October 2008

The Merciless Blade of Vilification


 Abdolkarim Soroush



I have the impression that Morad Farhadpour doesn’t attach as much importance to “thoughts” as to peripheral issues. Let me put it more plainly: He doesn’t have the courage to take on thoughts or the competence for learned criticism. And he wraps this lack of courage and competence in a veneer of tirades about motives, digressions into politics and digressions into digressions, sneers and jeers, intimations and insinuations, reprimands and reproaches, and discourtesy and slurs. In this way, he stirs up so much dust as to even blind himself.

By way of a preamble

It was 1975. I’d returned to Iran from Britain to see my friends and relatives. I also visited northeast Iran. In those days, Valian was the deputy custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and, in order to create open spaces, he’d decided to destroy the buildings and markets around the shrine.

My host was a well-travelled, well-spoken man who explained to me that, in this way, the people of Mashhad had found a new leisure activity. They would gather around in groups and wait to see the destruction of the walls and ceilings. And as soon as a wrecker’s crane or a bulldozer smashed into a ceiling or swept down a wall, they would sigh and chant with glee.

This story had remained in the back of my mind until post-modernism and its beloved offspring, deconstruction (dismantling, demolishing, sowing confusion, wrecking and dismembering) - and in an outdated form at that - awakened it again. I couldn’t help but recall what I’d been told about the pleasure that some people derive from violent destruction and the hatred they harbour towards orderliness and growth.

Morad Farhadpour

I’m not just talking about Morad Farhadpour here, but I have to start with him because, for some time now, he has been “having a go at me”, as young people would put it. He assails me, the lowly dervish. He lobs pebbles at me and throws dust in my face. He strikes at my face with his blade. The way he works (or criticizes) has blemishes and flaws that - if they become pervasive - will cause grievous decline and harm. Hence, I’m writing this out of compassion for him (and his fans) and in order to explain and defend myself, and also as a kind of cultural therapy.

If I wanted to “have a go at” him and to criticize his work using his own method, it would be the easiest thing for me to do: I could attribute to him a place in the “relations of power” and seek the assistance of the currently existing conflicts and contradictions. Relying on the principle that “everything is political”, I could cook up a case for him and accuse him of falling into step with the authoritarian power holders and acting as their lackey. Or I could speak of his psychological and behavioural shortcomings, and his political fears and ambitions, and predict that, sooner or later, he’ll be receiving his “comeuppance”.

But this is precisely the method that I’ve chosen to reject and eradicate; so, I cannot stomach it. Hence, it’s best if I pursue my aim directly and frankly [the Persian word for aim/intent is “morad”]. I have the impression that Morad Farhadpour doesn’t attach as much importance to “thoughts” as to peripheral issues. Let me put it more plainly: He doesn’t have the courage to take on thoughts or the competence for learned criticism. And he wraps this lack of courage and competence in a veneer of tirades about motives, digressions into politics and digressions into digressions, sneers and jeers, intimations and insinuations, reprimands and reproaches, and discourtesy and slurs. In this way, he stirs up so much dust as to even blind himself.

Try as you might, you’ll find no trace in his writings of the clement silence of thoughtfulness, but you’ll be deafened by the discourteous din of mockery. Taking pleasure in destroying, hating to provide argumentation, a painful absence of the capacity for analysis and the merciless presence of the blade of vilification are the four main characteristics of his works.

In November 2006, I read out an article, entitled “On Reason”, at a seminar in Rome. There, I spoke briefly of three of reason’s rivals which I had experienced personally; viz., revelation, love and revolution. And I said about revolutions: “In revolutions, love and emotion are invariably given their due, but reason is not so well served… Revolutionaries are fiery idealists who are deluded about what they can achieve. They imagine that they can change traditions and human beings quickly and to replace them with new traditions and new human beings… In revolutions, there is just one single measure for good and bad: the revolution itself. And this is tantamount to abandoning all measures… The task of rational people in the middle of revolutions is not to turn back the revolutionary tide; this is beyond their capabilities. Their task is to reduce the destruction and to guide energies away from chaos and destruction and towards rebuilding. Having experienced a revolution myself and having been charged with responsibilities within it, I have seen this truth firsthand… Of these three-fold rivals of reason – revelation, love and revolution – it is the third that is the most merciless and the most destructive of reason.”

Reacting abruptly (in time and in tone), Morad Farhadpour spoke about “the regression of religious intellectuals” and wrote: “The depiction of revolutions as irrational, by someone who was trying to learn some physics and chemistry abroad and was only transformed into the main ideologue of the ruling current thanks to the revolution - and only by means of presenting a half-baked version of the ideas of people like Popper and Heidegger and repeating Popper’s views about Marxism and psychoanalysis being unscientific, which, as it happens, have no takers in today’s philosophical discussions - is cause for much surprise.”

In other words, he’s telling me simply and sweetly that I’m out of my depth. I lack the education and competence. At best, I was regurgitating the words of Popper (and Heidegger?) without really understanding them. Then, one thing led to another and suddenly, overnight, I turned into “the main ideologue” of the ruling current. And now I’m being an ungrateful wretch and sending reason out to tussle with revolution.

I’ll refrain from replying to him in the same coin of course. Instead of answering all these jeers and taunts, I’ll assume that they’re all correct. But it still remains for me to ask: Why so much discourtesy and disrespect? What do these remarks have to do with the subject? The task is a much easier one. I have made a claim (that revolutions don’t pay reason its due); you, for your part, can make a counterclaim and argue that, quite the reverse, revolutions pay reason more than its due. Smash my claim; why do you smash my head? Even if the things you say are true, they are irrelevant; that is to say, they have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of my claim.

Now, the interesting irony in all this is that the bricks that he’s throwing at me are just helping to raise the wall of my claim. When an ill-educated, incompetent person, whose only capital is his idiocy, turns into the revolution’s main ideologue overnight, is this not the clearest proof that revolutions are irrational? What more powerful argument than this could there be?

They say that people who disparage others suffer from an inferiority complex. This isn’t what I’m saying. What I’m saying is: Don’t use the bullet of disparagement; use the bullet of analysis. And fire it at the utterances, not at the speaker. Take no notice of the peripheral issues; go for the substance. You don’t want to climb up the dilapidated ladder of the anti-Popperians, after all, and win high office and rewards like that quarreller in the early years after the revolution (who, incidentally, is the one you should be calling “the main ideologue of the revolution” since he was trying to use Plato to justify the notion of rule by a cleric). Whatever you want to call this kind of attack, you can’t call it fair and learned criticism. It is vilification, unfairness and defamation. It is a bad lesson to teach to young people who gaze at the destructiveness and are influenced by it.

I don’t know for how long our writers are going to try to outdo each other in attacking Popper. The one who started the hysterical attacks is now remorseful and distraught. He shamefully acknowledges that his quarrels were venomous and unscholarly, and is writing books and articles in a bid to repair the damage done to his name. Does such a man need disciples and emulators?


The curtain rises and Scene II of the play begins: Mohammad Reza Nikfar writes by way of a critique of Expansion of Prophetic Experience that it is “an unimportant endeavour”. Morad Farhadpour catches the pass, seizes the chance and steps unto the stage. He says to Nikfar: How charmingly you spoke and what a pleasing turn of phrase! All these religious intellectuals are “translators”, one and all. They don’t have anything important to say and “a clear example of this kind of love of theorizing and hypothesizing - especially, of the prefabricated variety (which has led today to the socio-political dead-end, futility and barrenness of the debate about religious and non-religious hermeneutics, and the endless repetition of these tiresome debates) - is the theory of the expansion of Prophetic experience.” Everyone has been saying and repeating these hermeneutic-type things for a thousand years anyway. Even “the Wahhabis have done this and are doing it… For example, the payment of alms with money instead of camels is based on these same methods. But this is the sort of thing that Islamic jurists can do much better, without needing any Gadamerian hermeneutics”.

The phrase “prefabricated theories and the futility and barrenness of religious and non-religious hermeneutics” jars with Ra’uf Taheri, who, while offering a favourable assessment of Farhadpour’s views, asks him to reconsider his thoughts and utterances and not to denigrate in this way a group of people who have selflessly and humbly stepped into the arena of religious intellectualism. Taheri tells him that he shouldn’t dismiss these people’s statements, belittle their struggles and efforts with such trite descriptions, pay ransom to the enemy and provide grist to the enemy’s mill, run roughshod over thinkers in the desert of thoughtlessness, treat with harshness non-violent superstition-combating theorists of religion and beat them with the cane of abuse. Taheri asks him to abandon his “mocking attacks” and not to risk snuffing out a lamp that God has lit, scorching his beard in the process and plunging himself into darkness.

Back to Farhadpour

Farhadpour initially offers a remorseful and half-hearted defence of the fact that he invited people to vote for a particular candidate (Hashemi-Rafsanjani) in the presidential elections. His defence is summed in “a telephone call and the binds and constraints of friendship” which pushed him into the jaws of a “political mistake”. Then, he comes to the subject of the “prefabricated theorizing”. Here, the remorse and humility melts away. If he’d sounded a bit muffled up to this point, now, his voice recovers its full sheen and he goes on the attack. He reaffirms what he’d said earlier, but with redoubled conviction.

Farhadpour says that Mojtahed-Shabestari admitted from the start that his work was “the translation and application of a Western theoretical tradition”. As for that other one, with all his big claims and titles, such as “Islam’s Luther”, his Contraction and Expansion is “very similar to the views of Barth, Bultman and Schweitzer,” and the discovery of this similarity is nothing new. And “far from adding any new idea or concept to Bultman’s work, this group of thinkers falls very much short of Bultman in terms of powers of analysis, critical research and a radical view of history”. And the reason for this is the hegemony of analytical philosophy, which is “directly related to the spread of cultural-moral decline, mercantilism and rentierism, and populistic de-politicization”.

And, of course, this is only the beginning. Farhadpour is just warming up to his subject. Next comes the hegemony of neo-liberalism, the logic of the age of cavemen, Islamic mystics and jurists’ institutional link with Oriental despotism, and, then, Hart, Zizek, Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, Hegel, etc. We can only rub our eyes and watch in wonder.

Of course, there’s are things to be grateful for; at least he doesn’t hang Contraction and Expansion straight onto Popper’s coattail from the word go. Instead, he turns to Barth and Bultman and only then does he push analytical philosophers’ heads into the trough of mercantalists and rentiers. And he temporarily sets aside the link between Islamic jurists and Oriental despotism, and decides to butter them up a bit by saying that even Wahhabi jurists are one thousand years ahead of religious intellectuals and are better able to solve the question of camel alms with legal tender. Of course, it makes no difference to him that the problem of “Wahhabi jurists” is not camel alms but the payment of blood money using legal tender instead of camels. It is with this degree of care and diligence that he wants to hop onto a camel’s back and run right over religious intellectualism, leaving it lifeless and flattened in the sand. (Before, they were putting religious intellectualism at the same table as Salman Rushdie. Now, they’re putting it below Wahhabis. Who knows where the next position will be. One aim and so many aspirants!)

I’m not quarrelling with him over substance; I’m quarrelling with his method and approach. I’m saying: What sort of method of criticism is this? Isn’t there the slightest need to explain what the direct link is between rentierism and mercantilism and analytical philosophy? And assuming there is a link, in what way does this undermine analytical philosophy? Mercantalists and rentiers also drink water and use mathematics and literature. Must we also curse food and water and mathematics in view of their link to mercantalists and question their usefulness? As it happens, historians of science say that the field of statistics was linked to the spread of gambling; but does any link whatsoever constitute disparagement and falsification? Just because rentierism is bad (on the basis of what philosophy of morality? What definition of bad? This too requires analytical explication), can we baselessly link anything that we don’t like to it and boldly dump it in the dustbin of our revulsion? Of course, even the points that I’m making now are of the character of analytical philosophy and, presumably, only suited to mercantalists and rentiers!

Yes, Jalaleddin Rumi, too, disliked and took issue with the points and arguments that theologians offered with their “analytical philosophy”, but not in this weak and sloppy way. Moreover, we mustn’t accept unsubstantiated criticism even from Rumi - even with all his magnificence and religiosity - so much the less so from anyone else.

As for the suggestion that “The Expansion of Prophetic Experience is not important”, not important for whom and in relation to what? Is it unimportant because you don’t like it? Certainly, for people who don’t fast during Ramadan, it is unimportant how the new moon is sighted, but is it also unimportant for people who do fast? May God preserve us from all this self-centredness.

As to the business about translated and prefabricated theories, assuming that The Expansion of Prophetic Experience is translated and prefabricated through and through, and that its analytical power is less than that of Barth and Bultman, what does this have to do with its correctness and logic?

The mind boggles at all the irrelevant meanderings. He wanders round countless alleyways and byways about translation, prefabricated theories, mercantilism, rentierism, etc., in order to avoid going down the direct route of responding to the substance of the ideas and arguments.

It goes without saying that the terms “translated” and “prefabricated” require no analysis. They’re clearly aimed at denigrating and undermining the theorist and avoiding the need to respond to the theories. It’s so much easier just to string together a list of names, link everything to everything else, extract everything from everything and, finally, to play a funeral march for logic and analysis, mock analytical philosophers and link them to mercantilists and rentiers. Of course I can understand the pleasure that is to be had in this destructiveness and this jeering belittlement: One gives the impression that one is doing something rather than just being idle. And one impresses upon intellectuals that one has read a thing or two and that one has not only heard of Adorno, Horkheimer, Pannenberg, Zizek, Agamben and Badiou but also sussed out Bultman, Barth and Schweitzer.

Let me also say a few words about the legitimacy and validity of the splendid claim that Contraction and Expansion is a translation of Barth and Bultman’s utterances; or, rather, that it is a weak and feeble version of them. Self-aggrandizement and laying claims to innovativeness have never been part of the repertoire of the author of Contraction and Expansion, and all my works testify to this fact. I’ve left it to historians to look for and reveal the degree of innovation in or external influence on my works. But let me tell Farhadpour that his dismissiveness has caused problems for him here. He’s made it patently clear to me that he’s read neither Contraction and Expansion properly nor Barth and Bultman. Unfortunately, although lining up a list of theologians’ names may be satisfyingly pretentious, it doesn’t actually mean anything or serve any purpose. It reminds me of the tale of the man who kept talking about whales. Someone asked him: Do you know anything about whales? He said: Whales have two horns, like camels. The other fellow replied: I could tell that you didn’t know anything about whales, now I can see that you don’t know anything about camels either (Shams-e Tabrizi’s articles)!

As it happens, in the realm of research, there’s nothing as misleading as superficial similarities. If Morad Farhadpour has glanced at Contraction and Expansion and if he’s had a cursory look at Barth and Bultman and then come to the splendid conclusion that one is the weak and feeble translation of the others, let him give himself a medal for his sloppiness and unmethodical approach; otherwise, such a blatant gaffe doesn’t merit any smugness and self-satisfaction. Does he really imagine that all the efforts made by Iranian religious intellectuals in talking about accidentals and essentials, minimalism and maximalism, identity and truth, contraction and expansion, the imamate and the last Prophet, forms and formlessness, the parrot and the bee, differing readings of religion, religious hermeneutics, human rights, etc. can be summed up in how “camel alms” can be modernized and brought up to date? What delusions! What fantasies! What hot air! And what knowledge! What fairness! What learned assessments! It goes without saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the world and no matter what Contraction and Expansion has to offer, it can never measure up to what Bultman had to say. Its crime is that it is home-grown and having your daughter marry the boy next door never impresses any friends or relatives. All we can do is to wait for a Hafez to come along and say: “The wine I’m offering is next to none but the Sufi just grumbles / I pray that God will protect all good people from being disgruntled!”

Suffice it to say that when I was thinking about and writing Contraction and Expansion I had read neither Bultman nor Gadamer nor Hersch nor Arkoun nor Abu-Zeid. Now, too, when I look at myself and look at them, I can see many differences between us. There are first principles and secondary principles in Contraction and Expansion that are absent from the works of those thinkers. Be that as it may, I make no claims to being ahead of them or offering more than them. And, of course, I have neither translated nor borrowed their ideas. I’ve had my own ideas and offered my own wares and products. “I’ve not uttered a borrowed phrase / I only said what my heart told me to say”

In the realm of creativity and ideas, there have always been instances when various thinkers have come up with similar views and solutions. These similarities are always accompanied by differences, which are just as important, and ignoring them leads to crude assessments. Thomas Kuhn recounted a very interesting story about the simultaneous discovery, in Germany, Britain and France, of the principle of the conservation of energy; it is well worth reading and digesting.

Moreover, all my works testify to the fact that I have never been shy or embarrassed about explaining all the debts that I owe to great thinkers and giants of the past. Now, if someone wants to belittle me and expose me as a “translator” and dismiss my sincere efforts and endeavours, all this does is to present my detractor as someone who derives endless pleasure from putting others down and blowing his own trumpet. All that remains for me to tell him is: The tune you’re playing is very much in the wrong key; you’d have fared a bit better if you’d mentioned Wittgenstein, Quine, Hegel (yes, Hegel) and Rumi.

Luther’s sudden appearance on the scene is also well worth noting. Farhadpour is not alone; there’s someone else who’s also allergic to “Islam’s Luther”. He too is afflicted with rigidity and “the refusal to think”. He seems to have been stuck knee-deep in the mud of Hegel his whole life. I’ve suggested that he be given the title “Machiavelli” to pacify him. I’ve yet to find a suitable title for Farhadpour, but I’m bound to find one eventually since our literature is a treasure trove on the subject of deluded men.

I saw Luther in a dream. He asked: “When are your enemies going to let me rest in peace?” I told him: “Pray that they themselves will find some solace.”

I have gone on for far too long, and my aim was not just to speak about and rebuke Farhadpour. The time has come for me to wrap things up and to thank God for both the friends and the enemies that He has given me.

Abdulkarim Soroush

Maryland, USA, October 2008

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser







Back to Comments by Dr. Soroush