An interview with Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush
By Amir Hossein Khodaparast
Q. Let’s explore the relationship between religion and modernity. You’ve thought a great deal about this subject and you’ve have discussed it in your writings. As the first question, can I ask you to explain what the constituents of modernity are and what relationship do they establish with tradition?
A. I believe that any list of the constituents of modernity that we draw up will be a provisional and incomplete list, in the sense that there can be a whole variety of lists of modernity’s constituents. But, before going into the question of modernity’s constituents, I’d like to explain and underline one point: speaking about ‘modernity’, ‘tradition’, ‘rationality’, ‘the West’ and the like in this general sense will not get us anywhere. When we say ‘modern rationality’ or ‘modernity’ or ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional rationality’, these are all extremely condensed and ambiguous terms. And the cause of this ambiguity is not that we don’t know the meaning of rationality, tradition or modernity; the cause is that they contain or subsume dozens, no, hundreds of issues. When we refer to them or issue verdicts about them as a single term or concept, we commit a fallacy that logicians used to describe as the fallacy of ‘subsuming many issues under a single issue’. In other words, throwing dozens of issues into a single box and subjecting them all to a single verdict, thereby causing mental confusion and muddying the waters in such a way as to prevent clear judgment. I’d like to avoid these kinds of disorders and ambiguities. I prefer to proceed on the basis of the wise phrase in the Bible that says: Know a tree by its fruit. I believe that we mustn’t assign an independent identity to ‘tradition’, ‘modernity’ ‘the West’, ‘rationality’ or any other concept of this kind, as if God had created something called ‘modernity’ or as if a creature or a monster by this name had emerged or popped out of history. We mustn’t do this. I explained the pitfalls of doing this. We must learn about these things by their fruits. I believe that ‘rationality’ is nothing (at least when we wish to make judgments about it) other than rationality’s products; just as ‘tradition’ is nothing other than this; just as ‘modernity’ is nothing other than this. In other words, I believe that ‘rationality’ equals rationality’s products; that is to say, it equals philosophy, science, morality, politics, technology, rites and customs, urban development, architecture, language, industry, etc. These are all products of rationality. In other words, if human beings weren’t rational, they wouldn’t have produced these things and history wouldn’t have taken the course that it has so far. And if we say that rationality is changeable, it is because these products are changeable. In other words, you can see that philosophy changes, science changes and so on. This means that, as the post-modernists put it, we don’t have ‘a single rationality’; we have ‘rationalities’. Any judgment of this kind hinges on the products that these things yield. If we say that rationality is the mother who bore all these products, this doesn’t alter anything. It still leaves us with the offspring of that mother. The offspring consist of the things that I mentioned and we could add other names to that list of offspring.
The same thing applies to modernity and tradition. This is a fallacy that historians call the fallacy of personification; i.e. attaching a personality to something that doesn’t have a personality. We’ve seen this kind of personification of history itself. Some people have spoken of history as if it is a kind of personage, striding along and creating events, going down this or that particular path or going astray and so on. I had a friend who has now passed a way. He used to attend my courses on the philosophy of history. Sometimes he would say to me jokingly: ‘Sir, we’re being crushed under the wheels of history!’ This expression, ‘being crushed under the wheels of history’, belongs to that same school of thought that attaches a personality to history and depicts it as some kind of train or big machine that has wheels, with some people on the train, some people off the train and some people being crushed under its wheels and so on. From the very start, I would like to warn you and us against this kind of lethal, bewildering fallacy and to say that we mustn’t adopt this sort of notion of ‘modernity’. I’m saying this because when you look at the things that have been written in Iran in recent times, in just these past 10 years, you can see how prevalent this personification fallacy is. Of course, when a riddle is solved, it become easy. The minute you draw people’s attention to this and tell them, ‘Be careful not to commit this fallacy!’, then everyone says, We didn’t mean to suggest that ‘history’ or ‘modernity’ is a personage. But the fact of the matter is that this kind of fallacy occurs very frequently in people’s judgments and we must be vigilant not to fall into this trap.
