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 July 2008




Iím a Neo-Muítazilite


An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush



Matin Ghaffarian






Q. Dr Soroush, weíve been hearing for some time that youíre busy studying the ideas and works of the Muítazilites. I wanted to ask you about the ins and outs of this.

A. I started thinking about this project a long time ago - even before I began speaking about renewing the Muítazilite experience - and I wanted to work on this subject both from the historical-chronicled aspect and from the analytical-rational aspect. I respect the Muítazilite school of thought and I esteem them highly, because they were the first group to raise the banner of rationality in Islamic culture. Unfortunately, not much remains of the works of the vanguards of the Muítazilite school of thought. We find their views mirrored in their opponentsí works. In other words, most researchers have referred to the books written by the Muítazilitesí opponents - i.e., the Ashíarites - in order to know what the Muítazilites were saying and, as you know, this method imposes many limitations on the researcher. Fortunately, over the past 50 years and even more recently than that - over the past 10 years - many good discoveries have been made in Yemen and in a number of other regions, and some of the authentic and early works of the Muítazilites have been found. Now, a group of researchers at the Frei Universität Berlin are examining and publishing these books. Sabine Schmidtke and a number of other researchers are deeply involved in this project. Iím trying to use their findings. On the whole, many doors and windows have been opened in this field, and researchers can enter it with greater ease and confidence. I, too, am trying to do my share - more from the analytical-rational aspect than the historical-chronicled one, of course - in studying the Muítazilitesí views.

Even back at the time when I was learning about and teaching the Ashíarite school of thought and the Ashíaritesí views on exegesis, theology and ethics, I was gradually becoming interested in the Muítazilites and their disagreements with the Ashíarites. This was how it happened that I chose this project. Of course, there was another reason for my interest; as Iíve said elsewhere, it was the form that the question of modernity and tradition had taken in Iran. The question of modernity and tradition has turned into a grim subject in our country. Everyone speaks about tradition and modernity as if they were closed chests, and then they try to describe their similarities and differences. I think that this is out of keeping with the analytical approach. We have to open the chests of tradition and modernity, take out their components and demonstrate the link between them. Speaking in this closed way is not going to take us anywhere. I started the Muítazilite project in order to breathe new life into tradition and modernity. Rereading, reconsidering, renewing and assessing the views and ideas of the Muítazilites and their school of thought, which are hefty components of tradition, can bring new gains, and truly show us the way both to using tradition and to extricating ourselves from tradition. This is the kind of potential I see in the Muítazilite project and Iím trying to take advantage of it.

Q. You said that you became interested in the Muítazilites in the context of the feud between tradition and modernity. But Iíd like to know what your main question was in studying this Islamic school of thought. Did you have a prior plan when you studied the Muítazilitesí views? Was there a link between your prior views and this study?

A. Of course, this study was linked to my prior ideas. I like the Muítazilite religious theory and ethics, and the main reason why I like this school is because they raised the banner of revelation-independent reason and then they reflected on the nature of the relationship between these two independent things - i.e., reason and revelation - and offered a new view. This quality - i.e., the rationality of their school - is extremely valuable. I think that itís a coin that has currency and is precious, and it can be used in the market of learning and research. So, my project is the project of rationality and I see the Muítazilites as fellow travellers and I try to establish a link with them.

I came across the views of the Ashíarites and the Muítazilites directly when I started teaching the philosophy of morality. I used to teach Izz al-Din al-Ijiís Al-Mawaqif, the classical book on Ashíarite theology. The Muítazilitesí views are also mentioned and severely criticized in the book. But, even through these possibly-misrepresented views, you can get a sense of some of the Muítazilitesí important insights and ideas. Later, I studied them more directly, especially their Quríanic commentaries. Subsequently, it was the theory of contraction and expansion that really further clarified the issue for me. I realized that there have been two sets of presuppositions in approaching the Qurían and exegesis - at least in the history of Islamic culture: one consisted of Ashíarite presuppositions and the other of Muítazilite ones. It was from this perspective that I turned to these two groupsí commentaries. For example, I studied Fakhr Raziís Tafsir Kabir and Jarallah Zamakhshariís Tafsir Kishaf and saw how these presuppositions were fully involved in their understanding and annotation of the Qurían. It was at this point that the Muítazilites and the Ashíarites took on added importance for me. They became illustrations of the theory of contraction and extraction, and were used to explain, defend and confirm the theory. This was the first aspect of my liking for the Muítazilites.

