Let the occasional chalice break
Oct 26, 1998
Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri 's introduction to a volume of articles by Abdolkarim Soroush -- Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam -- published by Oxford University Press. Also see chapter entitled "The Idea of Democratic Religious Government".
I. The Local Context
II. The Global Context
Abdolkarim Soroush has emerged as the foremost Iranian and Islamic political philosopher and theologian. His sprawling intellectual project, aimed at reconciling reason and faith, spiritual authority and political liberty, ranges authoritatively over comparative religion, social science, and theology. However, it is only by understanding the local context of his intellectual endeavors that one can appreciate the universal significance of his thought.
I. The Local Context:
The persona of Abdolkarim Soroush must be examined in light of the iconic tradition of modern Iranian intellectuals. The "iconic intellectuals" are the producers as well as embodiments of ideas and ideals, and as such they are held in semi-religious veneration. The main contours of this tradition emerged in the decades preceding the Constitutional Revolution of Iran (1905-1909.) The multiple roots of this tradition account for its unique mixture of what Max Weber called emissary and exemplary prophecy. In both respects, this tradition marks a radical departure from the intellectual traditions before Iran's turn-of-the-century exposure to the West.
Iran has had a rich legacy of traditional intellectuality anchored in religious seminaries (Ulama), the patrimonial state (Ommal), the rural nobility (Ashraaf), and the traditional bourgeoisie (Bazaar). Because of its marginal status and growing numbers, this last group was able to appreciate the new ideas and ideals that were being imported, along with Samovar and guns, from the Russian and Transcaucasian frontiers. Thus it is not surprising that the lower layers of lay intelligentsia (especially in the northern regions of Iran) quickly absorbed the new ideas and became the carriers of a "mission" strikingly similar to that claimed by the Russian "intelligentsia" (a Russian coinage, incidently).
Increasingly, modern Transcaucasian, Azeri, and later, Iranian intellectuals emulated their Russian counterparts in their breathless and tenacious quest to Westernize, modernize, and lead the struggle to catch up with the more advanced countries of Europe. Besides the Russian brand of missionary intellectual zeal, the ideal typical Persian iconic super-intellectual evinces an exemplary trait that is French in origin. The postconstitutional generations of Iranian students, who received their higher education in France, were profoundly influenced by the ideals of personal commitment, individual valor and moral courage that shaped the idealized self-image of the post-Dreyfusard French "engaged intellectuals," a term coined during the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s.
It was the convergence of the models of the French exemplary and Russian missionary heroic intellectuality in Iran's thriving middle-class imagination that produced the hybrid form of the nineteenth-century monavvarolfekr, and later, the twentieth-century roushanfekr intellectuality. The new self-proclaimed "enlightened" leaders laid claim to, and soon acquired a patina of native charisma because of their alleged mastery of modern erudition. Taking as their intellectual heroes such archetypes as Tolstoy and Zola, the intellectual leaders of modern Iran demanded of themselves nothing less than an unswerving missionary activism aimed at national progress and an exemplary "j'accuse" - heroism in proclaiming socially relevant truths against entrenched authoritarian regimes. This certainly holds true for the radical Shiite version of "liberation theology" elaborated and personified by Ali Shariati in the 1970s. In their various manifestos, the contemporary flamboyant leaders of the Marxist, Maoist, and Guevarist movements of the last quarter of the current century (e.g., the Toudeh party, the Fadaian e Khalgh, and, the Mojahedin e Khalgh guerrillas) consider themselves, among other things, heirs to the mantel of leading super-intellectuality as well.
Iconic intellectuality implies not only the role of the heroic producers of ideas, but also the equally heroic selflessness required of the consumers of ideas. By the same token, mere professionals, scholars, academics, seminarians and literati are excluded from the ranks of iconic roushanfekr intellectuals. Indeed, the roushanfekr is the opposite of Kierkegaard's "scholar," who builds public conceptual palaces but might live in a private existential doghouse. Private and public lives of iconic intellectuals are expected to merge to allow a clear view of their calling: leading the way toward reform and setting an example for the rest of the society. The iconic intellectuals are by definition at least equal to, perhaps, in the case of some laic thinkers, even better than their principles.
