The Theory of Expansion and Contraction of Religion

A Research Program for Islamic Revivalism

(An Iranian Perspective)








Review Draft--- February 1995

by: Hossein Kamali

The following article by Hossein Kamaly is on the ideas of Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush on religious and scientific knowledge. Address comments to the author at Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences, New York, NY 10003, or preferably via electronic mail to

 [Attempts at] revitalization or reconstruction of religious thought have extensive roots and [an] expansive spread within the Islamic civilization. Indeed, Sufism (Islamic mysticism), dating back to the earlier centuries of Islam, [is] a primordial example of such a reconstructive endeavor, emphasizing the more esoteric and spiritual tenets as the quintessential core of religion.(1) A prime champion revivalist in this spirit, Imam Abu Hamed Mohammad Al-Ghazzali (452-506 AH), set out to "unravel the true path of the early pioneers (2) in his magnum opus Kitab al-Ihya al-ulum iddin (Reviving of Religious Knowledge) as far back as late fifth century AH. [In] more recent times, such influential partisans as Seyyed Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1837-1897), Mohammad Iqbal Lahouri (1877-1938), Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), and Ayatullah Rouhollah Khomeini (1900?-1989), interalia, have pervasively stressed the need for a "reawakening", "resurgence", "reconstruction of religious thought", or "recursion to the roots" among the Islamic nation.

A revivalist in the modern era is confronted with a far more tremendous sea of troubles than the antediluvian. Ghazzali for example, breathed together with his audience in a sacred cosmos and could ... focus on preaching moral and spiritual values. His task as a religious revivalist was to rescue religion from the hands of pompous pretenders and shallow imitators. The distant heir to such revivalists as Ghazzali, however, is expected to provide rational grounds for religion or even morality in the first step. The tranquil intellectual cosmos of the antiquity has long been disrupted.

A profound question that confronts religious thought in general is whether or not the idea of "change" may be reconciled with the "eternal" and "perennial" truth that religion is expected to convene. And if at all [so], [then] to what extent. An unreserved succumbing to the flux of "change" undoubtedly leaves not much room for tradition, and thus for religion. Whereas blind insistence on the fixity of a rigid body of tradition, and denial of the radical transformations that have actually occurred in human mode of life, would render impossible living a religious life in today's changing world. (3) The first notorious question is to explain why there should be any need to change or reform religion if it is of a purely divine origin? And the [next] step ... would be to pinpoint what, if anything, may be the subject of revision and change. Muslim thinkers have taken a spectrum of stances as regards to the question of change in the Shari'a. (4) Some have fervently attempted to change potentially everything as the need may arise; omitting whatever element they reckon inappropriate, and attaching whatever appears to them as convenient. For them, the main criterion of convenience has been to assess whether adding a new element or omitting a conventional one would supposedly add to the socio-economic strength and viability of Islam. One can therefore see radical elements of socialism (added in the hope of achieving social justice), or mild positivism (added in the hope of presenting the teachings of Islam as "scientific") in the writings of such thinkers as, for example, Shariati on the one hand and Bazargan on the other. Apparently, the tacit presumption is that in order to be viable Islam must have a say on every mode of the day. In the vein of this mascarading, books have been written to show how the Qur'an and Islamic sayings have anticipated, for example, the Laplacian theory of the expansion of the universe, the human conquest of space, the importance of vitamins, the hazards of microbial infections, etc.! For a while, especially in the Shi'ite community, the importance of Ijtihad was hailed, underscoring the true jurisprudent's originality where it came to reconciling Islamic precepts with the dynamic requirements of the world. However, what eventually came out of the bandwagon of the so-called dynamic fiqh (Fiqh-e Pouya) was no more than a medley of sporadic conclusions about the proper way of, for example, saying the daily prayers on the moon or Mars or in the North Pole, the use of alcohol as an anticeptant, etc. Much enthusiasm was also invested by yet another camp in formulating an Islamic psychology, Islamic sociology, Islamic economics, etc. Nearly all of this was done without a discerning view of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science. The result in the large scale has been an inconsistent, cacophonous eclecticism. On the other extreme, traditionalists have solemnly insisted on revering what has trickled down from earlier generations, and on shunning away the temptation to jettison any portion of the heritage in favor of the bogus promises of modernity.(5)

According to Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran,(6) at the root of [these] dichotomous attempts to either change or to preserve the Shari'a there lies a subtle epistemological blunder: identifying the Shari'a itself with our collective knowledge or understanding of it as formulated throughout the ages by theologians, juriprudent's, philosophers, commentators, and other men of learning.(7) Whereas the revelatory essence of the former is admitted, the latter is defined to be merely an interpretation of the divine word, and as nothing but the meaning and content read into the word of God by numerous commentators and interpreters.(8) Religion is God-sent and as such it is pure and absolute, nevertheless, in order to be understood, it is bound to pass through the channel of human cognitive faculties operating in the complex setting of human social relations. It is in this intricate process of being understood and being put into proper human context that divine Religion gets cluttered,... becomes incomplete, and loses its purity and absoluteness. As such, from the perennial and eternal character of Religion-in-itself one cannot infer the same qualities for our ever-incomplete understanding of Religion. It is a grave error to attribute sacredness to any interpretation of Religion because of the sacredness of Religion-in-itself.

No understanding of the Shari'a (more generally of Religion) is ever sacred and ultimate. Every scholar, abiding by the rules of systematic and methodical enquiry may have a vote, but no one would enjoy the right of veto. Any proper understanding of Religion is contingent upon the pursuit of a systematic, methodical, rational, and justifiable inquiry.(9) This rational process of inquiry, aimed specifically at reading the true meaning of the text of Religion, always takes place within the broader context of human inquiry concerning the world of being in general. Soroush contends that any reading of the text of Religion is essentially theory-laden, and that the theories involoved transcend the proper domain of religion per se.

In principle, to understand the Religion one needs to draw on a vast amount of knowledge from without the proper domain of Religion. Cosmological, anthropological and linguistic theories always delineate [and underpin] our understanding of religion and our expectations thereof. Prior to any attempt at understanding the Religion, an epistemological, linguistic, cosmological (both scientific and metaphysical) and anthropological framework exists; any understanding arrived at is in the light of such a constellation of theories and is bound to be coherent with some such framework. This framework may be broad or it may be narrow. The broader the framework, the more expanded the horizon for understanding of Religion may become. Constraining the framework, on the other hand, leads to a narrower reading of religious texts. From this consideration, Soroush dubs his explanation for the growth of religious knowledge "the Theory of Expansion and Contraction of Religion." The theory of expansion and contraction of Religion puts forward three principles: (10)

The Principle of Coherence and Correspondence: Any understanding of Religion (whether correct or incorrect) bears on the body of human knowledge and tries to be in coherence with the latter.

The Principle of Interpenetration: A contraction or expansion in the system of human knowledge may penetrate the domain of our understanding of religion.

The Principle of Evolution: The system of human knowledge (i.e., human science and philosophy) is subject to expansion and contraction.

Ideas of nature, man, and society have all undergone radical transformation in the modern era. The Copernican revolution, championed articulately by Galileo, dethroned man from his central position in the universe. The ensued paradigm shift in man's view of nature culminated in a new system of the principles of the philosophy of nature. The earth was no longer the heavily anchored flat center of the universe, but was understood to be an imperfect crooked sphere revolving on a tilted axis around the sun, just like several other planets. The dawn of Darwinian theory, nearly two centuries later, did more than [abet] the decline of anthropocentrism from the center of human weltanschaung: by linking man with ape and casting serious doubt [on] earlier religious precepts [which exaggerated] man's place in nature, Darwin did more to discredit religion, perhaps, than any heretic before him. ...As if questioning [human] ancestry was not enough, Freud soon emerged on the scene to show how basic instincts drove man to behave unconsciously like a beast --like a cat on a hot tin roof. Marxism had also begun earlier to climb to a vantage point, explaining with an air of Hegelian historicism the primacy of economics and class struggle over ideologies and ideas in general and religion --the opium of the masses-- in particular.(11)

For Soroush, the conceptual framework provided by modern science (social, physical, and biological) is not an ephemeral conventionalism which can [be] easily dispensed with... The crucial question is to explain how such conceptual changes in the human nderstanding of man, nature and society may affect our reading of the text of religion. From an epistemological point of view, this is in sharp contradistinction with the view point of some "traditionalists" who would prefer to adopt an instrumentalist view of science in order to circumvent such [a troublesome] enigma.(12)

According to Soroush, science is a human endeavor to understand nature, metaphysics is a human endeavor to understand the system of being, and religious knowledge is a human endeavor to understand religion. We have three human encounters with three basically non-human subjects. Given that our understanding of the truth about nature is evolving and changing, why should not our understanding of the truth about Religion follow suit? Why should not our evolving understanding of nature and the system of being [be considered] relevant to our understanding of religion?

A very subtle epistemological point needs to be stressed here. Speaking of the ways in which the understanding of Religion bears on the broader system of human knowledge is not intended primarily in a normative sense, but has rather three aspects: it is descriptive, explanatory, and normative, all at once.

First, it describes or declares as a historic fact that Muslim scholars have always been drawing on their extra-religious knowledge in their attempts at understanding their religion. Second, it tries to explain in what ways and through what channels this process has actually taken place. It then goes further to invite Muslim scholars of today to have the ... courage to take consciously planned steps at revising their understanding of religion in the light of the many profound questions posed to any viable religion in the contemporary world. It is in this sense that the theory of expansion and contraction attempts to define a research program, a potentially rich paradigm, for religious revivalism.

Soroush provides ample historical evidence of the ways in which [the] understanding of the Religion has taken place in the light of contemporary extra-religious theories about man, nature and society. There are several ways in which the understanding of Religion may bear on the system of human knowledge:

[The first one is] when new questions are posed that the Religion is expected to provide answers for; [e.g.] What are human rights in Islam? (13) What is Islamic science? (14) How would a banking system without interest be possible? (15) What is the proper Islamic form of government? (16) etc. Such questions emerge in accordance with the needs of time, and their answers are formulated within the confines of the current understanding of issues --religious and otherwise.

[The second one is] when the understanding obtained from text and tradition [comes to interact and into coherence with] with the broader system of human knowledge. From the premise that God is infallible and only speaks the truth, one cannot proceed to infer conclusions from reading the Qur'an that are apparently inconsistent with the current system of beliefs from other supposedly veridical sources. Earlier commentators of the Qur'an had no difficulty explaining the meaning of the seven heavens. Their interpretation was immediately coherent with the accepted astronomical knowledge of the day. The common terms used in religious texts are to be semantically understood in accordance with current theories. A peripatetic philosopher would understand such terms as water, earth, etc. as referring to [the] essences whereas a student of philosophy in the transcendental school of Mulla-Sadra, for example, would take their existence as the true reference.(17) [The English here doesn't make sense. Perhaps the author means Mulla-Sadra interpretes these words literally. -Behnam]

The most important and instrumental means of expansion or contraction, however, are the epistemological, anthropological, and cosmological predilections which could either open the door for religion or leave it out of the realm of various human concerns. Such predilections structure our understanding of any religion. According to a particular view of causality and design there would be no place for God in nature. Yet according to the starting point of the deists such as Spinoza, faith in God would be quite "rational," but belief in the Jewish religion, say, would be untenable. According to still another conception of God and His attributes, on the one hand, and of man and his capacities and needs on the other --the conception commonly shared by adherents of Abrahamic religions-- the [need] for divine providence would appear inevitable. Further, starting from the premise that there are no specific forms of, say, science, art, or government that are essentially Islamic one need not bother to start from scratch and attempt to reconstruct human history. [another vague sentence. -Behnam]

Soroush's claim is not that man-made science and knowledge are to replace religion. Neither is he contriving to make religion play second fiddle to man-made science. Rather, his point is that the body of knowledge amassed by human intellect should be a guide refining and developing man's understanding of religion. The source is religion itself, but man-made science provides the tools to delve deeper into the source and to extract more refined content. If the proper rigorous method is not abided by in extracting the contents from religious texts the results cannot be counted as religious knowledge. "Anything goes" is not the rule. Every religious scholar ought to constantly consult the text and the tradition. Nevertheless, it is the task of religious scholars to be constantly aware of the framework they take for granted in their making sense of religious texts, and it is necessary that they try to extend the framework, and to keep it rationally viable. The theory of expansion and contraction [does] not [prescribe] "change" of Religion in the light of modernism with the aim of "progress." Such a reading of the theory would be far from its intended purpose. It is not an attempt at the secularization of the sacred. (18)

Soroush warns against another radical misunderstanding. In speaking of the Shari'a, or fiqh, one must not confine its scope to the body of Islamic legal system. (19) He rather stresses that it is an affliction of religious education in our time that fiqh in the restricted sense receives such an inflated image, and that a more profound understanding of religion is so ruthlessly sacrificed at the shrine of fiqh. It is unfortunate that religious scholars are more often represented as those with an apt knowledge of jurisprudence than not. (20) The truth is that fiqh, or Shari'a in the restricted sense, is but a small part of religious knowledge. For a student of religious thinking, it is a set of clashing and changing [opinions] and decisions arrived at by a group of specialists: It is their understanding of a collection of received traditions (known as [legal] traditions --riwayat al-fiqhiyya). And this understanding has, in turn, always [depended on] the prevalent understanding of other parts of religion. Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, thrives on jurisprudential methodology, on theology, on the interpretation of the Qur'an, and the jurisprudent's knowledge of history and of the other sciences in general. For him, it cannot be overstressed that fiqh is a man-made system of knowledge and has absolutely no vantage position among other such systems.(21) It is subject to change just like any other man-made body of knowledge. The same is true of the interpretation of religious texts, of theology, and of the rational methodology of jurisprudence (Osul il-fiqh). What is eternal is religion itself not our understanding of it. Every man's religion is his understanding of the truth about religion, just as every man's science is his understanding of the truth about nature.

Soroush believes that religion is not, as Hobbes portrayed it, a bitter medication only to be swallowed as prescribed. It is rather sweet. And it is the task of religious intellectuals to cut through the superficialities and delve into the true sweet core.


Address comments to the author at Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences, New York, NY 10003, or preferably via electronic mail to

1. Cf. Mystical Dimensions of Islam by A. Schimmel, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975.

2. Kitab al-Ihya al-ulum iddin. p. 1.

3. Cf. Iqbal Lahouri, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

4. A detailed examination of this question is far beyond the purpose of the present essay.

5. The most articulate defendant of the traditional viewpoint in the contemporary English speaking world is, perhaps, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Cf. for example his Traditional Islam in the Modern World. (1987)

6. Abdulkarim Soroush has been writing and teaching philosophy in Iran for the past sixteen years. Three books by Soroush provide a comprehensive picture of his thought in his earlier years: A Critical Introduction to Dialectic Antagonism, Knowledge and Value, and Masked Dogmatism. These books radically undermined the foundations of Marxist ideology which had a vast potential audience in post-revolutionary Iran. His other book "What is Science, What is Philosophy?" was also quite instrumental in shaping the dominant view of philosophy of science in Iran. Soroush's teaching mainly centers on two issues: (a) philosophy of science, and (b) the study of the works of Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi, also known as Rumi. For sample translations of parts of debates between Soroush and some critics cf. Mehrzad Boroujerdi.

The issues discussed in the present article first started to appear in May 1988 in a cultural monthly magazine Keyhan-i Farhangi and were later expanded into a book. Soroush has been harshly attacked for his allegedly "skeptical ideas which corrupt the minds of the uninitiated."

7. Soroush is critical of earlier revivalists like Shariati and Bazargan.

8. Qabz'o Bast, p. 243.

9. This desiteratum of rationality is not meant to rule out religious faith. Faith, or conviction, is a subjective, psychological issue to be kept separate from the domain of objective or intersubjective knowledge.

10. Cf. Qabz va Bast., p. 278.

11. This caricature depiction of the evolution of ideas is admittedly naive. Nevertheless, it is mentioned deliberately to point to salient historical developments which have attracted religious reformists or critics particularly in Iran. For Copernican revolution cf. "About Philosophy" (Dar Piramoon-i falsafe) by Ahmad Kasravi, and Collected Essays (Majmou-e Maqalat) of Dr. Taqi Arani. For two religious reactions to Darwinism see The Creation of Man (Khelqat-i Ensan) by Yadollah Sahabi, and the reply to that book by the late Allame Tabatabai in Al-Mizan. On Freud see Freudism by Amirhossein Arianpour... Marxism has produced its own vast literature.

12. For instance, S.H. Nasr believes that Abu-Rayhan Biruni, the great Muslim astronomer of 4th century AH had antecipated the helliocentric theory long before Copernicus, but refrained from further elaborating on the idea beacuse he had realized the radical changes in worldview that would follow from dispensing with the Ptolmic system. Soroush, on the other hand, would not accept such an irrational insistence on scientifically refuted theories from a thinker of Biruni's caliber. For him, scientific theories are not seasonally fashionable fictions. Scientific realism implies a consistency and conformity in our use of scientific terms even in non-scientific domains of discourse. It is true that by adopting an instrumentalist view of scientific theories one may be able to "save" religion as a respectable language game in the Wittgensteinean sense. In this way, religion and science may be kept separate with mutual respect --better to say, with mutual disdain-- with neither one interfering with the business of the other. But if one is not happy with this intellectual schizophrenia, one would have to admit the unicity of language and the objectivity of truth. If science is objectively true, and if religion is objectively true, they ought to be mutually consistent. If the theory of evolution and natural selection is true, the story of genesis has to be reinterpreted. There is but one science. What is called Western Science today is, in an important sense, a continuation of the so-called Islamic Science which itself was a continuation of Greek Science, and that in turn, was a continuation of, say, Indian, Persian, and Babylonian Science. What we have is a continuous human experience. It is only one step from here to explode the ill-founded myths about culture-boundness of human rights or the alleged clash of Western and Islamic civilizations. Such stratagems may serve short-term political goals, but from an analytic rational point of view they are utterly untenable.

13. This hot topic is the subject of immediate political relevance to all Islamic states. For an immediately non-political approach to this question cf. M. T. Ja'fari (Cite full reference).

14. For a recent enquiry concerning this notion, cf. "Religious Belief and Scientific Belief" by Muhsin Mahdi in The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 11: 2, pp.245-259.

15. Works on the so-called Islamic economy are far too numerous to enumerate. For example, see Theoretical Issues in Islamic Banking and Finance, by M. Khan and A. Mirakhor.

16. S. H. Nasr has apparently no difficulty reconciling Islam and monarchy. For him, "Islamic Republic" is a contradiction in terms. Whereas a parliamentary democtratic system is favored by, say, Naieni in Tanbih ul-ummah, or by M. Bazargan, Iran's first prime minister after the 1979 revolution. Vilayat-i Faqih, is yet another system, believed by some to be the true Islamic form of government.

17. It is eye-opening to contrast the writings of Sadr iddin Shirazi, known as Mullah Sadra, on the interpretation of verses from the Qur'an, or the grand Al-mizan, by Allama Tabataba'ie, with , for example, Al-jawahir by Tantavi, or with Mafati al-qayb by Fakhr-i Razi.

18. In the numerous attacks on Soroush's revisionist thesis a recurrent theme has been the criticism that by allowing for time-dependent revisions to religion any sacredness is obliterated and religion is placed on par with the 'secular' sciences. According to Soroush nothing could be farther from the truth. He insists on the fine epistemological distinction between the so-called first-order and second-order systems of knowledge.

19. The term "Shari'a," in contemporary Arabic (and in recent writings on Islam in the West) and the Arabic word "fiqh" in contemporary Persian, are commonly used to refer to the body of Islamic legal system. These narrow meanings, although conforming with the usage of these terms in some contexts, do not cover their connotations entirely.)

20. Qabz va Bast, p. 238.

21. Soroush shares this view about fiqh with Imam Mohammad Ghazzali of [the] fifth century (Cf. Ihya, Book I, On Knowledge). Just as Ghazzali was harshly criticized for such a remark about al-fiqh by Ibn-Jawzi and others, Soroush has received his share of criticism and condemnation.


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