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January 2010





The Social Sciences have been Iran’s Most Bloodied Martyr over the past 30 Years



Interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

By Farid Adib-Hashemi

January 2010



Q. Let’s begin by referring to the fact that you’ve been selected as one of the 100 most influential thinkers by the journal Foreign Policy, which is published in the United States. You, Dr Zahra Rahnavard and Mrs Shirin Ebadi were the three Iranians among the top 100 thinkers of 2009. And this is not the first time you’ve brought this international esteem for Iran. How do you feel about this ranking?


A. Would you accept it if I told you that I felt almost nothing? I don’t mean to say that it meant nothing to me; but I could see that there were many individuals who might have rated higher than me, but nothing is known about their works. So, in some instances, the people who made the selections clearly acted and decided only on the basis of individuals’ fame. But if the selection of my humble self or gracious friends, such as Mrs Rahnavard and Mrs Ebadi, have, as you put it, brought esteem for Iran, I’m glad of course. But I really have nothing more to say about it.


Non-Religious Intellectuals & Religious Intellectuals


Q. My next question is about ‘religious intellectualism’ as a concept or a qualifier. You describe yourself as a religious intellectual or an innovative religious thinker.  What new things do you have to say about religion in the contemporary world? Why do you place so much emphasis on the word ‘religious’. I’m asking you this because you’re attacked and criticized by both traditional believers and by non-believers.


A. I’ll divide your question into two parts: one, why do I use the term ‘religious intellectual’ and, two, what new things have I said on the subject of religion.

            I’m of the view that ‘religious intellectual’ is a legitimate and acceptable term. As I’ve said on other occasions, if we can have non-religious intellectuals, we can also have religious intellectuals. Neither of these terms means that intellectualisms’ qualifier is the begetter of the type of intellectualism. In other words, we can’t say that lack of religion begets non-religious intellectualism, nor that religion begets religious intellectualism.

            Religious intellectualism is the intellectualism of religious people; that is to say, religious people who want to think. I consider intellectualism to be a kind of exercise in thinking and reasoning, and critical reasoning at that. In my writings, I have enumerated a number of defining features for intellectualism; one of them—the most important one—is critical thinking.  I believe that if a religious individual is a thinker and if, in his capacity as a thinker, he attaches particular importance to criticism—and is acquainted with the techniques and methods of criticism—he can rightly be described as a religious intellectual; just as if a non-religious person is a thinker and if, as a thinker, he favours criticism, he can be described as a non-religious intellectual.

            It’s been said that intellectualism is the offspring of modernism, and this assertion is correct. But what I understand by modernism is that one of its most important defining features and components is having a ‘second order perspective’. Everything that falls under epistemology, religious theory, ethics and meta-philosophy in the modern world involves this kind of second order perspective, which was practically non-existent in the pre-modern world. One of the characteristics of the modern age is precisely this transcendent perspective; exactly the perspective which is called ‘transcendental’ in Kant’s philosophy. Some people have translated it as ‘transcendental’, but I prefer to translate it as ‘second order perspective’.

Kant’s philosophy is basically a second order philosophy. In other words, it is not metaphysics. It is not philosophy in the sense of philosophy in pre-modern times. It is a meta-philosophy. This is why it is known as ‘Critical philosophy’. We have a range of critical fields of learning—analogous to Kant’s Critical philosophy—which are all second order field of learning. The same thing has occurred in the realm of religion. Notions such as philosophical critiques of religion, social critiques of religion and psychological critiques of religion all belong to the modern age; they are all, in effect, the offspring of modernity. On this same basis, intellectual work—in the general sense—is a second order activity.

            In one of my writings, I defined intellectuals as people who are ‘privy to secrets’. That is to say, they examine things from a perspective that is different from that of first order scholars. This is why we can have both ‘religious intellectuals’ and ‘non-religious intellectuals’. In this sense, I don’t have the slightest qualm about using this term and I believe that we can have religious intellectuals just as we can have non-religious intellectuals.