The appeal to a common mission and ideal life style did not imply the uniformity of instruments of achieving the designated goals which depended on individual predilections and intellectual traditions. We will argue that three paths emerged in Iran as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Some advocates, notably, Akhoundzadeh and Taghizadeh, chose the path of total surrender and assimilation, which we designate as "radical laic modernism," while others, such as Aqayev and Talebof chose an accommodative but culturally and ideationally preservationist agenda, thus anticipating the contemporary movement that encompasses Soroush's position, that is, "reflexive revivalism." Both groups found themselves confronted with a third front: the "rejectionist revivalism"of nativist, antimodern, and anticonsitutionalist Islamists. This turn-of-the century debate is by no means resolved; indeed, in the current cacophony of Tehran's burgeoning free media, the continuing currency of such enlightenment ideals as progress, development, and religious reform underscores the abiding relevance of this trilateral debate in fin-de-siecle Iran. Abdolkarim Soroush is an iconic intellectual who represents reflexive revivalism in this dialogue. Understanding this context is critical for the observers in the United States, and some European countries, where the public intellectual is an endangered species.
Let us remember that Soroush started his public career as the highest-ranking ideologue of the Islamic Republic. He was later appointed to the steering committee of the Cultural Revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini. In the last decade, however, he has emerged as the regime's enfant terrible and, more recently, as its bete noire because of his trenchant criticism of the theological, philosophical, and political underpinnings of the regime. He has been since summarily fired from his job, barred from teaching, discouraged from speaking in public, and periodically prevented from publishing and traveling abroad. He is routinely threatened with assassination and is occasionally roughed up by organized gangs of extremists known as Ansar e Hezbollah. Yet, Soroush's defiance is not regarded as particularly heroic in Iran. Selflessness and unbending commitment to the socially relevant truth is par for the course of Soroush's career as a super-intellectual. When he went abroad for a few months in 1996, after a series of violent disturbances in his public lectures and in the wake of persistent official harassment, there were no signs that his public would countenance his permanent departure.
To say that someone like Soroush fits into a pattern is not to imply that he is just the latest product of a cultural assembly line. He is an original, by any standard. But his uniqueness has as much to do with his prodigious talents and extraordinary education as it does with the unique stage of the Iranian and Islamic civilization that he represents.
To demonstrate the above it is enough to compare Soroush to some of the earlier links in the chain of Iranian iconic intellectuals. Soroush belongs to the genre of the "religious intellectuals." The Charisma of the first generation of post coup d'etat super-intellectuals like Mehdi Bazargan and Yadollah Sahabi emanated from their mastery of modern exact sciences while maintaining and revising their lay piety in the light of modern science. "Yes," they would aver in words and deeds "it is possible to be religious, modern, and nationalistic all at once." The immense popularity of Ali Shariati, who was Iran's most celebrated iconic intellectual before Soroush, was due to his powerful fusion of the Shiite tradition of resistance with the revolutionary ethos of the French left in the sixties. Shariati's elegant and ebullient style of writing and speech was unprecedented and remains unsurpassed in Iran. His nearly hermetic and heroic lifestyle is also in line with that of an iconic intellectual. Although Shariati, like Bazargan and Sahabi before him, was at home with Islamic learning, he was routinely dismissed by the clergy (especially after he challenged their toleration of the vulgarities of mass religiosity) as unschooled in scholastics of the seminary, and when they finally locked horns, he was excoriated as a Western-educated heretic.
Unlike all of his predecessors in the line of religious super-intellectuals, Soroush, thanks to his firm grounding in both traditional and modern learning, cannot be ignored by the clerical establishment. On the contrary, he occasionally uses his mastery of the seminarian language of critical discourse to win followers among scholars at the holy cities of Qum and Mashad. Besides his undisputed claim to the mantle of a roushanfekr intellectual, Soroush wears the charismatic halo of a serious traditional scholar. Even the ideologically correct scholars of the establishment no longer challenge his scholastic credentials.
