Skip to content

Thoughts on Iranian Political Needs

June 30, 2008

Thoughts on Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam

Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush



The first two sentences of Chapter 2 on theological approach to Islamic revival and reform is loaded with much thought provoking substance “discourse on religious revival is neither a [heretical] innovation nor a novelty; nor is it an exclusive aspect of the Islamic outreach mission [da‛vah].  The idea of religious reformation has a long history” (p 26).  Revival is a renewed attention or a restoration of something which lends effect or validity in the presentation of the subject matter.[2]  Reformation is the process of rejection, modification and establishment, to amend or improve, remove abuse of something.[3]  These terms are not equal in meaning.  One is to reinvigorate the strength of the teaching and to remove corruption and leave the original pure essence.  The second is to clean and sanitize, but adds the dimension for amending and or improving, which means to “add to or modify”.  In this way the movement of Erasmus was a revival and the movement of Luther (which began as an effort to revive) became a reformation through a combination of social and economic pressures.  This passage exemplifies the concept that Soroush has become so attentive to in past years, especially since 2006.   

            In this chapter Soroush begins with a cursive and descriptive comparison and contrast of early Islamic revivalist movement and contemporary revivalists.  The revivalists of the past: Al-Ghazzali, Kashani, Rumi, Shabestari, Amoli, and Dehlavi realized the need to “dust off” the practices of religion and restore “essence” to it.  Religion had become too superficial and facial without true inner meaning (p 27).  This concept of revival recognized that laws and rituals [shari’ah] had strangled and confounded the pure “precious gem” or the “inner dimension” or merit of religion.  Contemporary revivalists: Abadi, Lahori, Abdoh, Reza, ‘Ali Shari’ati, Rouhollah Khomeini, and Motahhari have had to wrestle with the constant vs. the variable.  Where in the past rescue of religion was the aim, now there is much temporal change and it continues to increase and bombard religion.  What is called for is a “balance” of change and structure.  Times change and so there must be a give and take.  Times in the secular world change constantly, therefore religion cannot be totally in tune with change else there would be no inner meaning to religion.  Conversely, religion cannot be insistent upon permanence else it will not exist in the contemporary world.  Within this is embedded a most important question.  Is reformation consistent with the “inner dimension” of religion and God?  If so, reformation is perhaps consistent with “interpretation” of text, verses and scripture based upon times and ages separate from the writer’s time and age.  Conversely, if reformation is not consistent with the inner dimension of religion the only available route to proper understanding of text, verses and scripture is to “revive” it because the text is unchanging in meaning and therefore must be interpreted in its singular and original form in light of the writer’s time and age.  Hence the pivotal question is in regards to authorship of the sacred text, verse, and scripture.  The answer lies in whether the writer was divinely inspired and therefore with latitude to explain God’s word in relation to the writer’s time and age, or whether the words of God were directly given in form to be presented.  Much debate has followed upon these questions.  Christianity largely has followed the “divine” writer thought.  This is depicted in the many translations of the Bible.  This lends to each era reinterpreting to some degree.  Islam has remained steadfast in the Quran in its original language and has resisted interpretation. 

In reading “The Mantle of the Prophet Religion and Politics in Iran”, by Roy Mattahedeh, Ali is asked by Bagher to open the Quran and read the omen of the first text he sees[4].  Bagher is interested in whether he should take a loan from a supposedly prosperous Jewish businessman.  When Ali opens the Quran he comes to a text he wishes not to read, but must.  It is to the effect of “beware of business with Jews and foreigners”.  Ali winces because he knows the verse is in a particular context which must be read in a larger block of text in order to be properly understood.  Nonetheless, Bagher refuses the loan and finds days later, the Jewish financier is broke and creditors are calling all of his loans.  In the discourse surrounding this story it appears that Ali somewhat recognizes the need to “interpret” text.  Of course as later noted in the book Ali is a more liberal mullah and of the contemporary school perhaps as described by Soroush.   

