Democracy and Rationality

An interview with Abdolkarim Soroush by Shargh newspaper

December 2003








Q. Dr Soroush!  I’d like us to discuss the question of rationality. Would you be so kind as to begin by pointing out the different interpretations that there are of rationality and also mentioning your own chosen interpretation, so that we can go on from there?

A. Let me first say that I don’t know what you mean by reason or rationality, and about what rationality you are speaking.  This term has its own specific meaning in every school of thought or for every philosopher.  For example, for Muslim philosophers, reason is Aristotle’s reason.  The moderns, post-moderns, etc. all emphasize a particular view of reason.

          In my article “Reason and Freedom”, which appears in the book Sturdier than Ideology, I’ve explained that defining reason in a specific way is very difficult.  Nevertheless, we can glance at it and outline it.

          Reason can be viewed in two senses:

1. Reason in the sense of the power of reasoning and ratiocination that God has granted to human beings.  And this reason distinguishes human beings from animals.

2.     Reason in the sense of the substance of this power.

Let me explain by giving an example.  Reason is like teeth, which have the power to chew.  But teeth are merely a power and a capability granted to human beings by God.  Now, the teeth have to be supplied with food as the substance of chewing.

Reason in the first sense does not concern us in particular.  It suffices for us to know that it distinguishes human beings from animals.  But reason and rationality in the second sense is important.  In different eras, we encounter different rationalities.  Even in a single era, we come across different rationalities, not a single rationality.

Of course, this is not to deny that there is ever anything self-evident in any era that is common to all rationalities.  There are things that are self-evident to the power of reason.  But even where these self-evident things are concerned, in any era, there is one particular self-evident thing. For example, nowadays, human rights is one of the self-evident concerns of our era and it is emphasized and taken into account by nearly everyone.

Now that we have learned that there are different reasons in any era, in inquiring about rationality and reason, we have to ask which reason and rationality we have in mind.  For example, Dr Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri is an Arab thinker who uses reason in the positivist sense.  In this rationality, the focus is on logic and mathematics.  Hence, they view and assess everything from this perspective.  So, for example, he sees mysticism as a totally irrational thing, because he assesses it using this rationality.  Even his aversion to Shi’ism can be explained in this way.  He considers Shi’ism to be laden with mysteries through and through, and he finds nothing rational in it in terms of positivist reason.  He believes that things like Shi’i logic and mysticism are nothing but a fairytale because of their incompatibility with positivist reason.  When I was in the United States and when the issue of Al-Jabiri came up in my discussions with a Western professor, they accepted this assessment and underlined it.

In our own country, too, there are people who view things in this same positivist light and, since they know nothing about epistemology and are seeking a rationality in the sense of a rationality without prejudgments, they do not approve of things like mysticism.

The reason that these people are talking about is the reason that is specific to an individual and that no-one else shares;  whereas this is completely wrongheaded and I cannot understand it.  I’ll explain why it is incorrect.  To make myself clear, let me give another example.  A while back, I read something by Mr Ramin Jahanbeglou. He said that a Christian priest had said that he never allowed his religious ideas to enter into his philosophical thinking and that he tried to think using a rationality free of prejudgments.  First of all, this is a totally unscholarly remark and a product of ignorance about epistemology. Secondly, do we attach importance to a thinker’s assurances about his prejudgments?  What matters is the thinker’s writings to which one can turn to see what effect their a priori givens have had on their a posteriori ideas. 

Look, Marx is the first sociologist of knowledge.  Why?  Because he considered knowledge to be interconnected, like other institutions.  Knowledge today is not individual knowledge;  it is a collective thing.  What does this mean?  It means that it comes into the arena, it comes to me, to you and others and flows and forms within the collectivity.  For me, learning is this collective knowledge.  An individual may obtain certain bits of learning in private and solitude.  This individual is a learned person but learned based on learning that is a product of their own individual mood and condition.  For example, it has been said that whenever Khajeh Nassir-al-Din Tusi stumbled on a new idea in solitude, he would become ecstatic and begin to dance.  Now, anyone else may also become ecstatic when they come across new ideas in solitude, but this information does not constitute a field of knowledge. 

