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Abdolkarim Soroush's Nectar of Prophecy and History

Not many individuals can draw out a full crowd of people, including students and members of the general public, to a brightly-lit large lecture theatre at a British university. The audience await the appearance of Abdolkarim Soroush to give the 2012 Sir Karl Popper Memorial Lecture at the London School of Economics. In the last decade, Soroush has indubitably become one of the most familiar faces from Iran on the global stage. More in demand as an import in the West than the country's oil resources, however, he has become persona non grata among some official circles back in his native land. This was not always the case for this unassuming yet dissenting figure.

Post-revolutionary Iran found in Soroush a committed advocate for the radical overhaul of the Shah-era education system. He was appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme guide of the Islamic Republic, to the Cultural Revolution Committee in charge of reopening the nation's universities in a time of political upheaval. One of Soroush's self-confessed actions was the introduction of the subject of the philosophy of science into the syllabus. This position of official influence ended in his resignation from this committee in 1983. Yet, Soroush's intellectual odyssey in the philosophy of science continued unabated since his first encounter with it in his student days in London.

Soroush's current intellectual and political trajectory would only begin to cause ripples in Iran a decade later during the 1990s. Thereafter, the voices of Mohammad Mujtahid Shabestari, Hassan Yusufi Eshkevari and Muhsin Kadivar joined Soroush's very public role of the intellectual in the elaboration of a broadly conceived trend that could be described 'post-Islamist' in Asef Bayat's sense of the term. There is a noticeable shift from the broad horizon of ideology to the exact matrices of interpretation. Aspirations for a heaven on earth have experienced a sober rethinking of what is Islam and how it can be known. Thus, the intellectual battlefield is no longer ideological but takes place across classical and not-so-classical disciplines ranging from jurisprudence to hermeneutics.

One of the boldest defences of liberalism during the twentieth century is contained in Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. A retort to Communism and totalitarianism in general, this book undertook a thorough critique of the certainty of belief in ideas that are neither scientific nor falsifiable. The latter was an essential criterion for assessing theories and any failure on the part of a theory to fulfil this only betrayed its non-scientific nature. Popper's philosophy of science rested upon the idea that all scientific propositions can be falsified in principle through empirical observation. A self-critical approach to all things ideological in the philosophy of science provided Soroush with some of the tools needed to formulate his own venture of Muslim reform.

While the Popperian approach played an extremely useful role in demarcating the line between science and non-science, the falsifying impulse is not suited to the study of religious texts or their interpretations. Discourses on religion are essentially matters of authority located in the meanings of texts rather than the observations of phenomena. Another key aspect of Popper's thought is his anti-utopian position centred on the defence of the rights of the individual. He attacked the twin conceptions of 'holism' that societies determine the fate of their members and 'historicism' that history develops according to principles and laws towards a determinate end.

Interestingly, Soroush seems to share this aversion to the submerging of the individual in a political context but singles out society or humanity as the reference point to study human beings. The collective is afforded priority to make sense of human agency that is certainly at odds with Popper's passionate attack on holism of the intellectual sort. Soroush appears to ignore, or at the very least underestimate, the manifold possibilities of individual genius to challenge a society and not to conform to its norms thereby creating new norms in the process. Taking Soroush himself as an example, he has indeed emerged as a voice of political and intellectual dissent contributing to the rethinking of how reform in Islam could in principle occur in a cross-cultural milieu.

Questions of history are posed by Soroush to the Muslim past. Additionally, the inquiry into the broader experience of humanity arises. Answers are of course forthcoming in the form of a narrative privileging the rationalist observer. Thus, history is the most fitting domain for shedding light onto the past to discern its patterns. Humanity is principally characterised by recurring motifs. These constants, for Soroush, are unchangeable and acquire the semblance of laws. From apostasy to injustice, we come across cast-iron examples of these laws that offer a sombre reading of humanity.

One may propose that the mere presence of injustice, despite its repetitiveness, does not constitute a law. Human societies are neither isolated nor stationary compared to the rare examples in science pointed out by Popper that can be regarded to be laws: at best, trends can be illustrated. Most importantly, their diversity and the fragmented character of the sources of the past act against positing even the most elementary of laws whatever the purpose: especially so for predictions. Historians and other scholars interested in the past are deeply divided over its hallmark features: evolutionary, cyclical or fluid. Unanimity does not exist on the practice of investigating the past in theory, methodology or sources.

Prophets in the Muslim past, according to Soroush, did not aim or attempt to carry out any social reform which would have been tantamount "to denature this world and its inhabitants." As an inevitable corollary of this position, a putative nature of humanity is the proper subject of history in a Rankean fashion seeking to present "how it really was" and continues to be. Wariness of the broken dreams of utopianism lies at the core of Soroush's attack on moralist narratives that echoes, if not reproduces, Popper's intellectual plea for liberty against totalitarianism. Nonetheless, Soroush inadvertently articulates no less a moralist conception cloaked in the language of modernity: a human nature is clearly discernable to the objective witness of history with a strong emphasis on what is rather than what ought to be.

An impulse of history has been to de-mystify and secularise the past. Preservation of the sacred in matters of human affairs is not recognised to be paramount. Critical inquiry into the past is a recurring theme among Muslim thinkers and intellectuals. Balancing scholarly concerns with one's religious conscience dominates Soroush's reflections on the urgency of rethinking the Islamic tradition. In this regard, he was preceded by Muhammad Iqbal after the turn of the twentieth century. Both Iqbal and Sorosh, sharing a passion for the mystic Jalaluddin al-Rumi, put forward an evolutionary conception of the past. Nonetheless, dissimilarities do emerge.

The fortunes of humanity proceed in an evolutionary fashion. Gradual change in this vein of thought, for Iqbal, leads to the realisation of the full potential for human beings. The world once again is the object of re-enchantment. A continuous creative flow in time is infused with hope but with no inevitabilities for the future sanctioned by the Qur'an. "It is meliorism, which recognises a growing universe and is animated by the hope of man's eventual victory over evil." To the contrary, Soroush finds the past to be filled with certain fixed characteristics that appear to be like social laws already mentioned above. Evil cannot be written out of history. Also, the anti-Hellenism of Iqbal and Popper's rejection of Neo-Platonic philosophy are present in Sorouh's own writings. A peculiar variety of grand narratives is cast aside. Ideal types that could be appealed to for the purpose of making truth claims do not fit Soroush's picture of the world.

The discussion of the Qur'an by Soroush falls within the boundaries of history. Previous debates on the sacred texts of Islam influence the general contours of this discussion that go beyond their original and intended meanings. During the early formation of Sunni orthodoxy, a new controversy arose surrounding the nature of revelation and by extension of the Qur'an. A group of thinkers, known to posterity as the Mu'tazilites, argued that divine revelations do not emanate from an eternal attribute of God. Rather, the unity of God does not admit of any such divisions and is of a single essence. Hence, revealed knowledge to prophets or messengers is of a created nature.

This was particularly pertinent to the status of the Qur'an in the eyes of the Mu'tazilites whose avowal of this doctrine led to a clash, enjoying short-lived support from a coterie of Abbasid caliphs, with the emerging ahl al-hadith (people of the Prophetic narrations). Ahmad ibn Hanbal remains one of the latter's boldest advocates in the struggle to defend the notion of the uncreatedness of the Qur'an. All God's attributes are joined to His nature and both are eternal. As a natural consequence of this position, revelation, a function of the speech of God, is also eternal.

Political strife accompanied theological disputes between the partisans of the opposing doctrines. After the brief ascendancy of the Mu'tazilites and the patronage by later Abbasid caliphs of those who expounded the uncreatedness of the Qur'an, an Asharite middle ground was found that favoured the newly conceived orthodox position: the meaning of the Qur'an is uncreated, and its recited words and written letters are created. Shi'i ulema (Muslim scholars) also faced theological dilemmas similar to their Sunni counterparts. Faced with the implications ensuing from espousing a particular stand on God's attributes, or lack thereof, they followed the example of the Mu'tazilites. God's essence is indivisible and the attributes such as speech merely refer to qualities of action. All schools of thought and sects, despite their differences, agreed on one thing: the Qur'an is the word of God.

Various theological departure points exist for Soroush to venture forth and bring the dual elements of time and place into the interpretation of the Qur'an. Further, classical Qur'anic commentators and jurists worked out a loosely-organised framework of interpretation cognisant of the context of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) and objective criteria of moral interests to be included in the rule-making process (maqasid al-Shari'ah). Both elements introduce a high degree of flexibility to jurisprudence that would otherwise be restricted by a purist approach to texts and language. Despite of these elements, Soroush has developed an entirely novel method of reading the Qur'an. History is the quintessential field of interpretation. There is no real resemblance to the early Muslim debates on the Qur'an, excepting the theme of its createdness, in Soroush's venture of reform. The vagaries of history subordinate the sacred text of Islam.

Applying a historical method to the beginnings of Islam has led to novel positions on a plethora of issues. One of Soroush's more controversial points involves the exact nature of revelation of the Prophet Muhammad. A marked digression from the Mu'tazilite position of the created Qur'an leads to a less theological and more philosophical interpretation. Classical philosophical thinking has put forward three principal instruments towards acquiring knowledge. Demonstration or burhan proffered the most certain of all means to knowing an object of inquiry. Dialectic reasoning or jadal focused on the extension of a logical argument to a new or previously unknown one. Finally, rhetoric and poetry or khitaba and shir were the ripe fruits of the imagination. Out of all three, the latter was indisputably tied to their immediate context. In a somewhat similar tone, Soroush argues that the Qur'an is better understood not only simply in light of the life-world of the Prophet and his community but more or less exclusively relevant to them. The founding document of Islam is situated within a broader repertoire not of its making. Verses address particular events and do not necessarily contain universal significance. Subsequently, Qur'anic rulings merely reflect the norms and customs during the Prophet's lifetime and are temporary unless proven otherwise. Possibilities of meanings are not explored in the passages containing these rulings and ignored without attempting to tease out general or universal objectives.

The cacophony of voices that usually ensues from the relationship of author-text-reader simply dissolves in the sweeping tide of an ever-changing world. Context is duly noted, only for the content to be rendered specific to the particular time and place of the Qur'an's revelation. What Soroush proposes is the idea of revelation fitting into the immediate reality of the Prophet and his community. Thus, the former, citing al-Rumi, is compared to a sea while the latter are jugs. Essentially, the sea, if its course is to flow, must fit into the world. The supernatural enters into the natural and is bound by its laws. The Qur'an was "in keeping with" the Prophet in the areas of personality, language, environment, events and the community.

Most reformist Muslim scholars and intellectuals would agree the Qur'an can be made intelligible and relevant to contemporary life when read in its original context shorn of Soroush's naturalistic language. This aspect of his thinking is not particularly revolutionary or novel. In contradistinction to Soroush's position, however, the Qur'an is greater than the sum of its parts: a set of general moral and ethical imperatives underlie specific passages and injunctions. Where he also differs with his contemporaries is the justification for such a position. Soroush, self-admittedly, is inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution based on the adaptation of creatures to their environment which he then applies to revelation. It turns out to be soft account of social-historical naturalism rather than the survival-of-the-fittest conception originally coined by the nineteenth century social evolutionist Herbert Spencer.

Each period of history contains its own particular cultural and social products that are not generalisable to other periods. The logical corollary of this position leads to the assumption that all claims of universality are erroneous: the past is unable to offer insights other than a snapshot of what was. Nonetheless, Soroush does venture into the past quoting the Qur'an, al-Rumi, Shah Waliullah al-Dihlawi and Iqbal to illustrate axiomatic principles for his own project of Muslim reform. Indications of continuity are clearly present in a narrative of disjuncture and innovation whereby a particular form of reasoning is the key ordering intellectual tool that integrates disparate epochs and conceptions.

The Prophet Muhammad is likened to a metaphorical bee by Soroush in his reception of revelation. Verse 68 of surah al-Nahl (Chapter of the Bee) succinctly illustrates this analogy. God has placed the ability of making honey in the bee which it in turn produces. In a similar way, the Prophet produced the Qur'an and the text is simultaneously both the word of God and the word of Muhammad. In a preceding section, it was noted that revelation, according to Soroush, is transformed from the supernatural to the natural. A certain vagueness surrounds how this would be the case. Yet, this stance does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the Qur'anic text is a construction of the Prophet himself. Indeed, the Qur'an repeatedly states it is not the word of Muhammad but the word of God in its entirety.

Another key element in Soroush's position seems to rest on the idea of the metaphysical realm recognising neither time nor place in the process of revelation. He draws yet another analogy, this time citing al-Rumi, of the conversation between the angel and Mary, mother of Jesus, pointing to its mystical dimensions. God's word and the Prophetic experience are indistinguishable whether mediated or un-mediated. The angel was an imagined being whose presence was in the mind with no separate existence as such except in the metaphysical world.

Simply, the guidance of God, rather than a direct transmission of words or meanings, creates the experience of prophecy. The domain of mysticism recedes to make way for a philosophical reading of an otherwise transcendental matter that is beyond the confines of any form of reasoning. Regardless of the process or instruments of revelation, the ability to interpret the Qur'an depends not, as Soroush suggests, on the specificity of its reception. Rather, the discernable existence of intended ethical motives and moral objectives unite both the context and the text in response to the moral sensibilities of the reader in order to illuminate present and future contexts.

Suspicion of ideology motivates the writings of Soroush on a whole gamut of issues. A Popperian inclination against utopian ideas has, in part, strongly influenced his intellectual journey towards history as criticism of lofty ideals. In this vein of thought, Soroush espouses a post-Islamist thrust seeking to give primacy to time and place in the rethinking of the Islamic tradition. The past evolves with specificity of each period unique to itself and the Qur'an is no exception. Universal readings of the sacred text of Islam are severely circumscribed in Soroush's project of reform. Both classical and reformist readings are dispensed with for a grand narrative of rationalism. Preponderance of the specificity, rather than the possibility of discerning the universal essence, of the Qur'an is the rule. Such an approach ignores the dialectic between the eternal and the changing which acquires further salience in the search for meanings and their possibilities as contained in the Qur'an.


Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter, Exeter. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.