Like Shariati before him, Soroush is quite prolific. The development of his ideas in the past few years can be traced in a succession of articles that he regularly publishes in Tehran's monthly literary and critical journal Kiyan. He also remains close to the pulse of social developments through polemical duels, addressing university students on religious and national occasions and even delivering occasional funeral orations. The currents of Soroush's revisionist Islam flow in three fields: the epistemology and sociology of knowledge; philosophical anthropology and political theory; and ethics and social criticism.
Soroush's magnum opus, is a tome entitled The Hermeneutical Expansion and Contraction of the Theory of Shari'a. It reevaluates the Islamic Shari'a in the light of insights garnered from the fields of jurisprudence, history of ideas, hermeneutics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and sociology of knowledge. In this book and in his other writings, Soroush poses such question as, "What can we as mortals hope to know about the mind of God, and to what extent ought we take the edicts deduced by Islamic Juristconsults as literal and immediate divine commandments?" The clergy who have posed similar quandaries, do not object to these discussions as such. They are, however, outraged by Soroush's recklessness for exposing the laity to such sensitive subjects. But this issue is itself a bone of contention between Soroush and the seminarian establishment. Soroush criticizes the practice of protecting humanly developed dogma by forbidding "scandalous questions" (Shobheh).
Soroush's philosophical anthropology starts with the question of human nature. In his rather pessimistic view of human nature Soroush appears to have been inspired by a modern tradition that starts with Hobbes and finds expression in the ideas of the framers of the American constitution. But his treatment of this tradition is quite refreshing. In his essay Let Us Learn From History, instead of engaging in philosophical guesswork about human nature or dismissing the question as hopelessly abstract, he takes a direct and empirical rout: there is nothing mysterious or abstract about human nature. It is revealed to us in history:
Here Soroush gives the sober liberal view of human nature an empirical, collective basis. Combining the bare-knuckle realism of liberal philosophers with mystical, theological, and theosophical arguments, he softens the pessimistic edge of this view with verses from The Koran and the poetics from Hafez:
Soroush believes that the Rousseauesque idealism (shared by anarchists, radical Marxists, and Islamic fundamentalists), based on the assumption of the innate goodness of mankind, has the potential of underestimating the staying power of social evil and of fostering the false hope that it can be extinguished. This miscalculation could lead to disastrous projects of social engineering of the kind undertaken by the socialist regimes.
Soroush's political philosophy remains close to the heart of the liberal tradition, ever championing the basic values of reason, liberty, freedom, and democracy. The main challenge is not to establish their value but to promote them as "primary values," as independent virtues, not handmaidens of political maxims and religious dogma. In his Reason and Freedom, Soroush is at pains to demonstrate that freedom is itself a truth, regardless of its performance as an instrument of attaining the truth:
Abdolkarim Soroush is also one of the boldest social critics of the post-revolutionary Iran. As such, he has not minced words about the questionable office of the clergy (rouhaniat) within the Islamic tradition where they perform no sacraments nor mediate the relationship between man and God. He has also criticized the hegemony of the clerocracy in general and also in so far as it threatens the autonomy of the academia in Iran. Some of these points are quite evident in his What "University Expects from the Hozeh." In another essay, "The Three Cultures," Soroush denounces utopian reconstructions of the "true identity" of Iran at the expense of its Islamic, Iranian or Western components. In yet another treatise, "Life and Virtue: the Relationship between Socioeconomic Development and Ethics," Soroush launches a Weberian study of the link between economic development and traditional religious ethos.
Soroush sees contemporary Iran as a society in the grip of massive disenchantment. Twenty years ago masses of enchanted Iranians ratified the constitution of the first Islamic republic in the hopes of realizing earthly perfection in government. Those hopes have now turned into despair. The resurgence of Iran's turn-of-the-century varieties of revivalism and modernism could be attributed to these circumstances. They were exacerbated by the disappointing end of the Iran-Iraq war, hailed at the time by the leaders as a do-or-die crusade. Soroush is the intellectual face of reflexive revivalism in Iran. Its social and political face can be seen in the sweeping victory of president Khatami in 1997 (now hailed by the liberal newspapers such as Jame'eh and Salam as the "Epic of the May 23) and in the massive turning away of the new generation of Iranians from revolutionary rhetoric.
II. The Global Context
The Luther of Islam?
The American journalist Robin Wright and many after her have referred to Abdolkarim Soroush as the Luther of Islam. Whatever the aptness of such analogies, they are notable not so much for their historical accuracy but rather for their power of historical imagination and intercultural understanding, otherwise woefully lacking in the Western media's voyeuristic and orientalist interest in the Islamic world. The point is that neither theocratic rule nor the modernizing movements aimed at religious revival, reform, and secularization should be considered novel phenomena by the heirs of the Western Christianity. The Christian West, has, after all, lived through the imperial papacy of Gregory VI through Innocent III (eleventh and twelfth centuries;) and has tasted the religious politics of Cromwell and Calvin (sixteenth century). Thus, the upheavals in the Islamic politics in Iran and elsewhere should seem less like exotic spectacles and more like familiar scenes from Western Civilization's recent history. If, as the Christian West has shown, the establishment of, and disenchantment with, a visible "City of God" leads the way toward the "Secular City," then Islamic civilization is on the verge of a decisive, and more importantly, familiar, breakthrough.
Indeed, in terms of his politics, Soroush is unlike the reformists of the sixteenth century Europe, even though his writings are replete with explicit borrowings from European theology and philosophy from Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard to Locke and Popper. Here we must take issue with the neo-Orientalists who dismiss Islamic liberalism as an alien and untenable epiphenomenon. Their argument takes Moslem liberals' borrowing from the West as evidence that they are less authentic than the anti-Western fundamentalists. But it should be borne in mind that in opposing such liberal ideals as democracy in favor of an Islamic "republic of virtue," fundamentalism also follows a long antidemocratic Western tradition, expressed across the centuries from Thrasymachus's debate with Socrates to Marx's rejection of "bourgeois democracy." The antidemocratic stance of the 1960s Islamic revivalists was less influenced by Islamic theology and jurisprudence than by the French leftist rhetoric against the failings of docile bourgeois democracies. The right-wing clerical ideal of a true Islamic community of virtue is profoundly influenced by authoritarian interpretations of Platonic and Aristotelian thought. The elites who took over the reigns of power in Iran conceived of themselves more as "enlightened despots" than as Shiite vice regents of the "occulted Imam." Those who have been quick to point out that in its internal theoretical civil wars, Islamic liberalism has borrowed from mainstream Western liberal theories forget that the Islamic fundamentalists have also borrowed from Western countercurrents of populism, fascism, anarchism, Jacobism, and Marxism.
Global Secularization and the Work of Soroush
Let us now turn to a comparison of Soroush's project with the social-scientific efforts to identify the nature and role of religion in the posttraditional world. For the purposes of this discussion and in order to better understand the universal relevance of Soroush's position, it is useful to distinguish three interrelated concepts: modernization, secularization and reformation.
We understand modernization (or, alternatively, "rationalization") as a process of progressive complexity and differentiation of institutions and spheres of life under the influence of economic and technological advances associated with the advent of capitalism. Secularization is an instance of modernization involving the differentiation of religion from economic and political institutions, namely separation of church and state. Secularization can also imply a separation of religion from culture and conscience. The two meanings of secularization can be expressed in the dichotomy of objective vs subjective secularization (profanation). Reformation (or, alternatively, revivalism) refers to attempts, on behalf of the religious, to anticipate, adjust, or respond to the changes associated with objective and subjective secularization. Thus, according to our sociological definition, not every religious innovation would qualify as reformation or revivalism.
Secularization from Within
Modernization, secularization, and reformation have been indigenous to Western Christianity. Social thinkers did not expect religion to survive the ineluctable forces of modernization and secularization. The founders of the sociology of religion, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim (in his early career), and Georg Simmel, expected secularization to succeed not only in separating religion from the state (that is, objective secularization) but also in eradicating it from culture and conscience altogether (subjective secularization or profanation). The world, in their vision, would become increasingly and inescapably more rationalized, intellectualized, demystified, and disenchanted. They failed to anticipate religion's resilience and its ability to retrench and reinvent itself. A statement in a recent Newsweek article (March 16, 1998) sums up the consensus of the contemporary exegetes of the classical sociology of religion: "Human nature," argued the author of an essay on the new forms of religiosity, "is afraid of spiritual vacuum." Contemporary sociologists have acknowledged the fact of the continued existence of religion and have tried to explain the meaning, function, and reach of the new religiosity.
The theoretical convergence of three prominent sociologists of religion, Daniel Bell, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah, on the nature and future of religion in the post traditional world, which is indicative of a broader agreement among sociologists, provides a social-scientific perspective from which the views of Abdolkarim Soroush can be better understood. For these theories hold not only for the Western societies but also for all societies that confront modernization and secularization. The general sociological consensus concerning the contours of the new religiosity may be summarized as follows:
First: The increasing compartmentalization of religion in the modern world as a result of secularization is a foregone conclusion. Religion, in other words, has clearly lost its monopoly on public perception, morality, and conscience. Modernization and secularization have made religious exclusion or absorption of competing ways of life and belief nearly impossible. Hence the inevitable and simultaneous emergence of tolerance and pluralism on the outside and ecumenism and voluntarism on the inside of the religious sphere. Religion has become "deobjectified"; it has become a matter of preference in the contemporary "faith market."
Second: Secularization has socio-political and cultural-psychological aspects. The original meaning of the term secularization, that is, "removal of territory from control of ecclesiastic authorities," signifies the institutional separation of church and state. Social and political functions of the church are thus relegated to other institutions. This stage of the process is understood as objective secularization. Subjective secularization or "profanation" involves an infiltration of the cultural practices and personal perceptions by the profane. While the pioneers of the sociology of religion found this latter and more thoroughgoing evisceration of religion to be the inevitable result of secularization, contemporary sociologists of religion have concluded that the continued presence and bourgeoning of religion does not support such a strong theory of secularization. Few dispute, either doctrinally or sociologically, the reality and, indeed, desirability of objective secularization in the sense of a separation of church and state. Some thinkers have even gone so far as to claim that secularization is an integral part of the historical mission of religion. It is the scope and depth of subjective secularization or profanation that is in question. It is clear, for example, that the degree of profanation varies with locations, classes, genders, and cultures. There is, then, an asymmetry between secularization of structures and secularization of conscience. Although subjective secularization or profanation has succeeded in the West more than in any other part of the world, its advance, even in the West, has been checked -- even reversed -- in the recent past.
Third: the new definitions of religion take seriously the desire of human beings for order, purpose, justice, and salvation. These are issues that the founders of the sociology of religion neglected. Daniel Bell attributes the continued success of "camp-fire evangelism" in the United States, (and similar movements elsewhere) to a universal "existential need." Religion is anchored, not in the need for social control and social integration (per Marx and Durkheim) nor in the innate requirements of human nature (Schleiermacher and Otto). Rather, it is rooted in "the awareness of men of their finiteness and the inexorable limits of their power, and the consequent effort to find a coherent answer to reconcile them to human condition." Contemporary sociology perceives religion as a set of coherent answers to the core existential questions that confront every human group. Thus, the social function of religion is no longer its sole explanation.
Is there a future for religion? Contemporary sociologists agree that religion as the sole organizer and arbiter of human society and consciousness has vanished forever. The solid "sacred canopy" has dissolved. It has been replaced by a patchwork of local faiths. The sacred seems irreversibly divorced from the secular. However, the demise of the supernatural in the public sphere is counteracted by its upsurge in the individual and group quest for transcendence. Religion in this sense is not only alive and well; it is thriving.
