Interview with Arzoo Osanloo about "The Measure of Mercy"

The Measure of Mercy: Islamic Justice, Sovereign Power, and Human Rights in Iran.” Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 4 (2006): 570–602.

Kathryn Zyskowski: How might an understanding of compassion as central to Islamic law change current understandings of justice and Islam?

Arzoo Osanloo: This is exactly the question I am working on in my project on forgiveness. Justice is a crucial theme in Islamic texts and values, and in many interpretations of the sacred sources, Islam mandates forbearance. This compulsion to forgive is rooted in a number of Qur’anic verses and can be found in the Prophet’s calls for, and acts of, compassion—especially in prescribing punishment in the sunnah (traditions).

As observers, we often only explore and write about the retributive side of justice in Islam; whether this is in Islamic texts or the ways in which ruling elites in Muslim-majority societies have interpreted and codified the principles derived from texts into law. But retributive punishment is just one part of the story. An understanding of justice more deeply rooted in Islamic principles derived from the most reliable sources, however, would incorporate mercy, which includes forbearance, compassion, and, ultimately, perhaps forgiveness. That is to say, the study of justice in Islam requires a deeper engagement with concepts like compassion than is currently the case. 

Moreover, given my current research, which includes participant-observation in Tehran’s criminal courts since 2007, I think there are major components of Islamic justice systems that are either understudied or poorly understood by scholars. For instance, just as there are plea bargains made in U.S. sanctioning contexts, the retributive legal system in Iran and other in Muslim-majority societies also lend themselves to such bargaining practices, and they include a consideration of the rights of victims, who are the plaintiffs in many cases. In addition, since judges play a different role in most Muslim-majority settings, as jurists as well as judges, they may also have a role in encouraging forgiveness. Thus we need to better understand their discretionary ruling capacities and what they think about the meaning of justice through the sacred traditions of Islam. So an exploration of compassion as a foundational component of justice in Islam would offer a more coherent and comprehensive understanding of Islam.

In addition, a study of Islamic law that considers compassion as a central tenet will offer greater awareness of the range of interpretations of Islamic principles of justice within the jurisprudential communities and among ordinary people. Importantly, it would necessarily reference the diversity of debates about how best to carry out justice in such societies, something that is missing in debates, especially with regard to criminal justice. 

Such a study would also trace how Islamic principles are codified into law and how they vary both within societies and throughout. It is important to keep in mind that Muslim-majority states have diverse relationships to Islamic principles. How state agents interpret and then incorporate Islamic principles into their national laws varies, and as a result, such principles have different effects on the ground; they condition the field of possibilities differently. Thus, to understand something about Islamic justice in practice, a researcher must also understand the relationship between the guiding principles in Islamic texts and their relationship to the codified laws of that state.

KZ: In this article, you look at how the official response to public outrage over a man being sentenced to death is an example of the government’s ability to “authenticate a local rationalized discourse on rights” (571). How might this analysis shift understandings of the agency of people in authoritarian governments (or specifically, recent authoritarian/religious governments)?

AO: This is an important question especially in Iran, a theocratic state, which in recent years seemed to be moving toward a more militant authoritarianism. In this context, there was a sense among some observers that the people have no safe place from which to protest the system of government. In cases where the people have successfully expressed their opposition, however, it was often within the system. Thus it shows that even in contexts where they might register dissent, the people are required to first legitimize the Islamic republic. This issue of legitimizing the system was widely debated in the recent presidential elections of June 2013. Because some people were determined to register their dissatisfaction by not voting, the election of a seeming moderate, with over fifty percent of the vote, was unexpected. For some of the opponents of the system, even voting for the most moderate candidate constituted an unacceptable expression of consent to be governed by this system, which many dissenters find, at its very foundation, is illegitimate. But a vote cast in favor of a moderate could mean something other than a blanket approval of the system, and only a more nuanced analysis of the relations between state and society could reveal what that is, or what the hopes and expectations of different groups are when casting their ballots for the underdog candidate.

In my research on the politics of rights in Iran (2009), I found that the government, despite statements to the contrary, legitimized a discourse of rights that then gave the people a base from which to mount protests against the state itself. When the state needed to clamp down on protesters, as it did in July 1999 or June 2009, it could only do so through its power of exception—the use of violence, which only further revealed the state’s weakness in the face of the people’s legitimate protests. The recent elections show us that the current leadership, while attempting to maintain control despite challenges from both within and without its power centers, is nonetheless attentive to claims of rights violations. Although until now its responses have been unsatisfactory, it is significant that the state responds to challenges based on discourses of rights because after the 1979 revolution, its leaders claimed that this “rights-talk” was the ill-begotten product of Western imperialism that sought to individuate and thus divide and dominate the population, and had to be eliminated. It suggests, therefore, that the leaders who are attempting to move the Islamic republic to an Islamic theocracy have not achieved their aim entirely. The elements of republican government are neither completely lost nor necessarily in contravention with Islamic principles of justice. It remains to be seen, however, whether the leadership can be persuaded to countenance a more republican form of government or will continue to move in the direction of authoritarianism.

Protests, including the one registered by the recent elections, are significant precisely because they are coming from a generation of Iranians who were raised within the revolutionary discourses of the Islamic republic and thus their claims for rights, human rights, women’s rights, and so on, are significant because they are not the products of Western imperialism, but rather are born from the possibilities created by the system itself. Their claims are legitimate expressions coming from within the field of possibilities of the Islamic republic.

