Jameah Interview with Dr. Soroush
Published in June 1998 in the popular Tehrandaily, Jameah and newly published book Siyasat-Namah, 1999
Jameah: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Dr Soroush! People have many questions about you and your ideas. The first question has to do with your religious opponents. I want to try to raise this with you on the basis of the discussions they have among themselves, not their writings. The first group that takes issue with you is a section of the religious community. I see them as a spectrum extending from political clerics and even some religious academics to the other end of the spectrum, consisting of the likes of Ansar-e Hezbollah. This group raises three types of criticism against you.
Soroush: The religious people?
Q. Yes, the religious ones. They discuss certain things among themselves; be they the ones who have made the effort to read your works or those who havenít read them and who base their ideas on things theyíve been told or simply on hearsay. And there are some who simply jump to superficial conclusions. The first criticism is that, in presenting religion, you rely on human rationality and that you occasionally take this approach to absurd lengths. These people are of the opinion that what youíre saying may be fine for religious thinkers seeking new ideas, but that it undermines religious beliefs, practices and rites. From a sociological point of view, their position can be phrased in the following terms: At a time when our society has a high percentage of young people, when young people in big cities are no longer bound by the traditional forms of social control and when theyíre suffering from aimlessness and rootlessness, your ideas will make them turn away from religion. In other words, your views will undermine religious commitment and practice among the young, especially in big cities.
The second point is that, in practice, your theories about the nature of religion undermine the position of clerics and this is in circumstances in which the clergy enjoys influence in two ways in our society: first, in terms of their deep-rooted social standing and their contact with the people through mosques and religious rites; secondly, in terms of their political position and their involvement in the hierarchy of power. However, your theories - especially in their rationalistic aspects which open the way for every person to understand religion for themselves - not only diminish the sanctity of religious teachings, but undermine the clergyís position as the sole teachers of such matters. In brief, your views undermine the position of the clergy as an institution.
The third point, which is expressed in different ways, is that you introduce ideas in your theories which, because of their over-reliance on reasoning, lead, in practice, to a minimal religion; a religion that has a very small role to play in the running of political and social affairs. Let me give an example: you hold in high esteem the part played by human experience and reasoning in medical affairs and you say a patient should entrust themselves to the doctorís knowledge. The same idea is extended to the realm of politics. In other words, in todayís political and philosophical thinking (as a compilation of all human experience to date), the question of governance is phrased in terms of ę how to Ľ govern and not ę who Ľ should govern. Thus, the theory of Velayat-e Faqih has no place in this approach, because it does not concern itself with the question of who should rule. Some people place emphasis on the consequences of this kind of reasoning and conclude that it undermines th e theory of Velayat-e Faqih. How do you respond to these criticisms?
A. In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. My opponents fall into several categories. The first category opposes religion and religiosity altogether. They are displeased about the fact that Iím keeping religious debates alive and they present their displeasure in different guises. Some of the writers who are from the Tudeh Party fall into this category. They were the ones who preached anti-Popperism to the undiscerning as a way of disguising their own dislike of religion and their liking for totalitarianism. The second category consists of people who see religion as a ticket to paradise. And there is a third category which wants to use religion as a revolutionary ideology and for bolstering the state and politics. These latter two categories donít appreciate my probing ideas either. Theyíre in a hurry to attain their paradise (be it of the earthly or heavenly variety). They have neither the time nor the inclination to rethink and reconsider things. I settled my account with all these pe ople in Contraction and Expansion. I stated clearly and unashamedly that Iím committed both to religious thinking and to religious faith, and that Iím not the sort of person who is prepared to indulge in tightrope walking, haste, carelessness, short cuts or sleights of hand to reach the desired end. In my view religion is like a cradle that is attached to ropes at the two ends: assumptions and consequences. And I believe that there is a great deal of room for exploration and investigation in both these areas, and much work remains to be done. Rather than being fixed on the cradle, my eyes are directed towards the two ends leading out of it. This has given rise to a fourth category of opponents: people who are not accustomed to thinking about the preliminary bases on which a religion becomes a religion or about the preliminary bases of our conception of religion or about the consequences of being religious. All they require is to be presented with the theological postulates demonstrating the truth of re ligion. Beyond this, it is of no concern to them what religion goes on to do in society or in history, where it might lead, what kind of order it gives rise to or what kind of human beings it constructs. In Belief and Experience I made a clean break with them as well, by discussing the historical confinement and dissemination of religion, which goes hand in hand with its theoretical contraction and expansion. And I urged that the historical truth of religion be established alongside its theological truth. That is to say, instead of relying on a precedential approach, I used a consequentialist one; hence, my discussion of the expectations we have of religion which lead to our conception of religion.
These are my opponents and their reasons. I also have enemies who are enemies out of madness. All I can do for them is to pray that they be guided onto the path of reason; that is all.
The religious community is a community which tends to have a precedential-ahistorical view of religion - not a consequentialist-historical one. In other words, they prove it from on high on the basis of its theological-philosophical postulates. Then they say, now that you know it to be true, shut your eyes to its consequences and donít ask any questions. This is why religion also needs to be studied from a consequentialist perspective; in other words, in terms of its effects, taking into account the element of historicity, be it at the point of revelation or in the course of its extension into history and civilization. This has led some people to label me a ę positivist Ľ.
A consequentialist perspective concerns itself with the question of whether the consequences of what you say are good or bad. This approach is not concerned, for example, with the fact that you may have one or one hundred narratives substantiating the Velayat-e Faqih. This would constitute a precedential approach. The consequentialist approach looks at the specific, political consequences of the Velayat-e Faqih in society and judges it on that basis. It looks at how well the theory is performing historically and politically. The consequentialist approach does not say: since you have established Islamís truth as a religion, then anything that emerges from Islam must be right and true. It believes that Islamís historical performance must be examined as well. It takes the same view of the prophethood, as well as of other issues and teachings. This is the consequentialist approach. Of course, this approach does not wrap things in a halo of sanctity and subservience to precedents. It is different in this way from the traditional, ahistorical viewpoint adopted by theologians. The basis of this approach is the truth table. In a truth table, the vertical and horizontal elements must match. It would not be acceptable for a belief to be right, while its consequences were wrong. Truths (in the two senses of things that are correct and right) must correspond together. When all is said and done, if human beings are to devote themselves to a belief system, it is not enough for it to have scientific and theoretical validity. It must also concern itself with the practical effects and consequences of its postulates. Roots and fruits are inevitably interdependent. It would be unacceptable to say: our belief system is good, but human beings are bad, so things turn out badly with our belief system in practice. Peopleís supposed badness must be taken into account in the belief system.
As to the suggestion that reliance on rationality undermines religion, I would rephrase what you said as follows: reliance on consequentialist rationality undermines precedential faith. I accept this. In fact, this is one of the consequences or, better yet, one of the achievements of the consequentialist approach. I have no objection to this criticism. Iíd simply like to explain to the critics that precedential faith is undermined be consequentialist rationality; but consequentialist rationality strengthens consequentialist faith. In other words, relying on consequential methods, undermines faith based on precedential logic or demands that it be revised. However, it can in turn give rise to a consequentialist faith. Regarding the point that my views lead to a minimal religion, that is no doubt the case. And, in my opinion, this verdict is a well-founded and desirable one, both in terms of assumptions and consequences. It identifies clearly the position, in human life, of religion, alongside other types of knowledge. Minimal religion is as necessary as the alphabet is to learning or electricity to development. Anything less would be useless; as to anything more, the sky is the limit.
Q. Dr Soroush, do you have any problems with traditional religious groups and religious ceremonies?
A. I grew up among such groups. Up to three or four years ago, I used to travel by train to Mashhad with one of these groups during the mourning period marking the demise of the Prophet. And Iíd spend two or three days entirely in their company. Theyíd sit together in a basement in Mashhad and they would eat, sleep and carry out the mourning rituals all in that one place, with me amongst them. That is, until the day when one of the eulogisers seemed unable to perform the recitations properly to make people cry. He surreptitiously said to a friend, I was incapable of reciting well because of that personís unclean presence. So I stopped going to enable him to recite.
The traditional religious groups provide the best lessons in common religious sentiments, the clearest window displays of spirituality and the sincerest of religious tea shops. Why would I want to smash such a window display? On the contrary, I want to wipe the glass and look inside like a simple window cleaner. All Iím saying is that this kind of spirituality and these traditional groups do not represent the full actualization of religionís potential. They serve as a relaxant and a rest break. One needs a platform to leap off of as well. That is what we must seek.
Let me return to your earlier question. You said my ideas undermine the clergy. You didnít say whether my weak ideas had this quality or my well-argued ones. I have to say that I do my utmost to ensure that my words are well reasoned and thoroughly thought through. Now, if these well-founded ideas make some pillars tremble somewhere, donít blame the ideas, blame it on the weakness of the pillars. Or, if the ideas are weak, then point out the weaknesses to me. But let me tell you something else. You donít have to look in very out of the way places or engage in witch hunts to discover who is undermining the clergy. The learned cleric who says, it was the fact that the coach was someone who drinks alcohol that made the national football team lose by seven goals, then he detracts from and degrades religious exegesis, as well as the clergy, with his pathetic logic. Or that other cleric who writes nonsensical and absurd material in the name of Islamic sociology - which Shiraz University then publishes - degrades the clergy. The Friday prayer leader who defends the thugsí attack at Tehran University (October 1995) and launches into insults and abuse against the beaten teacher undermines the clergy. Why accuse anyone else? ę Seek the source of your problem among your own. Ľ That other cleric who says weíre ready even today to stake our claim to and own slaves - and has his words published in a high circulation daily - harms the clergy. And there are countless other examples.
Q. Dr Soroush, let us stray a bit from this discussion. The viewpoint that you mentioned just now, is it a product of the demands arising from todayís technological development and modernity? Iím talking about the change of approach towards religion. When we say that modernity and technological development have certain political, social and cultural consequences and lead to a varied and pluralistic type of thinking - does such an approach arise from the demands of these changes or did this approach exist earlier as well or could it have existed?
A. Look, what you said is based on the assumption that any theory or new idea arises because of some new demand. I basically donít agree with this and can cite historical examples where this hasnít been the case. That is to say, although in many instances, ideas have met specific needs, in many other instances they have surpassed the historical requirements of the day and looked beyond to more distant horizons. Youíd have to take a very Marxist line to suggest that every idea is the superstructure to an infrastructure. The history of ideas doesnít correspond to such a simplistic view. As to why this approach has come into being at this time, your ę why Ľ can be interpreted in two ways, which would yield two answers. On the one hand, your ę why Ľ could refer to a reason; on the other, to a cause. For example, you might say, what is the epistemological reason for these new ideas? Or you might say, what was the cause? In other words, what social factors and political forces makes th ese ideas come about. The answer to both questions is clear; that is to say, not only had our society reached an epistemological stage at which it was raising new questions - hence, demanding new answers - but the development of our socio-political (scientific-technological) forces had also reached the point where they generated new needs, and these needs acted like socio-historical factors in the minds of thinkers leading them to seek and find new answers. Thus, I believe this viewpoint could have appeared in the past. But it would not have spread. It may have occurred as an unexpected question in the mind of an isolated thinker, and even have been put to paper, but it would have died a death there. By the same token, if the approach is taking root and spreading now, with everyone seemingly eager to receive it, this indicates that the question raised is todayís question. And the fact that it is todayís questions has to do both with the epistemological stage weíve reached and the socio-political factors of th e day.
