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 June 2007


Amsterdam Debate


An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush


By Matin Ghaffarian




Q. In late May, you took part in a seminar on Islam and democracy. Who were the other participants and what were the issues discussed?

A. In the seminar, four people were due to have engaged in a debate. Mr. Tariq Ramadan, Mr. Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, Mr. Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd and I were the four main participants. But Mr. Abu Zayd was unable to attend because he was taken ill.

Q. Did the participants engage in a joint debate or did they deliver speeches separately?

A. The seminar was in the form of a debate. Dr. Asef Bayat, the academic director of ISIM, was the moderator and he asked us a series of questions. Nearly all the people who attended were Dutch Ė except for a few Muslims. The seminar was very enthusiastically received. In fact, demand exceeded supply and some people who would have liked to attend were not able to because of the limited space.
The seminar took the following form: Mr. Bayat would ask a question and the three panellists would answer in turn and, more often than not, the answers would lead to discussions between us. As the first question, we were asked to say what our relationship was with the Qurían. As you know, Mr Sadik Al-Azm, although Muslim-born, describes himself as an atheist-humanist. So, his answer was that he viewed the Qurían as a literary classic like the works of Homer or Shakespeare. He also said that the Qurían was to be respected but that it was also surrounded by a series of trimmings; for example, some people repeatedly recited the verses of the Qurían in the hope that their wishes would come true. He was of the view that this kind of conduct is not sensible or rational.
My answer was that Iím not an Arab and I may therefore not have an Arabís grasp of the Quríanís style and method, but that Iím deeply attached to the Qurían. Iíve consulted it on countless occasions and Iíve even made comparative studies of it and the Bible and the Torah, and felt great joy in reading it. The Qurían is an unusual book by any standard, whether in terms of its genesis or in terms of the impact it has had on innumerable people over the course of history. I said there that, in my opinion, the Quríanís most important message was to free the mind. I was asked what I meant by this. I said that I didnít mean political freedom; I meant freedom from mental afflictions such as pride, arrogance, selfishness and the like. Someone who possesses a free mind in this sense can both think correctly and play a role in society as a freethinking individual.
In his answer, Mr. Tariq Ramadan didnít add very much to all this other than to say some things about the fact that, when we try to understand the Qurían, we have to take the context Ė i.e. the historical conditions in which it was revealed Ė into account.
Then, the subsequent questions focused specifically on Islam and democracy. On the whole, Mr. Sadik Al-Azm did not play a big role in the discussion of these questions because this is not his subject and he confined himself to giving short answers.
I said that I never use the term ĎIslamic democracyí; instead, I always approach this issue in terms of whether or not Muslims can live in a democratic society or under a democratic State. My answer is in the affirmative. I believe that, without wanting to extract the distinguishing and essential elements of democracy from Islamic teachings Ė which is an inappropriate thing to do Ė we can look at the issue in terms of the fact that many of the elements of a democratic State do not contravene Islamic thinking. For example, although the separation of powers doesnít appear in Islamís primary teachings, no Muslim theologian has ever issued an edict against it either and it can easily be accepted in an Islamic society, as can issues such as the accountability of office holders or having a strong and independent judiciary. Of course, a full, modern democracy cannot be constructed on the basis of such an approach but where in the world do we have a full democracy? Itís true that other issues need to be considered here; first and foremost, the question of rights, which has to be taken into account in addition to duties. And I also spoke a bit about this.
Mr. Tariq Ramadan, too, said some things about these issues. He also underlined the question of rights and duties for Muslims, and also said that democracy didnít come in a single form; democracy takes one form in the Netherlands and another in the United States.
Sadik Al-Azm spoke about secularism and the dominance of the secularist movement in Turkey which was established under Ataturk. I said in this respect that imposing secularism from above was inappropriate and unsuccessful. If we look at the history of secularism in Europe, we can see that it didnít come about on the recommendation of or through pressure from any individual or group. First, as a result of the clash between religion and science in those times, religion became a weak player in social and political affairs. No one issued an edict to instigate the separation of religion from politics; this separation occurred naturally. Secondly, in the light of the emergence of a split in Christianity (especially with the appearance of Protestantism in Europe), religion didnít enjoy the same position as it had done before and couldnít play the same role. Iím certain that if Christianity becomes stronger again, it will step back onto the social and political stage in the West. And one reading suggests that this is already taking place.
