Faith and Hope

• Dec 1st, 2000 • Category: Interviews

An interview with Abdol Karim Soroush

Q. The subject of our discussion is « religious faith ». If I may, I’d like to begin by
asking you, what’s your understanding and definition of religious faith? If we take
religion to be composed of the three elements of religious experiences, religious
beliefs and religious practices, what’s the relationship between religious faith and
these three elements?
A. Religious faith, as I understand it, consists of believing in and becoming attached
to someone, as well as trusting them, thinking well of them and loving them. In saying this,
I’ve mainly defined faith in God, because God is the central axis of monotheistic belief
systems. Faith cannot be equated with belief per se; not every instance of belief – even
dogmatic belief – can be seen as an instance of faith, because in faith you not only have
belief, but you also have trust, commitment, devotion, love, humility and submissiveness.
We have many beliefs which, while being matters of total conviction, are not described as
matters of faith. For example, on the basis of our religious teachings, we have total
conviction in the existence of Satan. But we certainly do not have faith in Satan, because we
do not consider him worthy of our trust, we do not become devoted to him and we see no
virtue in him.
The same can be said of everything that falls under the rubric of science and
philosophy. It would be difficult to say that philosophers have faith in the veracity of
existence or in the principle of causality. Or that scientists have faith in atomic theory. The
reason for this does not lie in any lack of certainty or conviction in these ideas; it is just that
other requirements and conditions must be met, alongside belief, for us to be able to use the
word « faith » in any meaningful sense.
When religious faith – in the sense and with the conditions I have set out here –
comes about in someone’s mind or heart, there’s a complete transformation in their entire
existence. This transformation in one’s very being is different from any transformation that
may occur simply in one’s mind. A believer hands over their entire being to their faith. And,
as certain philosophers have said, faith gives a person a whole new life; it doesn’t just plant a
new piece of data in their minds. This devout existence is the very opposite of an irreligious
existence. An irreligious being is essentially bent on rejection, disobedience and denial,
whereas a devout being is brimming with humility and surrender. If we turn to religious texts,
we find evidence corroborating this interpretation. There is a verse in the Koran, for
example, that states: « For, believers are those who, when Allah is mentioned, feel a tremor
in their hearts, and when they hear His Signs rehearsed, find their faith strengthened, and
put all their trust in their Lord. » (Anfal, 2) The tremor in the heart is a sign of humility and
surrender, and it is an indication of the relationship of love and submissiveness between the
believer and the object of faith. It is also clear that trust is one of the other attributes of the
believer and, without entrusting oneself, a believer’s faith is incomplete, such that the
ingredient of trust in the definition of faith must be seen as an analytical ingredient, not as a
necessary or accidental descriptive one. Or take the following verse: « Only those believe in
Our Signs who, when they are recited to them, fall down in adoration, and celebrate the
praises of their Lord, nor are they ever puffed up with pride. Their limbs do forsake their
beds of sleep, the while they call on their Lord in Fear and Hope…. » (Sajda, 15 and 16)
Here, falling down in adoration, humility, hope and trust have been depicted as indications of
Faith, as I have described it, admits of degree, just as love can grow and grow and
just as trust and commitment and devotion may abate or intensify. The discovery of the
object of faith’s merits and goodness and beauty and majesty is a gradual process and can,
therefore, strengthen a person’s faith. In this way, the believer may grow more robust or
more lean in terms of faith, just as an irreligious person can be afflicted with corpulence or
I have deliberately not referred to certitude or unquestioning belief, because including
certitude in the definition of faith is problematic and suspect. Some Muslim thinkers have
defined faith as dogmatic and unquestioning belief. And when they’ve encountered the idea
that faith admits of degree (something that is explicitly stated in the Koran), they’ve run into
difficulties and tried to explain it as relating to the symptoms of faith, not its essence. Of
course, certitude does not admit of degree, but faith does, and this is reason to believe that
faith and certitude are not one and the same. In faith, there must be a degree of conviction.
As long as a person is more convinced about something or someone’s existence and
goodness – rather than their non-existence – and, as long as, on this basis the person takes a
risk and grows fond of that being and dares to hope and, sensing a certain amount of
success, finds their hope and trust and conviction fortified and embarks on even greater
hopes and risks and sacrifices, this person can be described as a believer. Here, the
elements of risking and hoping and entrusting oneself gain higher marks than certitude and
absolute conviction.
The terms hope, doubt, longing, trust… have been used so often in the Koran in
connection with faith as to lend credence to the idea that, as far as the Koran is concerned,
faith is comprised of these components and ingredients. Hence certitude must move in their
direction, not they in the direction of certitude. That is to say, certitude must be defined with
reference to them, not they with reference to certitude.
In the history of Christianity, for its part, the role played by certainty in faith is so
negative that a great thinker like Thomas Aquinas basically saw uncertainty as the very
terrain and bedrock of faith. He said that, if there is indisputable evidence demonstrating the
veracity of something then certitude will inevitably and passively be attained in its regard, and
there’ll be no room for « faith as a verb». It is the paucity of corroborating evidence that
creates space for faith and risk and hope. In Protestantism and for Luther, too, trust plays a
bigger part in faith than certainty and conviction. Research by Cantwel Smith, the
contemporary Canadian religious theorist, also shows that, for Christians in the early
centuries, faith tended to convey a sense of trust, rather than certitude and absolute
conviction. (See R. Swinburne: Faith and Reason; E. Gilson: Reason & Revelation in the
Middle Ages; and the article « Renewing Faith » in A. Soroush: Expansion of Prophetic
Experience) It should be pointed out that the argument here is that faith does not begin with
certainty and is not necessarily based on it; it is not being suggested that faith is
incompatible with certainty or cannot lead to it. In brief, the fact that faith is active (as
opposed to the passivity of certainty) and the fact that it admits of degree (as opposed to the
immutability of certainty) means that the two move along different paths.

