Interview with Abdolkarim Soroush.


Q: Dr Soroush, you have been away from Iran for some time and we have been deprived. The fact of the matter is, when we look at your works over the past one or two years, we see a common denominator. Ethics of the Gods is a collection of your articles that was published in 2001. Articles such as “Civil Society, Ethical Society” and “An Ethical Critique of Power” have appeared by you. There have also been speeches. I have two in mind in particular: “Reviving the Mu’tazili Experience”, in which you concentrated on the Mu’tazili school as a rational and ethical school of thought, and “The Relationship between Ethics and Political Power”. To which I should add that this time around, when you came to Iran thanks to Moulana Jalal-al-Din Rumi and spoke about him, you referred in your speech to the reasons why Rumi revered silence, among which you mentioned the ethical value of silence to him. The common factor in all these works, which comprises a period of about two years, is ethics. Taking this as the preface for my question, do you accept that, over the past two years, Dr Abdolkarim Soroush’s concern has been “ethics”?

A: You’re right. Yes, I accept that over these two years, too, my concern has been ethics. I say, “over these two years, too”, because ethics has been a subject of interest to me before this as well. Since the revolution, when I came back to Iran, I taught philosophy and ethics at university. The tale of ethics has always been a preoccupation for me and I have never neglected it, whether in the realm of practice or in the realm of theory. I have always tried to direct my students towards reflecting on ethics too.

Q: Where did this lead?

A:It led to the point where the practical dimension of this subject gradually gained prominence in my mind. That is to say, at first, I was teaching the philosophy of ethics more, but, from a certain time, I became more inclined towards the field of ethics.

Q: What was your approach?

A: As you know, the philosophy of ethics is a meta-field; i.e. the philosophy of the field of ethics; whereas the field of ethics is a first order field that pertains directly to action, the external world and human beings’ conduct. In the field of ethics, I have tried to lay particular foundations and, specifically, started from the “self”. That is to say, I taught my students that we have a “self” and an “other”. The field of ethics’ entire concern is to purify the self from the other and, in a sense, to purge the other.

Q: What does this purging the other mean?

A: It means that all the vices are other and are not of the same fabric as we human beings. Even if they penetrate our being, we must drive them out. But the virtues are of the same fabric as us and, when they penetrate our being, they make us more ourselves and make our “self” more stout. This is how people’s behavior is divided into good and bad and values take on a positive or negative aspect. Negative values are those “others” and positive values are the selves.

Q: What drew your interest to ethics?

A: I have always been preoccupied with the question of why we Iranians and, even more so, we Muslims, despite the long, elaborate and sometimes profound debates that we have had and do have about ethics – and it is preached from pulpits, taught in classes and given as advice – why are we so far removed from real ethics? Why – and I hope I’m not causing any offence – are we so unethical? Why is it so prevalent among us to lie, to speak ill of others and to insult people? More importantly, why do we consider the precepts of Islamic jurisprudence [henceforth fiqh] to be superior to and more important than ethical precepts? Or how is it that a practicing Muslim never misses the ritual prayers, but is incapable of controlling his tongue and lies, speaks ill of others and insults people without compunction? Add to this the problem of people’s rights. How is it that some people attach such sanctity to the injunctions of fiqh and religion but, when its comes to other people’s rights, they so easily brush them aside and trample them underfoot?

Q: Well, it would appear that the reasons are not to be found only in ethics itself. One must –

A: Yes, precisely. This was how my attention was gradually drawn from theorizing about the philosophy of ethics and the field of ethics to the social, economic and psychological conditions in which ethical virtues seep into people’s beings and behavior, and I turned to look at how things stood in this respect in our own culture in the past.

Q:In your article “Civil Society, Ethical Society”, you mentioned several reasons for this unethical-ness or I should say, ethical crisis. Please elaborate.

