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 May 2009




Dr Soroush: 

The Islamic Revolution Lacked a Theory



A report by Serajeddin Mirdamadi





On the initiative of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and with the cooperation of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), a three-day conference on “Shi’ism Today” opened at the CERI-Science Po centre in Paris on Monday 27 April.

Dr Abdulkarim Soroush and Professor Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari were the two Iranian intellectuals who addressed the opening session.  

Speaking to them afterwards, I first asked Dr Soroush to summarize the main points of his talk, which was delivered in English. 

Dr Soroush replied:  "My talk was about the challenges that Shi’ism is faced with in the modern world.  I divided these challenges into several categories:  theological, historical, legal-jurisprudential, and political. 

"Regarding the legal category, I said that, although Shi’i jurists do occasionally issue new fatwas now on penal matters, women’s rights, etc., which seem to be progressive, since they have not been constructed on well thought-out foundations and since no new theories on law and the philosophy of law have entered our fiqh [henceforth, jurisprudence], these new fatwas will remain rootless until our jurisprudence is fundamentally reassessed and modernized.  In other words, modern philosophical and theological tenets have to brought into our theory of jurisprudence. 

"Regarding politics, I said that the Islamic Revolution was, in all earnest, a revolution that lacked a theory; especially so if we compare it to the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.  In the Russian Revolution, the main idea was to create a classless society and, ultimately, to move towards socialism and, then, on to communism.  And in the French Revolution, the ideas of the philosophers who had been working in the preceding centuries, were summed up in the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  But in Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the catchphrase was simply 'Islam', which only had a vague meaning.  Subsequently, we realized that this 'Islam' had no clearly-defined blueprint for the economy; nor had our jurisprudence developed to a point where it could tackle the problems of the modern world and govern the state and society.  So, this, too, is a new challenge for Shi’ism; especially so since, in our jurisprudence and in the jurisprudential questions that arise for us, justice, human rights and the public interest are all concepts that remain undefined. 

"As for the historical category, I said that Shi’ism bears its own historical legacy.  Notwithstanding the positive aspects of this legacy, one of its problematic aspects is the disproportionate emphasis that is placed on martyrdom and the events of Ashura.  In my talk, I said that Imam Hussein was an exception in the ranks of the Shi’i Imams, but he has been turned into the rule.  One of the people who did this before the revolution was the late Dr Shariati, but it is a centuries-old practice.  In the past, there were historical reasons for doing this.  The Shi’is were in the minority and they had to highlight the tragic aspect of their history.  But, in the modern world, maybe there is no need for this and we should be turning to other aspects of Shi’ism. 

"There is also the practice of 'cursing the companions', that is to say, speaking ill of the Prophet’s companions and being disrespectful to them, which is, again, something that is practised in Shi’i societies nowadays.  Of course, it is a practice that has been prohibited by the ulema, but no one listens.  The reason for this is that Shi’is need to reassess their theory on the subject of the caliphate." 

Next, I asked Professor Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari about his talk, which was delivered in Arabic. 

Mr Mojtahed-Shabestari replied:  "What I discussed was that, so far, in the world of Shi’ism - for a long time and over the course of centuries - a particular jurisprudential technique has been used for understanding the Koran and, especially, for understanding the verses of the Koran that relate to jurisprudential rulings. 

"I explained the mechanism of this jurisprudential technique and I also said that, when jurists realize that fundamental social changes have occurred in Muslim societies, they try to use particular methods to issue new fatwas in a way, in order to solve some of the problems that arise in modern life.  But these new fatwas are incapable of solving many problems because they are, at any rate, trying to remain true to that same trusty jurisprudential technique that took shape among Muslims more than ten centuries ago.  And the underlying tenet of the technique is that, for any of life’s many occurrences, there is one true, divine ruling and the jurist must strive to find it. However, since experience shows that commitment to this jurisprudential method, which rests on this tenet, cannot solve modern problems, you begin to wonder:  Can the verses of the Koran that concern transactions and politics be read in some other way?  And I answered this question in the affirmative.  I believe that these verses can be read in another way and I call this new reading “the moral historical reading”.  And it demands that we refer to the Koran with the aim of understanding the moral meanings and aims of these rulings, as they were formulated in the time of the Prophet in Hijaz.  The determining factor for us today is to abide by those moral meanings and those principles, not the specific form of the rulings, because the forms are as they are in order to fulfil those moral aims in that age and in that society.  

"So, the main thing for us, in our age, is to abide by those moral aims, even though those aims may be achieved for us today through different laws.  I call this reading “the moral historical reading” of the Koran’s verses and rulings.  I explained what I meant by this. And, with many citations from the Koran itself, I argued that, possibly in the case of more than 90 per cent of the rulings that we find in the Koran on social matters, etc., the relevant verses contain very clear moral justifications and the rulings fall under a series of general, moral principles.  So, if, today, Muslims or Muslim ulema judge that those moral aims can be achieved by different means, it goes without saying that there will be no need to implement those rulings in those forms.  

"I concluded my talk by saying there is no reason why we shouldn’t read the Koran today using this moral-historical technique, and this is what I support.  This is an important development which, if it is followed through, will open the way for Muslims to bring about correct social, political and economic changes in society." 

Ayatollah Sayed Mohammad Bahr Al-Olom, one of the well-known clerics of the Najaf Seminary, was the other speaker at the conference’s opening session.  He spoke about the role and position of the Najaf school of thought. 


** Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser




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