Q. If you agree with the division of religion into the three above-mentioned
elements, what, in your view, is the relationship between faith and these three
A. I believe that religious experience is both the cause of and the reason for faith. If
you don’t like the word experience – I’ve noticed that some people don’t like the word
« experience » used in this context – we can use the word « discovery ». In any religious
experience or discovery, a being, a truth or a secret appears to the discoverer. This secret
or truth is on occasion so beautiful, enchanting, glorious and majestic as to engulf the
discoverer’s entire being and make them fall under its spell. An occurrence of this kind
produces most of the characteristics we attributed to faith, such as belief, trust, commitment,
devotion, humility and submissiveness, and transforms the person into a believer. This faith
is unwilled and lacks the element of risk; it only exists in the state of enchantment. When
the person comes to and begins to think about the experience, then the element of risk
comes into play and, in the midst of attachments and temptations, they must choose their
path and rely on their experience. It is at this point that faith is born as a « verb » and it
consists of a mixture of knowledge, will, love and hope.
Religious beliefs formulate religious experiences and religious discoveries into
theories. In fact, the relationship between religious beliefs and religious experiences is the
relationship established by philosophers between acquired knowledge and immediate
knowledge. Immediate knowledge consists of naked and unmediated pieces of information
which have not yet been covered up with theoretical garments. We may even describe
immediate knowledge as knowledge combined with oblivion, that is to say, a kind of
unconscious or oblivious knowledge. But when the mind begins to formulate things,
immediate information is transformed into acquired information; in other words, those
discoveries are formulated into concepts and turned into propositions and perceptions,
propositions and perceptions that are objective and public and can be presented to others
and to the scientific community. These perceptions and propositions are non-personal,
cultural and contemporaneous, that is to say, they are entirely in keeping with the
discoverer’s culture.
Religious practice, for its part, abates and intensifies along with the abatement and
intensification of faith. In other words, religious faith produces the will to action. When faith
is stronger, the will to action is correspondingly stronger. A number of contemporary
analytical philosophers, and even some past thinkers, have considered action to be an
analytic ingredient of belief, such that inaction for them implies lack of belief. This is a
subject that has a long history in religious debates.
As a simple example, take Ghazzali. Ghazzali was someone whose very existence
was intertwined with the fear of God. This fear was not just something that he had
experienced once; it had engulfed his whole being, such that, if we were to create a
category and description for Ghazzali, we would have to describe him as a fearful mystic.
The fear that permeated Ghazzali’s existence also dictated his actions. In the first instance,
he experienced a terrifying God. Then he placed his faith in Him. And later still, he
produced a theory in keeping with this fearsome God and presented it in various forms in his
writings. His belief in this terrifying God also affected his deeds and, when a God of this
nature had appeared to him, he abandoned the life of joy. He fled from Baghdad to
Damascus and became a recluse there. Even on his return to Tous, when Sultan Sanjar and
the military commanders invited him to resume his teaching post at the academy, he
declined, saying he had made a pact with God and did not wish to break it. This was the
nature of Ghazzali’s religious experience and faith. As to the experience and faith of the
Prophet, peace be upon him, it is clear for all to see. It all began in the cave of Hira and his
experience in that cave became the basis of all his subsequent thoughts and deeds.

Q. It seems that, throughout history, religious experiences have always
occurred against a backdrop of religious beliefs and faith. In this sense and at a
different level, does religious experience itself not follow from religious faith or
religious belief? Is it possible for someone who has no religious faith or religious
belief to have a religious experience?
A. Along with faith, an individual will always also acquire an image and form of the
object of faith; there is no escaping this. In this sense, I agree that the two things are
intertwined. Nonetheless, I don’t think that they are one and the same. The substance of
religious beliefs is provided by experience; its form by the culture of the age and the
discoverer’s imagination; and faith by will, love and hope.

Q. What I was trying to say is that it would seem that certain preconditions are
needed for having a religious experience and that one of these preconditions is that a
person has to have been raised in a religious tradition. Doesn’t this create a situation
in which you don’t know which comes first, a religious belief or a religious
A. There can be no doubt that religious environments are conducive and
predisposed to religious experiences and beliefs, and that they give a sense and form to
religious discoveries and lend them theoretical substance. There can also be no doubt that
religion and religious theories have tended to be cumulative; that is to say, subsequent
experiences have sat atop previous experiences, completing one another and growing, in a
sense. But to suggest that the first experience must itself have come about in a religious
culture, this is much more dubious. Here, cause and effect are so intertwined as to make it
difficult to disentangle them. As W.T. Stace has shown in his book Mysticism and
Philosophy, the religious experiences of mystics throughout history and within a variety of
cultures have been so similar and have had so many common features as to make it
possible to say that religious experiences occur independently of religious cultures.
However, when they are recounted and presented to others, they are expressed in terms of
the prevailing religious concepts and culture. We must not forget something that Mowlavi
tells us repeatedly: in a religious experience, the person involved has a faceless experience
and then they put a face on it. Hence, the naked experience is always covered up by some
garment and the garment is cut and sewn from the available material. This material varies
from age to age. Hence the garment is different in every age.
Now, we might raise the question as to whether any of these faces are more in
keeping with that faceless entity? Or is it the case that all faces have an equal relationship
to it? This is a point that needs to be taken into account in discussing the relationship
between religious experience and religious belief: can the different sacred and theological
systems based on religious experience claim to be closer to that formless core or not?

