Book Review By Ahmad Sadri
International Journal of Middle East Studies (2004), 36:333-334
Cambridge University Press
ASHK DAHLEN, Deciphering the Meaning of Revealed Law: The Sorushian Paradigm in Shi‘i Epistemology, Studia Iranica Upsaliensia 5 (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2001). Pp. 384.
Ashk Dahlen's erudite dissertation sets up the comparative legal philosophies of Iran's contemporary Shi‘i scholars against the backdrop of Western legal and epistemological schools. This is an ambitious project—so ambitious, indeed, that the book's complicated title hardly does justice to the its vast scope, which includes a thorough examination of the legal philosophies of ‘Abdollah Jawadi Amuli and Mohammad Mujtahid Shibestari (author's transliterations) as the representatives of the traditionalist and modernist schools of Iran's post-revolutionary Shi’ism. In this scheme, Sorush is assigned the position of the Shi’i post-modernist. Although at times the claim seems over the top (e.g., when the author declares Sorush's hermeneutics tantamount to advocating the death of the divine author [p. 348]), Dahlen often uses post-modernity in its weaker sense (as high modernity), a usage that could be reconciled with Sorush's self-understanding.
Dahlen's mastery of Persian is admirable, but his insufficient grasp of Arabic, besides causing occasional lapses (e.g., pp. 116, 246, 256, 264) forces him to rely on secondary sources (mostly in English) on issues of Islamic philosophy and law that he makes central to his project. Oddly, Dahlen decides to study Iran's post-revolutionary Shi’i intellectual ferment through the narrow aperture of comparative epistemology, which produces the effect of listening to a virtuoso performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a piccolo. Iran's recent theological, epistemological, and legal innovations must not be isolated from the context of the socio-political pressures of a quarter-century of troubled theocracy. Dahlen's examination of the Iranian Shi’i responses to modernity as a series of subjective and voluntaristic decisions produces an anatomy but no physiology. The hypothetical readers may want to know “what” Sorush, Jawadi Amuli, Shabistary, Bazargan, Paiman, and others have to say about the revealed law and the truth and applicability of the religious texts. But it is inconceivable that they would have no interest in knowing “why” they take such positions.
Dahlen produces a provocative and learned philosophical commentary on the contemporary Shi’i legal and epistemological theory, but he also tends to over-intellectualize. For instance, he associates a modern Islamic thinker trained in engineering (Mahdi Bazargan) with “Stoics through Cicero and Thomas Aquinas” (p. 152) and describes a lay dentist (Habibollah Paiman) as “inspired by Martin Heidegger and Hans-George Gadamer” (p. 160). Even if one considers these influences to be at work unconsciously or subconsciously (for they certainly were not present in any real sense), the fact remains that the political context of their thoughts would have been far more interesting than the pedigree of their views. In this manner, Dahlen's scholasticism misses the forest for the trees, and the trees for their Latin names.
And yet Dahlen is neither a joyless pedant nor a star-gazing scholar. He begins and ends his book with exuberant lines from Rumi and Sepehri. Behind the seven veils of epistemological jargon there is a heart that beats with genuine love for Iranian mysticism and Islamic purity. Alas, this occulted sentiment expresses itself only in a muffled authorial voice and in passive tense. In half a dozen passages throughout the book the indirect admonitions hint that Sorush could have made other choices “instead of” contributing to the attenuation and demystification of the Islamic tradition. “Instead of developing an exact and systematic theory of ethical behaviour on the Qur anic ethical contents,” Dahlen accuses Sorush of portraying “ethics in terms of human conventions” (p. 237). “Instead of calling for a wholesome return to the traditional system of learning where all sciences possess a sacred aspect and are never divorced from the total religious life of Islam,” Sorush's ideas are castigated as leading “undoubtedly to a desacralisation of Islamic learning” (p. 250). “Instead of making a systematic study of the historical development of the traditional Islamic disciplines, Sorush adopts the conceptual framework and terminology of analytical philosophy” (p. 269). And finally, “Instead of establishing Islamic self-referentiality to respond to what he identifies as the normative closure of traditional legal methodology, he employs the evolutionary dynamics of cognitive openness in order to propose a theoretically alienating exercise in which Islam is ultimately reduced to the confines of Western cognitive matrices” (p. 357). Dahlen's nostalgia for an Islam unadulterated and fiercely defiant against modern ideas is unmistakable. He is dismayed that “instead of” defending the integrity of a self-referential Islam Sorush seems to throw the gates open to secularism and deracination. But he never asks “Why?” Sympathetic Orientalism represented by a few Western observers (and now by Dahlen) bemoans the lack of backbone in Muslim intellectuals charged with preserving the authenticity of the shari a and Islam against the contagion of Occidentosis. But such viewers are unable to see the social and political contexts that make Sorushism and its equivalents in the Islamic world inevitable. Dahlen criticizes Sorush for leaving behind “the most important characteristic of traditional shari a as distinct from modern Western law, namely the ideal that the determination as well as the result of law is the expression of the divine commandment.” He is charged with rendering meaningless “the traditional belief that Islamic law not only regulates man's relationship with his neighbors or the state but also his relationship with God” (p. 228). As if Iran has not been dragged by such hegemonic interpretations of shari a for a quarter-century, through eight years of a ruinous war, international isolation, economic collapse, moral degradation, and the brutalization of the its Muslim and Shi’i subjects. I did not say “citizens”—advisedly.
AHMAD SADRI: Department of Sociology, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Ill.; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org