Q. In late May, you took part in a seminar on Islam and
democracy. Who were the other participants and what were the issues
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser