Islam And Democracy

Reflections on Abdolkarim Soroush
  • Fred Dallmayr
Part of the Culture and Religion in International Relations book series (CRIR)


In his Political and Social Essays, Paul Ricoeur addresses forthrightly the situation of the religious believer in the modern world, especially in modern secular society. Quoting from scripture (Matthew 5, 13), he insists that believers are meant to be “the salt of the earth”—a phrase militating against both world domination and world denial, that is, against the dual temptation of either controlling or rejecting worldly society As he writes poignantly, “the salt is made for salting, the light for illuminating,” and religion exists “for the sake of those outside itself,” that is, for the world that faith inhabits. In Ricoeur’s view, religion—including (especially) Christianity—has been for too long enamored or in collusion with political power and domination, a collusion that some recent theologians have aptly labeled “Christendom” and that has exerted a “demoralizing effect” on believers and non-believers alike, driving them to “cynicism, amoralism, and despair.” However, the situation is perhaps not entirely bleak. When it emerges from this collusion, he adds, religion “will be able to give light once more to all men—no longer as a power, but as a prophetic message,” that is, as a light that illuminates but does not blind. In a similar vein, Emmanuel Levinas has defined the role of Judaism or Judaic faith “in the time of the nations,” namely, as a non-domineering voice of conscience that remembers and faithfully reiterates the call to justice.1


Religious Faith Religious Freedom Public Power Islamic World Faith Tradition 
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  1. 1.
    Paul Ricoeur, Political and Social Essays, ed. David Stewart and Joseph Bien (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974), pp. 105, 123Google Scholar
  2. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloom-ington: Indiana University Press, 1994). Note especially his statement: “Israel, in its soul and conscience … is, from its own point of view, already in alliance with the whole universe of nations” (p. 3).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Ab-dolkarim Soroush, trans, and ed. Mahmud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). For biographical background on Soroush see editors’ “Introduction” and “Intellectual Autobiography,” pp. ix–xix and 3–25; also Robin Wright, “Iran’s Greatest Political Challenge: Abdulkarim Soroush,” World Policy Journal 14 (Summer 1997): 67–74.Google Scholar
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  5. See also Forough Jahanbaksh, Islam, Democracy, and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953–2000: From Bazargan to Soroush (Boston: Brill, 2001)Google Scholar
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  7. 3.
    Ira M. Lapidus, “The Golden Age: The Political Concepts of Islam,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 524 (November 1992): 14–16. Umma means the community of all Muslims. I believe Lapidus is wrong when he finds in the second model a “separation of state and religion” and the emergence of a “non-religious concept of political authority” (pp. 16–17). On the important role of jurists or legal scholars (fuqaha) in traditional Islam compare also Tamara Sonn, “Elements of Government in Classical Islam,” Muslim Democrat 2 (November 2000): 4–6 (published by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Washington, DC).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  13. Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 17–20. For formulations of radical democracy compareGoogle Scholar
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    Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, pp. 45,103–104,136–138. Pressing his case against Western liberalism, Soroush adds: “Thus, in the Western world we see injustice, colonialism, and arrogance toward other countries alongside the pursuit of liberty There is external freedom, but no one is interested in internal freedom” (p. 104). For a well-known attempt to “decouple” liberalism from democracy see C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
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    Soroush, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, pp. 125, 152–153. It is in this field of dogmatism and anti-dogmatism that Soroush has formulated some of his theologically most controversial tenets: especially the distinction between religion seen as unchanging, transcendent verity, and religion as inserted into human and social life where it necessarily is exposed to interpretation and hence to the continuous “contraction and expansion of religious knowledge.” See in this regard the chapter on “Islamic Revival and Reform: Theological Approaches” in the text, pp. 26–38; also his essay “The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge,” in Charles Kurzman, ed., Liberal Islam: A Source Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 244–251; and his (so far untranslated) books Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge and Our Expectations from Religion alsoGoogle Scholar
  23. John Cooper, “The Limits of the Sacred: The Epistemology of Abdolkarim Soroush,” in John Cooper, Ronald L. Nettler, and Mohamed Mahmoud, eds., Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond (New York: Tauris Publ., 2000), pp. 38–56. In Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, Soroush acknowledges the affinity of some of his ideas with the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer (p. 7).Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, pp. 127–128, 140. Soroush has written a two-volume treatise on Tolerance and Governance that so far has been held back by censors. Compare also Michael Walzer, On Toleration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); also Charles Taylor’s comment: “It is impossible in our days to be a Christian, atheist, or anything else, without a degree of doubt. Our situation is characterized by this instability, much more than by the idea that secularism has swept away religion.” See his “From Philosophical Anthropology to the Politics of Recognition,” Thesis Eleven 52 (February 1998): in. As one should note, Soroush’s notion of “religious democracy” exceeds the categories provided by John Rawls in The Law of Peoples it fits neither into the category of “liberal peoples” nor into that of “decent hierarchical peoples”; see The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 59–67.Google Scholar
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    For some recent Western discussions in this field see Don E. Eberly, ed., The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)Google Scholar
  26. also Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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    For recent Western views on the relation between democracy and religion compare Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed., Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)Google Scholar
  28. Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).Google Scholar

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© Fred R. Dallmayr 2002

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  • Fred Dallmayr

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