Q. But some people say that religious intellectualism is a kind of contradiction in terms.


A. I think that the people who say this do so out of small-mindedness, ignorance or, on occasion, hostility. In the light of what I said, far from being a contradiction in terms, it is a wholly harmonious and congruent notion.  Secondly, we can’t set off from the mind and then arrive at the external world! The correct thing to do is to start in the external world and then to go to the mind. We have to look around and see whether there are religious intellectuals or not. If there are, then, it becomes clear that such a thing can exist and that it is not a contradiction in terms.

            I said in one of my writings, entitled “Milk and Sugar”, that someone may say—in the realm of the mind—that milk is milk and sugar is sugar. Milk can’t be sugar and sugar can’t be milk. These two things can never mix.  But just let this person look at the external world and see whether milk and sugar can mix or not. If we start by saying that intellectualism is one thing and religion is another thing, and that since, in our minds and in our imagination, these two things cannot mix, they cannot possibly mix in the external world either—I think that assertions of this kind are the sort of idealism, subjectivism and illusion that is undone by looking at the external world.

But the second part of your question, which is more important, is: What innovation do I have to my credit? It’s not easy for me to answer this question. It amounts to blowing my own trumpet, which is always difficult for me. What I can suggest is that I’ve grasped a series of dichotomies. Researchers and interested parties can organize the bulk of my works around these dichotomies. I’ve drawn a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘religious knowledge’, and I’ve differentiated between ‘minimalist religion’ and ‘maximalist religion’. I’ve paid particular attention to the question of ‘reason’ and ‘cause’ in epistemology, and I’ve also drawn a distinction between ‘Islam as identity’ and ‘Islam as truth’, as well as between ‘duty-oriented’ human beings and times and ‘right-oriented’ human beings and times, and so on and so forth. I have, as a matter of principle, been very committed to and interested in these differentiations and distinctions.

All the dichotomies that I mentioned have been the products of prolonged reflection, and they have, in particular, been products of paying close attention to the types of fallacies that people fall into in their pronouncements and their writings. I wanted to figure out a way in which we could rid ourselves of these fallacies. It was on this basis that I arrived at these dichotomies and I believe that they are enlightening.

By way of an explanation of the distinction between religion and religious knowledge, I can say that, on one side, we have religion and, on the other side, we have religious knowledge. Believers hold that religion is a complete and infallible whole. But religious knowledge is fallible, it is inconsistent and it can grow. This became the starting point for many of the other ideas and verdicts that I’ve formulated on the subject of exegesis. I have expounded a kind of epistemological and sociological hermeneutics. I’ve shown that religion can be interpreted in different ways and that it can have many readings. In this way, I’ve tried to highlight the relationship between religion and the human fields of learning via religious knowledge.

Another example of the distinctions I’ve highlighted is ‘governing by fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]’ and ‘governing by science’.

Through these dichotomies, I’ve tried to resolve both theoretical problems and practical problems. I hope I’ve been successful to some extent.


The Social Sciences: The Most Bloodied Martyr


Q. Let’s return to the situation in Iran today. It would appear that the Islamic Republic’s courts have been busy prosecuting the social sciences, such as sociology, philosophy and political science.[i] As someone who has taught the social sciences in Iran and in the United States, how do you see the status of the social sciences in Iran today? Where are we headed in the light of the short-sightedness of the Islamic Republic’s leaders?


A. It is a sorrowful and tragic tale. I’ve been faced with this problem for 30 years and I’ve also been teaching, writing and thinking about it for 30 years. And now, in addition to all this, I grieve and weep over it.  I believe that the social sciences have been one of the biggest and most bloodied martyrs in Iran in the years after the revolution.  When I heard that, in a recent speech addressed to a crowd of housewives, Mr Khamenei said that the tenets of the social sciences must be extracted from the Koran, it made me groan. I knew that Mr Khamenei was unacquainted with the social sciences; what I didn’t know was the he’s also unacquainted with the Koran. I realized that Iran has a leader who, in addition to his injustices, also imposes his ignorance on the nation. He makes pronouncements that don’t contain the slightest shred of thoughtful reflection.

I know that Mr Khamenei is not conversant with philosophy and the field of theology. The only part of the social sciences he might know anything about is literature and history. But I know that, even in the realm of history, he hasn’t studied the philosophy of history and knows nothing about this subject. It is precisely this ignorance that allows him to make such grave pronouncements, which make one tremble. He says that the tenets of the social sciences must be extracted from the Koran. And it goes without saying that the eulogists, such as Haddad-Adel, Kachooyan and others, endorse his pronouncements; eulogists who have gone forth and multiplied and now comprise more than 30 people in the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution. They endorse these pronouncements out of ignorance or out of ulterior motives, and they fill the leader with glee. But it is the Iranian nation which has to suffer the resulting grief and the backwardness of the social sciences.

Is it too difficult to understand the point that the leader of the Islamic Republic is the  vali-ye faqih [guardian-jurist] and that, on the basis of the theory of the velayat-e faqih, he only has the right to comment on matters of fiqh and politics, and to issue fatwas and rulings; not the right to rule on the social sciences? Mr Khamenei or anyone else who occupies that post has no right to say that this or that philosophical theory is correct and this or that one is incorrect. For example, he cannot say that, from now on, everyone must adhere to the principality of being and abandon the principality of essence; that this or that field must be like this and some other field must be like that. This falls neither within his expertise, nor within his jurisdiction. God only knows what these kinds of unlearned and inappropriate pronouncements will do to the position of learning and learned people in our country.

As far as I’m concerned, saying that the tenets of the social sciences must be extracted from the Koran is no different from saying that the tenets of the field of medicine must be extracted from the Koran; or the tenets of mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy or geology (and I know that some people harbour the ambition to do this). There is no difference between these pronouncements. They are all equally bizarre and uninformed. They think that these sciences are a set of moral injunctions or on a par with philosophical musings; they pay no attention to their empirical aspects. They think that the social sciences are transmitted fields, not empirical fields. I remember that Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli said once that we would extract the science of shipbuilding from the chapter in the Koran on Noah and that we would extract the science of agriculture from this or that religious narrative—which is not unlike the efforts of that English priest who was looking for the Virgin Mary’s essays on mathematics! Anyhow, this was the first point I wanted to make in response to your question and it was mainly a kind of gripe or grumble.

But the second self-evident point is that only people who are well-versed in the social sciences are qualified to make pronouncements about them; people who are aware of the great progress that has been made in these fields, as well as the critiques that are directed at these subjects. In other words, people who are acquainted with the philosophy of the social sciences; i.e., the ones who have the second order perspective that I mentioned.  The next point is that this work is actually being carried out now. What I mean to say is that, alongside the social sciences, there are fields of learning that fall under the general heading of ‘the philosophy of science’. Their task is to assess and criticize the social sciences. These fields have put the social sciences—ranging from their methods and viewpoints to their tenets and theories—under a magnifying glass and assessed and criticized them.  If Mr Khamenei had proper knowledge of these things and if his advisers helped him properly, he would know that the philosophy of the social sciences should be strengthened in Iran. This is a good pronouncement and it should be carried out. And over the past 30 years, I have worked in earnest to this end. From the early years after the revolution, I taught the philosophy of the natural sciences and the philosophy of the social sciences at Iran’s universities. I have taught numerous courses on the philosophy of history and I’m very glad to say that I’ve taught a generation of students who are now familiar with these ideas.