            In order for religion to survive, is it necessary to distinguish between constant and variable components and therefore allow change within certain areas of religion?  Alternatively, is it God’s plan that religion remains unbending and recognize that some people will simply not follow God and therefore be lost?  Unfortunately, at extremes, there are those resistant to any change and at the opposite, those ready for a versatile religion for fit the temporal change of society.  Rather there is need for balance.  



Constant change in the contemporary world requires continual reevaluation of needs of society and solutions to those needs of society.  The premise is that Sprout’s theory of contraction and expansion will at least minimally assist the contemporary world in solving societal needs.  The theory of contraction and expansion is a way of religious understanding, it is theological and it is a contributor to interpretation of jurisprudential, philosophical, and mystic interpretation.   He proposes a method to preserve the spirit, eternity, and sacredness of religion while allowing for change in appearance.  He poses that the failure of past revivalists and reformers is grounded in their failure to distinguish between “religion” and “religious knowledge”.  Religious knowledge is related to human existence and human knowledge that varies from age to age and from social transformation to another.  This in itself indicates “change”, and if there is change, there must have been a “reason” for that change.  Religious knowledge is no different.  The question presented then is “Why?”  The answer is that people “understand” concepts and religion in context.  Thus while religion is constant and flawless, people are not constant and neither are they flawless.  Society changes due to temporal change and all through the process people in degree either accurately or inaccurately understand, or else perceive differently.  Soroush makes a pivotal statement that seems unclear as to whether he is a revivalist or a reformist at the time of his writing.  Soroush states on page 31, “Religion is in no need of reconstruction (a reformationist connotation) and completion (completeness seems to indicate only need of revival).  Religious knowledge and insight that is human and incomplete, however, is in constant need of reconstruction.”  Nevertheless, Soroush seems to indicate that ability to reason through the text is necessary to true understanding and neither adds to or takes away, and what God has revealed in religion is up to us to reason and understand.  It is this understanding that is then either congruent or incongruent with other disciplines of human knowledge.

            Based upon the above, religious knowledge is temporal and transitory.  As sciences, modes of other knowledge, and humanity change there is transformation of religious knowledge.  This is the heart of the theory of contraction and expansion: 1) religious knowledge is human knowledge and human knowledge evolve with many other branches of human knowledge such as sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy; 2) there is a difference between personal or individual knowledge of religion and religious knowledge.  One’s individual understanding is not necessarily correct religion, nor is religious understanding the same as society’s understanding.  In other words, a person may understand religion and have beliefs, but these beliefs may be somewhat particular to the individual, and is not “religion” in its essence.  An important defining factor is that religious knowledge is a social construct.  “Religious knowledge” is not an individual construct held by individuals, rather it is as a scientific discipline, a branch of collective understanding that withstands exchange and debate and therefore has error because of its human counterpart.  This continued debate and exchange uncover error.  This leads to a living, flexible, changing, and evolving culture.

            Contraction and expansion are not designed to resolve change, but rather to assist in understanding of change and the process(es) they follow.  It is an exercise in interpretation that relates to three other arenas: Islamic theology (philosophy) [kalam], logic of jurisprudence (law) [usul], and esoteric dimension of Islam (mysticism) [irfan].  Soroush concludes that the interpretive ability of contraction and expansion allows for illumination in meaning of text that the other three arenas have often clashed in disagreement over.  Therefore there should be better understanding of what is certain (constant) and ambivalent within the Quran and therefore provides not escape from opinion, but rather a better quality of understanding of science, life, human needs and ultimately freedom.   



Within Chapter 3 there is development of a concept that society needs development of ethics of science and ethics of prosperity.  These will assist and enable society to address and focus upon “serving” values.  Science itself will not create loss or lessening of moral society, but will provide more variation in behavior.  Granted, some of the behavior will be immoral.  However, science and development of a “serving” society (which may produce democracy), must continue to draw upon the inner, basic traditions of the society in which it springs.


There are two types of values: 1) those for living life (guiding), and 2) those for sake of living (serving).  Guiding values concern the individual social needs that are eternal in nature.  For instance, principles that call for dignity, pursuit, justice, goodness, history are integral needs of all societies. These principles call for humanity to perpetuate the good of the society.  Serving principles change with time and are temporal.  Society, for example, changes and as it changes so do ways of doing things and needs call for adaptation.  Each age of society is also affected by science, technology, and economics.  Thus, these serving principles take the form of what is fair, necessary, secretive, respectable, desirable, or pleasant given the current environment.  These become interwoven as part of the particular environment.  Balance in applying these serving values may become dogmatic or overly weighted in favor of a particular social segment or group in which case their exercise may become counterproductive to the society.  Sometimes serving principles may overbear or overshadow guiding principles.   

            Within the changes that take place in serving there are primary and secondary types.  This is interesting conceptually.  Theoretically, it appears that primary serving values predate and may occur simultaneously with socioeconomic development.  Secondary serving values develop as the socioeconomic segmentally matures.  (It is the proposition here that development is constant and seldom fully matures; rather socioeconomics evolve in segments of time that are related to factors significant to the stage of society.  There is, therefore, an unavoidable and necessary stage in which primary and secondary serving values overlap.  This may cause much debate, confusion and even periods of revolt.)  Soroush goes on to state (p 40) that “old habits and traditional conduct must first change before social and economic development becomes possible”…and following to the end of the paragraph.  He admits that there may be a coterminous event; which seems to match with the concept of a “segmental” evolutionary process taking place.  Segmented stages of the process allow for a “termination” of “old habits and traditions”, and allow for the concept that socioeconomic change is continuously evolving (above).  The moment of terminus before further change allows for potential resolution of conflict and debate and provides an acceptable atmosphere for society to move forward in furtherance of newly created opportunities and modify values of the society.  At any point of the segmented process, confusion may lead to variable results.

            Precedential values (those that predate) have affect upon those new values that follow change.  The statement that the neck comes with a choice cut from the thigh rings true.  In other words with what we can “afford” to purchase we get some of the other.  With the choice meat comes a bit of the less choice and vis-à-vis. Is Westernization or influence of westernization a sweeping and necessary ingredient for the rest of the world?  And, if westernization brings socioeconomic development must the consequence be bad?  In the turmoil, there are those that support the process and those that oppose it.  Is westernization inevitable?  In consideration of these questions, one may propose that if western history of development was a planned and conscious project by those such as Bacon, Luther, or Machiavelli then westernization is “the” way to change and the consequences that follow development are somehow “absolute”.  The converse proposal is that those that were of consequence to the events that led to change in the West were only individuals acting out their roles of life who were unbeknown and unplanned by themselves bound up in other external processes, ideas, and events which somehow resulted in the “modern world” as currently known.  Could this evolution only have occurred through happenstance?  By subscribing to this second explanation of western history, there is no “absolute” consequence.  Gauged by the times of the current era the result of the same process may yield the same or different results (pp 40-1).

            The problem with society is the propensity to seek certain consequences.  In an effort to seek exactness society may be blinded to opportunity.  In trying to bring conscious plans into the equation, it is easier to look to “worldly” rewards and expectations as a means to experience success.  Soroush calls this secularization of ethics.  As such, capitalism and pleasure become vehicles of success in the world and transforms the concept of happiness into a “public” realm in which happiness is a planned outcome or goal rather than a result of chance, favor, or luck.  Alas, too much confidence in self-planning can create inflated ego and loss of humility before fellow constituents!  Rumi’s words that Soroush quotes have much to say about pride and opinionated self worth (p 44).

            Does socioeconomic development necessarily lead to ills of vice, deceit, fraud, pornography, injustice, and lead to even further lust and corruption?  Is there a balance in which both the good may prosper and the ill be impoverished?  Perhaps the answer lies in a balance of change in relation to mores and vices of society.



When society is stagnate and constant habit dictates behavior, trends continue and there is not much change.  However, when society changes and is temporal it needs stronger focus upon basic guiding values and sovereign morality, not because of the concept of the existence of immorality, but because in times of change there is offering of variation in morality.  For example, before Internet there was less opportunity for viewing of pornography.