In the world of Islam, contrary to Christianity, we havenít had a split in modern times; the split between Sunnis and Shiíis, as the two important sects in the world of Islam, occurred in centuries past. Also, the conflict between science and religion didnít occur among us in the same way as it did in the West.
Today, the return of religion onto the stage has taken a violent form, in the guise of fundamentalist readings. The current times will pass and religion will taken on a non-violent form; we have to formulate theories for these future times.
Elsewhere in the discussion, Mr. Sadik Al-Azm Ė in order to wipe the brand of fundamentalism from Muslimsí brow Ė suggested that maybe itís possible to say that Muslims are only Muslims for a few hours out of the 24 hours of a day. Then, he turned to me and asked: Is this possible? I said that if someone is a serious believer, in view of the fact that religiosity is based on the adoption of some ontological and epistemological assumptions and assumptions about human nature, itís not possible to be religious on a part-time basis. Religiosity is a form of life.
Mr. Sadik Al-Azm replied: So, you donít accept the view of those who believe that Muslims are sometimes Muslims and, at other times, not Muslims when they carry out fundamentalist deeds.
I replied that theyíre wrong for the simple reason that the absolute majority of Muslims read the Islamic texts and donít commit any fundamentalist deeds.
Another question was: If Muslims discover in their history that the Prophet gave an order for someone to be put to death for apostasy, would you follow the Prophet in this respect? Mr. Tariq Ramadan, to whom the question had been addressed, didnít really answer it. He only said that things shouldnít be reduced to questions like this. Of course, if the question had been put to me, I would have said: Yes, absolutely; the Prophetís conduct is a model for Muslims. But we know of no instance in history when the Prophet ruled that someone should be put to death for apostasy. Moreover, even if there were such instances, the historical backdrop and conditions would need to be taken into account.
Mr. Sadik Al-Azm stepped into the discussion at this point and said: If Muslims want to establish democracy, they must forego some of their religious principles. For example, they would have to disallow slavery and change their laws on the payment of special taxes by non-Muslims.
I explained that Mr. Sadik Al-Azm was right in saying that slavery is mentioned in the Qurían and there are laws regarding non-Muslims in fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] which need to be looked at, but that - as heís no doubt aware Ė neither of these are principles of Islam, which is the term heíd used. These are precepts and regulations and are not even part of the imperatives of religion. I also said that, although slavery does exist in Islam, it was imposed on the Prophet and Islam. At the time, conditions in the world were such that all armies used to take people into slavery from the opposite side and Muslims, too, had no choice but to do this. As you know, the decision on whether to take slaves or not is left to the commander of the army and thereís a verse in the Muhammad Sura that states that the commander can pardon captives or exchange them for captured Muslims.
As for non-Muslims, although they were always treated well by Muslims, they didnít enjoy equal rights with them. I said that, although undeniable, this could be explained to some extent. Today, we have a notion known as citizenship. If youíre a citizen of the Netherlands, you possess some rights that I, as a non-citizen, donít possess; Iím deprived of some human rights simply by virtue of the fact that I wasnít born in the Netherlands. In the past, being a Muslim in Muslim lands and being a Christian in Christian lands was the measure of citizenship. Weíre not saying that these precepts should necessarily be acted on today. These precepts should be subjected to ijtihad [formulation of reasoned opinion on matters of fiqh]. But the rationale behind their existence in the past is comprehensible.
Mr. Tariq Ramadan, for his part, answered a number of questions and the debate continued in this way to the end. I also exchanged a joke with Mr. Jalal Al-Azm. He said that women are not allowed to lead the ritual prayers in Islam. I told him that, if he ever felt an inclination to perform the ritual prayers, I would provide a woman prayer leader so that he wouldnít have to suffer in this respect.
Then, it was time for questions from the audience. I have to say that they werenít very profound questions and they were mainly addressed to Mr. Ramadan.

