Arzoo Osanloo, Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law, and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Arzoo Osanloo (AO): The inspiration for this book was both organic and empirical. While I was researching my first book (The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran), I encountered legal and cultural acts of forgiveness. After I finished that project, I turned my attention to forgiveness, both in the criminal justice system and as a cultural practice in Iran.

On the legal side, I wanted to learn more because when I practiced law here in the United States, I noticed that prosecution for crimes rarely takes into account the personal needs or concerns of victims and if they do, it is only in the sentencing phase. While this may be persuasive, it is at best just that. When prosecuted by the state, this means that murder is first and foremost a crime against the state and not the individual victims. When I studied this issue, the answer for the system being set up this way was always because the family of the victim had a revenge instinct and this way, the state managed to curb their thirst for blood. This was also a means for the state to assert power and maintain security by cordoning off the possibility of vigilante violence. However, most legal scholars referenced state power as a secondary motivation. When I saw how the system in Iran operated, state and non-state officials alike recognized the singular pain and suffering of the victims and their families and emphasized that since they were the victims, as in any tort, they should have the right to retaliation. They also emphasized the state’s security interest but argued that it rested with managing the cycle of violence and making sure it did not go beyond individual retaliation in-kind (that is, proportionate).

The cultural inspiration for this book arose from what I call the forgiveness work that takes place every day in Iran. As a legal anthropologist, I am interested in the on-the-ground conditions that compel people to make the decisions they make, whether they are conscious of them or not. Outside of the legal domain of forbearance, where forbearance is codified in the penal code, I observed how Iranians practice forgiveness in everyday life as a cultural practice rooted in myriad traditions, even some that pre-date Islam. Some of my interlocutors referred to this sense of magnanimity or grandeur as “the art of forgiveness,” denoting a sort of forbearing affect (or demeanor) among people towards each other.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AO: Forgiveness Work examines Iran’s victim-centered criminal justice system, which accords the right of retribution to victims and their heirs. That is, in intentional injuries, including homicide, victims and their heirs may seek retaliation. But they can also forgo it. Forgiveness Work is an ethnographic exploration of who forgives perpetrators when the law gives them the right to demand retribution.

Based on Qur’anic principles, Iran’s criminal codes encourage victims to forgo retribution and compel judicial officials to help parties reach a settlement. Despite these legal and moral obligations, no official regulations exist to guide parties on how to achieve reconciliation. The absence of guidelines alongside a manifest compulsion to forgive is a productive tension that has shaped an informal cottage industry of advocacy. Interested parties, both governmental and non, intervene in murder cases to seek reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. This advocacy network draws on scriptural sources, social rituals, and legal discourses and highlights offenders’ remorse and rehabilitation to persuade victims’ families to forgo retaliation. By engaging in this “forgiveness work,” diverse actors forge new and sometimes conflicting strategies to secure forbearance. Many advocates, however, hold higher ethical goals, and aim to reform attitudes and laws on capital punishment. A study of Iran’s victim-centered approach to criminal justice can highlight how Muslim-majority societies operationalize Islamic principles of mercy. More broadly, Forgiveness Work offers a deeper understanding of victims’ needs and concerns in criminal justice, sheds light on the meaning and conditions of mercy in post-conflict situations, and examines the motivations of the actors who participate in this work.

I engage with the literatures in the anthropology of law and socio-legal studies, particularly as they relate to the development of torts and criminal law, victims’ rights, and the concern with ‘honor’—and why it persists. I also engage with recent works on ethics, faith-based charity, mercy, Islamic humanitarianism, affect, and social movements. In addition, I draw from scholarship on Islamic legal studies, especially that which examines the sources on retaliation in-kind, forbearance, mercy, and justice, including the legal maxim, “‘amr be ma‘ruf va nahy az monkar” (commanding right and forbidding wrong).

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AO: This book is a departure from my previous book, which explored marriage and family law in Iran, but also complements it with a study of criminal law. In the previous work, I focused on the politicization of the discourse of rights in post-revolutionary Iran, particularly women’s rights and human rights. In this work, I employ gender more as an analytical tool to consider how forgiveness work is gendered in numerous ways. In the new work, I also distinguish human rights from humanitarianism.

J: How was the experience researching and writing this book?

AO: The research for the book was an overwhelming undertaking that took me on a ten-year journey to many parts of Iran. Each year, I went to Iran for between one and four months. As social media expanded, so did the constancy of my communication with my interlocutors. As my experiences accumulated, the book expanded. At first, I did not think that I would be able to access criminal courts and sit-in on trials, interview judicial officials, or meet victims’ families, especially since so many were going through impossible grief accompanied by decision-making (whether to forgo retribution or not). But each year, I started to collect stories of forgiveness by interviewing people I had encountered (including victims’ families, lawyers, prosecutors, and social workers). Each introduced me to a different domain of forgiveness work. Through these individuals, I ultimately met many more people doing this kind of work—government officials, community elders, mystics, athletes, artists, and actors. These are the stories I tell in the book.

