Text in Context
Lecture Delivered at McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies 13th of April 1995 and published in Liberal Islam, a sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, PP 244-251 (1)
By: Abdolkarim Soroush
The science of nature is a human endeavor to understand the nature, and the science of religion is a human endeavor to understand religion. All understanding assumes suppositions and entails "categorization," that is subsuming the particular under universal categories and concepts. Understanding religion is no exception. It is preceded by certain assumptions and principles which are necessary conditions for its intelligibility and interpretation.
This seemingly Kantian position is more than familiar today, but a century ago not only was it a blasphemous view concerning religion, but a dubious one even in the case of natural sciences. The positivism of Mill and Bacon based itself on the idea that "brute facts" were available and it only needed an open eye to capture them by observation. But later developments in philosophy of science, demonstrated clearly, to their utter disappointment, that these "brute facts" lived nowhere except in the barren lands of wild hallucinations of speculators. Even in simple inductive research, where regular association of successive events is under scrutiny, one cannot be sure of the complete list of the relevant factors nor of the right aspects of the events subject to generalization. In all these cases one has to be equipped with a preassumed picture of the scene of research in order to know where to start from and where to end, what to include and take care of and what to exclude as irrelevant or unimportant. These schemes are not sacrosanct, they can be criticized, modified, refined or perhaps redefined, but two things are absolutely certain about them: Number one, their absolute inevitability in the field of research and for the purpose of understanding; number two, their transcendence and independence [relative] to the world of experiment.
Now, more important than all that is their impact on the whole context of the final product of the research. The main and radical difference between the positivist and post-positivist philosophy is the recognition of the fact, on the part of the philosophers, that observation does not stand alone, it is theory-laden (loaded), in other words it is, of necessity, preceded by theories on the one hand and colored by the same theories on the other. Interestingly enough, scientific instruments which seem to provide us with careful observation and measurements, such as microscopes and nuclear magnetic resonance devices are nothing but complex theoretical assumptions arranged and objectified in such a way as to allow us to put forward certain questions to nature and obtain answers therefrom.
The theory ladenness of observations has been shown to be a fact of the history of science, as well as an implicit requirement of the method of science, that is the logic of the understanding of nature. This important and pivotal insight, permeating the whole body of science, has been able to link areas as part from each other as logic, history, and sociology of science, re-moulding them into a unified whole, to modern post-positivistic philosophy of science.
In the same sense and exactly for the same reasons, one can say [that] text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are here as actively at work as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception. Therefore their interpretation is subject to expansion and contraction according to the assumptions preceding them and/or the questions enquiring them. These assumptions can be of very different nature, ranging from philosophical, historical, theological to the more specific assumptions such as liguistic and sociological ones. [These are part of the "spirit of the age". They need not and do not usually enter the mind through formal education (here the transcript is flawed)].
Now since presuppositions are age-bound, can change and do change in fact, religious knowledge, or the science of religion, which is the product of understanding (comprehending), will be in continuous change (flux), and since it is only through those presuppositions that one can hear the voice of revelation --hence the religion itself is silent-- and since the interpretation of the text is social by nature and depends on the community of experts, like all learned activities it will be an independent dynamic entity: abstracting from individual interpreters; containing right and wrong, certain and dubious ideas --the wrong ones being as important as the right ones from the evolutionary point of view. It is a branch of knowledge, no less no more.
The outcome of the preceding concise arguments can be briefly listed as follows:
1. Religion, or revelation for that matter, is silent.
2. The science of religion is relative, that is relative to the presuppositions.
3. The science of religion is age-bound, because presuppositions are.
4. Revealed religion itself may be true and free from contradictions, but science of religion is not necessarily so.
5. Religion may be perfect or comprehensive, but not so for the science of religion.
6. Religion is divine, but interpretation of it is human in and out.
That is the story of religion. All this implies that religion is always surrounded by a host of contemporaneous data and deliberations, in constant give and take with them, the interpretation of which remains constant so long as these external elements are constant, and once they change, the change will be reflected in the understanding of religion as well. Therefore it is not because of the conspiracy or aberration of mind or illegitimate manipulation or extravagant interpretations that the science of religion changes. Rather, it is the natural product of the evolution of human understanding in the non-religious fields and contexts that forces the religion to be comprehended differently. And as mentioned above, external factors are responsible not only for the change, but also for the constancy of religious interpretation during ages.
The world-view of the classical man, his views about nature, man, God, history, language, society, happiness, certainty, reason, knowledge and the like were reflected in his understanding of religion in the same manner and to the same extent as the world-view of the modern man has exerted its influence on the science of religion and each, of course, seem as natural and as true as the other to the party concerned.
This rough statement [small flaw in transcript] may seem a pretty straightforward a priori piece of epistemology, not unfamiliar to hermeneuticists and philosophers of science. But it has two serious shortcomings. First, it may not look convincing or revealing enough to the more historically minded scholars, who may ask for more historical data and a posteriori justification in support of the suggested doctrine. Second, it may seem a flatly false and even blasphemous idea about religion whose revelatory nature according to true believers guarantees its constancy, relevance, and truth throughout the history. Relativity and change are characteristics of man-made systems whose application to the divine revelation would be utterly misplaced. In addition to that, it seems as if the doctrine puts religion at the mercy of the extra-religious principles whose truth and accuracy are not certain and this compromises the whole message of religion, whose main mission is to offer the fallible man an inf allible source of certainty and information.
Both questions are too severe to be met here in depth and in full. But certain remarks are in order.
[Here I have deleted most of the dialogue, as it does not affect the gist of Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush's lecture. (AB)].
.... The desired reconciliation between religion and philosophy cannot be purchased except at the expense of one being colored by the other; that is only a conceptually philosophical religion (or, more meticulously put, a philosophized comprehension of a religious text) can be reconciled with philosophy, and a conceptual mystification of the religion would always precede the mystical justification of it and so forth.
Mystical and philosophical Islam are but two conceivable kinds of Islam, better articulated and refined than others, but in practice there are virtually innumerable types of Islam, all sharing the common feature of being in balance with the believers' extra-religious system of thought. Now, disputing the validity of those mystical and philosophical interpretations of the text is missing the point completely. Those are parts and moments of the history of religion, science is a mixture of right and wrong ideas. (Despite the fact that every scientist tries hard to secure hard facts and true ideas, science itself, transcending beliefs and opinions of this or that particular scientist, cannot but consist of errors, misunderstandings, dubious hypotheses, arguments and counterarguments, side by side [with] the firmly established facts and conclusions.) To see the good side of the story only is to distort the history. There, defeats are as important as victories, and both of the same value as far a s evolutionary life of science is concerned. The science of religion, to repeat the same point again, is no exception.
....Again, disputing the validity of these conclusions is totally irrelevant. What matters here from the vantage point of epistemology is to notice that the lofty suppositions being made here, and the testimony of one of the great members of the dynasty of commentators, namely Tabatabai, about the history of Tafsir (and the whole history of religion indeed) as being tampered with uneducated views and improper wishes of mystics, philosophers, theologians, traditionalists and modernists alike. Modifying tone and terms, we can state the same fact as follows: history of religion has been under continuous construction and reconstruction by philosophers and the rest, and religion is nothing but the history of religion of course.
....The content of the text [Qur'an] will be divided into two parts: the essentials and the accidentals, accidentals being requirements of cultural, social, and historical environment of the delivery of the main message, and more generally these points and allusions which are considered to be beyond the proper field of expectations. There are many hadiths related (assigned) to the prophet concerning treatment of diseases say, but nobody really considers them essential to Islam because that is not what makes people needy of prophets. People themselves can find the facts about diseases and drugs through trial and error. If that is so, then what about philosophy, economics, politics and the like? Some of these questions are very crucial and are hotly debated among Muslim intellectuals, but the main issue here sometimes remains untouched or unattended, namely the extra-textuality of the questions. These problems are not to be decided on the strength of the traditions or historical facts. On the contrary, tradition and history should be explained in light of these findings.
Treating those questions requires a good deal of philosophy, politics, sociology and history, and that is what gives the science of religion the flavor of the age, and that also explains why the true ijtihad in disciplines such as fiqh cannot materialize unless a true ijtihad in the first principles have taken place first. This, in turn, shows why religious jurisprudence in Islamic societies has been so stagnant in recent centuries. That was not because of the lack of internal dynamism on the part of fiqh, but because of the stagnation of other related disciplines, such as theology and history, and the non-existence of some of the decisive disciplines, such as sociology and the like. These constitute the relevant reasons for the stagnation. The story of the causes is different, of course.
The status and significance of religious revivalism and intellectualism, now can be understood better. Broadly speaking, revivalism can transpire in two different manners, positive and negative.
The negative revivalism consists of purging and purification of the actual understanding of religion from alien elements and to do justice to the more neglected dimensions thereof. An example is being Al-Gazzali, no doubt. The positive revivalism, on the contrary, (on the other hand) is more attentive and mainly concerned with the extra-religious factors and foundations required for an age bound comprehension of the text. The most prominent representation of this orientation is Iqbal, whose main complaint was directed to the dominance of Greek thought over the Islamic culture. Both serve the same purpose, of course, namely to keep the message of religion alive. The difference being a matter of emphasis and sensitivity.
This brings me to the end of my treatment of the first question. But before leaving this issue, I would like to emphasize that religious reform in our time which we are so badly in need [of] cannot succeed unless one is vigilant to the continuous new developments taking place in the different areas of thought. Mottos like "back to the roots" or "try the neglected sources" or "find a brave inspired leader," can be very misleading. No reform can take place without re-shuffling the traditional suppositions, and no re-shuffling can emerge unless one is masterfully acquainted with both traditions and the newly developed ideas outside the sphere of revelation. The internal and external findings, sooner or later approach an equilibrium. To disturb the stagnation, one has to mobilize the external sources. Muslims' decadent understanding of their sacred sources, it seems, occurred as a consequence of their decadence which had occurred in cultural, social and civilizational general climate and not vi ce versa.
Now as to the second charge, namely betraying the sacredness of the text, sacrificing its perennial message at the doorstep of the vagaries of the age, and undermining the certitude of faith, I'd better start with a short dialogue which took place between me and a friend of mine quite recently. "What is your position in connection with the Islamization of Knowledge?" asked he quite seriously, and then added in (jocular) way, "Perhaps you opt for a scientification of Islam rather than Islamization of Knowledge?" "Neither of the two. I opt for the humanization of religion." That was my reply and that is indeed the basic foundation on which the whole edifice of 'expansion and contraction of religious knowledge' is erected. Revealed religion, of course, cannot be a human phenomenon, but not so for the science of religion, which is in and out a human prediction and construction. It is humanized in the sense that it is impressed by characteristics both mean and noble, virtually all the characteri stics of human beings.
Rationality, prejudice, egoism, truth-seeking, obliviousness, greed, fallibility, partiality, complacency, easy going, acquisitiveness, and the like all have their due share in the science of religion and all influence it in one way or another. True, the revelation is divine, but what about the interpretation of the revelation? The interpretation no doubt may be conjectural, fallible, changeable, partial, fallacious, one-sided, misguided, prejudiced, culture-bound, incomplete, but this is what the revelator himself has ordained it to be. We are fallible human beings and that is our lot from Truth. The case of religion is no better than the case of nature. There also we are captives of our humanity. No human science is sacred, science of religion being no exception. But of course, the revelation itself is different. Therefore the dichotomy of the revelation/interpretation should be kept intact. We are all immersed in an ocean of interpretations and whenever one tries to offer the "true" inte rpretation of the text, he makes himself even more engaged. To capture the true intention of the revelator is an ideal to which all of us approach collectively, but at the end we may discover that the true intention of the revelator was nothing but the collective endeavor of mankind itself. Here the action and its telios coincide.
This is not to desacrilize the sacred or to secularize religion, it is the simple and at the same time the subtle instance of naturalization of the supernatural, or if you like it better, the manifestation of the supernatural as and in the natural. The secular view is blind towards the supernatural, but here we look at the human interpretation as the revelation descended anew, from the heaven of the text to the earth of interpretation through the angel of reason, after its being revealed and descended to the prophet in the first place. In other words we look at the revelation through the interpretation, much the same as a faithful scientist who looks at the nature as an artifact of the creator. Of progress we are not certain, but evolution is certainly guaranteed. Now from this epistemological point of view, faith is seen to be the very commitment on the part of the faithful (believer) to take the word of God seriously and to interpret it sincerely and continuously, in order to gain general guidance for his life, both before and after death (this and the next life). This is what makes a believer distinct from the non-believer. Faith is always personal and private, it can be more or less certain, but knowledge cannot be but collective, public and fallible.
A higher order look at knowledge tells us that despite the firm belief of individual believers in their own interpretation of revelation, the caravan of knowledge, inspired with all kinds of complexities and contrarities is breaking its way ahead, feeding on the controversies, competitions and cooperations of its members, irrespective of their individual desires and faiths. Our lot is nothing but to hope. That is what Rumi has exhorted us:
The merchant of timid disposition and frail spirit neither gains nor looses in his quest Nay, he suffers loss, for he is deprived and despicable Only he that is an eater of flames will find the light In as much as affairs turn upon hope The affairs of religion is most worthy ... Here it is most permitted to knock at the door Naught but hope is possible.
Once that is understood, the way for religious democracy and the transcendental view of religion, which are predicated on religious pluralism will have been paved. This being but two fruits of that auspicious tree.
Seest thou not how Allah sets forth a parable?- A goodly Word Like a goodly tree, Whose root is firmly fixed And its branches (reach) To the Heavens,- It brings forth its fruit At all times, by the leave Of its Lord
(Al-Qur'an, Surah 14:24-25; Ibrahim)
(1) The 'Interpreted Shari‘a', a book review
The first trope of Liberal Islam holds that the sharià requires liberty, and the second trope holds that the Shari‘a allows liberty. But there is a third liberal Islamic trope that takes issue with each of the first two. This I call the 'interpreted shai‘a. According to this view, 'Religion is divine, but its interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly'. I quote here from ‘Abdul-Karim Soroush (Iran, born 1945): 'the text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory-laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are as activity at work here as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception. Therefore their interpretation is subject to expansion and contraction according to the assumptions preceding them and/or the questions inquiring them…We look at revelation in the mirror of interpretation, much as a devout scientist looks at creation in the mirror of nature…[so that] the way for religious democracy and the transcendental unity of religion, which are predicated on religious pluralism, will have been paved.'
Book presentation: Charles Kursman, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the modern world, ISIM Newsletter, 2, March 1999, P41