Paradoxes are the hammers and chisels used to sculpt the life of the mind. Among contemporary Muslim thinkers and scholars, Abdolkarim Soroush, the nom de plume of Hussein Haj Faraj Dabbagh, has best personified this modus vivendi of the intellectual. Provocative to say the least, the forward thrust of Soroush’s ideas have acquired a robust quality of deconstruction of the Islamic tradition. However, pulling the figurative rug under the feet of his critics has also consisted of proposing an alternative space for faith, knowledge and politics. Two key dimensions stamp Soroush’s venture of reform which is located within, for the lack of a better term, an Islamic ‘neo-modernism’: deconstruction and reconstruction. Thus, a dialectic ensues between tradition and modernity. His thought explores three key recurring themes: the intellectual as critic, Islam and modernity; and the Qur’an as both the word of Muhammad and the word of God. These themes require a journey of reflection on the part of both the writer and the reader lest their central significance is somehow missed.
Soroush strikes a figure at once possessing a modest demeanour and a prodigious intellect. His intellectual journey took an everlasting turn in the 1970s when he left his native Iran to study the philosophy of science. A doctorate in this area exposed him to the works of Karl Popper, the renowned philosopher of science and impassioned champion of liberalism, which would later form a major plank in Soroush’s project for the deconstruction and reconstruction of knowledge in an Islamic context. By the end of the decade, Soroush found himself back in an Iran turned upside down, with the Shah overthrown in a popular revolution. The return of Ayatollah Khomeini after a decade and a half in exile ushered a new order and brought high hopes for a country hitherto under the iron fist of the Shah and the security apparatus of the notorious SAVAK. An Islamic republic was announced after a referendum and Khomeini emerged as its head in the role of rahbar (Supreme Leader). Tumultuous change was still gripping Iran when Khomeini appointed Soroush to the seven-member Cultural Revolution Institute tasked to re-open the country’s universities and implement an Islamisation programme of higher education. But Soroush resigned in 1983, signalling the end of his fleeting career in political officialdom. He subsequently migrated onto a path of intellectual activism outside of the realm of the state.
Public debates on a whole plethora of issues dominated the 1980s. One particular debate centred on a clash between Soroush and Reza Davari-Ardakani pitting ‘Popperians’ against ‘Heideggerians’, with an accent on the nature of epistemology and the fate of the West. Davari-Ardakani was a philosopher and self-confessed follower of Martin Heidegger. He argued, contrary to Soroush’s positions, that science was an integral element of the West, which was distinguished by a single ‘essence’. And moreover, argued Davari-Ardakani, the pernicious cultural phenomenon of Gharbzadegi (Westoxication), rooted in the godless conception of individuality, posed a threat to the very essence of Islamic Iran. Soroush had no time for a putative fixed and single essence. He promoted transcultural encounters and was concerned that official politics and intellectual thought in post-revolutionary Iran had converged to mistakenly privilege the discourse on cultural authenticity.
Soroush’s intellectual pursuits in the late 1980s and the early 1990s led him to arrive at the distinction between religion and religious knowledge. While the former was transcendental and fixed, the latter was immanent and mutable. Absolute religious truth was beyond the understanding of human beings and as a logical corollary all political claims based on religious authority were redundant. New horizons were explored in the pages of the magazine Kayhan-i Farhangi (Cultural Universe), where he published some of his important essays. After the magazine was closed down, Soroush and his cohorts founded Kiyan (Source) in 1991 and remained energetically prolific in sharing their ideas with the Iranian public, much to the chagrin of an influential section of the political and religious establishment. Although Soroush was still teaching at the University of Tehran and lecturing to audiences in Qom and elsewhere, his activities were gradually curtailed.
From regime-insider to dissident, the meandering career of Soroush provides an illustrative example of the contested boundaries of political authority and religious orthodoxy in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world. The publication of The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience immediately prior to the millennium angered his opponents in Iran. It explored the taboo subject of the subjective elements of revelation, particularly the Qur’an. Shortly afterwards, Soroush was forced into exile and left Iran for Europe and then the USA. Abbas Milani, a fellow Iranian academic who was subject to the displeasure of both the Pahlavi regime and post-revolutionary Iran, observes that exile is a longstanding tradition among Iranian intellectuals leading many to the soul-searching needed to re-imagine the seeming irrevocability of the status quo in one’s homeland. I would add that exile for Soroush brought opportunities to engage with a wider network of interlocutors outside of Iran from the late Nasr Hamid Abou Zayd, a scholarly giant in Islamic hermeneutics, in the Netherlands, to the pioneering sociologist of religion José Casanova in the USA.
