A Word of Advice to the Advocates of Islamic Human Sciences

• Oct 9th, 2010 • Category: Works By Soroush

First. Iran’s current rulers are suspicious of the human sciences for a single reason: these sciences are secular. The theocrats expect the human sciences to use concepts such as God’s will, spirit and other intra-religious teachings in their explanations about human beings and societies, and since the human sciences do not comply with these expectations, the theocrats and the ulema view them with distaste.


Nowadays, economists do not appeal to God’s will to explain the fluctuating prices of foodstuffs, for example. But, in the past, theologians used to hold forth on the subject of as’ar (prices) and viewed them as falling under the heading of theological matters.


In this day and age, secular historians never refer to God’s will in their analyses of the emergence of prophets; they explore this phenomenon – without rejecting or affirming God’s intervention – using earthly, material, historical, scientific (and secular) means. It is not surprising, then, that their approach does not find favour with religious people.


Ayatollah Khomeini used to insist that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was ‘God’s doing’. But this is clearly an idea that a modern sociologist cannot digest or countenance. A well-known sociologist and University of Tehran professor once told me that, after he had delivered a lengthy talk – using the most sophisticated methods – about the factors that had led to the mobilization of the people in the 1979 revolution in Iran, a young cleric had stood up and told him: “That’s all very well, but our revolution was ‘a divine revolution’.” In other words, it’s a whale that can’t be caught in the net of sociological analyses.


Metaphysicians may be able to offer a metaphysical explanation of the 1979 revolution – alongside scientific ones – on this basis. But this would by no means suffice to allay the concerns of theocrats and the ulema. They want much more than this. They are mistrustful of empirical human sciences and want to replace them with transmitted human sciences; i.e., sciences that are extracted straight out of religious texts and present definitive and truthful explanations about human beings and societies. Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli has been striding in this realm for quite some time now. He declares proudly: On the basis of a single hadith (calling on people not to taint their certainty with doubt), we’ve been able to open a vast chapter by the name of istishab (presumption of continuity) within the field of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence which contains many subtle and delicate points; so why shouldn’t we be able to extract the science of agriculture from a hadith on the subject of farming, or extract the science of shipbuilding from the Koranic verses about Noah’s ship, or extract sciences about training and education from other hadiths, and so on. In fact, this is precisely the aim and purpose of the Theorizing Chairs, which is one of the Islamic Republic’s most amazing inventions. They want to formulate theories and to construct new sciences on this basis in order to confound enemies and gladden friends!


It would even be tolerable if they were content to stop at this: to have a group of people construct transmitted human sciences while another group of people engages in empirical and rational human sciences. But it seems that this would not suffice to sate the theocrats’ hunger. They want to drive away the ‘western’ human sciences altogether and to establish transmitted human sciences in their place. And it is these transmitted human sciences that are often referred to as indigenous and Islamic human sciences.


Second. Turning the human sciences into transmitted fields is the last trench of resistance to secularization. From the moment when Greek philosophy arrived in Islamic lands, it was secular (non-religious) and it remained non-religious. Neither its underlying tenets (such as the principle of causality) nor its tangible concerns; neither its first principles nor its second principles were derived from religion. This was precisely why Islamic jurists and mystics disliked philosophy. It was a foreign, unwanted guest. And, ever so often, they would take up the cudgels against it. (The field of theology is, of course, a different matter from philosophy.) And the Mu’tazilies, who constructed an ethics that was independent of religion (secular), were never well received by Muslims as a whole. ‘Islamic philosophy’ was not a term that was coined or used by Muslims; it was concocted by Orientalists, who were looking for simple and easy labels for categorizing Easterners’ achievements.


The empirical-natural sciences, too, were secular from birth and remained secular. But although the ulema sometimes dreamed of making philosophy ‘Islamic’, they never harboured such ideas about the natural sciences. No one spoke of or defended ‘an Islamic astronomy’ or ‘an indigenous physics’ or ‘an indigenous geology’. But the human sciences were not so lucky. The ulema always believed that these sciences were treading on their toes and stealing their thunder. They saw them as their rivals; especially ‘blasphemous’ Marxism, which was ensnaring the country’s youngsters and adding to the ulemas’ suspicions.


It was as a result of these rivalries, enmities and suspicions that, in the course of the Cultural Revolution of 1980-81, bellows of self-satisfaction arose, saying: We have ‘Islamic philosophy’; we don’t need the Western human sciences.


I can still hear Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli saying at the Cultural Revolution Institute: Islamic philosophy contains virtually everything that’s to be found in the human sciences.


The reason he gave for holding this view was that Avicenna had said that that men and women are two types of a single species, not two species (!) And his other reason was that metaphysics – not the human sciences – can explain the relationship between praying for rain and precipitation.


These bellows and claims eventually led to a number of books being produced in Qom on ‘Islamic psychology’, ‘Islamic sociology’, etc. But since the well of their learning dried up, they stopped harping on this idea and left the human sciences to the experts. In all fairness, the Cultural Revolution Institute played a big role in dampening the flames of those ignorant bellows and dangerous claims.


Now, expressions of scorn for the human sciences are all the rage again, but the cause is slightly different this time: if the human sciences are secular (non-religious), then political science will become secular too. And it goes without saying that a secular political science is just a short step away from a secular politics. The hue and cry and bellows that broke out suddenly after the jailing and show trial of Saeed Hajjarian is clear testimony to this analysis. (1)


A theocratic state needs a religious politics and transmitted sciences. Secular human sciences are anathema to it. This is why the Islamic Republic’s leader is in the vanguard of calls for the indigenization of the human sciences; that is to say, calls to turn them into transmitted sciences. Secular human sciences clearly undermine the leader’s position and this is why the circle of the theocratic leadership’s enemies has widened in his eyes. It now stretches beyond the masses and the ulema, beyond believers and unbelievers, and embraces the human sciences.


Third. We must not oppose the ulema in their bid to formulate and establish transmitted human sciences (transmitted psychology, transmitted economics, transmitted history… meaning derived from religious texts). We must not declare a priori that their efforts are futile. Let them try their luck and grapple with reality and experience. The farsighted might sense in advance that it is a losing wager and see it as a bid to shackle thought and to lock up the bird of wisdom. But surely it is beneficial enough to have these people’s abilities weighed on the scale of research and study? Then, everyone will be able to judge their progress and mark them for their efforts. I am saying this out of goodwill and without any intention to belittle their aspirations. But may I advise the science-sowing ulema, first, to assign this work to intelligent and knowledgeable people and not to allow in the brawlers and the bruisers. They must not expect rain from barren clouds. One or the other of the greenhorns (in the Cultural Revolution Council, etc.), who truly have no talent other than to scribble inanities and propagate ignorance, will squander this project’s slightest shred of credibility.


Secondly, I advise these science-loving, science-sowing scholars to retreat from politics for a while and to devote themselves to the serious study of the philosophy and the history of science; to educate themselves in the genesis and development of knowledge; to witness the painful birth of knowledge from the womb of observation, mathematics, criticism, reflection,intuition, luck and good fortune, so that they do not go out on a limb or expect to pick the fruits before they have planted the tree. I advise them to reflect on the achievements of other scholars with modesty and appreciation, and to wield their scissors with caution lest they clip the wings that are essential to the bird of wisdom’s flight.


Thirdly, I advise them not to flee the field of competition, but to promote their transmitted sciences without robbing other scholars and sciences of freedom. For, clearing the field of rivals before embarking on the race and declaring oneself the winner before the starting pistol has been fired is not in keeping with chivalry and learning and will not endear them to anyone. Iran’s universities and seminaries have nothing to lose from the testing of rivalry between these two types of human sciences: the rational and the empirical versus the transmitted and the indigenous. ‘Seminary-University Unity’ has been publicized for years in the Islamic Republic. I believe that the only chance of success for this thus-far-fruitless motto would be to have these two institutions assess and review one another’s work, freely and earnestly; learn from each other in the process; and distil and refine one another. Then, whichever one flees assessment will have proved its own failure.


Fourth.  Years of teaching and research in the philosophy of the human and the empirical sciences, and my close and cherished familiarity with their many different aspects tells me that setting out to found ‘different  human sciences’ – and on the basis of scripture at that – demands perilous audacity. Hence, I want to impart a technical and scholarly point to the advocates of indigenous sciences:


As I explained at length in The Hermeneutical Contraction and Expansion of Religion, religious knowledge (that is to say, our collective understanding of religious texts) is not independent and unneedful of the human fields of knowledge. Hence, even extracting the tenets of the human sciences from the Holy Koran (which is what the Islamic Republic’s leader is calling for) is only possible with the help of the independent human sciences. This vicious circle can only be broken if we accept that the human sciences must precede the religious interpretation. For example, studying the history, language and culture of the Arabs (which is required for understanding Islamic teachings correctly) is only possible through historical anthropology and sociology, which are independent of religion. Heeding this subtle point shows that the achievements of the secular human sciences are by no means futile and unproductive; in fact, they serve as an imperative, golden key for unlocking religious knowledge.


Ibn-Khaldun, the trailblazer and founder of history as a secular science – who based the understanding of history not on an understanding of God’s will or on rare and uncertain miracles but on the interaction of collective forces – knew very well that, even when it comes to understanding religion, we need to have a non-religious understanding of history.


If seminaries in Iran want to construct indigenous human sciences, my advice to them is that they should start with the field of history. In other words, they should try to create an ‘indigenized science of history’ and test their method and approach (about human beings, the world, etc.) in this field, and present it to others. If they begin their work with empirical sciences such as sociology and economics, they will only make their task more difficult. Let them work on history and judge the extent to which Avicenna’s philosophy or the narratives of the Kitab al-Kafi or Ibn-Arabi’s mysticism can help them understand history and make the ‘materialist tenets’ of other people irrelevant. Swimming in this sea will serve as a stepping stone to swimming in other seas.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


For more on Hajjarian’s trial see, for example, http://chronicle.com/article/Social-Science-on-Trial-in-/48949/


Comments are closed.