When it comes to definitions, we say that, for example, the field of fiqh is that which flows within the community of faqihs;  the field of geometry is that which flows in the community of geometers.  This fluid field of learning grows or shrinks, is added to or amended within the community of scholars.  On this basis, learning is not the accumulation of information in the mind;  it consists of propositions that manifest themselves in spoken words and writing, and it is assessed by others.  And this learning, which is what I accept, is a collective affair and it is in the course of this process that different reasons emerge.  Precisely on this basis, we have philosophical reason, scientific reason and religious reason which coexist and interact with one another.

Q.  You’ve explained what you mean by rationality and reason, and epistemology’s place in it.  What I want to ask is:  in the light of your definition of Abdolkarim Soroush’s reason, with his many-sided ideas and his aim of creating a new rationality, in what kind of rational climate does he think?

A. Of course, putting this question to me may not be the right thing to do. I am not a good judge of my own ideas, because what others see in my words and writings is different from what I see.  I express the data in my mind and I hear my own voice in a way that may be different from the way others hear it.  For example, when the Mu’tazilites used to run into each other, they would say: you’re well, now tell me how I am.  In other words, they viewed people’s disposition from outside, because what others see is hidden to me. Of course, people who follow my ideas can, with a little attention, understand the rationality that I inhibit.  Be that as it may, I will say a few words to shed light on the rationality in which I think.

          I am very keen on scientific and empirical reason (empiricism).  The fact that I am a chemist myself, increases my liking for it.  Of course, this reason is very important and many thinkers are ill informed about it.  For example, if you read Hegel’s writings, you’ll this very clearly.  He raises points about physics and electricity and other things which are all incorrect and result from his unfamiliarity with this field of learning.  Similarly, philosophers have misunderstood some things from a different angle and failed to grasp this field.  Let me give an example.  Imagine a pigeon flying swiftly through the air and saying: I can fly so fast and so easily in this air;  if this air and this slight obstacle was also removed, how much more easily and swiftly would I be able to fly.  This statement reveals a failure to understand the function of air, which is one of the causes of flight and its absence would entail the absence of flight.

          Philosophers have suffered from this same misconception.  They imagined that they could remove all the obstacles impeding thought and even to remove the trifling obstacle known as experience so that they could think better;  whereas, the absence of experience entails the absence of scientific thinking.  This can be seen very clearly in the Kantian perspective.

          I am a nominalist and it is in this respect that I incline towards the Ash’arites.  Nowadays the world rests on modern science and what was discussed in the past as quiddity and essence is not very defensible,  and I do not believe in it.  Look, because of his concern for essence and quiddity, Ibn Khaldoun has failed to be seen as a sociologist.  Hence, probing matters of this kind are not very beneficial.

          At the same time, I like “logic” very much and I try to build my ideas on a logical and coherent foundation.  I am also very interested in rational analysis. 

          Of course, all of this leads me not to pay too much attention to people’s motives in presenting their ideas and views.  Many thinkers attribute irrational criteria and intentions to a line of thinking by reading motives into it. For example, on the question of mysticism, to which I referred in my previous reply, Al-Jabiri considers it irrational precisely because he brings the question of motives into it.  But let me ask these people:  why and on what basis is mysticism irrational?  What I believe is that we have two types of rationality:  minimal rationality and maximal rationality.  Minimal rationality means that, in any argument that is presented, the components must not be contradictory or paradoxical;  it must form a coherent system. I believe in minimal rationality and, on the basis, I say that I don’t consider mysticism irrational.

           I also believe – and I explained this to some extent in my previous reply – that even my book on the contraction and expansion of religious knowledge is like a crossword puzzle, which I am constantly engaged in solving.  Now, if I want to change part of the puzzle, inevitably, other parts will also have to change.  And this is what knowledge as a fluid process means.

          I think that I have managed to explain to some extent the theoretical climate which I inhabit for those who are interested.

Q.  By outlining the reason and rationality that you inhabit, you have been able to elucidate to some extent your horizon and perspective. Now, I want to raise an objective example of your thinking in the public sphere so that, within this rational framework, you can explain your elements and principles and even motives.  I am speaking about religious democracy where, as a thinker, you seem to place two concepts side by side.  Does this democracy have religious elements with religious bases?  If so, where does rationality fit in?  Basically, tell us what you mean by this term.

