I began studying the works of Abdolkarim Sorush
in autumn 1995, after the second of my debates with Payam-e Zan, and
following the disruption his lectures by the Ansar-e Hezbollah, "helpers
of Hezbollah."(1) On 11 October, Sorush was invited by the Islamic
Students Society to address a meeting in Tehran University; as he began
his lecture, he was attacked and injured by about a hundred youths from
off campus, members of Ansar. Their leader, in a debut public speech,
claimed that Sorushís ideas were subversive to Islam and undermined the
Velayat-e Faqih, vowed that he would no longer be allowed to disseminate
them, and demanded a public debate with him. Another meeting at which
Sorush was to speak had been disrupted in a similar manner in Isfahan
University in June. On both occasions, the authorities had ignored student
warnings. Press coverage was polarized: some papers condemned the attacks
as blatant violations of constitutional rights to freedom of thought and
speech; others applauded the legitimate right of Hezbollah to intervene if
Abdolkarim Sorush is perhaps the most influential and controversial
thinker the Islamic Republic has so far produced. In the early years, his
lectures were broadcast regularly on national radio and television; I
remember watching him in television debates with secular and leftist
intellectuals, using Islamic mystical and philosophical arguments to
demolish Marxist dogmas. I was curious to find out for myself what it was
in Sorushís ideas that now, sixteen years into the Islamic Republic, put
him the other side of the fence and enabled women like those in Zanan to
reconcile their faith with their feminism.
As I made my way through Sorushís vast corpus of publications - over
twenty books - I could see why and how his ideas created such varied
passions and reactions. He is a subtle and original thinker, who has found
a new language and frame of analysis to re-examine hallowed concepts. He
approaches sacred texts by reintroducing the element of rationality that
has been part of ShiĎi thought, and enabling his audience to be critical
without compromising their faith. He is making it legitimate to pose
questions that previously only the ulama could ask.
I could see some interesting parallels and differences between Sorush and
ShariĎati. Both have been immensely popular with the youth, distrusted and
opposed by the clerical establishment, and dismissed by secular
intellecuals as light-weights. But their visions and conceptions of Islam
are fundamentally different. For ShariĎati, the most important dimension
in Islam was political; he sought to turn Islam into and ideology, to
galvanize revolutionaries and to change society. For Sorush, on the other
hand, Islam is, as he puts it, "sturdier than ideology"; all his thinking
and writing are aimed at separating the two.
Abdolkarim Sorush is the pen name of Hosein Dabbagh, born in 1945 in a
pious but non-clerical family in southern Tehran.(2) Sorush was among the
first graduates of Alavi High School, established by a group of pious
bazaaris in the late 1950s with a curriculum integrating modern sciences
with traditional religious studies. He then studied pharmacology at Tehran
University, and after completing his military service in 1972 he went to
England to continue his studies. Obtaining an MSc in Analytical Chemistry
from London University, he went on to study History and Philosophy of
Science at Chelsea College. While in London, he joined a group of Iranian
Muslim students who held meetings in a building in West London,(3) where
ShariĎatiís funeral service was held and where Ayatollah Motahhari spoke
when he came to London. Sorush was close to both men, and was a regular
speaker there. He returned to Iran just as the Pahlavi regime was about to
In 1981 Sorush became one of seven members of the Council for Cultural
Revolution, appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini when the Universities were
closed in order to contain the students and to eliminate leftist groups
from the campuses. The Councilís task was to oversee the Islamization of
higher education and to prepare the ground for the re-opening of the
Universities. This occurred in 1983, after a massive ideological purge of
students and teachers; and Sorush started teaching Philosophy of Science
in Tehran University. Not longer after, he resigned from the Council,
disagreeing with the direction it was going.(4) Since then he has held no
official position within the ruling system of the Islamic Republic,
although his lectures continued to be broadcast until the late1980s and he
remained close to centres of power, acting as adviser to several
government bodies until the early 1990s.
In 1984 Sorush began teaching courses in Philosophy of Religion (known as
Modern Theology), Comparative Philosophy and Mysticism, to both University
students in Tehran and Houzeh students in Qom. In 1988, he started a
series of weekly lectures in Imam Sadeq Mosque in north Tehran, on Nahj
ol-Balagheh, the collection of Imam Aliís sermons and hadith. In the early
audience were members of the political and religious elite, including some
government ministers. By autumn 1994, when the lectures were suspended,
the audience was different: younger, largely students. Not only had Sorush
acquired a following among students who found his ideas and approach
intrinsically appealling, but he was beginning to set the tone for more
Disruption of his lectures began in April 1995 after the publication in
Kiyan of his lecture "Liberty and the Clergy." He argues there that the
clergy as group functions as a guild, with religion as their source of
livelihood, which limits both their own freedom in interpretation and that
of others.(5) This article was denounced as "subversive to Islam", and
brought the Hezbollah back to campus.(6) After the attack in Isfahan in
June, a letter of protest, signed by 104 writers and university teachers,
was sent to the President of the Islamic Republic.(7) With the emergence
of the Ansar following the October incident in Tehran University, Sorush
was no longer able even to give his regular university lectures. The
showdown came in Spring 1996. He wrote an open letter to the President,
calling on him to "remove this rot" and to ensure freedom of speech and
thought.(8) But to no avail. In mid-May, Ansar members surrounded Amir
Kabir University in Tehran where Sorush was due to talk in a meeting to
mark the anniversary of Ayatollah Motahhariís death. Clashes ensued
between the students and Ansar, arrests were made on both sides, and
Sorush sent a message announcing his withdrawal. Soon after, unable to
teach and fearing for his life, he went abroad on a lecture tour, not
returning until April 1997.
As with ShariĎati, most of Sorushís writings are edited texts of public
lectures, delivered in a variety of fora. If read chronologically, these
volumes reveal the development of not only his ideas but his relationship
with the Islamic Republic. Up to 1983 they mostly constitute a critique of
the leftist ideologies espoused by Iranian intellectuals and groups then
politically active.(9) After 1983, Sorushís writings show his concern with
themes in philosophy and epistemology. They include translations of
English books on Philosophy,(10) a volume of collected essays and lectures
on Ethics and Human Sciences,(11) as well as several articles in cultural
The breakthrough in his work came with his seminal articles on the
historicity and relativity of religious knowledge, "The theoretical
expansion and contraction of the shariĎa."(12) These articles - in which
Sorush distinguished religion from religious knowledge, arguing that while
the first was sacred and immutable, the latter was human and evolved in
time as a result of forces external to religion itself - appeared
intermittently between 1988 and 1990 in the quarterly Kayhan-e Farhangi,
published by the Kayhan Publishing Institute, which had come under the
control of the Islamic faction shortly after the Revolution. The heated
debate that followed the publication of these articles led to a kind of
intellectual coup, and the birth of an independent journal, Kiyan
(Foundation) in October 1991.(13) Sorushís writings form the centrepiece
in each issue of Kiyan; they reveal the concerns and thinking of a deeply
religious man who is becoming increasingly disillusioned by the domination
in the Islamic Republic of what he calls "feqh-based Islam."(14)
This began a new phase in Sorushís writings, comprising volumes of
collected essays, mostly published originally in Kiyan; most are edited
texts of lectures and talks delivered in Universities and mosques in which
he expands his epistemological arguments to develop a critique of
government ideology and policies of the Islamic Republic and to argue for
democracy and pluralism on religious grounds. Each volume bears the title
of one of the essays, and has gone through several editions and
In the vast amount of his published work I could find nothing on women,
apart from two paragraphs, both merely asides commenting on the
incongruity between texts taught in the seminaries and the current state
of knowledge and world-views.(15) So I looked for his unpublished work,
and acquired recordings of two lectures in which he had addressed the
issue of women, both of them in the series on Nahj ol-Balagheh. The first
was delivered in Imam Sadeq Mosque in January 1989; Sorush uses the
occasion of Womenís Day to comment on Imam Aliís harsh views on women,
contained in a sermon delivered after the Battle of the Camel, led by
Ayesha, the Prophetís widow; it reads:
O people! Women are deficient in Faith, deficient in shares and deficient
in intelligence. As regards the deficiency in their Faith, it is their
abstention from prayers and fasting during their menstrual periods. As
regards deficiency in their intelligence it is because the evidence of two
women is equal to that of a man. As for the deficiency in their shares
that is because of their share in inheritance being half of men. So beware
of the evils of women. Be on your guard even from those of them who are
(reportedly) good. Do not obey them even in good things so that they may
not attract you to evils.(16)
As Sorush recites and translates the sermon, some women in the audience -
as in all mosques, the womenís section was curtained off from the menís
where Sorush was speaking - cry out in protest, to be promptly silenced by
a man shouting: "itís the Imamís words the Doctor is quoting: do you
object even to them?"(17) But the protests continue and only stop when
Sorush asks to be allowed to finish his commentary and explain. His
commentary, however, betrays his ambivalence on the issue of women in
Islam, and also suggests he was not prepared for such a reaction, nor for
a man to shout the women down. He intended to confine his discussion of
women to one session, but the reaction persuaded him to continue the
following week. He repeated and elaborated the content of the discussion
in his second lecture, and I shall discuss his views in that context.
