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Abdolkarim Soroush’s rays of hope

D+C Development and Coopeartaion 2/2004

By Katajun Amirpur

Conservative mullahs continue to hold political sway in Iran but they are no longer in control of the interpretation of religious rules. Today, open-minded theologians are working on a liberal interpretation of Islam, which is attracting attention even beyond Iran's borders. The most prominent of the new thinkers is Abdolkarim Soroush.

“We need a different interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that gives space to human rights and women's rights”. Shirin Ebadi, last year’s Nobel peace laureate, repeated this sentence over and over again when Western journalists asked her whether Islam was incompatible with human rights. The ruling conservatives in Iran, however, view human rights in much the same way as the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. He had dismissed them as “nothing but a collection of corrupt rules worked out by Zionists to destroy all true religion”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the conservative clerics were not pleased to see civil rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi win the Nobel Peace Prize. First of all, she had confronted them as an outspoken critic. Secondly, she is a woman – a woman who demands the same rights as a man and campaigns for human rights. And on top of all that, Ebadi constantly questions the conservatives' claim to be the sole interpreters of Allah's will and thus the only true voice of Islam.

Ebadi is not the only one raising such questions in Iran. The Iranian reform movement believes unanimously that Islam is compatible with human rights. And even among Iranian theologians, there is a movement against restrictive interpretations of Islam. This movement supports the forces of social reform and has major implications not just for Iran but for the entire Islamic world. Many of those campaigning for human rights in Iran today are inspired by leading representatives of this “new theology”, the most prominent of whom is Abdolkarim Soroush. His central philosophical thesis concerns the fact that perceptions of religion – just as perception in general – underlies constant change. The way we see the world is moulded by time and science. According to Soroush, religion is defined in new terms again and again, each new interpretation being inspired by the circumstances in which the interpreters live.

Soroush is Iran’s foremost thinker on the subject of “Islam and modernity”. Endeavouring to explain a political system, which is both Islamic and democratic, he draws on mainly Western philosophical thought. However, he does embed his arguments in a religious context. His basic premise is that the path to knowledge is endless and that absolute knowledge is unattainable. Therefore, humans can never really know what God expects of them. They will never find out what God’s law really is or what purpose it serves. God's intentions are unfathomable. Humans can only perceive and comprehend God's objective. And that objective – the goal of religion – can never be in conflict with humane concepts.

Interpreting the Koran

Just like any other scripture, the Koran is open to interpretation. Soroush says rigid interpretations of religion are a phenomenon of modern times. In the past, he claims, it was accepted that religious views changed. Change paves the way for re-interpretation. Therefore, human rights and Islam are not intrinsically incompatible.

In Iran, where discourse is still largely shaped by the views of the Islamic Republic’s founder Khomeini, this contention has the effect of a stick in a hornets’ nest. In Khomeini’s view of man and God, only God has rights. Human beings have no rights at all – and certainly not rights conferred by the mere fact of being human, as is accepted in the West. Humans have duties towards God but God alone has rights. God or his representative on Earth may grant rights to human beings but he can equally well take them away – because rights are God-given rather than a natural entitlement.

Khomeini also believed that the individual comes second to the good of the community, that is to say the Islamic community. He did not subscribe to the liberal view that there are personal liberties, which the state must respect. Khomeini was not concerned with being accused of deprecating and failing to observe human rights, because, in his eyes, they merely were a device created by the forces of Satan to block the triumphant progress of Islam.

These arguments still shape the human rights debate in Iran. The assertion that such rights are universal is countered by a call to compare systems. Cultural differences, it is claimed, need to be considered. Because of historical and social developments in their respective cultural areas, Muslims have sought to respect God's rights rather than 'human' rights whereas Western societies have adopted an anthropocentric system.

Soroush is beyond such cultural relativism. He is no longer interested in the question of whether Islam is compatible with human rights: for him, human rights are dictated by reason. They thus cannot be in conflict with religion because God’s will cannot be unreasonable. The fact that human rights emerged in a non-religious context does not stop Soroush from considering their realisation as possible or even necessary in an Islamic state. Human rights may be a human invention, he argues, but, as they do not conflict with religion, they do not impinge on God's rights either.
Soroush’s philosophy is a first step towards secular hermeneutics. Its logical consequence: the repeal of many laws currently in place in Muslim countries – such as the one requiring a person’s hand to be chopped off as a penalty for theft. According to Soroush, however, it is not always necessary to observe every Islamic law by the letter. In his defence of this claim, he distinguishes between first- and second-degree values. Second-degree values are minor articles of faith and thus differ from one religion to another. First-degree values – such as justice –, however, are the really important ones. That is why the various religions as well as human reason totally agree on their significance. Less important than these first-degree values are details such as Islamic penalties or dress codes. These are only the religion's “skin”; they are not its vital organs.

