An Iranian Luther

shakes the foundations of Islam









The Guardian, 1 February 1995 (quoted from The Los Angeles Times - January 1995)


Robin Wright in Tehran meets the scholar whose ideas could reconstruct Muslim societies  

ABDOL KARIM SOROUSH is an unassuming figure. Small, bespectacled and soft-spoken, he looks almost fragile as he sits in his office at the Research Institute for Human Sciences here.

But this gentle man is shaking the foundations of a faith that claims a billion followers. Supporters and critics alike now call him the Martin Luther of Islam - a man whose ideas on religion and democracy could bridge the chasm between Muslim societies and the rest of the world.

"Soroush is challenging 13 centuries of thinking" said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. "He is proclaiming that understanding of religion is all relative. It is not fixed for all time and place. Who can say what God meant? This opens the door to all kinds of new ideas, political as well as religious."

Professor Soroush and contemporaries in other Muslim countries are shaping what may be Islam's equivalent of the Christian Reformation: a period of questioning traditional practices and beliefs and, ultimately, of upheaval.

Already, his impact extends far beyond religion, and his writings are framing a new debate about political change - not just for Iran but for the Middle East.

In this region few ideas are more pivotal to the future than the relationship between Islam and democracy. Although the Iranian government has not formally reacted to Prof Soroush's writings and teachings, many senior mullahs and officials are widely believed to feel threatened by his words.

But Prof Soroush, who is in his late 40s, does not welcome media attention, and is almost reclusive. Amid the hustle of central Tehran, the quiet chambers of the institute where he is dean seem like a sanctuary.

"Islam and democracy are not only compatible," he said, "their association is inevitable. In Muslim society, one without the other is not perfect.

"I have given two bases. The first pillar is this: To be a true believer, one must be free. To become a believer under pressure or coercion will not be true belief. And this freedom is the basis of democracy.

"The second pillar in Islamic democracy is that interpretation of religious texts is always in flux. Those interpretations are also influenced by the age you live in. So you can never give a fixed interpretation."

Everyone is entitled to an interpretation. Although some may be more scholarly than others, no one version is automatically more authoritative.

For Muslim societies, his words have profound practical implications, although he refuses to spell them all out.

"I will be better served if 1 do not get entangled in such political affairs," he said. "Let other people draw the implications and consequences."

The most basic are equality and empowerment of ordinary believers. As did the Reformation, Prof Soroush's argument establishes the rights of individuals in their relationship with both government and God. Like democracy anywhere, the beliefs and will of the majority define the ideal Islamic state. It cannot be imposed.

Islam should not be used as a modern ideology, for it is too likely to become totalitarian. And the ideal Islamic republic is ruled, not by mullahs or sheikhs, but by secular leaders.

With haunting similarity to the Reformation, Prof Soroush's arguments in effect divide the roles and powers of church and state. That would be a stunning shift for Islam.

But the change would not be total. Like Luther, Prof Soroush is not abandoning the values of the faith, but argues against rigid thinking and elitism.

He believes in Sharia, or Islamic law, as a basis for modern legislation. But he views it less rigidly than does the traditional clergy.

For a growing group of followers, Prof Soroush represents the hope of reconciliation both within Islam and between Islam and the outside world.

"He is finding ways to reconcile Islam and modernism for educated Muslims who have had problems with traditional Islam," said Mohammed Reza Bouzari, a follower for almost a decade. "This is the only way to save Islam in the modern world." -- Los Angeles Times.


Back to News Archive