I don't like posting full
articles or interviews unless that their reading is highly significant to
Iranians and to the lay observer of Iranian affairs. That being said this
is an interview published in the New Scientist concerning Soroush's
decision to return to
Iran after a six year hiatus. For those of you who don't know much about
Soroush, he's considered one of the greatest Iranian intellectuals of at
least the modern age. He's a philosopher who delves into religion and
state who's considered notorious in conservative strands of Iranian
society for his advocation of secularism. For his essential writings pick
up the book Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam. A more detailed
biography can be found. Without further a do, the interview:
"Only in a few countries could a philosopher of science be seen as an
enemy of the state. Abdolkarim Soroush, one of
Iran's best-known intellectuals, argues that science cannot progress under
totalitarian regimes. His greatest "crime" is to suggest that this is a
legitimate Islamic view. After six years in exile, Soroush bravely
returned to Iran last week. Ehsan Masood spoke to him on the eve of his
Q: Why are you going back to
I have been away for six years. I need to go back to sort out various
things and visit my students, family and friends. Some of my closest
friends have been arrested. Before I left I set up an independent
institute for epistemological research, which I have discovered was closed
down last month. The building has been sealed off. I need to find out what
Q: How risky will this visit be in terms of your
It is difficult to say. My friends tell me I am taking a risk. But I need
Q: President Mohammad Khatami is also a personal
friend of yours. Will you meet him?
I avoid him and he avoids me. That is better for both of us.
Q: Many of your students are taking to the streets
for more freedoms. Do you think they will succeed?
These protests are coming entirely from within. They are not because of
has had an explosion in its university population since the revolution,
when there were just 200,000 students. Today there are 2 million. They and
their families want greater freedoms and I believe the end result will be
a reduction in the power of
supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, more power to parliament, and greater
Q: How has your experience in
your views about science?
My experience in
teaches me that a minimum amount of freedom is necessary for the
advancement of science, for the advancement of thought. Research cannot
flourish if you cannot communicate with your fellow scientists; if you
cannot explain your ideas freely, or have to hide part of them lest you be
arrested. I am communicating with you now. We can freely chat and freely
exchange information. Science is a child of these kinds of conditions. If
I hide something from you and you hide things from me, and both of us are
obliged to read between the lines, these are not ideal conditions for
research to progress.
Q: Yet science has done well under totalitarian
regimes in China and the former Soviet Union, and even under some fairly
unpleasant governments during Islam's "golden age of science" between the
9th and 13th centuries...
Let me make a distinction between empirical research and thinking per se.
Thinking needs a free environment. Empirical research, where you have a
well-defined project with official approval, can indeed flourish even
under a totalitarian regime, because scientists can still meet other
scientists, read the literature and publish. But it is impossible to
advance new theories - particularly in the social sciences - when you are
under the influence of a particular view, or under the pressure of a
particular dogma. And I disagree with you about Islam's golden age.
Totalitarianism is absolutely a modern phenomenon. In the past, kings were
despots but they were not totalitarian. They weren't able to put their
hands on science and philosophy. There was no widespread plan to limit
scientists, philosophers and other academics. If there were restrictions,
they came from religion or fellow philosophers rather than the political
Q: You started your professional life as a chemist.
Why did you switch to history and philosophy of science?
While still in
I became fascinated with a whole series of problems to do with the nature
of science. This happened when I took private tuition in the philosophy of
Islamic metaphysics and my teacher and I would often discuss issues such
as the nature of theories, the nature of observation and experimental
evidence. Neither of us was ever satisfied that we had properly understood
these issues, but then neither of us knew that there existed a branch of
knowledge called philosophy of science. In fact, philosophy of modern
science was unknown in Iran at the time. I didn't find out about it until
I came to the UK in 1973.
Q: Are you saying there was no teaching or research
in philosophy of modern science in
Iran before the
Islamic revolution of 1979?
Yes. I was the first person to introduce this subject in Iranian
universities. I arranged for academics to be trained and books to be
translated and written. Prior to the revolution, philosophy courses at
Tehran University concentrated on figures such as Kant, Hume and
Heidegger. There was no teaching of the works of modern analytical
philosophers such as Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell. This may have been
because our heads of department were mostly educated in Germany and France
- French is Iran's second language - and were generally weak in English.
Q: You were a supporter of the 1979 revolution...
Yes. Everybody was a supporter. We thought that there was no other way to
get rid of the hated regime of the shah and the insecurity that came with
it. Scientific revolutions and political revolutions are similar in many
ways. You cannot plan them, they just happen, and you become wiser after
the event. After the revolution there was no one dominant view. There were
secular people, moderate Muslims, radical Muslims and so on. Revolutions
tend to result in totalitarianism. People like me were in it to make it
Q: After the shah was overthrown, you returned to
Iran. How did
you attract the attention of Ayatollah Khomeini?
I met Ayatollah Khomeini when he was in exile in Paris during the 1970s. I
later discovered from some of his intimate friends that he had read and
liked one of my books on the philosophy of Islamic metaphysics. Khomeini
himself had taught metaphysics. I was also known for another book I had
written criticizing Marxism - considered a serious threat in Iran at the
time - and for another on ethics and science. You could say I was a public
figure in Iran. After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini set up what he
called the Advisory Council for the Cultural Revolution to revise the
curricula in the universities. I was invited to become one of the
council's seven members and I served on it for four years. It was here
that I was given the opportunity to introduce philosophy of modern science
Q: How did the students take to it?
The students became very excited. I myself taught the subject for more
than 10 years and set up a research faculty at Tehran University. Today, I
am happy to say that history and philosophy of science is flourishing in
Iran. There are many professors and books are constantly being published.
Q: How did you fall out with the authorities?
Around 1990, I published a series of seven articles in a popular cultural
magazine called Kyan. The magazine is part of the country's
biggest-selling newspaper group. The articles went under the title "The
expansion and contraction of religious knowledge". In these articles, I
defined a branch of knowledge called religious knowledge and tried to
explain it using the principles of philosophy of natural and social
sciences. These articles rapidly became quite controversial. The
ayatollahs [Shiite Muslim religious leaders], in particular, became very
sensitive. Some 10 books have since been written in response to my series.
Q: What did you write that got the ayatollahs so
They didn't like the idea that interpretations of religious knowledge can
change over time, or that religious knowledge can be understood in its
historical context. They thought I was taking away the sacredness of
religion and making it dependent on human understanding. But as the
controversy grew, I was happy to see these ideas debated in the public
media. The original articles were later published in a 700-page book, and
I found that I was beginning to attract quite a following. My classrooms
became overcrowded and my books were selling very, very well. Books on
philosophy usually sell between 2000 and 3000 copies. Some of my books
sold more than 50,000. This made the politicians and clergy very sensitive
as I was seen to be undermining their exclusive position. I started coming
Q: What kinds of restrictions?
Vigilante groups would stop me from speaking in public. I was often
attacked and beaten. I found that I no longer had a job. No one would
employ me. No one would publish my work. Invitations to speak stopped
coming. The magazine where my original series of articles appeared was
closed down. I was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence and told very
explicitly that the authorities did not like me any more and did not want
me to feel secure in the country.
Q: To what degree do you think research in Muslim
countries should be regulated?
When I was on the Advisory Council for the Cultural Revolution, the
clerics thought there was an excessive leftist influence on the social
sciences and wanted us to purge them of this. I always argued that this
would not work because scientists never accept commands from anybody.
Q: But in a country like
religion will always guide what research you can do?
There are always barriers to science. Some come from the nature of the
research itself, and these have to be recognized and acknowledged. Others
come from outside, and these need to be minimized or eliminated.