Q. Dr Soroush, youíve always said that youíre addressing an elite. Why do you air your views at public gatherings then? Donít you think this may disturb the publicís peace of mind?
A. Let me begin by reciting a poem by Mowlavi Rumi.
A misguided wish in a misguided heart
Is like a crooked shoe on a crooked foot
A pure thought like a pure ray of light
Will naturally seek something equally pure
First know thyself and when you do
Just speak your words, the Right One will hear
Yes, Iím addressing and cultivating an elite. It is natural that the forums I address attract people who can appreciate what Iím saying. The same applies to my books and articles. My worksí regular readers number about one hundred thousand on average (excluding visitors and tourists). I base this figure on the sale of my books and so on. Now, if this society cannot even boast an elite numbering one hundred thousand, then so much the worse for it. But what surprises me is the fact that you say Iím disturbing the publicís peace of mind. Would you have me stupefying the public? In fact, Iím happy to be accused of the same crime as Socrates. As you know, they tried and sentenced him on the charge of disturbing the peace of mind of Athensí youths. Iím equally happy to be following in the footsteps of the great prophets. For according to Imam Ali, they, too, ę roused minds Ľ or disturbed the publicís peace of mind as you put it. What is reprehensible is causing a public affray, not disturbing peopleís peace of mind. By public affray I mean precisely those unholy provocations, attacks and assaults that are launched against cultural forums, using bodies to attack minds and responding to ideas with axes. Let me tell you something else. As far as I can gather, many expressions do not convey their usual meaning in our politicized society; they have to be seen as carrying an indirect meaning instead. For example, when some sections of the press, which are past masters at glorifying violence, accusingly describe someone as a liberal, this should be taken to mean that they are opposed to fascism, which is in fact not an insult. When they say, that fellow is disturbing the publicís peace of mind, it should be taken to mean: he is not causing public stupefaction, which, again, constitutes praise, not an insult. Have you ever heard these people accuse anyone of stupefying public opinion? They wouldnít even consider it to be the least bit reprehensible. I was speaking to a cleric once. He raised this same complaint. I said, if youíre so worried about peopleís faith, why donít you object to the nonsense that is being preached from pulpits? Are you not disturbed by the definitions of resignation, endurance, sin and happiness that they are propagating; by the expectations they are generating regarding religion, by the ideas of God they are invoking, by the tall tales they are attributing to our revered religious figures? Is the explanation for this anything other than that youíve grown accustomed to one but not to the other. Itís not that my words are contrary to religion, the problem is that they are not what you are accustomed to. And why should I worry about this?
Take that cleric in Yazd who expressed his opposition to Seyyed Mohammad Khatami by saying that Tabatabai, a six-year-old child, was inspired by God to recite verses from the Koran endorsing the views of the Clerical Association [backing Khatamiís rival Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri]. Was what he was saying religious or irreligious? In all fairness, was the god, the Koran, the inspiration, the political stance and the crude morality encapsulated in his words and his attitude not more dangerous than the propositions of non-believers, positivists and so on?! I remember once when I was at Martyr Motahhariís house. It was at the time of the growing controversy over the Ershad Prayer Centre. Although Motahhari was not pleased with what Shariati was doing, he said, all the religious misdemeanours committed at the Ershad combined do not exceed the religious misdemeanours being committed at the Seyyed Azizollah Mosque. Yes, weíve got to a point where some clerics think they have the right to say whatever they please about religion. Itís not clear who has given them this right. They have given it to themselves. They believe that their conception of things is correct or very nearly correct. If anyone else expends serious and sustained effort, believing they have the right to understand things for themselves, who can claim they have no right to do so? I believe that Iím in no way lacking in effort and sincerity - in my quest to understand religion - compared to this or that young or old student of religion who says whatever he likes. Possibly the only difference is that I have a bigger and better-educated audience. Even this is not my fault or my doing. Iím also of the opinion that the sum total of my ideas which can (according to my opponents) disturb the publicís peace of mind or which are detrimental to religion by no means exceeds the sum total of the detrimental views expressed by some clerics. And I believe that the harm cause by my damaging remarks (again, according to my opponents) is definitely less than the harm caused by the misguided ideas expressed by some clerics; since I am not occupying a sanctified position, I have a constant stream of criticism directed at me and my audience consists of people who make a habit of engaging in criticism. And this blessed stream helps cleanse my ideas, unlike the uncleansed ideas of some other people. So, as you can see, there is no cause for alarm. The contrived charge of disturbing the publicís peace of mind is unfounded and baseless. In fact, if there is any cause for alarm it would have to be sought in the views put forth from lofty positions which no-one dares to or is likely to criticize.
But more important than all this is the fact that the charge of disturbing the publicís peace of mind is truly a big disservice - not to me - but to the likes of such great people as Seyyed Jamal and Muhammad Iqbal and others, who laid the foundations for innovative religious thinking. And, if small people like myself can be accused of anything, it is that we are following in their tracks. Why speak of disturbing or stupefying public opinion? Speak of enlightenment.
Q. Youíve said in your remarks that youíre not out to cross swords with the clergy, because they have a different set of clients and you have your own audience. Nonetheless, in practice, you have on occasion crossed swords with them; the most notable example being the article Liberty and the Clergy, where you confronted some vital elements of that class. And it was a fierce confrontation which elicited fierce responses. What line in your thinking made you do this?
A. Look, when I say Iím not out to cross swords with the clergy, I mean I have no quarrel with them. Of course, at Esfahan University I was roughed up and insulted by some members of the clergy but I still have no quarrel with anyone. In the Amir Kabir University incident, too, some of the aggressors led by a cleric had set up a gallows at the university and they made some vicious and offensive speeches against me. I pray for them nevertheless and hope that God will grant them some maturity.
If my path crosses with the clergy, it is because of the demands of the project Iím pursuing. The official clergy is one of the unintended consequences of the appearance of religion in society. It may be that the noble Prophet of Islam did not have it in mind to lay the foundations for an institution by the name of the official clergy. But when the masses want to perform their rituals and when they turn to specific people to learn these rituals, then an institution known as the clergy gradually comes into being in a religious community, although this was not an inherent part of the Prophetís designs. This is one of the unintended consequences of formulating religion into divine law. Thus, when it happens that someoneís theoretical project is to embark on a consequentialist study of religion (and not merely a theological-philosophical one), they canít help but cross paths with the clergy and to examine this institution. One way or the other, the clergy as the bearers of religious law cannot be overlooked in a consequentialist study of religion. In fact, youíre unlikely to find any sympathetic person - who wishes to see the social reform of religion - who can totally ignore this section of the population. Look at Ghazali. Look at Shariati. This is dictated by the logic of the project, not by any kind of envy, rancour or enmity. Such a person would inevitably have to formulate a definition of the clergy, deliver a verdict, suggest changes and even enumerate faults and so on. Even if I were looking at society from a political, non-religious perspective, Iíd still have to say something about the clergy.
In the article to which you referred, that is, Liberty and the Clergy, I spoke about Hafez. Then, when I was being questioned at the Intelligence Ministry, they said, youíve described yourself as the Hafez of the age. I said, Iíd never be so presumptuous; Iím neither so ignorant nor so bold. But I believe that Hafez was a critic of Sufism and the clergy in his own day and that our age, too, requires its own critic of the clergy, whether the criticís assessment arises from a religious project or from a project aimed at independent social reform. At any rate, as far as Iím concerned, the clergy is no different from any other section of the population. I feel neither any particular hostility towards them, nor any particular devotion to them. I treat them with the same respect Iíd treat anybody else. I donít see them either as the saviours of humanity or the bearers of other-worldly secrets or Godís chosen few, nor yet as tricksters or charlatans. A majority of them are like tradesmen trying to earn a l iving, with the same mentality as any other tradesman. A minority of them are very learned and an even smaller minority very devout. And I believe that this societyís happiness and salvation depends on the cooperation of all the different sections of the population, not just on the clergy. Iím also not be any means (contrary to what enemies have said) out to get rid of them. Since I know that, if they didnít serve a function in the religious community, theyíd never have come into existence. And, as long as the cause remains, so will the effect. I should also add that I havenít adopted such an absurd approach to my theoretical research project as to want to start quarrelling or competing with a group of people who are linked to religion, play a role in society and enjoy respect among the people. Anything Iíve said and continue to say in this connection arises from my study of religion and a wish to do good.
Q. I have the impression that part of the opposition to Dr Soroush has nothing to do with his specific ideas. The current that opposes Dr Soroush also opposes the [former] mayor of Tehran. It also opposes civil society, intellectualism and intellectuals in general. And they are the same people who constantly harp on the division between religious people and non-religious people. They also dislike the idea of economic and political development. Donít you agree that the main division is between the traditionalists and the modernists in a society in transition? The traditionalists oppose any kind of innovation, whether in religious thought, literature, urban development or the economy. I think all this opposition has to do in large part with the fact that the traditionalist current feels threatened by the modernist current. These people think that, if Dr Soroush speaks, religion will be destroyed. These same people also think that, if the number of buildings with more than 20 floors exceeds one thousan d, there wonít be a single religious person left in Tehran. Isnít that so?
A. I wanted to raise this point at the end, but let me say briefly that, in the course of these developments, some of the things they hold sacred (read: the things idealized in the period of mental infancy) will collapse. The more intelligent people among those who oppose modernization offer more sophisticated types of opposition. The more immature ones resort to more physical and violent methods. It goes without saying that this transitional period in our society has frightened some people and led them to act in an emotional and aggressive way. And the secret behind their enmity towards me is that they accuse me of being the theoretician of this transition - and from a religious standpoint at that. Ultimately, we have three types of religion. A religion for the nascent period, a religion for the transitional period and a religion for the consolidated period. If my activities relate to any of these, it must be the last two.
If I may, Iíd like to turn to a point you raised earlier, when you said that reliance on rationality may render the Velayat-e Faqih vulnerable and open a debate about its whys and wherefores. I agree that a narrative rationality would not welcome my approach. But an inquisitorial and effect-oriented rationality would probe and analyse the theory of the Velayat-e Faqih just as it would any other political theory, and it would assess its historical and practical consequences. It could not satisfactorily confine itself to citing a few religious narratives on the subject and consider the matter closed. There are people in our society who, under the influence of the tradition of dictatorship, believe that order is synonymous with tyranny, whether it be political tyranny or mental-theoretical tyranny. They believe, in other words, that having a monolithic way of thinking is synonymous with mental order and having a single political theory or a single ruler is synonymous with political order. The fa ct of the matter is that the modern world has shown us that plurality and order can co-exist. And this plurality within order is something that has been discovered by the modern world. One of its manifestations is civil society. If my ideas and my project are taken to mean that Iím opposed to monolithic systems, then that is correct. But if they are deemed to be advocating anarchism, that is patently not the case; because plurality is not tantamount to anarchy and variety does not constitute chaos.