Q. It would seem that a theory about faith that sees religious experience as the
begetter and creator of faith must be an elitist theory. Since, if we take religious
experience, in the technical sense of the word, to mean an encounter with God and if
we accept that very few people have such a profound experience, we would have to
conclude that many of the people who are described as believers in religious
traditions actually lack faith because they’ve never had a religious experience.
A. I’ve been speaking about quintessential religious faith; faith as an ideal type or in
its purest form. This was all in the nature of a proof, not a demonstration; definition, not
realisation. But as you know, we rarely encounter anything in its purest form in our lives.
For example, if we were to define quintessential water it would be one thing; real water,
another. Quintessential water is neither hot, nor cold; neither salty, nor muddy… But the
water that exists in jugs and brooks and oceans tends to have a combination of these
When we speak about faith in relation to the bulk of the people, we have in mind the
affection, belief and hope that I mentioned, which can result from personal experience,
inculcation, habit, education, upbringing or anything else. The fact of the matter is that
religions themselves recognise and allow this kind of faith. And we certainly have no wish to
disallow it. But if these faint, diluted faiths cannot draw strength from pure, concentrated
faiths, they’ll be unsteady and transient. Pure religious faith and experience is what prophets
have. Their faith has reasons as well as causes. But the faith of the bulk of the people is
usually caused not reasoned; passive, not active; determined, not willed; unconscious, not
The faith of believers in general is mediated. That is to say, they have no direct
experience of God and they are unlikely to encounter Him. But since they trust the Prophet,
they find God in this way, through him. And, in the course of their lives, if some of their
prayers are answered or if they have some genuine visions, their faith may become more
intense; otherwise, not. This is why, in my discussions on prophethood, I’ve emphasised
the point that, in monotheistic religions, the prophet is a key, invaluable factor. And most
believers first place their faith in their prophet and find God in this way and make Him the
object of their faith.
At any rate, whether it is the prophetic experience or an individual’s religious
experience, a necessary condition (not a sufficient condition) is the birth of a phenomenon
known as faith in history and in the general culture of humanity. Then, it is necessary to
have a will to action and hope, so that the leap of faith is made possible. Today, we tend to
say that someone has faith if they display the general qualities and effects brought about by
a faith-giving experience; qualities such as belief, humility, devotion, submissiveness,
surrender, trust and the like. They cannot be said to have logical certitude, but they have
faith. And their faith is acceptable to religious leaders. The fact that you see that sowing
doubt is discouraged in religion and that there are even some harsh precepts against
apostates and heretics shows that the Legislator knew that believers’ convictions are
unsteady and may be shaken; they are nonetheless described as believers, because they
display trust, humility and devotion towards the object of faith, and these are qualities that
follow from faith.

Q. Given the fact that new rationality is probing and critical, what’s the
relationship between religious faith and doubt and criticism? And what’s the
difference between having doubts and being a sceptic or a relativist?
A. I believe that the most important criticism that can be directed at the
physiognomies that arise from religious experiences has to do with whether a physiognomy
is in keeping with the experience. This kind of criticism is, of course, different from any
scientific or philosophical criticism that would concern itself with those physiognomies
themselves and their relationship to one another.
This is one meaning of the veracity of religious beliefs: harmony and accord between
a person’s religious beliefs and the views and theories that exist in the other fields of human
knowledge and discovery. The truth table approach tells us that, wherever they may be,
truths must be in accord. This is one type of criticism. Hence, one of the duties of a pious
person or theologian is to establish accord between their religious findings and other human
Another meaning of veracity, which is « correspondence to reality », guides us
towards another path to criticism. That is to say, if we believe that religious theories are, in
reality, garments thrown over naked experiences, the question needs to be asked as to
whether these garments are well-fitting or not? Answering this question is, in my view,
extremely difficult. And this makes it all the more imperative to investigate and criticise. The
person who has had the experience must constantly ask themselves: is this theoretical
physiognomy in keeping with what I experienced or not? Here, the question I raised earlier
comes into its own: can it be said that some of the faces we lend to a faceless entity are
more appropriate to it than others? Does an utterly faceless entity not stand in exactly the
same relationship to any face? If we accept that all physiognomies are equally similar or
dissimilar to that faceless entity and that all theories are, in a sense, equally valid, then the
way will be open to theological pluralism and pluralistic belief.
In any event, I believe that the door is never closed to the criticism of religious beliefs
and experiences, and both the person who has had the experience and the people who hear
and learn about it must never lay down the flag of criticism. If we accept that, at least at the
level of expression and presentation, experiences always draw on the existing reservoir of
perceptions and propositions, then we must constantly review, elucidate and clarify this
reservoir in order to refine those faces and beliefs. Hence, the criticism of religious
experiences and beliefs is always oriented towards the removal of the outer garments and
layers in order to move closer to the pure essence of religious experience and belief. Of
course, this kind of criticism robs us of mundane faith. But why should we worry about that?
If we come to the conclusion that faith is something that is attained gradually and that it can
abate and intensify and be refined and purified, then we won’t see any contradiction between
the essence of faith and the examination of faith. There is no conceptual or actual
incongruity between faith and belief, on the one hand, and change and criticism, on the
other. What logic and definition rule out is criticism and change with respect to certitude, but
certitude is not an ingredient of faith and belief.
A person who has a religious experience is a sculptor who is never satisfied with the
face he sculpts. He’s constantly chipping away at it, remoulding it and shaping it into a new

