Three Philosophical Debates in Post-Revolutionary Iran 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

The following article by Mehrzad Boroujerdi is part of his book, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism (for more on the book see http://web.syr.edu/~mborouje/ ). Address comments to the author at Department of Political Science, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York 13244, or via electronic mail at mboroujerdi@maxwell.syr.edu

 

 

 

And what work nobler than transplanting foreign thought into the barren domestic soil; except indeed planting thought of your own, which the fewest are privileged to do?
- Thomas Carlyle

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 represented the first mass revolutionary movement in the modern age that has led to the establishment of a theocracy. As is customary with every major revolution, this social upheaval fueled the development of thought in the post-revolutionary Iranian polity. The Revolution presented Iranian intellectuals with serious theoretical challenges. While its enthusiastic supporters tried to present Islam as a distinct ideology capable of offering a viable philosophical alternative to the modern world, its zealous opponents needed to explain the reasons for the ascendancy of this much-ignored ideology. This latter group, which included disillusioned and astounded Iranian intellectuals both inside and outside the country, experimented with seclusion, political marginality, exile, and expatriate life as short and long-term remedies for the anguish that beset them.

The unfortunate course of events occurring in Iran since 1979 (the hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, execution of political opponents) have rendered abortive any serious attempts to deconstruct post-revolutionary intellectual thought. The intellectual deconstruction of a revolution in the making requires much more time and serious critical inquiry into Iranian history, culture, politics, and religion than those which have proliferated up to now. With such a conviction, this chapter endeavors to provide a glimpse of the intellectual panorama of post-revolutionary Iran through an exposition of a number of important theoretical debates taking place among its leading ideologues. My objective in this chapter is to correct a number of prevalent myths and fallacies concerning contemporary Iranian political culture. I contend that, despite the many obstacles and restrictions put forward by the present regime in Tehran, the 1980s and the 1990s indeed witnessed the prospering of political philosophy and jurisprudence in Iran. Intellectuals do play an important role in shaping the world-view of the Islamic Republic. Also far from engaging in esoteric and trivial polemics, the discussions now taking place in Iran are indeed philosophically sophisticated, intellectually sound, socially relevant, and politically modern.

The 1979 Revolution brought something more consequential than the fall of the old regime. By politicizing the polity, it forever changed the intellectual configuration of Iranian society. The theoretical ferment caused by the revolution and the outlandish events that ensued inevitably affected the course of intellectual deliberations among Iranian intellectuals. The new regime, unlike its predecessor, relied heavily on its propaganda and ideological state apparatuses, and its ideology could not remain secluded from the reverberating echoes of a changing time and new ideas. Meanwhile, the formation of a modern theocracy had confronted the new ruling elites with novel questions and challenges in terms of how to govern, and what constitutes a revolutionary political culture. The essential needs of "governing" as well as remaining "revolutionary" required quick and immediate solutions to problems that did not previously exist. The revolution posed many serious questions to the Islamic ideologue. Is Islamic jurisprudence (feqh) capable of answering modern social and scientific challenges? Are technology, nationalism and parliamentary democracy compatible with Islam? What can the Islamic Republic bestow upon the rest of the world? In addition, such previously asked questions as to how to stop or reverse the advancing march of secularism, and how to confront the "West" and its various philosophical schools of thought remained unresolved. In a politically repressive yet intellectually flourishing era, these questions were bound to be answered differently by different people.

The above questions are illustrative of the kinds of continuities and discontinuities brought along by the revolution. Shortly after its triumph, the political culture of the revolution showed signs of disintegration. The Islamic regime soon began a war against intellectual dissent aimed mainly at its liberal and leftist opponents. It denounced the secular intellectuals and literati as a bunch of Westoxicated, alienated, imitating, and non-committed individuals whom the revolution could do without. Those lay religious intellectuals, however, who were willing to accept the preeminence of the clergy, were allowed to remain on board. The anti-intellectual and populist rhetoric of the revolutionary administration also inundated such potential rivals as the Feda'iyan-e Khalq and the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The new regime naturally prized conformity and devotion over dissent. The untimely deaths or assassinations of such rising political and intellectual figures as Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, and Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari provided a major intellectual vacuum among the ranks of the clergy. This predicament provided an opportunity for two lay religious intellectuals to gradually emerge as the unofficial leading ideologues of the new regime. The two men were Reza Davari Ardakani (hereafter Davari) and `Abdolkarim Soroush.