From another aspect, the Muítazilitesí rational morality was of interest to me. As we all know, the Muítazilites believed in the principality of morality. In modern parlance, they believed in the objectivity of moral values and held that, regardless of the existence or non-existence of the prophets, morality had its own independent value. In other words, human reason can say whether an act is good or not. God endorses and confirms the verdicts of reason. That is to say, an act that reason considers good or bad is also considered good or bad by God. This independence of moral reason from revelation was very important to me. Iíve studied the Ashíarites views and arguments on the philosophy of morality diligently. They have some novel ideas in some respects. But they run into problems on the wellsprings of morality. Some people imagine that my book Learning and Values is Ashíarite through and through, whereas this is not at all the case. There, I have at most explained the views of Hume and a number of modern philosophers about how an ďoughtĒ cannot be derived from an ďisĒ or how moral propositions cannot be derived from factual propositions; I havenít said anything more than this. That is to say, the question of how moral values are discovered - whether reason discovers them or revelation teaches them to us - is an independent issue that has to be discussed in its own place. Like the Muítazilites, I believe that human reason discovers them as evident and can, therefore, establish a revelation-independent reason. Of course, I disagree with the Muítazilites on some issues. I find the Ashíarites experience-oriented or empirical, whereas I find the Muítazilites more Aristotelian. Of course, Iím not an empiricist in the sense that I think that human knowledge can be summed up in experience, but Iím very empirical in the sense that Iím not prepared to sacrifice science on the altar of First Philosophy. I give experience a strong and sturdy share of things, and I believe that many verdicts that should be determined by experience shouldnít be entrusted to the blade of philosophy. I think that the Ashíarites are stronger than the Muítazilites when it comes to empiricism. For example, on this same question of whether an act is good or bad, the rationality of good and bad acts doesnít mean that we derive everything from evident, a priori rationality; basing things on experience is rational too. This is a mistake that some writers make.

Q. Here, by empiricism in morality, you mean that we should take the utility of morality into account?

A. No, Iím talking about rational good and bad. Acts are good or bad based on reason. But this doesnít rule out seeking assistance from experience and looking at an actís practical benefits. We mustnít assume that rationality means a priori; this is not at all the case. The reason-experience dichotomy that some people draw is an unacceptable and unreasonable dichotomy. In the views of the Muítazilites, I sometime see an excessive defence of a priori rationality which I donít like; I prefer the experience-orientedness of the Ashíarites. This isnít the place for discussing this. But in a talk that I gave a few years ago in Qom - which, unfortunately, ended with an attack by the vigilante groups - I spoke about the Ashíaritesí experience-orientedness and about how - in formulating theological verdicts - they look at actual events and occurrences in the world and do not neglect these things. Let me give an example, the Ashíarites donít by any means rule out or deny evil and injustice in the world. They accept it as an empirical fact and this acceptance has an impact on their theology. So, they believe that God has a right to create evil and they do not try to explain it away. Iím not concerned about this theological conclusion now; but I very much admire the fact that the Ashíarites donít close their eyes to the real world.

By way of another example, the Ashíarites believe that whatever anyone obtains is part of their God-given bounty, even if theyíve obtained it by improper (haram) means; whereas the Muítazilites and some other theologians try to explain these things away. I prefer the Ashíaritesí experience-oriented approach, but I find the Muítazilitesí rational analyses about morality, the attributes of God and about Godís word more acceptable. Hence, the debate that youíre witnessing these days which has led to a kind of clash between me and others is deeply rooted in the Muítazilitesí ideas. Let me also add here that I consider myself a ďneo-MuítaziliteĒ. I believe that the Qurían is Godís creation. The Muítazilites said this. But we can take one step further and say that the fact that the Qurían is Godís creation means that the Qurían is the Prophetís creation. The Muítazilites didnít explicitly take this step but I believe it is a necessary corollary of their creed and school of thought.

Q. You spoke about the combined attractions of the Muítazilites and the Ashíarites. When you speak about Mowlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, your critics say that Dr Soroushís liking for Rumi doesnít fit in with the other components of his thinking. Apart from your personal liking for Rumi, what was the theoretical grounds for your closeness to him?

A. I donít know what you mean when you speak about my personal liking for Rumi. My liking for Rumi is a liking for his thinking; otherwise, Iím not a blood relation of his or anything. I very much like and respect his ideas, approach and outlook towards praising God and his spiritual experiences. I find it a pleasure to learn about them and I try to take part in these experiences to the extent that Iím able.

As to the second point and your suggestion that Rumi is an Ashíarite, I seriously doubt it. There are some very big whales who donít fit into the small pools of this or that school of thought. I believe that heís neither an Ashíarite nor a Muítazilite in the conventional sense. Heís neither a Sunni nor a Shiíi. Heís none of these things. Tight garments of this kind donít fit his gigantic stature. It would be best for us to think of Rumi as falling into the Rumi school of thought. I believe - and others who have read this great manís works believe - that Rumi has extracted points from both the Muítazilites and the Ashíarites. And even the hostility that he expresses towards philosophers mainly stems from the fact that he feels that philosophers have set up shop outside the prophetsí shop and have created a detour, lengthening the short path to God. For example, he has a story about a poor man who is looking for treasure. He says that the man is constructing bows and arrow that make the quarry harder to catch, that heís becoming so entangled in philosophical reflection as to be blinded to truth and that the more he runs, the more he distances himself from his destination.

So, you see, Rumi likens philosophers to people who are running but who, in so doing, distance themselves from God rather than moving closer to Him. Secondly, by emphasizing rational analyses, philosophers distance people from and make them oblivious to spiritual experiences. They close peopleís eyes to insight and open them to learning. This is why Rumi sometimes opposes philosophers and philosophically-inclined Muítazilites. Otherwise, in the Masnavi, Rumi can present you with clear rational arguments in a single verse. For example, when he argues that Godís munificence is not based on peopleís merit and that God bestows things on people regardless of merit. He said that Godís munificence was the kernel and merit was just a husk. His argument was: if Godís munificence is based on merit, then who grants the merit itself? In other words, the merit would have had to be granted without some prior merit. This is a clear, rational argument that Rumi puts forward. Of course, Rumi doesnít want to appear in the guise of a Muítazilite or Ashíarite theologian, and quite frankly says: If I busied myself with questions and answers / when would I ever quench peopleís thirst?

Rumi says that his task is to be the cup bearer and to quench the thirst of those who long for spiritual experience; not to entangle them and himself in theological disputes. What attracts me to Rumi is this broad perspective that he has on the world and the experiences that he had in understanding the cosmos, God and human beings. I can claim that Rumi had five or six big experiences, and that all of the Masnavi and the Divan-e Shams are expositions and interpretations of these great experiences. And these few great experiences can keep alive peopleís enthusiasm forever.

Let me underline the point that Rumi, like all fallible human beings, has flaws and limitations, which we must view with discernment. If we follow great figures, we must follow their strengths.

Q. Letís return to your research on the Muítazilites. I wanted to ask you whether the outcome of your research will be published in the form of a book or will we have to trace and track its impact in your lectures and articles?

A. I have no plan for a book yet. God willing, I will write various articles and publish them. Then, a collection of the articles will be published as a book. As I see things, this is a very extensive project and - if I can - I have to formulate new verdicts in at least several domains. And, to this end, I must study a vast number of sources. I hope Iím up to the task.

Q. So, it would appear that your forced absence from Iranís academic environment hasnít been altogether bad for you; it has provided you with a new opportunity.

A. Of course, Iím grateful to providence. Now that, thanks to the broadmindedness of Iranian officials, Iím barred from some occupations, Iím busying myself abroad and one of my activities is research. Thanks be to God, there are resplendent libraries and very learned researchers with whom I can discuss things and from whose learning I can benefit. Of course, Iím not unheedful of developments in Iran. Iíd like to mention one point. Just last year alone, we witnessed two important developments in terms of publications: one was the publication of a translation of Ibn Arabiís Fusus al-Hikam and, the second, the publication of a translation of Heideggerís Being and Time. Both were very important, because the authors are important writers in the history of Eastern mysticism and Western philosophy, and because of their importance to our old and modern thinking. And also because of the fascination with which these figures and their works have been viewed in Iran. These translations represent hard work and determination, and, fortunately, the wellspring of this sort of hard work has not dried up amongst us. The least effect that this hard work will have is that it will demystify these types of figures. In other words, both Ibn Arabi and Heidegger will lose their halo of sanctity.

Q. Especially Heidegger, with whose supporters youíve had many arguments in Iran -

A. Of course the truth of the matter is that, more than me arguing with them, it is they who have insulted Popper. Let me mention a point here. A historical mistake has been made. I saw this mistake both in the writings of Mr Babak Ahmadi and in the writing of Mr Jamadi - the respected translator of Being and Time - and in the things that other people have said. These people have imagined that, after the revolution, there was a quarrel in Iran between Popper and Heidegger, or between their followers. This is a totally mistaken tale and, unfortunately, it keeps being repeated. The truth of the matter is that one side, in view of its political interests, levelled some insults at Popper and reaped some rewards as a result. And if there was any argument - and there was very little - it was the same as the one that occurred in the West while Heidegger was still alive; namely, over the question of whether Heidegger had cooperated with the Nazis or not. I believe that, today, it is crystal clear that he did cooperate with the Nazis. And I saw that Mr Jamadi, with total fair-mindedness, has said in his works that Heideggerís cooperation with the Nazis is a plain, deplorable historical fact. Where there was room for argument was on the question of whether Heideggerís philosophy is in line with that cooperation and those political stances or not. Personally, I think that it is. As to it being said that Heideggerís philosophy should be abandoned in favour of Popperís or the other way around, thatís a different question. The man who led the opposition to Popper used to insult him and used to accuse him of imposing inanities on philosophy. In my view, these kinds of remarks were inappropriate in the realm of learning and discussion.

At any rate, I wanted to say that the translation of Heideggerís Being and Time was an important and auspicious event. As I said, first, it demystifies Heidegger and the book. And, secondly, it shames those who, for years, have used Heidegger to justify themselves but have failed to translate even half a sentence from his works in all this time. And, ultimately, itís been someone outside the university environment who has done the translation and he ought to be congratulated.

Dr Movahedís work in translating Fusus al-Hikam is also a massive accomplishment. Iíve seen his work. He was rightly given a medal. His mastery over English and Arabic and, of course, Persian is admirable. And heís done a very great service to Ibn Arabiís school of thought.

Let me say something, in particular, to those who believe that the works of great figures such as these canít be and shouldnít be translated: Far from losing something in translation, on occasion translated works gain something. In other words, translation is a service to the author. Let me give an example. Heidegger never became Heidegger in Germany. It was when his works were translated into Italian and French that Heidegger became important. Even now, he is more important in France than he is in Germany. Others made his work more comprehensible. Ibn Arabi has now lost his aura of sanctity and readers in Iran can understand him better. Persian-speakers are in a better position to establish a relationship with him.

I believe that if, when the Qurían first came to Iran, it had been translated into good, readable Persian, and if Iranians had also always read and studied the Qurían in Persian, alongside reading it in Arabic, we would undoubtedly be different Muslims than we are today. The fact that the Qurían is out of reach for Iranian Muslims and the fact that it is locked in the Arabic language has had an impact on our Muslim-ness. The translations that are now being done of the Qurían are a very auspicious development. And the translations are increasingly good and this will have a long-term impact on our beliefs, our theology and our religiosity. We have to welcome all these things and researchers should be encouraged to translate classical Eastern and Western books into Persian. This was a project that I proposed to the Academy of Sciences which was, unfortunately, left by the wayside. So, when this kind of work is done outside the academy, it should be praised by all culture lovers. Iíd like to use this opportunity to congratulate and praise Dr Movahed and Mr Jamadi, and I believe that they have done lasting work.

** Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser





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