عبدالکريم سروش


January 8, 2006


The Ideal Islamic State: An Unattainable Quest

Report written by Masoud Behnoud for the BBC's Persian Service

Translated by:  Nilou Mobasser


Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush, in his most recent speech in London entitled "The Ideal Islamic State", has spoken about the inability of  fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] to deal with many of the concerns of modern-day society, as well as about the challenges faced by Muslim immigrants in non-Islamic societies.


Dr. Soroush argued that, despite the assumption made by many Muslim thinkers that fiqh contains solutions to "all human concerns", the experience of the establishment of the Islamic Republic by an Iranian faqih [cleric/expert in Islamic jurisprudence] proved that, despite its broad scope, fiqh does not have answers to many of the questions and concerns of modern-day human beings.


Rule by a faqih and secular society


Dr. Soroush remarked: "Traditionalist Islamic thinkers have for many years responded to the question of how to attain an ideal Islamic society by saying: We are Muslims and we have the laws of the shari'ah, which has foreseen all that a society requires, and if we have political power, we will be able to bring about the ideal Islamic society."


He added: "Everything that Ayatollah Khomeini did, said and wrote was on this basis but when the Islamic Republic of Iran was established, realities reared their head much more rapidly than anyone had imagined so that Ayatollah Khomeini himself acknowledged that the fiqh that was current in seminaries did not suffice and Sa'id Hajjarian [reformist Iranian thinker], too, rightly wrote that a system of rule by a faqih that emphasized the element of expediency only opened the way to a secular society."


According to Dr. Soroush, the question that needs to be asked is: Does the state make society religious or is it society that makes the state religious?


He added: "The Iranian state may be the first ever case of a state that intends to make society religious. But the fact of the matter is that it is neither desirable nor possible for a state to make a society religious, because faith is not amenable to force and because the use of force is not the best way to present faith."


Dr. Soroush said that no-one had a religious duty to force others to become Muslims, adding: "Governments can make people pay taxes but they will never be able to breathe faith in God and the Prophet into people's hearts. Faith is made of the same fabric as love and love cannot be created by force."


Moral freedom and religiosity


"I know that what I'm telling you does not agree with what you've read," Dr. Soroush remarked and, addressing the Muslims in the audience, he spoke about life in non-Muslim societies, saying: "Today, 19 million Muslims live in Europe. Is it their duty to return to their homelands or to live their lives where they are and to try to remain Muslims and to strive to spread justice?"


Dr. Soroush added: "A Muslim has a duty to fight injustice, not necessarily to take power. Hence if you use normal and rational methods and spread justice where you are, you will have performed your religious duty in a most excellent way."


Dr. Soroush, a philosophy professor who has been barred from teaching in Iran, answered his own question about Muslims living in non-Muslim societies by saying: "Moral freedom is equivalent to religiosity and it was Imam Hussein's injunction that people should be pious or be free."


Dr. Soroush said that attempts to establish utopian states were facing redoubled difficulties in view of the fact that they coincided with the information explosion and the collapse of the ideological states of the eastern bloc.


He added: "Now, public opinion and the public's demands are undeniable realities that states cannot ignore. This is exactly where the lacuna lies in all of fiqh's classical texts."


"Mebah-Yazdi is neither a faqih nor a philosopher"


In the concluding part of his speech, Dr. Soroush said that the big error made by the rulers in Iran's religious state was that "they are uniquely concerned about laws and precepts and their implementation and they attach little value and have scant affinity to morality." And, reacting to people who seek to bring about a perfect Islamic society, he said: "Don't pursue this unattainable quest."


The Iranian-Islamic thinker also said: "The law cannot do what morality is able to do. But, when faqihs came to power, they tried to use laws to take people to religion and make them pious. It goes without saying that no state can determine a society's morality and it is clear that morality strides ahead of the law. The law contains a minimum of morality but society needs more than this."


After the speech, a member of the audience referred to Ayatollah Mebah-Yazdi and his students' remarks about the unimportance of the people's opinions and votes, and asked: "Don't you think that, in these circumstances, it is idealistic of you to be speaking about an ideal Islamic society?"


Dr. Soroush replied: "States have a duty to make it possible for people to lead a moral life and the ideal society that we have in mind is a pluralistic, moral society. As it happens, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi is neither a faqih nor a political philosopher and the things that he is saying lag behind even what Mr. Khomeini was saying in Najaf."








Back to News Archive