Davari was born in Ardakan (near Isfahan) in 1933 and finished his primary and secondary education in his place of birth. He was hired as a teacher by the Ministry of Education in 1951. Three years later, he enrolled at Tehran University's Faculty of Literature as an undergraduate and proceeded to earn his doctorate in philosophy from the same institution in 1967. Since his graduation, Davari has been a professor of philosophy at his alma mater, where he mainly teaches courses on the history of modern philosophy. After the revolution, while maintaining his academic post, he has served in such capacities as a researcher in the Iranian Academy of Philosophy; member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences; and editor of the journal Nameh Farhang, organ of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In addition, he has been a member of a number of scientific and academic delegations representing Iran in international conventions.

`Abdolkarim Soroush was born in Tehran in 1945 and attended Tehran University as a student of pharmacy. He later went to the University of London where he first studied chemistry and then became interested in the history and philosophy of science. Soroush pursued his interest in the subject of indeterminacy in science by working on a dissertation dealing with the history of monomolecular reactions. Before the revolution, he worked mainly in pharmaceutical jobs in Bushehr and Tehran. After the revolution, Soroush occupied the following posts: member of the High Council of Cultural Revolution (responsible for revising the academic curriculums of Iran's primary, secondary, and higher institutions of learning); university professor (teaching such subjects as Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of History), researcher at the Iranian Academy of Philosophy, and was a member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences. In addition, Soroush served on such academic and cultural councils as Iran's mission to UNESCO, and the Iran University Press.

Defining the West

One of the early disputes between Davari and Soroush started over such questions as, "what is the "West?"; how should one analyze and encounter it?; and do we have anything to learn from or to offer to it?" Similar to his colleague S.H. Nasr, Davari believes that Iranian intellectuals need to indulge in a process of critical reflection on the very essence and reality of Western history. This critique, he maintains, must undermine the totality of Western thought by aiming at humanism and modernity as its most celebrated legacies. Influenced by the Hegelian philosophy of history which spoke of the spirit, drive, impetus, stages, and design as well as the passions of agents and subjects of history, Davari opts to view the "West" as a "totality," and a "unified whole." For him the "West" is not just a political entity, but rather an essence. "It is a way of thinking and a historical practice which started in Europe more than 400 years ago, and has since expanded more or less universally. The West portrays the demise of the holy truth, and the rise of a humanity which views itself as the sole possessor and focus of the universe. Its accomplishment is to possess everything in the celestial cosmos. Even if it were to prove the existence of God, it will be done not with the intention of obedience and submission, but in order to prove itself (Davari 1984a, 18)."

Having constituted the "West" as the absolute "other" against which an Islamic identity must be constructed, Davari then moves to a repudiation of modernity and all that the latter stands for. He regards modernity as an eighteenth-century intellectual project that replaced the natural order of the medieval era in the name of science and history. Davari maintains that since its onset at the time of the Renaissance, humanism has served as the very essence of the "West" and as a result, individuality and humanism should be regarded as the pivotal truths of modern Western history. Thus he incriminates humanism not for being just another philosophy, but rather, for becoming the blueprint for another man; a man to whom all the philosophies, theories, logic, and new sciences must be subordinated (Davari 1983, 59).

Reflecting on the imposed and imported nature of modernity in Iran and the rest of the Islamic world, he writes: "Modernity is a tree which was planted in the West and has spread everywhere. For many years we have been living under one of the dying and faded branches of this tree, and its dried shadow which is still hanging over our heads. While we have taken refuge in Islam, the shadow of this branch has still not yet totally disappeared from over our heads. In fact, neither we nor it have left each other alone. What can be done with this dried branch (Ibid., 83)?"

Davari's answer is obvious. Not only the branch but also the tree of modernity itself must be eradicated. Davari advocated that this be done through the formation of a distinctive intellect, one that is distinguishable and superior to the "Western intellect." He rejected the Western models of democracy, which are based on the separation of politics and religion, as decadent. Instead of believing in the free thinking criticism of religion brought along by humanism as a life-stance, he declared that a virtuous society is one that is grounded in the axioms of guardianship and prophecy (Ibid., 85). Here, Davari drew upon the neo-Platonic ideas of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (878-950) who is generally regarded as the founder of political philosophy in Islam. Farabi and other Muslim political thinkers viewed the prophets as being the true Platonic philosopher-kings. The prophets' mandate, however, was not based on human intellect but instead on revelation.