Chapter Eight is a composite of lectures given at Human Rights conferences, one in Tehran (1991) and at Hamburg, Germany (1992).  While Dr. Soroush’s position has shifted from sponsorship of a democratic religious form of government to a democratic form there remains much merit in his earlier position.  In review of his website, an abstract of his speech “Islam and Democracy” which was presented December 1 and 2, 2004 in Badresh revealed a few notes that seem relevant to democratic government.[7]  The abstract distinguishes political democracy from liberal democracy.  If accurate, the distinction is that political democracy focuses upon the objective procedural operations of democracy that encompasses the three parts of government as the legislative, executive and judicial.  Each in its own right is powerful, but each power is limited by the other branch power.  Liberal democracy deals with “substance” of human rights.  Though he does not use this terminology these seem to be those things that people believe “should” occur.  An example he mentions is such concepts as same sex marriage or union.  Soroush’s position is that the political democracy is consistent with Islam, not because it can be determined by the Quran or Sunna, but because it is compatible with basic Islamic principles.  He offers two examples of the consistency between Islam and judicial and executive regulation: 1) a strong and independent judiciary has been a historical duty of Islam, and 2) historically Maaroof and Monkar proposed checking the power of the ruler or executive.  He proposes a free press and media as part of this control of power abuse.  The problematic factor deals with the form of legislative body.  He states that duty or “agency” is not enough to provide a strong legislature.  He calls for revision of theories of man, law, revelation and even God that brings about a “total reinterpretation” rather than only piece meal.  In keeping with this analysis Islam itself is only a “series” of interpretations and by this evidences the ability for the current interpretation to be changed in the future.[8]

            In chapter eight the question of how to create a government that is both caring of human rights and simultaneously responsive to God seemed to offer much merit for establishing a form of democracy that blended religion and modernity.  Isn’t it consistent that if a society believes in rights and believes in God then it must follow that God has rights also that must be honored as well as the rights of the people?  In consideration of the eight “modern secular beliefs about God’s Rights” bear considerable consistency with the basic concept of democracy.  After all, there are many forms of democracy over the ages.  Perhaps one of the strongest of these elements is that depicted in letter C (p. 123) which discusses the point that coexistence of both religious and secular people.  It appears this would include those who profess no religious belief.

            Embedded within the concept of how religion can coexist in a secular governmental setting is the question of human rights.  Human rights are associated with several other elements such as justice and regulation of power for instance, which are extra religious knowledge, and freedom of opinion without absolutism.  In consideration of the article in chapter 3 and its discussion of guiding values there appears to be a connection to proper construction of government.  If so, Soroush finds that the basic element of a democracy equates to placing emphasis on primary values (guiding values).  Once satisfied, these values will lead to a dynamic common wisdom that will result in democracy and proper harmony with religion.  In a society that tolerates interpretation of religion and belief but also takes advantage of extra religious knowledge (sciences) will balance and thereby produce an atmosphere that both values and sanctifies religion and promotes active and critical analysis.  In reaching this conclusion, it is also consistent with the concept that people have a “right” to religion not a “duty” to have a religion (p. 63).  People can be secular, sectarian or a transmutable blend.  Hence, the obligatory life sponsored by an authoritarian regime or jurisconsult, which restricts opinion, is rejected.       



In thinking back over the writings of Soroush there are several commonalies revealed.  In his writings and from his video it appears that he struggles with how the political process of the “rational-legal” form of government can be reconciled with modernity (rational thought), Islam and tradition.  The evaluation tradition is even more complex than the first two concepts because Iranian tradition is a composite of not only internal traditions of the Persians, but of external traditions of the West (Wes-toxication) and Arabtoxication as well as a blend of Islam (p. 160, 166).  In his analysis as a political scientist, his quest is how to envision an Iranian democratic system while providing for Islam.  Does this require that religion be removed altogether from the governmental legal process?  If so, not all secular law is consistent with sectarian law.  This in itself could cause much reprisal on the behalf of the religious community.

