QOM, Iran — Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei issues many of his fatwas sitting on the floor. Above him, a lone lightbulb dangles from the ceiling and a slow fan struggles to diminish the searing desert heat in this religious center of yellow-brick seminaries and mud-brick homes.
The austere setting seems appropriate for one of the dozen most revered clerics in Shiite Islam, a man who has spent more than half a century in rigorous study of his faith.
Yet Saanei, at 73, has turned out to be a thoroughly modern mullah.
"It's my interpretation from the Koran that all people have equal rights. That means men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims too," he explained with gentle certainty, stroking a wispy white beard that hangs like fringe under his chin. "And in a society where all people have equal rights, that means all people should make decisions equally."
To help enshrine those rights, Saanei has issued a series of stunning religious edicts, or fatwas: He banned discrimination based on gender, race or ethnicity. He declared that women could hold any job, including his own. Although Islam has historically outlawed abortion, he even issued a fatwa allowing it in the first trimester--and not only due to a mother's health or fetal abnormalities.
Two decades after its stunning revolution expanded the modern political spectrum by creating a theocracy, Iran is once again shaking up the Muslim world. Its role, however, has reversed. Once widely feared as the hub of Islamic militancy and the training center for martyrs to the cause, Iran has increasingly become the intellectual breeding ground for the religion's most innovative reforms.
For Islam, which literally means "submission," the change is so profound that Iran is now credited with spearheading a full-fledged Islamic Reformation--an event comparable in many ways to the Christian Reformation of the 16th century, which paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of modern democracy in the West.
Iran's reform movement still has a long way to go and faces enormous obstacles from conservatives willing to engage in sabotage, subterfuge and assassination. In a telling incident, after the grand ayatollah agreed to an interview, his aide called back. "If you get a call canceling this appointment, don't believe it," the aide said. "He wants to talk to you."
Revolutionaries Have Made a U-Turn
Yet the inevitability of reform is reflected in Qom. This holy city, which once provided the mullahs who mobilized millions to rise up against the shah of Iran and end 2,500 years of monarchy, is producing clerics who are challenging and redefining the world's only theocracy. Many who were the most zealous revolutionaries two decades ago are the most ardent reformers today.
In the 1980s, Saanei served on the first Council of Guardians, the conservative 12-member body that is now a leading roadblock to reform. Then he was chief prosecutor. The late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once boasted that he brought up Saanei, his protege, "as a son."
A generation later, however, Saanei has issued a bold fatwa challenging both the powers and the selection of the nation's supreme leader.
Iran's senior cleric, who is chosen by 86 of his peers, has veto power over the elected president and parliament, makes top judicial appointments and serves as commander in chief. His powers are the closest thing in Islam to the Roman Catholic papacy.
But Saanei has ruled that no one is infallible. The supreme leader's right to hold office and his actions "depend on the endorsement by the public as a whole," Saanei declared.
"Humans can always make mistakes. And no one leader or group of people is above the law or 'more equal' than anyone else," he said in an interview. "So power must rest with the people, the majority, not individuals or institutions."
On abortion, he acknowledges that it is generally forbidden.
'Reinterpreting' to Match the Times
"But Islam is also a religion of compassion, and if there are serious problems, God sometimes doesn't require his creatures to practice his law. So under some conditions--such as parents' poverty or overpopulation--then abortion is allowed," said Saanei, who even writes letters of consent for women to take to their doctors.
"This doesn't mean that we're changing God's law," he cautioned. "It just means we're reinterpreting laws according to the development of science--and the realities of the times."
Saanei is unusual among grand ayatollahs, but he's hardly a lone voice among Iran's 180,000 mullahs. Because of the Shiite clergy's special powers, Iran was in fact a logical place to energize a reform movement that has been struggling to take off from Egypt to India for more than a century--just as Tehran was the most logical place for an Islamic revolution.