Furthermore, Davari reprimanded the West for its abandonment of metaphysical philosophy which deals with the ultimate and highest questions. He contended that this type of philosophy, which had originated with the ancient Greeks and culminated in the ideas of Hegel and Nietzsche, can no longer be rejuvenated in the West. Echoing Edmund Husserl's assertion that the Enlightenment cunningly subdued philosophy in the name of science, Davari maintained that Cartesian philosophy in the West became subordinated to "method" and "science." In other words, philosophy, which was once recognized as the queen of the sciences, was now reduced to a primer for a set of natural and social sciences. Yet even worse was the fact that these new sciences opted for the preponderance of materialism and rationalism and, consequently, ignored religion. He asked why it is that, with a few exceptions (e.g. Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, Max Scheler, and S?ren Kierkegaard), the West has of late not produced any religious philosophers? Finally, following a Heideggerian outlook, Davari charged that technology is not just a set of means but rather a way of thinking that, in no uncertain terms, today dominates our world Davari 1990, 34-37). Far from making people into subjects, technology has led to our subjugation. In short, the agent of freedom has been turned into a medium of imprisonment.

Based on the above set of pathological symptoms, Davari claimed that Western civilization has now reached its termination point and is struggling against alienation, solitude, and solipsism. He cautioned Islamic intellectuals to recognize that the "West" must be viewed as a "totality," a "unified whole," and an "essence" from which the non-Western world can not pick and choose. The only solution for the West, according to Davari, is to abandon its collective and individual egoism and humanism, to repudiate its skepticism, and eradicate the rotten tree of modernity altogether. These tasks, however, cannot be accomplished through any process of cultural exchange. Davari maintained that in the West, where secularism and materialism run riotously, anything short of a revolutionary detachment from humanism and submission to God was bound to fail. He concluded that non-Western societies were not facing individual Westerners but a unified "West." Davari thus suggested that Iranian intellectuals should not be concerned with the destiny of individual Westerners, but with the destiny of the West, itself. `Abdolkarim Soroush could not disagree more with what are for him Davari's sweeping abstractions. He rejected all the above formulations as discreditable historicist determinism. Soroush maintained, since intellect is unfettered, philosophy cosmopolitan, and knowledge without boundaries, that date and place of birth cannot serve as valuative criteria for measuring the accuracy and legitimacy of ideas (Soroush 1988b, 236). Addressing Davari, he asked: "Where do you draw the boundaries of the West? Is this moral decline present wherever there is the West or wherever there is the West is there a moral decline? Should we know the "Western spirit" based on the West or should we distinguish the "West" from the Western spirit (Ibid., 231)?"

Soroush contended that Davari's philosophical postulate about the "West" as a unified and totalizing entity, is a Hegelian construct that left no room for a constructive dialogue nor a mutually beneficial exchange. He criticized Davari's propositions for coercing people either to fully accept or fully reject the "West." In contrast, Soroush maintained that the "West" did not constitute a unified whole and should not be viewed as such. He rejected the usage of such grandiose concepts as "Western philosophy," "Western art," "Western culture," "essence of the West," "destiny of the West," and "spirit of the West." Soroush insisted that the "West" does not constitute a homogeneous totality with well-defined cultural and intellectual boundaries. The non-Western societies can not face the "West," but can only confront individual Westerners.

Soroush proceeds to tackle another fallacy. He insists that what comes from the West is not necessarily contaminating; one can embrace Western thoughts, politics, as well as technology without inflicting self-harm. For Soroush, the issue is not one of submission or denunciation, but rather one of analysis and nourishment. Unlike Davari, Soroush strongly believes in cultural exchange. In a round table discussion devoted to the issue of dialogue between different religions, he spoke of the hindrances caused by dogmatism, certitude and self-righteousness and instead promoted mutual recognition and cooperation. Soroush argued: "I do not believe that a religious government like the Islamic Republic of Iran has (or should have) the intention of converting the whole world to Islam and Islamic government. The first step should be to promote and respect religious thought [of whatever kind] around the world (Nameh Farhang 1992, 10)."

Soroush went so far as to say that Iranians are heir to three cultures: Pre-Islamic Persian, Islamic, and Western. According to him, instead of privileging one over the others, Iranians should attempt to reconcile and recompose all three (Soroush 1990). For Soroush, the idea of "returning to self" is not as exclusive as that formulated by `Ali Shari`ati before the revolution. Having acknowledged that they are the bearer of these diverse lineages, he maintained that Iranians can become more tolerant of their differences. In short, by identifying the Western heritage as one of the three pillars of Iranian historical memory, Soroush wished to turn a perceived handicap into a comparative advantage.