A: I realized that there were reasons behind the tale of the decline of ethics in our midst; I’ll mention two of the most important ones. First, in a particular era, the field of fiqh became particularly dominant. Emphasis was placed on the idea that a Muslim was someone whose conduct was in keeping with fiqh. And, on the whole, the stoutness of fiqh led to the eNawaatiation and sickliness of ethics. This occurred not just in the realm of practice, but also in the realm of theory. If you look at Islamic-Iranian culture, you will see that even a fraction of the books written on fiqh were not written on ethics. Even our thinkers channeled their ideas into the framework of fiqh. Far from ideas being developed to an even greater extent in the framework of ethics, thinking in this field did not even manage to keep up with of the sheer scale of thought in fiqh. This eNawaatiation and sickliness was disastrous.

Q: Of course, this reasoning cannot be used to weaken fiqh; a solution needs to be found instead for the sickly state of ethics. Don’t you agree?

A: Yes. This is why I said that ethical critiques must be encouraged. There must be an ethical critique of fiqh too. Look, when we set ethics aside, fiqh also suffered. This is why I thought of ethical critiques; the ethical critique of many things, including religion, fiqh, power and other subjects. Of course, the field of fiqh needs to be criticized from many different angles, one of the most important of which is the ethical.

Q: Do you have a concrete example in mind?

A: For example, the question of human rights, which is so weak in our fiqh, has a serious ethical dimension. We say that this or that thing is a right. If the right is trampled, it is an injustice. And injustice is a vice and considered unethical. What I’m saying is that fiqhi living has endangered ethical living amongst us.

Q: Well, it seems that my tangential question diverted our discussion. You were going to mention two reasons for the sickliness of ethics. One was the dominance of fiqh. What is the other reason?

A: The second reason is that we lived for centuries – even before the arrival of Islam in Iran – under tyrannical systems and tyrannical systems have many flaws. One of their worst and most horrific flaws is the backwardness of ethics. Ethics does not thrive under tyrannical systems and it is strangulated. Most people believe that tyranny is bad because it oppresses them. Of course, this is one of the vices of tyrannical systems. But, more importantly, tyranny is bad because it oppresses ethics; that is to say, it demolishes ethics. It leaves ethics totally strangulated.

Q: You seem to hold that the tyrant himself turns into the criterion and model for ethics?

A: In tyrannical systems, there is a pyramid. The people form the base and the rulers are at the top. And, since the system is tyrannical, there is no rule for wresting one’s right other than to move closer to the criterion that you mentioned; that is to say, closer to the rulers or to the top of the pyramid. The closer a person moves to the centers of power, the more powerful he becomes. He can then wrest what is his by right and even go beyond it.

Q: What does this going beyond mean?

A: It means trampling all rights, virtues and values for the sake of moving closer to the top of the pyramid. In this way, the people turn into an individual’s ladders and he imagines that everything is exploitable for the sake of gaining power and moving closer to the power holders. This being the case, ethics will be one of tyranny’s first victims.

Unfortunately, we have been faced with both these ills in the course of our history. In a society where a stout fiqh occurs and is combined with a stout tyranny – that is to say, where political tyranny is based on fiqh and fiqh is exercised in a tyrannical way – ethics is doubly constricted and its last breaths are squeezed out of it.

Q: At any rate, an unethical or even anti-ethical act has its own particular function. A person wouldn’t lie if lying didn’t help him achieve the desired end. Perhaps fiqh can be viewed in this same pragmatic or functional light. In other words, it can be said that, in a particular era, fiqh became so functional that it even imposed its hegemony over political philosophy and ethics and left it in the state that it is today. This is not fiqh’s fault, it’s the fault of an unsuitable bedrock.

A: I don’t deny that fiqh has a function. Despite certain objections, I don’t even deny that fiqh serves a function today. What I have problems with is the stoutness of fiqh and at the cost of the eNawaatiation of ethics at that. Otherwise, I don’t hold that the existence and essence of fiqh is fundamentally harmful.

