Interview with Abdolkarim Soroush.
Sadri: I would like to ask you for an account of your intellectual development. I am certainly interested in whether you distinguish any turning points, watersheds, or distinct periods in the evolution of your thought.
Soroush: In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful, thank you for giving me this opportunity. Let me first offer a sketchy account of my life. We can then talk about anything you feel need further clarification.
I was born in 1945. My childhood years went by rather uneventfully. The only noteworthy aspect of my early life is my interest in poetry. I remember one of my classmates who had charming handwriting would make several copies of my poems and distribute them among students during break times. Recently a friend showed me an old copy of one of those poems. It was such a delight to discover a relic of my pre-adolescent years.
Sadri: Do you remember any of the poems?
Soroush: I vaguely remember one line that is not entirely disagreeable, even with my current taste in poetry, it is not one of my earliest poems though. It might date back to the last year of my primary school:
Rosebud has chosen its place atop a stem full of thorns,
For it’s a place redolent with danger, and safety it scorns.
The first poet I came to know was Saadi. My father was an admirer of Saadi’s admonitory book of poetry; Boostan. He used to read from the book aloud after his morning prayers. I remember hearing his voice every morning as I sat at breakfast. We had an old copy of Saadi’s complete works home. It was full of misprints. I still know most of Saadi’s prose and poetry by heart. Looking back, I realize that my style of writing is influenced by him. This is definitely attributable to my childhood exposure to his works.
I attended Alavi high school, a private institution dedicated to the dissemination of religious ideas. It had a principal by the name of Mr. Reza Rouzbeh who had a master’s degree in physics. In addition, he had studied Eastern philosophy and knew religious cannon law, Figh’h and Osul. So he was well versed both in traditional seminary studies and in modern science. One of the most salient attributes of Mr. Rouzbeh was his single-minded devotion to reconciling religion and science. At sixteen I attended his extracurricular lessons on the exegesis of the Koran, where he made an all-out effort to derive scientific principles from religious texts. I had great difficulty convincing myself of the cogency of these arguments. I frequently objected as I found his interpretations contrived and forced. Mr. Rouzbeh would patiently listen to my arguments and respond. But his answers rarely persuaded me. These occasional debates focused my attention on the relationship between religion and science from early on. Th e only other noteworthy event of these years was a memorable trip the desert town of Gonabad. There I met the Ghotb or the master of the mystic Sufi order of Khaksari that is also known as Gonabadi. Upon my return, I wrote a fictionalized travelogue entitled “Journey to the Center.” This piece was published in the school newspaper. I no longer own a copy of it.
Upon entering the University of Tehran, I approached a famous Islamic philosopher, Mr. Morteza Motahhari, for instruction. He did not have the time himself, but he introduced me to one of his students, a clergyman and the Imam of one of Tehran’s Mosques, with whom I studied Islamic philosophy for several years. These private instructions proved highly beneficial. It was during these lessons that I became interested in the relationship between philosophy and religion. I distinctly remember that my tutor would initially present a philosophical arguments in a thoroughly logical and cogent fashion and then proceed to demonstrate that religious principles and traditions already contained those rational premises. This method of argumentation convinced me, at the tender age of twenty, that Islam is philosophically sound and unassailable, a belief I retained for several years and sought to bolster through further studies of eastern Philosophy. What happened to revolutionize my opinion is another story. I wrote my first serious unpublished article, “The Philosophy of Evil,” in this period. My mentor showed me the text of an inquiry on the nature of evil and the meaning of suffering. I wrote a detailed treatise on the subject and my teacher sent it out to the inquirer with some corrections. I still have the manuscript of that essay. It must have been written around 1967.
There were other developments during my university years. I was becoming gradually acquainted with science, taking it increasingly more seriously. Also, these years coincided with the events of 1964 and its aftermath. The rise of political struggles and upheavals in Iran made politics unavoidable for university students. Gradually, the despotic nature of the imperial regime was becoming more evident, and the guerrilla groups were starting to gain popularity. Among these the Mojahedin Khalgh (literally, the people’s holy warriors) had a special allure for the religious-minded because of the religious overtones of its rhetoric. That was when the question of the relationship between politics and religion first caught my attention, especially in so far as it contradicted what I had been taught in high school — to avoid politics, an allegedly complex science that could only be mastered after many years of apprenticeship at the feet of such gurus as Winston Churchill; their exact words! However, the events of that bloody and contentious decade taught me otherwise and awakened my political sensibilities.
My familiarity with the teachings of the aforementioned Islamic guerrilla group persuaded me to study Marxist and leftist thought as well. Marxism made its debut in Iran some eighty years ago and was bolstered after the allied invasion of Iran in 1941 which gave the Soviet Union a foothold in Iran. The influence of Marxism continued throughout the reign of the Shah. During most of this era intellectual identity and enterprise was more or less synonymous with Marxism. Although the pro Soviet Communist Party of Iran, the Toudeh party, was formally banned, Marxist thought was quiet prevalent, and a number of prominent Iranian poets had well-known Marxist tendencies. As a result, Marxism had a tremendous appeal as the mainstream modern political ideology. Moreover, the clergy’s exhortations against Marxism had the unintended consequence of intensifying its allure.
Before continuing further let me relate a couple of fleeting experiences during these college years as well. First, from the last year of high school I entered Anjoman e Hojatieh, which was a religious organization that attempted to recruit from religious high schools in general and from Alavi high school in particular. The aim of this group was to face the theological challenge of the Bahai faith. In order to preserve the scientific nature of the polemic it had developed a curriculum of studies that was, on occasion, quite profound. They dealt with the historical origins and texts of the Shiite religion and Bahai faith. The emphasis of this group on Shi’ism in general and on some relatively obscure and esoteric aspects of this religion in particular was intriguing to me. Looking back on my intellectual development, I can trace to this involvement, the origin of my interest in the questions of sectarianism, heterodox interpretations of religious traditions, and the question whether a particular denomin ation brings one closer to the truth of the faith. My involvement with this group was brief because I found its goals not entirely scientific, and I did not relish certain encounters that I did required.