Q. Might there not be concern that, in circumstances in which we are moving
ever further away in time from the Prophet’s faith-giving experience, this constant
process of doubt and rational criticism may pose serious threats to the very
foundation of faith? From another perspective, wouldn’t this constant probing and
criticism disturb the believer’s mental and psychological stability and calm? In fact,
we seem to be facing conditions in which having faith and remaining a believer are
increasingly difficult.
A. In the article « Types of Religiosity », published in Kiyan (No 50), I was in fact
trying to answer these types of questions. The truth of the matter is, we have to differentiate
between different kinds of religiosity. In the faith of the bulk of the people, there’s no place
for whys and wherefores. This kind of faith will become more fragile if subjected to
questions and criticism and will ultimately fall into decline. This is why, in the realm of
collective religiosity, religion turns into a half-congealed, half-dogmatic ritual. Throughout the
course of history, the general mass of believers have followed this kind of religion and faith.
But we have two other types of religiosity as well: gnostic religiosity and experiential
religiosity. Gnostic religiosity basically came into being through questioning and it thrives on
questioning. Pragmatic (or utilitarian) religiosity did not come into being on the basis of
questioning, but on the basis of imitation, so it thrives on imitation and its survival depends
on imitation. If ever confronted with questioning and criticism, it would melt like snow. But
how can gnostic religiosity ever call a halt to questioning given that it was founded on this
very basis? No-one can claim that there is only one type of religiosity: the imitative,
pragmatic, ritualistic, mythical religiosity of the general masses. We must also accord official
recognition to gnostic religiosity. On the testimony of history and the testimony of the field of
theology (which has consistently existed among the followers of all religions), as well as on
the testimony of the human mind (which is essentially given to rationality and inquiry and
cannot be banned from posing questions), gnostic religiosity has existed and will continue to
exist. Hence, if we accept that there is a type of religiosity that begins with criticism and
questions, we cannot construct a barrier halfway down its path and ask the gnostic believer
to proceed no further. We therefore have to recognise that there is also a probing type of
faith as well as an imitative type. This probing faith will find and has found its own way.
We’ve had many examples of theologians, scholars and philosophers who, while persisting
in their faith, were engaged in a permanent process of refining their beliefs and looking for
possible errors. And, although there were times when they experienced serious misgivings
and doubts, since these misgivings arose from faith, we see this as the virtue of faith.

Q. If these misgivings arise, can the believer still maintain their trust,
commitment and devotion?
A. The individual is terrified by such misgivings because they’re afraid of losing their
trust, commitment and devotion. Hence these fears and concerns are the fears and
concerns of the faithful. It’s like a problem arising between you and your friend. When this
happens, you can do one of two things: one, you can use it as an excuse to break off your
friendship; two, you can use it as an excuse to ensure that you don’t lose them and do your
utmost to preserve the friendship. In exactly the same way, as long as the urge to preserve
faith, commitment and trust is there, it has to be seen as a misgiving within faith, a misgiving
which implies no lack of faith, which is, on the contrary, identical to faith and an example of
the risk of faith. As Mowlana put it: « I tremble over my faith like a mother over her child. »
In this light, the weakness and strength that the person experiences along this path are a
weakness and strength that is intrinsic to the game of faith. It is like a battle in which you
occasionally advance and you occasionally retreat; but all this advancing and retreating
amounts to the same thing: fighting and overpowering the enemy. You will also find this in
experiential religiosity where mystics have spoken repeatedly and in different terms about
the contractions and expansions they’ve experienced. At times the Beloved was hidden to
the mystic and, at times, the Beloved appeared to them. Sometimes their nights were as
bright as days; at other times, their days as dark as nights. But, despite all these trials and
tribulations, they remained true to their faith and were people of faith.
Of course, if the foundations of faith collapse altogether, faith will become impossible.
Faith demands a minimum of conviction and trust. This is generally and conditionally true.
For any faith, some particular rule applies, which must be met and cannot be foregone.
I have to repeat that faith is not something that admits of no weakness or strength,
that never trembles or even upends. All these conditions are permissible within faith (by its
very nature), and so much the more so for the actually existing faiths that are like muddy
waters susceptible to a variety of symptoms. God Himself reveals in the Koran the tremors
that some believers undergo: « In that situation, where the believers tried: they were
shaken as by a tremendous shaking. » (Ahzab, 11) In any great trial or test, there’s always
severe tremors and turbulence. Like autumn winds, this turbulence tears some leaves off
the tree and leaves some behind. This is in the nature of a leaf: it is clinging to the tree by a
thin thread. A storm may on occasion uproot the tree itself; what, then, can you expect of a
poor leaf?

