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Some of our religious intellectuals are still afraid of

being called liberal or secular

Iranian Labour News Agency 27 October 2006


Dr Abdulkarim Soroush, presenting a brief review of the record of religious intellectuals in Iran, has said: From the early days of the revolution, the call for a dynamic fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] was raised in Iran. Although the call did not have a very strong theoretical foundation, it was a sympathetic cry for us to go beyond 'ijtihad [reasoned opinion on religious matters] on secondary principles' to 'ijtihad on primary principles'.

According to ILNA's reporter, in a talk delivered after the Kumail prayer ceremony at Abdollah Nouri's house [on 26 October], Dr Abdulkarim Soroush enumerated the results of religious intellectuals' work and, assessing it, said: Religious intellectuals cannot be driven off the stage with any ploy. If some people see this label as a lie and a contradiction in terms, let them see that this lie is a truth today and its contradictions have been resolved.

Dr Soroush said that the opponents of religious intellectuals consisted of two groups and added: One of them consists of 'traditional clerics', who see any kind of religious intellectual work as heresy and a rival to the clergy; and the other consists of 'non-religious intellectuals' who are not keen on religion and are trying to cause anxiety with false arguments. But the followers of the religious intellectual movement mustn't take these comments seriously; they mustn't be misled by the tricks of deceivers or bow down to the sneers of the scornful.

Addressing some of the [reformist] parties that were unsuccessful in the elections and their leaders, some of whom were in the audience, Dr Soroush said: I've heard recently that some of these friends have come to the conclusion that, since they weren't successful in the elections, we must return to the people's traditions, because it was out of disregard for these traditions that we didn't win. This idea is deadly poison for religious intellectuals and it is a losing of the way. Of course, this is not to say that we must turn our backs to people's traditions and popular religiosity. But if a group of people takes on the responsibility for providing intellectual leadership, their words and deeds must conform. Although, in our crisis-ridden society, there are many contradictions between words and deeds, this sin is unforgivable if it is committed by people who are providing theoretical leadership for religious intellectuals.

Dr Soroush said: In our society, modernity is everywhere, but they're still preaching patience, fate and destiny in the most traditional way from our pulpits. Our friends, for their part, must bear in mind that you cannot expect people who don't have a traditional outlook to perform traditional rituals. Religious intellectuals must express their new understanding of the history of religion, the imamate and the prophethood. As long as religion has not been demystified, the problem will remain. Hence, our sermons, talks and gatherings must be of a different kind.

Dr Soroush underlined that 'insight in terms of theory' brings 'courage in terms of action'.

Describing religious intellectuals, he said: Religious intellectuals are really religious; that is to say, religion is not just a research topic for them, it is a matter of faith. For example, Mr Mohammed Arkoun is only close to Islam as a matter of identity and he can study it and teach it; but no element or trace of religion is left in him. He doesn't have any attachment to religion as a matter of faith; he's only attached to it as a subject of study.

Explaining the meaning of minimal religion, Dr Soroush remarked: Another lesson that religious intellectuals have taught us is that we no longer have to turn to religious texts in order to extract modernity from them. This was one of the traps that many intellectuals fell into. But thanks to ratiocination and fair-mindedness, religious intellectuals overcame this error so that all the time and energy that was spent on extracting modern politics, philosophy and science from religious texts could be better spent. Religious intellectuals' understanding of just this one important point is itself like a big gift to them. In the history of Europe, too, they say that when the thinkers in the West came to the conclusion that philosophy does not come out of religion, the Middle Ages came to an end. For religious intellectuals, too, the Middle Ages has come to an end in this sense.

Dr Soroush added: We've learnt from other religious intellectuals that we mustn't burden religion with a big load. It was Muhammad Abdo who discovered this point: that religion has come to carry a specific burden. It must be placed in its rightful place. As Kant put it, in the Middle Ages, when expectations of God rose, God fell and was dragged down to earth. Religion must be rescued from this bewilderment so that it can concentrate on its main duties.

Dr Soroush said that combating superstition was another achievement of religious intellectuals and added: Just as Mr Kadivar said in his Id al-Fitr sermons, this year was the year of the proliferation of superstitions. In such circumstances, religious intellectuals have a duty to combat these superstitions in earnest, because, at the present time and under the present government, there is a serious movement to promote superstitions.

Dr Soroush said: Of course, none of us are completely free of religious superstitions. We must believe that the simple and magnanimous religion that was revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, did not have any of these adjuncts, and far from being an impediment and a barrier to Muslims, it made them light and fleet-footed. Today, we must release ourselves from these restrictions and binds so that we can tread the path of religion with the same lightness and fleet-footedness as Muslims in the early days of Islam.

Dr Soroush said that religious intellectuals' liberty lay in the way they make their living and added: Without exception, the canopy of religious intellectuals' livelihoods doesn't rest on the pillar of religion. But, whether they like it or not, clerics are seen as religious people who gain their livelihoods through religion. Of course, I've paid dearly for saying this, but it's a fact, since clerics are not defined by their piety and learning, because there are people with little piety and little learning among the clergy.

Dr Soroush also said: Past representatives of the religious intellectual movement have a good record in this respect. Bazargan and Shariati are two names that come to mind. I hope that, in the future, too, religious intellectuals will not be constrained by their material circumstances and not lose their freedom, because this is the kernel of religious intellectuals' integrity.

Soroush said that one of the other teachings of religious intellectuals was to underline the need for ijtihad on primary principles, adding: This is not to say that ijtihad on secondary principles should be abandoned. But ijtihad on secondary principles will not solve our problems without ijtihad on primary principles. From the early days of the revolution, the call for a dynamic fiqh was raised in Iran. Although the call did not have a very strong theoretical foundation, it was a sympathetic cry for us to go beyond ijtihad on secondary principles to ijtihad on primary principles. This also means that the meaning of religion is fluid. If we throw open religion's windows, we will return to the early days of Islam when everything was fluid and nothing was congealed.

Dr Soroush remarked: Ratiocination is an important tool for intellectuals. Of course, the meaning of ratiocination is not clear and it is an ambiguous and shadowy creature. But we must use its products and fruits; we must use philosophy, science and modern theology. Ratiocination basically means being committed to reasoning and its modern products.

Dr Soroush then underlined the affirmative aspect of religious intellectuals' work and said: Intellectual work, whether religious or non-religious, is a critical activity but its affirmative aspect must also be borne in mind. In addition to recognizing pitfalls and acting negatively/critically, positive aspects must also be understood. One can even say that the affirmative aspects are more difficult than the negative aspects; maybe one of the reasons why this aspect receives less attention is society's constricting atmosphere because raising any new point about the imamate and the prophethood are considered deserving of all manner of punishments.

Dr Soroush said: Criticism is an important element of intellectual work. If I've described Hafez as an intellectual in the past, this is why, because scarcely in the work of any other writer and poet is the element of criticism so prominent. Hafez was a critic of the Sufism-ridden society of his own day and he performed this task with the full force of his thought and expression. This was a great task and even a great man like Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi did not equal Hafez in this respect. What brings Hafez close to our time is the element of criticism in his poetry. If we take away the element of criticism, the intellectual becomes like any other scientist who only discovers truths.

Continuing his examination and assessment of religious intellectuals' record, Dr Soroush said: Religious intellectuals' achievements as a whole in Islam are no less than those of the Mu'tazilite movement; religious intellectuals' work is of a similar stature.

Dr Soroush added: By virtue of their criticism of the clergy and the state, religious intellectuals inevitably enter the arena of politics, but it has to be borne in mind that not all problems' solutions lie in the examination of political problems. If politics is a matter of concern, it has only one share. The work of religious intellectuals cannot be summed up in politics. This, too, is a false notion: that if political power were in the hands of religious intellectuals, all problems would be resolved. At least the experience of the Islamic Revolution showed that, if it is in the hands of the clergy, Iran won't become a paradise. Our problems are far more deep-seated than this.