I have to say, of course, that our religious thinking to date has been very authoritarian. In my understanding of religion, neither the official clergy nor any kind of authority (power) are pivotal. In view of this, it may not suit some peopleís tastes and inclinations. I believe that the fact that we have been raised in the shadow of dictatorial systems has made us think that political order hinges on a monolithic authority and a monolithic mental order, line of thinking or experience. Iím, therefore, of the opinion that we must acquaint ourselves with plurality in every area of political and mental endeavour. I have tried to do my share in laying the theoretical groundwork for this. At any rate, if the theory of the Velayat-e Faqih is compatible with accountability, openness to criticism and respect for human rights, then it is a defensible theory. However, if it is defined in such a way as to make it incompatible with these things, then it is indefensible, even if a hundred sacred narratives and verses are assembled in its support. In other words, we have benchmark positions that must be respected. This is the consequentialist approach to the Velayat-e Faqih.
Q. Our discussion so far has mostly centred around your opponentsí viewpoints. Let us now turn to your proponents. Your proponents, too, form a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, we have pious believers who follow your words with interest and with great devotion. They have their own motivations. Most of them are thirsting for knowledge and have countless questions. Theyíre young Muslims who are interested in the truth and they see that one person has the courage to raise questions of principle. They are enraptured by this. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the religious intellectuals who carefully study your works. I want to dwell on this latter group a bit. Your ideas feed this group more than any other. (Of course, I have a gripe against some of them in that they use your ideas directly and donít give the proper attribution, which displays a lack of academic integrity.) These people believe in rationality. They believe in democratic methods. But, in one sense, they end up saying the sam e things as your opponents: that you donít strengthen religious solidarity, that you criticize the clergy, or even that, when it comes to the theory of the Velayat-e Faqih, you indulge in political extremism. This is another line taken towards your ideas. Of course, a minority of religious intellectuals believe that youíve been moving away from primary philosophical material in recent years and are simply propagating a new type of theology, and that your voice and your message have become somewhat parochial, as opposed to carrying a global message. What do you think about all this?
A. Look, this harks back to what I said about the direct and indirect meaning of words. I imagine that what youíre trying to say is that my ideas bolster a kind of religiosity. Thatís correct and Iíve never denied it. At the end of the day, if what Iím saying is true, it will have certain implications and, if what Iím saying is false, that will have certain implications as well. I canít argue with that. All my efforts and my entire project have been aimed at taking some people by the hand and leading them from one level of religiosity to another. The assumption made by my opponents or by my critical proponents is that there is only one level of religiosity and, if this single level is attacked, then religiosity as a whole has come under attack; whereas this is by no means the case. We have at least three levels of religiosity: Mundane, learned (theological) and mystical. Yes, my ideas do nothing to strengthen mundane religiosity. (The custodians of that kind of religiosity mainly consist of clerics and they have their own audience.) But they do strengthen learned and mystical religiosity. (I will, God willing, speak at length about these three types of religiosity in a separate book in the near future.) One of the criticisms that the late scholar Tabatabai directed at the scholar Majlesi was precisely this and he spoke of it in connection with Majlesiís Bahar al-Anwar [Seas of Light]. He said: The late Majlesi seemed to think that all the narratives attributed to our revered religious figures were uniformly on a par and that all of them were addressed to the public at large; whereas the narratives operate on different levels and each one of them has to be examined on its own terms. In fact, it is exactly the same when it comes to religiosity. As I said, the clergy does not actualize all of religionís potential, because the clergy has taken on a specific mission and it has defined its activities within a specific framework. And, historically speaking, it is bound by restrictions which it would fin d difficult to overcome. This is why alternatives are likely to appear and these alternatives will seek to address issues left unaddressed by the clergy. Religious intellectualism is a product of the modern age. If religious intellectualism did not have a role to play, it would not have come into existence and it would not have endured. The fact that it seems to be here to stay means that there are religious tasks which are not being undertaken by the clergy and which need to be taken up by some other group of people or institution. And this new group will survive as long as it serves a purpose and as long as there is a thirst for it. So I have to say that, as in the case of the other criticisms, I accept this point. That is to say, I respect a religiosity that is based on day-to-day expediency. But I value very highly indeed a religiosity that can accommodate knowledge and experience.
Q. Are you weakening the traditional outlook or are you basically trying to negate monolithic thinking? Or is your quarrel the same old quarrel of the mystics and the jurists. Or is the whole thing simply a product of your political extremism?
A. What Iím doing is introducing rivals, alternatives and companions. That is to say, if you imagine a solitary figure standing on the stage, what Iím doing is introducing a few other figures, who may be taller or shorter, onto the stage. In the realm of knowledge, I seek plurality. I came upon this notion when I was studying the philosophy of history. Before the revolution, the only such philosophy current in our country was the Marxist philosophy of history. Motahhari and Shariatiís philosophy of history, too, was the Marxist one in another guise. They asked the same questions. The only difference was that they offered different answers. Bear in mind here that the framework of any technique is the questions it asks, not the answers it presents. In fact, the agenda had been set by the Marxists, not by them . When I was studying the philosophy of science and the history of science abroad, the first thing that caught my eye was not that the Marxist philosophy of history was wrong but there were a num ber of other schools of thought on the subject. However, the only school of thought that had engaged and gripped our minds - making us ask questions about ę the engine of history Ľ and ę the stages of historical development Ľ - was Marxism. One side replied that the engine of history was ę class struggle Ľ, the other replied, no, it is ę religion Ľ. But they were both answering the same question. Thatís when it dawned on me that there was a need for other frameworks in which other questions could be raised. This was enough to break the unwarranted spell cast by the Marxist philosophy of history.
I stressed this same point repeatedly later in a book I wrote on the philosophy of history and in the various courses I taught at university. In other instances, too, I have done exactly the same thing. The fact of the matter is that the history of humanity has developed in an inherently pluralistic way. In other words, history is full of alternatives and parallel lines. Linear and one-dimensional history is a figment of the imagination of history professors, not a product of the history-making masses. Looking for and seeing parallel lines gives one an open-mindedness and breadth of vision that can solve a host of problems. The mental blocks and debilitating prejudices of some of the immature proponents of violence arise from the fact that they are locked into a monolithic mental straitjacket. Yes, if other viewpoints and traditions are brought onto the stage, the traditional viewpoint will no longer be the be all and end all of all history and knowledge. But why should I worry about that? I have only pres ented the rivals, I havenít created them. In the words of Mowlavi Rumi:
How can I be accused of darkening any heart?
I, who have dedicated myself to enlightenment?
Iím a gardener, nurturing every little shoot
As to the dead branches, I sweep them away
I remember a seminar of Muslim university students studying abroad in 1976 - which was also attended by Messrs Shabestari, Qotbzadeh, Banisadr and Sadeq Tabatabai - when I had my first debate with Banisadr. I had been given the task of speaking about the philosophy of history. Many people were of the opinion in those years that all good speeches had to have a strong whiff of bullets and gunpowder about them, even at the expense of being devoid of all logic and sense. A member of the audience stood up and said: Is the philosophy of history you were talking about just now the same sort of philosophy of history people are talking about in Iranís jails, from which they infer the need for armed struggle? It was a significant question. Although he was being sarcastic, his question clearly encapsulated an important and deep-rooted assumption and theoretical stance. He believed that there could only be one philosophy of history, the one which, as one of its many blessings, could overthrow the Shahís regime.
All this taught me how dry and dogmatic and how far behind the rest of the world a personís thinking can become if they lock themselves into a monolithic current, failing to take any notice of the plurality that exists in the external world. After all, what were all the mystics who spoke of the path, the religious code and the truth, and of the religion of initiation and the religion of culmination talking about? Whence the historical quarrel between the jurists and the mystics? Why has so much criticism been directed at theologians by thinkers throughout the course of history? Whatís the secret behind the disagreements between theologians? All this demonstrates that there is a battle between different forms and categories of religiosity and that any move in one direction, is a move away from the other direction. And any caution along one line is tantamount to boldness along another. And, if a person turns to customary-ritualistic-stratified-fablistic-this worldly religiosity, they will lose touch with oth er forms of religiosity. And the more they immerse themselves in religion as jurisprudence [henceforth feqh], the less they will appreciate the other aspects of religion which are life and love. So, I became determined to present the different forms of religiosity and the actual plurality that exists in the realm of religion. This presentation inevitably reveals that the religious tradition is much richer than some arid minds would have us believe. After all, has our tradition not been intrinsically pluralistic? Why is it that some people want to impose a monolithic view in the name of tradition and to accuse any dissenters of undermining religion? If tradition is desirable, it must be so in all its many poses and moods. Where is that cosmic sieve and in the hands of what tribe that wishes to pick a single tradition from all the rest or, worse still, impose its own tradition on everyone else? I have said this on many occasions, our literary tradition allowed the expression of words, wishes and desires, even a tenth of which are not deemed permissible in the name of religion today. Is this what is meant by defending and strengthening tradition? If tradition is laudable, can we not at least be allowed to safeguard our literary tradition; never mind about strengthening it. Look at how base and profane an image of love they have projected; a love that is the central pole holding aloft the great tent of our marvellous literature, a love that has for centuries blessed this landís weary and oppressed desert-ridden souls like a gentle, life-giving rain. Yes, Iím talking about earthly love. But this isnít what is irking those who keep harping on about how tradition is being undermined. What worries them is the loss of their sanctities (read: the things idealized in the period of mental infancy). If thatís whatís bothering them, let them go and complain to Galileo, Kant, Newton, Hegel and so on. Let them build a wall against the storm of modern technology, art, science and philosophy. Let them complain to their pare nts for giving birth to them several centuries too late. The new world has its back to tradition in two senses. First, it uses tradition as a back rest. Secondly, it has turned its back on it. And both these senses are significant and profound. And humble people like me are striding and thinking in this realm. The amusing thing about it all is that some of my ŗ la mode opponents say in the most crushing terms: his ideas are those of the liberal bourgeoisie! You see how respectful of tradition they are in their words and language!
As to the tale of my political extremism: I can think of no charge or accusation more hurtful than this. Is it me whoís been the extremist or my opponents? Is it outrageous for an upstanding citizen to expect to have their civil rights respected and to expect it, in particular, after a revolution, the most prominent feature of which was resistance to tyranny? Is it enough for a few people in Qom and elsewhere not to like my Contraction and Expansion or my Liberty and the Clergy or my Emulation and Study of Student Behaviour to justify tightening the noose around me to such an extent that my wife has to go knocking on countless officialsí doors to ask for a modicum of security, only to have every door shut in her face and every request turned down? Did my simple request to be treated respectfully warrant deprivation from teaching, speaking in public, employment, all rights and security? After the leader delivered his speech with all those harsh words against me - when he spent as much t ime condemning me as he did condemning Israel, and this was just after Iíd written a piece in which Iíd spoken of dialogue with the leader - the Intelligence Ministryís blade cut even deeper into my skin and flesh. They summoned me and, on the pretext that ę youíve even forced the leader to speak out against you Ľ, I was treated to every conceivable insult and threat. They used such foul language against me that I canít even bring myself to repeat it. Of course, they tried bribery as well. They asked for my account number so they could buy me off with money. I would never have dreamt that the leader and his Intelligence Ministry could treat a citizen like this in the Islamic Republic. They prevented me altogether from writing or speaking or teaching. And the amazing thing is that, in the middle of all this, some of the henchmen behind the religious tyranny kept insisting that they wanted to conduct a debate with me. This was at a time when I couldnít even open my mouth to say I wasnít allowed to tak e part in a debate. I could hardly even write in Kiyan for a while (the only window that was still open to me). Kiyanís readers will no doubt remember the issue where there was no article by me but only a lamentful poem in which you could see the terrible grief and pain I was going through. It included the lines:
Not a flicker of light, not a friendly hearth
Just a flame in the darkness singeing my heart
Where in this black night am I to hang my ragged cloak?