Q. As you know, rational divinities have faced serious and profound crises
over the past few centuries. That is to say, arguments demonstrating the existence of
God have been subjected to serious attacks, and strong arguments, such as « the
problem of evil », have been reformulated and used to criticise religious beliefs. At
the same time, it has become entirely possible to present mechanical explanations
devoid of the assumption of God. Can these developments be seen as serious events
in the history of religious faith? What qualitative and quantitative impact have these
developments had on religious faith? And has the « will to faith » not been weakened
by all this?
A. The events you enumerated have principally occurred in the realm of gnostic
religiosity. It was not without reason that people like Ghazzali were so hostile to the field of
theology and that Mowlana believed that « the leg of the syllogists is of wood », that they
made the path to guidance more onerous and that doubt was inherent to philosophical faith.
Again it was not without reason that some people saw the growth of the field of theology as a
sign of the weakness of faith. They’d condescendingly tell theologians that when a person
turns from experience to theory, it shows that the fire of experience has cooled; that it
amounts to leaving the orbit of faith and busying oneself with the consequences, effects and
secondary aspects of faith instead.
At any rate, this is nothing new and we have seen it occur in the history of every
religion. And, first, it has to be said that, by its nature, it belongs to the realm of gnostic
religiosity. All the same, as philosophers have always said, disproving the reason doesn’t
disprove the contention. In other words, if you disprove the reasons for the existence of
something, you cannot conclude that that thing doesn’t exist. Even if we disprove all the
reasons for the existence of God, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It only means that
we have no reasons for His existence. This is why, both for pragmatic and experiential
believers, disproving the reasons for the existence of God doesn’t undermine their faith.
They didn’t obtain their faith through reasoning so it isn’t shaken if the reasons are
However, there’s no denying that gnostic religiosity does rest on this basis. When
someone enters the arena of criticism and opinion, then they’ll be buffeted by strong storms.
And these storms may at times weaken and undermine their faith and, at times, strengthen
it. The situation of the gnostic believer is described in a verse that says: « The thinker who
moves forward with reasons/is just as likely to be driven backward by reasons ». Here we
have a full scale battle scene and, in battle, you can’t afford to go to sleep. Both doubt and
certainty spring forth from evidence and reason. Under the bombardment of reasons, doubt
and certainty are, therefore, bound to abate and intensify. In the science of probabilities
there’s a rule that says: all probability is conditional. In other words, an event can become
more or less probable depending on the conditions surrounding it. By the same token,
rational certainty is likewise always conditional; as the conditions change, so certainty is
pulled this way and that.
In view of all this, gnostic believers mustn’t compare their religiosity to the religiosity
of pragmatic or experiential believers. They mustn’t imagine that the more thoughtless a
person is, the more pious they’ll be. This is totally false. In fact, this is one point on which
Ghazzali is open to reproach. When Ghazzali abandoned gnostic religiosity, he began to
long for a return to mundane types of faith. He said somewhere that the concerns and
dilemmas that a theologian experiences in the course of their lifetime may flare up when
they’re on their deathbed and they may leave the world faithlessly; whereas an old woman
who has never known such concerns and dilemmas and whose faith hasn’t been tainted with
theology will leave the world piously. This is a surprising judgement coming from Ghazzali.
If a gnostic believer and theologian – who has stepped onto the terrain of qualms and
dilemmas – persists along this path with sincerity and strives to discover and understand the
truth, they’ll be a true player in the field of faith.
I’ve said a great deal, but one important point remains to be said and that is that
everything that befalls a human being is in keeping with human beings. A human being
cannot be asked to do something that is beyond their capacities. Faith, doubt, certitude,
struggle… all these are human affairs and we cannot expect them to be other than they are.
Apart from people who are asleep or frozen, everyone experiences qualms and misgivings
and highs and lows. The ocean of everyone’s existence undergoes fierce storms and
turbulence. Human beings are not like mountains; they are like oceans. Hence their faith is
ocean-like and turbulent too. What would be strange is if they were always placid. « If
innocent Adam succumbed to sin/who are we to claim to be sin free?»
If Adam suffered from temptations and dilemmas, how can we ordinary human beings
be expected not to be sucked into the whirlwind of temptation? Mundane, pragmatic
religiosity seems to be the only exception to this rule; but experiential and gnostic religiosity
are both equally subject to it. We must correct our image of human beings and see placid
faith as a weak, diluted and deficient form of the phenomenon, not as a model of true faith.
According to religious legends, human beings’ fall from grace and their life on earth
followed from two original sins: one was Satan’s sin in not prostrating himself before Adam
and, the other, Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit, which itself resulted from a frailty of
faith: « We had already beforehand, taken the covenant of Adam, but he forgot: and We
found on his part no firm resolve. » (Taha, 115)
Hence, people who want to return human beings to a blissful paradise and a placid
swamp must turn back the clock, go as far back as Adam and dissuade him from the original

Q. As you said, there may be ups and downs in the religious life of gnostic
believers. But the examination of the history of rational debate on religion raises
another question. It would seem that, over the course of history, the arguments
pointing to the veracity of religious beliefs and experiences have been gradually
undermined. At the same time, non-religious explanations have been presented as
rivals and replacements for analyses based on faith and religious experiences.
What’s your assessment of this historical trend?
A. Yes, it is as you say. New philosophies are, more often than not, non-religious
philosophies. They’re basically not intended for or geared to proving religious claims; unlike
older philosophies and, especially, what is described as Islamic philosophy – which was like a
steed that Muslim theologians could mount to gallop towards the land of faith. In the past,
the religious climate of societies made it impossible to draw non-religious or irreligious
conclusions from philosophy. But in modern secular and liberal societies, some
philosophical teachings are completely at odds with past religious teachings. It’s on this
basis that I think gnostic religiosity in today’s society has become sturdier, as well as more
difficult and more valuable, than the gnostic religiosity of the past.
I’d suggested in one of my writings that, in the modern world, we must follow the path
of the prophets. In other words, we need to bring religious experiences back to life to open
the way for religious discoveries, in order to allow the construction of a new theology on
these foundations and make it possible to create a garment, woven of the language of the
age we live in, by way of a covering for those naked experiences. If the passion of religious
experiences subsides, no theory in the world would really have the strength to revive and
rekindle religious faith. Mowlana use to say: « Sometimes a locksmith makes locks and
sometimes he makes keys ». Today, lock making seems to be all the rage. The possibility
of religious experience has, therefore, declined drastically. Of course, the difficulty of
religious experience has made one thing more clear: the chance of any claims to
prophethood seems remote and implausible in the modern world; hence, it can be said with
greater certainty that the Prophet of Islam was the seal of all prophets. That is to say, the
historical climate is no longer such as to breed prophets. As I said in the article « The
Seal », the world has been so demystified that it is well nigh impossible now to encounter the
rich experiences known to prophets.

Q. Has this dramatic qualitative and quantitative decline in religious experience
not led to a crisis of faith in the modern world?
A. It may be possible to say that all three types of religiosity are tending to become
sturdier and stronger. Pragmatic religiosity is continuing to play its role in reassuring
believers and it has an elaborate clerical machinery. Gnostic religiosity has become much
sturdier, in view of the books that have been written and are being written on the subject and
in view of the extensive and comprehensive debates and critiques that are taking place in
this field. As for experiential religiosity, it has gained a larger circle of yearning supplicants
since the other two types of religiosity are not entirely reassuring and fulfilling. Today there
are many non-religious people who long for a shred of the religious faith possessed by
believers. This longing will do its trick one day. At any rate, one thing is certain: in the
modern, demystified world, the God discovered by believers and the theories woven around
Him may well be different from those of the past.

Q. It would seem that the ideas raised in your analysis point in a different
direction: pragmatic religiosity is basically the religiosity of people who, strictly
speaking, have never had religious experiences and who do not have faith in the true
sense of the word; gnostic religiosity, for its part, is faced with profound crises and
serious problems; and experiential religiosity is suffering from a dearth of deep
religious experiences. Things seem to be worse than you suggest.
A. Pragmatic religiosity is basically an everyday type of religiosity. It has served
particular functions in society and is set to survive as a phenomenon that bolsters solidarity
and assists people in quelling internal and external dilemmas. This is a type of religiosity
that has existed and will continue to exist. But, although gnostic religiosity is facing crises,
the truth of the matter is that this type of religiosity essentially thrives on crises. You could
describe it as a creature that feeds on doubt. It therefore grows sturdier, not slimmer, with
doubts and crises. It’s like the legendary animal known as the zamel: « There’s an animal
called the zamel/the more you beat it, the more it works and is content/beat it with a stick to
make it happy/make sure you beat it if you want it to become corpulent ».

Q. The problem is that faith is one thing and gnosticism another. Faith, as you
described it, has to do with religious experience and the subsequent piety.
Otherwise, does the mere process of grappling with questions and doubts have any
value in terms of faith?
A. Yes, gnostic religiosity is nourished by criticism and questions. Nonetheless, the
concerns of the gnostic are the concerns of the pious; these are not detached and
dispassionate mental processes. In other words, it’s not as if they approach religious
questions in the way a mathematician approaches numerical questions. Quite the reverse.
They enter this field on the basis of commitment to theology and piety. It also has to be
said that gnostic religiosity should be seen as a collective affair in which there are both
while another part is enjoying strength. A new discovery or theory, or the resolution of a
doubt may intensify some people’s faith, just as the emergence of a new doubt may diminish
some people’s faith. The history of theology is replete with such victories and defeats.
Anyone who looks at these endeavours as a whole may decide that, in this battle, the
defeats have outnumbered the victories; or they may conclude that there have been more
victories than defeats. The tenor of your remarks suggests that, on the whole, you believe
there have been more defeats than victories. Ghazzali’s position seems to be much the

Q. What’s your own assessment?
A. In truth, I have no reason to believe that the defeats have outnumbered the
victories or to draw the conclusion, on this basis, that this process has caused more harm
than good. And none of the distinguished people who have spoken about this subject have
presented any reason that would corroborate such a position. The important point is that,
today, gnostic religiosity has become a need, and not just as medicine (as Ghazzali put it),
but as food.

Q. If we accept that religious beliefs make it possible for the believer and the
religious community to understand and refine their religious experiences, and if we
accept that this refined understanding paves the way for subsequent religious
experiences, can we conclude that these developments have led to a refinement of
religious beliefs and, consequently, religious life and faith as a whole?
A. Yes, just so. That is to say, if we assume the necessity of a clear mind, free of
contradictions and open to correct information, for the interpretation of experiences, we can
say that the refinement of religious beliefs will help improve and further rectify the
interpretation of religious experiences. This, too, may be one of the blessings of theology
and gnostic religiosity. It is the story of Moses and the shepherd all over again. Shepherds
have experiences and people like Moses concern themselves with the interpretation of
experiences. Those whose souls are afire need those who are steeped in knowledge;
theologians and religious scholars can fill the knowledge vacuum.
Religion has suffered far more from dogmatism, opportunism and greed than from
the doubts raised by gnosticism. Hence, if we are to build a barrier against something, it
should not be against the spread of gnosticism but against demagoguery and opportunism
perpetuated in the name of religion. Whatever else we might say about theologians, we
have to admit that they keep alight the flame of thought and religion-mindedness, and our
whole discussion here about faith, hope and certitude falls within the framework of gnostic
religiosity. We must therefore applaud theologians and value their efforts. We must
celebrate their victories and not be alarmed by or resentful of their defeats; for their defeats
today can pave the way for their victories tomorrow. Let’s not forget that all their debates are
about the preservation of faith and are replete with faith. A historian once said about
Darwin’s theory that Darwin had delivered a blow to the study of God that no apostate had
ever been able to do. Apostates kept alive the debate about the existence or non-existence
of God, but, with his theory, Darwin rendered the whole debate unnecessary and pointless.
Once this occurs, we’ve stepped into the arena of irreligiosity; but as long as there are
discussions about the existence of God, religious experience, the truth of faith, Satan, the
existence of the other world and so on, we should be glad, because it keeps the flame of
religion alight.