The business of the social sciences and the philosophy of the social sciences should be carried out by academics themselves. Science is not a robe that special tailors can sew in some mysterious way, in a secret corner, and, then, clothe the people in it. Our universities are where the sewing is done. Our academics should be able to criticize and generate the sciences without fear. This criticism can make the sciences trimmer and more robust. We can’t refuse to take the social sciences from the West on the pretext that they are Western and Westoxicated; learning and thought are not an endowment that belong to any particular tribe, era or generation. All of God’s servants are capable of thinking. If we throw open the gates  of our universities, if we create an atmosphere for our professors that’s free of fear and intimidation, then, we can add something to these sciences.

Dismissing the gains made by humanity in the realm of the social sciences over the past few centuries truly requires audacity and this is an audacity that only ignorant people can possess.

My specific recommendation is that social scientists should teach these fields freely and that philosophers of the social sciences should freely teach the critical philosophy of these fields. And, in undertaking this critical philosophy, they should benefit from the cooperation of religious theorists and they should also use the Koran, the religious narratives, history and the Traditions as sources too.

Another point worth mentioning in response to your question is: Why have the gentlemen suddenly thought of the social sciences today? Thirty years have passed since the revolution and the ulema have been free over the past 30 years (nay, over the past hundreds of years) to study the Koran and extract theories from it. Has anyone prevented the ulema from doing this hitherto? Is this why, today, they are being advised to extract scientific tenets from the Koran? Have our ulema, who benefit from people’s religious contributions and other governmental and non-governmental resources, had any other duty than this? Why haven’t they come up with any offerings so far? If they had produced any good, scientific offerings, they would undoubtedly have found their way into people’s minds and taken pride of place in the realm of learning.

It is absolutely clear to me that if Mr Khamenei’s advice is acted on, a dark age will begin in the realm of Iranian culture and learning. A bunch of ignorant people whose only claim to knowledge is familiarity with Arabic and a few religious narratives—the most inexperienced of inexperienced seminarians—will step into the arena and terrorize university professors. And against any point that any professor makes, they’ll cite some incomplete and irrelevant religious narrative. And, then, they’ll boast that “we’ve got the whole world under our thumbs”.

Over the last few years, at Mr Khamenei’s instigation, we have seen a development known as ‘the software movement and chairs for theorizing’ in Iran. I really don’t understand; can you set up chairs for theorizing?! I mean, is it possible to extract theories from your mind deliberately and forcibly?  Scholars who freely engage in research and reflection over many years may suddenly have an idea, which is then recognized by the scientific community as a new theory and presented as such. But the notion that a bunch of people should gather together for the express purpose of theorizing and that they should knit their brows and try to force themselves to produce some theories—this is exactly like having a bunch of people gather together for the express purpose of producing some poetry. Great poetry is produced by poets. And not poets who have to knit their brows and force themselves to produce some verse. Poetry has to bubble up from within and this, in turn, hinges on years of effort and experience on the part of the poet.

The gentlemen are unacquainted with the history of science and the way in which scientific theories are born. They don’t realize that you can’t joke with science. You can’t mess with science. You can’t resort to shortcuts in science. You have to approach science with humility. If you have any talent, you should make your small contribution to the world of learning and help the caravan of learning along.

Now, things have got to a point where they give a know-nothing seminarian by the name Sadeqi-Reshad the prize for theorizing and they give the Farabi Prize to The Philosophy of Farabi, which was written by Dr Davari 40 years ago.


The Destructiveness Hidden in Foucault’s Thinking


Here, I’d like to refer to another point too. In our country, some people take some of the theories of the West’s social sciences, like the ideas of Michel Foucault, and they try to use these theories to condemn the West’s social sciences on the grounds that these social sciences are biased and are all tainted by power; that, according to Foucault, their truths have all emerged under the shadow of power and relative to it. In this way, they nullify the achievements of the West’s social sciences. Then, they leap into the ring triumphantly and say: Now that others have failed, it’s our turn to display our talents. Regrettably, I believe that this cheap and easy route will not lead us to the truth. It provides temporary solace to ignorant people or opportunists.