The foregoing views or the relationship between modernity and religion, their Western provenance notwithstanding, dovetail with those of Abdolkarim Soroush. But there is a significant and instructive difference: for modern sociologists of religion the above conclusions are "descriptive:" Secularization is firmly in place but profanation has not followed suit. Religion has survived in new forms, and sociology seeks to explain this phenomenon. Soroush's work, however, is "prescriptive." He envisions the possibility and the desirability of secularization of an Islamic society without a concomitant profanation of its culture. It is not hard to imagine that in the Iranian intellectual milieu such a doctrine would come under attack not only by radical laic modernists but also by rejectionist revivalists. Neither can envisage separation of secularization and profanation, as we shall argue in the final part of this essay.
Secularization from Without
Wherever modernization and secularization are (or are perceived as) foreign elements, we can expect three distinct reactions. First, there will be crusades to "overcome the modern" in the name of the preservation of traditional identity and truth. Modernization and secularization are thus vilified, even demonized, as unnatural, conspiratorial, and alien intrusions upon indigenous beliefs. Antimodern movements tend to advocate an authoritarian society and culture in the name of preserving the eternal and the sacred tradition. We have identified these, for lack of a better term, as varieties of "rejectionist revivalism." They have frequently turned into nativist, purist, and militantly romantic movements with religious or traditionalist overtones. A second reaction to modernism and secularism may be described as "reflexive revivalism" which aims not so much at overcoming the modern as to accommodating it. Reflexive revivalism acknowledges the force and sweep of modernization and secularization and shows a willingness to cast it as a desirable and divinely preordained destiny. It thus tries to separate the universal, inevitable, and beneficial aspects of modernization and secularization from its culturally specific, imperialist, and "degenerate" properties. The third reaction is "radical laic modernism" that favors the wholesale surrender of the native culture and values to modernity.
Inevitably, the pioneers of reflexive revivalism, come under attack both by the guardians of rejectionist revivalism and the advocates of radical laic modernism. Neither of the last two groups believe in the possibility of secularization without profanation. Both consider profanation inevitable once secularization sets in. The rejectionists, fearing the demise of religion reject the project of secularization without profanation. The laic modernists for reasons of their own agree that the two should not be decoupled.
Soroush belongs to a relatively new and sophisticated brand of reflexive revivalism within Islam that has its origin in the works of the late Mohammad Iqbal Lahori. Soroush's views, cognizant of the forces of modernization and secularization, informed by Western history and theology, and influenced by revolutionary and reform movements in the Islamic world, are not only illustrative and instructive from an academic point of view; they are also capable of revolutionizing Muslim theology and mass religiosity. It is no secret that neither the laic modernism of militaristic elites (for whom the Algerian junta presiding over a tragic civil war sets a poignant example) nor the rejectionist populism of traditional leaders (exemplified in certain elements of the Iranian and Sudanese experiences) have been able to offer a viable, durable, or desirable course for the future of the Islamic world. We believe that Soroush's bold synthesis points to an alternative and increasingly popular path.
We are indebted to Abdolkarim Soroush for his generous disposition in discussing the meaning and context of his works and the fine points of translation in the summers of 1996 and 1997 in Iran and during his visit to the United States in the winter of 1997. We must also thank Ahmad Sheikzadeh, Ali Aliabadi, and Charles Kurzman who gave us much encouragement as we labored on translating, annotating, and editing the text. Sincere thanks are also due to Bill Kaufman who has carefully read the manuscript and offered many insightful suggestions.
About the authors
Mahmoud Sadri is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas Women's University. He has a doctorate in sociology from New York's New School for Social Research. He is the coauthor, with Aruthur Stinchcombe, of an ariticle in "Durkheim's Divison of Labor: 1893-1993" Presses Universitaires de France, 1993. For more information see his page at the Texas Women's University.
Ahmad Sadri who is currently Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, received his BA and MA degrees from the University of Tehran and his Ph.D from the New School for Social Research, New York. He is the author of "Max Weber's Sociology of Intellectuals" (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994). For more information see his page at Lake Forest College.