I was looking at the recent edition of ‘Kheradnameh’ [Journal of Wisdom]. I can quote a whole range of phrases from it and you can see for yourself that many of these phrases wouldn’t have been expressed had it not been for what I called ‘personification’. If you do away with this fallacy, these phrases will become meaningless. For example, the expression, ‘the rigidity of tradition’! What does ‘the rigidity of tradition’ mean? Unless we believe that tradition is some kind of personage, that it has some kind of kernel and shell, and then we attribute this notion to it. There’s no difference between this and ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the dustbin of history’. It rests on the same presuppositions and connotations. Maybe, at the end of the interview, I’ll read out some of these phrases to you so that the point I’m making will become clearer to you. Don’t imagine that this is merely pedantic nitpicking. Not at all. It flows like blood through the thoughts and statements of some opinion holders and it has bloodied their utterances. We must avoid being sullied in this way. This is why I basically don’t want to speak about a thing called ‘modernity’. I’m of the opinion that this notion only exists in the conventions of conventionists and the delusions of the deluded. When we speak about ‘modernity’, we have to see whether we’re speaking about ‘modern philosophy’ or ‘modern science’ or ‘modern morality’ or ‘modern politics’ or ‘modern urban development’ or ‘modern religious sects’, etc. I don’t really understand what something simply called ‘modernity’ means.
Q. I think you gave a similar warning about ‘the West’ some years ago in your book Taffaroj-e Sonn [Savouring Creation].
A. Yes, well done!
Q. Do you still abide by your view that we must pick and choose from modernity? Is such a selection possible or must we take up ‘modernity wholesale’?
A. We must wait a while before raising this question. But, in order not to leave your question unanswered, let me say that I still believe that selection is the only option. And all the people who deny the possibility of selection are selectors in practice, because there’s no alternative in practice. The simplest proof and instance of this is that we’ve already brought modern philosophy into our universities. We’ve embraced part of modernity. We’ve imported and used modern science and modern technology, such as computers, telephones, aircraft and hundreds of other tools and instruments. Unless you go back to that same line of thinking and say that none of this is ‘modernity’; that ‘modernity’ is something else, a spirit, a truth and an entity beyond all this. I know nothing about this entity and I believe that people who say things like this know nothing about it either! They just use some meaningless words that have caused a great deal of confusion.
At any rate, my suggestion is that, in the manner of analytical philosophers, we should analyse the question before we embark on an answer. If the question isn’t posed correctly, we won’t arrive at a correct answer either. In order to formulate an answer, we must explore the concepts that are latent in the question. We have three concepts here: ‘relationship’, ‘religion’ and ‘modernity’. Not everything that I’m saying is negative. That is to say, it’s not just a taking apart and deconstruction; it has positive aspects as well. When I say, We should take care not to allow the word ‘modernity’ create an independent identity and entity which does not exist in the real world, I don’t stop there; I also suggest that ‘modernity’ is nothing other than a series of things that have occurred in modern times. Of course, we also have to take a stance on these ‘modern times’ and say what the starting point was. I don’t really believe in absolute historical breaks although I do believe that major events have taken place in history and, when you survey the final products of these events, you see that there are many differences with that which existed before. When you compare jets with horses or mules or wagons, which existed in the past, you see a big leap. But if you delve into the heart of the history of technology or the history of science, you’ll see clear continuities and it’s not as if a jet was suddenly invented after a wagon. It is the same in the realm of thought, science and philosophy. At any rate, we have to treat this ‘breaks’ business with great care.
Bearing all this in mind, if we make the start of the Renaissance a special point, as a matter of convention, and if we consider everything before this point to be ‘pre-modern times’ and everything after it to be ‘modern times’, then, these modern times have yielded products and we can speak about each of these products.
I take ‘tradition’ to mean ‘pre-modernity’ and the same rule applies to pre-modernity as modernity. We don’t have something called ‘tradition’ that has an identity and an essence; what we have is ‘pre-modern philosophy’, ‘pre-modern religion’, ‘pre-modern science’, ‘pre-modern morality’ and so on. If all this is true, then, at least our question becomes clear and we can embark on an answer.
Q. If we examine the causes of these products and fruits of modernity and then examine the causes of those causes and so on, will we be able to pinpoint one or several causes or factors behind modernity?
A. Good question. Look! Two things are usually confused here. We may explore modernity’s products and find common factors between them. And we may notice that things like the philosophy, the art, etc. that were produced in Europe since the 16th century, for example, have commonalities. We may term these commonalities (assuming that we find them and, of course, we can never find them all) the bases of modernity. But there is a difference between bases and causes, because, if you want to find the causes, you have to look for them in pre-modern times, since that’s where the causes originated. Ultimately, we have to declare that ‘tradition is the cause of modernity’. We won’t arrive at anything more than this, which is no great achievement. But if we want to arrive at what you’re talking about, then we have to find commonalities between these products or, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘resemblances between these children’. We could then say that there are some things that are common to all the products of modernity and consider them to be the bases or constituents of modernity. But, as I said, we have to recognize that, first, if we use the term ‘constituents’ or ‘bases’ of modernity, it is in a metaphorical sense only. In other words, we have no single essence that has certain bases; we arrive at the bases through comparisons and the discovery of commonalities. Secondly, this list is always provisional. And no element can be singled out as more important than any other element.
