Soroush Among Those for and Against
(An Interview With Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush,
Summary: The name of Abdolkarim Soroush began to spread for the first time among the members of the Islamic societies abroad and at major universities in the country because of his philosophical criticisms of Marxism before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Now, two decades after the victory of the revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, these are no longer Soroush's anti-Marxist discourses which present him as a pivotal personality for the educated groups. These are the consequences of his religious theories, the theory of expansion and contraction of the religious knowledge and religious pluralism, which have put him at the turning point of the intellectual currents.
The theory has caused very serious religious intellectual discussions and attracted wide spectrums of those for and against.
On one side of the spectrum those who recognize the late Dr. Ali Shariati as an outstanding theoretician and personality in the dialogue of Islam of the revolution during the revolution time are introducing Soroush as the prominent theoretician of the dialogue of pluralist Islam in the new era.
On the other side the opponents have given Soroush the title of the theoretician of the project for cultural metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In this interview, Jameah has tried to have talks with Soroush by using the views of those for and against him.
Q: About your religious opponents, they include political clerics and the religious educated on one side of the spectrum and the currents such as Ansare Hizbollah on the other side.
They have three criticisms about you:
1. In presenting the religion you are stressing the wisdom of the mankind type. This weakens the religious convictions and conducts and rites.
>From a sociological aspect the viewpoint of this group can be presented like this: While the youth in big cities are free from the previous social controls your remarks prepare the grounds for growth of irreligiousness and lack of faith.
2. Your theology teachings in practice weaken the position of the clergy.
The clergy are influential in our society in two respects. Because of their social position and their being rooted in the mosques they have popular groups as their audience in the religious ceremonies. And they have a role in the political power pyramid. But your teachings open the hand of all for religious understanding, reduce the sanctity of those teachings and weaken the position of the clergy as the exclusive teachers of religious affairs.
3. Your teachings because of the reliance on wisdom results in a minimum religion, a religion which has a very little role in the management of the political and social affairs.
You consider wisdom and human experience in medical affairs seriously and say a patient must submit to the knowledge of a doctor. The same reasoning is extended to the domain of politics.
In other words today in the new political and philosophical thinking the discussion is about the "manner" of government and not "who" should be the governor.
Accordingly, in this type of expression the theory of the guardianship of the faqih is not seen whatsoever, because this theory is paying attention to who should govern.
Thus some stress the consequences of this manner of reasoning and say on that basis the foundations of the theory of the guardianship of the faqih are weakened.
What is your answer to these criticism?
A: My opponents are several groups.
The first group are opposed to the principle of religion and religious faith. They are dissatisfied with my keeping the religious questions alive. Some of the writers belonging to the Tudeh Party are in this group.
They are the ones who taught some of the undiscerning hostility towards (Karl Raimund) Popper and who hide their opposition to the religion and their agreement to totalitarianism under that cover.
The second group are those who want the religion for going to heaven.
The third group are those who want the religion to be an ideology for making revolution and strengthening the government and politics.
The last two groups do not like my questions either. They want to arrive at their heavens (whether earthly or celestial) quickly and do not have the patience to stop, to reflect, to read and to ask questions.
In my view religion is a hammock hung from the two sides with the ropes of the presuppositions and consequences. My eyes are more at the two sides rather than the inside of the hammock. As a result there is a fourth group among my opponents. They do not pay attention to the initial points for the religion's becoming the religion and understanding of the religion. for them it is sufficient if at the beginning something is presented about the righteousness of the religion and they are not concerned about what the religion does in society and in history and what system it establishes and what kind of human being it creates.
The society of the religious mostly has a non-historical anterior look and not a historical and posterior look. In other words by theological and philosophical premises it proves the religion and then says: "Now this is just you should close your eyes to the consequences and do not ask questions."
This is why the religion must be studied from the forward aspect, ie through its consequences too. And its history should also be considered both as regards the Revelation and as regards its later history and civilization.
This is why some are using the label of positivist for us.
The forward view considers whether the consequence of what you see is good or bad. The posterior look is not concerned whether you have one or one hundred religious quotations to prove the guardianship of the faqih. It considers the specific political consequence of the guardianship of the faqih in society and makes judgment on the basis of those consequences.
The posterior look does not say: "Because you have reasoned that the religion of Islam is just therefor everything which emerges out of this Islam is just and desirable." It says the historical report card of Islam should also be reviewed. It thinks in the same way abut the Prophethood and other things.
Of Course this view desanctifies and is different from the usual and non-historical method of the religious learned.
