The battle of ideas: Vision and ideology of Abdoul Karim Saroush — by Ishrat Saleem

Saroush has made an important distinction between the individual and collective aspects of religion. Collective form of religion tends to obfuscate the individual experience of divinity due to its overemphasis on the ritual and legal aspect

I have the good fortune of translating into Urdu a lengthy interview of Dr Abdoul Karim Saroush as well as an introduction to his intellectual project, commissioned by a group of young professionals, who want the Pakistani public to have access to progressive ideas in the local language through a web portal named ‘Roshni’ (to be launched soon). It confirmed what was previously a hunch about the malaise afflicting Muslim societies and why it is essential for them to develop a strong doctrine and theoretical base to address the issues confronting them in the modern world. Due to lack of ijtihad and further development of religious knowledge, Muslim societies are stuck in the middle ages. Religion is being used for purposes it was not meant for, while self-cultivation and creative struggle, which was the hallmark of nascent Muslim society in the seventh century, are conspicuous by their absence.

An eminent contemporary intellectual and philosopher, Dr Abdoul Karim Saroush has been called the ‘Luther of Islam’ for introducing new thought in the philosophy of religion. He had the unique opportunity of studying at a seminary as well as receiving modern education. After graduating from the seminary, he earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Tehran and later studied analytical chemistry in UK for a post-graduate degree. He then entered the field of philosophy and history of science and earned a degree in that discipline. Saroush has been a prolific writer and penned numerous articles, papers and books in English and Persian, many of which have been translated into other languages. Although he remained a member of the Advisory Council on Cultural Revolution in the early years of the Iranian revolution, he left it when it deviated from its original purpose. He became the bête noire of the ruling elite with his continuous criticism of the religious regime in Iran. At one time, he was harassed, threatened and not allowed to lecture and publish his works. Gleaned from his interview, I would attempt to summarise the major aspects of Saroush’s ideas about state and religion, which were shaped by a first hand experience of the impact of the Islamic Revolution on Iranian society.

Before the Iranian revolution, the religious elite made the people believe that all their problems will be solved once an ‘Islamic government’ assumed power. Saroush says, “I clearly realised that those who led our revolution had not thought beyond the downfall of the tyrannical regime of the Shah. Thus they had no appreciation of such issues as global economy, modernity, information-driven administration, and so on. They sincerely believed that if only the rulers were just and well-meaning, society would follow its ‘natural’ course.” Saroush says, “The Islamic government in our society is, unfortunately, a government without theory and doctrine. Thus in areas of economy, politics, human rights and international affairs, it acts in a haphazard and reactive way. It has built no foundations and principles from which to act meaningfully.”

Saroush believes — and if we look around we will find plenty of evidence to support this claim — that two major problems of a proclaimed religious society are hypocrisy and ideologisation of religion, which means turning it into an instrument of fanaticism and hatred, which is used to attain the object of unity. In his view, this object can be achieved as much through kindness as through hatred. He provides an insightful analysis of how politicisation of religion has had a detrimental impact on Islam itself and goes on to explain how we can remedy the situation. “The greatest pathology of religion that I have noticed after the revolution is that it has become plump, even swollen. Many claims have been made in the name of religion and many burdens are put on its shoulders. It is neither possible nor desirable for religion, given its ultimate mission, to carry such a burden. This means purifying religion, making it lighter and more buoyant, in other words, rendering religion more slender by sifting, whittling away, erasing the superfluous layers off the face of religiosity,” he says.

Saroush has made an important distinction between individual and collective aspects of religion. Collective form of religion tends to obfuscate the individual experience of divinity due to its overemphasis on the ritual and legal aspect of religion, i.e. its outward manifestations. Some collective manifestations are based on hatred and resentments as we see in today’s world. He talks of Iranian society, but this assertion rings true for the entire Muslim world. “Some people in our society…have come to believe that the essence of religion is enmity, excommunication, and punishment. They need to be admonished…If we can reconcile Islam with revolution, why not reconcile it with human rights, democracy, and liberty?” he states, and questions the idea of deriving an identity from religion. “Developing an identity or a civilisation was never the intention of the prophets…One of the greatest theoretical plagues of the Islamic world, in general, is that people are gradually coming to understand Islam as an identity rather than a truth.”

He then comes to the inevitable conclusion that “religiosity is people’s understanding of religion just as science is their understanding of nature.” He casts religion as “a kind of human knowledge subject to the collectivity and competitiveness of the human soul.” He says that change in religion itself is not possible because, according to traditional beliefs, Muslims will not pretend to be lawgivers. “But change is inevitable and should be recognised and explained.” Here comes in the role of intellectuals and thinkers to explain to the Muslims why it is important to dispense with the trappings of old ideas and come to terms with modern reality. Dr Abdoul Karim Saroush has explained this remarkable idea in his seminal treatise on the subject, The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of Religion. He presents the contention that since religion is people’s understanding of divinity — i.e. it is a form of knowledge — it is “like other forms of knowledge, subject to all the attributes of knowledge. It is human, fallible, evolving, and most important of all, it is constantly in the process of exchange with other forms of knowledge. As such, its inevitable transformations mirror the transformation of science and other domains of human knowledge.”

Saroush’s ideas clearly point towards the dire need for ijtihad, and he states: “If my ideas have met with some success, it is because I address and trace such issues in a theoretically impoverished environment.”

The writer is an Assistant Editor at Daily Times and can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 13 May 2010

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