Interview with Abdolkarim Soroush.
By SA’ID RA’I for the Iranian Labour News Agency,January 2004.
Translated by Nilou Mobasser.
Intellectuals: The Powerless Wielders of Power. (page 2 of 3)
SA’ID RA’I: One of the criticisms directed by the Frankfurt School at positivists such as Popper is that (according to them) positivist science seeks to justify and preserve the status quo in the West. The members of the Frankfurt School say, we can use science to change the world. Where do you stand on this? And can an intellectual, who believes that social scientists and intellectuals have a duty to change the world, accept the idea that intellectuals must not seek political power? Whereas one way of bringing about change is, precisely, through the attainment of power?
Soroush: There are several issues here. First, it is true that one way of changing things is to attain political office. But this is not the only way. Secondly, everyone must help bring about change in accordance with their own position and capabilities. If a change in the political situation is not informed by cultural-theoretical change, it is not real change. Both the intellectual and the political officeholder contribute to change, but, as Popper puts it, politicians are the handymen of theoreticians. He believed that Lenin was Marx’s handyman. Marx baked theories in his intellectual furnace and presented them to the public, and Lenin became his best customer and publicist. Moreover, we have change and we have change. Intellectuals steer the ship (and in turbulent waters at that), whereas politicians are responsible for running things on board the ship itself. The two mustn’t be confused.
As to the frequent charge raised by the Frankfurt School against the positivist theory of knowledge, and especially against positivist sociology, that it seeks to preserve the status quo (or that its underlying interest is manipulation and control, according to Habermas), whereas critical theory seeks to criticise the status quo (with the underlying interest being emancipation, again according to Habermas), this has its roots in the Frankfurt School’s view that society and nature are not analogous, in the sense that the laws of nature are immutable and do not change according to our will. Thus, if our theory does not correspond to nature, the theory is falsified and, if it does correspond to nature, it is verified. Whereas such a falsification or verification does not apply to theories within the human sciences, because, if our theory does not correspond to the status quo, it does not necessarily mean that our theory is at fault and that we must change it; we can change society instead to make it correspon d to our theory, because society is a contrivance (and seeing human affairs as a contrivance is one of the main characteristics of post-modernist thought, and this is a long story in itself). It is not like nature, which is beyond our control. They believe, therefore, that, because positivists have based their sociology on the natural sciences and because they take society as it is and do not wish to change it or do not believe it can be changed (assuming it be a natural given), if their theories do not correspond to society, they change their theory; whereas the Frankfurt School is not prepared to subscribe to this view. This is where the idea of the interconnectedness of knowledge and value enters into play and it is this same idea that, unfortunately, gives rise to a ruthless totalitarianism. And this is why the followers of the Frankfurt School are described as neo-Marxists. The idea that, if our theory does not correspond to society, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should condemn the theory – since we can change society to make it correspond to our theory – is regrettably the usual totalitarian view, which we know is also maintained by certain Marxist and neo-Marxist ideologues. This is the view that holds that everything in society is artificial and can be changed through and through.
The following question has to be raised here: when we speak about changing the status quo, what do we want to change? This is where the boundaries between science and philosophy start to become blurred. Science can change things, not philosophy. As Marx put it: « Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it. » In other words, a science has to be created that can change the world. Wittgenstein, too, said: « Philosophy leaves everything in its place. » But the moment we want to determine what can change and what cannot, we immediately enter the grey area between science and philosophy, an area surrounded by barbed wire and full of land mines. What I’m trying to say is that, when it comes to change, we have to be very careful not to mistake something that cannot be changed for something that can and try to change it. All this goes back to our world view, our theology and our theory of knowledge and philosophy. I have always said that the verse by Ha fez « A new world must be built and the human being anew » is more blasphemous than « The wise man said creation can ne’er be faulted » (although both are worth pondering); because the temptation to change the world from top to bottom implies that the universe had a very inept and cruel architect, and that it, therefore, needs a fundamental overhaul. No believer thinks like this or is prepared to speak about changing the world in every particular, claiming to play the role of God. The believer’s position is captured by Jalaleddin Rumi when he says: « Avoid poking your nose into the workings of destiny. » So it all comes down to establishing where the walls marking off society and the world lie beyond which we may not go, and what are the boundaries of that structure known as destiny into which we should not poke our nose. Every science or philosophy must have a position on this and, although the invitation to transform everything seems like a left-wing thing to do, it fails to st and the test of reason. Popper provided a good example: When it’s raining, we can use an umbrella to avoid getting wet; we can think about ways of dispersing the clouds so that the rain will stop; we can set out to dry the seas in order to prevent the rain; or we can go to the very roots of the matter – or so we might imagine – and try to find a way of changing the laws of nature and the entire system governing the universe. All these things constitute change. So, before doing anything else, we have to decide where we’re going to draw the line when it comes to change and where is that red line beyond which we are not prepared to stray. The idea of change is lovely, charming and appealing, but the concomitant actions may be less appealing and sweet.
SA’ID RA’I: Although he distinguishes the role of the scientist from that of the politician, Max Weber seems to suggest that both these roles can be carried out by the same person, as long as he’s careful not to confuse the two. What do you think?
Soroush: I believe that this can only hold true of prophets and no-one else. And, in response to your question, I will paraphrase a poem by Malek-ol-Sho’ara Bahar (unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact words). He says: A tailor who bakes cakes will either sew greasy garments or leave bits of thread in his cakes. Note also that Weber is speaking about scientists, not necessarily about intellectuals in the way I have used the term. All the same, my words should not be taken to mean that a scientist should not have any political sensitivities or that he must not, when appropriate, defend a position outside his specific field of study and expertise or that a politician must not be learned. What I’m trying to say, in the words of Sa’di, is:
Be sure to entrust an action to a wise man
‘though action is not the wise man’s task
And action means precisely the business of government. Or it may be more appropriate to quote Hafez when he says:
Pass me thine goblet, good tavern devotee
Fortunate is the sheikh who owns no retreat
And the intellectual is that sheikh who owns no retreat or the powerless wielder of power. Nevertheless, I have to say that an intellectual’s position is much clearer in Weber’s thinking than in Marx’s. The fact of the matter is that, as long as the relationship between ideas and society is unclear, the situation of the intellectual cannot be clear. This is the key to intellectuals’ ambiguous position in Marxism, as well as the key to their inactivity. The relationship between knowledge and interests, too, is clearer in Habermas than in Marx and this has strengthened the former’s position regarding intellectuals. Weber plainly believes that ideas do not always arise from material circumstances, although material circumstances do play a part in their coming to fruition. Seeing ideas as the servants of class and professional interests (as does Marx) leaves no room for intellectuals. In fact, an intellectual’s criticism may occasionally be directed against his own interests, something that runs totally counte r to Marx’s position.
SA’ID RA’I: You said that the intellectual must pursue his research project and that, in Third World countries, his project is to focus on the rupture between tradition and modernity, and to engage in theoretical innovation in order to resolve this historical problem. If an intellectual enters the arena of politics in such circumstances, he in fact reduces his research project to a political project. Here, apart from the pitfalls you mentioned, the intellectual is confronted with another pitfall (especially in non-democratic societies), in that he is presenting views that lead to structural changes in practice and, inevitably, run up against vested interests. Thus, in societies where tradition is powerful and forms a strong barrier against modernity, the state, which is the representative of those vested interests (objective and subjective), will rise up against him. In effect, because they cannot stand up to him in the field of theory, they will destroy him using politics, because in the arena of politics, that is, in the struggle for power, the rules of the game are different and these rules are generally accepted by the public. Do you agree with this analysis?
Soroush: I accept what you’re saying and I stress that I’m not asking the intellectual to be an isolated figure detached from society and politics. Nonetheless, totalitarian societies impose something on intellectuals that distorts their entire mission but which is incumbent on them for humanitarian reasons. According to the logic of intellectual activity, the intellectual must occupy himself with theoretical work, but, in a society where repression, injustice, discrimination, cheating and duplicity are rife, the intellectual’s conscience and sense of indignation demand that he respond to the cry of a deprived and oppressed nation; in which case, he is unable to fulfil his primary mission. In this way, the creative intellectual becomes the critical, protesting intellectual, or an intellectual revolving around the axis of theoretical reason is reduced to one revolving around pure practical reason. Of course, this is a component of intellectual activity, but it is the smaller component. At any rate, this is one of the harmful side-effects of totalitarian societies, which drag the intellectual down from his productive position and force him to engage in pure protest and criticism. But we mustn’t blame the intellectual for this; society and the state give rise to these harmful side-effects. The intellectual is a human being after all. He has not renounced his humanity to become an intellectual. He has no choice but to perform his duty towards anyone being subjected to injustice by taking a stance and putting himself at their service. On occasion, the stance he adopts may entail the abandonment of all his normal characteristics, special talents and particular genius, and temporary engagement in struggle, a struggle which he may quite possibly lose, thereby forfeiting all his capital. This is an unfortunate side-effect of totalitarian and dictatorial societies. But, if the door is left open to criticism, the clash of ideas allows us to reap maximum benefit from our capital. When an intellectual is able to work in a free society, producing theories and even subjecting his own theories to criticism, both he and society benefit.
