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Islamic Democracy and Islamic Governance

 A summary of remarks by Abdolkarim Soroush and Charles Butterworth at The Middle East Institute, November 21, 2000

On November 21, MEI gathered two scholars, the Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush, visiting professor at Harvard University, and Charles Butterworth, Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland, for a discussion on “Islamic Democracy and Islamic Governance.” The two focused their comments on the arguments in Soroush’s recently published collection of essays in English, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam

Charles Butterworth opened the debate by saying that Soroush was speaking from within Islam and stood as a reformer, whereas there was also a need to speak from outside Islam.  For him, the basic problem that religious thinkers have been facing is how to reconcile things that don’t change with the contingency of the world.  The difficulty is clearly how to reinterpret religion so as to adapt it to the needs of a political system.  Within this frame, Butterworth asserted that the task of political philosophy was not only to think about the best possible regime, but also to think about the goal of this regime.  He argued that, today, it goes without saying that human beings should aspire to freedom and that the best way to attain freedom is democracy.  Freedom should help us to live in a political community peacefully, while other goals, such as pleasure, satisfaction, wealth or honor, do not ensure a peaceful political community.  When studying the origin of a law, either divinely inspired or democratically approved, we have to understand the goal of the legislature in designing the law.  For the American professor, the endeavor to think of freedom as a means, rather than an end, is at the heart of reforms in Iran. 

Abdolkarim Soroush said he has been working for a while on the theme of freedom, and that one cannot understand freedom in Islamic societies without going back to medieval philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, or Ibn Khaldun.  The concept of freedom was not as important at that time as it is today, he said.  As Soroush mentioned, the origin of the world “politics” gives us good insight into this difference.  In Arabic the word siassa means “to care, to control.”  On the other hand, for Anglo-Saxons, the word “politics” finds it origin in the Greek word polis (city), and means “to run a city.”  Thus, for Al-Farabi and the other medieval Islamic philosophers, politics referred to the need to control people.  People needed to be controlled because they were by nature violent, like animals.  Soroush noted, however, that the vision of man in modern philosophy is quite different.  Man is now viewed as essentially good and, as a matter of fact, as entitled to many things.  The need for controls on man’s behavior is seen as an exceptional case.  Moreover, added Soroush, the way men considered themselves has changed.  In the past, men considered themselves as duty-bound, whereas today men think they have more rights than duties. 

Referring to the old definition of man, Ibn Rushd considered prophets as physicians.  People were naturally unhealthy, ill, and they needed to be cured, to be shown the right way.

Soroush went on to discuss the link between religion and freedom in Iran.  In Iran, oppressor regimes based their political power on religion, and as the place of religion in politics grew, the regimes put more pressure on freedom.  As a result, he said people in Iran today view religion as inherently authoritarian.  This is what drives his own work, Soroush said.  The role of the philosophers, in Soroush’s view, is to try to reconcile religion and freedom, to give an understandable new definition of religion and to link democracy and religion.  Soroush wants to convince his fellow citizens that it is possible to be Muslim and to enjoy liberty.  His main task has been to give theoretical foundation to link the immutable aspects of religion to the mutable, changeable aspects of peoples’ everyday lives. 

Following Soroush’s opening remarks, Charles Butterworth responded by citing the work of Al-Farabi, who examined the link between people in a society.  Al-Farabi argued that, to live together, people needed to share opinions broad enough so that they can tolerate others within definite limits.  For Al-Farabi, religion consisted of opinions and actions.  To live together, we need a general set of views of how the universe works, a definition about what is to be good, or to be bad.  This was what religion contributed to politics.  On the eve of the 21st Century, Butterworth argued, we are the stepchildren of Rousseau rather than the stepchildren of Hobbes or Aristotle.  In other words, we believe that human beings are by nature good.  We don’t want to go back to the Hobbesian vision of government’s origin, according to which humans are driven by concupiscence and unbridled desire and that politics is necessary to preserve order.  Butterworth challenged Soroush to elaborate his view of what kinds of bonds tie humans together in community, and what the goal of a political community is. 

Soroush replied that, for him, governments have been divided between democratic and non-democratic governments, and philosophers have always been concerned with the fair distribution of power and wealth.  This is his concern as well.  Soroush examined the discussion between divine legislation and the modern definition of law.  Divine Law, he said, does not reflect the general consent of the people.  As Soroush put it, divine legislation in Islam is said to have been discovered by a few and those discoverers think that they have privileged access to the interpretation of this law.  The certainty of the few leads to their governance of the whole society.  Soroush argued instead that there should be general consent of the governed behind even Sharia Law.  Soroush asserted that every Divine Law has a purpose.  Once one uncovers these purposes, he contented, one has a clearer view of the law itself and can reinterpret it to fit changing modern requirements. 

Soroush stressed that there were two views of religion, a maximalist and a minimalist one.  In the maximalist view, he said, everything has to be derived from religion, and most of the current problems in Islam come from this view.  Soroush maintained that this view had to be replaced by a minimalist view of religion.  This view implies that some values cannot be derived from religion, like respect for human rights.  Even freedom has to be dealt from without religion for Soroush.  Islamic philosophers, he suggested, have to change their definition of man and to concentrate on the idea of justice.  Traditional Islamic philosophers have been looking to necessities, not to contingencies, and have been thinking that nature cannot be changed.  The Iranian thinker argued that the role of reformers was different.  For reformers, contingencies are part of life, politics, and society, and justice requires a change in the relationship between God and law.  In his closing remarks, Soroush said that ideas could be borrowed from outside Islam in this effort, but that they must be adapted to serve the right purposes.  It’s not enough to copy; one also needs to translate these ideas to meet the current needs of Islamic societies.    


This policy brief was prepared by Romain Fremont.   (The Middle East Institute)


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