Is there no sign of compassion, a glimmer of life?
Loveís spring, summerís blaze, where are you now?
Autumnís chill, winterís gloom have taken hold
Rain down a gentle smile on this parched land
On these thorns, oh so weary from the seasonís rage
This was at a time when it became effectively impossible for me to teach any course at the university. Iíd been forced several times to abandon a class midway through the hour because the thugs had arrived. Theyíd sent a letter to my class in which theyíd threatened to kill me and they were thoroughly prepared to carry it out. And the leaderís representative at the university later gave them his blessing. They threw several threatening letters into my house and on another occasion they said plainly and openly that ę weíre going to stage a sit-in at your house Ľ. We knew very well what that would mean: people climbing over the walls, breaking and burning things, terrorizing and beating my wife and children. My wife took a risk and wrote something in Salam newspaper (and Iíd like to take this opportunity to thank them for the integrity and kindness they showed at a time when I felt I had nowhere to turn). She said, if they break into our house, I will, in turn, take the children and stage a sit-in at a mosque and pray to God for justice to be done. My son went to the Interior Ministry and asked the security officials for help. Their answer was, these lads are from the war fronts and the jihad! In other words, they can do as they please. Thatís all.
The sheer volume of insults directed at me from the official and semi-official press at the time was so great that it surpassed anything seen in this countryís press in the past, apart from the period of the Tudeh Partyís shameless insolence towards Mosaddeq. I can fairly say that Iíve been the target of no fewer insults than the late Bazargan and Ayatollah Montazeri. What was even more astounding was that the more treacherously irreligious the newspaper, the more offensive its remarks. Yes, this was the un-splendid performance of the Islamic Republic in the fields of security, freedom and culture. And I know very well that what they did to me was nothing compared to what they did to others. I also wrote one open letter and one private letter to Mr Rafsanjani, the then president. I said:
O, take this wine and cleanse this body
For Iím certain what I see here bodes ill
Do you know what he said? He sent someone to tell me, sorry, thereís nothing I can do for you. Meaningful words indeed. Unfortunately, Mr Rafsanjani shut his eyes to all the evil and injustice and abandoned the realm of culture to the marauding thugs and the malicious culture killers. Nevertheless, it was these same people who paved the way for the victory of Mr Khatami with the slogans of civil society and freedom of expression. Iím very happy about this unintended consequence of their actions and often recall this verse by Hafez:
Donít grieve the sting of the envious tongue
Looking back, you may see it heralded your good
Then, some cleric in Qom says, the people voted for Khatami because the theologians had issued a fatwa. Where were these gentlemen when a bunch of thugs were rampaging through our universities - in the name of defending the Velayat and the clergy - striking terror into peopleís hearts, beating and breaking, and setting up gallows on campus? Why didnít a single one of them speak out against these heinous deeds? Why didnít they denounce these self-styled defenders of the clergy? Why did they support the thugs in their Friday prayer sermons? To this day, they happily organize a demonstration (40,000 people!) against whistling and clapping, but they canít find a handful of words to condemn these assaults against public gatherings and the violation of peopleís civil rights. Whoís the extremist, then? The one who tries to be patient, remains silent, is deprived of his rights, is insulted, but still tries to serve his countryís youths, without expecting anything in return, writing books and teaching; or th e one who assaults the patient servant of the people, hurling abuse and using the blade of violence to sever his links to security, freedom and rights? I wouldnít have spoken at such length if it werenít for the accusation of political extremism. Nevertheless,
Calmly, gently, we endure unkindness, merrily
For in our creed, sorrow is considered blasphemy
Q. Dr Soroush, there has been a sense recently that you are concentrating on theological matters and moving away from pure philosophy?
A. The suggestion that Iíve moved towards theology in my work and that Iíve concentrated on this subject is based on the works that are being published by me. And to this extent, the statement is true. I have many works on pure philosophy which have not been published yet and I hope to publish them eventually. The courses I taught were quite varied and many fell within the field of epistemology and philosophy, such as the philosophy of science, the philosophy of history, comparative philosophy, the philosophy of the social sciences and the philosophy of ethics, which were all within the field of epistemology and pure philosophy.
I have to add that the things that have been published by me, in the field of theology, are in effect part of the results of my work in the field of philosophy in general as applied to the field of theology in particular. Theology is nourished by philosophical assumptions external to religion. Iím interested in applying these assumptions and benefiting from the outcome. In a religious community, any kind of reform must begin with religious reform. Without religious reform, we wonít be able to bring about political and social reform. So, much works need to be done in the field of theology. The only way to break political tyranny is to break religious tyranny. There is no other way.
Religious intellectuals have shown little interest in theology. Shariati and Bazargan did not take it on board. There was a time in the history of our Islamic culture when there were many different schools of theology and this in itself prevented religious dogmatism and ossification. Then there was opposition to these schools of theology, both theoretical opposition and political opposition, and the science of theology was effectively closed down. Religious beliefs were transformed into a series of pre-defined, congealed ideas which everyone had to repeat and no-one had the right to question. At present, there are dozens of theological issues - ranging from the nature of the Creator and the qualities of God to the Imamate and revelation - about which a great deal could be said if they were taken up again, and this would undoubtedly have many social and political consequences. However, since theology has fallen silent and since weíve gone down the path of action without thought in many respects, our beliefs have unfortunately dried up in a most regrettable way which is of no benefit to religion.
Q. But now theological debates have come to life again in seminaries, havenít they?
A. Yes, I believe that the new theology that has gained currency in seminaries and in the religious and academic community is a very auspicious development. I also believe that, for us, religious reform will emerge from the heart of theological debates, with transformations in feqh following therefrom. Although the people who were crying out for a more dynamic feqh instead of the traditional feqh were well meaning, the medicine they were prescribing was not the right one. They thought that a single jurist could bring feqh to life, whereas the thing that can lead to dynamism in feqh is the science of theology. And, since the science of theology has been closed down here for centuries, our feqh has gone stale as well. And itís not just a question of the science of theology; other sciences must also be brought to bear. I hope this auspicious development will continue and manifest its effects.
Iíll also touch briefly on the point you raised about whether my voice is parochial or not. I must allow the readers to judge for themselves, of course. All I want to say is that the theories on religion current in our society are by no means lacking in comparison with the theories current in the worldís academies.
Q. Dr Soroush, let me turn to the views that dissidents have about you. One section of the dissident community in Iran tends to look at you with admiration. At one end of this spectrum, we have the people involved in arts and letters. Perhaps their opinion of you is a kind of criticism of their own past. These people cast a critical look at their own past and then they see that here is a person who has gone back to our religious texts with a new epistemology and a new philosophy, arriving at a fresh perspective. Many of them admire your technique and your results. And this very fact - that is, the admiration felt by dissidents towards your ideas - has made some of the hezbollahi zealots suggest sneeringly that you are in cahoots with them in the aim of dismantling the Islamic Republic. They say that those people have set out to dismantle the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, there are prominent figures among the dissident community who seriously admire your contribution to Iranian thought. At th e other end of this spectrum, we find the dissidents who have no time for religious thought at all. They see you in much the same way as they saw Bazargan and Shariati: like a steam roller clearing the way for religious tyranny. They attack your works in the harshest possible terms. These people are of the opinion that, two decades later, when the conditions are ripe for a secular movement, you are creating an impediment. This argument was even put forward by Fred Halliday at an international seminar. It maintains that some critical clerics and religious intellectuals are in effect lending renewed credibility to a clergy and a religious viewpoint that had otherwise become weak and discredited. Some would say that you are an agent of the state.
A. Most of the people who hold such views subscribe to the precedential approach; in other words, they have their preconceived notions about religion and any movement aimed at religious reform and, without feeling any need to read or think about a personís ideas, they stamp his forehead with their preconceived label and file him in the preconceived pigeonhole. Most of these people havenít read my writings. Fred Halliday may be excused because of the language barrier. He cannot read the original text of my articles. What is inexcusable is that some of my own compatriots donít bother to look at the actual texts and just confine themselves to passing weak and inaccurate judgements. The fact of the matter is that their minds are governed by a kind of historicity as well. They are convinced that the world and history are moving inexorably away from religion and towards secularism. And so any efforts made by the likes of me are seen as an act of desperation. I spoke earlier about the deadly disease of hav ing a one-dimensional vision of history and how it gives rise to dogmatism and a host of other deviations. Although I relegate mundane religion to its proper place, I elevate a religion that is empirically and epistemologically sound. Those dissidentsí criticisms are based on the premise that there is only one kind of religiosity; which is precisely the premise I reject.
The second point is that, if these gentlemen actually look at my writings, theyíll see that one of my main theoretical arguments is that religion has become distended and that it needs to be treated for this illness. Many promises are made in the name of religion and it has been weighed down by a multitude of tasks it is meant to perform. These exaggerated expectations must be done away with. These misconceptions are a product of the ill-judged and misguided approach adopted by some of the propagators of religion. Theyíve sung the praises of religion in such an overblown way that theyíve made the people feel they can demand whatever they want from religion. Weíve come to a point where we must reform religion by removing its unnatural protuberances and presenting it in its real light. When this constitutes a personís main project, he cannot use religion to arrive at tyranny; he cannot even use it to arrive at politics, let alone political tyranny or tyrannical politics. Unfortunately, some of these critics are not aware of the auspicious endeavour that is being undertaken, within the project of the study of religion, aimed at replacing a maximalist, duty-based religion, with a minimal, rights-based one. Acquainting themselves with the details of this endeavour would convince the critics that the right path has been chosen. You shouldnít forget that our project is consequentialist in nature; in other words, it takes consequences fully into account. It is not seeking to impose dogma from on high, saying never mind about the effects. Of course, all this must fall within the bounds of human capabilities; it cannot go any further.
These critics simply do not believe in religion, whereas in my view religion answers a number of real human needs and it must survive in that capacity. And it will survive; it is not going to disappear because some people oppose it. So, to that extent, we must become acquainted with it and acquaint others. We must protect and nurture it. I will certainly try my best to do so. The truth of the matter is that my task is a more difficult one than that of secular intellectuals. They donít need to worry about religion.
Religious ideas, too, have the right to exist in our society. And they have a support base. If anyone has a reform project in mind, they must develop it on this basis and within this framework. I believe that, if our non-religious intellectuals wish to succeed, they cannot ignore or underrate the element of religion in our society. The interesting thing is that the history of intellectualism in our country has shown that secular intellectuals have only succeeded here when their propositions have been translated into religious ideas!
Q. Freedom is one of the shared goals of both the opposition and the political opposition. In your opinion, in the current circumstances is it more important to achieve freedom or justice?
A. Justice and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Freedom is a part of justice. Justice is the fulfilment of rights and freedom is one of those rights.
Q. Iím talking about Iranian society today.
A. In that case, my answer is freedom; that is, justice with emphasis on the element of freedom. But, if you want to know the truth, making the culture of human rights take hold here takes priority over all the rest. Rights have to come to be seen as the equivalent of honour; violating someoneís rights must be viewed as being the same as shaming and dishonouring them.
Q. What are the prerequisites for this freedom? What must the government do?
A. In the first instance, sources of information must become plentiful. In other words, freedom must go hand in hand with being better informed and understanding more and better: freedom as empowerment, not freedom as deprivation and wretchedness. The greatest ill plaguing our society is that it is single-sourced, whether itís a question of a single religious source or a single source of political information. Iranian radio and television are controlled by the state. The press was in the hands of the state until recently. The interpretation of religion is the monopoly of the clergy. Then there is the arbitrary control exercised over books. These are all indications of a single-sourced society. The monopoly over sources must be broken.
Q. One of our societyís needs in the course of development is social freedoms. The occasionally senseless restrictions imposed by the state tend to limit the tolerance required for this. Based on your understanding of religion, how much tolerance is permissible?
A. Instead of using the word ę tolerance Ľ, it would be more appropriate to speak of ę liberty Ľ. Liberty is synonymous with right. In the course of development, peopleís rights and liberties must be respected and the language of rights must replace the language of duties. People must be seen as bearers of rights, rather than as dutiful creatures. This is the correct meaning of political tolerance. It is not the stateís business to limit rights; it should safeguard and even enhance and increase them. Enhancing rights is of the utmost importance. For example, if a person learns how to read and write, they will be able to exercise a greater number of rights and to demand more from the state. The state must consider the enhancement of rights as one of its duties. People have the right to make mistakes. Tolerance is an acknowledgement of this right. When it comes to religious affairs, it is immutable opposition, immutable interpretations and immutable traditions that must be banned, not disagreement with this or that personís fatwas. Even this ban must be carried out in a democratic, lawful and agreed way, not in an arbitrary manner. In a word, the state must define the normal human being as a fallible being (in terms of ideas and deeds). It must assume that society is comprised of such human beings and it must not be outraged by their fallibility. I have discussed this in the article Learning from History, where I said that we should not forget that Satan is alive and awake, and that ę in the workshop of being, he is compelled to blasphemy Ľ. Ordinary human beings are very different from the ideal being conceived by some ascetics. Hafezís human being seems much more natural to me than the human being of Ghazali or Majlesi or Sheykh Ahmad Naraqi. Tolerance means accepting and embracing human being as Hafez conceived them.
Q. Dr Soroush, your viewpoint weakens peopleís commitment to religious commands; is this not so?
A. Why? Whatís the logical connection between what Iím saying and weakening peopleís commitment to religion?
Q. Yes, you can see it in your discussions on ethics, for example; the fact that the relationship between a human being and God is a personal one.
A. Ethics is essentially a personal matter. The social dimension of ethics is the law. Ethics (that is, ethical goodness and badness) is entirely a matter of internal motives. It has nothing to do with an actionís external manifestation. It is the law that is concerned about external manifestations, not motives. What Iím saying is that no-one can interfere in the relationship between the individual and God. And religion consists of strengthening the invisible, sincere and heartfelt relationship with God, in which there is no room for hypocrisy or deceit. Weakening religion has nothing to do with granting people the right to make mistakes or seeing society as an aggregate of fallible individuals or refusing to dream of a society free of Satan. On the contrary, transforming people into deceitful creatures in the name of religion goes against the grain of true religiosity.
Many religious extremists fail to see that any kind of strictness in one direction is laxness in the other direction. Strictness aimed at hiding sin opens the way to pretence and deceit, which is the greater sin; nay, the most blatant idolatry. People should remain themselves. One meaning of democracy is rule by ordinary people over ordinary people; not ideal forms, but people who are slightly tainted and whose prayer rugs are slightly wine stained.
Q. Is your standpoint now, in terms of a personal and individualistic conception of religion, not a theoretical, modern extension of the views of a former member of the Hojjatiyeh Society?
A. Youíll have to explain yourself. I donít really understand what youíre trying to say.
Q. The Hojjatiyeh Society believed that religion is a personal matter and it denied the social and political aspects of religion, which is similar to what you were saying about your own views.
A. If the Hojjatiyeh Society held such views, it must have been very progressive. I really donít know! What we learnt from them and what I read and saw, during the brief time I went there, was a potted history of Bahaism. There was nothing remotely resembling what you were suggesting just now. Of course, I have no idea whether they taught things like that in their innermost circles and to the great masters. In any case, religion is a relationship between the individual and God, and acting in accordance to feqh is not a sufficient condition for being religious. It is possible to have a society that abides by the law and feqh but is not a religious society. If the Hojjatiyeh Society said things like this, it is laudable indeed. As Iíve said in my writings, if 99 per cent of marriages end up in divorce in a society, that society will be in keeping with feqh, because everyone marries and divorces in accordance with feqh. However, such a society is by no means desirable, eithe r religiously or humanly. So, if we take the model of the religious society to be one in which the ordinances of feqh are obeyed - and in which such ordinances are imposed from on high, at that - I can safely say that this is not the model of religiosity I have in mind. If the Hojjatiyeh taught such things, it is very laudable, but it didnít teach me things like this.
Q. Dr Soroush, how old were you and during which years and for how long were you a member of the Hojjatiyeh Society.
A. I was in the final year of secondary school in 1962-63, studying at Alavi High School. I was 17 to 18 years old (my birthday is in December 1945, I was born on Ashura in 1366 on the lunar calendar). The Hojjatiyeh Society recruited heavily at Alavi High School. Some of my old schoolmates or classmates, who later went into politics and rose to important positions in the Islamic Republic, entered the Hojjatiyeh Society at this same time. There were others who joined the Mojahedin and had a different fate (of course, even these ones passed through the Hojjatiyeh Society). Among my classmates, Messrs Kamal Kharrazi (current foreign minister), Neímatzadeh (former industries minister) and Haddad Adel (current head of the Academy of Language and Literature) were in the Hojjatiyeh Society. There was also the late Mahmoud Qandi (former PTT minister), Ali Akbar Velayati (former foreign minister) and Ali Akbar Parvaresh (former education minister who was, of course, not a student at Alavi). Iíve spok en about Alavi High School and the important role it played in the religious education of many of the officials of the Islamic Republic in my memoirs, which I will hopefully publish. People like Khodaíi, Ahmadi Alvan-Abadi, Hayati and Abrishamchi also studied at Alavi and they were in the Hojjatiyeh Society before joining the Mojahedin. One of the Hojjatiyehís great teachers and promoters, who was known as Dr Parvizi (that wasnít his real name), used to come to Alavi and teach religious sciences. Yes, thatís when I joined the Hojjatiyeh Society (which was called the anti-Bahai society then). I was taught a potted history of Bahaism by someone who I later realized was the brother of the late Shamsabadi who they say was killed by Mehdi Hashemi in Esfahan. After that, Dr Parvizi used to teach us and, finally, I attended Mr Halabiís classes. All this took less than one year. Mr Halabiís classes consisted of the exposition and criticism of the book Iqan [Conviction], which is the Bahaisí most important book . It was written by Mirza Hoseyníali, known as Bahaíollah. Thatís when I felt that this material was of no interest to me and that I could spend my time better studying the Koran and the Nahj al-Bilaghah, which is exactly what I did. So I left them and my bonds with them were severed to this very day. As I said, during my time there, they didnít teach us any of the laudable ideas you mentioned. Maybe that came later. I learnt a bit about the history of Bahaism, the books Iqan and Bayan [the Word], and then I left, realizing that it wasnít my cup of tea. The reason I say it wasnít my cup of tea is because the anti-Bahai society didnít confine itself to educational activities. They demanded other things from people and from their members: turning up at Bahai gatherings, pretending to be enraptured by Bahaism and mixing in their circles over a period of time under false pretences, following in their footsteps and occasionally beating people up or being beaten up or becoming embroiled in fier ce arguments and counter-arguments. Not my sort of thing. As I said, the Hojjatiyeh Society didnít teach anyone about a minimal, rights-based religion, religious democracy, the relativity of interpretation and so on. Of course, it did not tell people to be corrupt and to commit sins in order to expedite the return of the Hidden Imam either. These unfounded accusations were cooked up for them after the revolution. The members of the Hojjatiyeh Society - all the ones that I knew and know - were without exception pious and religious people and they ranked among the good servants of religion in terms of the standards and criteria of traditional religious communities. The late Mr Halabi himself was a man who, in addition to the great asceticism and hardship of his youth, read the Koran in its entirety on every single night throughout the month of Ramadan and possessed an extraordinary spirituality.
Q. They say you attended Mr Halabiís funeral service. Is that true?
A. Yes, itís true. I went to his funeral service because he was my direct teacher in the Hojjatiyeh Society. In fact, he was more than a teacher and I havenít reached that level of dissoluteness at which I can easily overlook the debt owed to a teacher by a student for the sake of a few political slogans or baseless insults. He was also a famous preacher, in Tehran and throughout the country, and I used to go to hear him on occasion. He was a very penetrating speaker. He could recite reams of poetry by Hafez by heart and, most importantly, he also taught ethics and mysticism. For many years, he was a student of the late Sheykh Hasaníali Nokhodkey in Mashhad and of the late Mirza Mehdi Esfahani, who openly raised the banner of opposition to classical Islamic philosophy. (Of course, I didnít like his style of philosophy, not because of theoretical differences, but because he used to take things as far as excommunication, which is a truly unphilosophical thing to do.) He was a man of ideas, with initia tive and perseverance. See for yourself, at a time when hardly anyone opted for occupations which demanded great effort and offered little recompense, one cleric single-handedly laid the foundations of a very successful organization, which posed such a deep theoretical and ideological challenge to Bahaism. I should add that the Hojjatiyeh Society did not just oppose Bahaism; it was not just concerned with negation, but with affirmation as well. It bred very pious individuals. During the Mosaddeq period, Mr Halabi was among the resistance and he used to endorse the activities of the National Resistance Movement in Mashhad. He was an active and thoughtful cleric. And he dedicated his life to his religious faith and honour. His funeral service was very crowded and lively. I went there with my son and I said to him, look, this gathering is the best testimony to the continued life and success of someone who planted a sapling and watered it, never fearing anyoneís insults or attacks. The prerequisites of success ar e, first, initiative; secondly, perseverance and patience; and, thirdly, the willingness to expect nothing in return. The late Halabi had all these qualities to the utmost. Peace be upon him.