The root of this view is a crossword consideration of the facts. In the crossword of the facts the vertical and horizontal columns must match each other. It is impossible for an opinion itself to be correct but its results to be bad. After all fruits and roots can be known by each other. It cannot be said our school is good but people are bad and therefore our school gives answer badly in practice. Something should be considered for the assumed badness of the people and be included in the school.
About the point that some say reliance on wisdom weakens the religion, I say that reliance on posterior wisdom weakens the anterior faith. I agree to that. In other words this is one of the consequences, or perhaps one of the important achievements of the posterior stand. I am not opposed to this criticism; I only explain to the critics that the anterior faith weakens the posterior wisdom, but the posterior wisdom strengthens the anterior faith. In other words reliance on the posterior methods weakens the faith based on the anterior reasons or makes it reconsidered. But on its turn it can create a posterior faith.
The point that what I say leads to a minimum religion, that is undoubtedly the case. The minimum religion is like the alphabet for one's becoming literate and like electricity for development. Anything less has no benefit, but more than that does not have any stop.
Q: Don't you have any intention of being inharmonious with the religious associations and religious rites?
A: I was grown up in those associations. Until three or four years ago I used to go to Mashhad by train with one of the traditional associations during the anniversary of the demise of the Prophet and used to spend a couple of days with the members.
We would sit in a basement in Mashhad. They were eating and sleeping there. They were beating their chests and there were dirges and I was among them. One of the eulogizers could not perform well and could not make people cry. He told his friend that the impure presence of such and such (Dr. Soroush) had struck him dumb.
I did not go there after that so that his speech would return to him.
The associations are the best classes for common people's religious faith, the most transparent showcase of the clergy and the most cordial religious circles. Why should I break those showcases? Instead, I clean them like a simple window-cleaner and see the inside of them.
All I say is that this clergy and those associations do not actualize all the potentials of the religion. They are useful for securing tranquillity and eliminating fatigue, but a platform is needed for jumping. And this is the thing which must be found.
You said what I say weakens the clergy. You did not say whether my weak statements or firm statements do that. I try so that what I say has reasoning strength. But if these reasoned statements shake pillars somewhere this is the fault of the shaking pillars. If my statements are weak refer to their weakness.
To find those who are weakening the clergy one should not go to the left and the right and should not have projection.
A religious authority who says when a drinker became the coach of the national team they received seven goals, is taking away the light of office of religious authority and the clergy. A cleric who in the name of Islamic sociology writes irrelevant and unscientific things and those things are published by Shiraz University is weakening the clergy.
The Friday prayer preacher who supports the attack by the hooligans at Tehran University (in September 1995) and attacks a teacher who was beaten, is weakening the clergy.
A clergy who is saying: "Even today we are ready to have slaves..." and publishes these things in the large-circulation newspapers is harming the clergy.
Q: Is the viewpoint you mentioned now the necessity of technological development and modernism? I mean the change of the view on the religion. When we say modernism and technological development have political, social and cultural consequences and result in diversity and different thoughts, does such a view stem from such a need? Or did such a view exist in the past too?
A: There is an assumption in what you say. You say emergence of every new theology and understanding is the product of a new need. I do not agree to that and can show some examples in the history that this has not been the case.
One should think in a very Marxist way to say that every thinking is the superstructure of an infrastructure. The history of thoughts does not correspond to this simplification. Your question can have two meanings. You can ask: "Why are these new things said?" And you can ask: "What has been the cause?", meaning what social factors and political force created this thinking.
The answers to both are clear. In other words the level of knowledge in our society had reached a level that it posed new questions and therefore new answers were needed. And the development of the political and social forces (scientific, technological) had reached the point which created new needs.
I believe this viewpoint could emerge in the past, but it would not have spread.
Q: You have always said you are addressing the elite. Why are you stating your points in public places? Don't you think this agitates the public opinion?
A: Yes, I talk to the elite and I train the elite. Naturally, those come to the places where I speak that what I say fit them. The same is true about my books and articles.
The regular readers of my works are about 100,000 (excluding the visitors and tourists). And I say this on the basis of the number of the books sold and...
Now if this society does not have an elite of 100,000 woe to it.
I am surprised that you are saying I am agitating the minds. Did you expect me to stupefy the minds? I am pleased that I share the charge leveled against Socrates. After all he was tried and convicted for agitating the mind of the youths in Athens. And I am pleased that I am following the course of the great Prophets as in the words of the Commander of the Faithful (the First Imam) they were arousing the minds; that is agitating the minds in your words.
If something is bad it is agitating the bodies and not minds. Agitating the bodies means these provocations and attacks on cultural gatherings and making the body confront the mind.
