A Conversation with Mohammad Jafar Mahallati

April 2, 2019
Communications Staff
a professor sitting in a chair
Mohammad Jafar Mahallati is the Presidential Scholar in Islamic Studies and the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North Africa Studies. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati is Presidential Scholar in Islamic Studies in the religion department and Chair of Middle East and North Africa Studies. He founded the Oberlin Friendship Festival, designed to celebrate and build community among people of all religious and cultural identities. 

He founded the Oberlin Friendship Festival, which will be held this year on April 8. His latest volume is Friendship in Islamic Ethics and World Politics by the University of Michigan Press (2019).

You have an extensive background in peacebuilding experience through your work at the United Nations. Could you expand on that a bit?

The Iran-Iraq War was a full-fledged fratricide with no real victor and no measurable gain for either side, especially Iraq—which began the war—presenting a very complex case for just-war theories. As an Iranian diplomat, I worked with the Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations, under Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, to spend its conflict-resolution expertise on bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the goal of limiting the scope of the Iran-Iraq War and searching for avenues of peace between the two neighboring nations.

All wars, and specifically ideological ones, suppress the potential for intrastate and interstate friendship as a dominant mode of life, an opportunity cost for which war strategists rarely account. Obsession with “punitive justice” is blinding. For many, myself included, the existential question during the Iran-Iraq War was that, even if just wars could implement punitive justice, is justice the highest moral standard by which to make decisions about war and peace and to determine how to live life and conduct human relations?

It cost me many years of my career to learn that the answer to this question is a well-qualified ‘no.’ In spring 2007, the year I joined Oberlin College, I found myself in search of a higher aspect of ethics—something that could give me a scholarly break from struggling with the ethics of war and retributive justice. I switched my attention from war and its related ethics to the ethics of friendship and its significance as the highest realm of peacemaking. My works and studies on war and peace is reflected in Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shi’i Islam, published by Toronto University Press in 2016.  

You teach courses in conflict resolution and Islamic and peace studies. How would you define friendship studies as a discipline?

I worked with the United Nations for a decade, taught international relations for another decade, and spent 12 years of teaching and research on Islamic and peace studies at Oberlin. Bringing experiential lessons in multilateral diplomacy, together with scholarships in international relations and comparative theology, I have developed my own tripartite approach to peacemaking and conflict resolution, including: ethics of war, forgiveness, and friendship.

The first realm, ethics of war, deals with moral arguments that can help bring ceasefire or prevent conflicts. In this realm, we question the legitimacy of wars, their various ramifications and moral limits. In the second realm, ethics of apology and forgiveness, we use moral arguments to encourage international and intra-communal apology and forgiveness to remove collective hatred and resentments that may cause cold war or cold peace. Apology and forgiveness, at their best, can promote a sense of neutrality or what we call indifference. Ethics of friendship arrives at this very point to argue that all human beings should be in positive relations. In short, I argue that indifference, whether collective or individual is not ‘normal.’

As the world is becoming a global village, and as any damage to our environment by a country has immediate ramification for the rest of the world, friendship and friendship studies are shifting status from an option to a necessity. In fact, in January of 2018, the British government appointed a Minister of Loneliness. This means that friendship studies are advancing from the realm of academic interest to policy-making.

These observations prompted me to develop a new religion course, Ethics of Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics and Arts, which I taught for the first time in spring 2018. During the last three decades, we are witness to the flourishing of many excellent academic books emerging in friendship studies. I am pleased that Oberlin is a pioneer in this realm. It’s worth noting that more than a century ago, Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King wrote a book titled The Laws of Friendship.

What are some pathways for students who are interested in this area of study?

Based on two semesters of teaching friendship courses at Oberlin, and in the Middle East in two different languages, I can see that internationally, students are highly encouraged to continue their friendship studies as an interdisciplinary approach in international relations, psychology, sociology, religious studies, philosophy, literature and law studies. Many are also inspired to implement their friendship studies in practical works, NGO activities, organizational managements, conflict resolutions, and art works. In other words, whatever a student’s major, friendship studies and friendship-making can still be an academic or professional focus in their respective areas of interest.      

How and when did you get the idea for a friendship initiative at Oberlin?

My personal background and interest in the Muslim history of friendship studies combined with the intellectually inspiring space of our religion department encouraged me to begin my research in comparative friendship studies.

I began using our Mead-Swing fund to invite guest speakers in friendship studies and organized my first conference in November of 2007. In 2009, my fascination with friendship studies prompted me to think about how we can transform important concepts into institutions. A Friendship Festival was one of the early ideas that came to mind.

The Rev. Gregory McGonigle, then-director of Religious and Spiritual Life, gave full support in organizing the first festival. A few of my students also volunteered to work with us and chartered a student organization, the Oberlin Friendship Circle. Together, we launched the first Oberlin Friendship Festival in April 2010. It has since expanded to the Oberlin Friendship Initiative.

The annual Friendship Festival will take place April 8. Do you know of any other college or university that promotes friendship studies?

To the best of my knowledge, the Oberlin Friendship Festival and our friendship course is internationally unique because of its interdisciplinary nature. But as I talk about these entities in my various visits to other countries, the festival, the course, and the student organization are highly admired.

This year, I am invited for a lecture at Rosemont College, which is launching a Friendship Studies Research and Initiatives Project for the first time. This indicates that friendship studies is gaining academic momentum.

The main reason why friendship studies is becoming so relevant in 2019 is that the past century can be defined by four characteristics: the dominant mode of societal life and international relations in the beginning of this century were individualism and war. By the end of 2018, the two dominant modes are mass-loneliness and unilateralism. Friendship is the antidote of all four modes of unhappy life.             

I hope that the Oberlin Friendship Festival would be our country’s next best cultural export to a world that is fraught with wars, unnecessary conflicts, loneliness, and unfriendly lives considered as ‘normal.’ If you push me to formulate the gist of my learning so far on friendship in one sentence, I will say the following: Both in academic studies and in policy makings related to peace, democracy and religion, these three fields cannot come to their profoundest rigor without friendship studies.

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