Interview with Abdolkarim Soroush.

April 1997 – Following his return to UK from the United States and shortly before he left London for Tehran to end a twelve-month absence from the country, Dr Soroush spoke to SERAJ in an exclusive interview. Here is a summarised translation of this conversation.


Dr. Soroush, over the last few months, you have travelled extensively to a number of Western countries (UK, US and Canada) and delivered lectures as well as attending public forums and centres for academic research and study. Could you talk briefly about your activities and experiences during these journeys?

My journey was mostly an academic one. As you may know, at the time I was facing severe pressures inside the country. The authorities had increased the restrictions on my job, public speeches, and even my writings. Around the same time, I had received invitations from various universities from around the world, including some in England. Thus I decided to leave the country for a while in order both to take up the invitations from universities and to find some time for personal reflection and contemplation, in an atmosphere far from the internal quarrels and squabbles. In England, I had an invitation from Royal Holloway (a college of the University of London), where I talked on “The Evolution of Religious Thought and Relativism”. Then I attended a seminar at Oxford University on “Civil Society in Iran”. I also had a meeting with some of the professors and teachers of SOAS. Besides these meetings, I made several speeches for the Iranian students studying in England, both in London and in other cities up an down the country. In London we had regular weekly sessions in the University of Westminster, where I was speaking on “The Keys to Understanding of Masnavi”. These events were parts of my public activities in London. Privately I have been working on, and preparing materials for, some of my own research projects, benefiting from the rich and well-resourced libraries in London. Recently I received an invitation to join the University of Cambridge as a visiting scholar; I already benefit from the use of some of the research facilities in the Cambridge University. In the near future, I hope to return to Cambridge in order to continue my research.

There was also an invitation from the Canadian University of Ottawa to give a talk at the department of Sociology of Religion. While I was there, I also talked about ’Liberty as a Method’ for the Iranian students. In Montreal, I made two speeches about ’Maximal and Minimal Expectations of Religion’ and participated in many dialogues with the Iranian students there. I left Canada for Turkey to attend a seminar on ’Islam and Modernism: the Experience of Fazl-A-Rahman.’ It was a successful seminar and I found it quite fruitful. Later on I gave a talk on “Secularism” at the Faculty of Theology at Ankara University.

I departed Turkey for the United States, where I visited many universities and academic institutions and talked to both Iranians and non-Iranians. It was a busy and extremely restless journey, so that during thirty days I spoke at over thirty venues. In these talks, my intention was to discuss systematically the various relationships between religion and other human categories. Therefore I mostly focused on such topics as ’Islam and Democracy’, ’Religion and Politics’, ’Pluralism’, ’Religion and the Modern world’, ’Religion and the intellect’, ’Kinds of Piety’, ’Religion from the Mystics’ Perspective’, and ’Evolution of Religious Thought’. I am looking forward to having an opportunity to rewrite these talks and compile them in several monographs in the near future.

Strangely enough, in this journey to the States I met people whose knowledge of the current political and social state of affairs inside Iran was extremely outdated. Among these people there were both Iranians who strongly opposed the revolution and Iranians who were interested in the revolution and committed to Islam, yet dogmatically and blindly defending the events inside the country. Both groups appeared to live in the time when the revolution was just born. However, the fact is that the revolution is now almost18 years old and many of the ideas and ideals of the revolution have been re-visited, re-examined and changed. New conditions and new personalities are now in place. It is inevitable for both the supporters of the revolution and those who are opposing it, to understand and recognise the new social and political atmosphere in Iran. Such recognition must obviously precede any adherence or opposition. Fortunately, the university students inside the country are far more aware of and sensitive to the political and socio-economic developments in society. Now oppositions and criticisms have been elevated to a higher and more serious level. Many things are now being questioned which were previously taken for granted.

Besides the public speeches and discussions on theoretical and scholastic issues, did you encounter any other issues, questions or criticisms during these jounreys, particularly from the audiences at your lectures?

Questions and criticisms were of two kinds . Some of the questions were theoretical while others were related to my political life and situation. Of the latter category, one remark which has often been made against me was this: that I had been one of the active members of the Council of Cultural Revolution, responsible for the expulsion of many teachers and professors from the universities, and only now that I have myself fallen victim to religious intolerance, have begun to criticise the current situation and defend freedom of speech.

My explanation was that some day the history of universities after the revolution must be compiled and published so that everyone knows exactly what happened. The part of this history that I participated in started from the time when the universities were already closed. That is, after armed groups occupied the universities, and this made the authorities force the groups out of the universities and close them. The Council of Cultural Revolution was formed after this event. At that time, there were people who seriously intended and actually attempted to keep the universities closed for an indefinite period. However, the Council, of which I was a member, did not want this to happen, and made every effort to compile and rewrite the syllabus of various courses rapidly, and reopen the universities within a short period. The council succeeded in reopening the universities in less than two years.

The expulsion of the teachers and professors from the universities is entirely a different issue. It did not have anything to do with the Council. In fact, it was part of a wider plan in the whole country including every state institution. It must also be said that there were professors who knew that the universities were no longer a convenient place for them and hence they themselves decided to leave. There were also many professors who were first excluded from the universities, but later appealed against the decision and were able to return. In this regard, whatever mishaps took place and injustices carried out, it was beyond the responsibility and power of the council.

More importantly, in the course of the Cultural Revolution, the necessity and the status of the human sciences was under serious threat and being undermined. I was the person who most rigorously defended the need to reopen the humanities departments, arguing that whatever may have been wrong with these sciences, they could only be rectified within the universities themselves and through a careful process of learning, teaching and continued discussion. I explicitly argued in my speeches that the process of Islamization of human sciences would not be possible in committees outside the universities, consisting of people who were not associated or familiar with the universities. If the program of Islamization of the human sciences were to be meaningful and viable at all, I argued, it had to be accomplished within the lecture rooms of the universities.

In any case, my membership of the council of cultural revolution did not last more than four years. I found that the council was heading in a direction that was unacceptable to me. So I decided to quit it, and I did.

Beside this issue, I was also asked on several occasions to comment on some of the remarks that Mr Hamed Algar had recently made about my thoughts and activities in some of his talks and interviews. Some of the things related to Mr Algar have to do with a letter published in Kiyan. The story is that some of the well-known researchers on Islam, like proferssor Ayoub, professor Schimel and professor Arkoun, wrote a letter to President Rafsanjani, expressing their concerns about my safety and political freedom in Iran. Mr Algar was also initially supposed to sign the letter. However, he later changed his mind, suggesting that he would prefer to write a separate letter. Kiyan mistakenly added Mr Algar’s name to the other names that had actually signed the letter. Although Kiyan later corrected this mistake, nonetheless following a complaint by one of the Iranian newspapers, the chief editor of Kiyan was rapidly summoned to court, although he was later acquitted. However, seeing Kiyan taken to court did not satisfy Mr Algar and he continued to make unfair comments about me, some of which could further jeoparadised my academic position and even my life. For example, he has quoted me as saying that Iran is governed by a “Stalinist regime”, which is not true.

At the University of Otawa, in an interview, he reportedly quotes my idea that there are essential and accidental matters in each religion, citing specifically that according to Soroush the language of Quran, i.e. Arabic, is an absolutely accidental feature of Islam. The book could have been in any other language, for instance, in German. There exists nothing special about Arabic to have become the exclusive language of revelation.

This seems to me to be a very plain and simple matter, although the domain of accidentals in Islam is much wider than this and it is by no means confined to linguistic matters. In that interview, Mr Algar has strangely called me a ’negative phenomenon’. He has also suggested that my choice of the example that the prophet could happen to speak German rather than Arabic might not itself have been accidental. In explaining why I had chosen this example he suggested that it may perhaps be because some people had called Soroush the Luther of Islam. I have to say here, the reason for that particular example stems not from the fact that some people have called me Luther, but more from some of the accusations made against me, and it is not unimaginable that the my enemies and conspirators have tried to use Mr Algar to re-open their old accusations which had first surfaced on one of my trips to Germany. In any case, Mr Algar’s conduct during the whole kiyan saga, his complaint on forged signature, as well as in these recent remarks about me have all been to the benefit of my enemies and have further endangered my position.I find his conduct totally unbefitting of an academician.

With the benefit of your recent encounters and communications with a wide range of distinguished thinkers and academicians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and the insights gained from these encouners, could you tell us firstly what currently are the most important questions and issues preoccupying Muslim thinkers at the present time, secondly in your opinion what issues should be the most important ones on the agenda, and finally how do you see the mutual perception and interaction between Islamic and Christian/Western thoughts and cultures? Do you, for example, agree with Mr Huntington’s thesis which predicts a major clash of civilisations?

This question can be addressed from various perspectives. Based on my own experience, and especially from what I have experienced in this long journey, I may assert that the issue of Islam and modernism is the one that has most attracted the attention of those thinking about the Muslim world. This is true of both thinkers who come from within the Islamic culture and those who study this culture from outside. In the various conferences and workshops that I have recently attended, such as the ones in London in honour of the late Fathi Osman, in Turkey in honour of the late Fazl-Al-Rahaman, at Harvard University on Islam and liberalism, and one in Egypt which I was unable to attend, the issue of Islam and Modernism has been very high on the agenda. On all these occasions I found that Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers alike are interested in establishing if the Islamic culture can ever theoretically cohabit with the modern culture. Or else, the theoretical presumptions of the modern culture simply fly in the face of the fundamentals of Islamic thought. The truth is that this issue is so significant that no serious thinker can ever afford to lose sight of it. To grasp the heart of the matter one of course ought to think about the most fundamental presumptions of both cultures. It would by no means be adequate just to attempt to change some of the apparent features of either culture to make it possible for one to live with the other. Any reconciliation of the civilisations would remain weak and fragile, unless their fundamental presumptions can live in harmony.