Q. What was your assessment of the other panellists, especially Mr. Tariq Ramadan, who is receiving a lot of attention in Europe these days? Did you know him before? Do you follow his discussions now that youíre in Europe or not?

A. I first met Mr. Tariq Ramadan 10 years ago; as it happens it was here, in the Netherlands. It was at a seminar, which was also attended by Mr. Abu Zayd, Nur Khalis Majid and Mohamad Sharafi from Tunis. And there was a bit of a clash between the two of us at a roundtable discussion on the occasion, on the subject of religiosity and religious freedom.
My impression was that, 10 years on, heís matured a great deal and thereís more interest in him nowadays. The fact that the US Administration prevented him from visiting the US was not without impact on this interest. European Muslims are very interested in Mr. Tariq Ramadan now and the main focus of his work is the amalgamation of European Muslimsí Islamic and European identities. In one of his most important books, Muslims in Europe, he advises Muslims to behave in a European way in Europe and to take advantage of democracy and European resources; not in order to overthrow the ruling systems, but in order to bring about more justice, to create a climate in which they can air their views, and to show the compassionate face of Islam without resorting to violence of any kind. The most important issue for him Ė as I understand it Ė is to discuss the socio-political concerns of Muslim minorities in Europe with a view to resolving their dual identities. He wants to reconcile European Muslimsí religious identity with their identity as Europeans, so that they donít have a sense of internal conflict in their lives and can become integrated in Europe whilst also preserving their religious identity.
As you know, the issue of integration is of great concern in Europe. Take this university, Amsterdam University, for example. They have set up a training course for imams. Imam means religious leaders and people who can lead congregational prayers and answer believersí religious questions. The aim of the course at this university is to teach European culture to religious leaders too, so that religious leaders proceed in a way that ensures that Muslims opt for moderation and arenít drawn towards violence. Of course, I have on occasion explained to Europeans that there are two sides to this tale. It isnít enough to expect moderation from Muslims; Europeans, too, must behave moderately towards Muslims. You canít provoke Muslims and expect them not to be provoked. European media should show adequate respect for Islamic values.

Q. In view of the crisis over the question of Islam in Europe, what short of reaction to these kinds of seminars do you expect to see in the Muslim community and in the European community?

A. Some Dutch people were telling me that this seminar was one of the rare occasions of this kind on which many of the people in the audience were Dutch and they didnít suggest that they were bored in any way whatsoever by the issues discussed. Thereís now an interest in Europe in learning about Islam. I have to add, of course, that not all the interest is for theological reasons; itís the material thatís being published in newspapers that has produced this public interest in Islam. Newspapers give extensive coverage to these kinds of debates, more so in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe.
The Netherlands has a population of 16 million, of which one million are Muslims (compare this to Britain, which has a population of 60 million, of which only two million are Muslims). In the Netherlands, Muslims are fully observant, to the point where the presence of women who were the hijab is quite noticeable in public places. The Dutch, for their part, have accepted this and behave very respectfully towards Muslim women. At the same time, Muslims are fully integrated into Dutch society. I believe that in societies like this, both the Muslims and the governments have a duty to create an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance; an atmosphere in which no one feels constricted. European governments, in particular, are conscious of this and try to ensure that thereís no tension. Of course, here, I have to draw attention to a theoretical point. On the whole, liberalismís limitations have become apparent. One of the presuppositions of liberalism and secularism was that tolerance of religion is possible because religions will gradually become weaker. But, today, religions, especially Islam, have grown stronger and this strength has revealed the weaknesses of liberalism and secularism. Now, the question arises: How is it possible to establish tolerance and coexistence between strong religions? Hence, with the emergence of this theoretical problem, we can see that both thinkers Ė theoretically Ė and politicians Ė practically Ė are trying to solve this problem. On this basis, seminars of this kind, some of which are held with very good intentions, will produce very laudable results.