Soroush argues that a Shiite is traditionally someone who accepts the five Shia principles of religion: belief in divine unity, prophecy, the twelve imams, resurrection and divine justice. Accordingly, he takes a view on human rights, which is normally confined to secularists. Like them, he believes that people also have non-religious rights – for no reason other than being human.

Human rights protect religion

What makes Soroush’s arguments particularly important for religiously oriented reformers is that they are always based on a religious motive. His faith means very much to Soroush. Precisely because this is so, and after having seen Islamism at work, he concluded that mosque and state have to be separated. Soroush goes further still: He argues that democracy is – of all possible forms of government – the one that best protects religion and, accordingly, God's rights. He wants to protect religion from being misused by “supposed men of God” for purposes contrary to the will of the Creator. And only a democracy can do that because it monitors the observance of human rights. Where human rights are respected, Soroush contends, religion cannot be misused. What is more, coupling democratic government with a liberal economic regime is the best way to meet basic human needs. In the long run, therefore, it provides the most reliable platform for fulfilling religion's mission.

The ultimative will of God

So Soroush's ideal government is not just democratic; it is also religious – because it creates the conditions needed for people to devote themselves to their faith. Indeed, it is far more religious than government based on Islamic law, which applies only the rules of sharia – the body of formally established sacred law in Islam. Consequently, Soroush’s religious government has no defined, static form; it assumes a different form for each epoch.

A concept of this kind does not dwell on interpreting the Koran; its focus is the ultimate will of God. This differs fundamentally from conventional liberal Islamic thought that tends to field apologetic arguments proving Islam’s tolerance of other religions in the past. Assaults on religious backsliders are glossed over, their rarity and political (rather than religious) motivation underlined. Soroush, however, pays no attention at all to Islam’s tolerance or lack of it in the past. His reader searches in vain for the popular argument that Jews in Spain enjoyed more freedom under Muslim rulers than under the Christian kings who drove them out. Nor does Soroush make excuses for discriminatory taxation and compensation of non-Muslims. Such things are irrelevant to his theses because he is seeking to adjust his perception of religion to the modern concept of human rights.

What is certainly important to such theses is the historical and political context in which they evolved. Soroush’s background is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where more and more people are turning away from Islam because of the economic mismanagement, corruption and cronyism which prevail and which people blame on religion. This is why Soroush is trying to present a different kind of Islam. As a hermeneuticist and Koran scholar he is, of course, aware of the variety of interpretations the Koran permits. He is well acquainted with the interpretations that have been applied. After all he has witnessed how the Koran was abused as an ideological weapon in the 1960s and '70s, how people were sent to die in its name on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and how its commandments have been invoked to legitimise the execution of thousands of innocent people.

All this has led Soroush to believe that the Koran has been sullied in recent decades – and that it needs to be put back on the taktche. Taktche is the Persian word for the place where the Koran is kept, which should be the highest place in the home, for example a high bookshelf. The ideologue of the Islamic revolution, Ali Shariati, complained in the 1970s that the Koran had lost its relevance for Muslim daily life. He wanted to see it play a more central role in people's lives, wanted it restored as a source of political and social guidance. This was the banner under which the Islamic movement – including, at one time, Abdolkarim Soroush – marched in Iran.

Soroush has now reached the conclusion that it would be better to put the Koran back on the taktche, where at least it won’t get soiled. This is a remarkable indication of the re-think there has been among many who favoured the Islamisation of the state in Iran. On the taktche, the Koran can once again become what it always was in Islamic history: an inspiration for art and science and a personal link between humans and God.

The Iranian reform movement, Shirin Ebadi and large parts of the Iranian population that voted for the reformers in three elections from 1997 to 2001 identify with this kind of Islam. Ironically, it seems, the sentiment is now also shared by the immediate family of the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. His granddaughter Zahra Eshraqi – wife of the Iranian president's brother, the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front – stood waiting to greet Shirin Ebadi at Teheran airport when she flew in after the news broke that she had won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. She congratulated the Nobel laureate with a bouquet of white roses.

Dr Katajun Amirpur
is an Islamic scholar living in Cologne, Germany.


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