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There is a unity to Imam Ali’s teaching and life: Taliaferro

Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, says there is “unity” to the teaching and life of Imam Ali (AS), the first Shia Imam, who was martyred in the month of Ramadan on January 31, 661.

“There is a unity to his teaching and life which is why he is so deeply admired as a champion of fairness,” Taliaferro says in interview with the Tehran Times.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What is the importance of justice for governance?

A: It is difficult to conceive of any sustainable, functioning government without a structure that its people believe to be just or at least they believe its structure is better than the alternatives. A government might, for a time, exercise tyrannical, arbitrary power but it will be in constant threat of overthrow if its people are convinced of its injustice. Of course, people and their institutions vary in terms of what they believe to be just or unjust and this has given rise to at least two philosophies, political realism versus some form of natural law. In political realism, governance may be seen principally in terms of power. On this view, questions of justice might be settled by determining which political forces are the most powerful. The natural law tradition, going back to Plato and Aristotle, holds that the function of governance in politics and law-making is the good. On this second position, might does not make right. Governments and citizens need to pursue what they believe to be just, whether or not that is anyone self-interest.

Q: Why does religion emphasize justice for governing?

A: At the heart of the great world religions is a vision of the good for human beings, and perhaps even a vision of the good for all of life. This is always expressed in terms of what is fitting or sacred or the will of Allah or God or the way of wisdom and enlightenment. The very idea of exercising capricious, arbitrary, cruel power is unfailingly condemned. Religion actually offers a philosophical basis for why justice is crucial for governance, that is sometimes lacking in secular approaches to governance. So, for example, in the Republic of the United States of America, the Constitution does not contain any philosophical foundation for its claims. The earlier Declaration of Independence does provide a justification, namely in terms that appeal to God and self-evident truths. God is not mentioned once in the Constitution, but is referred to five times in the Declaration. The Declaration naturally included reference to God in its outline of what is declared just or unjust because of the natural link between the ideals of religion and just governance.

Q: Why some persons in the Imam Ali time could not tolerate the justice that the imam insisted on?

A: Probably the same reason why people resist and even seek to kill good persons who seek to promote justice in the world today. Champions of justice threaten unjust people who are dangerous and who will lash out in order to retain or gain power over others.

Q: What were the characteristics of Imam Ali’s governance?

A: I think for many of us it is his embodiment in his own person of the ideals he stood for. There is a unity to his teaching and life which is why he is so deeply admired as a champion of fairness, his opposition to arbitrary power over the vulnerable, and his acts of compassion.


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