Soroush further disagreed with Davari's disapproving view of modernity and modernism. He maintained that the most consequential point of demarcation between the modern age and what preceded it has to do with the ushering in of a whole range of "logies" and "isms." The new epistemologies made it possible for us to reflect critically and objectively on intellect, religion, knowledge, ideology, and world-views. More importantly and paradoxically, they also provided us with the necessary means to recognize the limits and transcend the boundaries of modernism (Soroush 1992, 12). Thus, Soroush accused Davari as suffering from a type of benightedness about the "West" and cautioned the Iranian intelligentsia not to blame, mourn, or abandon the West for the route it has taken or for what it has achieved. Instead, he argued, the Iranian intelligentsia should turn their attention to their own endemic problems and shortcomings.

Historicism Versus Positivism

The translation and publication of Karl Raimund Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1985 triggered another major debate in post-revolutionary Iranian intellectual circles. The debate was not over Popper (1902-1994) per se, but over epistemological principles as well as political orientations. The appearance of this book sharpened the "positivism" versus "historicism" debate which had already been launched with the translations into Persian of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Ren? Descartes' Discourse on Method, and Emile Durkheim's Rules of Sociological Method.

Davari attacked this urgency to publish Popper's book as an attempt on the part of translators and publishers to promote "Western democracy" as well as a "rationalist movement" in philosophy. In regard to the first charge, he maintained that promoting Popper's dream of an open society is in fact a clever way of opposing the revolution, since the political consequences of Popper's ideas were all too clearly in support of capitalism and Western political liberalism. Davari argued that Popper is a typical eighteenth-century intellectual for whom "freedom" is, in reality, "freedom from religion." He asked, rhetorically, how a man who is opposed to absolute faith and is so clearly against religious thought can be portrayed as a guardian of faith in a theocratic society such as Iran (Davari 1986, 12).

Davari then proceeded to assault Popper's positivist conception of science. He claimed that while Popper is a specialist in the methodology of natural sciences, he did not understand the language of philosophers, and hence distorted the ideas of Plato and Aristotle as well as those of Hegel and Marx. Davari reminded his critics that by claiming that science deals with what "is" while religion deals with what "ought to be," Popper indeed privileged scientific methodology (principle of refutability) over religious intuition. Davari concluded by charging that the Iranian positivists' attempt to reconcile Popper's ideas with Islam went against the Shari`ah, led to divisions within the ranks of the ummah, and undermined one's obedience and reverence toward the Supreme Being (Davari 1985, 24).

Davari's critics retaliated by initiating a full-fledged attack on historicism. Following Popper, they came to define "historicism" primarily in a methodological sense to denote "the view that the main task of the social scientist is to discover the laws by which whole societies develop and, on the basis of these laws of historical development, to make predictions about the future (Miller 1972, 797)." They assailed the German historicist tradition of Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Mannheim, Heidegger and, by association, Davari as well (see Ganji 1986). Soroush and his associates articulated their rebuttals on both epistemological and political levels. They first assailed the philosophical assumptions of Martin Heidegger's thought, whom Davari had previously hailed as the "great sage of our time" and "the pioneer of future philosophy" (Davari 1980, 210, 224). The critics charged that Heidegger's contention that the age of metaphysics has ended and that the age of "philosophy of Being" has begun neither acknowledged nor denied the existence of God. Furthermore, they charged that Heidegger's philosophical postulates were too speculative, mythological, and anti-scientific. The Iranian positivists thoroughly disapproved of Heidegger's embracing of ideal terms and mystical philosophy. To counter Heidegger's view that all science is philosophy, whether it knows and wishes it or not, they turned toward logical positivists whose aim was to remake philosophy in conformity with the logic and epistemology of modern natural sciences. Like their European counterparts, the Iranian positivists maintained that, instead of following the intangible Heideggerian strategy of deconstructing science, universe, and being, the intelligentsia must follow the task of logically analyzing scientific concepts, statements and explanations. Toward that end, they began to write and translate a number of books on the ideas of the Vienna Circle and other logical positivists, helping to re-enact the epistemological debates of Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.

The critics also indicted Hegel and Nietzsche, whom Davari had previously identified as the two philosophers responsible for elevating Western philosophy to its pinnacle (Davari 1984b, 106-107). Hegel was criticized for his speculative philosophy of history, with its heavy emphasis on determinism. Nietzsche was viewed as the exponent of nihilism and moral relativity. Soroush and the other critics rejected Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger for the political ramifications of their ideas as well. Hegel was viewed as an exonerator of the Prussian state, Nietzsche as an enemy of liberal democracy, and Heidegger as a defender of fascism. They charged that the political viewpoints of these three philosophers were a logical outcome of their philosophical postulates. Hegel's theory of state, Nietzsche's will to power, and Heidegger's existential phenomenology were all suspected of invoking totalitarianism. Turning the table on his critics, Davari retaliated by delineating the differences between Heidegger and Popper. Davari asserted that Heidegger was a thinker who was not liked and was being slandered by Western political propaganda while Popper was becoming increasingly famous thanks to that same machinery (Keyhan-e Farhangi 1992, 10). Hence, the Popper-Heidegger debate in post-revolutionary Iran became both an important epistemological as well as a pertinent political debate.

Traditional Versus Dynamic Jurisprudence

The third and perhaps the most consequential debate began over the question of how to make Shari`ah congruent with the needs and limitations of a theocratic state in the latter half of the twentieth-century. The new revolutionary elites were faced with a wide range of social, economic, and political issues for which there were no clearly defined answers. Birth control, polygamy, universal draft, universal education, criminal sentences for new crimes, taxes for economic development, housing shortages, subsidies for essential goods, mediation of contract disputes between workers and management, land reform and, finally, the design and structure of government (the Islamic Republic, velayat-e faqih, elections) all constituted novel questions that needed to be resolved. The ulema became partly divided over these matters.

The 1979 Revolution and its aftermath rejuvenated some of these old debates, and generated new controversies as well. The clerics were split into two major camps: those who sanctioned traditional jurisprudence (feqh sonnati), and those who advocated the need for a more dynamic jurisprudence (feqh puya) capable of dealing with the contemporary, public, and non-esoteric challenges facing the Islamic ummah. This dispute first began over socio-political concerns, and was gradually transformed into an epistemological polemic. Its focal point came in April 1988 when Soroush published the first of a series of articles entitled, "The Theoretical Constriction and Expansion of Shari`ah" in Keyhan-e Farhangi, a leading monthly cultural journal. The public and open-ended nature of the articles generated fiery as well as contemplative rebuttals and rejoinders, both by lay intellectuals and the clerics.

Soroush's cardinal claim was that all sciences and fields of knowledge are in a state of constant transformation, and that changes in any domain of learning are bound to cause modifications in the other domains as well, including jurisprudence. As an historian of science, he espoused the view that scientific discoveries have an impact on epistemology which in turn cause a new philosophical understanding. This new understanding, Soroush maintains, subsequently affects humanity's knowledge of itself and its environment, and finally leads to a transformation of religious knowledge (Soroush 1991b). As a historical illustration of this domino effect, he referred to scientific breakthroughs in mathematics which transformed the discipline of logic and in turn humanity's understanding of philosophy, revelation, and theology.

Following the method of logical reasoning, Soroush asserted that as a human science feqh is, by its very nature, hermeneutical and speculative. Since science and philosophy are continuously evolving, our comprehension of the Shari`ah (which is based on the sacred text and the Sunna) should follow suit. Soroush came to the conclusion that since philosophy and the natural sciences are always unfinished and in quest of perfection; jurisprudential theory is also deficient, mortal, and fleeting.

Equipped with such a heuristic premise, Soroush proceeded to criticize the howzehs for their closed or narrowly-defined intellectual viewpoints and their systematic neglect of non-jurisprudential disciplines. Moreover, he found fault with the traditional jurists' obliviousness to modern strides in scientific and social sciences. Accusing the jurists of bigotry, Soroush charged them with paying only lip service to the privileged position of science in Islam. He claimed that they, in fact, avoided or rejected scientific theories with the bogus claim that these theories undermine the certitude and indisputability of sacred beliefs. Advocating a total reversal, Soroush contended that religious cognizance should become contemporary. By this he meant that the Shari`ah should not contradict modern scientific findings. He asserted that Shari`ah should acquiesce to the assistance offered by the natural and social sciences in formulating its reasoning. He challenged jurists to respond to the theoretical questions of our era, and to react to the practical challenges of the age of modernity. In other words, Soroush championed the idea that instead of loitering aimlessly in isolation, religious scholars should participate in the permanent dialogue and intellectual exchange conventional among scientists.

Borrowing an inference from sociology of knowledge, Soroush further claimed that the Islamic jurists' divergent interpretations of the Shari`ah were certainly due to their contrasting understanding of nature, anthropology, and jurisprudence. He charged that just as the fatva (religious decree) of a rural jurist differs from that of an urbanite (each reflecting the respective social environment), so the Islam of a philosopher contrasts that of a mystic. Soroush's conclusive remark was that the field of tafsir is far from an exact science and must indeed be approached as an inexact, inconsistent, and controversial arena of human inquiry.

Soroush was joined in his attack on feqh sonnati by, among others, a brilliant cleric by the name Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. Born in Tabriz in 1936, Mojtahed Shabestari graduated from the Qom Theological Seminary after eight years of rigorous study. Fluent in German, English, and Arabic, he served as the director of the Islamic Center of Hamburg, West Germany, for nine years immediately before the revolution and, for brief time in 1979, published a high quality bi-weekly entitled Andisheh-ye Eslami. In a series of articles which were published concurrently with Soroush's essays, Shabestari, who is presently a professor of theology at Tehran University and a member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, raised similar themes and concerns. In a remarkably candid criticism of the educational curriculum of Iran's theological seminaries, he wrote:

The fact that our howzehs have separated their path from that of the social sciences and are minding their own business without any awareness of the developments in these disciplines has brought us to the present condition in which we have no philosophy of civil rights or philosophy of ethics. [Furthermore] we have neither a political nor an economic philosophy. Without having a set of solid and defendable theories in these fields, how can we talk of universal or permanent laws and values? How can we [even] gain admission to international scientific communities? (Mojtahed Shabestari 1988, 11)

Shabestari proceeded to counsel the clergy that, unless they reconciled their differences with the modern social sciences, their intellectual turmoil was bound to persist. According to him, if the clergy emerged from their sequestered intellectual circles, they would realize that the theoretical and practical challenges posed by the modern age have not all been settled. This revelation would then convince the clergy that they could no longer take refuge in the verdicts of past jurists. Instead they would realize that the gates of Ejtehad must remain open, and that individuals must be granted a bigger role in regulating their social lives. Reminiscent of Popper's assertion that the main question is not "who should rule" but "how to rule," Shabestari maintains that the Qur‚an and the Sunna [tradition] actually emphasize the "values of government" and not necessarily the "forms of government." Since managing a society requires science and planning, he proposed that the task be entrusted to those who are qualified, namely politicians and economists. In the meanwhile, the faqihs should be preoccupied with promoting values derived from the Qur‚an.

In another essay, Shabestari drew parallels between the way Christianity and Islam each encountered modernism. He maintained that as a result of their contemplative encounter with modern science and philosophy, both Protestant and Catholic theology were able to produce such celebrated thinkers as Karl Barth (1886-1968), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Rudolf K. Bultmann (1884-1976), and Karl Rahner (1904-1984). By contrast, Shabestari contended that fearing the prospect of cultural as well as political colonization, most Muslims adopted an approach of absolute negation vis-ą-vis the European world. As a result of this unwillingness to encounter Western ideas, the Islamic world has been in a state of lethargy, unable to confront the challenges of modern science and philosophy (Mojtahed Shabestari 1992, 12). The tacit implication of this analogy leads this author to believe that Shabestari called for nothing short of a philosophically informed Islamic Protestantism. His reference to Bultmann, who under the influence of Heidegger, set himself the task of demythologizing Christianity and called for the reconciliation of reason and faith, is of special interest when one considers the overtly Aristotelian character of Islamic philosophy and theology.

Soroush, and to a lesser extent Shabestari (because of his clerical status), came under severe criticism by a host of clerics and lay adversaries. These critics charged that by relying on the ideas of Popper (falsification principle), Imre Lakatos (research programs), and Carl G. Hempel (paradox of confirmation), Soroush and his colleagues were indeed undermining the canons of Islamic faith. The traditionalists objected that Soroush's postulate about the steady transformation and inter-connectivity of all sciences would lead to "relativity of knowledge" and skepticism, both of which they regarded as Popperian axioms. One critic went as far as to say that Soroush's ideas were more horrifying and damaging than the ideas of Marx and Freud since he is assaulting the ideological foundations of the Islamic government from within. Furthermore, the traditionalists protested that to sanctify the proposition that the Shari`ah is subject to contrasting hermeneutical interpretations is tantamount to granting people the right to present their own interpretations of it (Sobhani 1988, 11). The outcome would be the same in feqh as in science: a state of anarchy and divisiveness. In short, while Soroush and other advocates of feqh puya emphasized epistemological flux, the proponents of traditional feqh insisted on the fixity of sacred scriptures.

In response to Soroush's central thesis that feqh is epistemologically related to the other sciences, the critics declared that this one-way dependence is neither possible nor desirable since feqh and philosophy are two different domains of knowledge, each with its own separate methodologies. This group also maintained that Soroush's theory tacitly privileged the human sciences over the word of God. As such, they proceeded to remind Soroush that while all sciences are suppositional and speculative in nature, divine wisdom flies on the wings of conviction. More importantly however, these critics feared the immensely radical implications of Soroush's theory. Since the amplitude and specialized nature of the modern sciences no longer allows for individuals to have extensive knowledge in all disciplines, the present structure and educational curriculum of the theological seminaries must be fundamentally altered. Sequentially, the present conventions and protocols of religious authority and emulation must also be modified as clerics become narrowly focused experts rather than broadly-minded scholars. This would surely undermine and make obsolete the position of marja'-e Taqlid (source of emulation). Soroush's clerical opponents feared that they would lose their present positions of prominence and would be increasingly forced to relinquish authority to their more qualified lay adversaries.

Differing from these traditionalists, Davari has let it be known that he disagrees with Soroush on this issue as well. Davari believed that in the age of post-modernity, when all the philosophical axioms of modernity have been called into question, the attempt by Soroush and his colleagues to modernize feqh is doomed to fail. He reprimanded Soroush and his colleagues for the ill-conceived nature of their project by reminding them that Westerners did not modernize their beliefs but rather abandoned one, medieval metaphysics, in favor of another, positive science (Davari 1992, 12). Furthermore, Davari considered the application of the methodologies of modern sciences to feqh as a sign of intellectual confusion and one that robs feqh of its innermost values. He asked what is the need for religion if it has to conform to scientific methods. In short, Davari considered Popperian epistemology to be "an ill-shaped and ugly garment for feqh" (Davari 1991).

I have so far proposed that post-revolutionary Iran's intellectual community has been seized by a theoretical ferment--a ferment that is continuing with no apparent end in sight. It has also been argued that much of this intellectual contention revolves around a complex set of epistemological discords. Although at times both sides have resorted to crude accusations and misrepresentation of the other's position, these quarrels for the most part have been theologically and philosophically well informed. The debates taking place in Iran today differ from the one that took place in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s due to Iranians' preoccupation with the proper place of a non-Western religion in the post-modern world. More importantly, these debates are taking place at a time when the cumulative effect of the literature on linguistic philosophy, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, cultural relativism, Eurocentrism, and end-of-ideology has questioned not only the (neo)positivist paradigm but the very project of Enlightenment itself. As a result, the present intellectual quarrels in Iran display the agony, eclecticism and advantages of the turbulent age in which we live. Celebration of and identification with scientific accomplishments are promoted at the same time when others point to the impasse and blind-alleys of the age of (post)modernity.

In view of this, Davari's critique of the basic ontological assumptions of Western thought should not be too easily dismissed. In addition, his call for transcending modernity deserves serious contemplation. This, however, does not mean that his grandiloquent postulates should be accepted at face value either. Ostensibly influenced by Heidegger's statement, "we are latecomers in a history now racing toward its end," Davari proclaims that the history of the "West" has come or is coming to an end. I find this and similar propositions to be both meretricious and fatalistic. While he speaks of "Western history," Davari is not willing to place himself within any such historical categorization. He wishes to criticize the West from the vantage point of an observer standing outside the perimeters of history. Furthermore, in asserting that the "West" is left with no other option but to turn toward the "East" for an intellectual loan, Davari seemed to have forgotten the comments of his sagacious guru, Heidegger, who in an interview with Der Spiegel, once proclaimed:

. . . it is my conviction that a reversal can be prepared only in the same place in the world where the modern technological world originated, and that it cannot happen because of any takeover by Zen-Buddhism or any other Eastern experiences of the world. There is need for a rethinking which is to be carried out with the help of the European tradition and of a new appropriation of that tradition. Thinking itself can be transformed only by a thinking which has the same origin and calling (Heidegger 1976, 281).

Finally, Davari's facile, dismissal, and blanket distrust of positivism and modern sciences will not do. By their systematic questioning, these sciences have forced into destitution or ameliorated various philosophical assertions. Philosophy needs to stand up to the important challenges posed by modern social and natural sciences.

I believe the endeavor by Soroush and his colleagues to vindicate a hermeneutical approach to Islamic jurisprudence is a herculean task worthy of considerable attention. Contrary to the efforts of such individuals as Mehdi Bazargan, Soroush is not attempting to reconcile science and Islam nor to justify a scientific approach to religion. Indeed, he believes one has to move beyond these types of attempts by placing the emphasis on religious knowledge (ma'refat-e dini) and comprehension of religion (fahm din) rather than religion in abstraction. As such, Soroush does not talk about reconciliation of science and religion but about utilizing science to better comprehend religion. Soroush asserts that religion is capable of presenting science with all sorts of issues, approaches, anomalies and discoveries. Thus, his basic argument is that one's understanding of religion cannot be separate and incompatible with one's understanding of nature and natural sciences.

Furthermore, Soroush differed in his approach from such predecessors as `Ali Shari`ati and Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari who devoted their lives to bridging the gap between tradition and progress. Soroush maintained that the intellectual tension in the works of these two thinkers emanated from their belief in the immutability of religion on the one hand and their desire to make religion compatible with the modern world. He believed that the key to this puzzle is to distinguish the permanence of Shari`ah from the fluctuating nature of religious knowledge. Soroush claimed that while the sacred text and the Sunna are always constants, religious knowledge is a part of the larger domain of human knowledge in which there is a permanent process of intellectual give and take.

Calling attention to this delicate distinction constitutes Soroush's major contribution to the course of intellectual deliberations in post-revolutionary Iran. He maintained that while Shari`ah itself is divine, its comprehension is not; while Shari`ah is a tradition, its cognition constantly becomes contemporary; while Shari`ah is sublime, religious knowledge is mundane and human; and finally faith or conviction is different from religious knowledge. He wrote, "I regard this epistemological distinction to be my most important achievement (Soroush 1991a)." Needless to say, he received reprimands from parts of the clerical officialdom who feared the subversive ramifications of his project of hermeneutical reading, understanding, and criticism.

Notwithstanding the dogmatic criticisms of the traditionalist, I believe it is still possible to raise a few objections to Soroush's arguments. It seems that he has overlooked a number of crucial differences between religion as a world-view and science as an approach. As a world-view, religion comes to know the world a-priori. The world it wants to comprehend is an invention of religion itself. In it, humankind's relation to the universe has already been specified, and questions have all been answered (Dustdar 1981, 5-15). The religious world-view does not seek questions but "the truth." It attempts to transcend everyday realities in the hope of discovering "larger truths." Its interest, however, lies not so much in a praxis based on these larger truths, but rather in accepting and cultivating a conviction in them.

The scientific outlook, on the other hand, sees the world a-posteriori. The world it wants to understand is not a creation of itself since it regards nature as an independent entity. Whereas the religious world-view attempts to arrive at knowledge and conviction through a return to specific sacred texts, science strives to identify facts through a procedure relying on deduction and observation. The latter approach interrogates common wisdom by constantly constructing hypotheses and subsequently testing for their conformity with reality, whereas the religious perspective tries to criticize everyday realities based on bigger and immutable sets of truths. In short, the model of the scientific community is "a community of disputatious, quarreling `truth-seekers' dedicated to validity-enhancing belief change (Holzner, Campbell, Shahidullah 1985, 310)." The frontiers of religious exploration, on the other hand, far surpass that of science, since its telos is to acquire or reassert faith and develop a value system based on ethical obligations in order to arbitrate human conduct.

As for Soroush's criticism of historicism, he mainly used the term in a methodological sense. However, if one was to define "historicism" in an epistemological sense, to denote the view that all human knowledge is essentially relative to time and place, then much of Soroush's own hypothesis can be viewed as "historicist." For example, his belief in the idea of the accumulation and successive approximation of knowledge toward truth is itself a shadowy replica of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment idea of progress, which fits well within the confines of Hegel's philosophy of history. Soroush's assertion about the impact of the social milieu on the theological judgment of Islamic jurists is also in conformity with the Hegelian notion that the ordering principles or categories of the mind vary with a succession of epochs and cultures.

Finally, it is fair to say that despite sharing some of the scientific and philosophical interests of positivists, Soroush is far from being a convert. While he shares the positivists' critique of Hegelian historicism (belief in intractable laws of human history), Soroush's notion of history is more indebted to the speculative and idealist ideas of Arnold Toynbee and Robin G. Collingwood. Unlike logical positivists, he does not have an unquestioning faith in science and empirical verifiability, nor does he share the anti-metaphysical orientation of Ernst Mach (1838-1916), who served as the icon of the Vienna Circle. Soroush regards religion and mysticism along with science and philosophy as four legitimate modes of attaining knowledge. For him, the perfect person is one whose conscience has been set ablaze by these "four tables of paradise (Soroush 1986, 35)." Soroush's writings are replete with metaphysical argumentation and allegories. Soroush's commitment to metaphysics obliges him to try to reconcile skepticism and conviction, the scientific and the sacred, and the mundane and the sublime. Needless to say, this eclecticism allows for a degree of intellectual tension in his epistemology and Weltanschauungen. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in his roundabout discussion of technology. While upholding it against the traditionalists, he prescribes only a limited consumption of technology (Soroush 1988b, 274-327).

Soroush's hermeneutical probing of feqh faces formidable obstacles and has yet to prove successful. It has surely, however, kicked open Pandora's box.

 

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