Besides this crucial issue, time and again, there has arisen the question of the connection of fundamentalism with Islam. This topic seems to have well engaged the minds of many of the modern social thinkers. It must however be said that the word fundamentalism is an ambiguous one, being used in many occasions with conflicting meanings, and easily leading to mind-insidious confusions. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that in the western world, there are sometimes people who try in earnest to show that Islam must not be taken to be identical with fundamentalism as understood nowadays, and that Muslims are not necessarily advocates of violence.

Human rights is also one of the interesting topics that continues to occupy the minds of many of Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers. Contrary to what some people may think, the idea of human rights is not an issue maliciously invented by the powerful states in order to advance their often-illegitimate political goals. Of course, that is not to say that the powerful states have never misused the issue of human rights to put pressure on their real or unreal foes. As a historical fact, however, it was first the humanitarian philosophers of the west who, upon their altruistic reflections, came up with a new understanding of man according to which man was deemed worthy of these new fundamental rights. It was in this way that the issue of human rights became one of the crucial cornerstones of the modern civilisation. Muslim thinkers also need to rethink the conception of human being that they have taken for granted and in turn to look into the issue of human rights in a systematic and theoretical manner. What the Muslim world has so far witnessed is just that many have tried to cover up the disagreements between the idea of human rights and the presumptions of the Muslim juridical thought (Fighh). Yet, it would be quite an impossible task to establish a harmony without fathoming into the deeper layers of assumptions within each system of thought and establishing a harmony at that level. One hardly comes across such thinkers who have gone that far. One of the exceptions is Abdollah A Naeeim who teaches in one of the universities in the States and has written a very good book on human rights.

Another problem which has interested me in this journey is that some thinkers, including Muslims, have tried to characterise Islam as a means of giving identity to the Muslim society. This in fact appears to be one of the issues that Huntington touches upon in his celebrated article, as well as in his book on the Clash of Civilisations, which is an extension of that article. In one of my talks in London, entitled ‘Islam of Identity and Islam of truth’, I said that Muslims must think anew whether Islam is primarily for guiding human minds to certain truths that they are themselves presumably unable to uncover, or else it is solely an instrument to create identity for Muslims as a distinguished culture. It is true that once a group submits itself to a collection of truths, this brings it a certain identity. But this should not blur the delicate distinction that exists between the search for truth and the search for identity. Faced with the now well-entrenched civilisation of the west, some of the Muslim thinkers have tried to introduce Islam as an instrument of identity. This idea is absolutely detrimental to Islam. Exclusive search for identity forces one to neglect the truth. Moreover, identity-seekers are ultimately bound to get into conflict, as they are rarely prepared to recognise and make room for one another. The pursuers of truth, however, are in mutual need of each other, and for this reason they are well able to understand each other. Like rays of light, truths are homogenous and all of the same family. On the other hand, identity seekers are inevitably expansionist, unable to recognise the rights of their rivals, and so sooner or later they become involved in fighting each other.

In his book ‘Clash of Civilisations’, though Huntington does not explicitly draw a line between Islam of Identity and Islam of Truth, he implicitly grounds his argument on a conception of Islam as a means of Identity. Here I have in mind places where he remarks that in the time of crisis Muslims look into their religion in order to create their own identity, and to preserve the identity of their society. By doing this, Huntington perhaps unwittingly helps to promote a conception of Islam which differs from the Islam of truth. In this, he is not alone, however. Among Muslim thinkers, there are also thinkers who have appealed to Islam as a source of Identity. Of these thinkers, one was the late Kalim Siddiqi, a political activist, and another is Dr Hossain Nasr, a staunch promoter of Islamic culture. As I said, such interpretation is detrimental both to Islam and to the Muslim world. Appealing to Islam as a source of Identity degrades Islam to the status of nationalism, which is also an instrument of identity and nothing else.

The prime mission of the prophets was not to liberate humanity from the crisis of identity. The aim was to deliver to men certain sacred truths. Of course, once some people accept certain common truths, they will accordingly find a new collective identity, and will therefore be distinguished as a united group. Identity may therefore be a by-product of religion, but not the purpose of it.

Interview with SERAJ.