Friday, 16 November 2012

Iranian Thinkers in Exile: What is the influence of progressive Muslim intellectuals living abroad?

Very soon after establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Khomeini-led revolution ousting the Shah in 1979 began eating its own children and has continued to do so. Now, more than thirty years later, Urs Sartowitz has written an assessment.

Abdolkarim Soroush
Scientist-philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (pseudonym of Hossein Haj Faraj-Dabbagh), who was initially implicated in the very sinister cultural politics of the regime, eventually found himself on the margins, to the point when challenges of his views turned into outright attacks forced him into exile. Not surprisingly, because as his thinking matured, Soroush's interpretations of the Islamic tradition --  which remain an interesting mix of daring new readings combined with references to Sufis from the classical era such as Jalaluddin Rumi (although most Persian-speakers prefer to refer to him as Jalaluddin al-Balkhi) -- are lightyears removed from the Islamic republic's partyline.

His most radical theory relates to the Koran, which he feels was not revealed word for word to the Prophet, but was written by the Prophet, who was inspired to do so by God. Soroush feels that like the Bible, the Koran is a human work and can, as such, be fallible. In this way, he has moved on from previous statements, in which he said that the language and the length of the Koran was a matter of chance.(cf also the blog post of 20 March 2012).

Mohsen Kadivar
The same happened to the cleric Mohsen Kadivar. Starting out as a member of the religious establishment, his proposition that the body of Islamic jurisprudence as it has taken shape in the formative period of Islamic civilization has now become outdated and needs to be reformed in order to avoid becoming obsolete, made his internal position untenable. He now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina.

Even moderate, much more traditionally-inclined, thinkers such as the theologian Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari (readers of Persian can also go here), who thinks that Soroush is going to far, was no longer safe after advocating the separation between state and religion, questioning the legitimacy of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih -- that is the absolute rule of Islamic legal scholars -- which forms the bedrock of the current regime in Iran, or criticizing the supporters of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for attributing Mahdi-like qualities to the current Supreme Religous Guide.

Hasan Yousef Eskhevari
Being removed from direct contact with their domestic audiences immediately poses the question of what remains of their influence on Iranian Islamic discourses. While the internet and satellite TV offer solutions for this type of physical disconnect, there is a more fundamental question, which Sartowitz alludes to only in passing when discussing the controversial, even provocative, ideas of Soroush: 'Although he is opening up new opportunities for a re-interpretation of the Koran [...], it is questionable whether the majority of Muslims will follow him down this path'.

 Read the full article here