Q. What specific, practical proposals do you have for strengthening
experiential religiosity? Are the current circumstances conducive to strengthening
experiential religiosity?
A. I think prophets are the heroes of this field, so we must reap maximum benefit
from their experiences. They have been the teachers on this subject. The fact that it is
stated in the Koran that this book is guidance for the pious indicates that piety is the first
requirement for being guided towards God, communicating with Him, getting closer to Him
and, ultimately, discovering Him and having a religious experience. The mystics, too, have
followed in the footsteps of the prophets and taught us lessons in this respect. All these
teachings have been oriented towards the attainment of a kind of purity, leanness and
detachment from worldly concerns; the more a person’s attachment to the passing
phenomena and appearances of life diminishes – such that the material aspects of the world
become like sea foam, as Mowlana put it – the more they can come to be in touch with the
things beyond this world. This is why you’ll find that all prophets sought solitude, ate little,
spoke little and slept little. And mystics have, therefore, followed the same model. The
modern world is a raucous world and it produces many distractions. This makes it more
difficult to achieve detachment and, consequently, to have religious experiences. But the
path remains more or less the same.

Q. Don’t you think that these recommendations were meaningful and effective
in the framework of the old world and in the light of the beliefs and ethics of the time?
And that the modern world demands new methods? In other words, don’t you think
there should be recommendations in keeping with the circumstances of human
beings today?
A. I think that those old methods are even more essential and vital for today’s human
beings. Of course, it was easier to carry out those recommendations in the past. It is more
difficult today. To be honest, I don’t think there’s any shortcut and I believe that going
through the preliminaries that the prophet’s learnt are absolutely essential and vital for the
attainment of religious experiences and spiritual discoveries. In other words, they are no
less important today and no substitute has been found for them.

Q. Pragmatic or utilitarian religiosity itself has aspects that are knowledgebound;
that is to say, it contains something known as articles of faith. My question
is, what is the position of people like Ghazzali on these aspects of religion? Do they
hold that thought should be suspended altogether? Or, if there’s a need for some
people to think and to bring about some adaptations or adjustments in these
knowledge-bound aspects, what would the opposition of people like Ghazzali to this
kind of analytical or critical activity amount to?
A. Ghazzali wanted to see an end to the study of theology. He believed that
theology is, at most, like medicine, not like food, and that it should, therefore, only be used in
circumstances where there’s illness. Hence, he thought theologians were like doctors
although, unlike doctors, they were not allowed to dispense their wisdom to the general
public. Ghazzali saw theologians as parasites. He said that, since there are bandits on the
road of religion, there’s a need for theologians to fight off the bandits. If banditry is done
away with, theologians will be done away with as well. He wrote two relatively nonvoluminous
books: one was Message from Jerusalem [Al-Risalah al-Qudsiyah] and the
other Rules of Beliefs [Qava’id al-Aqa’id] which he fitted into the Revival of the Religious
Sciences. He said, if anyone wishes to become familiar with this material in brief, they
should read the Al-Risalah al-Qudsiyah and, if they wish to become familiar with it at length,
they should read the Qava’id al-Aqa’id; and, if their questions and concerns remain
unresolved after reading these books, they should know that the illness has become deepseated
in them and they should just sit and wait for God’s mercy. Ghazzali held this view
until the end of his life and offered this free advice to people. But looking at things from the
outside, it is clear that Ghazzali himself helped make the field of theology more robust. He
wanted to be the last of the theologians, but theology did not oblige. In fact, the source of
Ghazzali’s regret and sorrow lay elsewhere. He was a revivalist and he could see very
clearly that three categories of people, preachers, theologians and jurists [fuqaha], had
captured the minds of most believers and the field of religiosity as a whole, and that
everything they did was directed towards promoting their own trades and nothing that they
did was directed towards guiding people to salvation. He therefore made it his duty to give
lessons on ethics, in other words, exactly what was needed to achieve other-worldly
redemption. And it was in the arena of ethics and internal piety that he managed to
embarrass jurisprudence [fiqh] and theology. In fact, what he was seeking was balance.
And if a balance had been struck between religious teachings externally and internally, as a
trade and as contemplation, as ethics and as theology, he would undoubtedly have been
satisfied. He had found theologians and the fuqaha so unethical and unprincipled that he
came to value mundane faith more highly that theological faith (absence of faith). And he
believed that the scripture and the Sunna were enough and that there was no need to go
further than what had been said at the dawn of Islam.