What was most interesting to me is that many people took a serious interest in my project because they liked the topic. Many had dedicated their lives to forgiveness work and wanted to discuss it. In addition, a few judges who took a keen interest in my topic and let me sit-in regularly on cases, introduced me to adverse parties, and went over the laws concerning forbearance in criminal sanctioning, their roots, logic, and ultimately, procedures. They did this, I came to understand, because many were also law professors and thought that this was a little-studied subject, even in Iran. The judges were also surprised by the fact that in the US criminal justice system, victims have so few rights and little tangible bearing on the outcome of a case. Also, I was fortunate to be doing this project exactly when the first major permanent revisions to the penal codes came into being since the revolution. These revisions were substantive and affected my topic because (a) they clarified the regulations and conditions that can be placed on forbearance and (b) they created an affirmative duty on the part of judges to encourage and seek out forbearance to the extent possible; that is to say, without compromising the judiciary’s role of impartiality. During this period, the judges were also just learning the new legal provisions, so I was not the only one asking questions for a change!

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

AO: Of course I hope that the book has a scholarly impact and will be read by academics and taught in courses in anthropology, law, and Islamic studies. There is also room for public readership and discussion that forgiveness, in its many forms, is part and parcel of justice. It is deeply rooted in many socio-cultural traditions and can be the basis of both individual healing and community reconciliation. While forgiveness is not the end of injustice, it is a beginning that can forge the pathways toward broader social and economic rapprochement.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

AO: I continue to develop my interest in exploring humanitarianism and in distinguishing it from human rights. With a colleague at the University of Washington, I am running a Mellon-funded Sawyer Seminar that seeks to decenter and de-colonize humanitarianism from West-centric perspectives, particularly as eight-five percent of those in need of humanitarian assistance are and remain in the Global South. In a related but distinct project, I am working on a monograph on how international sanctions on Iran have reshaped social relations.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 7: The Art of Forgiveness)

Ethics and aesthetics are one.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1916)

At nine a.m. sharp we met at the bus station just south of the city center. Several social workers had invited me to join them on a trip to Siah Kal, a town in the northwestern province of Gilan. They hoped to speak with the members of a family who had lost their son, Suleiman, when he was stabbed to death in a street fight about six years earlier. The family had to decide whether to pursue retributive sanctioning of Hamid Ahmadi, the young man who had been convicted of killing Suleiman, or forgo it. So far, the social workers told me, the family had expressed their wish for retributive sentencing to be carried out, but the social workers were hoping to convince them otherwise. They thought they had a chance because they believed that the key decision-maker in the family, the mother, was open to talking about forbearance.

As with so many of the cases that the social workers pursued, this one involved an assailant who was under the age of eighteen when he committed the homicide; Hamid had been sixteen at the time. The social workers were also persuaded that enough factual ambiguities existed that made the case a sympathetic one. The parties had gotten into a fight, but other young men were involved, thus putting into question the issues of who delivered the deadly blow to the victim and whether homicide was the true intent.

The judicial system seemed equally at odds over the facts. In August of 2009, the criminal court found Hamid guilty but, soon after, Iran’s Supreme Court overturned the sentence citing uncertainties in the testimony of key witnesses and sent the case back for re-trial. In the first trial, Hamid had confessed, but on appeal, he retracted his confession, arguing that it was coerced. In the retrial, Hamid was again found guilty and, in 2010, his sentence was upheld on appeal.

There was some urgency to the matter, too. Prison officials had informed Hamid’s family that they would have to make a decision on his case soon. It was the month of Ramadan (July 2014) and Iranian authorities do not typically carry out executions during the holy month. Instead, those so inclined, such as the social workers and Hamid’s family, intensify their efforts to achieve reconciliation. In the weeks to come, his family feared, Hamid’s execution could be carried out. In addition to reviewing the case, the social workers had spoken by telephone both to Hamid’s sister and the victim’s mother. The social workers determined that they could make a positive intervention and decided to go.

The social workers were not working alone, however. They were joining a passionate group of thespians who were going to perform a play about capital punishment. The actors, along with the play’s co-writer and director, Amin Miri, had chartered a bus to take them the 341 km (212 mi) to Siah Kal. They were going to perform in the theater of the town’s cultural center, run by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

After I caught up with my friends, they introduced me to a dozen or so performers who greeted me warmly. As we boarded the bus and arranged our luggage, several young women asked me what I was hoping to achieve. I described my project by explaining my interest in how Iran’s criminal justice system integrated victims’ families in sanctioning. I outlined how my work had evolved beyond purely legalistic spaces, such as the courts, into the semi-autonomous social fields in which groups like theirs operated and attempted to reach reconciliation. A woman from the troupe nodded her head in agreement and said, “That’s right, we’re working in a field that is devoid of law.”

