عبدالکريم سروش

6 September 2007

What Religious Intellectualism Isn't


Paper presented at a conference on religion and modernity in Tehran

"Abdulkarim Soroush"



Religious intellectualism is "the way" for religious intellectuals. It is a school of thought that strives to benefit from both human experience and Prophetic experience; and it does not sacrifice either one of these for the other. It believes that, in the modern age, the old revelation still has many things to say and to teach, and that the riches in its stores are by no means exhausted. It would be an injustice to reduce religious intellectualism to a religious sect or a political party, although it can bring about vast changes in both political and religious spheres.

Religious intellectuals are intellectuals because they believe in a reason that is independent of revelation and are nourished by it. And, lamp of reason in hand, they strive to shed light on truth and to sear injustice. And they are religious because their truthful faith is constructed neither on imitation, nor on blind obedience, nor on lineage, nor on coercion, nor on whim, nor on custom, nor on fear, nor on greed, but on a heart led by reason or on spiritual experience; and it is constantly being purified and perfected. Religious intellectualism is a fluid identity because exercising reason, seeking truth and combating superstition can only go hand-in-hand with fluidity. It is a creed with no clerics in which everyone is their own cleric; it is a retreat with no elder inhabited by elders without a retreat.

Concepts such as apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, piety, etc. have no place in it, because these are concepts that are subject to the prevailing political and religious powers, and they belong to the collective identity of utilitarian believers whose religiosity is determined, caused, inherited, pragmatic, identity-based, obedient and imitative. Hundreds of Noah's floods and spiritual storms tear through the school of religious intellectualism on a daily basis and it is the regular stamping ground of incisive thoughts. So, how could it possibly shut the door to fluidity in the name of blasphemy and heresy, or fear devastation?

But religious intellectualism does not believe in and is not committed to spirituality without religion either. Rituals have always been a husk for protecting meaning, and what could be better than taking this protective husk from prophets, who are the teachers of illumination, the birds of the garden of paradise, the most experienced horsemen in the showground of true conduct and the conquerors of the furthest horizons of solitude. Religious intellectuals are followers of religion, not religion-makers, and their love of experience and their apprenticeship in the school of revelation is not out of self-interest but out of devotion and for the sake of truth. The cherished and great personality of the holy Prophet is the entire blessing bequeathed to Muslims by God, so let us benefit fully and to the utmost from the experiences and teachings of this great, cherished bequest.

By virtue of the fact that it revolves around knowledge and experience, religious intellectualism is not an ideology either; i.e., an ideology that picks and chooses, that rouses and stirs, that chisels and forges weapons.

Ideologies, which think about rising and rousing and about fighting and throttling a current enemy, are unkind to truth. And their battleground is so restricted that, once they have succeeded in breaking the enemy, they, too, break and crumple. And weapons that have been forged temporarily, on a selective and eliminatory basis, become inappropriate and totally ineffective.

Imam Hussain and his martyrdom, which was an exception in the line of the Shi'i Imams, was turned into a rule by the selective hands of Ali Shariati, and Abu-Ali Sina (Avicenna), the pride of Iranian culture, was humiliated and sacrificed to Abu-Zar so that the necessary ideological weapons could be forged for toppling the monarchy, allowing revolutionary Islam to triumph over monarchical secularism. The least flaw of joining good ends to bad means is that it does not last.

Religious intellectualism is not interested in refashioning fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) with temporary shariah-based ploys either. Today, some faqihs (Islamic jurists) are being described as intellectuals and renovators because they have tried, for example, to do away with sentences of stoning and gouging out eyes and the like by appealing to the absence of the 12th Imam or the need to avoid bringing Islam into disrepute. With the utmost respect to faqihs, it has to be said that, whatever these efforts might be, they are neither intellectualism nor renewal, because they are not ijtihad (formulation of reasoned verdicts) on first principles. Religious intellectualism believes in ijtihad on first principles; i.e., ijtihad on theology and morality, and renewing our understanding of the Prophethood, revelation, the afterlife, God and so on.

The sentences for apostasy and heresy can only be reconsidered when we renew our understanding of human beings, knowledge, history and society. Otherwise, leaving everything as they were before and merely suspending a precept of fiqh in response to the chastisements of chastisers requires no exertion or ijtihad; it is pragmatism, pure and simple.

And when Ayatollah Motahhari, the theologian, arrived at the tale of Islam's finality, he imagined that the modern world's only conflict with a sealed Islam was a conflict with fiqh. So, he tried to brush the dust of backwardness off fiqh's robes and to display fiqh's ability to tackle modern problems by reminding us of principles such as "no hardship" and "no harm" (i.e., Islam demands no hardship or harm). It seems as if it had completely escaped Motahhari's able mind that fiqh is not something that stands on its own feet, so it cannot strengthen or defend itself of its own accord. And unless it is irrigated by theology, ethics, etc., it will be reduced to scorched earth. If fiqh is to be renewed, faqih's God, faqih's Prophet, etc. must also be renewed. And this is exactly what religious intellectualism wants to see, but it cannot even find this in the mind of a Mu'tazilite theologian like Ayatollah Motahhari.

The school of religious intellectualism is not traditional or traditionalist either, although it esteems religious tradition and believes that knowledge of it is a firm pillar of intellectualism, and that this is why the knowledge and actions of secular intellectuals are weak and defective. Be that as it may, it is not of the view that the resurrection of tradition is possible nor that a revival of tradition is a solution to today's problems. Today's world has the same right to be and to live as yesterday's world, and no claim is as unfounded and unjustified as the idea that tradition is superior to modernity or that modernity is superior to tradition. "That was a nation that has passed away. Theirs is what they earned and yours is what you have earned." (Baqarah, 134)

Religious intellectualism rightly maintains that the religious understanding of people in the past was as influenced by their times and as much in line with their presuppositions as our religious understanding today is influenced by our times and is in line with our presuppositions. It believes that they were great and we are great. Is it not sheer folly and muddle-headedness to sanctify the past simply because it is old?

Modernity is not the entryway to heaven, nor did tradition have heaven hidden in its sleeve, and the Satan who cast our father Adam out of heaven is still seriously intent on deceiving us today. Religious intellectualism is of the view that religion's greatest service is to morality, not to politics, nor to commerce, nor to knowledge. We must have moral expectations of religion and we must assess it on the basis of morality. Fiqh, too, must not be immune to moral criticism, for it is in great need of it today.

It is precisely this moral criticism that will make fiqh more capable and more refined, and it will resolve fiqh's problems not on the basis of the 12th Imam's absence but on the basis of right and justice.

Religious intellectualism, by virtue of being intellectual, contains an element of protest and criticism too; both criticism of the world's political order and protest at Iran's political order, especially so because Iran's current ruling system was established on the basis of religion and it has a modern visage with a traditional religious substance. And religious intellectuals may well not find its visage and substance pleasing. This is why, under the present ruling system, religious intellectuals are neither valued nor elevated. They enjoy neither the good fortunes of the politically acquiescent, nor the charmed life of traditionalist believers. Not just their words but their very existence is equated with sin. But let our rulers know that if Muslim mystics once succeeded in rejuvenating the face of Islamic culture, ridding it of its angry frown, and lending it eternal poise and magnetism, today, too, it is only religious intellectuals who can build an abode that is worthy of faith. And, in these times, when knowledge of causes has robbed the world of mysteries, it is they who can found a reason that is on good terms with both causes and mysteries.

So, it becomes clear that religious intellectualism has both a long brow and a long tale, stretching from the Mu'tazilites who propagated revelation-independent reason to Mulla Sadra, who was able to place mystical experience, rational thought and the teachings of revelation side by side and to debunk the false assumption that religiosity and thoughtfulness are incompatible.

It behoves religious intellectuals to know and respect themselves and their "way". Let them not fear the derision and scorn of the deriders and scorners. What shame can there be in devotion to the Prophet, conformity with philosophers, fellowship with mystics and camaraderie with strugglers?

The only scourge and bane that religious intellectualism needs to fear is, first, not taking itself seriously, and, secondly, donning garments that are unsuited to it. This "way" is neither ideological, nor fiqh-based, nor traditionalist, nor a religious sect, nor a political party. It is a Muhammadan lamp with a Mu'tazilite flame!

Abdulkarim Soroush
Leiden, the Netherlands, 6 September 2007

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser





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