Q. You said in reply to previous questions that religious beliefs are like faces
drawn over a faceless entity. My question is this: can we see scripture itself, which is
the outcome of prophetic experience, as a face over that faceless entity or a garment
sewn over that core? If so, should we abide by the face or the faceless entity?
A. Scripture, especially in Islam, consists of two parts. One part is comprised of
mythical faces drawn over the truth. The other part is concerned with life, transactions and
laws, where God plays the role of the commander of that which must be done and that which
must not be done; or, rather, the commander and the legislator is the prophet, and God has
affirmed his legislation. At any rate, the elements that relate to commands and
jurisprudential and legal regulations are not at all of the nature of faces over a faceless
entity, and their position is clear. As to the first part, that is, the elements relating to God,
resurrection, Satan, creation and so on, these are all of the nature of mythical faces over
faceless experience. And different religions are like different faces over that faceless entity.
One belongs to the Prophet of Islam, another to Jesus Christ and… all the faces stand in the
same relation to that faceless, absolute essence. If we were to use a simile, we could say
that these faces and that faceless entity stand in the same relationship as languages to a
thought. Thought is that faceless entity and languages are the external faces thrown over
that thought. All languages stand in the same relationship to that language-less thought, but
the languages are all different from one another and stand in different relationships to us. A
Chinese person can understand Chinese better than English and the reverse can be said of
an Englishman. And thoughts in a Chinese person’s mind take on a Chinese demeanour
and, in an Indian’s mind, an Indian appearance. The thoughts themselves may vary in terms
of richness and depth, and this, in turn, is reflected in the languages and their
manifestations. The followers of prophets see their leader’s revelation as self-contained and
complete and, on this basis, they distinguish between the prophets. And, in order to prove
these distinctions, they point to the physiognomies drawn over that faceless entity.
As to your question of whether one can forego the existing faces or not, it has to be
said that individuals are rationally entitled to do so and to lend a new face to their faceless
experience. But, first of all, most people don’t have a faceless experience, so the question of
giving it a face doesn’t arise. They must, therefore, rely on the prophets and be grateful to
them. Secondly, people who do have this experience – in other words, mystics – while being
entitled to lend a new face to their experience, must bear in mind two points: one, from the
social perspective, as long as they’re living within a community of pragmatic believers, they
must conform and not speak about their new faces. The prophets and, especially, the
Prophet of Islam, were saying that they had founded a community and a civilisation based on
certain myths and physiognomies concerning the truth, and they would not allow anyone to
wreck these. The other point is that, from a personal perspective, the individual mustn’t
forget that these existing faces have a history and a tradition, and it would be best not to cut
oneself off from all this and to ensure that one’s brook is attached to the sea. In other words,
one must not be indifferent to the physiognomies of our predecessors and forbears. After
all, they were treading this same path and they may well have been much more skilled at it
than we are.

Q. In the history of religion and in the history of Islam, in particular, the
scripture has always been the centre of attention. And believers have concentrated all
their efforts on understanding the text. Now, if we accept that this text is a face
standing in for that faceless experience, can we still maintain our total commitment to
the text? Does veneration of the face (the text) not give way to veneration of the
faceless entity?
A. If you take Muslims in general, their identity has been entirely dependent on the
text and their reference point has always been the Koran and the Sunna. As to those
exceptional individuals who have had their own direct experience, they were never textbound
to begin with. In fact, that’s what was meant by interpreting the text. People who
dedicated themselves to interpreting the text were, to all appearances, bound by the text,
but, in fact, they were setting aside the text. This was a matter of degree, of course. Hence,
when you say, we’ll be less text bound, it is just so. We will brush aside some of the faces
that belong to a specific time, region or culture and, as Mowlavi put it, become less drunk
from the jug of appearance. This process of breaking through the idols of appearance and
melting away the appearance of idols is a continuous one, for which no end is imaginable.
And let’s not forget that all of this belongs to the realm of experiential and gnostic religiosity.
Pragmatic religiosity lives with its mythical faces and doesn’t alter them. Clerics are the
guardians of those mythical physiognomies and they see the preservation of the collective,
ritualistic identity of the community as being dependent on the preservation of that ancient,
unchanging face.

Q. You’ve drawn a distinction between the face and the faceless, or between
the text and the experiences expressed through that text. It would seem that a
believer can only persist in being committed to a particular « face » if they are
convinced that, throughout the course of history, that face has been and will continue
to be the best covering for that faceless entity or the best explanation for that
experience. However, in view of the theory you’ve presented in Contraction and
Expansion, it would seem that this assumption is not necessarily true. It’s quite likely
that that faceless entity will find better explanations and faces in the future.
A. It is exactly as you say, for two reasons: one is based on the arguments I
presented in Contraction and Expansion; the other is that it is conceptually difficult to say
that one face is superior to another, because that faceless entity stands in exactly the same
relationship to all faces. It is exactly the same as speaking about the length and width of an
incorporeal concept. All widths and lengths are equally appropriate to it or equally
inappropriate to it. Hence, all the existing faces are equally explanations, models or
manifestations of that faceless entity. The difference lies in their relationship to us. In
Mowlavi’s words, an individual may become more drunk drinking from one jug than from
another. This has to do with us, not with that faceless entity. The God who appeared to the
Prophet of Islam was a beautiful God. The God we know in Islam is the God of the Prophet
of Islam. When the Prophet says, “God is beautiful and He loves beauty; I’ve seen God in
His best image”, he is describing his own experience of God. God never appeared to the
Prophet of Islam with an ugly face, or, if He did, that great man never told us. But,
theoretically speaking – just as the mystics have said – the ugly things in the world are just as
much a manifestation of God as the beautiful things; although, as human beings, we tend to
be more drawn towards the beautiful than the ugly: we become more drunk from this jug
than from that. And, of course, the height of a pious devotee’s endeavours is to see that
faceless wonder facelessly:
The greatest wonder of all lies in that facelessness
Like a thousand forms bursting out of formlessness
Persevere till, without a lens, you can see the light
So that, if the lens shatters, you won’t go blind

Translated by Nilou Mobasser


Comments are closed.