Q. Dr. Soroush, your presence in this seminar has coincided with the publication of your new book in Iran, entitled Etiquette of Power, Etiquette of Justice. This suggests that after steering clear of political thought for quite some time, Dr. Soroush has returned to these debates. Is this impression correct?

A. Iíve never steered clear of political thought. One of my fundamental concerns has always been politics, but not politics in the sense of day-to-day politics, rather, political theory and theoretical politics. If you look at my works, youíll see this element in all of them. Maybe itís come to the fore a bit now. Of course, this may have something to do with the publication of the book. The publication of the book has created the impression that the author is now more concerned about this field. Iím working on several fields at one and the same time. While thinking about politics, especially justice, I also think about and work on ethics and the philosophy of religion. Hopefully, the results of this work will also be published.

Q. I think that notwithstanding your constant work on politics, thereís also been a development in your thought. If, at one time, your political thought revolved around the critique of ideology, now youíre focusing on the revival of morality in politics.

A. Yes, this is absolutely true. The revival of morality in politics or having a moral politics Ė the ways and means of this Ė and, basically, the possibility of having a moral standard for politics is my current concern. And Etiquette of Power, Etiquette of Justice clearly shows that Iíve turned to this issue. Justice is a subject thatís very close to my heart and I think that the debates weíve had about political freedoms and human rights all pass through justice. This debate has two dimensions, one moral and the other, political. If anyone wants to link politics and morality, the link will come via justice, because justice is both the first link in the chain of political values and the first link in the chain of moral values.

Q. Some intellectuals and academics criticize your recent inclination towards mysticism or spiritualism. This group of critics is of the view that you opened up some avenues in the 1990s by initiating various political and social debates but that, having fallen prey to spiritualism now, youíve left these avenues unfinished. I noticed that a critical article by Dr. Abazari has been posted on your website. This suggests that youíve taken note of these kinds of criticisms.

A. Thereís a great deal to be said on this subject. I saw his article and some friends have told me similar things to what you just said. I think that Mr. Abazari hasnít seen some of my articles. If youíve seen Ethics of the Gods, youíll have seen that it contains an article entitled ďBefuddled Mind, Befuddled IdentityĒ. In the article, I said that we have two kinds of faculties: faculties of precision and faculties of wonderment. In any civilization and culture, these two faculties ought to be in balance. I mentioned mathematics, fiqh, logic and science as examples of faculties of precision, and Sufism, mysticism/spiritualism and poetry, as examples of faculties of wonderment. And I said that the balance has been disturbed amongst us. So, this is something that Iím aware of myself; that we shouldnít invest excessively in either of these two faculties.
I have been and continue to be heedful of the importance of scientific thought and Iíve called on others to be heedful of it, because I know that weíve been neglecting it for some time and it would be good for us to occupy ourselves with it again. This is why Iím saying that Mr. Abazariís criticism suggests that he was unaware of some of my works and that Iím conscious of the point heís making.
Of course, I know that the world we live in today is a world in which the Exalted has been eclipsed and we have to jog peopleís minds. And our best source to this end consists of mystical sources, of which Iím best acquainted with Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumiís Mathnawi. So, Iím trying to revive this issue. This is the sole purpose of my attention to spiritualism. Of course, I donít have Mr. Abazariís article with me; otherwise, there were other points I wanted to make about it and perhaps I will one day.

Q. One of the points that Mr. Abazari made was about the potential of fiqh for solving problems. Youíve said some things about fiqh which have had more of an impact in view of the social character of fiqh, as opposed to your discussions about spiritualism, which has an individualistic character.

A. That wasnít what Mr. Abazari said about fiqh. As far as I remember, he was criticizing attacks on fiqh. He was of the view that spiritualism can, at most, make being in prison more agreeable, whereas whole groups of prisoners can be released from prison with fiqhi edicts.

Q. I think what he meant was that fiqh has social potential and that it can offer solutions to social problems through ijtihad, but that spiritualism doesnít have this capacity.

A. I found this argument of his very weak or perhaps I should say, poetic. What kind of argument is this anyway? I can easily say in response that a fiqhi edict can send anyone to prison or even have them executed. Conversely, if spiritualismís only advantage is that it makes being in prison more agreeable, at least it doesnít have the disadvantage of leading to anyoneís execution. Thatís my riposte at the level of his argument.
But, seriously, I donít understand the suggestion that spiritualism is an individualistic matter. Human beings are social creatures and a spiritualism thatís useful to individuals is also useful to society. Hasnít it been said that Sufism caused the decline of Muslim society after the Mongol invasion? Letís assume that this is true. What this means is that Sufism caused the decline of individuals and that this decline then took on a social dimension. So, if itís possible to speak of the negative social effects of spiritualism, then itís also possible to speak of its social benefits.
I believe that a healthy spiritualism that makes individuals optimistic, allows them to harmonize themselves with their environment, makes them citizens of the world, locates them within the universe and reconciles them with nature Ė this spiritualism has a social aspect too. It wonít just make prison agreeable for an individual, it will make the universe agreeable for the collective.
Itís an injustice to spiritualism to say that itís only useful for individuals - and at such a lowly level at that, putting it on a par with reading novels or poetry. Iím sorry to say that what Mr. Abazari has said in this connection suggests a rudimentary understanding of spiritualism. This is my impression of this whole debate.
As for my dispute over fiqh, it is an epistemological and socio-political dispute which is too long a tale to go into here. My grievance is the same as Al-Ghazzaliís grievance when he said that fiqh had now become the most important and most privileged of the religious fields. Of course, fiqh deserves respect and, as I said, it is one of the faculties of precision. But it has a small place within the ranks of the religious fields of study and, as Al-Ghazzali said, it is a this-worldly field. Fiqh is also not a field that can be used for planning. And there are other points that Iíve made, because I felt that, in view of the dominance of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists/clerics] in our society, fiqh is also moving towards become the dominant religious field. Iím concerned lest, God forbid, a superficial religion comes to prevail in our society. I believe that this is why spiritualism is important; it reduces superficiality in religion.

Q. My reading of the debate is that Iranian intellectuals are seeking an answer to the social and cultural crises. It seems that social cohesion is endangered in Iran and each intellectual is trying to find some kind of tape with which to stick the different components of society together. For you, this tape is morality and youíve found it in a return to spiritualism. I think that someone like Mr. Abazari is focusing on law and is of the view that fiqh can serve as a framework for a lawful society. In the light of your knowledge of fiqh, do you think this is a workable idea or not?

A. This is a point that Iíve made explicitly in my writings. This is not a new idea. Iíve made this point on numerous occasions, along with a set of provisos.
My position is that we, Muslims, have a mentality that is inclined towards fiqh and law, because Islamic civilization is basically a civilization thatís based on fiqh and law. And, on this basis, we can easily approach democratic thought Ė which favours the rule of law. We donít have far to go to this end. In this respect, this civilizationís attachment to fiqh is a blessing for us. But, in addition to this, I point to the fact that we also lack something, which is the notion of right. Fiqh is a duty-based field and, more than setting out our rights, it sets out our duties. Hence, we have to inject the notion of rights into fiqh. Then, we can establish a democracy based on the rule of law on this basis. These are points that Iíve made in my works. Itís not something that Iíve neglected.
Basically, my work has involved making use of cultural and traditional factors. We canít suddenly kiss goodbye a fiqh that has been of such great service to this civilization and set it aside. Itís the same with spiritualism. But we need to carry out a pathology of these cultural factors and, then, bring them back onto the stage.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


* Published in Ham-Mihan newspaper on 14 June 2007.



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