The Muddled Dream of Returning to Tradition

• Nov 19th, 2006 • Category: Interviews

An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

 By Ali Asghar Seyyedabadi

Although, on the last occasion he delivered a talk in Iran, Abdulkarim Soroush spoke at Abdollah Nuri’s house about the work of religious intellectuals and defended their record, we chose to focus on a different subject in this interview, a subject that Dr Soroush has addressed on more than one occasion in recent years.

Dr Soroush has been taking a critical look at the question of the downturn in Muslims’ fortunes and, thereby, at concepts such as tradition, modernity, etc. In his treatment of this subject, to which he has so far devoted eight sessions in the United States and Europe, he has taken a historical and conceptual approach, an approach that had not been to the fore in Dr Soroush’s works in the past.

Is this approach a reaction to some of his critics’ views? This was the subject of the last question I put to Dr Soroush: It is sometimes said that you don’t pay attention to criticisms of your works and that you’re dismissive of your critics, but it seems that your recent discussions are a product of heeding these criticisms.

Dr Soroush replied that he was very heedful of criticisms and read them all. He added: I don’t think there’s any major or minor criticism that I’ve overlooked.


Q. For some time now, you’ve been looking at the subject of “the downturn in Muslims’ fortunes”. Debates about the misfortune, decline or backwardness of Muslims and Iranians date back to the Qajar period. Iran’s first intellectuals often focused on this subject and it has been a recurring theme ever since. It seems that our early intellectuals were always pulled in two different directions on this subject. On the one hand, they saw the West as a model of development and progress, and, on the other hand, they viewed a part of Iran’s history, such as ancient Persia or the golden age of Islam, as times of former glory. In view of your own reflections, could you tell us what you consider to be the distinguishing features of the treatment of this subject in Iran and its possible pitfalls?

A. As you said, Muslims and Iranians, in particular, have been grappling for years with the tale of the downturn in our fortunes. Hence, contrary to those who suggest otherwise, the exploration of this subject is not a new development at all – neither the expression itself nor its meaning. This discussion has been with us for the past 150 years. In particular, once the idea of constitutionalism arrived in Iran and modern political views began to be heard, not just our intellectuals but also our clerics became acquainted with modern political views. This was both good and bad; it was good because it was a kind of contact with contemporary ideas, which stirred up dynamism and activity. As you know, some of our clerics rolled up their sleeves and entered the arena of political struggle in earnest. They rose up against the injustices of the time and, along with the people, called for law-courts and laws. There were even some within the ranks of our great ulema, such as the late Ayatollah Akhund Khorasani, who backed constitutionalism in the full knowledge that it was not a religious notion and that it bore a kind of secularism within it, and they called for an idealistic, just, this-worldly ruling system. There were other ulema who thought differently. They believed that constitutionalism was a deviation from religion and they, consequently, opposed it.

I made these brief introductory remarks in order to make it clear that our first serious encounter with the West and with modern ideas, and our first awareness of our failures was through our acquaintance with Western political ideas.

Q. You said that this acquaintance was a good thing, but you seemed to have something to say about its negative aspects as well.

A. Yes, I said that it was both good and not good. It was not good because it would have been much better if we’d become acquainted with new ideas through philosophy and empirical science. The late Molla Mehdi Naraghi, the father of Molla Ahmad Naraghi who was the originator of the theory of the velayat-e faqih [rule by a cleric; political system currently in force in Iran], also wrote things about astronomy. In these writings, modern astronomy and Copernicus’s theory are mentioned, apparently for the first time, in a very vague and distorted way. Later, we see Kant’s philosophy raised by the late Molla Ali Zanuzi. Later still, an Iranian Jew by the name of Molla Lalezar translated Descartes into Persian, and a very unclear and incomprehensible Persian at that. In the time of Nassereddin Shah and slightly earlier, some modern inventions, such as the telegraph and rudimentary cameras, appeared in Iran for the first time.

Q. Did electricity also arrive in Iran in Nassereddin Shah’s time?

A. Electricity came later. We’re in 1385 on the Iranian calendar now. It was exactly 101 years ago, that is to say, in 1284, that electricity lines began to be drawn in some parts of Tehran. It’s been said that when the late Haj Molla Hadi Sabzevari, the great philosopher who hailed from the same region as you, first saw a camera he said that being photographed was not possible because accidents would have to be transported in photography. Our knowledge of the West’s science, philosophy and technology was very rudimentary and it was absolutely not through these channels that we became acquainted with modern ideas.

Q. You’re of the view that the problem arose from the way we encountered the modern world and that, if we’d encountered that world through its science and philosophy, things would have turned out better. Why didn’t it happen this way? Why did we become embroiled in politics instead of become embroiled in science and philosophy?