            As part of the equation to reconfiguring Iranian government is the presence of three cultures: religion, national heritage, and Western origins.  Though Soroush names only these three, a fourth can be interposed; pre-national or cultural heritage, whichever is more descriptive of the culture that has so richly filled the history of the region of Iran before becoming the nation of Iran.  Regardless of a fourth ingredient, Soroush argues that Iran has missed some important historical opportunities and that these cultural ingredients and mixed heritage have interplayed in this scenario (p. 156).  Further, any solutions to this problem of missed opportunity must involve rethinking these cultural factors (p. 156).  It is quaint to analogize the orchestration of balancing and evaluating these cultural markers to that of a piece of written music or poetry.  It is perhaps even more so when considering the meaning of the noun “soroush” as “divine muse” (p. 157). 

            Therefore, we come to the question; how can the overall Iranian composite culture be balanced against Democratic government?  Is it even possible to create a workable relationship?  In consideration of Hegel and the influence of the West, there is no way to “self correct” and balance the system.  Perhaps it is all or nothing.  Perhaps it is a complete break with the Islamic jurisconsult or stay as it is.  But, as consistent with Al-e Ahmad there has only been a deviation which may be corrected by careful reevaluation and purging of those elements of influence that are not beneficial, while retaining and building upon those qualities and ways that are consistent with common, fit, able, willing, and truthful exchange (p. 170).  In this way, there is no need to accept corrupted ways, and likewise there is careful evaluation of positive ways.  This leads to meaningful evaluation of social need and humanity and ultimately to freedom.  Not only does this bring internal, but also external freedom.  Freedom in exchange promotes the ability to consider life, writing, belief, norms and folkways in terms of the current age and technology of the system of the society.  Ways of making livings, construction of family and family order, education, or modes of operation may be seen and interpreted in light of the social needs and in light of technological capability to provide and organizational ability to deliver.  This seems to be consistent with expansion and contraction.  For example if each generation should be able to interpret in light of current events and ability then the question of violation of prior constructs becomes irrelevant.  Therefore, consistent with expansion and contraction there are multiple understandings, not within the age, but between ages.  This view is inconsistent with the “literalist”.  However, just because you do not like the game you cannot withdraw from it and still influence the outcome, you must rather abide within the framework (p. 104).  On the other hand, perhaps this view is very compatible with the views of the majority of Iranians!  In any event, this would seem to sponsor a “rational” process for government, a kind of moderating variable if you will.  The crux of the point is that this leads to reasoning.  Reasoning feeds on reasoning and freedom (p. 97-9).

            The above concept of “freedom” may lend to the solution of elections in Iran.  As discussed in class Iran faces three major problems:  1) the government is currently only a theocracy with democratic election process that is fundamentally engineered, 2) people face a quandary that has no good answer, they may vote and know that it really is not counting toward the election, or 3) not vote and the right of vote may evaporate and lead to complete dissolution of the voting process.  In either event, the current laws of Iran favor the clerics and the government, not the people of Iran.  If freedoms are not enhanced it appears further revolution will come from the right wing.  Reform leading to freedoms could be in the form of either change of the Constitution to delete the office of High Leader, or revise the role of High Leader to that of ceremonial functionary.  This is the point to be made in pulling this together.  Rational process leads to reasoning and flexibility.  Reasoning feeds and grows upon reasoning and freedom.  Freedom feeds upon freedom and reasoning.  To free one’s self from the yoke of totalitarianism is to give birth to external freedom and quality of life that is humanity.  Once primary external basic needs called guiding values are satisfied, the secondary serving values may be addressed (pp. 39-53).  This allows for internal freedom to be realized within the dominant society.

[1] Soroush, Abdoldarim. 2000. Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush, translated, edited and with a critical introduction by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri. Pp 26-38. NY:Oxford.

[2] Merriam-Webster Online. 2008. Springfield MA.  Merriam-Webster Incorporated. Retrieved 25 June, 2008 (

[3] —–. Retrieved 25 June, 2008. (

[4] Mottahedeh, Roy. 2007. The Mantle of the Prophet. UK:Oxford.

[5] Soroush. Pp 39-53.

[6] Soroush. 2000. pp 122-30.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: