future. Many Iranians agree with us in this regard. The constitution, which has been in effect for 38 years, has several weak points. The officials can do revisions. It has, on the other hand, many positive points, too. Revising constitutions is a normal thing in the world. Laws should always be kept in check to diagnose their weaknesses and problems so that they can then be modified. We hope these kinds of revisions will take place in our country, too. Then we can have more rights. Otherwise, we should enjoy (must settle for) our minimum legal rights to see some of our problems resolved. If the authorities comply with our demands, it will be in favor of Iran. We think for the interests of Iran and do not allow anyone to destabilize our peace and trigger sectarian disputes under the pretext of supporting Sunnis. But, all in all, we should get our rights.
AMBK: Are you optimistic about the conditions of Baluchis and Sunnis? How much does this hopefulness conform to the current realities?
MA: Keeping in mind the recent situation of the region and the Muslim world, we hope to witness some changes. We want change. There have been a few changes in Baluchistan and a number of Sunni regions. But still we hope more changes would take place and we can obtain equal rights or at least proportional rights, which would be closer to the reality.
AMBK: You were not invited to the swearing-in ceremony of Rouhani. What would you like to say about it?
MA: Before that ceremony, the Interior Ministry held a celebration on the victory of Dr. Rouhani, where I addressed the audience there. That speech was welcomed warmly and it received huge coverage inside and even outside of the country. This time, the parliament was the host of the swear-in meeting and the pressure groups stepped in to prevent our invitation to the event. The parliament submitted to the pressure and accepted it. The behavior of the parliament brought a widespread propaganda and reactions inside and outside of the country. It also hurt the feelings of the Sunnis who took part in the election with enthusiasm and vivacity. Although the parliament presented some excuses, people did not accept them. There is a custom in our country; whenever the pressure groups interfere, the authorities unfortunately withdraw. Had they resisted, it would have been beneficial for the Islamic Republic of Iran and our national unity and security.
How do you compare the situation of the Sunni community in Iran, especially in Baluchistan, with the condition of the Shia community in Saudi Arabia? Is there anything common between them in such issues as marginalizing, oppression, etc.?
MA: We do not have much information about the Saudi Shias. But we do know there are sect-related questions in employment papers in Saudi Arabia. Mostly they ask about the country and every Saudi citizen can be employed; but in our country, there are questions about one’s sect. We think the Shias in Saudi Arabia enjoy more rights, because they have a grand mosque and can hold their Friday prayers in Riyadh. Sometimes they organize protest rallies. They hold important posts such as (in the) ministry. Shia brothers who mostly live in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia have judges from their own sect. Economically, they have influence. There are, for example, high-ranking Shia officials in the state-run company of Aramco, which is considered the biggest oil company in the world. But Saudi Arabia makes no issue out of this. The only thing that the Sunnis of Iran want is their due rights, but still they face a cold shoulder.
In my journeys to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and other countries, and during my meetings with some officials, including Afghan authorities, I used to recommend them to take care of minorities’ rights, especially those of Shia brothers, because we know what minorities endure.
AMBK: The response of the Iranian leader to your letter has been published recently. With this letter in mind, how do you see the future of the Sunni community?
MA: I have presented two problems in my letter to the leader; the removal of discrimination and ensuring Sunnis’ religious freedom simply because they are Iranians and they love their motherland. During the Iran-Iraq War, they defended their country and were killed. The Supreme Leader responded well, and it reverberated across the country as well as outside. He termed any kind of discrimination among ethnic groups and religious sects as an outlawed practice. The leader’s letter was a big consolation and appeasing. We thanked him, too. Although he did not respond to the second demand, I think by the removal of discriminations and inequalities, the problems about religious freedoms will be resolved automatically.
We are hopeful about the future of Iranian Sunnis. We believe their problems will be resolved through dialogue. We have been pursuing our demands and rights by negotiation and dialogue. We followed up our issues through this channel and we do not believe in violence and conflict. In any condition, we keep presenting our legal demands by peaceful methods. Iran is our country and we do not have any other place; we need these rights and will never give up. Our human, Islamic and national rights should be provided and the slogans of "fraternity" and "equality" should now get to the stage of realization. We want all Muslims around the world to be united and resolve their problems by dialogue and sitting around the table of negotiation. We consider that the only way to get rid of all disputes and contentions in the world is the table of negotiation.
AMBK: Has the order of the leader been welcomed by official bureaus and governmental offices?
MA: We will be seeing in the short term how the offices will receive it. In the past, the leader of the [Iranian] Revolution had a clear order, forbidding insulting and affronting the Mothers of the Believers, particularly Ayesha Seddiqah, may Allah be pleased with them; that order was not welcomed much inside the country. Neither analysts wrote about it nor the parliament made any legislation. We are afraid the same may happen with the historical and clear order of the leader and it would not be welcomed. However, this order is historical and decisive. If the government, the judiciary, the armed forces, the parliament, and all units of the state welcome it warmly and take it seriously by acting on it, it will benefit Iran and all of the Muslim world. It will also have certain impacts in the world by affecting the relations of Muslim states and Muslim masses positively. Additionally, the execution of that order would help national unity and help make peace more durable and long-lasting and remove the anxiety of the Sunnis.
AMBK: How do you see the crises in the Middle East? What’s your assessment about the role of Turkey and Iran in these crises?
MA: There are dangerous problems in the Middle East. The insecurities and conflicts are the fruits of inequality, discrimination, and depriving people of their rights. If the people of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other countries where people of different religions, sects and ethnicities live, come forward for negotiation and agree on all-embracing governments that give everybody their due share in power, the disputes and contentions would be eliminated.
Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia can play an effective role in the Middle East. Through unity and solidarity, these three countries can resolve the problems of the Middle East and eradicate the disputes in the region.