A. It’s just as you said. We didn’t have any educated people who were well acquainted with Western philosophy. We didn’t have any educated people who were well acquainted with Western science. As Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi put it: “At first, man is hungry for bread / for ‘tis bread that keeps him erect / ‘tis the rare men who become sated with bread / who move on to crave praise and acclaim.” In other words, people first concern themselves with meeting their basic needs; only afterwards, do they pursue any higher needs. Any society and any human being’s basic needs are food, shelter, health, hygiene and the like. This is why, initially, some foreign physicians arrived in Iran. One of the first sciences that our students became acquainted with at the Dar-al-Fonun College was medicine and pharmaceutics. Some books have been left to us from the Nassereddin era. If you leaf through them you’ll see that some very dense Arabic terminology has been used in them to explain modern medicine.

Q. Of course, alongside medicine, the military sciences, too, were accorded prominence!

A. Yes, bravo. But they didn’t feel any need for modern philosophy, since philosophy ranks among the higher, more subtle needs.

Q. Moreover, sensing the need for philosophy also requires some awareness and knowledge!

A. Precisely! And, secondly, there was the sense of repletion and self-adequacy that we had (and unfortunately still have, in that we seem to believe that Iranians know everything and that no one else knows anything. And we imagine that, when it comes to philosophy and religion in particular, we have the highest school and creed.) This, of course, didn’t allow us to embrace others with open arms and to try to understand their ideas. Even when these ideas were raised, it was in the form of questions that were put to our great scholars and, since they were unfamiliar with the rudiments of those Western ideas, they’d give ambiguous and ineffectual answers to the questions. And even at this ineffectual level, the ideas did not circulate widely among the public or even within the seminaries. Yes, in this sense, I believe that we were short-changed. That is to say, I believe that if our exchange with the West had been in the arena of science, if it had been in the arena of philosophy, then, the political ideas, too, would have fallen into that framework and proved beneficial to us. But this is not how it happened.

At any rate, it was as a result of these same encounters that gradually some intelligent and sympathetic people in our country became seriously aware of the tale of our decline. They saw that somewhere on planet Earth, something had occurred that we’d remained unaware of for years and that a big gap now existed between us and them which would be very difficult to fill.

Q. So the debate about our decline mainly took shape in the context of comparing ourselves to the West and as a result of looking outward?

A. We could say that, until they’d encountered their anti-thesis, Muslims didn’t even know very much about themselves. That is to say, they were unaware of the situation they were in. We often define things by comparing them to their opposites.

This was an auspicious encounter. It awakened us from our state of oblivion and forced us to reconsider our own position, to see where in history we’re standing and what the secret behind our backwardness or decline is. (I’m using terms such as “decline” and “backwardness” forcibly and tentatively for the time being until we come to the point where we can discuss whether these are suitable terms or not.)

In our day, not just Iranians and the world of Islam, but other countries, too, have become conscious of this gap and are offering theories about – as Bernard Lewis puts it – what went wrong. There are discussions about where the shortcoming was; what did we lack as to have been left in such a state? Much has been said in this connection, both by way of investigating the problem and of suggesting treatments and cures. I just wanted to say that the diagnosis that there has been a decline or a downturn in our fortunes and that there is a big gap between us and the West is an old diagnosis. But there are many different views about why this decline occurred. And there are many different suggested cures. For example, Seyyed Jamal Assadabadi was of the opinion that we’d lost our military strength and that, if we strengthened our military forces, we could extricate ourselves from colonialism and from being downtrodden and catch up with the developed countries.

But the late Abduh gradually realized that the problem couldn’t be solved by trying to establish a strong army because a strong army is itself a product of other strengths in other fields. He came to the conclusion that Muslims’ understanding of their religion was incomplete and a cause of decline, and that this problem needed to be addressed. This is a debate that continues to this day.

Q. But we know countries that – without having a strong philosophical tradition and without having any particular standing in the realm of thought and science today – have entered the constellation of developed countries merely by using the products of thought and science; for example, some north European countries or even Japan.

A. Don’t base yourself on European countries’ borders as they are today; there were far fewer countries before. The borders have changed a great deal. The grave of Kant, the German philosopher, lies in Russia today, and so on. But eastern Europe, which is lagging behind on development, is testimony to what I’ve been saying and some of the differences between other European countries can be explained on this same basis.

Japan’s story is a different matter. There has been much theorizing about Japan’s modernization. One theory maintains that Japan didn’t have a tradition, that is to say, it didn’t have a cumbersome tradition that could tie its hands. So, once it decided to modernize, it could easily fill its empty vessel with modern achievements.

Bear in mind that tradition plays two roles: one, as a buttress and, the other, as a shackle. On the one hand, it gives people an identity and provides continuity, and, on the other hand, it turns into a heavy burden which nations have to carry and which slows them down. Its existence is both good and bad. Its non-existence, too, is both good and bad. It has to be used well.

Q. Another question concerns a kind of antagonism towards the West that arose out of these debates. That is to say, instead of discussing how the gap could be closed and our misfortune brought to an end, a kind of antagonism towards the West emerged. Take someone like Jalal Al-e Ahmad, for example. Can this be attributed to the decline or backwardness too?

A. As a result of the awareness and consciousness of decline, an awareness and consciousness of a national ethnicity or an Islamic identity also came into being.

Q. You mean to say that identity, too, is a modern concept that comes into being when we compare ourselves to the other?

A. Yes and the consciousness of an identity in turn produced new ideas, because the consciousness of an identity is different from the consciousness of the truth or falsehood of ideas. Truth or falsehood is one thing; dignity and honour and humiliation are another thing. If a group of people feels that it has been humiliated and that its honour has been trampled underfoot, it will want to express its identity and this expression of an identity will take different shapes and forms.

What I see in the late Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s works is a kind of expression and assertion of an identity in the face of the West, a West that has trampled, humiliated and colonized Islamic and eastern countries, robbed them of their identity and turned them into “nobodies”. In the face of this, the kicked down, defeated human beings express their identity and one way of expressing an identity is a negation/rejection of the other side. This is what Al-e Ahmad did. Of course, Al-e Ahmad’s inspiration came from Fardid. The things that Fardid said were both anti-Western and deterministic. In this sense, I think that his view effectively amounts to decline and degeneration, as well as being dangerous, because if you convey the idea, in whatever form, that we have to be in the situation that we are because of the dictates of history – even if you disguise this view in all kinds of modern and post-modern guises – this is itself tantamount to decline and degeneration. When what you’re saying means that history follows an inevitable, determinist course; that eastern states are in the situation that they’re in because this is how it had to be; and that they now have to struggle fruitlessly and hopelessly until some great man arrives from somewhere in the hinterlands of history to rescue them or a new wave must burst forth from the ocean of existence and sweep them to the shores of salvation, this kind of view amounts to nothing but decline and degeneration. Far from solving any problem, it will tie our hands and feet, whilst we’re already lying in a pit or a ditch, and aggravate our decline.

Q. You mean that Al-e Ahmad’s notion of “Westoxication” was linked to Fardid in this sense?

A. Fardid and his students, who are dissimulating now, actually saw the history of the West as the history of the mastery of metaphysics. They didn’t dare and they still don’t dare (because of political opportunism) say openly that the presence of religion in the Islamic Revolution amounts to Westoxication. What they condemned as Westoxication was not – or not in the first instance – a condemnation of political Westoxication but of metaphysics-toxication! So, Al-e Ahmad did not take the spirit of this idea, he only took its political aspect. But since the spirit of that theory is absolute, violent determinism, Al-e Ahmad was also unable to offer a solution. At best, he tried to make us aware that we’d fallen into a pit of this kind, that the West had pillaged everything that we had and that if we didn’t come to ourselves, it would ravish our identity root and branch and destroy us. But how must we come to ourselves? Where do we start? How do we claim back what we’ve lost? Or, as Mr Shayegan puts it, how and when do we come back from the holiday we’ve taken from history? There’s no answer to this in the late Al-e Ahmad’s works.

Q. But the idea of political Westoxication has persisted to this day and it has had a significant impact on our political sphere.

A. Yes, one aspect of becoming aware of our decline was to respond by highlighting a sense of our own identity. And this gave rise to a kind of antagonism towards the West. This battling against the West of course didn’t have a single meaning among our intellectuals, but it did among our religious people. This battle was translated by our religious people precisely into religious jihad. You see this clearly in the Islamic Revolution, you see it in Seyyed Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, you see it in some clerics who’d understood the idea of battling against the West in a superficial way.

Q. This viewpoint also has supporters in the Islamic world today and is linked in a way to fundamentalism!

A. Absolutely! The religious reflection of this identity-based antagonism towards the West among religious people was a kind of armed antagonism towards the West – to which they attached the name “jihad”. We can see the inheritors of this idea in the world today.

On the whole, among religious people, this antagonism towards the West was translated into something that I describe as the resurgence of Islam as an identity. I’ve said in some of my writings that, on the basis of one categorization, Islam can be divided into two kinds: the Islam of truth and knowledge (gnostic Islam) and Islam as an identity (identity-Islam); or an Islam that teaches us knowledge and an Islam that gives us an identity.

Q. Do you mean to say that Islam as knowledge and Islam as an identity negate one another and are mutually exclusive?

A. No, identity-Islam and gnostic Islam are not mutually exclusive in form or substance, but, in practice, identity-Islam sometimes gains the upper hand to such an extent that Muslims’ citadel comes to resemble Sa’di’s phrase: “Cannons all around the battlements, but not a soul in the fortress.”

Q. Can we say that the tendency towards identity-Islam is a product of that sense of having been humiliated that you mentioned?

A. Yes, people try to fight the feeling of humiliation by raising the banner of Islam as an identity. And these people decide for themselves what forms this fight will take and they call it “defending Islam”. As to whether the outcome of the fighting will be beneficial to Islam or not is another matter. In this kind of situation, it’s not so much Islam but these people themselves who become the centre of their own attention. The late Shariati expressed it very well. He used to say: “A bunch of villagers in Mohammad-Abad set up gangs and they go around beating their chests and saying, ‘For the sake of Muhammad, For the sake of Muhammad.’ No! It’s not for Muhammad; it’s for the village of Mohammad-Abad!”

In many of the things that people do, they themselves are the centre of attention, but they inscribe some other name on their banner. Establishing an equilibrium between the Islam of truth and Islam as an identity is one of the most difficult tasks of religious intellectuals.

Q. But apart from these two kinds of Islam that you mentioned, we’re acquainted with a third kind, which, although distinct from those two, approaches them at certain points. I’m talking about the Islam that Mr Hossein Nasr and some others are pursuing which is known as traditionalism. They too have problems with the modern world, as do the devotees of identity-Islam, but they take a different approach. What is traditionalism’s relationship to identity-Islam and gnostic Islam, and which one is it closer to?

A. The traditionalists, too, are devotees of Islam as an identity. For quite some time now I’ve spoken of Dr Nasr as the prophet of identity-Islam. The most important point that Dr Nasr’s books and speeches revolve around is that Muslims are somebody today because they were somebody in the past. I’ve seen the effects of his words on the Muslim communities in Europe and the United States. They give them a sense of pride; so that they needn’t be ashamed of being Muslims and can be proud of it. This identity is constructed on a traditional understanding of religion, an undefined and vague tradition, which is unable to solve the practical and theoretical concerns of our times and avoids addressing them.

Q. Dr Soroush, I’ve been following your recent talks and interviews. You’ve been speaking about some fallacies and warning people not to succumb to these fallacies. You’ve said that one of these fallacies is to bandy about big concepts like “tradition” and “modernity”. You’ve said that these terms were not made by God but by historians. Is this not a kind of disdain for conceptualisation?

Regardless of the pitfalls, we have to invent concepts to describe situations. When we use the term “rationality”, we’re describing a situation on which we can more or less agree. Even when we speak about “modernity”, we can agree on its distinguishing features. You’ve said yourself that we can find some indicators for it and you’ve spoken of technology, empirical science and right as some of modernity’s indicators. Does your approach not lead to a kind of rejection of conceptualisation, whereas you use these concepts yourself?

A. Not at all. Far from rejecting conceptualisation, I consider it imperative and essential. One of the important things that any scholar has to do – not just in the human/social sciences but also in the natural sciences – is to coin new concepts. Take the very useful term “energy” in the empirical sciences. Energy is a concept that has been coined by physicists. There is no observable thing known as energy anywhere. When we coin these concepts, we use them as tools. Tools for what? Tools for understanding phenomena better or thoughtfully manipulating them. So far, so good. This is all very laudable. But what I was warning against was that, sometimes, we mistake these tools for reality itself and we imagine that these things exist out there. Like the novelist who used to say: The heroes I’ve invented resist me.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves now. After all, the human sciences, history, natural science, physics, chemistry, etc. are largely our own constructs. We coin concepts and we use them to analyse and explain nature and society. But we seem to forget, midway, that these concepts are our own constructs and start equating them with reality. It was in the light of this mistake and this fallacy that I issued that warning.

Look, when these same concepts, such as rationality, the West, tradition and modernity, are probed and deconstructed – i.e., when they’re broken down into their parts and their components identified for what they are – the answers to many questions become much clearer.

In order for answers to become clear, the questions have to be clear. If you ask an ambiguous question, you’re not going to find a clear answer to it. This is why, like analytical philosophers, I always like to clarify the question. Even when I’m teaching, if one of my students asks me a question that’s a bit ambiguous, first, I clarify the question for them and say, Did you mean (a), (b) or (c); then, I embark on an answer. Otherwise, we’re not going to get anywhere; neither the one who’s asking the question, nor the one who’s giving an answer.

The tale of tradition and modernity, and the strange verdicts that have been attached to tradition and modernity are, in my view, the product of a lack of rigorous thinking. With a little effort, the mistakes can be resolved, allowing us to achieve big results.

Q. Do you also see signs of these fallacies in the discussions about our decline or, as you put it, our misfortune?

A. Yes. One of the fallacies that occur in the discussions about Muslims’ decline or misfortune is something that is described in English as the “personification” of history; that is to say, seeing history as if it’s a personage, who set out with the intention of bringing us to where we find ourselves today. In other words, lining up and arranging historical events in such a way as to suggest that a personage, with motives, intentions and consciousness, has been marching forward to reach the point where it stands today. This is a very naïve and erroneous interpretation of things.

If you scold people who lived in past for not having been familiar with the concept of interest or for not having known the concept of right or for not having had a Machiavellian understanding of politics, etc., I believe that you’d be engaging in the most naïve kind of historiography, especially if you also combine determinism with it and imagine that that there can only be one kind of history – and that you can, therefore, have only one true historiography. And if you use the way things are today as a scale by which to weigh up the past and sneer at people who lived in the past for not having thought the way we do today, etc. – these are all mistakes that I’ve warned against.

One big fallacy is to apply amateurishly big concepts that have been constructed by historians. Although historians’ constructs are useful in the context of analysis, if we see them as God-given facts, they’ll naturally lead us astray. Once, I read the following in the works of a distinguished Iranian figure, who shall remain nameless: “The West first pushed liberalism forward and, then, when liberalism failed, it pushed Marxism forward.” How can people speak like this? What kind of analysis is this? It’s as if the West is a conspiratorial personage, who is trying to dupe others and who keeps pulling one conspiracy after another out of his bag of tricks. The fallacy of the personification of the West is plain for all to see here. This kind of personification is good for poets, but it’s deadly poison for a thinker. When Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi wrote, “We deposed reason and whipped desire,” he spoke very beautifully. It’s as if desire and the appetites are a convicted person whom they’ve placed on the ground and are whipping. This is poetic personification, but when you bring this method into the realm of thinking, bring it into the sciences, as I said, it will be like deadly poison and will impair your judgment in the most fundamental way.

Some people think that speaking philosophically and thinking philosophically always demands biting off big chunks. I’m absolutely not of this opinion. In fact, I believe that we should constantly break things down into smaller bits, Descartes-fashion, and analyse them in order to get the upper hand over a problem. We have to know where we are, how much of the problem we’ve solved and how much of it still remains. Even if you keep repeating the words “tradition” and “modernity” for another thousand years, you still won’t know how much of this problem has been solved.

During Mr Khatami’s speech at the congress on the anniversary of the constitutional movement, I arrived midway through the speech. One of the last phrases that he said was, “During the constitutional movement we rediscovered our national identity and, now, we have to reassess tradition.” My question is, Is tradition an object that we can reassess? Tradition is a thousand things. Tradition is the science of the past. Tradition is the philosophy of the past. It is the morality of the past. It is the town building of the past. It is the economics of the past. It is the politics of the past and the monarchy of the past. And hundreds of other things. Which one should we reassess? My question for Mr Khatami and people like him is, Should we bring back ancient science, ancient natural philosophy, ancient medicine and re-examine them? What are we going to extract from Galen’s theories? What are we going to achieve by bandying about vague phrases like this?

I was at a conference in Turkey which happened to be on tradition and modernity. A Spanish man who’d recently converted to Islam was delivering a talk there on Islamic economics. Midway through his speech, he brought out a piece of metal from his pocket, showed it to the audience and said: “Do you know what this is? This is a dirham. We have to bring back to life the economy of the dirham and the dinar. Then, we’ll see that we’ll have neither inflation nor any of the other modern problems.” Everyone was smiling, but he carried on. Having reassessed tradition, he’d come to the conclusion that bank notes and the dollar should be laid to rest in a cemetery. I heard that one of our Friday prayer leaders had come to the same conclusion recently. Congratulations!

Q. Well, when Mr Khatami or people like him speak about reassessing tradition, they’re referring to components, such as religion, which are mentioned in his treatment of this subject. Don’t you think that, if we follow your approach to concepts, we’ll be unable to speak at all? With this kind of attitude, we can find fault with any discussion and it’ll become impossible to speak!

A. Very well. If that’s what he means, it would be good if he expressed it clearly and spoke of religious tradition, philosophical tradition or scientific tradition, etc. Personally, I suspect that, when someone speaks about “the rigidity of tradition”, they haven’t really thought things through in as fine a detail as you’re suggesting. Wholism and the personification of history are so evident in discussions of this kind as to be impossible to overlook.

Q. So your objection is mainly a methodological objection?

A. Yes, it’s a methodological objection. A method is like a road. If you head down the wrong road, instead of going to Mecca, you’ll end up in Mongolia. These misguided methods have, unfortunately, become conjoined to a kind of haughtiness too. They think that other people can’t use the convoluted words that they use or that other people can’t reproduce the same set phrases that they brandish endlessly.

We have imitators in our own country who constantly string together these types of set phrases and fill page after page with them. But the truth of the matter is that they don’t solve any problem in this way. Scholarly humility demands that we stop talking and writing like this. We must break problems down into small, digestible bits. We must define the concepts that we use and explain what components they consist of. We must tackle small problems. When we’re faced with a big concept or entity, we mustn’t try to tackle it whole and all in one go, because we won’t get anywhere.

If we take the right approach, then we’ll appreciate what others are doing too. I’ve noticed that most of the people who write about tradition and modernity in our country often mock those who are trying to be of service in the fields of technology, biology and the like. They think that, until we’ve sorted out modernity, this kind of thing is all a waste of time! It reminds of something Marx wrote in German Ideology. Someone who was standing on a rive bank could see that people were entering the water and drowning. He said: This is because they haven’t come to grips with the concept of swimming!

Q. In that case, do you also have a problem with people like Mr Ajudani, who insist that many concepts are misunderstood or misused and consider this to be the cause of many problems, or people who have spoken about linguistic slips?

A. I bought Mr Ajudani’s book about 10 years ago in Germany and I read it. It’s a good, informative book. I don’t belittle or reject the author’s work at all. But I do have one criticism: Why must we approach things in this way at all? Concepts have always been fluid throughout the course of history. We can’t deny the fluidity of concepts. This holds true even in the exact sciences. For example, the concept of force or the concept of mass haven’t always meant what they mean today. If you look at the history of physics, you’ll see the change. This is why there’s an area of discussion in the history of science known as “concepts in flux”; that is to say, changing concepts, not fixed concepts! It’s the same with concepts such as “nation”, “people” and the like. Izutsu has an important book in which he’s discusses the development of Arabic terms before and after Islam. It is the same in the human sciences.

Q. I think the moment has arrived for me to ask what we mean by misfortune, so that we don’t fall into a fallacy over the use of this expression too.

A. I’ve resorted to the expression “misfortune” in order to avoid the term “decline”! I don’t use the word “decline” because it entails a value judgment. I don’t want to begin the whole discussion with a value judgment. In other words, I don’t want to say that Muslims or Iranians have declined, so I use the expression “misfortune”; that is to say, there are things that others have, which we haven’t managed to achieve or attain.

Let me make it clear, here and now, that I really don’t know which is better: the modern world or the traditional world? Does life in the modern world bring human beings greater happiness or did the pre-modern world? Not only me, I don’t think there’s anyone who can prove or demonstrate that modern times are better than pre-modern times; or that pre-modern times were better than modern times. Neither of these two claims is obvious to me and one can marshal arguments either way. Of course, I can’t disregard the fact that we’ve been born in and are living in modern times. We have to solve our problems in this world and, consequently, we have to know it well.

Hoping to return to pre-modern times is to hope the impossible; it’s a muddled dream that won’t be fulfilled. I don’t know whether the passage from pre-modern times to modern times constitutes progress or decline for humanity. It’s really not clear to me. This is why I consciously avoid the word “decline”! I prefer to use an expression that’s less value-laden, so I use “downturn in fortunes” or “misfortune”.

Q. Isn’t this attitude tantamount to disregarding many, many years of human endeavour and experience and all the human talents that have come to fruition?

A. No, not at all! When I use the term “misfortune”, it means that there are many modern achievements, in the world of nature and in the world of humanity, that we’ve failed to attain.

Q. But you’re saying, I don’t know whether the world of tradition was better or the modern world. When we say, we don’t know which is superior to the other, it means we’ve disregarding all the human effort that has been expended and all the scientific, cultural and political gains and progress that have been made!

A. Very well. In that case, let’s discuss the subject in more precise and more concrete terms.

Q. I’ve noted this same point in your talks and it’s given rise to the following question in my mind: Does this effectively not amount to rejecting the modern world and endorsing traditionalism?

A. Look, I don’t speak about “better” or “worse”. As I said, I don’t know whether modern human beings enjoy greater happiness or human beings in the past. This doesn’t constitute a rejection of the modern world. In the modern world, we travel by air, we work on computers, we watch television, we use modern medicines to treat our ailments and so on. We’re not by any means denying that physicians don’t even see many diseases today and only read about them in books. But, in the past, these diseases were rife, such as smallpox and the plague. We also have the capacity to build houses that can withstand earthquakes, as well as to provide many other forms of security in urban life that didn’t exist in the past. In the past, people were at greater risk from floods, storms, thunder and lightening, and being ravaged by wild animals. I’m not denying any of this. But, knowing all this, I still repeat my assertion: I really don’t know whether modern human beings enjoy greater happiness or human being in the past.

Look at the two world wars that took place in the 20th century. Apparently, they left nearly 50 million dead. If you put all the other wars in history together, I don’t think you’d have as many dead. Humanity is facing potential insecurity on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

We’re glad and proud that modern human beings live in the age of information. That is to say, we’re much better informed than people were in the past about the events that take place all around us. Today, if an earthquake occurs in the United States, you’ll hear about it within an hour on the same day. If there’s any big or small development relating to some actor or other, or to the discovery of a cave somewhere or to the publication of this or that book, you can learn about it. In the past, several centuries may have passed before one thinker would even have heard the name of another. But, today, you and I have easy access to information about thinkers’ lives, their ideas and the critiques of their ideas. This is all true and there’s no denying it. But, as our access to information has increased so has the proliferation of lies; in other words, lies can be disseminated just as easily as correct information. So, many people today live under the influence of misinformation. That is to say, media in Iran, in the US or in Europe can manipulate people’s minds in a historically unprecedented way. News-making machinery for manipulating people and brainwashing them in line with power holders’ wishes is operating in a way today that was impossible in the past. This is why I’m of the view that, in step with all its proud achievements, the modern world has also produced shameful phenomena. People were less informed in the past, but there were also fewer lies. Today, they are better informed but they hear more lies too. People had fewer technological tools in the past, so they could bring about less evil. Today, people have more technological tools, hence, they can both bring about more good and more evil. On the whole, humanity’s new capabilities can be used both for good and for bad, both for truth and for falsehood.

Now, if we add all these things up, it makes it impossible for us to judge. It makes us very cautious in our judgment as to whether we’re really living in a world that lends itself to greater happiness or not. This is not to say that modern science isn’t more powerful than ancient science. The question is, how much has this power contributed to human happiness; that is to say, to the excellence of humanity’s theoretical and practical capabilities.

Q. The debate seems to be over the way these capabilities are used. In a way, we can say that modern morality demands the resolution of these kinds of problems. And, in the modern world, there are ways of reducing evils!

A. Yes, all sensitive and thoughtful people are working to this end. And we’re not without hope. We must try our best, but this doesn’t alter that assessment in any way. We’re living in a world in which, although the pleasures have increased, so, too, have the miseries. And when we compare it with the past, we don’t arrive at a clear and definite verdict.

Q. So, in the light of all this, we have to conclude that, when we speak about our misfortune or shortcomings, or when we speak about modernity, for example, we’re not necessarily saying that things are better now; we’re only saying that things are different today and we must become acquainted with how things are.

A. If we’re talking about actually existing modernity, then, actually existing modernity is as you see it today! As I said before, talking about returning to the past is inappropriate anyway, because it’s impossible. It is to assume the impossible. And there’s no reason to do this anyway. We mustn’t waste our energy on striving for the impossible. We have to solve our problems in the modern world as it is today. But I also know that, when we speak about the modern world, we mustn’t necessarily think that we’ve arrived at a better world. No! The modern world has its own particular problems. But we can’t return to the past to solve them. At the same time, we mustn’t feel sorry for people who lived in the past and consider them to have been unfortunate and miserable. They had their world and we have ours. And we must try to improve the world we live in today.

Now, on the question of Muslims’ historical situation: it is a misfortune or failure and not necessarily a decline or degeneration, although there may be instances of degeneration, which I don’t deny. But applying the term “decline” or “degeneration” across the board is inappropriate, especially so when the notion of decline is conjoined to a series of wholly inappropriate analyses. For example, there’s one gentleman who, in imitation of a number of French thinkers, has raised the idea of an “epistemic block”. He was suggesting that Muslims are afflicted with an “epistemic block” because they’re religious.

Q. He used the expression “religious personality-type”, of course.

A. Yes, a “religious personality-type”. This tale of an “epistemic block” or dividing things up into the thinkable and the unthinkable is nothing new. It occurs frequently in the works of French philosophers and Mr Mohammad Arkoun often uses it in his writings and lectures. Then, another gentleman came along and expanded this theory of “epistemic block” and used it to attack religion. And he’s acquired imitators in Iran. Setting aside the question of who invented and marketed this idea, I’m concerned with the idea itself.

Look, any theoretical system has its own “epistemic block”. In other words, it places you in an environment in which some questions can be raised and other questions aren’t raised. This isn’t confined to religious systems; it applies to all thought systems. But, since some people had problems with religion to begin with, they took this idea and immediately linked it to religious thinking and decided that it was unique to religious thought.

Don’t the paradigms that Thomas Kuhn speaks about amount exactly to this? He says that, when people are operating under the Newtonian paradigm, some questions become unthinkable to them and are simply never asked. They don’t occur to scientists. No one asks these questions and no one looks for answers to them. This situation continues until the paradigm reaches the end of its term and anomalies begin to arise and the thought system’s problems gradually become obvious to everyone. Then, a new paradigm replaces the old one. This is a phenomenon that occurs not only in religious thought systems, but also in scientific-empirical thought systems and in philosophical thought systems. It isn’t unique to religious thinking. Every thought system has its own unthinkables! Every thought system creates a situation in which some questions are never raised. We even have a concept in physiology known as “inhibition”. Pavlov frequently referred to it. He said that when we begin to do something, our nervous system automatically inhibits other things. For example, when you put your right foot forward, your nervous system will inhibit your left foot from moving forwards, otherwise you’d fall and this would be detrimental to the individual and the species. The body acts in such a way as to preserve the species. This concept of inhibition, which we find in Pavlov’s physiology, also applies to thought systems. Every thought system opens up some chambers and closes other chambers. Thinkables and unthinkables aren’t confined to religious thought systems. If the existence of unthinkables is the main cause of decline, then, the entire world and all human beings are afflicted with decline!

Any thought system that you look at, imposes its own “epistemic block” on its followers. Now, some people have also added the incomprehensible concept of “the rigidity of tradition” to this “epistemic block”, and have thereby created an effiminate concoction that lacks both substance and form!

At the same time, history isn’t the arena of imperatives, but the arena of possibilities! It hasn’t been inscribed anywhere that one particular system will determine the course of history and that another system will always be stuck in an impasse. See for yourself, the enlightenment emerged from the heart of the darkest centuries. I emphasize the point that, if we’ve become afflicted with failure or misfortune, this doesn’t mean that failure is our inevitable historical fate. This was one possibility. This possibility may, in turn, turn into another possibility. This frees us from the clutches of violent determinism. Of course, we mustn’t forget to act. It is our actions that create historical opportunities and point the way out.

Q. You’ve said that modernity has three distinguishing features: empirical science; technology; and rights. And you believe that empirical science and technology have arrived in our country, like it or not, but that we have problems when it comes to rights. On this basis, can we say that our misfortune is a failure on rights?

