Reason & Freedom in Islamic Thought
are excerpts from the Keynote Address given by Dr. Abdolkarim Sosroush, at
the CSID Second Annual Conference, held on
The speaker was introduced by Professor Charles E. Butterworth, Program Committee Chair and Director of CSID.
Introduction by Professor
Before turning the floor over to Dr. Soroush, let me add one quick note: a new book, Makers of Contemporary Islam Islam, edited by John Esposito and John Voll, has just been published. It contains a chapter on the thought and impact of Abdolkarim Soroush, as well as much information on other leading political thinkers in the Muslim world.
Address by Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush:
Thank you, Dr. Butterworth and everyone else. Since we are
talking about new books, allow me to note
Things become very difficult and tortuous when one comes to
the concept of democracy and Islam. On one hand,
In the past, Muslims thinkers were not generally faced with
secular traditions; their focus was always on the Islamic tradition, or
that of another religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so
on. Now, however, Muslims are before a new phase of history, where Muslims
must adapt to a great civilization that is not based on
Most of you are probably familiar with prominent reformers
in the Muslim world such as Muhammad Arkoun, Hasan Hanafi, Hamid Naser Abu
Zeid and others. What they are doing is reviving Mu’tazilite
experience in the Sunni Islamic world. As you know, within the
Sunni tradition there are two rival theological
The Ash’arite tradition has produced great poets,
mystics, and especially theologians, but few philosophers. One of
Though there are democratic values in Islam and though there
is no conflict between democracy and Islam on a
What most reformist thinkers in the Sunni world are trying to do is revive the Mu’tazilite school of thought. Their goal is to show that rationality per se is acceptable in the Islamic milieu, even when not based on religion. They strive to demonstrate that there are values that need not be derived from religion.
I am very happy about these developments, as this moves the Sunni world closer to a solution. We once had philosophers, theologians, and jurists who believed that ideas could be independent of Islam without being incompatible with Islam, and today their fertile work is being gradually reassessed around the Muslim world.
Having written on this subject in
Contrast this to the case of my friend in
Isn’t it time that we acknowledge that there are
extra-religious values that are independent of religion, and that we do
not need to justify everything using religious texts or prophetic
tradition? You need only resort to your own reason, we’re now being told,
and not by non-Muslims, liberals, or secularists, but by our Muslim
In a democracy, we need a new epistemological grounding today to calmly and reasonably engage with modern ideas; we need to embrace these new democratic ideas rather than reject them as foreign to Islam. We can appropriate them—they are not the exclusive property of the West—and make them our own. I’m not saying that we should uncritically accept Western ideas, either; all ideas must be carefully examined in light of our tradition.
In fact, my forthcoming book is entitled Reinventing the Mu’tazilite Experiment, so this relates to my current research focus. I think that the Muslim world needs the re-invention and rethinking of Mu’tazilite tradition. Muhammad Arkoun, for example, is keen to reexamine the defeated philosophical movements within the Islamic tradition, giving them the credit and attention that they have been denied in the past. Arkoun is doing this from a postmodern perspective, it is true, but the outcome is welcome, nonetheless.
In an Islamic milieu, there is no contradiction whatsoever
between having a democratic rule and basing it on religious
What is more important is what our motivation is in seeking
political power. Do we do it because it is our religious duty or because
it is our secular duty? If you could convince your people that it is your
religious duty to have a democratic system of governance, you would have
succeeded in resolving the problem and obviating the distinction between
secular rule and religious rule. This is gradually happening in
Islamic thinkers in
Muslims must be, after all, lovers of justice. ‘Adl (justice) is the floor, as it were, of ethics, and ihsan (generosity) is the ceiling. Thus, ethics lies between the two limits of justice and generosity. If we can not attain ihsan, we must at least strive to implement ‘adl in society.
Muslims need to familiarize themselves with the theories of justice, that of the past—this important topic has been the focus of great thinkers since the time of Plato—but we must not forget that justice varies with time and place. We must figure out how justice is to be attained in modern times, under the conditions of modern life.
In the past, the focus of political theory was exclusively
on the existence of a just ruler. A just society was assumed to result
inexorably from the presence and leadership of a just ruler—nothing more
needs to be done beyond giving leadership to this person. This naïve view
of society as depending on personal justice lives on in some societies,
We in the