by Graham Reid
Students and faculty filled the seats and spilled over into the aisles of the Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery on Monday night to listen to Abdolkarim Soroush, a leading Iranian intellectual, democracy advocate and recipient of numerous accolades.
Soroush’s talk focused on democracy and freedom in the context of Islam. He claimed that democracy cannot be derived from Islam because, according to Soroush, religion focuses on obligations rather than rights. He argued, however, that modern thinkers and reformers, unlike traditionalist Islamic jurists, can use reason to demystify Islamic law and thus make democracy and Islam compatible.
The talk explained the role of reformers in Islam, stressing the variety of interpretations of scripture. Though media depictions of the Middle East often focus on despotic regimes and fundamentalists, Soroush pointed out that despite the challenges of oppressive governments, reformers like him from many countries are actively applying reason to Islamic tradition.
Soroush argued against the fundamentalist idea of going back to a “pure” form of Islam, calling the idea “neither possible nor desirable.” He compared the concept of religion as it was practiced in the time of the prophet Muhammad to a seed that grows in order to explain how modern Islam can’t be reduced to its beginnings. “The seed now has become a large garden,” he said. “You cannot ignore it, and you cannot go back.”
Along with compatibility, Soroush also believes freedom and democracy are important for religious societies. “If you adopt any particular religion out of force, that has no value,” he said in an interview with the Collegian following his talk. “Freedom means a lot for a true faith.”
Saroush faced deep opposition from the theocratic, post-1979-Revolution Iranian regime for his pro-democracy views. “My books are banned in the country,” Soroush said in the interview. “I cannot preach there. I cannot give talks. Even my life is in danger. If I go back, I would be either in prison or in a graveyard.”
Muhammed Hansrod ’17, secretary for the Middle East Student Association (MESA), played a large role in bringing Soroush to campus. Hansrod thought the combination of Soroush being a devout Muslim and devoted scholar put Soroush in an interesting position to pose a potent challenge to the Iranian regime. “His reasoning comes from a very Muslim context,” Hansrod said. “He’s considered to be a deep threat because he’s coming from a deeply reasoned and also Islamic perspective rejecting the Iranian government’s repression of democracy.”
Hansrod said that Soroush’s ideas about politics and Islam are “relevant throughout the Middle East and wider Muslim world.”
President Sean Decatur, who was unable to attened Soroush’s talk but had dinner with him beforehand, emphasized the value of Soroush’s vantage point. “Bringing a scholar like Professor Soroush to campus is an important reminder of the significance of hearing voices and perspectives that talk about contemporary Middle Eastern issues from a Middle Eastern perspective, which can be different from the perspective that a U.S.-centric analysis can bring,” Decatur said.
The wide range of sponsors — including the departments of religious studies, Asian studies, philosophy, history, international studies and Islamic civilizations and cultures, along with MESA and the Office of the Provost — underscores the broad interdisciplinarity of Soroush’s talk.
Soroush’s event also drew students beyond MESA members. Andrew Stewart ’15, a philosophy and political science double major, described the talk as “incredibly relevant” to his studies. “We tend to assume that religion is something we don’t need to think about,” Stewart said. “It was very interesting to hear an account from somebody who is really concerned with issues of religion and democracy and the modern world.”
Soroush also gave a Common Hour talk on Tuesday about the Persian poet Rumi, who is often referred to as “the prophet of love.” Soroush contrasted Rumi’s love-focused, mystical poetry to earlier Islamic mysticism where God was viewed primarily with awe rather than love.
While Soroush argued that morality is independent from religion, he did assert the importance of religion and spirituality. He hoped that viewers would take this away from his talk. “The spiritual way of life,” he said, “is a way of life which gives meaning to their lives.”