The Intellectual as Critic
The idea of the intellectual, for Soroush, is premised upon a clear division of labour in society. Whereas the intellectual is primarily driven to innovate and produce ideas, the politician is concerned with the mundane affairs of running the state. Interestingly, the invoking of the case of Karl Marx the ‘theoretician’ and Vladimir Lenin the theoretician’s ‘handyman’ by Soroush, citing Karl Popper, further affirms the primary distinguishing characteristic of these two vocations. Two different manifestations of power emerge in a contentious milieu pitting the ever unruly intellectual against the conservative-minded politician. Proximity to the corridors of political power is thus not part of the criteria which defines and animates the life of intellectuals in their daily existence. One can and ought to participate in society in a fashion which introduces a creative dynamic into its public life but to reap the material rewards of one’s labour is ruled out. Politics is seen by Soroush to undermine the objectivity of intellectuals in the effort to rethink ideas, values, practices and institutions. G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger provide Soroush with instructive examples of the ruinous consequences of the relationship between intellectuals and politicians. Heidegger’s membership of the Nazi Party and his thought appear to have been commensurate with fascism, especially the cynicism exhibited towards reason.
Difference of opinion is a hallmark feature among intellectuals with rationality wedded to individualism. Inevitably, rationality engenders different interpretations of reality on the plane of ideas. No single orthodoxy dominates the life of the mind with pluralism, a sine qua non for any kind of deliberation involving reason and its discontents. The role of the intellectual has an innate power thereby rendering superfluous the pursuit of politics. Ideas are not merely abstract entities: they possess a tour de force of their own in being able to unsettle the foundations of social and cultural norms and it is in this sense the intellectual intervenes in politics. Speaking truth to power is imperative and is the modern equivalent of the classical Islamic norm of ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the bad’. For Soroush, criticism is the lifeblood of the intellectual and decisive interventions in public life express the adage, coined by him, ‘criticising is the piety of politics’.
The intellectual, according to Soroush, emerges from modernity, which has ushered far-reaching changes throughout the world. Rupture and transition have shaken societies from the slumber of tradition to the vibrancy of modernity. Thus, the intellectual as a vocation was born. Implicit in this view of modernity and the concomitant rise of the intellectual is the acceptance of modernisation which deems tradition to be an unwanted historical legacy. Soroush sees the evolution from tradition to modernity in Muslim societies as a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium. And it is this disequilibrium that has generated the conditions needed for the emergence of the intellectual. Various spheres of life from the economy to science to philosophy to religion no longer resonate with one another. Discordant strings hold together society with unease.
The crucial function of the intellectual in the Muslim world is to act as midwife to modernity in the quest to transcend the existing disequilibrium and establish a new equilibrium in society. The religious intellectual in Soroush’s thinking occupies a vantage point which is essentially holistic. Continuity and change are the pressing issues to be addressed in a variety of binaries: old and new, sacred and mundane, essential and accidental, fundamental and peripheral, kernel and husk, and religion and rationality. From tradition to modernity, the well-trodden path of the West illuminates the stages of change for the rest of the world. Modernity is the hard-won prize for the intellectual, as well as for his or her society, who must strive, in the face of fierce opposition, to formulate ideas that are able to effect social change.
Post-revolutionary Iran is not only the formative experience responsible for Soroush’s insights on a variety of themes but it also furnishes examples in his discussion of these themes. Take the distinction made by Soroush between the intellectual and the cleric. The unsettling effects of modernity have churned out a wide, yet not unbridgeable, gulf between these two vocations. Ali Shariati, the doyen of Shi’i Islamic modernists, and Khomeini belonged to modernity and tradition respectively. For Shariati, a revival of Islam involved its recasting in a modern mould. Mysticism infused with jurisprudence shaped Khomeini’s indebtedness to tradition entirely shorn of the repertoire of modernity. The birth of the intellectual marks a departure from the dual functions of the cleric: preaching and guidance. And moreover, the defining attribute of the intellectual is criticism which locates him or her in direct opposition to the cleric’s enterprise of exegesis. A clash of interests is the inevitable product of the primacy of the material interests of the clergy over the spiritual life of the Muslim faithful. Religious intellectuals, on the contrary, are not party to this dismal state of affairs. They distance themselves from the practice of profiteering from Islam thereby safeguarding their moral autonomy. Criticism and innovation are primarily motivated by the desire to bring together religion and modernity.
