Saturday, April 3, 2010

Engaging with Soroush's Latest

Famously described as the Martin Luther of Islam by The Guardian in 1995, Abdol-Karim Soroush (the pen-name of Hossein Dabbagh) has become a name synonymous with the project of reform in Iran and in contemporary Islam in general. His approach is a radical root-and-branch rethinking that focuses on epistemology and hermeneutics (one only needs to read his earlier works such as ʿIlm chīst, falsafa chīst [What is Science? What is Philosophy], Dānish va arzish[Knowledge and Value], and middle works that usher in the transition such as Farba-tar az idīyūlūjī [Thicker than Ideology]). Since then a number of studies have been published on Soroush (including recently Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s Islam and Dissent in Post-revolutionary Iran published by Tauris in 2008) and a highly active website ( promotes his work; an earlier collection of translations of his work was also published by Oxford in 2000 (Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, edited by the Sadri brothers). Soroush’s work since the 1970s has been geared towards a more critical reading of religion, inspired by elements of scepticism in the Sufi tradition and a Popperian approach to epistemology. Translations into Arabic, Turkish and Malay as well as other European languages have further disseminated his thought and approach. Following his insightful work in the late 1980s on the expansion and contraction of religious knowledge (Qabż o basṭ-i tiʾūrīk-i sharīʿat) that articulated an important distinction between religion as a noumenal reality and our phenomenal understanding of religious which entailed subjecting religious knowledge to the same processes of verification and falsifiability applied in the sciences, Soroush’s more recent work illustrated in the translations given in this volume under review applies that Popperian insights to the central issues in the study of religion: the nature of prophecy and revelation, the historicity of religious understanding, and religious diversity. The twelve chapters include eight taken from his Basṭ-i tajriba-yi nabavī [Expansion of Prophetic Experience], two from Ṣirāṭ-hā-yi mustaqīm [Straight Paths], and two (not one as stated in the introduction) from Akhlāq-i khudāyān [Morals of the Pious]. These are followed by appendices that replicate the controversy from 2008 between him and Āyatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī, perhaps the leading theologian in the Shiʿi seminary of Qum, on the nature of the Prophet. As a whole, these translations represent the present state of Soroush’s thinking on critical issues of the nature of religion, revelation, and prophecy. They have also further entrenched attitudes against him leading to his self-imposed exile outside of Iran for most of the past decade, a situation unlikely to change following his open support for the Green movement in Iran and his open letter along with other intellectuals in the New York Times in January 2010, following the Ashura violence, calling for end to state repression and later advocating a new referendum in Iran. As many other reformers have come around to similar and even more radical views it is also worth considering what relevant Soroush retains in the contemporary Muslim world.

The main approach in the text is to humanise and historicise religion and prophecy in order to make it accessible and comprehensible to us within our context. The subtitle here is revealing – essays on historicity, contingency and plurality. Along the way a series of sacred cows are slaughtered and red lines transgressed: the prophet is neither infallible nor a scientist who knew everything but deigned to speak to people within their intellectual capacities; the Qurʾan is not the word of God as such; no historical faith can make uncontested claims to the truth of their beliefs hence pluralism must be recognised; religion ought to be practised as a minimal system; and generally jurists, despite their privileges, are mal-equipped to implement the process of contextualising the faith necessary in our times. And much more besides. However, we should not assume that all of this is exciting reformist thinking that breaks new ground. Most of Soroush’s positions are indeed not new in modernist debates. He himself claims that his views on prophecy and revelation are continuous with the philosophical tradition (for example, Avicenna’s theory of prophecy) – this is a claim worth reviewing.

The chapters are introduced with a useful essay by Soroush’s disciple Forough Jahanbakhsh (who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Islamic modernism in Iran including a generous discussion of Soroush’s contribution); she is also the editor of the work and apparently checked through the translations with Soroush himself (whose English is perfectly fluent – the fact that he still writes in Persian is interesting in itself). Jahanbakhsh does a good job of contextualising Soroush’s work within contemporary Muslim thought, comparing him to Arkoun and Abū Zayd, Shabastarī and Rahman all within the twin rubric of the new theology (kalām-i jadīd as it was coined in 1950s Iran) and ‘neo-rationalism’. This latter term is her version of the much contested term ‘neo-Muʿtazilism’ applied to the likes of Abū Zayd. I, for one, do not see how this ‘neo-rationalism’ differs from liberal or reformist thought – it is certainly misleading to claim that it is broadly non-political. She tries to argue that Soroush’s neo-rationalism is the most systematic project of reform available – and even rather counter-intuitively (especially since he is so heavily criticised by feminist thinkers) applied to an issue such as women’s rights. According to Jahanbakhsh, Soroush’s system is balanced, coherent and foundational. There is little doubt that he does arrive at the core of the problem addressing epistemology and hermeneutics – how do we know, and how do we make sense of those texts that are supposed to inform our lives? Where does reason fit? Here is why I am not convinced by the use of the term ‘neo-rationalism’: if all that Soroush is doing is to insist upon rational foundations to ethics, metaphysics and indeed law, and not to see these either as a direct challenge to revelation or to tradition, then I do not see how it differs greatly from the Shiʿi Muʿtazilī tradition of ethics and theology. It is similarly odd to suggest that Soroush is somewhat more critical of tradition than other liberals who embrace it – in fact many liberal thinkers not only criticise tradition but in some cases reject it outright: one thinks of Amina Wadud and Abū Zayd.

Turning to the chapters, they are divided into two sections: the first comprising the first seven chapters deals with prophetic experience and the nature of the text, the second comprising the remaining five concerns reason, love and religiosity. It is shame that this division highlighted in the introduction did not make it to the contents pages. But that is just one of many small errors in the book relating to typography, production, and translation (and I shall have little to say about the latter except that its smoothness is negated by its inaccuracy at times due to the unfamiliarity of the translator with some of the material to which Soroush alludes). Chapter one locates religion and Islam within the prophetic experience and the historical incarnation of the prophetic mission. The Prophet as receptacle and generator was not merely a quasi-omniscient character who translated absolute experiences into concrete realities; rather he was also constituted by the world of his time. This is not the philosophical conception of prophecy advocated by Avicenna and others. The Prophet is wholly human and historical, fallible and a sublime example of experience. The polemical point about the Prophet’s example lying in following his experiences and not just the juridical commands is just that. The perfection of religion signalled towards the end of his life in Qurʾan 5:3 is not a completion but the assignment of a minimum and indeed a beginning. It is in this way that believers imitate and go beyond the Prophet. The Prophetic legacy is manifold but at its heart an experience (along with the scripture, politics and society). Chapters two and three relate to the finality of prophecy as a process. Mysticism and revelatory experiences could be said to have only begun with the Prophet; however, at his demise, the mission came to an end – this is the notion of finality. The addressees of the mission continue to come into existence. Consistent with the school of Ibn ʿArabī, Soroush holds that sanctity and walāya is superior to the missionary function of nubuwwa. Similarly, drawing upon the distinction between the ontological mandate (takwīn) and nomological mission (tashrīʿ) of the Prophet, he argues that the latter constitutes finality but the former which relates to the constant need of experience and a link between the divine and the human remains necessary. In modern times, because of the construction of heresy that lies in the denial of finality of prophecy, the issue is rather sensitive. But the real significance is that finality insists that no one can claim to be a prophet or to transcend the religious dispensation of Islam.

Chapter four tackles the critical issue in reform, namely, separating out the essential from the accidental. To uncover the essential, the accidental aspects that are contextual and historically contingent need to be peeled away. Soroush enumerates eight such accidental features: the Arabic language as the vehicle of communication of the Qurʾan, Arab culture as the context of the revelation, the terms and concepts and indeed language used by the Prophet, the historical events that impinge upon the Qurʾan and the prophetic example, the dialogic context of the communication of revelation between believers and their opponents, the legal precepts of the constructions of Islamic law, historical interventions and ‘fabrications’ introduced into the historical faith, and the contingent understanding of the faith over time. Belief and faith lie in the commitment to essentials. However, in a sense this list of accidentals is rather exhaustive: what is left? Revelatory and prophetic experience? If the essence of religion lies in the goals of the Prophet, how can we understand them? Then the further question arises: how is it meaningful to believe in them if the only means of accessing them that we have is contingent and historically and linguistically constructed like this? On the face of it, distinguishing between the essential and accidental seems sensible: but the problem for the believer is whether once one has peeled away all those layers of the accidental there is anything left at all. At what point does scepticism lead to atheism? Chapter pursues this theme by attempting to define whether religion is maximal or minimal. One of the key claims of Islamism is to insist that religion is maximalist and all-embracing in its essential and accidental features reconciled to the modern world. An eternal, viable and perfect faith must be defined in minimal terms based on its essence – but the same objection remains.

Chapters six and seven shift from religion to religions and address the question of pluralism from a negative and a positive perspective. The former denotes a way of understanding religious approaches to other traditions through the prism of inclusivism – the denial of the truth of other traditions implies a denial of the success of prophetic missions. The latter accounts for a nominalist approach of the different approaches of religious leaders and traditions whose truth and salvation is relevant to them and them alone. Diversity of understanding of texts and diversity of understanding of experiences underlie pluralism. He positively approves of Hickian pluralism based on the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena. Besides, different interpretations of faith are multiple and contingent just as the understanding of a particular faith is (following his earlier insight from the 1980s). The odd claim is that no Muslim group can claim to have pure Islam nor does any religion possess any purity. One wonders how this position can fail to lapse into relativism – which it does. However, for Soroush relativism and pluralism do not lead to the collapse of faith in society since belief is not reasoned but flourishes in a pluralistic and ideological context. Does this amount to a non-reductive pluralism? In the conversation reproduced in chapter seven, Soroush attempts to distinguish his critical rationalism from relativism based on his cause/reason dichotomy in epistemology. For him, relativism does not pertain in science; in religion, he advocates a hermeneutical pluralism. Plurality of truth concerns taking intrinsic notions of truth and falsehood seriously. So why should one promote a particular religion? Soroush’s answer is somewhat surprising – he does not invoke religious experience or prophetic experience but rather invokes the idea of artistic expression and the desire to manifest and disseminate beauty.

The five chapters of part two shift from epistemology to the practice of religion in the world. Chapter eight discusses types of religiosity. He sets aside two sets of binary oppositions – pragmatic/instrumental and discursive/reflective – in favour of experiential religiosity. But the main contribution is to open up ways of being religious, a theme developed in the subsequent chapters. Chapter nine focuses on what it means to follow the Prophet. Setting aside theocracy or nomocracy, he argues that once reason enters into revelation, secularisation is inevitable. Soroush along with other reformers is well known for advocating a secular state in Iran, and this chapter details the theory behind the position. Experiential religiosity needs to be revived and rituals conducted in the pursuit of encouraging it. Chapter ten is a short description of the prophetic address and the insistence that following the prophet ought to lie in more than following his commandments. Once again one gets the impression that Soroush is attempting to effect an ethical turn in religiosity and the process of following the prophet. Chapter eleven examines the relationship between faith and hope. Faith is more than belief. Grounded in religious experience it is a cause for hope in the transcendent. Soroush acknowledges that one could dispute the authenticity of the experience but in response seems to lapse into a mystical affirmation. The final chapter on the key notion of walāya, central to Sufi and Shiʿi Islam, seems to amount to a call to an ethical turn and a warning against reducing faith to adherence to legal precepts. The appendices deal with the controversy over Soroush’s views on prophetic infallibility and the composition of the Qurʾan.

Overall, the collection is a good illustration of the importance of Soroush’s later work and demonstrates how it relates to the earlier work up to the early 1990s. The central and controversial postulations presented are ones which many will dispute, believer and non-believer. Others will even take issue with the tone in which he addresses sanctified issues and persons such as the Prophet. But Soroush still challenges us to think deeply about the nature of faith, how we arrive at faith and to what end do we hold faith. In the spirit of both the hermeneutical pluralism he espouses and the critical rationalism he advocates, it is right and proper for us to disagree vehemently with him. Central objections remain: how do we know what is truly essential in religion? How do we ascertain whether religious expression is genuine? If truth is meaningful and precise (beyond theories of correspondence of course) in philosophy and science, why can it not be such in the study of religion taken in the universal sense (and not just in terms of a particular tradition)? Separating out the mutable from the immutable will always be a problem – and Soroush is partly correct: his theory of revelation does have foundation in Avicenna (even if one cannot map the one upon the other) and his distinction between essential and accidental similarly has roots in both Sufi and Safavid thought. I still feel that Soroush does raise a critical point: far too many Muslims still fail to understand the event and process of revelation and what the Qurʾan means and ought to mean for an engaged believer living in this world. The work of Mujtahid Shabistarī to my mind is an excellent account of this focusing on the hermeneutics but thus far none of his work has really been translated into English. One still feels an engagement with Soroush is important – but does his tone and politics increasingly make it difficult for people to take him seriously, not least in Iran?


Unknown said...

Great review Sajjad - thanks a lot.

heydar said...

thanks, a good review.
I red also Jahanbakhsh's introduction, agree that neo-rationalism is not an exact title for Soroush's thought. but obviously Soroush differes from other reformers in going too far in his views on revelation and prophecy and puting revelation and even Mohammad in their contingent context.