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Reason & Freedom in Islamic Thought

Keynote Address by Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush: "Reason &Freedom in Islamic Thought" at The CSID 2nd Annual Conference

The following are excerpts from the Keynote Address given by Dr. Abdolkarim Sosroush, at the CSID Second Annual Conference, held on April 7, 2001, at Georgetown University.

The speaker was introduced by Professor Charles E. Butterworth, Program Committee Chair and Director of CSID.

Introduction by Professor Butterworth:

It is a great pleasure to welcome Abdolkarim Soroush to this conference. Dr. Soroush is currently a visiting research associate at the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Normally, he is in Tehran at the Institute for Epistemological Research. Such formal affiliations aside, Abdolkarim Soroush is known above all for his writings on the subject of Islam and democracy, and for trying to bring philosophy and theology, from both Islamic and Western traditions, to bear on those questions.

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
that a book of mine is now in print in English under the title of Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam Islam. There, I talk about the relationship between democracy and Islam. Most of the points I will be discussing today are dealt with in greater detail in this work.

Coming from Iran and its Shi’i tradition, I have a lot of room to introduce philosophical ideas, including extrareligious ideas. Shi’i Islam has long been very comfortable with philosophy and has produced great metaphysical philosophers. The tradition lives on today in Iran, being taught in seminaries and universities across
the country.

Things become very difficult and tortuous when one comes to the concept of democracy and Islam. On one hand,
democracy has its roots in ancient Greece and comes down to us through Western philosophers, political thinkers, leaders, and so on. As a result, democracy seems a foreign idea and, thus, alien to Muslims. On the other, we have our own Islamic tradition, our own interpretation of religion and text. Reconciling the two can seem a
futile and dubious task.

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
religion, i.e., modern Western culture. There are all sorts of secular ideas and theories that must be addressed. Coming to terms with these non-religious ideas is the most challenging task facing Muslims in modern

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 traditions,
the Ash’arite school and the Mu’tazilite school. Since their defeat, the Mu’tazilites have been marginalized in Islamic societies.

The Ash’arite tradition has produced great poets, mystics, and especially theologians, but few philosophers. One of
the main principles of Ash’arite Islam is that there are no objective, external values; all values must come through religious revelation. This is a crucial point for understanding the problem we have at hand, that is, the conflict between democracy and Islam.

Though there are democratic values in Islam and though there is no conflict between democracy and Islam on a
procedural level, the theoretical basis of democracy is problematic. Values of democracy and its criteria are extrareligious values which Ash’arite theologians reject, which makes it very difficult to explore this topic. Due to its secular value system, democracy cannot be reconciled with Islam without first unearthing sources for democratic values within Islam itself. Otherwise, the task is futile, as without this grounding, democracy will never be
acceptable to a religious mind.

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 Iran, I have suffered considerable hardship and criticism, but one consolation is the fact that there is such a large, welcoming audience to these ideas, as there are few epistemological obstacles in the Shi’i tradition to this project. Of course, there is opposition, but it comes largely from dogmatic traditionalists who fear change, as opposed to thinkers with genuine philosophical problems with rationality. The majority of Iranian society does not share the worldview of the dogmatists, so stimulating dialogues and lively philosophical debates are common in Iran among the religious classes as well as in university circles.

Contrast this to the case of my friend in Egypt, Dr. Hamid Nasr Abu-Zeid. As a result of a campaign against him—against which he received very little support from colleagues—he was declared a murtad or apostate. Dr. Abu-Zeid’s offense was writing a book that argues for interpreting the Quran according to the Mu’tazilite tradition. The
Mu’tazlite ideas of this book—which he considers his most important work—ran afoul of the Ash’arite sensibilities of the Egyptian religious establishment.

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 forefathers.
Mu’tazilite thinkers have already explored this area extensively and provided us the tools to solve many of our problems.

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
duties. There is no separation of church and state, as it were. Since Islam enjoins no particular form of governance, the specifics of governance are left in the hands of the people. The Prophet has left no rulings about whether a society should be led by a President, Prime Minister, or other type of leader, for example. It is up to us to decide.

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 Iran.

Islamic thinkers in Iran are working to show society—both the masses and the clerical establishment—that reformers are not heretical or weakening people’s faith in Islam. To the contrary, they argue, reformers are actually strengthening the faith by reminding believers to exercise their religious duties, one of which is to have a democratic system of politics.

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, such as Iran (though, ironically enough, the nation’s constitution tacitly endorses the separation of powers). Emphasis must be shifted from the lone leader to institutions, laws, and processes. There is no alternative to structural justice, we can not return to personal justice. 

We in the Third World have suffered greatly from the absence of freedom. We have complained and written a lot, but justice has not been given enough attention. Now it’s time for us to give prominence to the notion of justice. Justice is the mother of freedom. With structural justice—drawing on our past defeated  traditions—we can have freedom and perhaps eventually create a better political system.


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