The second lecture was delivered in Isa Vazir Mosque in Central Tehran in
1992, as part of an extended commentary on Imam Aliís letter to his son,
known as the Will, the closing sentences of which contain the Imamís
advice to his son about women. Again Sorush had intended to devote only
one session to the theme of women and gender relations, but at his
audienceís request he continued for four more sessions. Although he is
more explicit in his views, and expands on what he said in 1989, his
position on gender, and the thrust of his arguments, remain the same. In
1995, Zanan gave me an abridged transcript of the 1992 sessions, prepared
earlier for publication as "The perspective of the past on women"; but
they never carried the article, and so far, neither lecture has appeared
The main part of this chapter consists of selected passages from the 1992
sessions, which touch directly on gender and reveal Sorushís perspective.
I conclude with extracts from an interview with him in London in October
1996, when I was able to discuss the 1992 sessions with him, to ask about
the audience and raise my objections to his gender perspective.
The 1992 lecture was spread over five weekly sessions from 8 October to 5
November, each lasting nearly two hours. The audience of about 1000,
including many University students, was both more numerous and younger
than that which attended his 1989 lecture. The sessions have an informal
but uniform structure. On the tapes, as Sorush is speaking, one can hear
childrenís voices, greetings by new arrivals, and so on. He begins each
session with a short Arabic prayer, the same as in 1989 before his
commentary on the Nahj ol-Balagheh, then summarizes the main points
covered in the previous session, before reviewing and developing them
further. When he has finished, there is a break, during which those who
have questions submit them anonymously and in writing; the session ends
with Sorush reading out and answering a selection of these questions.
Sorush is a gifted orator; his voice is calm and mesmerising. He talks
without a script, and often without notes. I present a summary of each
session, retaining the order in which he introduces his points and using
his words as much as possible. There is a clear structure and purpose to
each lecture, during which he takes his audience through layers of
religious concepts and philosophical arguments, interjecting Koranic
verses, hadith and mystical poems. He does this knowledgeably, clearly and
honestly. His style and language are as important as what he has to say.
His command of literature and his memory are formidable; he appears to
know by heart the Koran, the Nahj ol-Balagheh, Rumiís Mathnavi and Hafezís
Sorush lectures on women
From the opening summary, we gather that the previous sessionís theme was
ethics and religion. Sorush repeats two points: that political ethics are
separate from religious ethics, and that although religious ethics are
primarily personal in nature, they can be a source for a sound political
ethics. Imam Aliís letter to his son is one such source. Addressed to a
future leader, it contains the Imamís advice on several political and
social matters. Sorush recites and translates the closing sentences:
"Do not consult women because their view is weak and their determination
is unstable. Cover their eyes by keeping them under veil because
strictness of veiling keeps them [good]. Their coming out is not worse
than your allowing an unreliable man to visit them. If you can manage that
they should not know anyone other than [you,] do so. Do not allow a woman
matters other than those about herself because a woman is a flower, not an
administrator. Do not pay her regard beyond herself. Do not encourage her
to intercede for others. Do not show suspicion out of place because this
leads a correct woman to evil and a chaste woman to deflection."(20)
In an earlier discussion on Nahj ol-Balagheh, we said it contains words
that are uncongenial to women, and infringe cultural notions and
democratic values that have come to fill human societies in the past two
centuries. For this reason, words that were once acceptable - that no
commentator found forbidding to interpret or to justify - are now
problematic. They demand a new interpretation or a new defence. Our
forebears had no qualms in either interpreting or defending such words ...
As such a position for women wasnít contested, no one doubted these words.
..But today women - even men - donít accept or believe in such a position.
Nahj ol-Balagheh contains two kinds of statements on women: those based on
reasoning and those not. Taken at face value, both are offensive to women.
Among the latter, for instance, is the Imamís address to the people of
Basra after the Battle of the Camel. He says: "You were the army of a
woman and in the command of a quadruped. When it grumbled you responded
and when it was wounded you fled away."(21) Or: "As regards such and such
woman, she is in the grip of womanly views while malice is boiling in her
bosom like the furnace of the blacksmith."(22) Or: "Women is evil, all in
all; and the worst of it is that one cannot do without her."(23) These
statements contain no reasoning. But in other statements the Imam has
reasoned; they include those famous ones, that women are deficient in
belief, in reason and in worldly gain, because they do not pray or fast
during menses, the testimony of two women equals that of one man, and
their share of inheritance is half a manís. In this part of the letter
that we have recited, the Imam also advises his son not to consult women
because their views are weak.
Put together, these statements suggest that seeking womenís advice and
involving them in affairs of society should be avoided; that is, itís
Muslim menís duty to keep their women secluded, to control them and not to
allow them a say. If we add feqh rulings, the picture that emerges is even
more devastating for women. Thereís no denying that in an Islamic society
women are granted less rights and fewer opportunities than men.
If one of the ulama of a century ago could be reborn and see the
conditions of our society and the women, undoubtedly heíd have a fright.
Such a level of womenís [public] presence - which isnít by any means ideal
- would be unthinkable for him. The very fact that itís now accepted that
a womanís presence in society doesnít violate her womanhood and Muslimhood
is due to the immense changes that have occurred in the realms of thought
and practice; these have also found their way into our religious
consciousness and our society. Womenís presence in society is now as
natural and logical as their absence once was. This tells us the extent to
which, in our understanding and practice of religion, we act unconsciously
and involuntarily; this isnít to be taken negatively but in the sense that
weíre guided by elements that arenít in our control. They do their work,
shape our lives, our minds, our language....
You know, and I have already said, that there have been several reactions
to these hadith of the Imam and similar ones. These reactions are
instructive too. Specific justifications have been made; for instance,
some of our clerics say that the Imamís comment on womenís deficiencies
was made after the Battle of the Camel, and was due to the insidious role
that Ayesha played in it. Such hadith, they argue, refer only to Ayesha or
women like her. Some say the Imam uttered such words about women because
he was upset and angry . Neither argument works. We must remember that
reason derives its validity and universality from its own logic, not from
what its user wishes to impose on it. That is, once we contend that a
certain hadith of the Imam was influenced by anger or an event, then we
have to admit the probability that other emotions and events influenced
other hadith. In that case, no hadith can ever again be used in the sense
that they have been so far. Likewise, we canít say this hadith referred
only to Aye sha. Its logic and content convey universality: itís not only
Ayesha but all Muslim women who inherit half a manís share, and so on ...
But the explanation we gave [in 1989] about those hadith of the Imam that
are based on reasoning, was that once a hadith is based on reasoning then
it must be approached through its own reasoning. In fact, the credibility
of such a hadith is contingent on the force and validity of its reasoning,
not on the authority of its utterer. This has been our method in dealing
with all sacred texts. For instance, we read in the Koran: "If there had
been in them any gods but Allah, they would both have certainly been in a
state of disorder" [Sura Anbia, 22]. This is a reasoning whose acceptance
doesnít rest on its being the word of God but on its force and soundness,
so that it can become a backbone for our thinking ...
One can take issue with the Imamís reasoning and say that, if women donít
pray or donít fast at certain times [during menses], this isnít a token of
deficiency in their faith. Itís in fact the very proof of their faith, as
His prophet tells them not to pray at such times. Obeying His prohibitions
is like obeying His commands. In Godís eyes what matters is the spirit of
an act, not its form ... As to womenís deficiency in material gain, itís
true that their share in inheritance is less, but this isnít proof that
theyíre less than men and we canít conclude from it that women shouldnít
be consulted, or assigned certain social and political status. No logical
connection can be made here. If they inherit less, itís because they are
Such an approach might work, of course, with hadith based on reasoning.
But what about the others that arenít? Our solution here is to say that
these hadith are "pseudo-universal propositions" (as logicians have it);
that is, they reveal the conditions of women of their time. In addition,
since what an Imam or a sage says is in line with the society in which he
lives, we need a reason to extend it to other epochs. ... Here weíre faced
with two jurisprudential principles and positions: one holds that shariĎa
idioms - whether legal or ethical in nature - speak of societies of their
time and thus we need a reason for extending them to other societies or
times; and the other argues the opposite, that we need a reason not to
apply such hadith and Rulings to all other societies and times. These two
positions canít be reached from the words [of sacred texts] but only when
we examine them from outside and apply our own reasoning to them.
Contrary to the Imamís advice, today in the Islamic Republic women are
consulted. As for womenís entry into Parliament, the problem is
theoretically resolved: women donít directly decide for Islamic society.
Although it seems to me the ulamaís thinking on the issue hasnít changed,
since the argument put forward then against womenís entry into Parliament
was that the Prophet said that a society ruled by a woman is doomed.(24)
Both ShiĎi and Sunni ulama have argued that if women are in Parliament,
their votes will be counted among the rest and thus they can influence the
passing of a bill, which is a kind of velayat for women, although it isnít
personal. At present, as you know, in our country the Majles is [only] the
adviser of the Vali-ye Faqih. The notion of legislation as understood in
other parts of the world doesnít exist in our country; that is, the Majles
doesnít have an independent view, and the Vali-ye Faqih can alter its
decisions or act counter to them. So you could argue that womenís pres
ence in Parliament doesnít contradict the Prophetís hadith. It bans women
from velayat, which at present only the Vali-ye Faqih exercises. But what
about the ban on consulting women? As far as I remember, before the
Revolution when the Houzeh opposed womenís entry to the Parliament, they
made no reference to such arguments or hadith, either because they didnít
find them acceptable or suitable to invoke them.
Anyway, these words exist in Nahj ol-Balagheh, and solutions must be
sought for them, and the search for solutions, as I said already, is
decisive and canít be confined to words. If we challenge their
authenticity, then our entire [corpus of] sacred sources will come into
question. If we say theyíre pseudo-universal propositions, then not only
women but men and many other rulings based on them will be affected. If we
accept them as they are, then we must resolve the consequences of their
incongruity with our present society. What we can say is that thereís a
kind of absolute neglect regarding such hadith. They arenít addressed
seriously, so no serious soultions are found for them. This is because the
hold of democratic values and notions of human rights is so strong that
men and women donít allow themselves to think of contradicting them and
prefer to keep silent in the face of incongruities. This isnít limited to
our time, nor to religious knowledge, but [itís true of] all times and all
branches of knowledge. Itís also the case in science. A cultural view, a
theory, sometimes takes such hold and captures minds and imaginations to
such an extent that no one dares think otherwise. So, in every era, part
of religious thought, views or hadith is overshadowed and ignored, and
another part is highlighted and welcomed.
All we can say is that such issues must be left for history to resolve, in
time. When our minds tell us not to think about this issue [women in
sacred texts] then we canít hope to find a suitable solution. In the past,
this and many other issues were so much in line with popular culture that
there was no need for thinking. In our time such hadith have been dealt
such devastating blows that no one finds it expedient to tackle them or to
confront such a formidable torrent. The most we can do is to become
familiar with the problem and its cause and leave the solution to time and
On this note, Sorush brings the session to an end. He has repeated
essentially what he said in 1989 about the Imamís famous words on womenís
deficiencies, applying his theory of "Expansion and Contraction of the
shariĎa": descriptive, explanatory and normative, all at once. He argues
both that understanding of sacred texts is time-bound, and that the
ulamaís Rulings are influenced by what he calls "extra-religious
knowledge." Changes in knowledge render natural and Islamic matters that
were once considered "unthinkable" and "non-Islamic." He despairs at the
ulamaís unwillingness to admit this at a theoretical level and to take
consciously planned steps to revise their understanding in the light of
current realities. He also implicitly criticizes the institution of
Velayat-e Faqih, by pointing to the contradiction in having a Parliament
yet subordinating it to the rule of Vali-ye Faqih.
Despite this heady stuff, and Sorushís fresh approach, listening to him I
could not help thinking that he too, as a religious intellectual, was
avoiding the issue by skirting around any discussion of womenís legal
rights in Islam - the domain of feqh. This may have been a concern voiced
by his audience,(25) since, even though he had declared the theme of women
closed, he returns to it at the next session, a week later (15 October),
because "some friends, especially sisters, asked for more." But once again
he skirts around feqh and moves instead into religious literature to shed
light on the sources from which jurists derive their conceptions of
womenís rights. This time he frames his discussion in the context of
changing conceptions of the human role and place in the universe, and asks
why there is such a focus on womenís rights in Muslim societies. He
demonstrates that there is nothing sacred in our understanding of the
shariĎa, which is human and evolves in time and is filtered through our
own cognitive universe.
The recording begins with the usual prayer and summary of key points from
the previous discussion, before Sorush continues:
Friends know that in our time certain views have emerged about mankind,
women included. In our society in recent decades these views have centred
on womenís legal rights. The problem facing our thinkers has been to
explain to believing Muslim women why certain differences in rights
between women and men exist in Islamic thought. Confronted with the notion
of gender equality, they try either to explain these differences away or
to argue that Islam upholds sexual equality but rejects similarity in
rights. Some have argued for differences not in rights but in the duties
of each sex, stemming from the differing abilities of each sex and the
natural division of labour. Others have tried to explain by connecting
differences in rights to physical, psychological and spiritual differences
between the sexes ...
The nub of the matter is that itís assumed that equality between men and
women - which women demand in our time in various parts of the world -
means equality in legal rights. Here I want to explain the exact meaning
of this [notion of] equality between men and women - in the sense that
some are now seeking - and then see whether the common understanding of
womenís rights and duties in Islam admits such a notion of equality; and
how most of our ulama, thinkers and jurists have conceptualised women and
their status and the basis for their views. I stress, itís not for me to
judge but only to offer a historical report of understandings that have so
far existed. Nor do I claim that the door of understanding is closed, that
no other understanding will emerge on this issue. Nevertheless, what has
existed so far must be recognized and known.
We can have two views, both of which are rooted in our conception of
womenís purpose in creation ... In a nutshell, one holds that woman is
created for man: her whole being, disposition, personality and perfection
depend on union with man. The other view denies such a relationship and
holds that a woman has her own purpose in creation, her own route to
perfection. ... The first view - that woman is created of and for - sums
up past perspectives, including those of Muslims. Both qualifiers [of and
for] are important.
In poetic and mystical language, Sorush discusses at some length what
these qualifiers entail, how they create asymmetry in rights and shape
relations between the sexes. A woman is created to mediate manís
perfection, to prepare him to fulfill his duty, to enable him to manifest
his manhood, to make him worthy of Godís call. This is the essence of
womanhood, and that is why she attains perfection through union with a
man. But for a man, union with a woman is not the end but only the
beginning of his path to perfection. Sorush opens two caveats: to say that
woman is created of and for man does not mean she is created for, or to be
at the mercy of, manís whim; and to say that womanís perfection rests on
union with man does not necessarily imply marriage, although formation of
a family is one manifestation of such connection and an arena for
complementarity and mutual perfection.
On the second view, which he says has captured the hearts and minds of
Muslim women of our time, Sorush is less eloquent or forthcoming:
[The] second view, demanding equality between the sexes, says nothing more
than that woman is not created of and for man. This philosophical and
existentialist conception, of course, defines the scope of womenís legal
rights, shapes their status and relations between the sexes, and so on.
Here I donít want to discuss the implications of such a conception for
women in the sphere of gender relations, nor shall I enter philosophical
and legal discussions. These are to be found in the works of the late
Motahhari and other thinkers such as Allameh Tabatabaíi. Perhaps what can
be said in defence of difference and non-similarity [of gender rights] has
been said in these works, and I donít intend to add anything here.
Nevertheless, I will make one point. One of those who judiciously
understood yet denied [the implications of the two views] was Ayatollah
Motahhari: in his book Womenís Rights in Islam he clearly states that in
the Islamic view woman isnít created for man. But I should say that t his
is not the general presumption of our ulama. An understanding of equality
between man and woman wonít be possible unless we understand the basis
correctly and know contemporary menís and womenís understanding of it.
This is the formulation of the problem, the two claims that confront each
Having identified the core contradiction in the gender discourses of
contemporary Muslim thinkers, such as Motahhari, Sorush delves into
religious literature to show the kinds of theories and master narratives
on which they are based. He observes that, although no Muslim thinker has
said, in so many words, "woman is of and for man", they all subscribe to
the thesis; he offers three kinds of evidence for this; first, that
religious sources are male orientated: whatever their genre, they solely
or primarily address men, even when they deal with apparently genderless
themes, such as rules for praying or ethical issues such as lying or
cheating. In this, Sorush says, scholars have followed the example of the
Koran, which most often addresses men. For instance, many of the blessings
promised in paradise - such as black-eyed perpetual virgins - appeal only
The second kind of evidence is the way religious literature describes
marriage. Here again, men are treated as the main beneficiaries, even
though marriage is by definition a joint affair. He examines legal and
ethical sources to list the kinds of benefit Muslim scholars identify in
marriage, ranging from immunity from Satanís temptations to achieving the
peace of mind which enables men to prepare for greater duties in life,
such as gaining knowledge and serving God. He also relates a hadith of the
Prophet, that "women are among Satanís army and one of its greatest aids";
and a story from Rumiís Mathnavi that when God created woman, Satan
rejoiced, saying "now I have the ultimate weapon for tempting mankind" -
meaning, of course, men.
Similar is the sort of advice given to men on how to respect womenís
rights and pay them their dues. Sorush reads a passage from Feiz Kashaniís
al-Mohajjat ol-Beiza (The Bright Way), a book on ethics and morals. Feiz,
a 16th-century ShiĎi scholar, defines marriage as a kind of enslavement,
and a wife as a kind of slave, advising men: "now you have captured this
being, you must have mercy on her, cherish and respect her, etc." Sorush
points out that it was in the light of such a conception of marriage and
womenís status that scholars read and understood the hadith, and shows the
internal flaw in such understandings. He recites hadith attributed to
ShiĎi Imams, telling men not to teach women Sura Yusef from the Koran, but
Sura Nur instead, and to forbid women to go to upper floors of the house,
in case they are tempted to look down at unrelated men passing in the
The point is not what the real meaning of these hadith is, nor whether or
not they are authentic. The point is, what meanings have been attributed
to them [by] our religious scholars [who] have taken them seriously. My
point is phenomenological, not theological. I donít judge, I simply say
that in Islamic culture and history theyíve been taken seriously, and
religious scholars have based their views on them ...
Sorushís final argument to show the absolute hold of the "woman is for
man" thesis, is from mystical and philosophical literature. He cites two
contrasting passages, one from the celebrated Sufi Ibn Arabi (d. 1240),
the other from the philosopher Molla Hadi "Hakim" Sabzevari (d. 1878), and
argues that they reveal the same conception of women, although expressed
in two different idioms. Inspired by a hadith about the creation of Eve
from Adamís rib, Ibn Arabi says that, like a rib, woman has the inborn
ability to bend in her love without breaking: she is the symbol of divine
love and mercy, created from "affection", and love towards man is
implanted in her essence. Thus womanís role and destiny is to bend in
love; in so doing she joins man and makes him whole again. Manís love for
woman, on the other hand, is like the love of the whole for a part; looked
at this way, manís love for woman does not infringe his love for God.
Compare this, Sorush tells his audience, with Hakim Sabzevariís view that
women are i n essence animals; God gave them human faces so that men will
be inclined to marry.
I apologize to the sisters present here for the insult implied in these
words, but itís important to know them. Today in our society thereís an
unacceptable cover-up, even by our Muslim thinkers, who hide whatís been
said ... Thereís no reason, no point in hiding it, itíll be clear to those
who care to think and search. Itís important to face it with an open mind,
to know better the dark tunnel weíve come through, and how to contemplate
His excursion into religious literature ended, Sorush concludes his talk
with three further points.
First, in the sphere of womenís rights we cannot think and talk only in
feqh categories, of forbidden and permitted acts; we must also think in
terms of interpreting religion texts, of manís and womanís purposes in
creation, of traditions and social customs. Secondly, if Muslim scholars
defined womenís status in a way we find unacceptable today, it is not
because they wanted to humiliate women or undermine their status, but
because that is how they understood and interpreted the religious texts.
Women in the past accepted their status not because they were stupid or
oppressed but because they had no problems with such understanding and
interpretation. In the past two centuries, however, the myths and theories
that made such understandings acceptable to men and women have been
challenged by scientific theories, including evolution. Changes in our
worldview have also made womenís legal rights an issue in Islam. Finally,
the problem cannot be resolved by providing new justifications to defend
an outmoded worl dview, hoping women will be lured back into accepting
them; after all, acceptance is a matter of belief rather than reasoning.
What we can do is try to understand the basis for, and implications of,
old and new views on women. Only then can women clarify for themselves
where they stand in relation to each view, and where they want to be.
Sorush invites his audience, in particular the women, to do this. The
session continues with Sorush answering four questions. Two invoke a
Koranic verse and a hadith to negate the "woman is for man" thesis, to
which Sorush replies: "true, there are also many others, but so far the
other side is stronger, in the sense that their reasonings and evidences
dominate." A third question asks for comment on womenís status in present
society; he answers that this can best be dealt with by a sociologist.
After a lengthy pause, Sorush reads out what must be part of the final
question: "In our history, women have said nothing about themselves." He
responds with a critique of feminism:
... Yes, it has been the case, and even if [women] said [something] their
voices havenít reached us. There are several theories here. The argument
of feminist movements - that now exist in the world as so-called
supporters of women, demanding equal rights between men and women on all
fronts - is that differences between men and women, which their rights are
based on, result from socialization. That is, boys and girls are
socialized differently: boys are taught they are superior to girls, sexes
are assigned different roles, they are valued differently, this sets a
pattern and men and women have come to accept their roles; this has been
the case in most societies from the start, and so on. I once witnessed a
debate abroad between one of these feminists and an opponent, who argued
that you must explain why this pattern was set in the first place, why men
and women accepted it, and why it continues today; perhaps thereís a
reason for it, perhaps there [really] is a difference between the sexes -
not [necessari ly] that one is better than the other - but why do you want
to deny difference?
This leads into a digression on the philosophy of history; Sorush affirms
his own view, that "the history of mankind has been natural", and asks
whether the fact of womenís oppression at certain periods can be taken as
contrary evidence. While admitting that his theory cannot be falsified, he
seems to imply that history will show menís domination to be natural too.
That last question seems to me to haunt the three sessions on gender
relations that follow. They are more discursive in style and full of
incomplete statements and arguments. Unlike in the first two sessions,
Sorush pursues neither a central argument nor a sustained critique of old
readings of the sacred texts, but tries instead to make sense of the
Imamís words, to provide the basis for debate and a new positioning. This
he makes clear at the outset. In his summary of the previous discussion,
he repeats his criticism of current understandings of the sacred texts,
voices his scepticism of the new view, which he sees as seeking to "put
women in menís place", then continues:
The old view has passed its test, and religious societies which lived by
its rules have revealed what they entail for men, women and the family. On
the other hand, societies which have opted for the new view, putting women
in menís place, have also shown their hand. In both camps, many now feel
the need for revision. But since these views arenít philosophically
neutral, revision is always slow and painful. Theyíre tied up with a mass
of baggage, and itís impossible to remain impartial when dealing with them
... Until very recently - in the West too - men have been the main
theorists on womenís nature and role in creation and society. This must
make us cautious. When women replace them, they too are tied to their own
baggage, however different. This is one of those rare cases where the door
of judgment is closed to us, as both science and reason can be influenced
by our emotions. You canít apply cold reason to an issue in which your
entire being is immersed. There can be no guarantee that mistakes made in
p revious centuries wonít be repeated ...
I say all this to affirm that we must rely here on Revelation and seek
guidance in the words of religious leaders and those pious ones who are
free of such baggage; the path of human reason here passes through the
path of divine Revelation; if we explore and invest in this path, perhaps
weíll obtain worthwhile results.
Having set the tone and the theme, Sorush returns to the closing sentences
of Imam Aliís letter to his son, quoted earlier. He relates them to the
concepts of hejab, sexual honour and jealousy (gheirat), and worth (keramat).
On hejab he is brief, confining himself to two points: that its form and
limits have always been bound up with culture and politics; and that what
God permits, man should not forbid. To drive both home, he relates what
Ayatollah Motahhari told him about how he began research for his book on
hejab. Motahhari said he was afraid to enter a minefield of divergent
opinions, but as his research progressed he found an astonishing degree of
consensus among ShiĎi and Sunni jurists: all - bar one Sunni - held that
womenís hands and faces need not be covered. He also found that all fatwas
recommending stricter covering were issued after Reza Shahís unveiling
campaign. Sorush leaves his audience to draw the moral from the anecdote:
that advocating chador as the "superior form of heja b" has more to do
with culture and politics than sacred texts.
We all know that chador is not "Islamic hejab", but itís rare to find a
cleric who allows his womenfolk to venture out without wearing one. What
Motahhari said on hejab - which was what he found in feqh texts - shocked
the ulama of his time, who interpreted it as a licence for promiscuity.
On the second concept, jealousy (gheirat), Sorush is more explicit. He
first defines jealousy as "preventing another sharing what one has", and
distinguishes it from envy (hesadat), which he defines as "wanting what
belongs to another." The first is a positive ethical value that is
extra-religious and should be encouraged, he argues, but the second is
negative and should be controlled. He refers to another hadith of Imam
Ali: "the jealousy of a woman is heresy (kofr), while the jealousy of a
man is part of belief,"(26) and tries to shed light on what heresy can
mean in this context. It has an ethical rather than religious connotation,
arising from the asymmetry inherent in the way the sexes relate to each
other. Women are entrusted to men, they become not only part of men but
part of their honour. Men can take more than one woman as spouse at the
same time, while the opposite cannot happen. Without asking whether such
asymmetry is defined by laws of nature or culture, Sorush ends the s
ession by saying there is another jealousy, manifested in creation, but he
will leave it for next week.
In the next session (28 October), Sorush continues with the theme of
jealousy, but on a mystical level. He starts with Rumiís interpretation of
a hadith about divine jealousy and relates it to Love, devoting the entire
session to this. Here he is in his element, weaving his own narrative into
a rich body of mystical concepts and poems to make a case for Love, which
he argues must be treated with jealousy, that is, protected from those who
do not have it.
I find this session the most engaging and important, and yet the most
difficult to assess. I am taken by Sorushís eloquence, his perception and
his courage in tackling such a delicate issue in a mosque. He makes a
strong case for Love, keeping it out of the feqh domain - yet I am puzzled
by the clear male bias in his narrative. I canít decide whether he is
telling his audience the whole story or is talking in innuendo. He begins
by pointing to a duality, a paradox, in Persian literature, which reflects
a cultural ambivalence towards the subject of love and women. Love is the
main theme in Persian literature, yet one is never sure whether the writer
is talking about divine or earthly love.
Our poets have perfected the art of ambiguity. In our culture, the same
ambivalence can be seen when women are concerned ... Itís enough to look
at our own current society. I suppose there are few societies in the
modern era for which sex and women are such a problem, yet we pretend the
issue is resolved, that no problem exists. Itís enough just to see the
places which come under certain peopleís control; the kinds of separation
and segregation [imposed] speak of the obsession, of the state of minds,
and show the size of the problem and the distance that must be crossed for
it to be resolved naturally.
He talks about the role of earthly love in the lives of those such as Ibn
Arabi and Hafez, and recites poems in which they talk of their love. He
relates the story of Ibn Arabiís falling in love with a learned and
beautiful Isfahani woman in Mecca, and her influence on his mystical
development.(27) He also tells two stories from the Koran which speak of
womenís love for men: those of Zoleikha for Yusef (Sura 12) and the
daughter of ShoĎeib for Musa (Sura 28). He relates both stories in detail,
seeing their message as endorsing the naturalness of attraction and love
between men and women.(28) Unlike others he emphasizes, not Zoleikhaís
cunning and her attempts to seduce Yusef, but his beauty and ability to
resist temptations. God put love for him in her heart; he is so beautiful
and desirable that other women, having at first blamed Zoleikha, when they
see him, sympathize with her and plead with him to respond to her love.
The two stories, he says, must be taken in conjuction with Sura Nur; he
recites verse 31 which deals with womenís covering and chastity. He asks,
can love between men and women be recommended on ethical and religious
grounds, or must it be condemned? In either case, what are the
consequences, and how should a religious society deal with it?
In the rest of the session, Sorush presents a broad review of love in the
history of Islamic thought. On the one hand are the moralists, who
denounce love and tolerate no mention of it; on the other are those who
recognize its blessing and power and resist denouncing it in the name of
religion. Mystics argue that earthly love is a passage to divine love, a
metaphor leading us to the Truth; but this is also an attempt to theorize
a successful experience. The force of their argument is such that even
philosophers have to contemplate love, although some reduce it to sex
drive.(29) Those who readily issue fatwas, dividing love into halal and
haram, not only mistake lust for love, and also forget that love, as Sufis
argue, is involuntary; it is in its nature to undermine the will, thus it
is not a matter on which there can be a feqh ruling. Instead of condemning
it, our thinkers should contemplate love - whether earthly or divine - and
propagate it. We must not let love to be treated as a disease, something
which defiles. It is healing and purifying, and can cure both individuals
and societies of many afflictions and excesses. Fiqh, more oriented to
piety than love, must approach mysticism, which is more inclined to love
than piety. Then they can overcome the duality, the rupture, in our
cultural history and moderate the excesses of both.
Concluding his review, Sorush returns to jealousy. What he says here, it
seems to me, not only reveals his male bias but undermines the case he has
made for love.
Thus manís jealousy towards women isnít only about honour but also about
love. Itís said that women are the repository for love and men the
repository for wisdom; we can put this better, and say that women are
objects of love, and men are not. If we accept that great loves have led
to great acts in history, then we must admit that women have played a
great role, and itís unwise for women to try to be men; they canít, they
can only forfeit their womanhood. This is to negate oneís blessing. It
does [neither sex] any good, if someone, or a group, doesnít appreciate
their worth and their place and also if others try to dislodge them from
Sorush seems to have forgotten that, only a moment before, he told his
audience two Koranic love stories in which, as he himself pointed out, men
(Joseph and Moses) not women were the objects of love. Or does the lapse
betray his own ambivalence?
Also puzzling, I find, is Sorushís final observation on love in
contemporary Iranian poetry. He says he will only touch on it briefly,
inviting his audience to do their own research and draw their own
conclusions. Love still dominates our poetry and occupies our poetsí
minds, he says, but its manifestations are no longer pure and spiritual.
In the past the poet was part of a closed world defined by religious
values: "even if the poet chose to fix his gaze on the earth, the sky
above him cast its shadow on his world." This is no longer the case; he
makes the point by reciting a poem by Forugh Farrokhzad, where she says
she never wanted to be a star in the sky or to be the companion of angels,
she never separated herself from the earth.(30) This identity - never
wanting to be part of a celestial world - Sorush argues, is evident in her
approach to love and somehow degrades it. Adding, "some of her poems, if
you donít know theyíre hers, youíd think theyíre by a mystic", he recites
one of her love poems, but s tops as he reaches lines in which she
expresses yearning for her lover, saying that a mosque is not the place
for it.(31) He ends his defence of love by returning to the mystical realm
where earthly love is a metaphor for, and a means of experiencing, a
In the final session, Sorush concludes his commentary on Imam Aliís words
on women with a discussion of keramat, which he glosses as "the limit, the
purpose, the proper place of each being". He approaches the concept from a
philosophical angle, placing it in the context of the two competing
worldviews discussed earlier. The first, to which the Imamís words belong,
accepts the world and its order as designed by the Creator, and has no
dispute with the place assigned to His creation. The second, which makes
the Imamís words difficult to digest, sees the world and its order as
accidental, and wants to define the role of creation. The first view (that
of Islamic thinkers) sees women as created for men and the roles of the
sexes as non-interchangeable. In the second (that of modern times) women
aspire to menís place in the order of things. Sorush embarks on a long
discussion, examining the pros and cons of each of these world-views.
Critical of both, but not totally rejecting either, he resorts to the Ko
ran to shed light on womenís place in the divine order of life. As he
continues, it becomes clear that his own understanding of the Koranic
position is in line with that of Islamic thinkers whose texts he earlier
analysed critically. He recites and elaborates on a Koranic verse: "And
one of His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you
may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most
surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect" (al-Rum, 21).
Earlier, when speaking of love, he found a kind of symmetry in the ways
men and women relate to each other; now he finds asymmetry and
The most important role for women, as understood from this verse, and as
recognized by most of our ulama, is to restore to man the peace he has
lost, to correct the imbalance that prevents him from fulfilling his role.
This is the role assigned to woman; this is the status bestowed on her by
creation. You can, of course, disagree and believe that woman is malleable
and can assume whatever role she is given, and man likewise; who says
woman should be confined to this role? she can have better roles in
society ... Fine, this is a theory that some maintain today. But as I
said, what we find at the root of Islamic thought is that menís and
womenís roles are assigned, defined and not interchangeable; in this view,
woman fulfills her role in society through man, that is, she restores to
men, the main actors in society, their lost balance and peace.
If we accept this as a proper understanding of religious texts, then, when
the Imam says: "donít allow a woman matters other than those about
herself, because a woman is a flower, not an administrator," he means that
[gender] roles in society are not changeable. Those who say otherwise are
those who say we [are the ones who] define roles, that people can be
prepared for roles through socialization, education, etc.
Typical to his style, Sorush now poses a question and a counter-argument
which subvert the claims of conventional understandings.
But if we accept the view that [gender] roles are defined and their limits
set, we face the question: what are these limits? Who says these limits
have been correctly defined? How do we know the roles men and women have
played so far are the male and female roles they should have played? This
is an important question. In theory, we might accept that man should
remain man, and woman should remain woman, but who has defined what men
should do, and what women should do? We have three sources to consult:
religion, science and history.
To find the answer, Sorush invites his audience to consult each of these
sources, telling them to focus on history, which he sees as natural, as
reflecting the human nature in which men and women have shown their
characteristics. He expands his response to a question a few weeks earlier
about the philosophy of history.
I know youíll object that women werenít allowed to find their own status.
But this objection isnít valid, whether in this case or in others. We must
ask why and how men succeeded ... We can look at history from an ethical
angle and reach certain conclusions; but if we suspend ethical judgment
and look at history in terms of possibilities, weíll reach different ones.
I suggest that, if women occupied a position we now see as oppressed, then
they saw this as their proper place in life; they didnít see themselves as
oppressed and didnít ask for more, as they saw their keramat, their worth,
as being women, not as being like men. We canít impose our own values on
the past, and assume that what we now consider to be injustice, or
essential rights, were valid then - thatís the worst kind of
historiography. I suppose weíre at the start of a new epoch; in fact it
began almost two centuries ago, with the rise of protesters, who see
themselves as making and designing their own world. It remains to be seen
Although science, the second source, Sorush argues, can tell us more about
the characteristics of each sex, it cannot give us the final answer.
Religion, whose answer he has been exploring in these lectures, is no
longer consulted, since:
Men and women of this age - whether religious or not - now inhabit a world
where they give an absolute value to expressing dissatisfaction and
protesting at their lot. Theyíre not prepared to hear the clear answer of
religion, nor does any one tell them. So we must only wait for the third
source - history - to make our places clear to us. Itís only then that
humans can hear and understand the delight of surrender to Godís will.
So Sorush concludes his discussion of women and gender roles. He talks for
another half an hour, dealing with questions, but makes no further points.
