Did Iran's New President Plagiarize in His Ph.D. Thesis Abstract?

A paragraph from the Ph.D. thesis abstract reportedly written by Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani at a Scottish university in the 1990s includes a paragraph that appears to be largely lifted from a book by a prominent Islamic legal scholar. 

As I noted yesterday, Glasgow Caledonian University, where Rowhani earned his Ph.D. in 1999 has posted abstracts of his Master's and Ph.D. theses, which concern the applicability of Islamic law in a modern political context and express a relatively flexible interpretation of sharia. A cleric and former nuclear negotiator, Rowhani has generally been covered in the international press as a more urbane and moderate politician than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his campaign has touted his education at a Western university. The allegation comes in the wake of a growing number of scandals involving prominent international politicians accused of padding their resumes with dubious degrees.

The Farsi-language website, Khodnevis.org, run by the Washington, D.C.-based Iranian dissident blogger Nikahang Kowsar, posted an article today noting that a paragraph in the Ph.D. thesis appears to be lifted from a book by Mohamed Hashim Kamali, an prominent Afghan-born Islamic legal scholar who is now the founding chairman and CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia.  

Here's a paragraph from an online PDF version of Kamali's book, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, which is now on its third edition but was first published in 1991 (my emphasis):

"This style of Qur'anic legislation, and the fact that it leaves room for flexibility in the evaluation of its injunctions, is once again in harmony with the timeless validity of its laws. The Qur'an is not specific on the precise value of its injunctions, and it leaves open the possibility that a command in the Qur'an may sometimes imply an obligation, a recommendation or a mere permissibility."

And a line from one page earlier: 

As a characteristic feature of Qur'anic legislation, it may be stated here that commands and prohibitions in the Qur'an are expressed in a variety of forms which are often open to interpretation and ijtihad. 

And here's the corresponding paragraph from the thesis attributed to Rowhani, titled "The Flexibility of Shariah (Islamic Law) with reference to the Iranian experience," dated July 1998:

"The primary source of the Islamic law (the Quran) is, in itself, flexible on the basis of the analysis that the Quranic legislation leaves room for flexibility in the evaluation of its injunctions. The Quran is not specific on the precise value of its injunctions, and it leaves open the possibility that a command in the Quran may sometimes imply an obligation, a recommendation or a mere permissibility. Commands and prohibitions in the Quran are expressed in a variety of forms which are often open to interpretation.

A spokesman for Glasgow Caledonian told Foreign Policy that university officials are not able to comment at this time and would have to check the full version of the thesis -- which runs over 500 pages and is not available in electronic form -- to see if the text is properly cited later on. 

(Update: Glasgow Caledonian University Director of Communications Charles McGehee writes, "Our University library has just confirmed that  Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence is referenced in the main body of the Dr Rouhani's thesis and in the bibliography."

He also notes, "we have formally requested permission from the author to digitise the thesis and submit it to the British Library so that it may be accessible to the wider public.")

Rowhani is hardly the first world leader to face plagiarism charges. Prominent politicians including German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Hungarian President Pal Schmitt were forced to resign after being found to have copied in their student work. Others like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta have survived similar allegations. Iran's science and transportation ministers were both accused by the American journal Nature of plagiarizing in peer-reviewed papers in 2009.  

Rowhani's academic past has come under particular scrutiny since the moderate cleric was elected on June 14. As an article in the Telegraph noted, Rowhani's official bio has been vague about the timeline and location where Rowhani earned his Ph.D., initially making it appear that he was already "Dr. Rowhani" at the time of the Iranian revolution. He also appears to have attended the university and wrote his theses under a different family name, Hassan Feridon.

Other experts have expressed skepticism about whether Rowhani could have realistically authored a Ph.D. thesis at a time in the mid-1990s at a time when he was serving as first secretary of the Supreme National Security Council -- an extremely influential position in the Islamic Republic's security apparatus. (Last year, Oxford launched an investigation into allegations that Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani -- the former head of Iran's state-owned gas company and son of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- had received unauthorized help in writing his Ph.D. thesis proposal.)

"It's long been alleged that senior Iranian national security officials who were simultaneously Ph.D. students abroad had ghost dissertation writers," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an e-mail to Foreign Policy. "I can't speak for Rouhani, but I would be skeptical if I found out that Tom Donilon found the time to write a Ph.D. dissertation at Oxford while serving as U.S. National Security Advisor."

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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