What we find in the material that has been written about modernity is, one, the fallacy of personification and, two, single-factor analyses of history. It is as if there is one main factor, on which modernity, as a personage, is sitting or leaning or which is the spirit of this modern personage, and, then, people quarrel over this single factor. Some people say that this single factor is humanism; others, the will to power; others, critical reason; others, essential change in human nature; etc. I believe that some of these can be correct, but not as the essence of modernity; rather, as an element that is obtained when we compare the products of modernity, a more or less observed common point between them. The claim that, for example, humanity is latent in all the products of modernity (i.e. philosophy, science, art, morality, etc.) is a bold claim indeed, unless one is afflicted with academic arrogance. I believe that what has come about in the modern world is much too varied to be explained by a single factor. One writer said that humanism can be seen in all the novels that have been written in the West. I wrote in reply: ‘Have you read all the novels that have been written in the West?! Do you know about all the novels that have yet to be written?!’ One has to be very arrogant to speak in this way; unless we resort to a tautology and say: ‘I’m speaking about those novels that contain humanism.’ In which case, ‘humanism can be seen in all the novels that contain humanism’!
I have no idea whatsoever how this humanism seeped into physics! How did it manage to flow through chemistry and biology! I truly don’t understand. I don’t understand because I haven’t arrived at this conclusion myself and because no one else has explained it either. I haven’t seen any piece of writing that demonstrates precisely, philosophically and scientifically how humanism seeped into physics. These are all careless, delusory remarks, which have been uttered and which are simply repeated by others. And there is no one to take these people by the collar and to say, Speak in concrete terms and show me how, in this or that concrete instance, the spirit about which you’re speaking has had an impact and made its presence felt.
Now, I’m of the view that tradition and modernity, too, are two complementary concepts, in the sense that, if we explore one of them, we will also shed light on the other, since, as I said, we use ‘modernity’ to denote modern times or, more clearly, the products of modern times and we use ‘tradition’ to denote the products of pre-modern times. Whichever one we look at, we’ll also end up defining the other one.
Q. Is it because of the difficulty of modernity’s roots as a subject that writers have devoted themselves more to its fruits?
A. No, I’m fundamentally of the view that it’s not at all clear that the roots of modernity is a correct and useful subject of discussion. We have to alter our understanding of tradition and modernity. They are more simple concepts than they are at times made to appear. We have to look at modernity’s products and, then, find the commonalities between them if we can. This is a long-term, unending, empirical task. In other words, one would have to be very bold indeed to say that one knows what the spirit of modern philosophy or the spirit of modern art is. We may have some passing hypotheses or suggestions in this connection, but speaking about their spirit is very difficult. Even if you know philosophy, what about science? If you know science, what about art? If you know art, what about morality? What about politics? And so on. Moreover, the variety that exists in the modern world doesn’t allow us to know them all and to issue a single, all-embracing ruling.
I think that the idea of viewing things ‘historically’ which we see today in historiography, philosophy and post-modernism has beneficial, illuminating aspects. What is meant by ‘historically’ is that we should view events with their own particular historical-cultural characteristics; we shouldn’t try to eliminate these characteristics. We shouldn’t try to peel them away with the aim of arriving at a kernel and an essence and then extend this kernel and essence to everything in an ahistorical way. We mustn’t turn modernity into an eternal, timeless creature, with no historical and geographic characteristics. We mustn’t imagine that it is an essence that manifests itself in the same way everywhere and overlook the fact that it was a specific historical event, which occurred in a particular time and place and had particular characteristics. It is the same with ‘tradition’. And one of the reasons for this is that history is fundamentally the arena of possibilities, not the arena of necessities. What occurred in Europe was a possible occurrence, not a necessary occurrence; things could have turned out differently.
Hence, imagining that modernity has an essence, viewing this essence in an ahistorical way and harbouring any conceptions of this kind must be abandoned. I believe that the best method here is the empirical, inductive, nominalistic, historical and particularist approach; i.e. looking at the particular characteristics and the commonalities of the fruits and products. End of story.
Q. What does this modernity, for which you foresee no essence, do with tradition?
A. Instead of answering your question, I’ll try to analyse the question again. The problem is simpler than appears at first. That is to say, once the question is analysed, finding the answer becomes simpler. Asking ‘what modernity does with tradition’ is, in my view, not the correct way of formulating the question. As I said, modernity means modern philosophy, modern art, modern morality, modern politics, etc. I’ll keep repeating this until it takes hold. And tradition means pre-modern philosophy, pre-modern art, etc. Now, when analysed, the question becomes, ‘What does new philosophy do with old philosophy?’, ‘What does new science do with old science?’, ‘What does new art do with old art?’
If you see modernity as a huge, general phenomenon and tradition as another huge, general phenomenon, you’ll create such a murky picture as to make it impossible to find an answer to your question and any answer will be confused and ambiguous. But when you take it apart and deconstruct it, the answer become relatively clear. You can now see with your own eyes what new science has done to old science. It has pushed old science aside. It’s patently clear. If you use old science, you can’t make many of the things that we make with new science. Old science was only capable of achieving what we saw it achieve. Although, even when we speak about old science, we’re speaking in ambiguous terms. Is old science, old medicine? Is it old physics? Is it the old religious fields? Which one do we mean? Take old medical science and pharmacology and compare them with new medical science and pharmacology. Now the question has become very straightforward and the answer is more or less within reach. It’s not a question of good or bad. We may put our foot down and insist that old medical science had more benefits than new medical science. This is another matter. But on the question of what new medical science has done with old medical science, it is patently clear. None of today’s hospitals, with their current resources and facilities, existed in the past. Vast fields such as biochemistry, histology, embryology, etc. didn’t exist. The decisions and diagnoses that take place on the basis of these basic medical fields obviously didn’t exist. And so on. It is the same in all the other branches of science. The moment you break down ‘what does modernity do with tradition’ to its components (as Descartes suggested), you’ll triumph. The question itself will be flooded with light. All the darkness will recede and the answer will become very straightforward. Or, at least, the way to the answer will become clear.
I just suddenly noticed a phrase in the ‘Kheradnameh’: ‘The other important area to be discussed concerns the rigidity of tradition. We have to discover whether rigidity is an essential characteristic of tradition or not.’ You see? This remark really means nothing to me. No matter how many times I turn it over in my mind, it fails to make any sense. What does ‘rigidity is an essential characteristic of tradition’ mean? What is tradition? What is rigidity? What is an essential characteristic? When you line up a series of concepts that are all being used incorrectly, you pile up darkness upon darkness and block your own way to the light. The sentence that I read is from an article about law. Fine, we have traditional law and we have modern law. It’s reasonable to ask about the relationship between the two. I’ve always said, for my own part, that modern law is more rights-oriented than duty-oriented and pre-modern law is more duty-oriented than rights-oriented. I’ve never spoken about this as the essence of modern law. But I’m of the view that this is one of the prominent differences between these two legal systems, when we compare the two. No doubt, a jurist and an expert on the subject would be able to probe more deeply into these differences. This, at any rate, is how it’s done. But if you choose to investigate something obscure by the name of tradition and something even more obscure by the name of essential characteristic, you’ll block your way to the light and never arrive at an answer.
Look, people have been talking about tradition and modernity in Iran for 10, 15 years. Please tell me, have we moved forward by a single step? My verdict is that no light has been shed on this subject, because, from the start, we built a dark chamber into which no light can penetrate. We’ve constructed such thick walls that no sunlight can penetrate therein and lighten up this dark chamber. We must break down these walls and, instead of these hefty walls, install windows or throw open the doors in order to allow in some light, as well as some fresh air. To breathe and to unwind! Then, we can move closer to some kind of result.
Q. I’ll try to use the term ‘modernity’ a bit less and to speak about the characteristics of the modern world a bit more –
A. No, use the terminology that’s current and that you’re comfortable with when you ask your questions. It’s up to me to take the questions apart and possibly to show where the flaws lie in this debate, so that we can draw out the poison and tame the question.
Q. At any rate, the products of modernity have an effective presence in the modern world. What do you consider to be the most important effects of modernity’s products on religion?
A. Let me first advance a bit more in my assault! We said that we should know modernity by its fruits. Now, I want to go even further. Why fruits? These things are modernity. What does it mean to say that modern philosophy, modern science and modern politics and modern art are the fruits of modernity? Modernity is these things. Modernity amounts to these modern elements. We line these things up and they constitute the modern world.