Q. Iranís most important political-religious currents and the spread of religiosity - and not just in the traditional sector of society - came about thanks to the efforts of such religious intellectuals as the late Bazargan and Shariati. In your view, is the clergy capable of answering the religious needs of Iranian society today or not?
A. I have to say frankly and unequivocally, no. I spoke earlier about the reasons. In my opinion, the clergy - exceptions notwithstanding - serves a specific function in our society and in all societies. I donít see any essential difference between the Shiíi clergy and the Sunni or Christian clergy. They are all an unintended consequence of the entry of religion in society. As a rule, the clergyís task is to preserve a series of fixed ideas and to perform religious rituals. For example when you or I go to a funeral service or to hear someone preaching, we never go with the intention of asking questions or criticizing them or embarking on a dialogue. This is why, when there was talk of me taking part in a debate and when I declared myself ready and mentioned Ayotallah Javadi-Amoliís name, the people, whoíd raised the idea of the debate in the first place and whoíd thought Iíd balk at the idea, suddenly became indignant and started saying that it was the height of impudence for someone to engage in a debate with the clergy. It is customary in society for people to go to the clergy and talk about their understanding of religion and to have the clergy point out their mistakes. There is no question of debate. This is in fact the conception that religious people have of the clergy and the clergy has encouraged this view. Even when they arrive at a new idea, they seek its roots in the past. Look at the idea of Velayat-e Faqih which is a novelty. Some of them are adamant in saying that this was always ę feqhís inclination Ľ! Or they say, if someone doesnít accept this idea, they donít understand the first thing about feqh, and so on. Looking to the past and remaining in the past has become our clergyís inclination. And this carries a burden which needs to be set out in its own place. In my opinion, just as religious knowledge is nourished by extra-religious material, the clergy, too, is nourished by sources outside itself. If no developments take place around the clergy, things wi ll stagnate within the clergy because of that professionís tendencies. In my book on the theoretical contraction and expansion of religion, Iíve spoken of the secret behind the slow development of religious knowledge and I mentioned this same point. The late Motahhari used to say that the clergy was immersed in the mundane and this continues to be true. Exceptions notwithstanding, it is true as a rule.
By virtue of being multi-sourced and not being nourished by religion alone, religious intellectualism has more room for manoeuvre and initiative than the clergy in terms of arriving at new ides and responding to new needs. People like Motahhari and so on, who are so widely respected by the clergy, were the exceptions and we never had the likes of them again.
Q. People like the late Motahhari and Tabatabaiís strengths lay in their command of philosophy, not in feqh. Donít you agree?
A. The late Motahhari was, in my opinion, first and foremost someone who loved knowledge. He was, secondly, a fortunate man, in the right place at the right time. Since he frequented universities and was in constant contact with students, he was forced to equip himself for dealing with their questions, as well as with the criticism of opponents and left-wingers who acted with relative freedom at the time of the Shah. He could not address them from a position of power. And this is a blessing that the clergy has been deprived of in our day. I highlighted this important point in my article Our Expectation of Universities and Seminaries. In our day, the clergy has walled itself in to such an extent that it has inflicted the greatest harm on itself. No-one challenges clerics and they seem to be sitting in a secure enclosure. This enclosure will certainly contribute further to the clergyís stagnation. The harm that a political system inflicts on itself by resorting to repression is as of nothing co mpared to the harm that a theoretical system inflicts on itself in this way. Look, for example, at how hard Motahhari worked to cleanse Islam of the charge of sanctioning slavery. Now, one of the clerics in Qom (Mesbah-Yazdi) says openly in the newspapers that slavery is a very good thing; weíll take slaves and train them and send them back to their countries. Iím speaking about the same Mr Mesbah who has a very good mind for philosophical and metaphysical analysis, and is superior from this point of view to Javadi-Amoli and Ashtiani. But when it comes to religion, he demonstrates an offensive pomposity and rigidity. In one of his books, he asks the question: why was it necessary for us to have only twelve Immaculate Imams? He then answers himself by saying: because Godís aim was realized with twelve Imams and there was no need for any more! Does he really think this is a satisfactory answer? Wouldnít he have said the same thing if weíd had seventeen imams? Why do we have to ask a question which weíre going t o answer in this way? This kind of explanation makes the reader lose all faith in the writer. Even more astounding and patronizing was Mr Aminiís response to Mr Montazeri. I watch very little television. Watching some of the programmes on television - especially since one of the Larijani brothers took over - requires a great deal of time, interest or patience. And I have none of these things. But I had stopped at a roadside cafe while I was travelling somewhere some months ago and the television happened to be on. Mr Amini was responding to Mr Montazeri. He said among other things: ę Our problem with you is that we donít know what youíre trying to say. What are you carrying on about? Ľ My amazement has still not subsided since that evening. I ask myself, is it really so hard to understand what heís saying? Youíve locked up a man in his house, you donít let him speak or to leave the house; then, you stand behind a pulpit and declare on television: ę What are you carrying on about? Ľ This is the meaning of being seduced by power, not feeling any need to listen to rivals and speaking from a position of power. No young person today can challenge one of the clerics in the way they used to challenge Motahhari. Motahhari developed thanks to all those challenges; I assure you. Today, if you say one word to these gentlemen, they start hollering: weíve been insulted, the sanctity of the clergy is being called into question, and so on. You cannot serve religion in this way. Mr Mesbah announces that he will speak at the Feyziyeh Seminary to clear up any misunderstandings and shed light on things. He says: ę Yes, we said that the leader may be criticized, but we didnít mean any old lout could stand up and say whatever he liked. Ľ Someone should let Mr Mesbah know that if Motahhari had dismissed critics in advance as louts or asked them to present their credentials to prove that they were not louts before allowing them to speak, he would never have become Motahhari and the time would never have co me when Mr Mesbah and his like could speak in this way at the Feyziyeh. The leader criticizes everyone. Why shouldnít everyone be able to criticize the leader? Why do they have to come to you to establish their credentials before opening their mouths in criticism? Why do you speak to the people in this way? Why donít you just say no-one can criticize the leader and be done with it. When this same Mr Mesbah said, those who want freedom are after free sex, I realized that things had hit rock bottom and that there was no longer any question of a learned debate. And itís a great shame.
Q. As an intellectual, do you understand the younger generation in our society today, the generation that will determine the countryís future? And do you consider their behaviour acceptable?
A. I can truthfully say that I have seen young people in other parts of the world and become acquainted with them. In all fairness, the young people in our country are among the best in the world. They demand very little and there is an essential purity about them. Some people here seem to consider being young - or being a woman - a crime. Youth is like flowing water. When you grow old, you dry up. My audience largely consists of young people. They react positively to what I have to say, so you can say that I understand them to some extent and they understand what Iím trying to say. We have a good relationship. The methods used in our society supposedly to guide young people are not in keeping with the spirit of youth. Our religious conception, too, is authoritarian and tailored for the elderly. It is not a youthful conception. It needs to be revised.
Q. Our young people, the intelligent ones, will inevitably want to follow in the footsteps of the prominent figures in our society. Before, when the climate was repressive, if an intelligent youth had heard your story, they would possibly have thought that they shouldnít devote themselves to religious matters as you did, occasionally risking your life and your good name. Setting aside the element of risk, if a talented young person was prepared to take the risk and enter this arena, what would your advice to them be?
A. My advice to such people is first and foremost ethical; they must be patient and not expect quick results. They must, at the same time, keep sight of the beauty of the goal. Secondly, they must never become unconditionally devoted to anyone. Thirdly, they should never resort to violence.
In the realm of religion, people quickly tend to become devoted to a master so that they neednít think for themselves any more. I warn them against this and tell them, donít expect me to answer you in a way that will put your mind at ease. My skill is to disturb you and make you toss and turn in your bed all night. Most of our religious ideas and interpretations are misguided and the need for reconsidering things must be seen as the norm. In such circumstances, whatís the point of pledging unquestioning devotion to someone or resorting to violence? You only resort to violence when you canít be bothered to think or when youíre incapable of it.
Q. You eschew the master-follower relationship in the realm of ideas?
A. Look, the master-follower relationship entails the abandonment of questioning. That is loveís domain. In the domain of rationality, our business is to question things.
Q. Dr Soroush, I believe that the Islamic revolution led to a lifting of the taboo - in the eyes of the traditional and religious sectors of society - on many aspects of western civilization such as television, urbanism and the consequences of urbanism. This process expedited the previous trend of modernization under the banner of religion. Donít you think that this process of modernization, which is an extension of the Islamic revolution, will harm the foundations of religion?
A. Revolutions as a whole have two aspects: one is the practical aspect which takes the form of destruction and rebellion, and the other is theoretical innovation and renewal. In our revolution, there was, it has to be said, little theoretical innovation. In the French or Russian revolutions, regardless of whether we approve of them or not, both these aspects were manifest. After the initial, passing burst of rebellion, which has to end sooner or later, the thing that takes root and grows is the new ideology for the sake of which the revolution took place. In the French revolution, this consisted of the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity. And, in the Russian revolution, it was class struggle and socialism. And there were substantial theories behind all these ideas. In our revolution, the only idea that was offered by the clergy to the revolution was the concept of the Velayat-e Faqih, an idea which rapidly became intertwined with power, removing the possibility of criticism by anyone, including the clergy. You can therefore see that what happened after the revolution was not the growth of one or more new and ground-breaking ideas, but the continuation of the previous trend under a new guise; that is, modernization and development. If anyone wants to render a service to the revolution and religion, they must pick up the cast-aside burden of theoretical innovation. And this theoretical innovation would not be something we could discuss at present. If and when it occurs, weíll be able to talk about its general aims and possible consequences.
Q. Certain terms were raised in the course of the revolution such as ę arrogance Ľ [estekbar], ę meekness Ľ [estezíaf], ę reaction Ľ [ertejaí], ę graven image Ľ [taghut], etc. To what extent did these notions arise from a Marxist approach?
A. If you take arrogance to mean ownership of the means of production and imperialism, and so on, and similarly in the case of such terms as meekness and reaction, then they can be seen as new notions. However, theyíre not used in their proper sense by us. If you go back to their initial meaning, then youíll arrive at something simple; that is, the oppressor and the oppressed; which is why Iím saying weíre theoretically impoverished. This is why people who care about the revolution and would like to see it survive must contribute to its theoretical renovation. This is exactly the task that has been neglected in our society. They crush down the people who are capable of handling this task and they assist, instead, the infantile games played by the hezbollahis and the like. This is like blowing into a horn from the wrong end. They encourage things that we already have an excess of and they undermine things in which weíre already impoverished. Iíve said it again and again that the debt to love has been paid adequately in this revolution. Now itís time to pay our debt to rationality. And I have to ask myself, have we left it too late?
Q. To what extent are you of the opinion that Marxist theoretical currents are using the hezbollahi movement to attack liberalism?
A. If not one hundred per cent, then certainly 99 per cent. I have no doubt whatsoever that the methods and concepts used by these people and the aims adopted and pursued by them have been modelled on and derived from Marxist theory and practice, and from the Tudeh Party in particular. One can go through the names of specific people and identify what they did in the past and say at what point they passed through the Tudeh Party or the Rah-e Kargar or other left-wing groups, and under what duplicitous guises theyíre operating now. There are some so-called religious journals in this country, in which - if you disregard the name and the cover - youíll find material that is crying out that it has been produced by the Tudeh Party. The same obsession with mud raking, slander, cooked up charges of espionage, etc. are among the many telltale signs.
Q. Can you name names?
A. Please allow me not to.
Q. Who have your best critics been over these past years?
A. It is very difficult for me to answer that question. I donít know how dispassionate I can be in my judgement. Unfortunately, some of the currents that hark back to the Tudeh Party have so muddied the water and so sullied their opposition with political calculations and motives as to make it impossible to judge which parts have been purely political and which parts not. It is extremely difficult for me to say at the moment. When somebody says by way of a criticism of Popper: Popperís problem is that he doesnít recognize the Velayat (and the person who said this is the gang leader of many of those opponents and critics), then how can you attach any theoretical value to his criticism? Isnít this the height of political opportunism? Iíd like to add nevertheless that there have been and are people whoíd like to write serious theoretical critiques of my works without any ulterior motives, but, because of the adverse climate that the others have created, they refrain from doing so and I donít bla me them. I have heard a number of friends and acquaintances say that theyíd like to do so but that theyíd hate to be put in the same category as those other people.
Q. Are you willing to invite them to publish their views in this newspaper?
A. You invite them and youíll have my blessing.
Q. Dr Soroush, one of the main groups opposed to you - theoretically speaking, not politically - consists of the late Fardid and his students, such as Mr (...). I have two questions about Fardid. Do you consider his viewpoint to be a religious one? And do your see his criticism of you as fair comment?
A. Mr Fardid has departed from this world and one is loathe to say certain things about him. I first met Mr Fardid at his home at his invitation, early on in the revolution. It wasnít a lengthy visit. He asked me a few questions. He said are you familiar with my classes? Have you heard my talks? And I answered him. That was all. Then, I heard that heíd said in his lectures and talks that that fellow support Shapour Bakhtiar. That was when I realized what he was about and what his agenda was. Once heíd taken a copy of the Koran out of his pocket and said, I swear by this Koran that that fellow is irreligious. He said to a group of people at the Theosophy and Philosophy Society that that fellow is a Freemason. I know these things for a fact. So, when you say, ę theoretical opponent Ľ, I have to say that his problem with me had nothing theoretical about it. What he was afflicted with was a kind of philosophical barbarity or paranoia, combined with a total absence of any political principles o r ethical scruples. All his verbiage about Heidegger was nothing but the endless repetition of a few inflated and meaningless phrases. He and his followers never bothered to translate even half a page of Heidegger to demonstrate to their hapless listeners what the poor man was really trying to say. His business consisted of surrounding himself with acolytes, indulging freely in slander and character assassination, taking a few clueless and gormless people by the hand and teaching them how to drill holes into words in the name of philosophy, spreading anti-Semitism and dividing philosophers into Jews and non-Jews, and proposing and inventing an endless array of new terms for insulting people, such as Freemason, lackey of the West, catamite and homosexual, and so on. He trained students who are arrogant, narcissistic and foul-mouthed, and who spend their time searching for new swear words instead of troubling themselves with any philosophical reflection. As to the suggestion that he was religious, to say that w ould be to insult him and to deceive everyone else. He and his master, Heidegger, considered the era of metaphysics (religious and non-religious) to be at an end. Donít be misled by his slogans in support of the Velayat after the revolution. That was sheer political opportunism and sycophancy. The element of violence played a pivotal role in his language, mind, philosophy and behaviour. Look at the publications that glorify violence now. They are all run, without exception, by his students or his studentsí students. And the final manifestation of their views can be found in the Ansar-e Hezbollah. Let us hope it is the last incarnation of that philosophical barbarity.
Q. What do you think about Dariush Shayeganís shift away from his former views about the West? Do you think that their future encounters with modernity will give rise to some kind of rationality among the students of this group?
A. In his early writings, Shayegan spoke of ę the spirit Ľ of the West, and the East and West were portrayed as the Hegelian ę march Ľ of such aimless (and imaginary) spirits. In my view, fantasies of this kind shed little light on reality. Shayegan has now decided, in the course of his philosophical musings, that Kantian philosophy brings us closer to paradise than the Heideggerian variety. He has, in other words, embraced analytical philosophy. This is a sound decision. Hegelian and Heideggerian rationality are not suited to us. We are in greater need of consequentialist research.
Q. To what extent is our conception, in Iran, of western philosophy correct and accurate?
A. Thatís a long and tragic tale. Western philosophy outside universities and western philosophy inside our universities are worlds apart. Western philosophy outside universities has, fortunately, flourished and the greatest number of translations of and books about western philosophy have come from writers and researchers in this sector, whether in the form of journals or books. Tehran University, which is the countryís mother university and which has had a philosophy department for the past 50 years, has a truly terrible and dismal record in terms of its philosophical output. On the threshold of the revolution, this department knew and taught next to nothing about new analytical philosophy and logic. Their absolute limit was the works of the late Bozorgmehr who had translated some things by Popper or about him, Wittgenstein and Russell. Felicien Chaletís book, which dates back 80 years (and is revered accordingly!), was the departmentís bible on methodology and epistemology; a book written by a no n-philosopher for university students not specializing in philosophy. The general book on philosophy, which served as their basic textbook, was a translation of a book entitled Philosophy made Simple, which was written for non-specialists, but it was held in high regard by the department. Itís not surprising that when, after the revolution, the department was confronted with an unexpected flood of new epistemology and philosophy of science, it reacted by embarking on an ill-humoured offensive against this. All those hysterical diatribes against Popper were nothing more than the rage of a deprived people who felt theyíd been left behind and were frightened of the oncoming tidal wave that showed up their incompetence. In their state of indignation, they sought assistance not only from slander but from lies as well. Youíll be surprised to learn that not only did they wreak vengeance on Hitlerís behalf against Popper (who had fled to New Zealand to escape him), but made the seekers of philosophical learnin g suffer as well from their vindictiveness by granting doctorates to people who offered nothing in their theses other than insults to Popper. A few years ago, a journal published a report about a doctorate thesis which was simply astounding. The thesis was purportedly a comparative study of old and new logic. The author of the thesis was Rouhollah Alemi and his academic supervisors were two lecturers at Tehran Universityís philosophy department, Dr Davari and Dr Ahmadi (both members of the Cultural Revolution Council), who, as everyone knows, are so unfamiliar with new logic that they wouldnít be able to establish the validity of pV q and pL q. Iím not exaggerating. In this thesis, it had been demonstrated that new logic suffered from fundamental, structural flaws and it was, in effect, refuted. If anyone had really been capable of demonstrating what was being claimed here, they would have been entit led to at least one hundred Nobel prizes. And here we had this outstanding gentleman (Rouhollah Alemi) achieving these results in the simplest and most splendid way, striking a deadly blow against Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Godel, Alonzo Church, Alfred Tarski, Saul Kripke, et al.; all the masters of the field! Now what was the story about? One, the supervisorsí great mastery over the subject! They also happened to be members of the Cultural Revolution Council, in addition to being lecturers and supervisors. Then, there was the fact that the West had been nailed in the thesis and its logic condemned, proving once and for all that the great minds and logicians of that part of the world didnít have very good brains, such that a mere amateur could show them up; hence, the theory predicting the Westís decline and fall was clearly true. The thesis had also given Popper a good bashing and it had been stated there that, according to Popper, ę experience is falsif iable! Ľ (Read it again and enjoy!) In short, a child who hadnít quite learnt the basic moves of the game, had defeated all the grand masters. The tale of this thesis, which is truly an appalling disgrace for Tehran University, was kept quiet and hidden away through the silent, shamefaced connivance of the lecturers. However, for those who were in the know, it spoke of the scandalous impoverishment and corruption that had occurred in the name philosophical research, and it revealed the haste, irresponsibility and ignorance of the lecturers who were determined to demonstrate at any cost the corruption and arrogance of the West. The department has now slowly and grudgingly accepted parts of the new analytical philosophy. Nonetheless, an ideological hue and the spirit of Fardid still prevail. And some of the lecturers give talks at the seminars held by the Ansar-e Hezbollah.
However, I have to add that post-revolution philosophical vitality has, in all fairness, increased, both in the Qom seminary and elsewhere. The philosophy of science, philosophy of ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of linguistics (which is known by the ridiculous and wrong name of appendage philosophies) have now found their place, pushing aside the philosophy departmentís obsession with Heidegger. Good original works and translations keep coming on the market and there are some very good translators. Fortunately, all the prejudicial dust that was stirred up against western philosophy in the early days of the revolution has settled. So far, two faculties specializing in the philosophy of science and epistemology have been established, and there is a faculty specializing in the science of history, and so on.
Many Iranian students are studying these subjects in Europe and the United States and, on their return, they will invigorate the philosophical scene and bring it up to date. It is very clear to me that the climate is much more open for philosophy lovers to become acquainted with western philosophy now than when the West seemed to have only one philosopher and that was Heidegger, a man who had given metaphysics a good thrashing and sent it packing.
On the whole, non-university circles have been more active in this field than universities. All the same, we would still benefit from a few substantial works about western philosophy and Foroughiís Theosophyís Journey through Europe continues to serve as a beacon. I should also add that praise and gratitude are due to the lecturers in the said department and in the philosophy departments at our other universities who struggled on with their work regardless of the climate of philosophical barbarity, who kept alight the flame of learning and who wrote useful books to guide the enthusiasts, totally disregarding the baseless charges that interest in new logic amounted to propagating and becoming bewitched by western ideas; they must on no account be grouped with those other few who continue to cling to the grapnels of power.
Q. To what extent do you see the currency of ideological abuse and the use of such terms as baboon, one who does it, one who has it done to them, etc. as being a direct outcome of Fardidís hold over his students? Fardid and his students have eliminated from Iranís cultural history some of the countryís noblest and most learned thinkers based on the claim that they were Freemasons. I wanted to ask you, can a personís scientific and human standing be discounted for no other reason than that they are Freemasons?
A. Making philosophy ideological and driving away philosophers with offensive labels was the misguided tradition set by Fardid and his followers. Philosophy transcends such divisions. And the peculiar thing about Fardidís followers is that they never held Heideggerís cooperation with Hitler against him, whereas they completely blackened Seyyed Jamalís name because he passed through a Freemasonry lodge in Egypt. The Tudeh Partyís thinking still has a mighty hold on them. All this insistence on describing philosophers as belonging to the western bourgeoisie and acting as the mercenaries of British imperialism and using these labels - instead of arguments - to dismiss their ideas, is a consequence of that hold, and itís not too surprising that it has given rise to such things as the Ansar-e Hezbollah and that thesis worthy of the Nobel prize!
Q. There seems to be a growing interest these days in a kind of mysticism that seems to fall midway between poetry and philosophy; works by Krishnamurti, Paulo Coelho and Castaneda. To what extent do you see the appearance of these works as a product of the countryís anaemic conditions?
A. You know my views on this subject. I said in my article Disoriented Thinking, Disoriented Identity that two forces have been in constant battle in our countryís history: the forces of precision and the forces of awe. The forces of precision consist of philosophy, theology, logic and mathematics, which are precise and based on reasoning. And the forces of awe consist of poetry, art and mysticism. Equilibrium between these two forces brings about equilibrium in our cultural identity. If one starts to gain the upper hand, it creates problems. Since the Mongol invasion, our country has been predominantly under the sway of the forces of awe. We need to redress the balance by reinforcing precision. I therefore see the appearance of Indian and Mexican mystical and pseudo-mystical ideas as detrimental; much as I see the non-analytic Hegelian philosophers and their like in this light. One of the duties of intellectuals is to create a balance between these two forces.
Q. How much importance do you attach to art in the future equilibrium of Iranian society?
A. One of the effects of tyranny (religious or non-religious) is a subsidence of the spirit of art. We need an art-loving God (gentle, beautiful and not ill-humoured). A judgmental God who holds a whip and gives orders breaks the spirit of art in us. In my introduction to my tale of the masters of knowledge, I said that I prefer Mowlavi Rumiís God to Ghazaliís. Ghazaliís God paralyzes the spirit, preventing people from flourishing and experiencing joy. Yes, a mundane-stratified religion leaves little room for art; but itís quite the reverse with mystical religion. Many of the dry and severe aspects of our social, political and educational life are an outcome of the absence of two elements which contribute to equilibrium and vitality: women and art.
Q. Youíre a thinker and your ideas have met with violence. Are you prepared to die in defence of your ideas?
A. Look, I believe that not only does our society need its own Hafez, it needs its own Gandhi too. Our society seems curiously imbued with violence. During our religious mourning ceremonies, this violence melts and flows from peopleís eyes as tears. Iíve never seen a society as prone to weeping as ours. But my whole aim is the establishment of a society in which no-one has to die in defence of their ideas or to say their final prayers before addressing a public gathering.
Q. Whatís the story of the six million dollars?
A. Look, there are many different worlds. The Majlis deputy for Dezfoul lives in one world. In his world, the United States has given six million dollars to someone by the name of Dr Soroush. Then there is another world, in which the real Dr Soroush lives. In this world, people place a picture of that former world in front of them and chuckle.
Q. What is your current employment situation? Can you teach at the university or not? Can you address public gatherings? Can you travel abroad?
A. For the past two years, without any legal justification or authorization, the head of the Human Sciences Research Institute, which is an organization affiliated to the Higher Education Ministry, has not paid a penny of my salary, although I am, without question, one of their official researchers. It has been a year since the Higher Education Ministry issued my dismissal order. I have appealed against the decision and Iím still waiting for a reply. I wrote two letters to the head of the research institute, asking why theyíd stopped my salary. He told his driver to tell me over the telephone: we donít have time to answer any old letter, tell him to go away. Thus, his highness sent me packing, making it abundantly clear how highly he valued my services. As to the Academy of Sciences, they drove me out on the orders of Dr Ali Shariatmadari. In both cases, their excuse was my absence. And my absence was a result of the climate of insecurity which made it unsafe for me to go to work. The strange coming s and goings at the Theosophy Society, the suspicious telephone calls, the threats hovering around me were robbing me of the ability to work and think. I wrote to the head of the research institute saying, the moment my safety could be guaranteed I would report for work. Iíve offered these explanations in order to ensure that the people who went to such lengths to serve our countryís culture in the hope of recompense will be amply rewarded and receive recognition for their services.
As to teaching or giving talks at universities, itís completely out of the question. Iíd need to say my final prayers before taking part in any such session. They recently annulled the thesis of a student at Martyr Beheshti University because I was his supervisor. They asked him to write another thesis. Many students come to me, asking to have their theses supervised by me, but their universities wonít allow it. As to my passport, it was taken from me from May to November 1997. Then it was restored and now I can travel abroad.
Q. So, how do you earn a living?
A. From writing. Although I donít demand any crumbs from this world, unfortunately, I canít claim to have my meals delivered to me from the other world like the mystic.
Not a penny to our name, yet weíre merry
No food on the table some nights, but weíre merry
As our meals are delivered from the other world
In this world, we demand no crumbs and weíre merry
Nevertheless, in response to the advice given to me by people who claim to have my interests at heart, Iíd like to recall the following piece by Saídi:
Saídi, they say, why do you sit idly on the side?
With your gift for words, wealth is guaranteed
Just spin a few odes in praise of the king
And youíll lack for nothing, heíll provide for your every need
Were I a bird, theyíd urge me to be a vulture and look for carcasses
But the high soaring eagle has no need for such feed
Even if I gained ten pounds of gold, at the cost of an ounce of art
Iíd feel indebted to the bestower and ashamed in my heart
No, weíll not sell our poverty for anything
Go tell the king, Saídi lacks for nothing
Q. What new books do you have in hand. You said once in an interview with Kiyan that you would soon be publishing books in Arabic and English. What stage are they at?
A. I have about ten unpublished works in various stages of completion which Iím gradually finishing, ranging from the compendium of Mowlavi Rumiís couplets to purely philosophical works such as Causality and Generalities. Guilds of Religiosity, In the Presence of His Excellency Hafez and The Spreading of the Prophetís Experience are such that they are almost actualized potentialities and are nearer completion than the others. God willing, theyíll be entrusted to Gutenbergís great monster soon so that they may be made presentable and have their coming out party. The book Expansion and Contraction has been fully translated into Arabic. Iím currently proof-reading the translation and, God willing, it will be published in Lebanon soon. A book in English, by the provisional name of Visions & Revisions is being published by Oxford University Press and Iím awaiting its publication much as you are. A compilation of my poems and my autobiography will be some of m y next works, with Godís assistance.
Q. You work in four areas: 1. the philosophy of science; 2. the philosophy of religion; 3. mysticism and ethics; and 4. literature. Which is the most important and the most pivotal for you?
A. I have to say that Iím still walking on all fours and have not managed to stand up yet. In fact, these four poles are like the four directions. Whichever way I face, the others seem to scatter around and behind me. I try to be fair and face each way in turn. Who knows, maybe one day their numbers will grow. Weíre not talking about permanent matrimony, where a maximum of four companions are allowed!
Q. Once, in connection with the film ę Time of Love Ľ, you spoke in defence of earthly love. Are you still of the same opinion?
A. Earthly or this-worldly love is a doorway into heaven opened to us on earth. Why should I want to have that door shut? Love is essentially heavenly. Earth is a stranger to this subject. Anyone who attains it paces along heavenís rooftops. The noble Prophet said he knew of love for three things: prayer, women and perfume. So, wearing a good scent is to go a third of the way towards the Prophet. Loving women is another third. And prayer, another. In view of all these ethical and divine blessings which have been bestowed on love, it would take a great deal of hard-heartedness and poor taste to diminish it or ban it.
Let me put things more clearly. I arrived at religion via the mystics, not the jurists. And the mystics are by no means opposed to love. Love of God is excellent in its own place, but earthly love is an excellent thing too, for it serves as the ladder to God. Even if it were not a ladder, it is very beautiful and healing in itself, and it gives one courage and sates all hunger. A person in love feels no hunger and this is no mean blessing. When Mowlana said:
Eyes sated with beauty, heart brimming with courage
Iím filled with a lionís calm confidence, a starís infinite glow
He was speaking of the characteristics of love and when Hafez said:
Seek love for, one day, this world will end
And youíll have never have known the secret of life
He was showing us the true way to live. All loves are the same, heavenly or earthly. Just as all beauty is the same or all truth is the same. Discovering one of them, opens the way to discovering all the others. And:
It makes no difference at all whether love moves this way or that
All that matters is that itís our love
I can think of nothing more beautiful than a lover expressing love to the beloved. Thatís the limit of my imagination and mind. I want to say that nothing can be more beautiful and greater. I was visiting one of the Italian ports a few years ago. One afternoon, I was in a gloomy state of mind. I was looking for a spiritual place where I could say a few words to God. I entered a church. It was completely empty except for one person, a young girl who was deep in prayer. My entry and departure did not disturb her at all. Iíll never forget her prayers and communion with God. It was a beautiful and wondrous sight. Some serious films and films about love (not the lustful, shameless and crude ones) have had the same impact on me. Just as when it begins to rain, I feel anxious and think that the entire sky, with all its grandeur, is going to tumble down and that some grave event is about to occur, Iím equally bewildered when I see scenes of love; I feel that al l of life, in all its nakedness, is trying to vaunt itself and enchant us. Sexuality is a pretext for love; otherwise, love is greater than sexuality. This must be taught to people so that they can see things in this light. Someone used to say that, by all accounts, there wonít be any sign of love in paradise, God has not spoken about love. I said, that paradise is for people who have been deprived of rewards and blessings. Those who love, want for nothing. And that satiation is itself a paradise:
Weíve found what we sought and we need nothing
What weíve found is the most precious wealth and we lack nothing
Q. In your interview ę Intellectuals, the Powerless Wielders of PowerĽ (Knowledge, Intellectuals, Religiosity, third edition) you warned the creative intellectual against involvement in politics. Have you heeded your own advice? Whatís your political project?
A. Yes, I have. Intellectuals must not seek political positions and posts. They have enough power and going after political power will deflect them from their creative work. However, being concerned about society, the people and power; trying to direct things towards the good and theorizing the transition from tradition to modernity; having an impact on politics using the lever of culture are certainly a part of their tasks and their mission. Fortunately, I donít have any political ambitions myself and Iím not saying that by way of a kind asceticism or self-inflicted deprivation. God has simply not given my that desire. Just as I have no desire to eat a kiwi. My political project is to bring about cultural justice. What I mean by culture justice is the establishment of relative equilibrium between the different elements of culture; to prevent politics from becoming so prevalent as to cast a shadow over art, or to prevent art from becoming so rampant that it casts a shadow over science and logic, and so on, or to prevent religion from casting a shadow over everything else. Thinking about this justice is a political and cultural task, as well as a theoretical one. At the same time, I will, of course, support any critical, justice-seeking, enlightened measure undertaken by sympathetic, brave and good people (religious or secular) with the intention of promoting freedom and removing socials ills. I consider it to be my duty to do so, both as religious person and as a human being.
Q. What do you think of Jameah newspaper?
A. Let me first say that, in the realm of spiritual blessings and pleasures, I can think of nothing sweeter than remaining true to people. Itís not without reason that one of Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumiís oaths was: ę I swear by menís constancy. Ľ Here at Jameah, you remained true to the people. You suffered and endured. Joy onto you, for you brought joy to the people. I know now that, when this door is shut, people will feel great bitterness. And what can I say other than to recall this poem by Hafez:
Theyíve boarded up the door to the alehouse, I see bitterly
Let them open the door now to duplicity and deceit
If theyíve shut it to please the claimants of piety
Fear not, for theyíll remember God one day and reopen it
Jameah: Thank you.
* This interview was published in the Tehran daily Jameah on 16.6.98, 17.6.98, 28.6.98, 29.6.98 and Newly published book: Siyasat Nameh
Translated by Nilou Mobasser