Islamic orthodoxy within Shi’ism has taken many twists and turns since the self-conscious symbolism of the twelve imams was elaborated into a coherent theological and judicial system over a millennium. A ubiquitous presence in local communities and the exercise of reason, both mediated by jurisprudence, were established norms for Shi’ite jurists after the Usuli school of thought, champions of ijtihad (independent reasoning), won the argument for a greater role for their corporate institution at the end of the eighteenth century against their scripturalist Akhbari counterparts who advocated little or no resort to reason. As a result, a religious hierarchy composed of formal investiture was strengthened and acquired greater clout in social matters. Ayatollah and Hojjat al-Islam were among the titles bestowed after a considerable number of years studying the Islamic religious science in religious seminaries. Shepherd to the flock of the faithful, these religious scholars guided the conscience of the lay believer and instructed the rituals to be observed. Occupation of the highest offices of the state, however, would have to wait until the emergence of Khomeini and his theory of Wilayat al-faqih (Sovereignty of the Jurist). Soroush is highly critical of the political status quo, conflating politics and religion, in today’s Iran. Previously separate, the religious seminaries and the state are in a marriage with the former holding the upper hand. According to Soroush, the satirical poetry of Hafez, the renowned fourteenth century Persian poet who expressed the perennial trope of ridiculing the relations between the learned and the powerful, supplies pertinent reminders of this scenario:
Behold, the town Sufi gorges on many a dubious morsel
May the rump of this craving beast remain ample’;
and I am no Judge, professor, picket or jurisconsult
Why should I interfere with the drunkards’ cult’.
Religion in the Age of Modernity
Islam’s fate in the age of modernity is contemplated in light of the past. For Soroush, early modern Europe is the most significant example for the route, similar to that of Christianity and Judaism, Islam must take. Modern science and philosophy have changed the epistemological foundations of knowledge and religion in particular. Soroush’s article ‘The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of the Shari’a’ is perhaps the quintessential expression of the dialectic between the deconstruction and reconstruction of religious interpretations. No longer guarded by the certainties of the past, Islam urgently requires a rethinking in the here-and-now which would entail nothing less than a return to the original purpose of religion: a spiritual encounter between man and God. Christianity and Judaism have already arrived at this critical juncture in a sequence of transformations. Modernity has wrought a more circumscribed role for religion and humbled, in a constructive sense, the influence it formerly possessed to make way for science to be the arbiter of knowledge. Reason and revelation in Europe equally benefited from their conflict with one another. Islamic revelation escaped this process, and as a result, has remained untested in its relationship with reason, especially empirical reason.
Soroush identifies four sequences waiting to prepare Islam to be better suited for the raison d’etre of religion: the deconstruction of religion, the emergence of new interpretations, an adverse reaction in the form of ‘traditionalism’, and the appearance of heterodoxies and heresies. The first stage witnesses the various contents of modernity wreaking havoc with religious dogma and experience thereby weakening its power in a thorough-going deconstruction. New interpretations in stage two are primarily concerned with building a bridge between religion and contemporary knowledge, perhaps exemplified in the inception of Islamic modernity at the turn of the twentieth century, using ijtihad for this purpose. The third stage could be aptly described to be a return to tradition in rejection of modernity, celebrating the past centred upon a lost identity: fundamentalism is also considered to be an integral and aggressive expression of this phenomenon. Finally, the intersection between religion and modernity produces the fruit of heresy at stage four with the contemporary experience of Islam not entirely dissimilar from that of Christianity’s. Revival of tradition is tantamount to pursuing an imaginary goal. Soroush argues that the absence of the elements of knowledge and modernity lead to the deleterious effects of treating Islam as an identity which takes it towards fundamentalism. Knowledge is unequivocally the proper field for the reform of Islam.
Deconstruction of the dominant interpretations of Islam is implicated in a broader web of disciplines and fields of inquiry. Relationships among ideas point to the dynamic nature of knowledge. Soroush draws a clear and substantial demarcation between religion and religious interpretation. Continuity is elevated to the level of the transcendental in direct contrast to the humanly-conceived changes in religious interpretations and other branches of human knowledge. Furthermore, human beings occupy the role of interpreters rather than lawgivers in a post-prophetic period. Epistemology is the contested terrain for Soroush’s forays into the Islamic tradition. Religious interpretations are continually evolving with other disciplines which determine the state of knowledge in a particular time and place. These interpretations of religion are, by their very nature, stamped with incompleteness and the intellectual baggage of individuals invariably weighs heavily on how the scriptural texts of Islam are understood. The line between the sacred and the mundane is drawn ever larger to endow human agency with the ability to deconstruct the received wisdom of religious authorities and subsequently to construct the edifice of religion anew in accordance to the critical knowledge of the age.
Although Soroush appears to give weak authoritative value to the Islamic tradition, he traces the roots of his intellectual venture to the classical schools of the Mutazilites and the Asharites. Each one of these schools of thought looks at the world with its own particular prism with decisive implications for the interpretation of Islam. Soroush identifies himself as a ‘neo-Mutazilite’. The Mutalizites’ emphasis on the independence of reason from revelation equips and emboldens Soroush with a method to discover moral values. Reconciling these two opposing views involves the elaboration of a rational conception of morality firmly ensconced in experience which does not invoke revelation. Morality and ethics join science and politics in their detachment from religion thereby restricting the scope of Islam to meaningfully engage with and in the world. Furthermore, the body of knowledge on philosophy, ethics and law contained in the Islamic tradition is more or less relegated to the intellectual margins. Such a dismissal of the legacy of Muslim scholarship is premised on the position that the tradition inspired by Islam is a static entity without any real hope of renewal.
Prophecy and Islamic Law
In Soroush’s writings, the context of the Qur’an plays an overwhelming role in determining the meaning and relevance of the text. Such an approach runs the risk of severely restricting the scope of the constant or universal applicability of passages which would be able to speak to a higher plane. These passages are, instead, located on the ground of specificity. Generally, the divine, Soroush appears to argue, has very little to say about other ages which do not fall within the grasp of the Prophet Muhammad’s own immediate experience. Certain qualifications indeed do exist. The dialectic between continuity and change for Soroush acquires a robust character in the discussion of the Qur’an as simultaneously the word of Muhammad and the word of God with echoes of the medieval Islamic past. Several themes are raised by Soroush in his formulation of the notion of the ‘prophetic experience’. The interpretation of the Qur’an and the illustration of its context proceed from the framing of the relationship between the supernatural and the natural.
It was the Mutazilites who first explored the worldly dimensions of revelation. All creation, subsuming the incidences of revelation, they argued, was willed by a transcendental God without any attributes to speak of. Thus, the Qur’an could not, against the concept of the uncreated Qur’an of the theologians and the later Asharites, be other than the created word of God which does not partake of His divine nature. This position on the nature of revelation strikes an important cord with Soroush’s scriptural agenda.
But this position is not unique to the Mutazilites. Classical Shi’ite theologians were also predisposed to this notion but added a few revisions aiming to include the existence of attributes, albeit, on a lower scale of importance than their fellow Sunni colleagues. Plenty of illustrative examples, past and present, can be found for rethinking the status of the Qur’an. For example, the polymath and philosopher, ibn Sina (980-1037), wrote extensively on prophecy emphasising the subjective personality of the recipient. For ibn Sina, the imaginative faculty of the prophet, once perfection has been attained, gives a visual and acoustic form, including the manifestation of angels, to the inspiration it receives without a concomitant external reality. Almost a thousand years later, the noted scholar of Islam, Fazlur Rahman (1919–1998), put forward a radical conception of how the Qur’an was revealed. Muhammad undoubtedly received inspiration or wahy from ‘the Other’ whereupon the idea-words from the divine become sound-words in his consciousness. Islamic ‘orthodoxy’, writes Rahman, ‘lacked the necessary intellectual tools to combine in its formulation of dogma the otherness and verbal character of the Revelation on the one hand, and its intimate connection with the work and the religious personality of the Prophet on the other, i.e. it lacked the intellectual capacity to say both that the Qur’an is entirely the word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad’. No external agent, an angel, is presumed to have delivered the Qur’an and the orthodox postulate is merely an embellishment, reflecting its time, on an otherwise profound, at times intense, subjective encounter of the heart with God. Neither ibn Sina nor Rahman are cited by Soroush. He sidesteps them in order to invoke the Mutazilites and introduce his critical hermeneutics. However, stark similarities with both scholars are clearly present in Soroush’s ruminations on prophecy as a mental phenomenon which is not external to Muhammad. Instead, one of the grand figures of the Islamic tradition whom Soroush quotes to support his position of the dual natures of the Qur’an is none other than Rumi: the heart duly receives divine inspiration with all the veils of intermediaries falling away. The name of Ibn Sina, however, appears fleetingly in a letter by Soroush to one of his detractors, Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani, to validate his position that the imagination does play a necessary role in the reception of revelation.
The omnipresence of God provides Soroush with the foundations to elaborate a theory of revelation aiming to reconcile the supernatural and the natural worlds. There is no recognition of the boundaries between these worlds in the metaphysical realm. Everything is equidistant to the metaphysical thus precluding the elevated proximity of one of God’s creation over others. Angels form part of this intertwined tapestry of being and the experiences of Muhammad and Mary, mother of Jesus, are exclusively on the plane of consciousness. The modes by which God communicates with humanity are identified in the Qur’an, 52:51: ‘it is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will’. For Soroush, these modes are perceived to be largely immaterial to the actual substance of revelation. Under God’s guidance, Muhammad ‘discovered’ the truths revealed onto him. Rumi’s poetry affords an eloquent defence and expression for Soroush’s position:
I need no intermediary or wet nurse to give me the kindness of God
For, Moses-like, my wet nurse and my mother are one and the same.
And once again, the ideas of Rumi are interpreted to lend a mystical quality to the adaptation of the supernatural to the natural. However, Soroush attributes the origin of his understanding of prophecy to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rumi and Darwin sit side-by-side as unlikely passengers in a journey of interpretation centred on the Qur’an’s text. Muhammad Iqbal’s own efforts in the reconstruction of Islamic thought proposed hope from the wisdom of Rumi to be the panacea for the pessimism engendered by Darwin’s theory of evolution in a universe where creativity is neither predetermined nor acquires finality.
The awing presence of Rumi allows Soroush to refer to revelation as a sea which, of necessity, complies with a jug which is a metaphor for Muhammad and his environment. Darwin in the hands of Soroush is used to build the theoretical scaffolding to make the case for a dynamic conception of history. Many ideas from a variety of sources are held together in Soroush’s contextualism thanks, in part, to the elevation of the environment, broadly defined, of seventh century Arabia. The environment, for Soroush, are ‘the events that took place in Arab society at the time; the development of the Prophet’s personality; occurrences in the course of the Prophet’s life and the political and social conflicts that he encountered; the language spoken in the Prophet’s society; and so on’. Context subsumes the text and the latter is a mirror of the former. Ultimately, revelation is in keeping with the Prophet’s environment. This is how, according to Soroush, the supernatural enters the natural in nature and society bound by their laws.
Soroush discerns the beginning of the tale of the ‘Prophetic discovery’ in the Qur’anic verses of 97:1-5: ‘We sent it down on the Night of Glory. What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is? The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months, on that night angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task; [there is] peace that night until the break of dawn’. This night is rich with symbolism, rather than literal significance, for the virtue of being the occasion when Muhammad became a prophet in his reception of what would be the first of such revelations for the following twenty-two years. A night of union commences the mission of prophecy, embodying the ideal abode or station of the Sufi path, when the veils hitherto obscuring God fall. The Night of Glory is thus a synecdoche for the entire process of revelation: transforming Muhammad into a Qur’anic personality in this particular event. The relationship between Soroush and Sufism appears to colour his venture of reform in a variety of ways, namely recurring throughout his writings to reveal a mystical bent of mind.
Change is frequently contrasted with continuity in Soroush’s thought. Nowhere is this creative thrust, entailing both deconstruction and reconstruction, more evident than in his taxonomy of the three layers of Islam: beliefs and worldview, morality, and law. Each layer pertains to the very identity of Islam whereupon the distinction between the essential and the accidental arises: the pearl to be protected by the shell. In Soroush’s demarcation of the categories of continuity and change, morality and law are excluded from the essential with the express desire to subject these two areas of religious life to new interpretations that serve to protect the pearl. The existence of the essential is unambiguously sanctioned by the Qur’an itself: ‘this day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My blessings upon you, and chosen as your religion Islam’ (5:3). Perfection, however, is bestowed upon the design of religion. Neither the particular Prophetic rulings and norms nor a putative all-encompassing Islam benefit from this divine dispensation in Soroush’s thought.
According to Soroush, 99 per cent of Qur’anic rulings were already current during the life of the Prophet Muhammad and only one percent is of a novel character. God simply endorsed the law-making efforts of the Prophet. And more importantly, the customs and practices engendered as a result are not necessarily the best contained in history with the critical implication that better methods can be found or invented. Injunctions of a legal import found in the passages of the Qur’an are, in the first instance, to be assumed to be temporary unless their universal relevance can be established. Although the inversion of the universal and the particular within Islamic law by Soroush is peculiar to his deliberations on the accidental facets of Islam, it is part of a wider recognition on the part of contemporary Muslim reformers and thinkers who argue for a fresh reading of the Qur’an. Rahman, for example, points out that the Qur’an, chiefly containing religious and moral norms, accepted the society of the Prophet Muhammad as a frame of reference. Freedom and responsibility in a variety of areas from women and slavery point to a yet unfinished moral endeavour to be pursued further by Muslims in both the present and the future. While Rahman provides an astute account of the historical status of the injunctions present in the Qur’an and manages to endow them with a forward-looking spirit, Soroush aims to discard its ethical and religious basis for any future legal thinking within an Islamic framework.
Soroush’s efforts to rethink of Islam have led to a new binary categorisation substituting the classical broad divisions of ibadah (worship) and mu’amalat (social transactions) with the supplementary category of siyasah (politics). Acts of worship and justice and injustice compose the primary categories in Soroush’s binary. A subtle recasting by Soroush of jurisprudential scholarship indicates a certain degree of continuity with the Islamic tradition. The classification of the acts of worship appears to be a conventional account of the practices and rituals observed by the Prophet Muhammad in his life. Hidden benefits fill the acts of worship. For Soroush, however, the states of excellence of the Prophet led to the discovery of the precise forms of rituals. What is now incumbent upon Muslims is the performance of the rituals of worship to attain the states of excellence which produced, in the case of Muhammad, these forms. Perhaps in no other area of Islam, according to Soroush, is the Prophet to be faithfully emulated without question. Genuine spiritual contemplation requires a state of mind caught in the absorbing acts of worship to the exclusion of the distractions of the world.
The juristic category of justice and injustice embraces a vast range of issues from women rights to inheritance to politics to divorce law. Soroush applies the tool of ijtihad for the purpose of formulating new rules. The Prophet Muhammad is the model to be emulated, rather than imitated, in this creative venture. He brought the people of his period from what was then considered to be injustice to justice but the latter cannot be construed to be ahistorical justice. The task of ijtihad for our times is similar in scope: to bring about a change from this period’s injustice to today’s justice. An act of cultural translation from the past to the present is required of the essentials, the Lawmaker’s intentions, and the accidentals. Imitation, even of Muhammad, is ruled out and a changing new set of laws for the category of justice and injustice involves an escapable moral negotiation on the part of Soroush with the text of the Qur’an. While ijtihad’s creative capacity can push the boundaries of the given arena of thought such as solving new problems, it does not possess any revolutionary implications for fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence as a discipline.
Deconstruction of the Islamic tradition is the trademark feature of Abdolkarim Soroush’s Islamic neo-modernist venture. His formulation of the contraction and expansion of religious interpretation can perhaps be better described as the deconstruction and reconstruction of the man-made knowledge of and about Islam. What is of serious concern in his thought is a rather uncritical embrace of modernity in its entirety; Islam must follow the trajectory of the Western civilisation, the apex of human achievement. No genuine engagement with the intricacies of the Islamic tradition is made by Soroush which could lead to a creative rethinking of its elements unhindered by either the totalising effects of an unmediated modernity or a conservative disposition towards all things Islamic. Interestingly, a secular conception of Islam appears to emerge from Soroush’s writings predicated on the idea of a ‘minimalist religion’ as an essentially spiritual experience of God within the individual.
However, Soroush the iconoclast continues to stoke the embers of controversy even when in exile in a tussle with official Iranian discourses on religious authority (read political power) and cultural authenticity. A single theoretical thread ties his ideas to give them a sharp edge: history as a constant movement or adaptation. This is conspicuous in Soroush’s naturalistic formulation of the creation of the Qur’an: revelation adapts to the environment and henceforth is in keeping with the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate cultural world. Soroush’s inversion of the universal and the particular in Islamic law is a simultaneous break with the classical body of jurisprudence and other notable efforts of reform among his contemporaries who have sought to preserve the ethical and legal spirit of Islam without sacrificing it at the altar of modernity.