Former Ambassador Sheds New Light on War Ethics
Last Friday the Religion Department hosted a lecture by Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, former Ambassador of Iran to the United Nations from 1987-1989, titled “Just War in Islam: An Approach to an Ethical Paradox.”
Recruited as a potential candidate for a visiting position in Islamic studies – a position that will be empty when professor Anna Gade leaves at the end of the semester – Mahallati devoted his 30-minute lecture to unpacking the paradox in the phrase “just war in Islam.”
Many of the students who attended the lecture were interested not only in how Mahallati would contribute to the Religion Department but also how he would add to the Middle Eastern and North African studies program that Oberlin is trying to develop. Given his broad range of knowledge on the region, many students conjectured that Mahallati would be an ideal candidate for the MENA department.
Currently a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Harvard University and co-founder and trustee of the Ilex Foundation in Boston, a non-governmental organization that promotes the study of the civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Near East, Mahallati recently received a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Mahallati has also studied political economy, civil engineering and economics, both in the United States and Iran.
“Former Ambassador Mahallati has practical and scholarly knowledge at the intersection of Middle Eastern politics, religion, literature, history and economics,” said David Kamitsuka, Chair of the Religion Department.
Emphasizing the foundation of choice in the moral systems of Islam, Mahallati posed the questions: “How can we conceive that Islam was spread by war? Can we use force to bring choice?”
To examine this question, Mahallati explored a wide range of traditional Islamic sources from the Prophet Mohammad to the Sufi mystic Rumi.
“If we want to study war, we have to go to many different fields of study to understand how society views war,” said Mahallati.
The Prophet Mohammad, for example, set promotion of ethics as his utmost mission and justified the use of force by using war in order to stop war. Harkening to modern-day circumstances, Mahallati explained that a political void in any country is disastrous, citing the power vacuum in Afghanistan as an example.
“Should neighboring Islamic forces fill this void?” asked Mahallati. In response, he explained, “It’s like the laws of physics—water flows from high to low.”
Mahallati continued by discussing the Latin roots of war, stating that “one has to be cognizant of all these elements.” He explained that war involves not only who, what, why and how, but also what happens afterward.
“You have to study all of these different angles if you study war,” said Mahallati.
Mahallati also explored the notion of jihad, a topic that has become increasingly present in the American media. Often perceived as a struggle against external bodies, Mahallati discussed Sufi poet Rumi’s alternative interpretation of jihad, which suggests that it is an “internal struggle against the soul.”
“[According to Rumi] the most dangerous enemy is within,” explained Mahallati.
In closing, Mahallati drew from a Persian aphorism: “Your reaction in time of conflict is the most important test of your moral system. That’s when it counts.”