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A conversation with Abdolkarim Soroush

Q-News International (British Muslim weekly), No 220-221, 14-27 June 1996

In his native Iran, Abdolkarim Soroush, has had to contend with physical assaults and death threats. Here, on a lecture tour, his most serious obstacle has been the high pollen count. Feted and slated for his radical views, Dr Sorush has set the academic world abuzz with his own theory of relativity. Faisal Bodi gets to grips with the man dubbed the Martin Luther of Islam.


Please introduce yourself.

My name is Abdolkarim Sorush. I am 51 years old. I was trained first as a chemist in Iran before coming to Britain to study history and the philosophy of science. I also studied some fiqh, hadith and tafsir in Iran under the tuition of clerics.

I am a member of the Institute of Research and Humanities and also a lecturer at Tehran University. I am the author of some twenty books and numerous articles. The main subject of these writings is mysticism or philosophy. In the philosophical domain I have written mainly on Islamic philosophy and the philosophy of science. In the latter field I have translated four English works into Persian, the most important of which is The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Natural Science, by the American philosopher, Birt.

In the field of mysticism I have authored a number of articles on Jalaladdin Rumi, the famous mystic of the seventh century (AH) and have taught in Iran on the same subject. I also have a keen interest in Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the famous sufi and faqih.

On religious philosophy, I have written about the philosophy of politics, that is, the relationship between government and religion. My most controversial writings have been about the historicality of religious knowledge. The gist of this is that our understanding of the revealed texts is contingent upon the knowledge already set around us; that is to say that forces external to Revelation drag our interpretation and understanding of it in various directions.

Why is the idea of outside forces affecting religious interpretation controversial?

Believers generally conceive of religion as something holy or sacred, something constant. You cannot talk about the change or evolution of religious knowledge. They stick to the idea of fixity. But as I have demonstrated in my work, we have to make the distinction between religion on on side and religious interpretation on the other. By religion here I mean not faith which is the subjective part of religion but the objective side which is the revealed text. This is constant, whereas our interpretations of that text are subject to evolution. The idea is not that the religious text can be changed but rather that over time interpretations will change.

We are always immersed in an ocean of interpretations. The text does not speak to you. You have to make it speak by asking questions of it. Suppose that you are in the presence of a learned man but you do not ask him any questions and he stays silent. You are obviously not going to benefit from his knowledge. If you do ask him questions, you will draw knowledge according to the level of your questions. If the questions are learned, the answers will also be profound. Therefore, interpretation depends on us. A layman's interpretation is bound to differ from a philosopher's understanding. Revelation does not show us its secrets by speaking to us directly. We have to go and excavate those and find the jewels that are there. All we gain and get from religion is interpretation.

Those who hold to the idea of fixity in religion are not fully aware of the history of Islam, or other religions for that matter. Islam is a series of interpretations of Islam. Christianity is a series of interpretations of Christianity. And since these interpretations are historical, the element of historicality is there. Because of this you have to have a good knowledge of the history of Islam. Going directly to the Quran and hadith will not give you much. You have to go to history and from there back to the Quran and hadith in order to put historical context to interpretation.

Are you saying that anybody should glean whatever understanding s\he so desires from Scripture?

I am not calling for anarchy in interpreting the text. When I am talking about the historicality of the interpretation of the text, all these interpretations have to be justifiable. We are not sure of the true meaning of the text. All we can do is to justify our understandings, so we must have a method. This method has to be public.

I'm not saying everybody has the right to interpret the Quran according to his own wishes. All I am saying is that there is no official interpretation. There should always be a plurality of interpretations. It is not a good idea to force the religious community to surrender to a particular interpretation.

But hasn't interpretation been characterised by plurality within the community of scholars?

Yes. This was a good idea and I feel it supports my thesis. This plurality should be widened. Our ulema should also learn more about the philosophy of science as well as other branches of knowledge. This will equip them with more and deeper questions that they will then be able to ask of the text.

Does the extension of such licence conflict with the idea of the ulema as a ruling class?

Yes. Whoever can interpret the revealed text is an alim. So we should not say that ulema should interpret the text but rather that whoever is competent to interpret the text is an alim. That's one thing.

The other is that there is no official class of ulema in Islam. The clergy is not synonymous with ulema. The definition of ulema is broader, as I have just explained, to cover all those who are able to interpret revelation. When we talk about the clergy, some of them are not even learned. In fact, some of them are not even pious. It is not always the case that they know religion very well or are the best commentators.

Because of this I claim that religion is not the same as an ideology. One dimension of an ideology is that there is always an official class of interpreters. In Islam, it is the right of all people to believe in Allah, in the Quran, and it follows then that they all have an equal right to their own justifiable understanding.

The religious state should keep the conditions for this freedom. It is neither their right nor their duty to impose a particular understanding on the people.

Are you simply making the case for a more democratic basis to the religious state?

Yes. Pluralism is a sure basis for a kind of democracy in the Islamic state. For me, these two are compatible provided you accept the idea of plurality of interpretation. For democracy you have to have at least two pillars. The first is pluralism, the second human rights. Now pluralism is secured when you acknowledge the historicality of the nature of interpretations. For when you accept the theory of the evolution of knowledge (ie: all the developments outside the sphere of religion, namely progress in natural science, philosophy, etc.) there is no escaping the conclusion that religious interpretation is pluralistic in nature. A religious state informed by pluralism is closer to democracy than the religious state that is not.

The other pillar is human rights. This is something I have constantly talked and written about. Though Muslims have not talked about human rights in the past we have to prepare ourselves to improve our understanding of the human condition. Muslims have always talked of human duties. We have to talk about rights as well.

The most important thing to say here is that human rights is an extra-religious idea. It's rather like the idea of free will, whether we are our own masters or whether we are predetermined to behave in certain ways. This is not a question you can answer through doctrine. You have to decide whether you are a free person or whether you are programmed. By the same token, the idea of human rights lies outside religion because it prefigures belief. In order to follow a particular religion, the freedom to exercise that option must be open to you.

Moving on to theology, I understand you disagree with the theory of the vilayat-i-faqih which underpins the Iranian state?

To me, the theory of the vilayat-i-faqih is simply a theory which has its supporters and its critics. When it comes to government, I am more concerned with the how than the whom. Most of the time people ask who is to rule. But the more appropriate question is how are we to be ruled.

Suppose the vilayat-e-faqih is someone appointed by God Himself. Our job is still not finished. We have to wait and see how he rules, how he deals with the immediate problems of the country. I have no quarrel with whoever is in charge. The justification does not come before taking the reins of power. It comes afterwards.

We should not busy ourself with questions of the imamate or khilafate. In the time of the prophet (peace be upon him) it was important. But nowadays, how we are ruled is more important than who rules.

You've also called the Sunni-Shi'i divide an accident? What do you mean by this?

It was a historical accident. The split was not essential to the religion. It could have been otherwise. I mean, it was not necessary that this had to take place. It might have not taken place at all or taken shape in another form. Islam is beyond Sunnism or Shi'ism. They have got many points in common and the essence of the religion is not exclusive to either.

All history is contingent, including the history of Islam. My criterion for separating the essentials and accidentals of religion is the knowledge that things could have been otherwise. Things that could have happened otherwise are accidentals. For example, tawheed is an essential because it could not have been otherwise.

The blame for the continuation of this age-old conflict I lay at the feet of the leaders of both communities. They should have been mindful of the accidentality and the contingency of this division and they should have prevailed upon their followers not to use religion for conflict. Religion has not come to aggravate our conflicts. Rather it has come to resolve them.


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