The second event was my exposure to groups that identified themselves as The Koranic Moslems which were active in various neighborhoods of Tehran. They argued that they were beyond the sectarian divisions of Shiite or Sunni schools, and that they held a literal interpretation of the Koran. I used to attend their Koran study sessions, and as a result I became familiar with their arguments, positions, tracts, and texts. These were two relatively fleeting experiences that nevertheless left their mark on my religious and intellectual sensibilities. Throughout these years I continued my study of and companionship with Persian literature, poetry, philosophy, and mysticism, especially the works of Rumi. It was in these years that I was introduced to three contemporary Iranian thinkers as well. The first was the aforementioned Mr. Motahhari. The first work of Motahhari that I read was his annotated interpretation of the late Mr. Tabatabai’s “The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism.” This boo k made a profound impression on me. I can even say that reading this book instilled some kind of a philosophical hubris in me. I took this book as evidence of the indisputable superiority of the Islamic philosophy. I went around believing that “the entire world is under our wings” and that we can fend off any criticism and philosophical argument.
Sadri: I share this experience. I, too, remember the great exuberance that this work provoked in our minds.
Soroush: True, (laughing) I don’t know why; I was approximately twenty-one years old when I read this book. It made me feel that all the conundrums of the world have either yielded their secrets or they will upon the slightest inquiry. This book was, in a sense, my first introduction to Western philosophy as well, for until then I had not attempted a systematic and academic survey of this field. Later I read other works by Mr. Motahhari, but nothing ever rivaled the pure joy I felt from this first reading. Also, I studied the works of one of Motahhari’s mentors, the late Mr. Tabatabai, who was completing his magnum opus; Al Mizan, a comprehensive exegesis of the Koran. During these years I systematically and exhaustively studied several interpretations of the Koran, both from the Shiite and Sunni perspectives. I am still grateful for this experience as most of my interpretive understanding of The Koran belongs to this period. Although I had no interpretive theory of my own, I managed to gain a fa ir knowledge of the interpretive positions of the Islamic scholars. What fascinated me most was the details and intricacies of the differences in interpretation. This is the same point that later on made me reflect on the mystery of the differences of opinion in the exegesis of religious texts. I can assert this sensibility constituted one of the bases of my thesis of contraction and expansion of religious knowledge in which I tried to answer the question why different interpreters disagree on the meaning of a given text.
Sadri: I detect an interesting parallel here. The idea of the meaning of various interpretations of a text occurred to you as you were studying different exegeses of the Koran. The hermeneutic theory in the West, too, is traceable to various interpretations of the bible. It looks like, even before coming into contact with the western hermeneutics, you had independently arrived at a parallel position, that is, the question what causes different interpretations of a sacred text and what are the conditions for arriving at an authentic interpretation of it.
Soroush: This may very well be the case. I have always been interested in the nature of exegeses; not only of the Koran but of works of Hafez and Rumi. These three texts led me to the art of textual interpretation. What you said is entirely accurate, though. My first attempts at interpretation concerned the Koran and an important Sufi text, Mathnavi. Later on, when I combined these insights with my knowledge of the philosophy of science and philosophy of history, I arrived at a relatively comprehensive hermeneutic theory. To tell you the truth, up to the time that I composed the thesis of contraction and expansion I had not studied the hermeneutical theories of scholars such as Hans Gadamer. Indeed, I was struck by the affinity of my positions and those of Mr. Gadamer.
Historians, too, disagree on the interpretation of one historical event. So they grapple with similar issues: Why are there different interpretations of history? Is it possible to write an “ultimate” history of an event? And so on. If we combine these questions and those of textural hermeneutics we would arrive at the intent of my thesis of contraction and expansion that proposes the fundamental openness of a text or an event to a multitude of interpretations and a plurality of readings.
The second great thinker whose ideas impressed me was the late Mehdi Bazargan. I knew him as a politician and a modern scientist with intense religious interests, but I had scant knowledge of his writings until I studied them as a university student. I remember that Bazargan’s book entitled The Infinity of the Infinitely Small l had such an attraction for me that as a chemistry teacher I gave away many copies of it to my best students.
The rise of the late Dr. Shariati and his blockbuster lectures at the Hosseinieh e Ershad coincided with my graduation from the University of Tehran and my conscription for two year of military service. During this time I tried to attend as many of Shariati’s lectures as possible. This continued until the Hosseinieh was shut down by the government. After my military service I served in the southern town of Boushehr for a period of fifteen months as a supervisor in a laboratory for food and drug products. Then I returned to Tehran and engaged in pharNawaateutical research for a few months while preparing to leave for England for postgraduate work.
As I have mentioned in the introduction to one of my books, I took four books along on this trip. Molla Sadra’s Asfar Arba’eh, Feiz Kashani’s Mahajatol Beiza’, Hafez’s Divan, a compendium of his poetry, and Rumi’s Mathnavi. This selection illustrated the major influences on my thought at the time. I forgot to mention this but during my university years I discovered Kashani’s Mahajatol Beiza’, which is a Shiite restatement of Ghazzali’s Ihya ol Olum. This book was readily available to me in the high school’s library. I came into the possession of this eight volume set rather fortuitously. I once delivered a speech in Masjid Al Javad, a rather progressive congregation in north-central Tehran. I was then asked to name a book I would like to receive as a token of the congregation’s appreciation, and I named this book. And ever since, I have never parted company with this book. It was through this book that I was exposed to the ideas of Imam Mohammad Ghazzali. Before this, I had only heard Ghazzli’s name bu t I had no knowledge of his Ehya ol Olum, his Kimiya ye Sa’adat or his other works. Through this work and later on, through Ghazzali’s own writings, I was introduced to his work more closely and seriously.
I spent a year in England working toward a postgraduate degree in analytical chemistry. Then I entered the field of philosophy and history of science. This transition marked a watershed in my intellectual carrier. My philosophical training had in Iran had seldom dealt with the specific issues of modern science, such as atomic theory or the nature of induction, which clearly illustrate the rift between modern science and the Aristotelian science. Neither I nor my Iranian philosophy professors were in a position to address these problems. But the questions continued to preoccupy me. I had always wondered if there was a discipline that dealt with such questions. In England, I went to the psychology department, explained my interests and was told to inquire at the department of Philosophy of Science. I had never heard of the discipline before, I immediately matriculated and found what I had been missing. Philosophy of science deals with the foundations of the modern science. Our curriculum included epistem ology, classical philosophy, and modern philosophy. Prior to this, I had heard of Kant, Hume and so on and had encountered some of their opinions in the philosophical texts such as those of Motahhari and Tabatabai. Now I realized that those treatment were, shall we say, insufficient. Philosophers like Hume and Kant were not only great thinkers in their own right, but they put their stamp on philosophies that emerged centuries later as well. The linguistic philosophy or logical positivism, for example, are based on the philosophies Kant, Hume, and others.