Dr Soroush said that some criticism could be levelled at the religious intellectual movement, adding: The work of religious intellectuals has not turned into a tradition yet. This movement should have its own poets, writers, artists and filmmakers; it deserves having poetry devoted to it so that it seizes people's minds.

Dr Soroush said: A poet receives payment to reject the Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge and writes poetry to this end, but, on the other side, our religious intellectual movement doesn't have a recognized poet who can act as the movement's poetic voice.

Dr Soroush remarked: So far, the negative/critical aspects of religious intellectual work has had the upper hand. Now that the atmosphere has opened up a bit, more attention should be paid to this movement's affirmative aspects. For how long are we going to repeat that we are critical of the velayat-e faqih [system of rule by a cleric]? For how long are we going to repeat that we are critical of the West? Taken to the extreme, this turns into Westoxication, which is a political term of abuse.

Dr Soroush said that religious intellectuals' lack of attachment to the traditional clergy was important, adding: Tradition has nothing left to offer in an affirmative sense; our religious intellectuals must open new ways.

Dr Soroush said that religious intellectuals' duty should be clarified and added: For how long are religious intellectuals going to distance themselves from secularism and ignore it? When are they going to make it clear where they stand on liberalism? If they really don't know and are unclear about it, they should read more. Some of our religious intellectuals are still afraid of being called liberal or secular. These labels are only aimed at forcing us to retreat; there's no substance in them.

Dr Soroush said: Let a few idle talkers call you liberal or secular. You must carry on with your own work. I was very glad when some officials called us liberals; we can't keep mincing our words after all.

Dr Soroush advised religious intellectuals: Religious intellectuals should read one another's works more and speak about them whenever they get together. I've noticed that some distinguished people level unmerited accusations at one another which make it clear that they haven't gone beyond reading the titles of works.

Dr Soroush added: It is very important that religious intellectuals should be familiar with the world of Islam. Unfortunately, our intellectuals are not familiar with Turkish, Indonesian and the other languages of the world of Islam. And, of course, the reverse of this is not true; they study our works a great deal. The bulk of the books of Hossein Nasr, Dariush Shayegan and myself have been translated into Turkish. Unfortunately, we're afflicted with the delusion of repletion in this respect. I don't know what this stems from.

Dr Soroush said that it was important to make critical assessments of the religious intellectuals of the past, adding: When Shariati or some of the other distinguished figures of the religious intellectual movement are criticized, some friends become a bit upset. Smashing idols is one of the duties of religious intellectuals. I haven't seen anyone criticizing the ideas of Ayatollah Taleghani. This doesn't constitute respect for Taleghani; it is disrespect. People have lost their courage and no one criticizes distinguished figures. Who has so far presented a critical assessment of Allameh Tabataba'i, the biggest philosopher of contemporary times in Iran? How many people have criticized his Tafsir al-Mizan? This is a problem that needs to be resolved with broad-mindedness.

Dr Soroush then answered some questions from the audience and, finally, following a request from one of those present, recited some verses from Shams's Divan in which the cure to ill-temper was described as lying not in dwelling on oneself but in associating with eminent figures.

Some of the people present in the audience were Ebrahim Yazdi, secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran; Musavi-Lari, a member of the central council of the Combatant Clerics Society; Javad Eta'at, political secretary of the National Confidence Party; Saeed Hajjarian; Hadi Khaniki; Hamidreza Jalaeipour; Saeed Shariati; Karim Arghandepour, a member of the central council of the Islamic Iran Participation Front; Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari; Mohsen Kadivar; Mohammad Bastenegar; A'zam Taleghani; Ahmad Bourghani; Javad Mozaffar; and some of the present and former members of the confederation of students' unions.


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