Apart from all this, Foucault’s theory should not be taken very seriously, because, not just me, but also his critics say that a very destructive relativism lies hidden within it. But if, for the sake of argument, we overlook this problem and take it seriously, then, we have to accept that Foucault’s theory does not only apply to Western science, but also applies to Islamic fiqh. It also applies to Islamic philosophy and Islamic theology. It discredits all of these fields too. These gentlemen truly cheat. (I’m using the word ‘cheat’ advisedly and with deliberation.) They cheat when they use Foucault’s theory to condemn and nullify the West’s social sciences. If his theory is correct, then its destructive blade will also mow down the Islamic fields of learning; not just the learning that has accumulated thus far, but also the learning that will emerge in the future. No field of learning will remain credible, including the sciences that these gentlemen fancy they will be creating.


Mr Khamenei Wants an Iran that Thinks like Him and Sees the World as He Does


Q. Let me refer to the open letter you wrote to Mr Khamenei two months ago. Since then, there have been some very meaningful and far-reaching developments in Iranian society. Where is he taking Iran?


A. Since you’re asking me to say where he is taking Iran, I have to use physics to answer your question. In physics and geology, there is a phenomenon known as artesian wells. ‘Artesian’ refers to wells that are filled by water from sources that are higher than ground level. When the water comes out of these wells, it gushes into the air. Geologists have told us that the water can only gush as high as the source of the water and it can never go higher than that. Now, this is Mr Khamenei’s tale. He really wants to make Iran the same height as himself. So, in response to your question as to where he is taking Iran, we have to look at Mr Khamenei’s thinking, his worldview and the extent and/or limitations of his knowledge and outlook.  These are the pointers to take into account because, if Mr Khamenei gains total control and can act with an open hand—of course, he always complains that enemies don’t allow it—he will create an Iran in which people think like him, grasp Islam to the extent that he does and see the world in the way that he does. Of course, it will be regrettable if this happens, because Mr Khamenei’s record over the past 20 years has shown that he has a very uneven and erroneous perception of things. If Mr Khamenei was in a seminary or if he was the prayer leader in a mosque, it would be no problem. But given his position and given the fact that he wants to make Iran in his own image, his perception is ruinous. This is because Mr Khamenei’s viewpoint on Islam is similar to Sayyid Qutb’s viewpoint. Mr Khamenei has basically taken his viewpoint from Sayyid Qutb. Mr Khamenei has not written many things but one of his works is a translation of a book by Sayyid Qutb. Sayyid Qutb, may he rest in peace, was a man of stature, with a fervent temperament. He was an exegete and, in some respects, superior to Mr Khamenei. His perception was that Western civilization is the ignorance of the modern age; that this ignorance does not, in the least, merit enduring and being followed, and that it should be rejected. Of course, Mr Khamenei also says that he admires Iqbal of Lahore, but he hasn’t benefited much from Iqbal’s perception and learning.

            If Mr Khamenei grasped Western and Eastern philosophy as well as Iqbal did, then, our country’s fate would be shaped differently. But, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Islam as Mr Khamenei grasps it and the world as Mr Khamenei sees it are wholly a product of and in accordance with Sayyid Qutb’s ideas. Mr Khamenei also has very little knowledge of mysticism. He does not see the vast world that mystics saw and does not share the spiritual affinity that they had with the Prophet. And, unfortunately, because he wants to occupy the position of the velayat-e faqih, he has taken on the characteristics of faqihs [Islamic jurists]. And from fiqh, he has only taken a kind of ruinous respect for its superficies.

All of these things, taken as a whole, tells us that, if Mr Khamenei has enough power—and he has had it so far—he will, first, set us at loggerheads with the entire world, which he has already done. Secondly, he will entrench a superficial perception and practice of Islam in Iran, which he has already done. And, thirdly, because of his understanding of the history of the Safavid era, he believes that he should surround himself with an elite group of people and rule Iran on this basis. And he has assembled this elite group of people. Some of members of this group are speakers and they are all eulogists and individuals with little learning (such as Rahimpur-Azqadi, Haddad-Adel, Sadeqi-Reshad and Haeri-Shirazi). These individuals are exactly what Mr Khamenei needs, and he can trust them. And the other members of this elite group are bearers of naked brawn. I’m referring to the plainclothes militia forces and the members of the Basij, and, more recently, the Revolutionary Guards. These people put thinkers (or, from their perspective, ‘the troublemakers’) in their place and silence and suppress them.

This method that that Mr Khamenei has adopted is wholly the offspring of his thinking and his perception. The harmfulness of this perception and method was not visible as long as society still bore the glow of the revolution and was advancing with revolutionary love and fervour. Unfortunately, there were also some philosophers in society (like Dr Davari, Mesbah-Yazdi, etc.) who supplied theoretical underpinnings for Mr Khamenei’s improper behaviour. But, gradually, the cracks and divides came into view. And the Iranian people, especially our young, educated people, realized that this perception of the world will not lead us anywhere.

I am certain that Mr Khamenei has neither a correct understanding of liberalism nor a correct understanding of Marxism. He knows neither Western philosophy nor Eastern philosophy well. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t know these things. There are many leaders in the East and the West who don’t know these things. But if someone, who doesn’t know, insists on making pronouncements and passing judgements about them, dragging the country behind him, tormenting opponents and prosecuting the sciences, then the serious objection arises as to why a nation has to suffer the consequences of these distorted pronouncements and perceptions for years.


Religion’s Real & Legal Intervention in Politics


Q. My next question is about the role of religion, in general, and Islam, in particular, in politics, government and the state. In the 1990s, you raised the idea of a democratic, religious state. In your recent letter to the leader, you spoke about a state that transcends the religious. In your joint statement [with Messrs Mohajerani, Kadivar, Bazargan and Ganji] you attacked the unjust, absolute guardianship [velayat]. What is the state of your choice? Is it religious or does it transcend the religious? Is it secular, in the American sense, or laic, modelled on France? I know that you’re a critic of philosophical secularism, but to what extent do you agree with political and sociological secularism?


A. In my view, there are two ways in which religion can intervene in politics: Real intervention and legal intervention. I believe that real intervention is unavoidable. That is to say, religion has always had and continues to have a hand in politics everywhere in the world. Real intervention means that, if religion, in the true and natural sense of the word, is present in society, it will inevitably play a role in politics. In other words, it will point people in a particular direction, it will put particular ideas in their minds and it will make them likely to do particular things.

            The idea that religion belongs to the private sphere is, in my view, misleading and fallacious. Certainly, belief and faith reside in the heart and no one can know about them. But the religion that is built on belief, that becomes entrenched in society, that becomes the subject of books, that has institutions built around it and that brings together congregations of believers can no longer be a private matter; it is social through and through, and it will manifest its social effects.

Look at all the religious feuds in the world today! Are they a private matter? If religion were a private matter, things wouldn’t be as they are. Now, one person kills another in the name of religion. Another person builds a mosque in the name of religion. Another person still sets up a charity in the name of religion. People are friendly or hostile towards each other depending on their religions. These are the social effects of religion, which also has an undoubted effect on politics. So, religion has a real hand in and a link with politics. This has always been the case and will always be the case. The case of Switzerland and the dispute over mosques’ minarets—which has been in the news in recent weeks—is a good example of how social religion is. The feud itself is over religion’s social aspect. I mean, even the people who believe that religion means performing the ritual prayers, fasting, etc. also acknowledge that religion is social, because prayer, too, needs mosques and churches, which are social institutions. George W. Bush won the votes of churchgoers and that’s how he became president and politician-in-chief. This is why I say that a real link between religion and politics is unavoidable.