The issues that the philosophy of science considers, — whether science is an accumulative process or value-free, whether people’s prejudgements and world-views affect the course of science, and so on — can be viewed from the perspective of the history of science as well. This discipline explores the development and interaction of scientific ideas in such diverse disciplines as history, physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. The first philosopher of science I encountered was Karl Popper, who was by then retired but his students were quite influential. Professor Post of Chelsea College, who taught philosophy of science, was a close friend of Karl Popper’s and an eloquent interpreter of his philosophy. The year 1974, the year I started my studies in the philosophy of science, coincided with the wider acceptance of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn as well.
Sadri: You mean Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”? Was that not published a few years earlier?
Soroush: Yes, but his book apparently did not find wide circulation until later, especially in England. I remember that the ideas of Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, and Imre Lakatos (whose death coincided with the first year of my studies) dominated class discussions. Among the earlier philosophers, the ideas of Pier Duhem, who had greatly influenced Imre Lakatos, too, were discussed. Later on I moved on to more contemporary philosophers. But those were extracurricular readings. Not only in the philosophy of science but also in mathematics. We were introduced to modern epistemology and logic. For instance, we studied the theories of Church and Goedel.
Sadri: How about symbolic logic? I understand that was quiet popular in those years.
Soroush: I was exposed to mathematical logic, which was one of the main components of my education. I had to pass an examination on it before I could enter the research phase of my studies. Mathematical logic was a completely new discipline for me as well. Set theory had been gradually found its way to Iranian universities, but it was mostly taught in mathematical and technical schools, and its philosophical implications remained implicit.
I did not limit myself to the philosophy of natural science, though. My specialization in University of London was in the philosophy of science, and a prerequisite of the postgraduate program in this field was an advanced degree in one of the natural sciences. I was a chemist, and my classmates were mathematicians, physicians, biologists. They came not only from disparate disciplines but also from different parts of the world. I tried to explore other avenues by applying the ideas of the philosophy of natural sciences to other areas of human knowledge. For instance, I conducted a relatively detailed survey of the philosophy of history, which I consider one of the branches of the philosophy of science. I found that most of the issues that were discussed in philosophy of science were applicable to the philosophy of history. Then I gradually explored the philosophy of social sciences. and the philosophy of religion. This latter interest, however, bloomed somewhat later. Philosophy of science was a true r evelation for me. It opened up new horizons and marked a significant turning point in my intellectual development. It made me question, review, and revise my previous understanding of the Aristotelian philosophy and metaphysics. I like to think of my time in England as “the period of constant contemplation.” I ate, drank, slept, and walked philosophy. I was bombarded by challenging questions and stimulating insights. I was constantly at work sifting, revising, synthesizing, reconciling, and distinguishing different components of my education and knowledge. Particularly, I was grappling with the questions of the relationship between science and philosophy, that is, science and metaphysics. No single waking minute would pass, whether walking, riding on the subway, sitting at home, or working in the library, unless I was struggling with some serious and grand problem.
Sadri: Would you characterize this period more as a distressful and critical period or an exciting and exhilarating one?
Soroush: It was both exciting and stormy. My mind was in constant turmoil. It was also exhilarating because I felt I was making great progress achieving significant breakthroughs in my thought. I distinctly felt the advance; things were gradually falling into place. This left me at once invigorated and frustrated.
During this period, in addition to my academic duties, I was involved in two more activities. The first one was revisiting the works of Rumi. This was a critical period. Rumi had lost most of its freshness and luster for me. I was beginning to question his approach. It had become difficult for me to feel any harmony and congeniality with him. Our paths seemed to be diverging. I started to re-read Rumi, but I had many questions, and it had become difficult for me to enter his world. I often would find his arguments strange, unpalatable, or incredible. But I kept struggling to reconcile the new knowledge with the old sensibilities. My other involvement had to do with developments in Iran, where the political struggle was intensifying. Hosseinieh Ershad had been shut down by the government, Shariati was under arrest, and the political prisoners were on the rise, and the Shah’s regime was openly clashing with the demonstrators. The news of these developments reached us in continuous waves. In the meantime, Shariati’s books had become the fulcrum of education in the ever-expanding Islamic student associations.
Sadri: What period was this?
Soroush: This was around 1973 and 1974. I participated in some of these meetings. I learned from and admired the works of the late Shariati, but I felt they needed to be substantially fleshed out and supplemented before it could become a comprehensive educational text. Some people who were more radical, or at least more vociferous in opposition to the regime of the Shah, expressed their affiliation with the Islamic guerilla group in Iran: Mojahedin. Therefore, in some of these meetings one of the major pamphlet of this group entitled: Shenakht or Epistemology was distributed. I found it rather superficial and propagandistic. My criticism of it led to a criticism of the Marxist ideology as it was introduced in Iran.
As time passed, around 1977, I laid the foundation of a series of books that I completed while I was still in England. The first book in these series was entitled: What is Science, What is Philosophy? followed by Philosophy of History. My lecture series on Critical Observations on Dialectical Opposition was later published and it received with great enthusiasm in Iran. Also, the books entitled: Science and Value and The Dynamic Nature of the Universe were written in this period. The latter was my last publication on traditional metaphysics. It was, thank God, a successful undertaking. Great scholars in the field — Tabatabai, Motahhari, even Khomeini — read and praised the book. In that book, I had attempted to synthesize Molla Sadra’s theory of movement in essence, in a lucid and understandable manner, with some of the insights of the modern philosophers. This was my last dialogue with Molla Sadra. I have not terminated this meditation, but I have not revisited his work in recent years either. Of cou rse, our paths diverged. I have found thinking along those lines increasingly difficult and cumbersome. Consequently, I turned to other methods of thought. Particularly, the historical approach. Naturally, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution gained momentum, I reflected on the relationship between the revolution and religious thought while preparing to return to Iran. My return opened a new chapter in my life, as novel issues and challenges emerged on the horizon.
