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Date:  Aug 16, 2006

In the Name of God




[The paper below was to have been presented by Dr. Soroush at a conference in Tehran on religion and modernity.  In the event, it was read out by his son, because Dr. Soroush was told by the authorities that 'they could not guarantee his security if he attended the conference'.]




Threats and restrictions prevented me from being in your auspicious midst.  The officials who are in charge of security Ė that is to say, the Intelligence Ministry Ė were themselves the heralds of insecurity and the bearers of threats.  And I consented to the breaking of the pitcher in order that the tavern would remain safe.  Despairing of the judiciaryís justice, with these brief words, I refer my plaint instead to the peopleís court and to the judgment of God, so that it can be engraved in our history that this landís guardians were not trusty keepers of the security that we had entrusted to them.  And that they sold our rights, learning and freedom cheaply to the wicked practices of thugs.  And that they tyrannically cast the Abraham of virtue into the fire of vice; forced a pen to cry out a thinkerís grievances; and blackened the white face of justice with the dark tint of ignorance.




Whither Religion in the Modern Age?



Tradition and modernity are two big fallacies of our times; neither tradition nor modernity has a single identity. Neither religion nor history has an unchanging essence. If we maintain that any of these has an essence, we have committed a fallacy, the sole result of which is to muddy the waters and to impede judgment.

The question, 'What does modernity do to religion?', is an extremely confused and confusing question, and to ask it is to fall into the above-mentioned fallacy.  First, we must unravel the question in the manner of analytical philosophers; then, the way will be paved to finding an answer. 

Modernity has neither a spirit nor an essence. Modernity is nothing other than modern science, modern philosophies, modern art, modern politics, modern economics, modern architecture and the like. And, when we ask, What does modernity do with religion, we have in fact mixed dozens of questions together and then called for a single answer - which is to demand the impossible.  Instead, we must ask, What does modern science do with religion? What do modern philosophies do with religion? What does modern politics do with religion?  And so on and so forth.  And we must arrive at a separate verdict in each of these cases. Bringing in the tale of 'modern rationality' will not solve anything either, since modern rationality is what we find manifested in modern science, modern philosophy, modern morality and modern art.  Hence, we will find ourselves back where we started.  Moreover, religion does not have a single instantiation either; do we mean Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or other religions? So, the precise question is, for example, What does modern science do with Islam (or with Christianity)?  When we arrive at this point, the question's scope and, of course, the answer's scope become clear.  We must look at historical experiences to see what modern science has done to Christianity, for example.  The answer is palpable. The modern sciences destroyed or diminished Christianity's credibility.

The quarrel between the Church and modern science in the 15th and 16th centuries was a fateful quarrel indeed and it forced Christianity to become modest; to give ground and retreat into its own sphere; to recognize its limits; to reconsider its claims about human nature, cosmology and theology; and to begin its coexistence with science.  In a word, to become 'more religion-like';  in other words, it moved closer to religion's principal function, which is to regulate the internal relationship between the Creator and His servants.

What modern science will do with Islam is a question that falls within the context of history and its answer is conjectural and a matter of supposition.  Muslims have not yet been tested by this trial and they must not be too overjoyed by the fact that they have not experienced this quarrel yet.  They must contain their Schadenfreude over Christianity's fate.

This same quarrel between science and religion - which undermined and weakened Christianity and the Church - paved the way to secularism too.  That is to say, the Church and religion as an institution had no strength and backing left to remain a player in the arena of power and politics.

Politics is a trial of strength between the powerful and, the moment one of the actors loses his strength and begins gasping for breath, he will automatically disappear from the arena of power and cede his place to another.

Secularism neither comes nor goes on anyone's orders;  it is the forcible outcome of the strengths and weaknesses of the players in the arena of power and this was a fate that was forced upon Christianity.

Let us also not forget another important event that befell Christianity; i.e. the splitting of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism at the beginning of the modern age which also played a huge role in undermining the authority of the Church.  Muslims experienced a split of this kind at the beginning of their history and, ever since, these two divisions - Sunnism and Shi'ism - have more or less remained the same and caused no further upheaval.

Modern philosophies had almost no less of an impact than the sciences in their conflict with religion, with this difference: science's effects were more tangible and philosophy's effects less so.  The tyrannical atmosphere in Islamic lands never allowed a free and natural encounter between these rivals and Islam's strength remained unknown and untested in this arena. This produced a delusory self-satisfaction, from which Muslims have yet to extricate themselves.

Some traditionalists and naive believers are still of the view that Islamic philosophy is the unmistakable king of all the existing philosophies and that modern philosophers are misguided peddlers of fallacies who 'have fallen for fairytales, since they have never seen the truth'.

The modern politics that entered Iranian Islam through the gateway of the constitutional movement was preceded by neither modern science nor modern philosophy.  Hence, a religion that had not had its strengths and weaknesses tested in the battlegrounds of science and philosophy and had not come to recognize its own limits went into battle with politics.  Is it any surprise that this resulted in nothing other than failure, misfortune, flaws and shortcomings?  The result was neither a secular secularism nor a theocratic theocracy.  Anything that was born thereafter was a deformed and imperfect baby that served as a lesson to the servants of God and illustrated the saying that it is best not to give birth at all than to give birth prematurely.

At any rate, this author is as certain as any human being can be that Islam's experience in the modern age will not be very different from that of Christianity and Judaism;  that is to say, totally out of keeping with the views and efforts of the traditionalists, who wish to see a crude and impossible return to the past - and, of course, they wrap their aim in the garment of portentous words and have a ringleader who, once upon a time, used to scan the skies for signs of divine providence using a telescope set up in the office of the Shah's wife and who, today, more arrogant than ever, basks in the limelight of fame with the aid of his eulogists and disciples.  Yes, contrary to the views of these traditionalists and obscurantists, if traditional Islam fails to bring about a balanced, reason-pleasing relationship between knowledge and identity, it will fall into the clutches of tradition-worshippers and truth-less, knowledge-less identity-lovers whose indiscriminate fundamentalism will wreak indiscriminate havoc on the truth.

Christianity's historical experience tells us that modern science, philosophy, art, technology and politics will first suck religion into a whirlpool of powerlessness and ineffectiveness; strip it of its pillars of faith and experience; and unfurl before it a parchment exhibiting all its past good and bad deeds. Then, it will be time for the second stage; i.e. the stage of new interpretations.  And well-wishers will try to re-comprehend their religious heritage in the light of modern human discoveries.  And they will follow the course that religion has always followed: they will seek assistance from non-religious presuppositions and try to adjust and adapt their interpretations to the new conditions via the formulation of new, reasoned opinions [ijtihad]. Then comes the third stage: wishing to return to the purity of the past; abandoning all these mental and theoretical exercises; basking in the traditional heritage; harping on the wronged, lost identity; eulogizing the past's glories; and cursing modern skills and thinking. This return movement has an active and a passive form; traditionalism is its passive form and fundamentalism (which may best be described as opting for identity at the expense of truth) is its active and aggressive form.  The emergence of heterodoxies and heresies can be considered the fourth stage of religion's encounter with modernity.

The emergence of new religious sects, which Christianity has experienced and which has also had an echo in Islam in recent times, is not unrelated to modernity's entry into the realm of religiosity.  And there has always been the fear that some heresies will be described as reasoned opinions [ijtihad] and that some reasoned opinions will be described as heresies.

I believe that there is no judicious observer who has failed to detect similarities, at least in these respects, between Christianity and Islam.

That which is today termed a reassessment of tradition or the reactivation of tradition, first, has no useful meaning and, second, offers us no clear method. Where is the sense in reassessing the ancient natural sciences (which are one of the components of tradition) and trying to reactivate them?  And by what method are we to proceed?  And the same questions apply to the idea of reactivating ancient philosophy. On what basis and to what end?  These are all empty, poorly thought out phrases, which flow amongst us in great volumes today without any result other than to stifle clear questions.

If the intention is the activation of religious tradition, we must make this patently clear and then to state what we mean by religion: religion as an identity or religion as knowledge?  Activating an identity that is lacking in knowledge will only sow the seeds of violent fundamentalism. And if it is a question of activating religious knowledge, this can only be done in the light of modern ideas.

It is in the battleground of this re-comprehension and reinterpretation that religion will demonstrate its internal strength and it is here that it will become clear whether it will endure or fade away. Subsequently, it will either recede into a utilitarian religiosity, turning into one of life's many habits, or become a source of inspiration to gnostic and experiential believers and nourish their agile minds and souls.  Although even experiential faith will not remain safe from gnosticism's mental callisthenics and the endless search for causes will - as Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi put it - plunge its arms into wonder's blood and constrict the path to God.

Those who wish to see the revival of Islamic civilization must not forget that that civilization was a body that had a soul. And the long-slumbering soul of Islam can only be awakened in the battleground of knowledge. Setting our hearts on a corpulent body and a feeble soul recalls the tale of a Solomon who, although dead, continues to lean on a termite-eaten cane.


Peace be upon God's capable people

Abdulkarim Soroush

Ershad Conference Centre

August 2006




Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


journal Aftab, No. 12, Jan-Feb 2002.


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