A.  Let me begin by saying that I think a great deal about issues in the realm of political philosophy and this subject generates many of my theoretical concerns.  I have new ideas in mind that I haven’t had time to put in writing yet.  Hence, I’ll try to extract them from my mind as quickly as possible and speak about them so that researchers and critics can have access to them.

          At any rate, apart from this point, democracy is one of the propositions that has always been afflicted with confusion and misunderstanding.  Hence, many religious people are afraid of approaching it.  Politics, too, has its own particular meaning in which religion is not an element.  Now, if we say that politics is the study of power or whatever other definition, religion does not appear as an element in it.

          Of course, we have to make sure that we distinguish between two contexts.  The context of definition, which is a mental context, and that which exists outside the mind, which is the objective context.  In the context of definition, we opt for a particular definition and say that democracy or politics means this or that.  Now, externally and in the objective context, other elements, such as religion, coincide with it and this is a different issue. Pay attention to this point:  what occurs externally is coincidence not unity.  Let me give an example.  Water is water, with its definition and nature.  Boiling is not part of its nature.  In other words, we do not bring in the element of heat in defining water.  Now, in the external and objective world, water coincides with heat and it boils.  This is the coincidence of heat and water.  In the case of politics or democracy, the same thing applies.

          Let me ask you something:  do we have secular democracy to make us talk about religious democracy now?  Naturally not.  We have democracy.  But, in the analytic process, it is believed that if something lies at an elevation from this or other than this, it can both be this or other than this.  Democracy lies at an elevation of this kind, so that, in the external and objective world, where it coincides with certain things, it can be secular or religious.

          I want to open up the discussion a bit to make this point as clear as possible.  Some people assign an essence to democracy and define it in a specific way.  I want to say that this is incorrect;  that we do not have one democracy but many democracies.  In the preceding term, I was teaching a course on democracy and Islam in the United States.  The class contained students from various nationalities.  I said to them:  I don’t expect you to know anything about Islamic debates, I will explain them to you myself.  But we discussed the question of democracy together and we began by defining it;  from ancient Greece to today.  In these definitions, there was no specific definition intrinsic to democracy.  What emerged was that a democracy prevailed in different eras depending on the conditions of the time. 

          I said to them:  look, in defining democracy, you say, rule by the people over the people.  But, today, if you are not a citizen of a country, even if you are a big scholar, you don’t have the right to vote or even to work.  You have to note carefully what characteristic you focus on and attach importance to in your definition of democracy.  Religious democracy means that the values of religion play a role in the public arena in a society populated by religious people.  But, in a secular society, some other characteristic is deemed important and focused on, and that becomes the basis for democracy.  Hence, what alters the hue and colour of democracy is a society’s specific characteristics and elements.  This democracy both falls within the framework of modern rationality and has identifiable elements.  It is in this way that we have a plurality of democracies in the international community.

Q.  When you speak about religious democracy, you are seeking to establish a democratic system in a religious society.  Now, let us assume that, one day, the people of a land decide that they do not want religion any more.  Would this democracy allow them to set religion aside or does it impose conditions and limitations on the acceptance or rejection of religion?

A.  Look, your question is ambiguous.  Religion is for people and people determine their own relationship to it.  In other words, it’s not my business, your business or the ruling system’s business what people do with religion.  If people want to turn away from religion, it’s not my business.  You have to bear in mind that democracy occurs in the context of practice and it has to have an external manifestation.  Even if we speak a thousand times about this or that kind of state, if it has no objective manifestation, it is undemocratic even if it is called democratic.

          Let me say this: some people see fiqh as religion, whereas fiqh is the religious experience of religion.  I am of the opinion that religion’s most important function is ethics.  In other words, if we were to change religion, I would put ethics in its place.  A religion in which this element is lacking is no longer religion. 

          What I have in mind when I speak about democracy is democracy as the rejection of tyranny.  In other words, my proposed democracy is an anti-tyranny theory.  It is about what politics we should opt for that will allow us freedom of choice.  This is my main intention when I speak about democracy.  I’ll put it in writing in the future in order to explain my intention clearly.

 Translated by Nilou Mobasser


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