I also noted that in the years since I had begun studying these unregulated spaces of forgiveness work, art and aesthetics had emerged as crucial sites through which interested groups attempted to bring about reconciliation between parties and a remission of the death sentence. I told them that I was traveling with them to learn what art achieves in the context of forgiveness. How do art and aesthetics affect the people involved? Although I meant this as a bit of professorial rhetoric, a young man with a pensive gaze quickly added the phrase that I had come to hear often in my research—“We work to bring about a feeling of forgiveness in society.”

Taking the cue from my interlocutors, in this chapter, I explore how the actors seek to instill a feeling of forgiveness through the dramatic arts. In order to do so, I explore the forgiveness work of artists, particularly in modern theater and poetry, which partly fills-in and shapes the unregulated spaces of forgiveness work. I consider how art and aesthetics cultivate a feeling of forgiveness, both in the families that hold the key to an offender’s life and in the communities whose residents may help to produce new social conditions that render retaliation unacceptable, and even dishonorable.

I track the performance of a theatrical production in part to show the extensive efforts involved in creating such an experience. By exploring this production and the local tragedy that motivated the artists to stage it, I also investigate the complex array of meanings and the effects that forgiveness work has on the different parties involved. Appeals to empathy are not by themselves action and do not always lead to such. What I offer here, instead, is a reflection on actors’ attempts at cultivating a broad cultural shift, to which I earlier referred as a wave of forgiveness. Thus, I consider what compels individuals to act precisely because we know that appeals to empathy do not always result in action.

Playing for Forgiveness

The play performed in Siah Kal, The Blue Feeling of Death,* depicts the lives of some of the adolescents housed in Tehran’s Juvenile Correction and Rehabilitation Center (JCRC), where offenders convicted of murder reside until they reach their eighteenth birthday. The play was directed by Amin Miri, who is also an actor. Miri spent time volunteering at the JCRC, getting to know the youth, and collecting their stories. Together with another well-known playwright, Sajjad Afsharian, Miri then wrote the play documenting the lives of the offenders and their families. In the winter of 2013, Miri assembled a cast that included several notable actors and directed the play, which premiered in Tehran that June to rave reviews. The play was a sort of collaborative work as the actors played real life characters that they, too, had come to know during visits to the JCRC. […] Initially, Miri staged the play in order to raise funds for the JCRC, but its success led the actors to the loftier goals of using it to actually obtain the forbearance of a victim’s family.

By the summer of 2014, the play had been performed over seventy times, primarily in Tehran, but also in several provincial towns where the troupe had traveled long distances. […] Once on the bus, I asked about their activities and what they hoped their performance could accomplish. Miri, the director, a tall lanky man in his forties, responded, “We try to inspire forgiveness and mercy in the hearts of the people. We want the play to produce a feeling of forgiveness throughout society,” and in particular, in Siah Kal. There it was again—the feeling of forgiveness. In Siah Kal, a small town of about 15,000, residents did not possess the anonymity that those in sprawling urban cities did. Many of the inhabitants knew each other or one another’s families and for those who did not know each other, the degrees of separation were far fewer than in the city. The people of this town could influence one another and their actions, good or bad, could reverberate throughout the town, affecting local perceptions of their family’s reputation or honor. This was just what the director was hoping to do. Through coordinating with residents and local government officials, Miri, the director, aimed to capitalize on community relations in order to influence the people of Siah Kal to accept forbearance through staging his theatrical production.

Indeed, the performance had been carefully orchestrated by the offender’s sister, Somayeh. She was her brother’s most vocal advocate and had worked tirelessly over the years trying to persuade the victim’s family to forgo retribution. She had heard about the play a year earlier and obtained a video of it. After watching it, she felt a performance in her village could leave an impression on the people, including perhaps, the family of her brother’s victim. “I had a feeling it could be influential,” she told me. She had contacted Miri and, with the local Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mr. Hosseini, Somayeh organized a performance in her hometown, where her brother had been imprisoned for the previous six years, awaiting a decision by the victim’s family. It was also no accident that the performance would take place during the month of Ramadan, when, in addition to fasting, Muslims focus on contemplative worship, intensify attitudes of mercy, and carry out acts of forgiveness. […]

All involved were hoping to inspire feelings that would lead to forgiveness. Spreading knowledge about Hamid’s situation, they thought, could also contribute to the broader aim of transforming retaliatory sentencing into a socially disreputable act and moving, perhaps, from an individual feeling of forgiveness to a culture of forgiveness. […]


* The word blue in the title possesses a different symbolic meaning than it does in English. For Iranians, the blue feeling of death references a calm that accompanies resignation before dying.