In our society and the history of our culture, people have been given the impression that fiqh can answer all the questions that arise regarding human conduct. Even today I still find individuals who believe that good and bad, too, can be extracted from fiqh and the principles of jurisprudence. And that any question about what a person ought and ought not to do should only be asked from Islamic jurists [henceforth faqihs], because they are the ones who are qualified to answer these questions. This is a false impression that has always carried credence in our society. I have said repeatedly that it was in the light of these same ills in Islamic society that Al-Ghazzali wrote his Revival of the Religious Sciences. In his introduction and the other sections of the book, he points to this problem and notes that fiqh has become so stout as to constrict ethics. Al-Ghazzali is of the opinion that the revival of religion hinges on the revival of religious ethics. This was Al-Ghazzali’s diagnosis at that time. I believe that our problem is the same today. Our religious ethics has become very weak.

Q: It does not seem as if ethics is the only factor.

A: Yes, today all the religious fields are weak. In the current conditions, theology, exegesis, the study of primary principles, etc. have also become both weak and congealed. In a particular era of the history of Islamic culture, immediately after the Prophet of Islam’s demise, religious thought was fluid. If you look at this period, you will find many theoretical, fiqhi and theological schools of thought. There was also a very extensive flow and counter flow of ideas; to an astounding extent. The movement of religious thought at that time was exactly like a volcano that has just become active, with molten material of different shapes and sizes shooting out of it at great speed. But the passage of time cooled and congealed this molten material. We are living in the era of congealment. Our theology, exegesis and study of primary principles have become congealed and amount to nothing more than the rehearsing of formulas. This is why our religious thinking has become weak through and through. We see this weakness in fiqh too. What is regrettable is that this very same weak fiqh has constricted and endangered an even weaker ethics and trampled it underfoot.

Q: At any rate, every era has its own exigencies. At that time, the Muslims themselves hadn’t become consolidated, never mind about their thinking. But, today, we have achieved the consolidation of these subjects. Haven’t we?

A: This is not consolidation, it is congealment. And the fundamental way of making religious thinking active and fluid is to extricate ourselves from this congealment. This, in turn, requires freedom. The precondition for the fluidity of religious thinking, in all its branches, is freedom, without any whys and wherefores. There can be no fluidity based on our present approach and the congealment will continue. Today, if anyone says anything that has a hint of unorthodoxy about it and is slightly against the grain, they attract a host of accusations and suffer the fate that we have seen.

Q: Of course, no-one rejects freedom for the growth and elevation of thought and culture, but freedom, too, has limits that –

A: I don’t mean dissoluteness by freedom either and I doubt that anyone defends freedom in the sense of dissoluteness. But freedom of opinion is the necessary precondition for the revival of those branches, so that we can restore the original fluidity to our religious thought, so that a range of schools of thought in fiqh, theology and exegesis are allowed to emerge and manifest themselves, and everyone can step into the arena and there can be a lively flow and counter flow of ideas, and thinkers can have an open field in which to think. With the gradual development of ideas, many feeble ideas will fade away and genuine, robust ideas will thrive, and we will witness a new fluidity of thought. The fact that so much is said nowadays about the software movement is fine and fitting, but when thinkers fear for their safety and their reputations and can’t even enjoy the basic minimums of life, how can they be expected to step into the field?

Q: If you have no objection, let us talk about ethical critiques. No doubt when you speak about ethical critiques, you have certain assumptions in mind. Before learning what an ethical critique means, we have to know what your assumptions are: why must we be ethical at all and what does being ethical mean, and basic questions of this kind.

A: The most important principle in the field of ethics is that one must be ethical and live an ethical life. If someone asks me, what’s your reason for saying this, I will say that I have no reason; this is an assumption or a basic principle that has to be taken for granted.

Q: I think that no-one has any problem with the idea that people should be ethical, but –

A: I hope no-one has any problem with it. And, if they do, I can’t solve their problem. This is the first principle. It’s like when someone says that the external world does not exist. I’m certain that no philosophical school of thought can answer them; i.e. prove that the external world exists, because there is no reason for it. So, we have to start from a basis or a principle, and that is that I am sitting opposite you and you are sitting opposite me. I exist and you exist. And we are having a reasonable discussion. Now, if you imagine that you’re dreaming and I, too, imagine that I’m dreaming, we can never prove that we exist and that we are talking.

Q: The assumption in ethics that we have to be ethical and live an ethical life is not disputed. But this is where the problem starts –

A: Yes, as Hafez put it, “Love seemed so simple at first, then came manifold problems”. Very well, we have accepted ethics; but what is this ethics? What does living an ethical life mean? Socrates said, “an ill-judged life is not worth living” and this is a fitting thing to say, but what constitutes a well-judged life and what, basically, is judgment, and on what scale do we weigh up our judgments? These are all important questions and it is not easy to answer them. Of course, there is a big and varied range of ethical schools that we can use as our point of departure, and they can determine our stance and approach. But the important thing is the belief that, one way or the other, we have to set off from an ethical position. You have to choose your preferred school of thought. Are you an Aristotelian, a Kantian, a Utilitarian, a deontologist and so on. At any rate, you have to make it clear where you stand. In ethical critiques, too, you have to approach fiqh, power, religion and other matters from your ethical position and criticize them on this basis. Of course, criticizing something means shedding light on things, not carping.

Q: If one can say that criticism is a method, then, an ethical critique means the method of applying values or, to phrase it better, then, an ethical critique means adopting a value-judgment approach. Do you accept this definition?

A: A critique is not a method itself; a critique has a method. That is to say, the critique has to be carried out on the basis of a method. And that consists of standing in a certain position and being armed with notions, concepts and judgments and, then, applying these notions, concepts and judgments to the matter that is being criticized, so that a firm verdict can be issued. Of course, a critique is occasionally used in the sense of revealing a system’s internal inconsistencies and, sometimes, totally tearing a system to pieces is also called a critique. All these things are critiques. For example, there was a time when people undertook a critique of Marxism here and thereby highlighted the system’s internal inconsistencies. They were engaged in a philosophical critique. In other words, they would say that some of the elements in this school of thought are at odds with certain philosophical principles. And sometimes they would apply an ethical critique. They would say that Marxism ultimately leads to a strong concentration of state power and that this concentration produces a terrible dictatorship.

Q: I can understand what you’re saying at the theoretical level, but when I want to put it into practice in a concrete case, I run into problems. Can you elaborate in slightly more concrete terms?

A: When I speak about the ethical critique of fiqh or politics, I am precisely seeking to put theories into practice. For example, we ask, does a velayi system [rule by a faqih] lead to particular vices or not? This is an ethical critique of the velayi political system. If we can show via ethics, sociology and social cause and effect that a velayi system, wittingly or unwittingly, produces certain vices or virtues in society, this constitutes an ethical critique of politics in our country. The same can be said of an ethical critique of tyranny. An ethical critique of democracy would also be the same.

Nowadays, some clerics are presenting an ethical critique of democracy. They say that a democracy would produce a kind of freedom and dissoluteness and this dissoluteness would lead to vices and acts of immorality that we consider ethically reprehensible. This is an ethical critique of democracy. Well, if it is correct, it is truly an ethical critique of democracy.

Today, some Western thinkers and Habermas’s followers in particular criticize modernity. They say that modernity has not done what it promised to do. This, too, is a critique. You promised to make the world prosper, to give people their due rights, to do away with colonialism, to do away with wars between nations, etc., but you did not fulfill your promises.

Q: Exactly the same criticism can be made of religion. In other words, one can say that religion has promised people many things and been unable to fulfill them.

A: This is the maximalist reading of religion. Personally, I believe that religions promised people very few things. But those who favor a maximalist reading of religion believe that religions have promised people many things in this world and the next. This interpretation of religion can be criticized. One can say, what happened to all those promises? People have believed in religions for several thousand years. Have they received what maximalist religion promised them? This religion is easy to attack. This is what I’m saying. One of the ways of reducing these criticisms is to make fewer promises. This is very important. The fewer the promises made, the more likely that they will be kept and responding to criticism will also become easier.

Q: I still can’t come to terms with it all. The ethical critique of power, which you have just spoken about in detail, seeks to show how the structure of power generates injustice and leads to tyranny, and how this tyranny produces vices. How does it work in the case of religion? If we take religion to mean religious people’s understanding or grasp of religious propositions, then, what does an ethical critique of religion entail?

A: Let us define religion in another way. I don’t object to the way you defined religion, but I think that, in this instance, you’ve defined it very narrowly. Religion has at least two arenas; one is the internal and the other, the external. The internal aspect of religion relates to people’s religious experiences and the fact that people consider themselves to be the servants of God and develop a particular kind of ethics within themselves. This encompasses the arena of faith, belief and religious experience, and makes the individual have particular dispositions and a particular relationship with being. But the external aspect of religiosity is something else. When these same individuals, who have religious experiences and particular dispositions, come together and live in the same community, their external life takes on a particular condition and state, such that their situation will differ from that of people who do not hold the same views. This external aspect, which is the organizational aspect of religion, creates a collective identity for believers and this collective identity hinges on belonging to a specific congregation. This gives rise to a series of new tenets that are in no way present in the internal aspect of religion. On the basis of this explanation, both aspects of religion can be subjected to ethical critiques.

Q: In what sense? You mean to say that, on the internal aspect, we can criticize believers’ religious experiences and, on the external aspect –

A: I’ll give an example. In contemporary times, the most renowned critics of the internal aspect of religion are atheistic existentialists. They believe that religion in the sense of the relationship between God and his servants is very unethical, because it invites the limited human being to be reduced to zero before an infinite God. It reduces human beings to zero in order to bring an infinite God into people’s beings and lives. They find this unethical and they say that, in order for human beings to remain human, they must be God-less and forsake God. The ethical critique of religion for these thinkers is based on the impossibility of coexistence of an infinite being and a finite being. They say that when an infinite God enters the scene, finite human beings are forced to flee and nothing is left of them.

As to ethical critiques of the external aspect of religion, they are as clear as the midday sun. Marxists criticize organized religion in one way and liberals in another way. Many people are of the opinion that fundamentalism arises from organized religion. The late Shariati, who believed that the clergy belong to organized religion, criticized this aspect of religion. Ethical critiques of the external aspect ultimately seek to show what vices organized or institutionalized religion are imbued with and what vices they generate.

Q: What are the criteria used in these ethical critiques? That is to say, what device do the ethical critics use? Collective wisdom, conventional norms, metaphysical foundations or something else? What is the basis of their value-judgments?

A: We subject a system to an ethical critique based on the ethical criteria that we hold –

Q: It all seems very vague.

A: Look, we believe that the integrity of human beings has to be preserved. Now, if something comes and breaks human beings and crushes them, we do an ethical critique and we say that it produces a vice. We say that tyranny is bad because it robs human beings of their integrity and crushes them. The late Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who criticized slavery, based it on the fact that, in slavery, human beings are crushed. Their sanctity, integrity and dignity are reduced to zero. As you know, Kant believed that human beings are ends not means. This is an ethical principle in Kant’s philosophical system. If you accept this principle, you can, on this basis, criticize any system that posits human beings as means and views them instrumentally, and you can say that the system is unethical. In brief, you have to derive the criterion for your ethical critique from the ethical system to which you subscribe.

Q: In a recent newspaper interview, you described yourself as a nominalist. Is there not a contradiction between nominalist ideas, which consider universals to be names only, and ethics, which basically deals with universals?

A: Let me clarify things a bit. In that interview and in a number of my speeches I’ve said that I consider my views to be closer to nominalism. I was thinking about the tale of realism versus nominalism nearly 20 years ago. At any rate, I decided that I had to opt for a position, because this is a very basic and fundamental matter. I looked at the two sides’ arguments and thought about this issue for years. Ultimately, I inclined towards nominalism or it might be more appropriate if I say: nominalism was more pleasing to me; to which I should add that nominalism also explains the plurality in the world better. This nominalism absolutely does not harm ethics and ethical values. In other words, they stay where they are.

Q: It seems that the two positions are equally acceptable or maybe I should say equally rejectable. They are antinomies, aren’t they?

A: Yes, they are antinomies. We can match any reason we give against realism with a reason against nominalism. This is the way things are with metaphysics. In metaphysical philosophy, establishing what constitutes concrete proof is impossible. This is why one cannot become either a realist or a nominalist on the basis of reasoning. Philosophy is not meant to solve this question at all. This is what Wittgenstein used to say and I think it is very correct: “Philosophy leaves everything in its place.” In other words, it does not change or displace anything in this world. I believe that this definition is very true of metaphysical philosophy. Whatever metaphysical principle you hold, the external world remains the external world and events remain the same events.

It is the same with ethics. In other words, I can say that, in terms of metaphysics, I’m closer to nominalism. But this doesn’t harm either ethics or politics; it will even untie a few knots in these areas. In fact, philosophy is the same thing as untying knots, in the sense that we do not expect all the knots to be untied, because then philosophers would become unemployed. Even if, one day, all the currently existing knots were untied, philosophers themselves would be the first to create some fresh knots so that future philosophers could untie them.

Q: At any rate, your particular approach to ethics is interesting. You present justice as an aggregate of ethical virtues sitting alongside one another. Then, you consider lying and truth-telling to be the natural names of actions and say that a lie or a truth can themselves be just or unjust. It seems that, in this approach, which is somewhat Aristotelian, nominalist ideas can enter the arena and have a positive or negative impact.

A: Yes, this is my position. I believe that justice is a redundant virtue; that is to say, it is not itself a virtue. Justice itself is not an ethical value; rather, an aggregate of ethical values is justice. Of course, although this position equips us for ethical critiques, it does not by any means blunt criticism as a tool.

Q: On this basis, it would appear that you consider ethics to be something that exceeds or is stouter than religion. Or, at least, you don’t consider religion to be the source of ethics. Hence, the question arises: what is the sources of ethics and where do its foundations lie?

A: It stands to reason that ethics pertains to human conduct and, if there are no human beings, ethics is meaningless. We don’t consider animal behavior ethical because they aren’t human. Animal behavior does not admit of good and bad; the same can be said of angels. But, when it comes to human beings, their behavior is ethical because they have good and bad intentions, and they understand “ought” and “ought not”. Hence, the foundation of ethics, i.e. the thing that has made ethics possible, is the existence of human beings. If it weren’t for this being, we wouldn’t have ethics either. This is the basis of ethics. As to the question of where “ought” and “ought not” come from or what do good and bad mean and what is the source of duty, this is itself a prevalent debate in the philosophy of ethics, on which different schools offer different answers, such that each one of them subscribes to a different basis for ethics.

Q:I raised this question because I know that you hold that there are different manners and ethics. Assuming that we say that there are different manners, can we not maintain that a non-civil society, too, has its own particular manners or that a tyrannical system has its own particular manners? On this basis, how can you consider civil society more ethical than non-civil society?

A: Yes, of course, we have different manners and ethics. Every sphere has its own particular manners. But remember: in a civil society, too, we encounter instances of unsuitable, unethical and ill-mannered conduct. I have said that we consider some things, such as tyranny, unethical. Of course, this is because they inherently lead to injustice. We spoke about this at length. This is a basic assumption; in other words, we equate these things with unethical-ness and ill-mannered-ness. This sits alongside that initial basic assumption: “one must live an ethical life”.


Interview by Sa’id Ra’i for the Iranian Labour News Agency,January 2004.

Translated by Nilou Mobasser