KZ: How does this example offer new understandings of the interplay between religiously important times (rituals, festivals, etc.) and politics?

AO: What this example offers is some insight into the politics around certain religious practices. In the context of Iran, in particular, it suggests some of the tensions that emerge when top state officials claim that their authority comes from both popular mandate and divine ordination. It reveals something about how the relationship between religion and the nation-state plays out politically, in other words, the relationship between the state, Islam, and rights. In other Muslim-majority societies, the relationship between Islam and governance is different, a study of key religious practices could offer some insight into what that relationship is, and can tell us something about how such rites contain political elements for a modern state’s politics. Islam is a faith, but for some, especially those for whom it contains a message about state and society relations, it is also a political practice, and in Shi’i communities such as Iran, it is so expressed in its rituals. Much interesting work has been done on Shi’i rituals and festivals, such as the ta’zieh (condolence theater), which recounts Shi’is’ epic resistance against evil and injustice. Increasingly, however, we are questioning how some practices become rituals, that is, how a ritual is constituted by interested parties as an indigenous or so-called traditional practice.

KZ: How does an investigation of local iterations of religion help us to understand the form or meaning of a global religion?

AO: A study of local practices of religion will reveal unity of themes, perhaps, but also the diversity of forms and practices that highlight local tropes that may be pre-Islamic accommodations to Islam. The above-mentioned ta’zieh, for instance, is believed to be derived from a pre-Islamic ritual commemorating the unjust death of a mythical hero, Siavash, recounted in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Such studies can highlight commonalities and also expose key components of difference. I think for me a key element in understanding local iterations is to trace the politics of the religious practice and the political work that the religious practice does for a group, an ethnicity, a state, or regional and transnational collectives. Studying local expressions of a practice can also bring into relief the transnational collectivities, especially non-citizen actors, who participate in state-sponsored or local religious activities. Here I am thinking of Iran’s annual state-sponsored international Qur’an memorization contests.

KZ: What direction do you see anthropology of Islam moving towards, and what analytic tools do you think may be useful for this shift?

AO: This is a very exciting field right now. There is so much interesting and refined work in the anthropology of Islam that has moved us beyond binary questions, of whether Islam and modernity are compatible, to understanding Islam as what John Bowen (2012, 76) calls, “a set of propositions.” We are moving toward widening the breadth of Islam, as we consider how Islam is both text and an accumulation of practices. We explore how the texts of Islam contribute to local practices, but also how local contexts give shape and meaning to the texts. In many cases, we are also seeing how different Muslim communities influence one another’s practices and politics. 

The anthropology of Islam has been moving in the direction of studying the important work of bodily practices, in piety and worship, for instance. We are also seeing important work in the study of Islamic education, or how Muslims study and learn about their sacred texts. In addition, anthropologists of Islam have interpreted the rituals of animal sacrifice in contemporary terms, such Anne-Marie Brisebarre’s (1998) work on how Muslims in urban France prepare halal meat for festivals as well as everyday consumption.

An important component of the anthropology of Islam is the exploration of legal settings in which Islamic practices are shaped, and in which legal practices are also shaped. Legal contexts are also important components of the anthropology of Islam as so much of the prescriptions that guide Muslims’ daily lives can be and have been codified as positive law, and are debated in legal and jurisprudential contexts. Thus, what Hussein Agrama (2010) calls anthropology’s “ethical turn,” can be related directly to anthropological studies of Islam as well.

Finally, the anthropology of Islam is not geographically bounded. Important contributions to the anthropology of Islam explore its transnational and mobile forms, whether this be through mobilizing resistance (political Islam mediated through technology), migrations of people (Muslim refugees, migrant workers, or immigrants), or transfers of capital (Islamic charity, philanthropy, or even remittances).

KZ: What direction is your own research moving towards?

AO: Somewhat in the same vein as above, I am interested in the relationship between principles in Islam, which themselves are not finite and singular, and practice. Thus, I am broadly interested in how Islam is operationalized in local contexts. I explore the contexts in which Islamic practices emerge, that is to say, political, social, legal, and economic, as well as to what needs, concerns, and discourses they are responsive.

Since the focus of my studies are on legal practices, I am mostly concerned with exploring how state authorities make positive law from Islamic texts and then how different agents animate those laws through their diverse practices. Through such analyses, not only can we observe how Islamic law is made, but also how it is contested, reinterpreted, and reproduced by local non-governmental agents, such as NGOs and private citizens.

As I mentioned above, I am examining stories of forgiveness by Iranians, usually in criminal legal contexts, in which both retributive sanctioning and forbearance are rights accorded to the victim’s family. In this work, I analyze the sanctioning practices as emergent formations of Islamic principles whose meanings are constantly being rendered by formal judicial interpreters as well as social mediators from numerous sectors of life, the social, familial, legal, political, and even economic. The state’s codification of the Qur’anic prescription advising forbearance and reconciliation over retribution takes material shape in the face of turmoil, grief, anger, sadness, and remorse of a whole host of actors legally and ethically bound to urge forbearance over retribution.


Agrama, Hussein Ali. 2010. “Ethics, Tradition, Authority: Toward an Anthropology of the Fatwa.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 1: 2–18.

Bowen, John R. 2012. A New Anthropology of Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brisebarre, Anne-Marie. 1998. Fête du Mouton: Une Sacrifice Musulman dans l’Espace Urbain. Paris: CNRS Editions.

Osanloo, Arzoo. 2009. The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.