Q. You’ve taken Ockham’s razor and are cutting away!
A. (Laughing) We must trim away what we can. What stop halfway? Look, we compromised a bit and said that these are the fruits of modernity in order to ward off any possible hostility. Now, I want to suggest that these things are modernity and not its fruits. As I said, we have two worlds: the pre-modern world and the modern world. And I said that this separation is a matter of convention, but we accept it more or less. I also said that we mustn’t deny the continuity between these two worlds either. We mustn’t just look at the break. The break is true, but the continuity is also true, although the break is more obvious and the continuity is more invisible and it has to be viewed and analysed with a microscope.
At any rate, the modern world means these same modern objects, although we’re looking at their conceptual aspects now; otherwise, we can add their non-conceptual aspects as well, such as modern tools and instruments. So, this is modernity. Modernity is not some kind of striking-looking ogre. We mustn’t go looking for a spirit or a treasure chest or a dark cellar from which these things emanated. Modernity is these things.
This is very similar to the question of ’the external world’ in peripatetic philosophy. An individual with an inexperienced mind begins by saying that, in the external world, there is a table, a book, the sea, water, the sun and so on. But, when his mind acquires philosophical complexity, he understands that these things aren’t in the external world, they are the external world. The external world isn’t something within which they’ve placed these things. The external world itself consists of this table, this book, this cup, this saucer and so on; nothing else. If these things didn’t exist, then there would be no external world. It’s not as if there’s an external world that is empty and is then filled with various things. It is the same with modernity, but our imagination has turned modernity into a vessel, giving the impression that philosophy and art are items in the vessel; whereas this isn’t the case. The vessel and the items in the vessel are one and the same here. The same thing applies to tradition. Pre-modern philosophy is not something contained within tradition; it is tradition. Pre-modern science, etc. are tradition.
Now, let us turn to religion. First of all, when you use this word, it gives the impression that you’ve decided that all religions have a single essence and that you’re going to deal with them wholesale! The nominalistic, particularistic, historical method that I subscribe to doesn’t allow us to speak of something by the name of ’religion’. Philosophers and historians of religion are arriving at a consensus on this point and almost all of them acknowledge that religions don’t have a single essence or a single spirit. Historical analyses have shown them that religions have similarities and commonalities, but they don’t have a single essence. Hence, they always speak about ’religions’. Hence, our question must be, What becomes of ’religions’ in the modern world?
But we don’t want to speak about all religions anyway, since they all have their own tales. So, we have to step into a particular area, with which we’re more familiar and to which we’re more sensitive; i.e. the religion of Islam.
So, our question now is: What becomes of Islam in the modern world. Even Islam is a word that’s used to convey dozens of meanings. I’m not speaking about the different readings of religion. Certainly, Islam consists of the different readings of Islam. And Christianity consists of the different readings of Christianity. But, at the moment, I’m speaking about something else: on occasion, we consider Islam to be a religion that gives people an identity and, on other occasions, we consider it to be a religion that teaches truths. It has at least these two facets. Religiosity can also be interests-oriented (utilitarian) or it can be knowledge-oriented (gnostic) or experience-oriented (experiential). Religiosity and Islam can also be considered to have other facets. I believe that each of these have to be discussed separately.
The answer to the question is relatively clear with respect to other religions, especially Christianity. If you ask, What has become of Christianity in the modern world, I’ll say to you: Step right this way and take a look! Here’s the modern world and this is the West! At least organizationally and in its capacity as an identity, we can see what has become of Christianity. Secularism has come to prevail in the West and Christianity has been driven out of the public sphere to a large extent. And this has given the Church a role that is very different from the Church’s role in the pre-modern world. As for Islam, we must still wait for the relevant historical experiences. That is to say, we have to wait and see what will happen to Islam in terms of an identity and Islam in terms of truths. We have to wait and see what will happen to religious experience and to religious knowledge. Some of the answers are clear and some of them are not clear and we can only make guesses.
Q. If I may, I’d like to ask you about Islam as an identity. There are many debates about it relationship with modernity. What is the situation of religion as an identity in the modern world?
A. Let us look at the West again. One of the things that have occurred in the modern world is the creation of new identities. In the past, national identities didn’t exist, because there was no such thing as a nation-state. We had the realm of Islam [Dar-al-Islam] and Christendom. In the modern age, nation-states emerged, the concept of a nation was created and a new identity known as national identity came about. At first, it seemed as if it did not clash with people’s religious identity but gradually these two things began to clash. This conflict continues to exist in the modern world. Whenever religion has been weak, the clash has also abated and, whenever religion has been strong, the clash has surfaced.
I remember being in the United States when the US was sending troops to Iraq. There are Muslim Americans among US troops and the administration wanted to send some of them to Iraq too. The question arose: Can An American Muslim go to war with a Muslim country? This question only arises in the context of a conflict between national identity and religious identity. What was the answer? The US Administration obtained fatwas from a number of Sunni clerics, who were Americans and lived in the US, and published them in leading newspapers. The clerics had ruled that people’s national identity takes priority over their religious identity; that American Muslim soldiers had a right, no, a duty, to perform their duty as soldiers and to go to war with Iraqis; and that they should not fear killing or being killing there.
When you ask, What becomes of religion as an identity, this is one very distinct example. New identities have emerged in modern times, the most important of which is this one, a national identity. Of course, national identities are more or less in the process of receding. One recent debate has been about what Europe means and who qualifies as a European. As you know, the European Union is gradually overshadowing the concept of ’the German nation’, ’the British nation’, ’the Belgian nation’, ’the Dutch nation’ and so on. And new nations are being brought into the EU. There’s a debate now about Turkey and its possible entry into the EU. One hotly-debated question these days is, ’What does being European consist of?’ Are the Turks Europeans too or not? What is the essence of being European? And they have come to the conclusion that there is no such essence. If there was such a thing as a European essence, some people would automatically fall outside Europe and other people would automatically fall within Europe. They said: There’s no such essence.
Now, the point is that this notion of a nation-state (which remains in force but has receded somewhat) can conflict with people’s religious identities. With respect to Christianity, we can say that something by the name of a Christian identity is no longer defined for anyone in the general social sphere. People are known by their national identities. It’s not stated in anyone’s identity papers that they are Christian; only national identities are recorded. So, national identities have pushed aside this religious identity. But, as I said, this is because of religion’s weakness. If people’s religious identity becomes more prominent, regardless of the cause, this conflict can become very severe. Fundamentalism is nothing other than this. A religious identity is making its presence felt. In other words, some people are saying, We’re neither Americans, nor Iranians, nor Arabs; we’re Muslims and this is our identity and we’re at war with the US in the name of our Islamic identity. This has been called ’fundamentalism’ and perhaps it would have been better if it had been called ’identity-ism’. But if they’d called it ’identity-ism’, then, it would have raised a question that they wouldn’t have been able to answer: If ’identity-ism’ is bad, why are you ’identity-ists’ yourselves? Why is it that a US identity is good but an Islamic identity is bad?
In Iran, too, people beat on this ’identity’ drum with great enthusiasm. Many of the things that go by the name of religious rituals in our country, many of the religious remarks that are made in our society, especially from official platforms, basically rest on identity-oriented thinking and the inculcation of an identity known as a religious identity. As you may recall, in the early days of the revolution, some people wanted to harp on a clash between our Iranian identity and our Islamic identity. This is clearly an issue that arises in the modern world.
Q. How do you picture the future? Do you think that just as identity-oriented Christianity has gradually receded, the same thing will happen with Islam?
A. No, that’s not my impression at all. First of all, the indications that we have in the world today don’t point in that direction at all. Secondly, ’the essence of history’ (laughing) doesn’t suggest such a thing. History is full of possibilities and the future is truly open in this sense and events will occur that are unimaginable to people today. I was telling a friend that, with the progress of learning and book printing, some experts were worried that the felling of trees and the destruction of forests for the production of paper and books would badly harm the environment. But, suddenly, something came to the rescue from within oil wells. They produced the raw material for making CDs and diskettes and computers, so that paper consumption fell dramatically and, maybe, the learning of the future will be paper-less; something that we couldn’t have imagined before. This is why I say that history’s resources are so varied and so unimaginable as to steer us completely away from historical determinism.
At the same time, sociologists have on the whole changed their previous view whereby they used to maintain that history was inevitably moving towards secularism. And one of the reasons for their revised opinion is the emergence of fundamentalism or, as I put it, ’identity-ism’ in modern times. Religious identities have now surfaced and that secularism thesis, which held that religions were dying away and would only make their presence felt in the private sphere, has now been more or less falsified.
In sociology, they always used to speak about one exception. They’d say, The US has remained religious but the rest of the world is moving towards secularism. But, with the passage of time, the exceptions proliferated to such an extent that it became clear that they’d been wrong about the rule. So, I can’t make any prediction. What I can say is that it is by no means definite that the future belongs to non-religious identities. As it happens, it’s quite likely that religious identities will resurface, that they will become event-makers again and that the future will be completely different from the present. Hence, the shaping of identities by religions may be a growing phenomenon.
Let me also make one normative point: we have to be vigilant and to try and ensure that, as identities become corpulent, so do truths, because fundamentalism is in effect the triumph of identity over truth; not just the growth of religious identities, but their growth at the expense of religion’s truths. That is to say, the inflation and corpulence of identity at the cost of the neglect and weakness of truth. This is religious identity-ism in its reprehensible sense. Thinkers and theoreticians must try to prevent this inauspicious possibility.
Q. Your words recall what Mr. Shayegan used to say some years ago. He’d say, Either Islam will become spiritual/mystical or it will turn into a fundamentalist religion and then fade away. Are these the two options that lie ahead?
A. I think that we can also postulate a third option and to bring it about in practice: to strike a balance between the different dimensions of religions as truths and as identities. If this balance is lost, we will either arrive at fundamentalism or at Sufism, which is a kind of triumph of truth over identity.
Q. How can a fundamentalist Muslim be made to realize that the truth dimension of religion should be emphasized and that the identity dimension should not be made corpulent at the expense of enfeebling or destroying religion’s truths?
A. Look! It’s not for nothing that something called religious fundamentalism has come into being and grown. After the 11 September attacks, I gave a talk at Princeton University and I said there: ’As long as you continue your identity-based enmity towards Muslims, this tale will continue.’
Different judgments apply to identities and truths. In the context of truths, we think in terms of truth or falsehood. When someone presents something to you as a truth, you must investigate its truth or falsehood. But identities have nothing to do with truth or falsehood. In the context of identities, we think in terms of honour or servility. An identity is either great and noble or servile; it is either revered or reviled. Now, if one people humiliates another people and tramples its identity and honour, those who have been humiliated react in an identity-based way. Hence, it’s not just a question of reasoning and logic here. If your identity is attacked, it’s clear what your reaction will be and this is something that takes place in the modern world. We must combat the effects by removing the causes. I more or less agree with Mr Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations; not as a historical prediction, but in the sense that I agree with him that civilizations are identities and identities clash with each other. Hence, here, too, a balance must be struck, in Spengler’s words, between culture and civilization. He suggests that culture is civilization’s spirit and that civilization is culture’s body. If there’s no balance here, then, a clash is inevitable. It’s like a person who is a big bully but has a very small brain. Someone like this just looks for quarrels.
Q. You spoke about identities. Please say something about truths too.
A. Yes, in fact this is the other side of the coin to your previous question. This, too, has to be broken down to its components. This question also breaks down into several questions: ’What does modern philosophy do to Islam?’, ’What does modern science do to Islam?’, ’What does modern art do to Islam’, etc. And this is the simple meaning of that big phrase ’the relationship between Islam and modernity’. In other words, we have to see what modern philosophy has done to the Islam of truths, that is to say, Islam’s teachings. Opinions vary on this. Mr. Motahhari believed the Islamic philosophy is a very strong philosophy and is capable of answering all new philosophical problems and that there are no philosophic flaws in Islam. This is one view. There are also other views. As to my own view, I neither believe that Islamic philosophy is the strongest philosophy in the world, nor that it has the answer to all philosophical questions. Nor do I believe that it is possible to extract a philosophical system from Islam.
I think that the much more important question in the world today is: ’What does modern science do to the Islam of truths?’ A few months ago, a seminar on ’science and religion’ was held in Tehran under the auspices of the Academy of Philosophy. I wasn’t here, but I followed it from afar because I’m very interested in this subject. One of the things that really caught my attention was the seminar’s closing resolution. It was a testimony to naivety and arrogance; to an arrogance arising from naivety.
The resolution consisted of just three or four points and I believe that it must have been written by someone who knew nothing about history or the modern world or science. It grieved me to read it. One point declared that, since we Muslims have not had any clash between science and religion, we can assist the people of the world in this respect and extricate them from this quandary. This claim is brimming with the arrogance that comes from naivety. Certainly! We haven’t experienced such a clash, but this has been to our detriment, not to our benefit. The clash that took place between modern science and the Church and Scripture was the harbinger of many blessings, and both science and religion, and both the bearers of science and the bearers of religion benefited from these blessings. In a word, the blessing was that both science and religion became more modest. And, of course, a ceasefire was established between them. I’m not saying that the clash was resolved. No! But a ceasefire was established; a ceasefire that is broken from time to time but without ever escalating into the fierce battle that it was four centuries ago. We haven’t had this battle. If, one day, such a clash occurs and the socio-political conditions come about for this kind of direct head-to-head, it is then that we must judge how religion will emerge from this clash. Of course, my judgment is that, then, we won’t see any more resolutions like the one I mentioned.
We can also ask about modern politics. This issue goes back to the tale of secularism again. Let us consider whether modern politics brings religion onto the stage or sets it aside. My judgment in this respect is based more on practical and external considerations than on conceptual and mental ones. It depends on religion’s strength. In other words, I’m of the view that we mustn’t imagine that the separation of religion from politics occurred on any particular person’s recommendation (good-willed or ill-willed). Political philosophers have said a great deal about this of course but the truly determining factor is the strength or weakness of religion itself. The clash between science and religion that we were speaking about was one of the factors that led to secularism in the West; it tends to receive less attention. The fact of the matter is that, in the clash between science and religion, religion lost its credibility or its credibility diminished. It lost much of its former strength and it has never regained its former standing. Well, a weak player is not allowed into the game. As long as the player was strong, it was in the game and what it said mattered in the realm of politics and power. What does politics mean anyway? Politics means the theory of power and the exercising of power. In the realm of politics, if you aren’t a strong creature, no one will pay any attention to you. But when you become strong, you step into the realm of politics and you can’t be disregarded. For example, if you want to establish a consultative council, you bring together the wise ones among your people to consult with; you don’t bring a five-year-old kid into your consultative council. When the kid grows, when he matures, then they allow him into the game. It’s the same in the realm of politics. A weak player is not allowed into the game. What he says doesn’t carry any weight.
Religion was strong once. And its strength lay in the fact that it had a place in people’s hearts. It was strong because people had faith. But when this faith and heartfelt commitment became weak and religion, too, consequently, became weak, then, it wasn’t taken seriously in the realm of politics either and it very naturally – without it having been based on anyone’s recommendation or order or reasoning – separated from politics. It’s like when a man and a woman are seeking a divorce. This has one aspect that is volitional and legal. But it may happen in a particular case that one of the spouses dies. This doesn’t hinge on any action or recommendation; it is a natural separation. Once upon a time, religion and politics were together. They worked together and had creditable strength. Sometimes this one would get the upper hand over the other one and sometimes it would be the other way around. But gradually, things came to a point where one of the two spouses became so weak that it died. So, it was no longer a question of anyone drawing up a formula, preparing a reasoned argument and so on.
This is why I believe that if religion becomes strong again, it will become a player in the realm of politics again and, then, secularism will not remain in its present form. I believe that we are starting to see some initial signs of this. Here, everything revolves around the axis of power and strength. It depends on how strong religion is. A strong creature cannot be set aside easily and told: ’Go away!’
The fact that secularism prevails in Europe and the US is because religion no longer has the place that it used to have in people’s hearts. The evidence for this is that you can sit and talk to a learned person, an ordinary person, etc. – talk and talk for hours, without them ever saying a single word about God or religious duty. This is a sign of secularism. Whereas if you sit with a religious person, you’ll see that they constantly have religion on their mind. They constantly say things like ’What I’m doing is wrong,’ ’What I’m doing is right,’ ’Am I allowed to do this or am I not allowed to do this?’ They cite this or that religious authority, this or that verse from Scripture . But when there is none of this, you realize that that person’s mind is completely devoid of these considerations. Religion has to have a place in people’s hearts. When religion is absent or weak, then it no longer counts in politics. It don’t exist! But if it begins to exist again at some later date, it will be impossible for you to ignore it. You will have to start doing business with it again. I believe that it isn’t just a conceptual matter; it has a real, practical, external aspect.
Q. You said that we must establish a balance between Islam as an identity and Islam as truths. As my final question, I’d like to ask you what you think the priorities of religious intellectuals should be in realizing this aim?
A. A religious intellectual is more concerned with religious truths than with religion as an identity. The Islam of religious intellectuals is the Islam of truths and the question of an identity is peripheral to this. A religious intellectual must, first and foremost, concern himself with faith, religious experience, differing religious readings and creating the practical conditions for these things.
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser