IF IRAN’S DEMOCRATIC REFORM movement has a house intellectual, it’s Abdolkarim Soroush.

IF IRAN’S DEMOCRATIC REFORM movement has a house intellectual, it’s Abdolkarim Soroush. A small, soft-spoken philosopher with fiercely expressive eyebrows, Soroush specializes in mysticism, Sufi poetry, Islamic theology, chemistry, pharmacology, and the philosophy of science. Although he once worked for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary government, he now advances a powerful argument for democracy and human rights — and he does so drawing not only on John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, but also on the deepest intellectual traditions of Shi’ite Islam. Religion must remain aloof from governance, he is fond of saying, not because religion is false and would corrupt politics, but because religion is true and politics corrupts it.

Soroush’s work is heady, abstract stuff. And yet, its hold on throngs of young Iranians — hundreds of students show up to the typical Soroush lecture — is so strong that Iran’s ruling mullahs consider him a threat, and pro-clerical militias regularly harass and beat him when he speaks in his native land. That’s why these days, he makes his home at Princeton University, where he teaches a seminar of fewer than 10 graduate students and passes all but unnoticed through the halls of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy.

That is where I met Soroush on Feb. 23, the day the dismal results of the latest Iranian parliamentary election began trickling out. The Guardian Council, a body of clerics with far-reaching powers, had disqualified some 2,000 candidates, mostly reformists, from so much as running for parliament. Unsurprisingly, though the level of voter turnout and hence the strength of the new parliament’s mandate is disputed, the election results were clear: Pro-clerical conservatives packed 156 of the parliament’s 290 seats, with 50 still left to be decided.

But the success of the reform movement, says Soroush, will be measured not in parliamentary seats but in attitudinal shifts, as Iran’s educated youth embrace such notions as “freedom, justice, political participation, and the rights of man.”

“The reform movement actually had two dimensions, if you like, two sides,” he explains as we sit in his bare visiting professor’s office. “One side was the political. Some of the reformists were part of the establishment, of the government. Now they’ve lost their power. But on the other hand, the most important part of the reform movement was intellectual, theoretical, educational.”

That intellectual reform movement finds expression in Soroush’s own work, which attempts to reconcile revelation and reason, religious duties and human rights. Whether or not such a reconciliation is possible is the subject of much debate and experimentation in the Muslim world today. But perhaps no one has attempted to develop so ambitious and unique a philosophical framework for that project as Abdolkarim Soroush.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution seemed to herald a new era for the Muslim world. In place of the secular, corrupt, repressive government of the American-backed Shah, Iranians imagined they would create something entirely new: a regime that would promote social justice and spiritual fulfillment, and one that would draw on indigenous cultural traditions and the theory of the state embedded in the country’s overwhelmingly dominant faith, Islam.

The charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, who had suffered prison and exile under the Shah, would replace a crass, alien capitalism with a dignified, indigenous spiritualism that rejected worldly motives. As Khomeini admonished the people, the purpose of the revolution was not “to have less expensive melons” but to lead a more elevated life.

In the end, however, Khomeini saddled Iran with something not all his supporters bargained for: the doctrine of velayat-i-faqi, or the rule of the jurist. This doctrine effectively delivered autocratic executive powers to Iran’s clerics, and particularly to the ayatollah deemed wisest by his peers — in the first instance, Khomeini himself.

Initially, Soroush believed in the democratic and spiritual promise of the revolution. Born Husayn Haj Farajullah Dabbagh to a lower-middle-class, religious family in Tehran in 1945, Soroush studied religion and science side by side. He went to Britain in 1973 to pursue an advanced degree in analytical chemistry, followed by a course of study on the history and philosophy of science. During this time, he began publishing philosophical papers in Iran under the pen name Abdolkarim Soroush.

In 1980, scant months after revolutionary forces had closed Iran’s universities, Khomeini invited Soroush to return to Iran as a member of a committee of seven scholars who would revise the country’s higher education curriculum. At first Soroush was enthusiastic, working with his colleagues to develop courses that would educate students about their Islamic heritage and traditions. But as the revolutionary government exerted increasingly dogmatic control over the committee’s work, Soroush soured on the project. He didn’t approve of separating men and women in the classroom, forcing rituals on students, restricting the subjects professors could teach, or marginalizing the sciences or social sciences.

“I was a little bit more liberal-minded than some of the others,” Soroush tells me. Feeling isolated — “There were no ears to listen to me,” he says — he resigned in 1983, never again to work for the government. Instead, he would become its critic. “Undemocratic things were growing in the whole country,” Soroush says of the post-revolutionary period.

In `92, Soroush established the Faculty of History and Philosophy of Science. It was Iran’s first program of its kind. At the same time, his philosophical writings on Islam and democracy began to circulate through an eclectic intellectual journal called Kiyan. In these writings, Soroush directly challenged the political power of the clerics, even advocating that they cease working for pay so that they would no longer be corrupted by worldly interests. “They must remain lovers rather than dealers of religion,” he explains in an e-mail. With these and other writings, Soroush became a professor with a following.

As Soroush’s influence grew, so too did the influence of the defining figure of the reform movement’s political wing: Mohammad Khatami, minister of Islamic Guidance for 10 years after the Revolution. Advocating constitutional law over strict religious law and parliamentary rule over clerical rule, Khatami won the presidency in a landslide in `97.

Soroush, who considers Khatami a friend, believes the president squandered the hopes reformists had vested in him. “I think he lost some of the best opportunities for reform in our society,” Soroush says. “He was a very, very powerful man because he had more than 20 million votes.” But Khatami was a cautious ruler, refraining even from criticizing such obvious abuses as the beating of students and closing down of newspapers, Soroush laments.

In July 2003, Soroush issued an open letter to Khatami in which he pulled no punches. “The present generation as well as generations to come must never forget this ominous message of religious despotism,” he wrote. “That in Iran today, the best newspaper is the one that is closed, the best pen is the one that is broken and the best thinker is the one that is nonexistent.”

The slide toward despotism had advanced past the point where Khatami could stop it, though he might have done so earlier, in Soroush’s view. Nevertheless, when clerics manipulated the recent elections and Khatami again failed to take a resolute stand, many of the president’s supporters came to think that he “betrayed the whole cause of reform,” says Soroush.

But the intellectual reform movement, of which Soroush is an integral part, lives on. “If people think that even in theory the reformists have failed,” he observes, “that will be the real death of this movement. But I think that will not happen, because I think the reform movement in theory is much more advanced and much richer than its rival.”

The day I attend Soroush’s Princeton seminar, the class is discussing a group of eighth-century rationalist Islamic philosophers called the Mu’tazilites, whom Soroush sees as among the precursors of the Iranian reform movement.

The Mu’tazilites, who drew on ancient Greek philosophical sources, believed that the Qu’ran was a created text, rather than an eternal one — meaning that it was situated in the moment of its historical creation and could conceivably have been different, had external circumstances been different. Most intriguingly, the Mu’tazilites believed justice did not derive from God but guided God’s actions. Therefore an action was not good or bad because God commanded or forbade it; God commanded or forbade it because it was good or bad. What this meant was that morality stood independent of God and in fact inhered in the actions themselves. It could be apprehended with reason, even by someone ignorant of God’s injunctions. Soroush calls this vision of justice “moral secularism.”

Though the Mu’tazilites produced the official doctrine of the Baghdad caliphate from 765 through 848, they were unpopular elitists who resorted to violent repression. When they were displaced by the orthodox Ash’arites, who held reason to be subservient to revelation, the Mu’tazilites went into near-permanent eclipse. Sunni Muslims embraced the Ash’arite view and came to see Mu’tazilite ideas as heretical. But the often subterranean Mu’tazilate influence became woven into the theology of the Persian Shi’ites and the Yemeni Zaydis.

Soroush’s philosophical views owe much to the Mu’tazilite insights he explains to his graduate seminar, in particular the notion that reason can allow us to distinguish between good and evil, quite apart from divine revelation. From this notion of moral secularism follows Soroush’s belief that “you can have a democratic debate about good and bad in politics” — something implicitly denied by those who advocate rule by clerics or by the letter of the scriptures.

But while Soroush makes a business of separating the rational from the divine, he is everywhere clear that his aim is not to diminish the divine but to protect it. In his seminal Kiyan essay, “The Expansion and Contraction of Religious Knowledge,” Soroush argued that the essence of religion, which is immutable, eternal, and sacred, can be separated from religious knowledge, which is mutable, relative, and historical. The implications of this simple theory were far-reaching. The interpretive work of the clergy, therefore, was not itself divine; rather, the pursuit of religious knowledge was human and historically situated. Religious ideology, like religious knowledge, also stood apart from religion itself as something ephemeral and, in Soroush’s view, dispensable.

As Daniel Brumberg writes in “Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran,” it is precisely in separating religious knowledge from the core of religion that Soroush makes it possible to engage with Western ideas without invoking the Muslim bugbears of “cultural surrender, cultural superiority, or mechanistic `borrowing.’ ” Rather, one can apprehend justice, say, through reason, and reason can wield tools of worldly — even of Western — provenance. In any case, Soroush argues, contemporary Iran draws on three cultural wellsprings: Persian, Islamic, and Western.

Soroush believes that religious institutions and political ones should be kept separate. Doing so will allow religious life to truly flourish, because it will be chosen rather than imposed. But if this sounds like Western-style liberal secularism, it isn’t. Rather, Soroush envisions what he calls a democratic religious society. Its goal is the freedom of believers to practice and live by their faith without compulsion — but also without the “profanity” that pervades Western secular life.

Shari’ah law provides the Islamic framework for moral living, and Soroush does not seem prepared to do away with it, although he is clear that scripture should never form the sole basis of legislation. Indeed, Soroush sees Shari’ah as a form of religious knowledge rather than an article of religious faith. And so, in his view, it should be subject to rational discussion and adjustment.

It is here that my discussion with Soroush becomes most tangled and most intriguing. Shari’ah law is flexible, he tells me. It can be reinterpreted by religious scholars who may not feel that its actual provisions — the stoning of adulterers, say — still perform the functions God intended.

But is this not antidemocratic? Unelected, unaccountable jurists are left to make political decisions based on their interpretation of the divine intent, and the social expediency, of Qu’ranic injunctions. And what about human rights? I ask Soroush. The idea of human rights is still alien to Iranian jurists, he tells me, but when they are better educated that will change: “I am 100 percent sure that if our clerics become familiar with the ideas of human rights, not superficially but deeply, philosophically, that definitely this will influence their interpretation of Shari’ah.”

What Soroush would like, then, is for Islamic thought to engage and adapt secular notions of rights. What he doesn’t want, however, is for rights claims to take precedence over traditional religious morality. He certainly doesn’t wish to see Iranian society become as permissive as American society, where he believes that human rights claims have unduly silenced religious believers. He says, “Like even the omnipotent god whose actions are conditioned by the concept of justice, human rights, though they are universal, must be conditioned by the idea of morality. I think human rights nowadays has been carried away.” While those who advocate human rights may favor gay rights, for instance, Soroush believes homosexuality is simply immoral.

It is hard to discern exactly what Soroush means here by morality, but it certainly doesn’t sound like moral secularism. For if, as the Mu’tazilites claimed, morality is rational, why shouldn’t rights be a component of morality, subject to negotiation but not to unexplained moral censure of certain groups of rights-seekers? The idea of universality, I come away thinking, is an uncompromising one, whether it’s the secular world’s universal human rights or the religious world’s universal power of God. Can there really be an independent idea of justice that conditions them both, and isn’t ultimately founded on the conviction of one’s supremacy over the other?

Certainly, it’s a tension that runs through our own society, even if in the end we resolve it in a manner exactly opposite to Iran. That tension is not lost on Soroush, an Iranian liberal who laments the lack of power of American religious conservatives: “I don’t have the statistic, but roughly 70 percent of American people are religious — they go to church, they are regular churchgoers and things like that as far as I know. But they do not have the power in order to say something about homosexuality in this society. Their voice is virtually unheeded.”

Source: Boston Globe, 3/14/2004.