Sadri: What year was this?
Soroush: Let me see, in September of 1979, a few month after the revolution, I returned to Iran. I was appointed the chair of the department of Islamic culture in Tehran’s Teachers’ College. After the closing of the universities, I became a member of the Advisory Council on Cultural Revolution where I stayed for four years. Later, I resigned from Teacher’s College and became a member of the Academy of Philosophy and finally, the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, a position I still retain.
But before getting further along let me clarify an important point. In the Advisory Council on Cultural Revolution our main task was reopening of the universities. This is a point that is unknown to many people. Universities had been closed for political reasons. It was after this event that the council was appointed by Mr. Khomeini, who was the political leader of the government at the time. This council was composed of seven people and its mandate was to revise the curriculum and to lay down the procedures for reopening universities with the help of the professors who had been released from their routine duties. There were close to one thousand professors who were cooperating with us in different committees of the council. Others joined the Center for Academic Publications. They composed articles, books, translations, and curricula for universities and colleges. The committee, then, was charged with reopening universities, not with closing them, as some have charged. I stayed in the council for four years. I resigned as soon as it turned into the Headquarter of the Cultural Revolution. I no longer saw a role for myself there. The council eventually succeeded in reopening the universities after a year and a half. And I went back to teaching. When I returned to Iran, my first lecture series — “In What Kind of a World Do We Live” — was broadcast from the radio. It later appeared as a book. This period coincided with the postrevolutionary turbulence that verged on political and ideological chaos. These conditions continued for a couple of years until the government gradually reasserted its control.
In this period of unlimited political and ideological freedom people like me were constantly bombarded with inquiries and requests to engage in ideological duels. I accepted some of these challenges in order to clarify my positions to myself and others. For this reason, I consider my entire eighteen years of post-revolutionary thought as a period of unabated intellectual struggle. Throughout this period I attempted to clarify both my own relationship to religion and religiosity, and the relationship of religion to social institutions. In this period, I started to teach philosophy of natural and social sciences. I included philosophies of Winch, Habermas, and Hayek as well as those of Motahhari, Ibn Khaldoun, and others. I also taught Hegel, Herder, and Marx in the context of the philosophy of history. I have not had a chance to edit and publish my notes on this subject matter yet.
Another important subject that I explored was modern theology (kalam jadid.) I that dealt with the relationship among humanity, science, and religion. I initiated this lecture series at the divinity school of the University of Tehran. The need for a new understanding of religion drew many students to these lectures. Modern theology forced me to expand my horizons. Through these studies and reflections, I gradually ordered my thoughts.
Of the works that I regularly recommended to my students was Arthur Koestler’s Sleep Walkers. This book had already been translated, but few actually appreciated it. Koestler, a brilliant journalist, had a secret love of religion. The book brims with wistful longing for religiosity, something he was incapable of feeling because of his Marxist upbringing. It includes excerpts from the correspondences between Galileo, Copernicus, Keppler, and others with the ecclesiastic authorities. Through studying and teaching these materials, I gradually prepared myself to tackle the problem of the conflict between religion and science in particular and the nature of religious understanding in general. I gradually gravitated toward the notions of game and competition. It is conceivable that I had taken this from both Wittgenstein and Kuhn, but in those days I was unaware of this possibility. The main idea was that the world of ideas and opinions constitutes a game, and it is the very nature of this game, rather than its outcome, that is valuable. Competition, cooperation, dialogues, and bickering among scientists advance the procession, the process of science. Therefore, although scientists seek to develop their own theories and advance their own careers, they carry science on their collective shoulders, like an independent entity. I later found that Popper, too, had come close to this approach in his three-worlds theory. This insight led me to distinguish science as a system of ideas from science as a collective and objective activity. Observing scientific debates convinced me that the world of ideas is a world of dialogue. A scientist is engaged in a dialogue even in the solitude of his contemplation. In the first years of the revolution, social sciences and humanities were under attack for being “impure” and “Western” or else insignificant and worthless. I published a series of sixteen articles in their defense. These disciplines stood accused of being responsible for the corruption of the youths and secularization of the new generation. Social sciences and humanities were considered products of corrupting Western thought and as such in need of deep cleansing or else complete purging from the universities. But I thought that the future of the country depended on people who were trained in these disciplines. These persecuted sciences needed a gallant defense. My main effort was to establish that social sciences and humanities areas important and valuable as the natural sciences. These sciences had been considered the repository of what has been dubbed as “the cultural invasion of the West.” In those discussions I alluded to the competitive nature of science and knowledge. My next step was to generalize this concept to religiosity. Thus I entered the domain of the philosophy of religion, armed with an understanding of the philosophy of science.
In addition to modern theology, philosophy of ethics, philosophy of history, and philosophy of experimental sciences, I started a lecture series on Rumi’s Mathnavi at the divinity school of the University of Tehran. This was at once a favorite subject of mine and a popular course with the students. I had the good fortune, thank God, to discuss two books of Mathnavi, that is, about eight thousand lines of poetry in eight consecutive semesters. I supplemented that with three more semesters at another university. These lectures were some of the most enjoyable parts of my work. I would teach these topics in a state of rapture. I felt this in my other lessons as well. I never chose a topic to teach unless I was most interested in it myself. During the teaching of these topics, I learned more than the students, because I worked harder than they did.
Let me recount the four preliminary conditions for my interest in the philosophy of religion: the first one was my self-taught knowledge of the exegeses of the Koran. As I mentioned before, these studies motivated me to question the question why various scholars arrive at different interpretations of the sacred text. Why is it, for example, that the same verse yields different interpretations at the hands of Mo’tazeli and Ash’ari exegetes, without ever leading to a lucid and plausible solution or synthesis. The second element was my familiarity with the works of mystics and politicians. The former argued that the world is an impermanent domain to be abandoned in favor of an inner journey. Religion was understood as the methodology of such a journey. In other words, they considered the affairs of the world and those of religion as mutually exclusive. On the other hand, I witnessed the activities of politically motivated thinkers and activists who favored extracting their political doctrines from religio n. Not only groups such as People’s Mojahedin but also individuals such as Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shariati belonged to this category. Both the world-flight ideology of the Sufis and world-domination ideology of the politicians were extracted from the Koran. Bazargan and Shariati were particularly struck by what they saw as the Moslem abandonment of the worldly aspects of religion and the abdication of the political and social struggle. Thus they proposed a new understanding of religiosity that embraced these aspects. I was more interested in their theoretical positions than their practical and political proposals. I was trying to understand and analyze the new concepts they were using. I wondered why a certain class of interpretations of religious texts rise in a particular time and not in others. My early encounter with the so called scientific interpretations of religion also contributed to my interest in the philosophy of religion. Finally, my understanding of the nature of science as a competitive and col lective process and my subsequent application of this view of scientific knowledge to religious knowledge contributed to my interest in the philosophy of religion. Around this time, I was meeting, on a daily and later a weekly basis, with about ten colleagues who were mostly university professors. it was in one of those sessions that I first formulated twenty theses on the nature of religion and shared them with my friends. Some of these were still in embryonic form but they gradually evolved into a philosophy of religion that emerged as my contraction and expansion thesis.
Sadri: Do you have a copy of it somewhere? I think it would be of utmost importance in retracing the evolution of your thought. By they way, do you remember any of it, off hand?
Soroush: I still have a copy of these twenty or so theses. I do not remember all of them to recite them for you. I remember the first thesis went roughly something like this: Religiosity is people’s understanding of religion just as science is their understanding of nature. This was the first step in separating religion from religious knowledge and you are right about the significance of those theses. The ideas that were first formulated in that document grew, branched out, and developed into different aspects of my present thesis. At any rate, my philosophical understanding of scientific knowledge as a collective and competitive process and my subsequent generalization of this understanding to religious knowledge opened new gates for me. Henceforth, I cast religion as a kind of human knowledge subject to the collectivity and competitiveness of the human soul. I remained mindful of the confrontations of the church with the early scientists and the disparate interpretations of religion by our phil osophers, revivalists, mystics, and politicians. Thus I concentrated on the question of whether religious knowledge is susceptible of some kind of an evolution or, at any rate, change. We know that it is not for the faithful to decide whether religion, as such, evolves, particularly because we Moslems believe that Islam is the final religion. Besides, Muslims would never pretend to be Shari’ or religious lawgivers. So change in religion itself is out of the question. But, at the same time, change is undeniable and should be recognized and explained. In this context, I applied the insights that I had gained from the philosophy of science that all phenomena, to paraphrase philosophers of science, are theory laden, that we view the world through theoretical lenses and thus there is no such thing as a naked event or a brute fact. When we dislike one interpretation of an event, we inevitably replace it with another.
By the way, contrary to popular belief, it was not Popper’s but Quine’s theories on the philosophy of science that guided my explorations of the philosophy of religion. And I reveal it here for the first time. Quine is a philosopher of logic who is still alive and is the focus of much critical attention. His theory is that all science is interconnected and, as such, judged as a whole, not as a collection of individual discrete theories, in the tribunal of senses. This is the opposite of Popper’s thought. Popper, in essence, believes in individual theories appearing, one by one, in the court of experimentation to be assessed by the principle of falsifiability. It was Lakatos who, with the help of Quine’s ideas, developed the notion of “research programs” in science: a whole family of theories, organized in a research program, enter judgement’s court. In my book on Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge I have based one of my main arguments on this thesis. Again, when I was writing that book I was unaware that I was under the influence of Duhem and Quine’s theory; only in retrospect did I perceive this connection. In any case, these were some of the preambles of my thesis of Contraction and Expansion, which I first taught in classes and then published as articles that were later compiled as a book. This thesis poses the question whether there is such a thing as religious knowledge with a collective nature; my answer is affirmative. The contention is, then, that this form of knowledge is, like other forms of knowledge, subject to all the attributes of knowledge. It is human, fallible, evolving, and most important of all, it is constantly in the process of exchange with other forms of knowledge. As such, its inevitable transformations mirror the transformation of science and other domains of human knowledge.
Sadri: Let me interrupt you here to ask you if you remember in what year you formulated these twenty theses?
Soroush: It must have been around 1982 or 1983. I must still have it somewhere, and since I date all my notes, the exact date should be there. Afterwards, I gradually incorporated these ideas into my courses, particularly in modern theology (kalam) which, as you know, deals with skeptical attacks and religious counter attacks. For instance, Marxian or Freudian premises and other ideas that emanate from humanities and social sciences spearhead attacks on theology. This leads to a renewal of theology as it grapples with new questions and ineluctably modernizes its logical arsenal with the help of the disciplines it debates. Thus modern theology, by its very nature is in constant renewal, a process that highlights the relationship of modern theology to other sciences as well. Their interaction resembles the craft of a locksmith who builds both keys and latches. Modern linguistics, for example, can create new problems for religion; take the question whether religious propositions can be meaningful or not. Theologians who try to address this question will inevitably familiarize themselves with the principles of modern philosophy. These were the step- by-step realizations that led me to the statement I quoted earlier: religion is people’s understanding of divinity just as science is people’s understanding of nature.
It sounds rather obvious now but it was not so evident at the beginning. At that time it seemed farfetched to argue that religious knowledge is a variety of human knowledge, subject to change, exchange, contraction, and expansion. Once we look at the scene from above, that is, from a second-order vantage point, we will see believers with a variety of ideas, but religious knowledge as a whole would appear as a mixture of right, wrong, old, and new that floats on like a vast river. I went on articulating different aspects of these arguments in my divinity school lectures. Here again I can reveal, for the first time, that I had a colleague who was also interested in these issues. He would make appointments with me and I would discuss certain aspect of these arguments with him. After a while he told me that my ideas were great but that they were extremely dangerous. He reminded me of the fate of Abdol Razigh of Egypt (who wrote about the relationship of religion and state and whose house was set on fire). However, this same individual went ahead and published the arguments that I had shared with him under his own name. This led me to expedite the publication of these articles. The first edition of the book created a wave of criticism that I included in later editions of these writings.
My continuing contemplation of Rumi made me gradually better acquainted with Sufism. The more I thought about the difference between Ghazzali and Rumi, the more interested I became in the subject. For a while, Ghazzali dominated my mind and soul. Truly, had it not been for Rumi, perhaps no one could have freed me from Ghazzali’s charm. In Ghazzali, I witnessed the fear-based mysticism in its most detailed and eloquent form; in Rumi, I found love-based mysticism; in Hafez the pleasure-based mysticism (or may be no mysticism at all). And I could not find, most unfortunately, a power-based or epic mysticism. This is what I think is lacking in our culture and literature.
Gradually I realized that these are different understandings of religiosity and divinity. Rumi, too, before reaching love-based mysticism and becoming the Rumi we know, had attained fear-based mysticism. He taught me a new kind of religiosity, and through him I discovered a wealth of insights into the nature of humanity, religion, and God that I would not have been able to glean from any other source. As I gained these insights, I discussed them with my students, and I thought they were quite moved. My first and foremost attempt to understand the essence of religion originates in the works of Rumi. Just as my inquiries of the religious cannon was anchored in the works of Ghazzali. Thus I learned the place of ritual and legal religiosity (Figh’h) in the context of religion as a whole. I ultimately realized that there is such a thing as an individual religion based on personal experiences, whose teacher is Rumi; just as there is such a thing as a collective religion which is what Shari’a and Figh’h teach , and which is Ghazzali’s domain. I have other unpublished reflections on the nature of Figh’h and its uneasy relationship with the esoteric dimension of religion. These scattered reflections, published in a number of places, eventually found their way into a books on Ghazzali, Rumi, Hafez, and Shariati, which I entitled the Story of the Lords of Wisdom. I envision other volumes in this series devoted to Saadi, Ibn Khaldoun, and others.
The collective characteristic of religion and the strength of its influence on social life became more obvious to me after the revolution. This led me to further interrogate the thought of the late Dr. Shariati and his ideologization of religion, which I contrasted to the pluralism that was a requirement as well as an outcome of the thesis of Contraction and Expansion. As a result, I arrived at the conclusion that ideologization of religion binds it to a single interpretation and generates a class of “official” interpreters; a conclusion inimical both to Shariati’s intent and to my own thesis of contraction and expansion. I have explicated this in my book: Loftier Than Ideology. I will return to this issue later but first let me mention some scattered ideas I have developed over the past few years.
My work on the philosophy of ethics culminated in the book Fact and Value whose argument is based on a Humean hint concerning the derivation of ought from is. Later on I expanded it with reference to the philosophies of early Motazelis and Ash’aris and some contemporaries such as the late Tabatabai. They remain unpublished. On pure metaphysics, one of my main interests, I have taught a few courses on such significant themes as causality and universals. An example of my contemplations on this subject emerges in the essay on Sense and Essence of Secularism, in which I have argued that secularism has an affinity with nominalism, that is, the philosophy that denies the existence of the universals. I believe that secularism is a subtle notion that can not be summarized in the principle of the separation of the church and state. It has deeper philosophical implications. I have even discovered that the conflict between the mystics and Greek-influenced peripatetic philosophers in the Islamic world may have ori ginated in this debate.
In my early years of return to Iran I published Masked Dogmatism, and The World We Live a compilation of a few articles, including a long essay on the position of the social sciences. I also completed a number of translations. One of my favorite works in this area is my translation of Arthur Burts’ Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. It is a neoclassical work written in 1930s, but it is still accorded great significance in the philosophy and history of science. It contains a profound, eloquent, and readable analysis of the subject matter. I have added a comprehensive introduction to the book, updating it as much as possible. I translated and published another volume on the philosophy of natural sciences and two essays on the philosophy of social sciences, whose authors are Alan Rayan and Danniel Little. Along with these, I published another compilation of articles whose main contribution was the thesis of the theoretical contraction and expansion of Shari’a.
Recently I have had the good fortune to deliver a series of weekly lessons in a couple of the mosques over a period of six years. This was an auspicious opportunity, and I thank God for it. During these sessions, whose main audience were students, I discussed religious matters of the first order — for example, the addresses entitled “The Secret of the Success of the Prophets” and “An Exegesis of Ali’s Address to the Virtuous from the Nahjolbalagheh” which has been published and has gone through several editions. I also gave a series of talks on “the last words of the commander of the faithful Ali to his son Imam Hassan.” This will soon be published and will appear in four volumes, two of which are already out. Occasionally, I have spoken about issues relating to religious occasions such a the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad or one of the Shiite Imams. Some of these have recently appeared in the book form under the title Story of Servitude and Love. My last work on political philosophy: Tolerance and Governance, is a two-volume work that is still under review in the Ministry of Guidance. I hope that it will see the light of the day after requisite editorial changes and necessary compromises. Unfortunately, this book, because of the nature of the issues it addresses has encountered difficulties in the censor’s office. The censors have demanded not only that we eliminate some of the articles but also that we submit the manuscript to a critic of their choice to append his critical remarks. This is an unpalatable and outrageously intolerable condition but we may have to submit to it. My articles on Rouhaniat (the clergy) were supposed to be published in that book. This book was cleared for publication by the ministry of Islamic Guidance only after a “critique” by a well-known religious Fascist was imposed on the publisher as an appendix to the book. These are two articles that have created great uproar, as you know. They were originally published in Kiyan.
Sadri: I believe one of them is published in this volume. Is it not entitled “The expectations of the Hozeh from the University”?
Soroush: No, that is a different article. The articles that actually created the uproar were “Gallantry and the Clergy” and “The Roof of Livelihood on the Pillar of Religion.” The article that is part of the present book was the text of a lecture delivered and published before those two. That too provoked opposition, criticism, and acrimony but not as much as the latter ones. I wrote these articles because I realized that there was a gap in my writings concerning the role of the carriers and bearers of religion — the Rouhaniat or the clergy. That is why in the first of these two articles, I have stated that the clergy are not defined by their erudition or their virtue but by their dependency on religion for their livelihood. This thesis did not sit well with the clergy and was vigorously attacked. Let me add that after I published those articles on “contraction and expansion” in Keyhan Farhangi a Fascistic group took over some cultural institutions, including certain newspapers, and put an end t o that journal. But fortunately some of the managers of that journal launched another one: Kiyan where I continued to publish my work, even some of my poetry. This periodical has met with critical acclaim and wide readership. This venue allowed me to keep up my relationship with a vast stratum of students and intellectuals throughout Iran. Their letters, phone calls, and comments are the source of great delight for me.
I also have had the good fortune to teach a group of seminary students in Qum for a period of two years. My lectures there dealt mainly with modern theology and philosophy of religion. I am delighted that these lectures are still popular, although I no longer have the opportunity, and to put it bluntly, the permission to teach in Qum. This gate, like many others like it, has been closed to me. However, the discussion of philosophy of religion has blossomed in the Qum seminary, and right now two or three journals are published in this area whose managers and contributors are my former students. They would not mention my name and they are not allowed to publish my works, but they pursue my ideas on the philosophy of religion, which has found many enthusiasts. A number of students have been sent from Qum to the universities around the world to study in these areas. In any event, this issue has caught the attention of the students, even professors of the Qum seminary. I find this a positive development and hope it will continue.
Sadri: Thank you for this comprehensive account. You are aware of the attempts to place you in the context of sociopolitical developments of the Islamic world. Some have even gone so far as calling you “the Luther of Islam.” The idea of differentiation of spheres of life — science, religion, politics, and so on — that is the hallmark of your thought may be interpreted as a sign of a colossal change in the Islamic world after a hundred years of grappling with modernity. I mean, is it fair to say that your thought grasps, in theory, what the Islamic world in general and the Iranian people in particular have experienced in the last century or so? I am invoking Hegel’s allegory of the “owl of Minerva” where ideas do not precede but follow the unfolding of the reality they describe. Let me ask you, then, a two-pronged question: How do you assess the impact of the Islamic revivalism in general, and the Islamic revolution of Iran in particular, on your thought; and what affinities do you perceive between your philosophy and the ideas of other Islamic reformists and revivalists?
Soroush: I may not be the best person to comment on all aspects of this question, but I will state a couple of points that occur to me and leave the judgment to you. First, I have always been interested in theoretical issues. I find them engaging and rewarding. However, after the Islamic Revolution, I became interested practical matters as well. Because I clearly realized that those who led our revolution had not thought beyond the downfall of the tyrannical regime of the Shah. Thus they had no appreciation of such issues as global economy, modernity, information-driven administration, and so on. They sincerely believed that if only the rulers were just and well-meaning, society would follow its “natural” course. In the meantime, grandiose claims had been launched without a realistic method of achieving them. We had little more than enticing slogans to offer. The founders and rulers of the revolution were, and still are, mostly professional orators. To many of them success means delivering an imp ressive sermon, attending an elaborate ceremony, and so on. Needless to say, this does not add much to substantive progress. Thus it was that I noticed the need not only for theoretical ground work but also for practical problem-solving.
The second point is that I always follow a single motto. It is rather easy to state but hard to practice. I believe that truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth. They are all the inhabitants of the same house and stars of the same constellation. One truth in one corner of the world has to be harmonious and compatible with all truths elsewhere, or else it is not a truth. That is why I have never tired of my search for truth in other arenas of intellect and opinion. This truthfulness of the world is a blessing indeed, because it instigates constant search and engenders a healthy pluralism. Constantly prompted to wonder whether one’s truth is a complete and comprehensive truth, one scrutinizes it thoroughly and compares it with other kinds of truth, for the condition of a principle’s truthfulness is its harmony with other truths. Thus, in my search for the truth, I became oblivious to whether an idea originated in the East or West, or whether it had ancient or modern origin s. Obviously, we don’t possess all of the truths, and we need other places and people to help unfold different aspects of it. The Islamic Revolution created the impulse in my mind to try and gather others’ truths and our truths under the same umbrella and to solve the theoretical and practical problems we were and still are confronting. My thesis of “contraction and expansion”indicated that for religious texts, we need other kinds of knowledge if our understanding is not to stagnate. Third, since the Islamic Revolution of Iran was based on religious claims, I became increasingly interested in the question of the true place of religion in society. A while back someone asked me about the difference between my project and that of the late Shariati. I replied, without intending to draw a full comparison, “Shariati wanted to make religion plumper, but I want to make it leaner.” The greatest pathology of religion that I have noticed after the revolution is that it has become plump, even swollen. Many claims have b een made in the name of religion and many burdens are put on its shoulders. It is neither possible nor desirable for religion, given its ultimate mission, to carry such a burden. This means purifying religion, making it lighter and more buoyant, in other words, rendering religion more slender by sifting, whittling away, erasing the superfluous layers off the face of religiosity.
Every system has its own weaknesses. A religious society, too, has its own peculiar problems. One of those problems is hypocrisy. The other is ideologization of religion, which means turning it to an instrument of fanaticism and hatred. I have always stated that unity could be achieved as much through kindness as through hatred. Ideology attains this objective through hatred. These, in my view, are the plagues of the religious thought that will become epidemic if they are neglected. These problems are readily identifiable in our nascent religious society, yet our leaders are not only complacent, they unconsciously or otherwise propagate them. We confront reliance on a single source for all of society’s need, in this case, the belief that all our needs can be met in the Koran and religious traditions; there is excessive emphasis on ritual and the legal aspects of religion (Figh’h) a stress on its outward manifestations. These were among the things that commanded my attention after the Islamic Revolution . I even attempted to alert the leaders of our society to the danger inherent in such a situation. Alas, our clerical leaders did not pay sufficient attention to these issues. They treated these criticisms as signs of opposition to the regime and their own power and resisted them.
These prompted me to enter the arena of social criticism. In my attempt to fight the obesity of religion, I engaged in a number of projects, including putting Figh’h in its properly restricted place, separating the fundamental from the tangential and accidental in religion, and distinguishing religion as an individual experience from religion as a collective institution. In all these distinctions I have tried to establish the nature and social position of religion and the nature of our relationship to God. Above all, I have tried to paint a kinder portrait of God’s role in society, so that the revolutionaries can enter peaceful coexistence with him and with one another. Thus I have tried to ameliorate hatred, which some have considered the truth of religiosity. Some people in our society, under Stalinist and fascist influences, have come to believe that the essence of religion is enmity, excommunication, and punishment. They need to be admonished. I have observed that if we can reconcile Islam with rev olution, why not reconcile it with human rights, democracy, and liberty? After all, revolution is an extra-religious concept as well. The reason is that our clergy are unfamiliar with these concepts, and their training has not prepared them to appreciate those traits. I have, therefore, attempted to explain that extra-religious ideas are authentic and autonomously significant and that they even affect the understanding of religion itself. Human rights is one of these important extra-religious concepts, as I have argued in one of the articles in this collection. Although this discussion needs to be settled outside religion, it has a profound influence on one’s understanding of religion.
I can attribute the development of all of these ideas to the advent of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the spread of religious way of life and thought in our society, and the claim of our government to being Islamic. One of the discussions to which I have been very sensitive has been the idea of Islamic state and Islamic government. There is no question that clerical government is meaningless and therefore I have not even discussed it, except in my essay “Liberty and the Clergy,” where I have argued that no clergy, qua clergy, should have worldly privileges, whether political or economic, over other citizens. I have also written on the meaning of religious government. All of these were results of the revolution and events in Iran. They made me think, and I tried to provide theoretical foundations for them.
I repeat, the Islamic government in our society is, unfortunately, a government without theory and doctrine. Thus in the areas of economy, politics, human rights, and international affairs it acts in a haphazard and reactive way. It has built no foundations and principles from which to act meaningfully. Nor does it have time to do so. Even Mr. Khomeini’s later edicts and pronouncements on Figh’h were occasioned by immediate practical concerns. He never found the time to provide theoretical foundations for them. I think we need to build theoretical foundations. If my ideas have met with some success, it is because I address and trace such issues in a theoretically impoverished environment.
Sadri: How about the question of the affinities between your thought and that of other revivalist and reformists? Do you think you have addressed this question adequately?
Soroush: Well, I might have alluded to some of these influences. And there are issues of comparison and contrast that are best left to others to develop. Of course, I can say that I have paid attention to thinkers who have harbored reformist ideas, such as Mohammad Abdoh, Seid Jamal Asad Abadi, Ghazzali, Shah Valiollah Dehlavi, and other reformists and revivalists, including Mr. Khomeini. I have scrutinized their theories to find their different foci and strategies of problem solving.
Sadri: This brings us to the last question: How do you view the future of the Muslims’ intellectual and social life — in other words, what major and essential problems do you find in the path of the next couple of generations of Muslims?
Soroush: This is a huge problem, and I am not sure if I can do justice to it. The theoretical vacuum which I bemoaned in the case of Iran stretches throughout the Islamic world. Let me point out that in one of my unpublished essays, I have distinguished between two kinds of Islam: Islam of identity and Islam of truth. In the former Islam is a guise for cultural identity and a response to what is considered the “crisis of identity.” The latter refers to Islam as a repository of truths that point toward the path of worldly and other-worldly salvation. The Prophet of Islam is thus recognized as the messenger of those truths. The Prophet and other divine messengers originally invited people to a series of truths pointing toward salvation. As people accepted those truths and the religious disciplines that contained them, they gradually developed identities and built civilizations. Developing an identity or a civilization was never the intention of the prophets. The term “civilization” is a construct o f the historians. Moslems, for example, were never aware that they were building or had built a “civilization” until the last century. This is a modern notion. We all know what a boundless and nebulous concept it is and how it can obfuscate judgement.
I fear that Moslems, in their confrontation with Western civilization, wish to turn to Islam as an identity. And this is encouraged by certain Moslem and non-Moslem thinkers alike. I recently reviewed Mr. Huntington’s thesis and noticed that he has invoked a number of civilizations, including Islamic civilization. His notion of a “crisis of identity” in the Islamic world made me even more confident about the veracity of my own judgement. I think one of the greatest theoretical plagues of the Islamic world, in general, is that people are gradually coming to understand Islam as an identity rather than a truth. It is true that Moslems did have an Islamic identity and civilization, but they have not adopted Islam for the sake of identity or civilization. Civilizations are emergent and unintended consequences of the conscious actions of social actors. They are the sum total of material and ideal achievements of many generations. In this respect, they are like the market or language. They cannot issue from the conscious attempts of the few. As Hayek pointed out, these are spontaneous designs. Any intentional attempt would be inimical to the design. I don’t argue that Muslims have no identity but that Islam should not be chosen for the sake of identity. Just as Rumi said, He who sews desires wheat/ Hey will fall out as a treat/ Mohammad ascended for God’s visit/ On his way other angels he did meet.
So, I believe that the Islam of identity should yield to Islam of truth. The latter can coexist with other truths; the former, however, is, by its very nature, belligerent and bellicose. It is the Islam of war, not the Islam of peace. Two identities would fight each other, while two truths would cooperate.
This was the major point, but there are more minute issues as well. There are a number of problems that can be solved only on a global scale. One example of this kind of problem is the institution of slavery. Right now it is banned not only in Islam but all over the world. There is no country that would legislate it or take slaves in the course of the wars. We know that Islam, too, assented to that institution. It was an imposition on Islam on behalf of the dominant world culture that permeated everything, and Islam was no exception. Moslems would be taken as war prisoners and turned into slaves, and they did likewise; there was no way to undermine the institution locally without abrogating it universally. There is a certain category of phenomena that require universal participation. There is a tradition from the prophet of Islam that says: “We are all travelers on a ship; if one person pokes a hole in it, all of us will drown.” This is an excellent allegory, to see all the inhabitants of the globe as co-travelers on a ship. We Moslems have two kinds of problems, local problems and universal problems that are the problems of the humanity as a whole. In my view, right now, problems such as peace, human rights, and women’s rights have turned into global problems. Our thinkers should take this into consideration. Another, even more poignant example is the environment.
Therefore, I am of the opinion that Moslems should consider certain issues as global and tackle them at that level, so that they can reap locally what they have sewn universally. There are, of course, other issues that are local and particular. Universal problems such as technology demand universal solutions. Fortunately, this research-driven age offers a far better opportunity to become familiar with other kinds of beliefs, truths, and solutions. Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, for example, are more readily available for our scrutiny now, and vice versa. We should seize this opportunity and try to clarify our interfaith issues. We should become better at reconciling different truths.
Sadri: You mean an interfaith dialogue, do you not?
Soroush: Absolutely, an interfaith dialogue.
Sadri: Thank you very much.
Soroush: And thank you.