Sorush in London
In October 1995, when I first listened to recordings of these lectures in
Tehran, I did not know what to make of them. I was taken by Sorushís
rational approach to sacred texts, by his eloquence, by his willingess to
see different sides to an argument, by his courage in opening up and
speaking of taboo subjects (such as Farrokhzadís love poetry) in a mosque,
to an audience for whom women like her have been demonized in the past
seventeen years. On the other hand, I found his own position on gender
problematic, and was frustrated and annoyed by what I saw as skilled
evasion of any kind of serious debate over womenís legal rights. I could
also see that his position, and to an extent his approach to womenís
issues, was very close to that of ShariĎati. They both criticize not just
old understandings of womenís status in Islam but the advocates of equal
rights, both refuse to enter the realm of feqh.
I decided there was no way I could include Sorush among the supporters of
gender equality in Islam. Clearly he subscribed to the view that, in the
divine order of things, women are for men, as they are menís "calm", their
anchor. I shared my misgivings about Sorushís gender position with Shahla
Sherkat, editor of Zanan. She conceded that she had pressed him to let her
publish a transcript of his lectures, but when the text was prepared
Sorush delayed approving it for publication. Finally, she herself
abandoned the project. She gave me a copy of the transcripts.
I could not understand how and why Sorushís ideas had inspired women in
Zanan, who like me objected to his gender position.(33) Only later, when I
was well into writing this book, did I understand that I must shift my
focus. It was not his position on gender, but his conception of Islam and
his approach to sacred texts that empowered women in Zanan to argue for
gender equality. They also, I realized, made possible my debate with the
Payam-e Zan clerics, even though they did not agree with his approach to
the texts any more than I agreed with his gender position. The tension in
the last session of our debate - I now realized - had partly to do with my
increasing self-confidence in locating my objections within an Islamic
framework, which I had internalized by listening to Sorushís tapes and
reading his work in the intervening months.
Between May and December 1996 Sorush gave a number of talks in London,
mostly in Persian and to audiences largely of Iranian students, including
a series of eleven lectures on Rumi and mysticism. I attended most of
these talks, and whenever I had a chance asked questions and tried to draw
attention to gender issues. The opportunity to hear Sorush in person
helped me place his 1992 talks on women in the context of his wider
analytical method and his later thinking. By now I could see how his
approach to Islam could open space for a radical rethinking of gender
relations, among other issues. Yet whenever I or other women in the
audience asked him pertinent questions, he was evasive. For example, at a
Middle East Forum meeting in SOAS in June, I asked him why he had not
addressed womenís questions in print. He replied that it was not easy,
they cannot be addressed without discussing human rights, and anyway women
do it themselves. In September, at a seminar in London on "Obstacles to
Development in Iran", org anized by the Islamic Society of Iranian
Students, with Sorush one of four panellists, all male, I asked why none
of the speakers had said a single word about womenís rights or gender
issues. Again Sorushís answer was vague, in line with his 1992 talks.
After listening to the 1992 tapes again, I still could not decide what he
was actually saying. There were different layers. Although I agreed with
some points, I could not accept others. Sometimes he seemed to be arguing
in line with the traditionalists. I agreed with his identification of the
main contradiction in the Islamic Republicís discourse on women, but his
own arguments seemed to me just as problematic. What Sorush was arguing,
and urging Muslim women, was to resolve the contradiction by accepting the
role they were given in creation, their "position". He called this "the
step that must be taken." To me, this was the voice of a conservative
philosopher, not a reformer and thinker trying to reconcile democracy and
Islam. Didnít he consider gender equality too to be part of democratic and
Then in October I had a private meeting with him, in which I raised my
objections to the gender position he took on the tapes, and tried to draw
him into a more specific discussion. I started by summarizing his
arguments and the issues he raised in the 1992 talks, interjecting
comments of my own. Dealing with the Imamís views on women, he says we
find them difficult to accept because they reflect an old world-view. He
criticizes the two ways they are now dealt with (casting doubt on their
authenticity; interpreting them as only concerning Ayesha), saying that
neither will solve the problem. He suggests dealing with them by
reasoning; but this, I said, is not enough.
AKS: Enough for what? That depends what conclusions you want to draw. In
that talk I laid an important foundation whose implications for religious
literature, in my view, canít be appreciated now. I said that
unquestioning obedience to the words of a religious leader when he reasons
isnít obligatory. In certain situations we follow and submit
unconditionally: weíre Muslims and pray as the Prophet says; here thereís
no room for questioning. But this isnít the case when thereís reasoning in
the words of a religious leader.
ZMH: That is, we can refute it?
AKS: Of course we can. If not, what is reasoning for in the first place?
not just to persuade, but also to evaluate. If Imam Ali reasons with us,
he invites us to reason back, to use our critical faculties. There I tried
to present a counter-argument, and pointed out that we canít deduce from
the Imamís words the Ruling that women are defective in faith [because
they donít pray or fast at certain times]. If we say that, then we must
also say that those who canít afford to go on Hajj pilgrimage are also
defective in faith; but we say that itís not obligatory for them.
Such a foundation can be a torch for you when entering the religious
literature, to put aside fear and clarify matters for yourself. You can
say that such reasonings satisfied the logic of people of that age, or
that since the reasoning is false itís impossible that the Imam would
deduce such a Ruling from it. What conclusion you draw from these
arguments depends on your own perspective and intentions. Thatís the
essence of what I said there; it can have many applications if we use it
consistently and methodically.
I continued with my summary, and pointed out that, despite the many
insights he provides into the old view, there is a kind of fallacy in his
arguments, particularly as regards what he calls "the new view".
ZMH: When it comes to discussing the new view, that "woman is not for
man", you oversimplify a complex debate and reduce womenís demands for
equal rights to "wanting to take manís place", which in your discourse
becomes not valuing Godís design for humanity. Itís in this context that
you introduce the concept of keramat, to define the true place and
boundaries of created beings, and you examine it in the context of two
competing world-views: the old and the new. You criticize the ulamaís
understanding of womenís role, but as you go on, it becomes evident that
yours isnít that different. You too hold that, in the divine order of
things, women are for men, as they are menís "calm", their anchor. What do
you mean by this?
At this point, I quoted a passage from Ayatollah Javadi-Amoliís book,
where he, like Sorush, by-passes feqh Rulings and tries to place the whole
gender debate on a spiritual plane - even invoking the same Koranic
verse.(34) Unaware that Javadi-Amoli was Sorushís most articulate and
powerful clerical adversary, I pointed out how Sorushís position and
understanding of gender in sacred texts, even some of his arguments,
resemble those of Javadi, whose approach is theological. As I blundered
on, Sorush kept repeating (probably in disbelief): "Ďajab! Ďajab!" (how
odd!). I went on:
You close your discussion of women and gender roles by inviting your
audience to look for the answer in history. That is, you tell them
implicitly that womenís roles in society will be the same as before, since
there is a reason why they have played such roles so far. There are
several problems with this argument. History has many narratives: the one
you are talking of is written by men; the history of mankind might be
natural, as you say, but that doesnít mean itís just; thereís no reason to
say that the Law-Giver wanted it to be this way, or that it will always
remain such; slavery was with us for much of our history, and other
examples abound. Gender equality is a Principle, a prevailing value of our
age; whether itís here to stay, or a passing fashion, is another matter.
The question then is why you, a religious intellecual, also choose to
ignore it. What does Revelation have to say on this? What is your own
Incidentally, you employ a rhetorical device - like the ulama when they
talk of pre-Islamic views and practices. You criticize past thinkersí
outlandish views on women, which somehow diverts attention from a
discussion of current views. For instance, you quote views such as those
of Feiz Kashani [woman is an animal created so that man will be inclined
to mate] ...
AKS: He takes it from Ghazzali.
ZMH: And Feiz develops it. That is, you give the men in your audience a
false sense of generosity and pride that they donít think like that, and
women a sense of gratitude that they arenít thought of that way. I donít
know whether or not you do this deliberately, but it sets the tone and the
course of the debate. You also do the same when dealing with feminism:
focusing on excesses and pre-empting a debate.
AKS: [laughing] youíre rather angry!
ZMH: I do find what you say infuriating! I canít accept the basis of what
you say there.
AKS: And what is that basis?
ZMH: Perhaps if thereís an anger, itís because of the ambivalence in what
you say. You say thereís a status for women, thereís a purpose, but you
never say clearly what they are. You reduce this purpose for woman to
being manís calm, his anchor in life. But the same could be said of men.
And thereís more to feminism, to womenís demand for equality, than what
you told your audience; there are many debates and positions within
feminism; no one says that women are identical to men, difference is now
brought into the picture, some even argue that, apart from their bodies,
women differ from men in psychology and the way they relate to the world.
AKS: Look, thereís a need for these debates, theyíve mellowed feminists,
earlier they went too far and these [religious] counter-arguments
gradually made them aware that woman should demand status by keeping her
womanhood. Iíll give some general explanations and hope they address your
First, we must make a distinction. The majority of our ulama - even men of
politics - when talking about women, their guide is feqh, that is their
ideas, their images come from a set of Rulings they have in mind, then
they create an image of women to reflect it.
ZMH: But behind these Rulings lie world-views, value systems....
AKS: Exactly. I mean, we have two points of departure: if your guide is
feqh then you define women as such to conform with its Rulings. I claim to
be the greatest critic of such thinking. Among the objections I have
raised is that feqh, as the lowest-ranking religious science, shouldnít
become the centre of religious thought. I took the basis of this argument
from Ghazzali, and expanded it in a lecture I gave at Harvard last year,
entitled "The place of feqh in Islamic teachings" ... One of the main
differences I see between pre- and post-revolutionary Islam is that our
present Islam is feqh-based, whereas before it was spiritual. That Islam
was appealing; Islam since the Revolution no longer appeals, it displays a
stern legalism. In my last article in Kiyan, based on a talk I gave in
UNESCO, when I reach feqh I say itís a kind of stern legalism that brings
alienation.(35) ... Of course, it isnít easy to talk of feqh in these
terms ... [but I continue to do so] since I see it as one of the ills of c
urrent religious thinking, precisely because of what you mentioned: feqh
holds within itself a worldview, but some ignore this, take its Rulings as
immutable, then go on to define women accordingly. In a recent article, I
argue that a religious Ruling is not the same as a feqh Ruling; I discuss
[the ulamaís] understanding of religious Rulings as like feqh Rulings.(36)
This fallacy must be eradicated.
I want you to know how I think on such issues. Fiqh is not my point of
departure, and the question of women ...
ZMH: But you canít totally ignore or by-pass feqh.
AKS: No, Iíll get there in the end. The question is where feqh should be
placed, at our point of departure or at our destination. To enter a debate
on the womenís question via the path of womenís rights is incorrect, and I
consciously donít pursue it. Not because I donít believe in them or want
to ignore them, but because I believe that this isnít a starting point and
will lead us astray. I start from your question: whatís the status of
women? Womenís status mustnít be reduced to law; itís much broader. In the
past, womenís status wasnít what we say. Look at the religious literature.
When I first quoted what Hakim Sabzevari said on women, some [ulama] got
angry, and denied the authenticity of my quotation. In the text Molla
Sadra wrote that several types of animals are created, one of which,
woman, is created for men to mate with. Then Hakim Sabzevari comments on
the text, saying the great man made a just point; he relies on it too in
his interpretations of the religious texts: men are guardians of women b
ecause women are animals whom God gave human faces ... Someone even wrote
that I made this up. I had quoted it from memory, but when I checked, it
was correct; I have given the reference in an article which came out in
Sturdier than Ideology.(37) Itís important that someone like Molla Sadra
had such views, I tell you our jurists thought the same.
ZMH: Some still do.
AKS: Iíd be surprised if it were otherwise. What school teaches them
otherwise? These texts are still taught in the Houzeh, there isnít one on
human rights. They base their logic, the Principles of jurisprudence, on
these philosophersí views. Unless a peopleís understanding of the womenís
question is changed, thereíll be no basic change; women will remain less
than second-class citizens; if theyíre given rights, itís from charity or
necessity. Look, this is the milieu in which Iím talking, as a person;
this is where the status of women must be corrected; in my opinion, weíll
get nowhere by haggling about womenís legal rights.
ZMH: Mr Motahhari, and today others, didnít think like this.
AKS: I accept that. Iím talking about the dominant rule; theyíre
exceptions, all influenced by outside [the Houzeh]. I donít believe one
can enter a legal debate with these gentlemen [ulama]; they can produce a
hadith to silence you, but not if we start with broader concepts. We must
first establish whether women is human or, as Hakim Sabzevari says,
animal; how God conceives of them, regardless of their place in relation
to men. Is association with women defiling or enhancing to men? We must
say that men can attain spiritual growth through love and friendship with
women. This is a path Iíve been following in recent years in my teachings
on Hafez. Hafez believes that humans arenít brought into the world to be
ashamed; theyíve a right to exist and must honour this right. Someone like
Moulavi or Ghazzali didnít think this way. If we can correct such ideas
then we can easily take the next step. Thatís why I see legal debates as
secondary, and favour theoretical and philosophical debates. At present in
our soc iety, among our students, we have a problem: how to look at women
with religious eyes. Once ideas and views change, laws will change ... In
the West too, ideas on these matters changed first, then womenís place in
life, in work and family changed accordingly. Zanan, or anyone who works
on women, should devote 70 percent to these broader debates and 30 percent
to legal ones.
ZMH: Do you know that so far Zanan has had no article on [philosophical
rather than legal views on women]?
AKS: Yes, thatís a failing. Not many dare to write on this. Itís also a
ZMH: Itís a problem. There arenít many women competent to deal with
theoretical debates on Islamic grounds. Women in the Houzeh seem to have
no qualms about its views on women; some are even worse than men. To some
degree this is to be expected: women who enter a patriarchal institution
must accept its values in the first place, otherwise thereís no place for
them. Perhaps this is a stage; women in the Houzeh canít enter such
debates at present. Some [religious] women, such as those in Zanan,
havenít the expertise and others [non-religious] refuse to frame their
discussions in Islamic terms. Male religious intellectuals, such as
yourself, wonít enter gender debates at all; for instance, there isnít a
single reference to womenís questions in Kiyan, which considers them
outside the realm of concern for religious intellectuals.
AKS: No ... but theyíre involved in other debates; perhaps one day they
will; perhaps they think thereís no need, since thereís Zanan. But I
accept that in the realm of religious intellectuals, the womenís question
ZMH: Why do you think itís neglected?
AKS: Women are always seen through the eyes of feqh ... Women themselves -
including socially active intellectuals - tend to define themselves
through a series of feqh duties. This is an important point.
ZMH: Of course, only some - that is, theyíve accepted ...
AKS: ... I donít mean they shouldnít accept feqh; after all, a Muslim man
or women has a set of duties they must fulfill. What I mean is that they
donít know their own "existence", as existentialists would say. I see the
difference between old and new men, old and new women, as lying in
self-knowledge. That is, in recognizing what it is to love as a woman, to
be anxious as a woman, to demand rights as a woman. These they [old
women?] lack; they think itís a sin to think about men, and donít see
themselves as having the right to know. This is the problem: we must first
make women aware of themselves. Itís extremely difficult. Itís like
swimming in acid, which is heavy and burns your limbs. It takes a long
time to explain to these women that there are some issues that have
nothing to do with religion; these are meaningless taboos which are not
imposed by God and His Messenger, you have imposed them on yourself and
have distorted human relations. What is a woman with this image of herself
to do with equal rig hts? Thatís why I say: debates on rights should come
later. In our society, delicate theoretical work is needed, and when women
know themselves, then you can say: now define your relationship with men,
define your status, and yet remain Muslim and live according to the
shariĎa. These relations [defined in feqh] arenít sacrosanct, they come
from minds with distorted worldviews; many arose in situations when women
didnít undertake social responsibilities. In our society, women work and
are present, but some still want to enforce outmoded ethics. No one says
where they came from, what era they belong to. The only thing thatís done
is to tell girls not to wear this or that ...
ZMH: Itís after all a transitional stage ...
AKS: Of course, but this transitional stage must be paved with awareness,
for us to reach more fundamental issues ... we must change the image
humans have of themselves ... In my talk on Houzeh and University,(38) I
said [to the ulama]: if you have a Womenís Day in this country, then you
must also declare that you reject what Hakim Sabzevari says; you publish
it in your books, yet without criticizing it, and if you donít, someone
like me will - and then youíll protest ...
If you ask the same question about men - whatís the purpose in their
creation? - I would say: I donít know; certainly thereís a purpose, but we
ZMH: Then why do you raise it [when it comes to women]?
AKS: Permit me. I mean that one level of the story goes to God, but at the
other level, if you ask the question in broader terms - that is, whatís
the purpose in creation of mankind, which is divided into two sexes? - my
answer is: what men, what women are we talking about? men or women of
yesterday or today? The answers differ. In my opinion, men and women
should know each other and define their relationships. The only thing I
can say is that we think women can be this or that and assume this or that
role. Now whether [what we think] really is their purpose, I donít know.
One thing is that, in religious thought, the greatest status a creature
can be accorded is to be on the road to his or her spiritual perfection,
not to be a director or a prime minster. In my talks I made it clear that,
contrary to Ghazzaliís view - that women are among Satanís army and their
very essence is to prevent men from reaching God - I say that itís to help
men. Itís important for women for such a status to be recognized; on tha t
basis their rights will be regulated. Looked at from a religious
viewpoint, I think this is the story, and itís worth saying it, since when
itís accepted that women bring men closer to God, then we must ask, what
women? A woman who doesnít know herself and has no place in society? or a
woman whoís found herself and has social rights? ...
ZMH: These things must be debated; they havenít yet been. When our
religious intellectuals donít bring them up, then the field is left to the
ulama and those who address them outside the realm of religion.
AKS: If thereís moderate thinking in the realm of religion, then I think
women have a very good position. I know some women who have good places
and use them properly, depending on their tact and knowledge.
ZMH: Look, what you say implies inequality; the very fact that you think
women must have a place ...
AKS: No; why do you call it inequality? Obviously, if it isnít there you
must talk about it for a long time in order to establish it. Donít you
accept this? Secondly, women are different from men, this difference is
undeniable, so their roles are different.
ZMH: Certainly. But when we say that womenís purpose in creation is to
restore peace to men and enable them to get closer to God, then it follows
that they should stay at home to care for the children, to cater for his
needs and enable him to fulfill his role and duties, and so on.
AKS: This is one job woman can have, and itís an important one. If a woman
can only do this, she shouldnít feel ashamed; itís a valuable job and men
should be grateful. But itís not right to make it an imperative [woman
should only do this, or never do it]. These days itís thought that a woman
should feel ashamed to be a housewife, when her husband is doing well in
society. In my view, itís no less important than any other [role]. Many of
our mothers lived like this, burned like a candle and gave light to
others. One characteristic of our society is that it doesnít allow
exclusive roles for women; they can work and perform roles, which bring
changes in defining their rights in relations with men, etc. We see that
these things have happened, and changes are coming about naturally. But a
proper basis for them must be established, it mustnít be allowed to take a
pragmatic and unconscious course. We must start from a basis thatís
acceptable to people themselves, that is, from what Moulavi and Ibn Arabi
said. T rue, they were people of their time, but their insights can come
to our aid. Moulavi says: "love belongs to the world of humans and doesnít
define relations between males and females of other species." We must
start from here, or what Ibn Arabi says, or some of the hadith of the
Prophet; then you can open the way and proceed step by step. But I admit
that the issue hasnít been tackled from this angle; or if it has, little
work has been done; or it took a legal turn, or certain considerations
intervened, or they wanted to introduce something in line with feqh
Rulings, which to me is a misguided approach. I accept what you say, that
the debate is in the hands of those who didnít know how to approach [the
ulama] or the non-religious ones.
Now letís see what secularists have done in recent years. What they did at
the time of the Constitutional Revolution [1906-09] was very positive and
achieved things without which women would have little place in our society
... They yielded their fruit at the time of the Islamic Revolution; nobody
then imagined women demonstrating in the streets. But now the secularist
slogan is faded; theyíve nothing new to say. Unless we go to the roots,
nothing will change ... What we want from secularist thinkers is to
contribute to debates at root level, for instance what elements of
feminism they accept.
We talked for a while about the recent work and ideas of those dealing
with womenís issues in Iran and outside, and about gender developments
since the Revolution. I said that, judging from my own work in Qom and
following the debates there, I felt that we were on the threshold of a
major shift in discourses and perspectives on women. Sorush reiterated the
necessity to go to roots and fundamentals, and develop theoretical
grounds, but saw little prospect of this: "our society - both men and
women - is now too ideological ... even intellectuals still take their
models from feqh, they havenít severed that umbilical cord." He admitted
that some important changes have taken place in large towns, but was not
optimistic that they would lead to a fundamental shift in perspective,
since "they need theoretical backing," and this was missing.
To me, Sorushís ambivalence on gender comes from the very framework and
agenda he set himself. Like ShariĎati, his refusal to address the issue of
women through feqh leaves him little choice but to talk in abstractions.
This brings his views and position on gender close to those of Javadi
Amoli, despite vast differences in their visions and approaches to Islam.
Both men by-pass feqh: Amoli taking a theological turn and Sorush, as he
puts it, a "phenomenological" one, and they end up with similar readings
and understandings of sacred texts when it comes to gender.
1. A group of religious and political zealots
who emerged in Spring 1995, becoming prominent through their violent
disruptions of Sorushís lectures. The group is small in numbers but
reportedly enjoys the support of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (member of the
Council of Guardians) and has links with the Revolutionary Guards and the
Ministry of Information (Intelligence).
2. For details and dates, I have relied on "A biography of Dr Abdol Karim
Soroush" dated July 1996, available at "Seraj Homepage", a Website
"dedicated to coverage and analysis of his ideas": www.seraj.org.
3. After the Revolution the Iranian government bought the building (imam-bareh);
it is now called Kanun-e Touhid (Centre of Unity) and run by students
closely linked to the Iranian ruling establishment.
4. In April 1997, in an interview with the Seraj website, Sorush responds
to criticism about his role in the cultural revolution, which is a sore
point and a major reason why he is rejected by secular intellectuals.
5. Sorush 1995b.
6. Another spur to the disruption was probably Robin Wrightís article
calling Sorush the "Luther of Islam"; "An Iranian Luther Shakes the
Foundations of Islam," The Guardian, 1 February 1995 [Reproduced from Los
7. Kiyan 25 (1995), 61.
8. For the English text, see "Seraj Homepage".
9. For a list, see ibid., "Publications of Dr Soroush"; in the References
I have given the date of the first edition (when available). Some were
written in England, including a book, The Dynamic Nature of the World, in
which he expands on Molla Sadraís idea of "quintessential motion" to
develop a philosophical approach to two fundamental tenets of Islam: Unity
and Resurrection. Ayatollah Khomeini read this book on Ayatollah
Motahhariís advice, praising it when he saw Sorush in Paris before taking
power in Iran (Sorush 1994f, preface, p. 29).
10. Such as Alan Ryanís The Philosophy of the Social Sciences; E. A.
Burtís Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Sciences, D. Littleís
Varieties of Explanation in Social Sciences.
11. Sorush 1994a; the volume also contains the texts of lectures delivered
on two successive anniversaries of the formation of the Cultural
Revolution Commitee, June 1981 and 1982.
12. Published in book form as Sorush 1991, which by 1994 had gone through
four editions, selling over 20,000 copies; Sorush 1994d.
13. For the emergence of the independent press, see Yavari 1995. In 1995,
Zanan shared premises with Kiyan, in both senses: office space and
intellectual orientation. In 1997 Zanan moved to new premises, and its
gender position came to be viewed critically by Kiyan. See Mir-Hosseini
14. For his political thought, see Vakili 1996, Wright 1996; for his
contribution to modern Islamic discourse, see Boroujerdi 1994 and 1996,
Matin-asgari 1997, Cooper 1998.
15. Sorush 1994d, 81-83; 1994e, 39.
16. Nahj ol-Balagheh, Sermon 78, pp. 150-52; for the event, see footnote
comments by editor; see also Abbott 1942a, and Spellberg 1991.
17. I later asked Sorush who the man had been. He said he was sitting
close by but he thought it was the first time he had come to the mosque.
He had asked Sorush to talk to his son, who had a number of questions to
ask, but he never came again.
18. Earlier parts of his commentary on the Imamís Will have appeared in
Sorush 1995c and 1997a. Perhaps later volumes will include the texts of
his lectures on women.
19. The first time I heard Sorush in person, in Imperial College London in
May 1996, the large Iranian audience was electrified; later I attended his
lectures on Rumiís Mathnavi, which he clearly knew by heart, talking
20. Nahj ol-Balagheh, pp. 434-5, Letter 31 (Will).
21. Nahj ol-Balagheh, p. 81, Sermon 13.
22. Nahj ol-Balagheh, p. 257, Sermon 154.
23. Nahj ol-Balagheh, p. 539, Saying 235.
24. The hadith reads "the people who elect a woman to leadership, or
entrust the running (velayat) of their affairs to a woman, will never be
victorious or saved." Mernissi based a whole book (1991) on it; for
SaĎidzadehís discussion, see Mir-Hosseini 1996b.
25. The recording of the first session ends with Sorushís talk, a reading
and recitation of a mystical story from the Mathnavi. If there was a
question/answer follow-up, as in other sessions, it was not recorded.
26. Nahj ol-Balagheh, p. 515, Saying 123.
27. On his return from Mecca (1214), Ibn Arabi wrote a small collection of
love-poems, celebrating their mutual friendship, her beauty and learning,
but a year later he found it advisable to write a commentary on these
poems, explaining them in a mystical sense. See Nicholson 1911, 8, for an
edition of the poems and a commentary.
28. For both stories and their treatment by Muslim exegetes, both
traditional and modern, see Stowasser 1994, 50-61.
29. He refers to Molla Sadraís Asfar, which has a chapter on love, and
Molla Hadi Sabzevari, who defines love as sexual gratification.
30. The poem is "Ruye Khak" (On the earth), in Farrokhzad 1991, 24. For
her life and poetry, see Milani 1992, 127-52.
31. "ĎAsheqaneh" (In love), in Farrokhzad 1991, 55.
32. The audience questions ask for clarifications, and elicit no new
points. For instance, one asks why the Prophet and Imams were polygamous,
and why Ghazzali reached such high status without love.
33. I found it liberating and promising that, despite its devotion to
Sorushís ideas, Zanan validated Forugh Farrokhzad, whose poetry Sorush had
described as "too worldly"; see Zanan 16 (Winter 1993), 20 (Autumn, 1994)
and 25 (Summer 1995) - the issue discussed in Chapter 6. Interestingly, in
early 1998 Sorush gave a series of thirty-five talks on Hafez and his
philosophy, in which one of the main themes was the importance of earthly
34. Javadi-Amoli 1993a, 38-9.
35. Sorush 1996a.
36. Sorush 1996b.
37. Sorush 1994e, 39-40. The passage is reproduced in a footnote.
38. Lecture delivered in May 1992 in Isfahan University; see Sorush 1994e,