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Soroush, Abdolkarim

Ahmad Sadri
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Soroush, Abdolkarim

Abdolkarim Soroush was born in 1945 in a religious family and attended the Alavi high school where he combined modern and traditional learning. He continued his traditional education while obtaining a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Tehran. Soroush was pursuing a PhD in philosophy of science in Britain when the Islamic Revolution of Iran occurred. Upon his speedy return to Iran he appeared on national television as an esoteric interpreter of Rūmī and an ideological defender of the newly established Islamic Republic against its Marxist detractors. He served briefly as a member of the Central Committee of the Cultural Revolution, an appointment that continues to inspire controversy although he resigned that post to start his career as an independent and increasingly oppositional Islamic reformer.

Soroush's initial philosophical project was a neorationalist endeavor to reconcile the contradictions of faith and reason. To define his political platform in contradistinction to that of Islamic Socialists of a previous generation, Soroush questioned ʿAlī Sharīʿatī's “ideologization” of religion, an analysis that obliquely criticized the prevailing system of the Islamic Republic. Soroush labeled as “derivationism” the Islamic liberals’ efforts to discover bases of human rights and democracy in pristine Islam. Inspired by Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1948), Soroush called for the reconstruction of Islamic thought through a fundamental overhaul of the old intellectual apparatus of Islamic philosophy, theology, and law. The reconstructionism of Soroush acknowledges the autonomy of the sphere of values from that of religion; modern, autonomous reason, he averred, was the basis of all intellectuality, religious or otherwise.

Soroush's audacious theories made him vulnerable to the charge of eclecticism. These criticisms impelled him to undertake an ambitious philosophical project (published in a book whose English title would be “The Hermeneutical Contraction and Expansion of the Shariah”), where he privileged the discussion of modern philosophy of religion and sociology of knowledge over traditional, hypothesized investigations of Islamic theology. Soroush argued that knowledge of religion (a collective and fluid affair that reflected the current zeitgeist and the disputations of the reigning intellectual elites) must not be conflated with the essence of divine revelation. Publication of this book constituted a paradigm shift in Iranian reformist thought in the twentieth century. Hundreds of articles and no fewer than fourteen books were written to refute it.

In a subsequent book (Expansion of the Prophetic Experience) Soroush observed that the Qurʿān is replete with tropes of caravan trade and slavery, signifying a vanished cultural world that has nonetheless left its imprint on the religion. The length of the Qurʿān depended on that of the prophet's life, and its content was partially determined by its accidents (e.g., rumors against ʿĀʿishah, the Prophet's wife, in one of the expeditions of the Prophet occasioned Qurʿānic injunctions against the calumny of adultery.) These considerations led Soroush to the important separation of the “essential” and “accidental” aspects of religion.

One of Soroush's most controversial arguments is his contention that a clerical caste must not claim an interpretive monopoly on religion or impose political hegemony in its name. In a funeral oration he praised Mehdi Bazargan, in effect the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic and a prominent Islamic thinker, because he lived for rather than off religion. The obvious implication that there cannot be an “official interpretation” of religion prompted the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khameneʿi, to proclaim that indeed there exists an official and correct interpretation of religion.

In the late 1990s Soroush was banned from teaching and subsequently dismissed from his positions in the Academy of Philosophy and the Iranian Academy of Sciences. His lectures were routinely and violently interrupted by organized thugs. Finally, under threats of assassination Soroush was constrained to leave Iran for stints in various universities in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. He continues to return to Iran for short periods.



  • Lecture in Deutsch-Amerikanische Institute in Heidelberg, November 12–13, 2005, quoted in Ali M. Aliabadi, “Ab-dolkarim Soroush and the Discourse of Islamic Revivalism.” PhD diss., Department of Sociology, New School for Social Research, 2005. This is a useful treatise on Soroush.
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. “Bast-e Tajrobey-e Nabavi” (Expansion of the Prophetic Experience). Tehran: Serat, 1999.
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. Farbeh tar az Ideology (More Obese than Ideology). In Farbeh tar az Ideology, a collection of essays. Tehran: Serat, 1994. This is the boldest departure of Soroush from traditional thinking since his “Hermeneutical Contraction and Expansion of the Shariah.”
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. “Gabz va Bast-e theoric-e Shariat” (Hermeneutical Contraction and Expansion of Shariah). Tehran: Serat, 1990.
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. Ideology-e Sheitani (Satanic Ideology). Tehran: Serat, 1980. Find it in your Library
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. Kekmat va Maʿeishat (Philosophy and Livelihood), vol. 1 and vol. 2. Tehran: Serat, 1990, 1993. This is Soroush's most original and seminal contribution to reform Islamic thought. Find it in your Library
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim. Translated and edited by Mahmoud and Ahmad Sadri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Soroush, Abdolkarim. “Sonnat-e Roushanfekri” (Tradition of Intellectuality). Madraseh Journal, 5(2006). This is a useful collection of Soroush's work. It has been translated into Arabic and Indonesian.
  • “Soroush, Democracy, and Rationality,” an interview published in Shargh Newspaper. Quoted in Aliabadi's dissertation, above. Find it in your Library
  • Vakili, Valla. Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush. Occasional Paper Series No. 2. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996. This is a useful essay on the significance of Soroush's work. Find it in your Library
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