A. I’ve said in some of my writings that no list of modernity’s characteristics can be definitive or exhaustive. For example, I was looking at Giddens’s works recently and I noticed that there was no mention in them of, for example, “critical rationality” or “humanism” and so on. They weren’t mentioned as modernity’s distinguishing features. He highlights other elements. We can, in turn, highlight the elements that we have or ought to have. As you know, I really believe that we can pick and choose and that this is basically what we’ve done so far. And this is in fact that only way to proceed. Ruling that it’s impossible to pick and choose, is to rule in favour of a merciless social and historical determinism. Even if we imagine that modernity has a spirit, this spirit is conveyed via modernity’s offspring.

Yes, I believe that, in the realm of politics, right is a pivotal and hefty concept. All the important, modern, political institutions are founded on rights. If we want to enter political modernity, this is the route that we have to take. As long as the concept of right has not taken on as much importance for us as we attach to family and honour, our modern institutions will lack meaning; they’ll only be hollow names. Of course, a great deal also needs to be done in the arena of the empirical sciences and so on.

Q. So our problems won’t be solved with “right” alone?

A. Obviously! I’m not suggesting that we’ve reached perfection in science and technology. Development means scientific development. Everything revolves around this. Modern rationality, too, manifests itself, precisely, in modern science and philosophy.

Q. If I’m not mistaken, you also include the human sciences when you speak about the empirical sciences?

A. Yes, of course.

Q. In other words, you mean modern science?

A. Yes, modern science.

Q. Both in our discussion today and on other occasions, you’ve said that, if our encounter with modernity had been via science and thought, we’d be in a better situation. In connection with the failure of the constitutional movement, too, you’ve made the same point in a different way. You’ve said that constitutionalism was raised before the arrival in Iran of empirical science and technology and this is why it failed. The question that comes to mind is: Now that we’ve become acquainted with modern science and are also using technology, why does this failure still persist?

A. We’re more successful today in comparison with the time of the constitutional movement, because we’ve gradually become acquainted with some concepts. During the constitutional movement, “right” was not mentioned; “law” was instead. The late Mostasharoldowleh wrote a book entitled A Single Word and he said that the cure to all our ills lay in one word and that was “law”. He was right, but one thing was missing from his book: The spirit of modern law is rights. The modern human being has rights and is concerned about rights. These rights appear in the form of laws. We don’t see this concern about rights in the constitutionalist era. But we did become acquainted with laws. We’ve understood the form that laws take and what it means to obey the law; but the spirit of our laws was “duty”, whereas it should be “right”. The fact that we’ve learnt these things is auspicious. We must achieve the rest too.

Q. Dr Soroush, one of the things that is said about you is that you don’t pay attention to the criticisms of your works and lectures, and that you’re occasionally quite curt with your critics. I think that the things that you’ve said recently and your concern about historicity are a product of heeding the criticisms. What do you think?

A. I pay a great deal of attention to all the criticism. I may not answer them all and I may consider some of them unanswerable, but I don’t think there’s any major or minor criticism that I overlook. Some of them, I search for and find myself. Others are sent to me by my friends. So, I don’t think there’s any criticism that I’ve not read. Even criticisms that appear in other languages make their way to me somehow. I can say that I’m familiar with the nature of the criticisms and their substance, but, of course, I don’t answer them all. And sometimes when I do answer them, I don’t answer them directly; I take them into account in my discussions. I discuss a subject and, without directly mentioning the relevant critic, I try to offer an answer.

Q. You’ve probably also seen the criticisms that appeared in the press after the conference on religion and modernity and the reference you made to Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The upshot of the criticisms was that this was not a theoretical, scholarly feud and that it wouldn’t get anywhere. Mr Babak Ahmadi made a similar point about the dispute over Popper and Heidegger in Iran. What do you think?

A. On the dispute about Popper and Heidegger, I intend to write a detailed piece about it. Mr Ahmadi did not set out the issue correctly, although his criticism is very well-intentioned. It was never a question of a dispute between the followers of Popper and the followers of Heidegger. Twenty years ago someone directed some insults at Popper for purely political and non-philosophical reasons, and he was rewarded for doing this. I neither responded to him, nor brought in Heidegger in any way. End of story.

As to Dr Nasr, I didn’t reveal some kind of buried secret. Mr Nasr is very proud of the fact that he used to be associated with the royal court, and he announces it in a loud voice. Anyway, the whole issue of publicizing Dr Nasr is a wholly political project and aimed at overshadowing religious intellectuals. So, it deserves a political response.

Q. Dr Soroush, please also tell our readers something about your own situation and circumstances these days. We’d heard that you’d come to Iran to stay, but you suddenly packed your bags and went abroad. What’s the story behind this?

A. In Iran, I have no security, I’m not allowed to teach, I’m not allowed to speak in public. What would you do if you were in my place?

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser

* This interview was published in the Iranian daily E’temad-e Melli on 19 November 2006.


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