SA’ID RA’I: There is a contradiction between your views and your social activities in this respect. I can recall that you were a member of the Cultural Revolution Council, which was an official posting, and you intended to draw up cultural programmes for society at large.
Soroush: I entered the Cultural Revolution Institute in my capacity as an ordinary citizen. I should add that I was sent there by the legitimate leader of a popular revolution to carry out a legitimate task, namely, the transformation of our universities’ educational system (not a cultural revolution in society at large, which is an impossibility and was never the institute’s intention). There can hardly be anything more legitimate than this. We had all been longing for a day when a revolution would occur that would allow us to be of service to the people in some way. I performed a service within the limits of my capabilities and the constraints of human fallibility. You should also recall that the institute was established after the universities had been shut and its purpose was to reopen them, not to close them! I was in a position to rescue the human sciences from the clutches of ill-minded people and to establish courses in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion at our universities f or the very first time, as well as to play an active part in planning and founding a university publishing house. The moment the work took on a different shape and the institute was turned into a council, and when new figures became involved whose records I was familiar with and whose approach I did not like – because I could see cultural fascism in their views and actions – I stepped down and submitted my resignation to Imam Khomeini via Ayatollah Khamenei. I stated clearly then that things were taking an unexpected turn. And so I chose a different road in my aim to be of cultural service and, from 1983 onwards, I did not accept any government posts. I continued to offer my meagre and humble services in all modesty at universities, mosques and so on.
Ideas relating to Contraction and Expansion had also been simmering in my mind since 1981, making it more difficult for me to pursue first tier activities and driving me towards second tier reflection. More importantly, I considered the work of the institute to be at an end and believed that whatever remained to be done ought to be left to the Higher Education Ministry (and the subsequent policies of and direction taken by the Cultural Revolution Council proved me right. We saw and continue to see that the council failed to bring about any cultural transformation at our universities, let alone in society at large.) I became increasingly convinced that « Islamicising universities from above », which was possibly the Cultural Revolution Council’s main task, was ambiguous in conception and impossible in practice. It was the kind of goal whereby the determination to bring it about leads to its disruption or destruction. (The same thing is said by some progressive theologians about « faith », whereby the conscious decision to bring it about actually destroys it, effectively reducing it to a few dry rituals, such that: « Neither rich, for fat will they grow from hunger ».) The complaints from lecturers and students regarding the increasingly wilful and lawless behaviour they were witnessing in the realm of higher education were also disturbing and upsetting me. And then there was the additional fact that the emergence of a number of disagreements between the Cultural Revolution Institute and the Higher Education Ministry meant that the institute had ceased to function. I was looking for a way out as incidents gradually began occurring in society that were not at all in keeping with my intentions and capabilities. And I had neither the power to change them, nor the will to accept them. I lost all interest in working at the institute on the day when I saw people being provoked and encouraged, at Friday prayer ceremonies, to go and wreck the offices of one of the political groupings (the Freedom Movement). The person doing the provoking was Mr (…). And the people did go and wreck the place. The incident turned into a bone that stuck in my throat and it remains there to this day. As far as I’m concerned, that kind of behaviour is never justified, any more than the subsequent silence of the authorities. This is why I decided to be of service in some other field. And unfortunately, just as I had suspected, that black tradition gained in amplitude and, in recent times, universities have witnessed the disgrace of attacks by mindless marauders. And the meaningless (or meaningful) silence of the Cultural Revolution Council has so seared the hearts of this culture-loving land as to turn its hopes into despair, demonstrating how far the council has strayed from our popular, revolutionary slogans. In brief, the institute was never a place suited to the accumulation of power, nor did those turbulent years lend themselves to anyone working in conditions of stability and order; nor yet did I ever seek to benefit from the political advantages of serving in the institute or demand any post or position from anyone on the strength of my services there. And, as God is my witness, I did not receive a penny from the government for my work there. All I earned was a heap of criticism and abuse, either from enemies or from people who did not understand the nature of our work at the institute and who believed that we were shamelessly engaged in purging and settling accounts with lecturers! which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
SA’ID RA’I: If they invited you to become a member of the Cultural Revolution Council today would you still be prepared to accept in the light of what you’ve said about knowledge and power?
Soroush: God be praised, things are such today that they would never ask me, nor would I wish it. In the words of an Arab poet: « Neither will he give it me, nor will I ask him. »
I am speaking again as an ordinary person now, setting aside any assumptions about intellectuals: Fortunately, my past record shows that I have never longed for power or high office. I would, otherwise, have accepted the offer to become higher education minister (put to me by the late Rajai and the late Dr Bahonar). I would not have turned down the invitations to head the Academy or to become the head of the university. I would not have left those posts to those who were eyeing them hungrily. At any rate, nowadays, it would be well nigh impossible for me to join such councils. Since, to all appearances, the members of these councils have to rank among the greatest geniuses and outstanding talents. How would it be possible, otherwise, for a single person to hold several important government posts; be a full time lecturer; travel constantly; be a member of dozens of council and organisations; attend every major and minor conference, gathering and ceremony to deliver speeches; even be the head of a religious school; and still have time to deal with the country’s cultural problems, propose cultural programmes and solve unresolved difficulties? In the early days of the revolution, when ordinary people used to occupy one post each, there might have been something someone like me could do. But today, God be praised, we are blessed with countless multi-talented heroes, and, since I like to operate within the realm of the possible, there’s no place for the likes of me among them. Apart from all this, I don’t know what potion the members of these councils drink as to render them totally insensitive and ineffective, as well as to give them poor eyesight and hearing, such that major incidents can occur before their eyes without them ever seeing, and pained cries can be raised without them ever hearing.
See for yourself: The past few years have provided the most parched and arid climate for this country’s culture. A fascist reading of religion has become prevalent. It has been promulgated and strengthened by certain all-too-transparent sections of the press, with their own faqihs, poets, theoreticians and preachers. Universities have been subjected to assaults by mindless, culture-hating marauders, with the grieving lecturers and students forced to huddle, deaf and dumb, in corners. The radio and television organisation (that institute for hollers and colours) has adopted the most heinous methods to malign the land’s writers, without ever granting any right of defence to those it accuses and sentences. In Qom, one of our most respected, bravest and most open-minded religious authorities, Ayatollah Montazeri, has been the constant target of cruel and unjust attacks. Our books have been afflicted with a diphtheria known as censorship, such that they can only utter desperate groans from congested air tubes and inflamed faces. Despite all this, the people officially in charge of the country’s culture have failed to say a word or lift a finger. They have witnessed all this viciousness but have somehow failed to see any of it. This land’s capital has lain perishing before them in the cruel, bitter wind of repression, but they have failed to breathe the slightest warmth upon it; quite apart from the fact that some of these same officials have actually either kissed the hands of the marauders or taken part in their gatherings to sing their praises.
At the end of the day, we owe the Islamic Republic’s un-splendid record in the arena of official culture to these very same people. In my capacity as a chemist and as someone who values his eyesight and hearing very highly, I am both very determined to avoid drinking that potion and extremely curious to discover its magical and emasculating formulSoroush: At the moment, my prescription for myself is avoidance, but perhaps one day I’ll be able to produce a powerful antidote.
SA’ID RA’I: As you know, your opponents have spoken about « power-seeking intellectualism ». They say that the journal Kiyan behaves like a fully-fledged party and its editorials are more like party declarations than comments made by a cultural publication. Or they say that some of Kiyan’s articles are dedicated to analysing the country’s political groupings. Or that the piece you wrote recently under the title Freedom as Method was entirely political. When all these things are set alongside each other, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you are pursuing political aims and that you are acting like the secretary-general of a political party, of which Kiyan is the official organ. How true is all this?
Soroush: Seeking power is not a bad thing. But I don’t seek power. And Kiyan’s power is based on the strength of the knowledge it disseminates. Anyone familiar with the recent period of cultural repression and the injustices perpetrated against independent thinkers will know very well that this new project, which was threatened by storms from every direction, would not have succeeded other than by the force of the inner strength, theoretical integrity, faith, sincerity and steadfastness of the people involved in the publication. These were the factors that drew the interest of discerning readers, leading to the creation of a powerful force in society. I should add that I find nothing wrong with my writing what you describe as an entirely political article. Although it has been my general policy to tread along our theoretical frontiers, this shouldn’t necessarily prevent me from taking a political stance or raising a cry over an injustice committed against someone in this or that corner or speaking out against some theoretical error or warning against the emergence of religious tyranny and a fascist reading of religion. Only the power hungry are afraid of other people gaining any power.
SA’ID RA’I: One of the differences between modern societies and pre-modern societies is that written culture is favoured in the former, whereas spoken-aural cultural predominates in the latter. Our society is in the process of transition and intellectuals should be, theoretically and practically, paving the way for modernity, rather than seeking to bolster society’s traditional sectors. Over the past decade, roughly 90 per cent of your work has been in spoken form (talks and lectures) and about 10 per cent in written form. And conservative groups have done their best to prevent your lectures. At the same time, it would seem that the spoken form of culture corresponds to party activity, which has the aim, inter alia, of recruiting members and supporters. When it came to choosing between written debates and verbal debates, you chose the former because of the pitfalls of face-to-face debates. Why is it that, in view of the pitfalls of the lecture form of delivery, you have not opted for the written form instead? Is it your intention to create a social base for a particular school of thought and are you basically thinking about practical results? In which case, don’t you think that the school of thought may be dragged into the political arena and thereby decline and disintegrate?
Soroush: What is important to me is to use an effective medium (delivering lectures) to meet the demands of an enthusiastic audience. And if one day the demand ceases, so will my talks and lectures. My lectures are not delivered for the sake of publicising anything, recruiting a clientele or creating a social base, as you put it. It is quite the reverse. A base and a keen audience already exists, making it incumbent on me to repay my debt to them. But what do you mean by the pitfalls of lectures? Are you referring to the intrigues that mindless people have engaged in at universities, the mildest of which has consisted of beating and injuring the innocent students who wished to attend my lectures? We saw how the people answered these mindless marauders and their supporters by casting their votes as they did, with courage and maturity, in the 1997 presidential election. Their votes served as a crushing response to those who believed that their intrigues had submerged the Iranian people in silence, exhaustio n and fear. The intellectual reading of religion showed its superiority over the fascist reading, demonstrating that all the effort and struggle – and those pitfall-ridden lectures, as you put it – were not in vain. I should also remind you that delivering my lectures has never been easy. Finding a physical venue has become increasingly difficult. I used to wonder why the Sufis had abandoned mosques in favour of their own retreats and set up alternative venues. But, when I saw the way in which the number of prayer centres and religious houses were growing before the revolution, I understood the rationale for that separation. I realised that a new identity had come into existence (namely, religious intellectualism) that was being kept out of mosques – just as the Sufis had been – by the traditional clergy. That’s why they had to find alternative venues. On this basis, I don’t see the difficulties aimed at preventing the lectures as a pitfall or danger; I see them as a sign of the growing vigour of an identity that makes some people’s blood boil.
SA’ID RA’I: There has been some talk recently about the distinction between religious intellectuals and clerics that suggests that we should not place any hope on the religious intellectual. What do you think?
Soroush: Resorting to this kind of formula or cliché sNawaatks of an attempt by some people to protect their own professional interests. It has been raised by certain people under the pretext of defending religion and the clergy. These people usually define religious intellectuals as non-clerics, that is, academics and people who’ve studied the modern sciences and happen to be religious. But not every engineer or doctor who is interested in Islam can be described as a religious intellectual. I believe that religious intellectualism selects its members equally from academic circles and the clergy. The prerequisite is that they should be insightful, critical, resistant strugglers, bold, familiar with a multitude of sources, acquainted with modern ideas, and innovative and creative thinkers. Based on this definition, some clerics can be religious intellectuals and some academics are not.