As I have understood some of the terms in our politicized society do not have their direct meaning and one should consider their indirect meanings. For instance when some of the print media admiring violence call somebody liberal in order to reproach him, one should consider it to mean "non-fascist" and in fact this is an expression of admiration and not reproach. Or when they say such and such are agitating the minds it means he is not stupefying the minds. Not a single instance has been observed in which they have accused someone of stupefying the minds. In their view such a thing does pose a problem whatsoever.
At a time I was talking to a clergy and I asked him: "If you are worried about the people's faith, why aren't you protesting against so much nonsense stated at the pulpits. Aren't you bothered by the kinds of meanings of patience, reliance on God, sin, prosperity, etc which are promoted? Isn't it that you have become used to that? The problem is not that what I am saying is contrary to the religion, but it is contrary to the habits."
Was the remark religious or anti-religious by the cleric in Yazd speaking against Seyyed Mohammad Khatami that Tabatabaei, a six-year boy [who has memorized the Quran], was reading the Quran with he divine inspiration and that he had endorsed the opinion of the [Qom Seminary] Lecturers Association? To be fair, weren't that God, that Quran, that inspiration, that politics and that commoner's ethics in the words of that cleric more dangerous than the theses of those who deny the existence of God, the positivist and...?
Some of our clerics consider it their right to state whatever they understand from the religion and it is not known who has given them this right. They themselves have given that right to themselves. They believe what they understand is correct or is close to correct. Who can tell a person who makes sufficient efforts and considers such a right for himself that he does not have such a right? I think my efforts, honesty and commitment in the course of understanding the religion have not been less than those of such and such young or old theology students who are free to state whatever they wish everywhere.
The only difference is that my audience are from the educated strata and are larger. I think the total of may agitating and religion-weakening points (according to the opponents) is not more than the total of the religion-weakening points stated by certain clergy. And I think the harm of my incorrect points (again according to the opponents) is certainly less than the harm of the incorrect things said by certain clerics because I am not sitting in a sacred position and there is a shower of criticism on me from every direction.
Furthermore, the description agitation of the minds is indeed a big injustice to the great personalities such as Seyyed Jamal and Iqbal Lahuri and others who established the new religious thinking. And if weak people like me are doing something it is the continuation of their course. You may call that illumination of minds.
Q: You have said that you are not concerned with the clergy because their customers are different. But in practice you have concerned yourself with the clergy.
A: When I say I am not concerned with the clergy it means I am not hostile to them. Of course I was beaten and insulted by certain clerics at Isfahan University, but I do not feel any hostility towards anyone.
In the amir Kabir University case some of the assailants, led by a cleric, had brought a gallows to the university and they were making violent and insulting speeches against me. But I pray for them and ask God to give them maturity.
My dealing with the clergy is because of the project I am advancing. The official clergy institution is one of the unwanted consequences of the emergence of religion in society. Perhaps the great Prophet did not have in mind that he is laying the foundations of the official clergy, but when the public want to perform their religious rites and refer to certain individuals gradually the institution of clergy rises.
And someone whose intellectual project is the posterior state of the religion (and not purely theological and philosophical) inevitably comes across the clergy institution and studies it. You cannot find anyone whose heart has been in reform of a society linked to the religion and has not dealt with this group. This is the necessity of the logic of the work and not out of hostility and envy. Even if I was looking at the society in a non-religious political way again I would have come across the clergy.
In the article "Freedom and Clergy" I mentioned the name of Hafez. I pointed out that our time wants its own Hafez. Because of that writing when I was interrogated at the Intelligence Ministry they told me: "You have called yourself the Hafez of this era."
I said: "I do not make such a bold statement and I am not so ignorant and daring. But I believe Hafez was the criticism of sophism and the clergy of his time and our time too wants its own critic of the clergy."
Apart from that, in my view the clergy are not different from the others. I neither have any particular objection nor particular affinity towards them. I respect them in the same way that I respect others. I neither consider them to be the saviors of humanity nor carriers of the hidden secrets nor the chosen of God nor deceivers and religion traders.
A number of them are traders with the usually trade ethics. A minority of them are learned and a smaller minority are the pious. I consider the salvation and prosperity of this society to be conditional upon the cooperation of all the strata and not just the clergy. And I am not (as the enemies have said) after dismantling their business whatsoever because I know if they did not have a function in the religious society they would not have emerged and as long as the cause exists the effect will continue to exist.
Q: I believe some of the objections to Dr. Soroush have nothing to do with his views as such. The opponents of Dr. Soroush are opposed to the Tehran mayor, to the civil society, to intellectualism and intellectuals in general. This is why they are fanning the conflict between the religious and the non-religious all the time. They are opposed to the topic of economic and political development too.
Don't you think the main contradiction is between the traditional and the modern groups in a society which is in transition? The traditional current is opposed to any tendency towards new whether it is in the religious thought, in literature, in urban development and in economy.
In my opinion the objection to a large extent goes back to the fear on the part of the traditional current of the modern current. Those individuals think if Dr. Soroush talks the religion will be destroyed. The same individuals think if the number of the 20-story buildings in Tehran goes above 1000, we will not have any faithful person. Isn't this the case?
A: Some have a vague feeling that in this process some of their sanctities (read the popular things during their mental childhood) will collapse.
After all we have three religions: A religion for the establishment period, a religion for the transitional period and a religion for the established period. If I am doing something it is perhaps for the last two periods.
The point that reliance on wisdom may neglect the guardianship of the faqih and open the way for questions, yes, the mind with tendency toward citations [proofs from the Quran and narrations compared with reasoning] does not favor my method. But of course the calculating mind which measures the consequences assesses the theory of the guardianship of the faqih like any other political and government theory and considers the practical and historical results of it. And it is not sufficient for it to mention a few hadith cases [what the Prophet said or did] to consider the case to be over.
Under the influence of the traditional despotic idea some in our society imagine that order is equal to despotism whether this is political despotism or the intellectual despotism. In other words they imagine having an idea is equal to intellectual order and a political thought or a ruler is equal to political order.
The fact is that the new world has told us we can have order while being pluralistic. This order, while there is pluralism, is the discovery of the new world and one of the examples of that is civil society.
If the interpretation of what I say is that it objects to single-pivot order that is true. But if the interpretation is that this view is in favor of anarchism that is not correct at all, because pluralism is different from anarchism...
In my understanding of the religion the official clergy are neither the pivot nor the authority. In this sense it may not be compatible with the taste of some. In my view we must try pluralism in all the political and intellectual areas and on my part I have tried to provide the theoretical grounds for that.
At any rate if the guardianship of the faqih can be combined with accountability, acceptance of criticism and the human rights the guardianship of the faqih is an accepted theory. But if the definition is such that they cannot be combined that is an unacceptable [theory] even if it is supported with one hundred verses and religious quotations. In other words we have some yardsticks to which there must be loyalty. This is the posterior look in connection with the Valiye Faqih.
Q: Those in favor of you are in a spectrum. On the one side there are the religious faithful who are following your work with interest. Most of them are thirsty and have questions. They are young Muslims who are interested in truth. On the other hand there are the religious intellectuals. Your work is mostly feeding this group. Of course I would like to complain about some of those intellectuals, because they are using your ideas directly, but they are not giving any reference and this is distant from scientific fairness.
These individuals believe in wisdom and in democratic methods, but in a way they say the same things that your opponents are saying. They say you are not strengthening the religious solidarity or your are criticizing the clergy. Or sometimes it is said that when the consequences of what you say go back to the theory of the guardianship of the faqih politically you are going to the extreme.
There are also some religious intellectuals who believe you have been drifting away from the first hand philosophical and theoretical sources since a few years ago and are merely publishing a new religious theology. They also say what you say has become local to some extent and it is not a universal message.
A: Perhaps you mean that what I am saying is strengthening a kind of religious faith. This is correct and has never been denied by me.
All my work and project has been aimed at my holding the hands of some and taking them from one level of religious faith to another level.
The assumption of those against or in favor who criticize me is as if there is a certain level of religious faith and that if this level comes under attack religious faith in general comes under attack. But that is not the case. We have at least three kinds of religious faith: the popular, the theological and the mystical.
Yes, what I say is not strengthening the popular religious faith (those in charge of this kind of religious faith are mostly the clergy).
I said that the clergy do not actualize all the potentials of the religion, because the clergy have assumed a specific mission and have defined their activities in specific areas. Historically, they are under some restrictions from which they can free themselves with difficulty. This is why there will be alternatives and these alternatives address the work left by the clergy.
Religious intellectualism is among the products of the modern times. If it did not have a role it would not emerge and would not survive. Its survival is an indication that there is a religious work that the clergy are not performing.
This group shall survive as long as there is a need and a thirst.
I accept this criticism like the criticisms you mentioned in the previous section -- in the sense that I appreciate the religious faith which is concerned about the expediency, but I attach a lot of value to the religious faith which is thinking about knowledge and experience.