Debating Religion and Politics in Iran

The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush

January 1, 1997



Post-revolutionary Iran often is depicted as a society devoid and incapable of self-criticism that is dominated by a monolithic view of religion and politics. A revolutionary Islamic ideology is identified as both the legitimizing factor for the government, and as the sole standard of political discourse. This is a popular but inaccurate view.

In the seventeen years since the success of the Islamic Revolution (1978-1979), Iranian intellectuals have engaged in a serious debate on topics of fundamental political importance. At question are such vital issues as: Can there be one final interpretation of Islam? What is the role of religion in politics? Is Islam compatible with democracy? Has the post-revolutionary experience prompted a need for reform in the clerical establishment? What sort of relations should Iran have with the West? Abdolkarim Soroush is perhaps the foremost Iranian religious intellectual engaging in these dynamic discussions. His ideas on politics, and the religious paradigm he advances, are highly controversial in contemporary Iran.

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Soroush argues for reform in key social and political arenas. Based on the conviction that no understanding of Islam is ever complete or final, he dismisses any attempts to formulate an official Islamic political ideology. He argues that while in religious countries religion and politics are connected intimately, religion should not be reduced to a political platform. In denying the possibility of ruling by one official religious ideology, he maintains, instead, that religious states must be democratic states. Soroush warns against the subservience of the clerical establishment to the government, and proposes fundamental reforms in this establishment. And he strongly supports the need for cultural dialogue between Iran and the Western world. These criticisms touch deep and sensitive topics, and they have earned Soroush both a receptive audience, and an active opposition.

The significance of Soroush's critiques lies also in the critic. Unlike secular Iranian, or Western, critics, Soroush is a devout Iranian Muslim who participated in the early phases of the post-revolutionary government. He formulates his political thought entirely within his conception of Islam, and it is the compatibility between his religious and political visions that lends his criticisms such practical consequences. For Soroush projects an image of society in which democracy, freedom of expression, and sustained intercultural relations are the best guarantors of religion. His writings and talks blend religious and poetic metaphor, and have found an eager audience among many of the educated Iranian youth anxious for an understanding of Islam responsive to modern social and political issues.

The significance of Soroush's thought is assessed here by addressing the following questions: Who is Abdolkarim Soroush, and why are his views important? How does Soroush conceptualize Islam? What role does he see for religion in politics? What are his views on the structure and purpose of the clerical establishment? How does he envision Iranian-Western relations?

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