As I’ve said before, every change or revolution in society has two aspects: one is the practical destruction and the other, the theoretical innovation. If the theoretical innovation is lacking, the practical destruction will amount to nothing more than a blind rebellion and there can be no hope of its survival. There are many graduates of universities and seminaries who have played and are playing no role in either theoretical innovation or practical destruction. We must therefore not harbour the idea that anyone who is well educated or has taken up a pen or written a few verses of poetry is an intellectual. As Jalaleddin Rumi put it:
From the many, few are Sufis of this standing
The rest do little more than dwell in his realm
The same can be said of intellectualism. Intellectual work requires boldness, resistance, thought and reflection, as well as familiarity with new ideas and developments. And it goes without saying that being a religious intellectual also requires commitment to religious beliefs. Bearing this in mind, it would be wrong to suggest that we should place no hope on religious intellectuals; all our hopes are on them. The religious community’s burden will never reach its destination and the revolution will not prosper and thrive unless there is this intellectual activity. The reasoning these people use is that some religious intellectuals – that is, those same academics and educated people who are also interested in religion – have eventually turned their backs on religious beliefs and come to oppose clerics and religion; whereas no such misfits and deviants have come from the ranks of the clergy. And the examples they cite are the extremist Forqan group which emerged from the ranks of Shariati’s students and some of the Mojahedin-e Khalq who became left-wing atheists. They believe that examples of this kind demonstrate that religious intellectuals have a hidden defect which gradually comes to light and moves to the fore. If we want to talk about historical examples of this kind, instances of this phenomenon can also be found among the clergy. Wahhabism emerged from the heart of the clergy. The same can be said of Babism. Sheikh Ahmad Ehsai was a great cleric and innovator. Seyyed Kazem Rashti was also a cleric, as was Seyyed Ali Mohammad Bab. In any case, assessments of this nature won’t lead us anywhere; we must take into account the precise definition of religious intellectualism and the demand for it in society. If they entrusted this revolution to that section of the clergy that believes that people should not interfere in politics or that slavery is a good thing, God only knows where we’d end up. On the other hand, someone like Dr Shariati, who was devoted to theoretical innovation, put a great we alth of revitalising religious concepts at the nation’s disposal. It was these concepts and messages that kept the revolutionary spirit alive. Had it not been for the message of equality, fraternity and liberty, the French Revolution would have amounted to little more than a passing rebellion. And had it not been for the message of the abolition of class differences, Russia’s October Revolution would have been little more than an uprising in 1917. No revolution can survive without theoretical innovation and we owe this innovation to intellectuals.
SA’ID RA’I: In speaking about the clergy you said « the clergy make a living from religion » and you added that, by making a living, you didn’t mean just wages and material wealth but any kind of moral or material gain. You also said that the clergy should not amass wealth or attain power through religion. You were of the same opinion when it came to religious intellectuals. In view of all this, are you not trying to turn the clergy into religious intellectuals? Do you think it’s possible?
Soroush: One of the characteristics of religious intellectuals is that they don’t make a living from religion. But the mere fact that someone doesn’t make a living from religion doesn’t turn them into a religious intellectual. What I was trying to say was that the task of guidance should not be linked to recompense, because it undermines the effectiveness of the guidance and makes the guide lose sight of his original purpose. Another way of putting the same point is to say that people’s other-worldly interests should not become entangled with the clergy’s this-worldly interests, otherwise the task of guidance will not achieve the desired end. The difference between a doctor and a cleric is that, in practising medicine, the doctor has this-worldly interests, as does the patient, who wishes to get well. And if the two sides’ this-worldly interests are not met, the doctor-patient relationship is broken. In other words, if the doctor doesn’t perform his work well and the patient fails to benefit from the trea tment, the patient can leave the doctor and go elsewhere. That is to say, there is mutual control. This is not the nature of the relationship between the clergy and the people. So, if the this-worldly interests of the clergy, which has to do with earning a living and making money, becomes entangled with people’s other-worldly interests, which consists of spiritual recompense and heaven, since one side of the relationship cannot be assessed in this world, mutual control becomes impossible. Thus, if the clergy make their living from religion, this will ultimately corrupt the clergy, as well as corrupting the process of preaching and guidance. In such circumstances, the great task initiated by the prophets would be left without any followers and guides. What I wanted to say in the article Liberty and the Clergy is that the clergy can become scholars and a scholar is someone who does not ask for recompense in return for offering guidance. Of course, religious scholars can be religious intellectuals, but th ey aren’t necessarily; just as an academic scholar can be an intellectual, but isn’t necessarily.
SA’ID RA’I: The relationship between religious intellectuals and the clergy is one of the most important theoretical and practical concerns of our day. I sense that, unfortunately, the relationship between the two is deteriorating rapidly. Can this be beneficial to our religious thinking or our national interests? What model would you recommend for the relationship between the two?
Soroush: This is an extremely important question. As I said earlier, if we take intellectualism to mean moving along the gap between tradition and modernity, being insightful and having a powerful capacity for theoretical innovation, both clerics and academics can be intellectuals. By the same token, both academics and clerics may be non-intellectuals. Religious intellectualism selects its members from both the ranks of people who have had a traditional education and people who have had a modern education. In other words, being a religious intellectual is not synonymous with being an academic, any more than being a cleric is synonymous with being a non-intellectual. Therefore, there is no inherent clash or contradiction between intellectuals and clerics. Of course, there are significant differences between academics and clerics, one of the most important of which is – as I said in The Expectations Seminaries Have of Universities – that academic knowledge is by nature critical, whereas clerical know ledge is hermeneutic and non-critical. I should add that, in general, religious intellectuals tend to come from academic backgrounds rather than from clerical ones. In western societies, this rule holds true absolutely. In our own society, too, religious intellectuals’ breeding ground and base has been non-clerical. As I said, religious intellectuals are committed to religion and see it as a respected, accepted and traditional notion. And they try to explore the relationship between this notion and modern knowledge and rationality, which belongs to modernity, and to build a bridge between them based on a critique of tradition and theoretical innovation. But, unfortunately, we have not witnessed this phenomenon among the clergy. This is why we say, there have been very few religious intellectuals among the clergy. Our clergy has not offered us any fresh theoretical ideas on such rich and civilising subjects as right, freedom, justice, happiness, etc. We can still find pieces in praise of slavery written by som e of our prominent clerics and published in various journals. After the revolution, some of our clerics went so far as to throw overboard their former achievements. They turned Motahhari into a Motahhari who follows in the footsteps of the clergy; whereas, before the revolution, Motahhari was marching ahead of the clergy. For example, Motahhari’s good proposal about clerics’ livelihoods was disregarded and some eulogisers said and wrote that it belonged to its own time and place, and was no longer valid! (I have spoken at length about this in the article The Fascist Reading of Religion.) At any rate, it is a basic point of fact that most of the new theoretical concepts that helped the Islamic Revolution were raised by Dr Shariati and people like him. And some of these concepts were of the nature of ideological translations (such as the translation of consultation and allegiance as democracy or the modelling of a new form of government on the concept of the Imamate or the depiction of the relationship b etween citizen and ruler as similar to that between the ummah and the imam, and so on). Basically, the idea of an inherent contradiction between religious intellectuals and clerics is untenable. But the clergy faces many mental and historical impediments that prevent it from joining the ranks of religious intellectuals. I believe that the prevalence of the jurisprudential [fiqhi] spirit and approach within the clergy has, more than any other factor, acted as a constraint, robbing it off the power to engage in fresh thinking on such serious and important subjects as justice, development, etc. Our revolution suffered from a dearth of theory and the only new idea supplied by the clergy during the revolution was the Velayat-e Faqih. And this idea became so rapidly associated with power and inaccessible to criticism as to preclude any debate about it among intellectuals or even among the clergy itself.
Our non-clerical religious intellectuals have a more impressive record in terms of innovative thinking and we hope that, as the climate becomes freer, this record will grow more impressive still. I believe that, for a number of reasons, the religious community is heavily indebted to religious intellectuals:
First, they carry out theoretical innovation. Secondly, they do not earn their living from religion and they set an example to the faithful in terms of integrity and independence. Thirdly, these intellectuals have always had a revitalising effect on our clerics. At the present time, too, when our clergy has become associated with power and is in greater danger of decline, we need religious intellectuals more than ever. I must repeat once again that, when I say religious intellectual, I do not mean anyone who has studied at university. Sad to say, some of the people who did study at universities went begging for posts after the revolution and spoke in the most glowing terms about power. And, having obtained their posts, they trampled their sense of dignity and their consciences underfoot, shut their mouths and forfeited their capital. They witnessed many injustices in this land but did not dare or were too greedy to speak out. What I mean by intellectuals is that group of people who have displayed practical and theoretical courage, fulfilled their sacred and historical duty, taken on the very grave task of reassessing religion in these anxious historical times, and done their utmost to open other people’s eyes to the urgency of this task.
SA’ID RA’I: What kind of relationship can there be between religious intellectuals and the clergy?
Soroush: Religious intellectuals perform their own duty and do not do anything specifically for the clergy, but they can open their eyes to new sources and fields of knowledge and strive to mend their ways; they can warn them against transforming religion and religious thinking into an ideology; they can criticise and ameliorate their activities in their capacity as perceptive and critical observers; and they can serve as an independent group that acts alongside the clergy or facing it as a rival, thus making the clergy react and move. These are all intentional or incidental consequences of religious intellectualism, all of which can be seen as blessings for and beneficial to the clerical community.
SA’ID RA’I: On occasion, religious intellectuals and the clergy both say the same thing at the same time; of course the clergy does so in a traditional language and intellectuals, in an intellectual language. For example, compare Imam Khomeini’s book Velayat-e Faqih with Shariati’s The Ummah and the Imamate. I think they’re effectively the same, but the second is written in an intellectual language, while the first is in a traditional language. In other words, the sense is the same, but it is expressed in two different ways. Don’t you agree?
Soroush: Maybe what Shariati has done in The Ummah and the Imamate lends itself to this kind of interpretation, but the truth of the matter is that a traditional cleric does not play an intellectual role, just as an intellectual doesn’t play the role of a traditional cleric. However, the way is open to clerics and they can be religious intellectuals if they acquire certain characteristics. Imam Khomeini wasn’t a religious intellectual in the accepted and modern sense of the term. He was a cleric and he was well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh], philosophy, exegesis and mysticism, but he wasn’t concerned with modernity and its related philosophical debates. This is why his treatment of the Velayat-e Faqih is entirely jurisprudential [fiqhi] in nature. Of course, in view of his familiarity with mysticism, his fiqh was nurtured by mysticism and, occasionally, by theology. Therefore, he adopted a particular and rare position on the Velayat-e Faqih that was accep ted by only a minority of Shi’i faqihs. On the other side, Dr Shariati was not a faqih or an exegesist or a philosopher. He was a sociologist and a historian, and his primary concern was the empowerment of religion. Modernity was the main issue for Shariati. He had first hand experience of the modern world and he thought about the question of how religion could emerge with pride from such times in the face of the rival schools of thought. He, therefore, set about sifting through and extracting things from religious-cultural sources and trying to resurrect personalities such as Abuzar and Zaynab and turning them into models that religious youths could follow.
In my remarks about Seyyed Jamaleddin Assadabadi, I said that using new concepts in one’s analyses, assessments and recommendations, and basing actions on them is a sign of entry into the modern age. The late Kalim Siddiqi was a Muslim of Pakistani origin living in Britain. He founded the London Muslim Institute and was one of Imam Khomeini’s true followers. He wrote an article in the weekly Crescent in which he depicted as one of Imam Khomeini’s best and most praiseworthy attributes the fact that his mind had not been sullied by modern political concepts. What he meant by these concepts was all the ideas that are discussed by modern thinkers in the fields of politics, economics, etc., such as civil society, human rights and the like. And that was certainly true of Imam Khomeini. The reason he opposed the monarchy was that monarchy is the usurpation of the rights of imams and faqihs. This is one type of opposition, a fiqhi criticism in the framework of the concepts of the old world. Bu t someone else may oppose the monarchy not for these reasons, but because a monarchy does not respect the separation of powers, because absolute power in a single person’s hands is corrupting or because a monarch is not elected by the people (and I don’t mean election in the sense of proxy rule as depicted in the book Vekalat-e Fiqh [Rule of jurisprudence] ). This would be another kind of opposition to monarchy; this time, in the framework of modern concepts. If you look at the reasons given by Na’ini for opposing absolute monarchy, you will see that his reasons are different from those given by modern thinkers. This difference has to do with the difference between the modern world and the old world. I see this difference at times between the works of the late Shariati and the works of clerics.
SA’ID RA’I: I agree, but the point I was trying to make is that, although the defence mounted by Shariati uses modern terms, the outcome is a defence of tradition against modernity and its transformation into an ideological trench, the soldiers in which ultimately supplied the forces of the Islamic Revolution, which was a phenomenon that had distinctly anti-modern tendencies – irrespective of any judgement about modernity itself. And, rather than being based on a fundamental overhaul and revival of tradition, it was a defence that simply relied on a thin veneer of borrowed modern phrases. Can Shariati’s views really be regarded as modern simply by virtue of this limited and superficial veneer?
Soroush: The purpose of using modern concepts is not just for appearances sake but for their contents as well. It would be contradictory or absurd to use modern computer graphics and calculations to build old swords and daggers for use in a super-modern war! It is contradictory to use the modern concept of « right » to nurture « dutiful » individuals! Formulating theories and ensuring that they do not contain contradictions is one thing, their unintended consequences are another thing altogether.