            But the legal link between religion and politics is a different issue. Here, the question is whether or not we should give priority to religion when it comes to lawmaking and legislation. Should religion be the basis of the state’s legitimacy or not? These are questions that determine the legal link between religion and the state. This is where I speak about political secularism. I’m of the view that political secularism is a good thing. That is to say, the modern world has shown us that we have to accept the real link, recognize it officially and allow it to operate freely. In fact, we have no choice but to recognize it. But it’s best if we sever the legal link. In other words, we should proceed on the basis of religious pluralism, grant all citizens equal opportunity in politics and benefit from all religions in lawmaking. But when I speak about a state that transcends the religious, I mean we should seek a vessel and an identity that is more broad and more far-reaching than religion and make the state abide by it. I believe that this more far-reaching vessel is morality.

            Let me also add that the legal link is not an invariable link. If, in a society, religion becomes very strong and leans towards monopolizing things, it can wash away that absence of a legal link and do away with it. Secularism and non-secularism are not absolutes either; they can become more or less diluted. Britain is secular and has no official religion. At the same time, the Queen is the head of the Church and she is a proponent of Christianity if her duty demands it.


A Post-Theocratic State is a Moral State that Transcends Fiqh


Q. Let me also ask you about religious intellectualism and traditional fiqh. You have been a critic of the clergy and the traditional reading of Islam. You have, at the same time, had good relations with clerics, such as the late Ayatollah Montazeri and, currently, Mr Kadivar. You criticize each other, but you are friends. What is the relationship between religious intellectualism and fiqh, and can morality take the place of the shari’ah and the law?


A. I have many friends who are clerics. They’re very decent people. I have no problem with them. The clergy, like any other profession, contains good, amiable individuals, and it also contains individuals who are malefactors. In this respect, I see no difference between clerics and doctors, carpenters, engineers, etc. They are all professions and they have their own interests. But the clergy is different from other professions in one important respect. The clergy sells a product called religion, which is particularly important in a religious society. Now, if the other professions sell a defective product, people will recognize it as faulty while they are still alive. If a doctor isn’t proficient, after he sees a few patients and prescribes the wrong treatments, people will stay away from him. Conversely, if a doctor is skilled, people will flock to him when they’re ill. The same can be said of the other professions. That is to say, they’re performance is tested empirically. But, in the case of the clergy, if the religion that they’re selling is defective, it will be hard for people to identify it as such. Clerics say: Do this or that and you’ll achieve felicity. But you won’t know whether what they advised was right or wrong until Judgement Day.  In this sense, there’s a huge difference between the clergy and other professions. This is why I’ve said that, because of what their job consists of, clerics shouldn’t receive any imbursement for their clerical work; they shouldn’t pitch the canopy of their livelihoods on the pillar of religion. Because it’s not clear what they’re selling.

            The second point is that if this clergy, with this basis, comes to political power, it will cause a great deal of damage, because, in politics, too, it will tell people: What we say and do comes from God, so just accept it unquestioningly. In other words, in politics, too, the clergy is not prepared to be tested empirically. For example, if the implementation of penal laws has the opposite effect from the intended one, the clergy is still not prepared to abandon them. This is why, if the clergy comes to power, it will lead to more harm than good.

            Certainly, individual clerics can take part in free and fair elections and win against their rivals. But granting them a unique prerogative will produce disagreeable results.

            I’ve told them repeatedly in my writings: Clerics! Now that you hold the reins of power, take care not to darn the holes in your reasoning with the thread of power. In other words, don’t use force to silence your audience whenever you fail to convince them. This will harm not only you but also religion and the country.

            As to what my view is on fiqh,  my writings are full of explanations on the subject of fiqh. In one respect, I’ve praised fiqh a great deal: The fiqh-oriented mentality that our people and our clerics have brings them close to respect for the law. Far from being a small matter, this is a very precious trait that is beneficial for democracy. But the important point is that fiqh is a duty-oriented aggregate. Being totally duty-oriented distances us from concern for rights. This is one of the dichotomies on which I’ve placed a great deal of emphasis: The duties versus rights dichotomy. And I’ve explained on this basis that the modern world is a rights-oriented world; whereas the traditional world was a duty-oriented one. I can see many points in this dichotomy. Fiqh is law-oriented but the laws it deals with revolve around duties, not rights. I don’t mean to say that there’s no sign of rights in it, but the amount is small. In order to perfect fiqh, we have to inject rights-oriented tenets into it. In this sense, fiqh has a serious shortcoming.

            But fiqh’s second shortcoming is that, bearing in mind that religion is an aggregate composed of morality and fiqh, leaning on fiqh alone and disregarding morality is very harmful. I believe that one of the serious flaws in Iran since the revolution has been that morality has been badly crushed. Normally, many things in society trample on morality; selfishness and greed, to name just two. But we shouldn’t allow it to be trampled by fiqh as well, although this is what is happening now. A whole range of immoral deeds and vices are being carried out in our society in the name of fiqh and in the name of acting in accordance with fiqh. This must be stopped.

            I believe in a moral religion and I think that the best product that you can buy in religion’s shop is morality. And the noble Prophet said: I came to complete morality. He did not say: I came to complete fiqh.

In a fiqh-oriented aggregate, morality is treated inequitably. Morality has to be given its due and treated equitably. This is what I mean when I talk about a post-theocratic state; I mean, a moral state. That is to say, a state that leans on morality more than it leans on fiqh. The fact of the matter is, when they speak about ‘a religious state’ in Iran today, they mean, ‘a fiqh-based state’, and it cannot be understood in any other way. So, when I talk about ‘a state that transcends the religious’, I mean ‘a state that transcends fiqh’. And by ‘transcending fiqh’, I mean ‘moral’.

In Iranian society, religion should be presented as the source and repository of morality; I mean, a well-assessed and well-cleansed morality, not a contradiction-ridden morality that is based on ancient psychology and is sometimes propagated from pulpits. I believe that the moral aspect of religion should be strengthened and that people should benefit from religion’s ethics. If this happens, things will improve for us.


Five Religious Intellectuals’ Joint Statements Set to Continue


Q. My last question is about the joint statement that you issued, along with four other religious intellectuals, about the demands of the Green Movement. It seemed to me that the statement itself, its contents and its timing were very surprising. The five signatories have had differing stances and views in the past. What made you think that it was necessary to issue such a joint statement and at that particular point in time—just two days after the publication of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s statement?  Do you intend to continue issuing joint statements? Are we witnessing the birth of a Green nucleus of activity abroad or a new ‘think-tank’ for the Green Movement?


A. The five of us are like clerics in a way; we’ve all written our religious dissertations in the past and can’t take them back now. The individuals who signed the statement have differing views on other subjects. But they all believe in the minimal points that have been set out in the statement. What motivated us to draw up and publish this statement was that we felt that the Green Movement has been a movement in the streets and in action, but that its theoretical framework has not been set out anywhere. We came together to write the statement at a time when Mr Mousavi hadn’t issued his statement yet. So, even after he issued his statement, we didn’t abandon our work; we even added some things to it that he had left unsaid. I think that we both stayed completely faithful to Mr Mousavi’s statement and clarified the lines of the Green Movement at this stage to a large extent.

            As to whether or not we will continue to issue joint statements, my answer is, Yes, the intention is to continue. And it is by virtue of continuing that these statements will find their place.

            For the time being, I won’t give this group of five individuals any name. I won’t call it a think-tank and I won’t call it the movement’s expatriate leadership. I won’t choose any of these names for it. When this group does other things, takes other stances and issues other statements, it will gradually become clear what it is, what role it is playing, what position it has in the movement and what name is appropriate for it.




Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser

[i] In the partially-televised ‘trials’ of reformists after the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, reformist politicians and theorists ‘confessed’ that the teaching of Western ideas, such as the theories of Max Weber, were to blame for the protests in Iran.






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