Faith, Reason and Democracy in Islam

Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush
Visiting Professor, Harvard Divinity School

Date: March 25, 2002

Event Recap

According to Islamic scholar Abdolkarim Soroush, the distinctively human capacity to reason is intimately connected to freedom—in fact, “the only free thing in the world is reason.” Yet the capacity for reason is also in tension with other important aspects of human experience—revelation, revolution, and love. Soroush, a visiting professor this year at Harvard Divinity School, explored these tensions of reason in a lecture at Boston College on March 25.

As a challenge to revelation, or religious experience, reason as an independent human achievement is epitomized in the case of Galileo and his conflict with the Church in the 16th century. For Soroush, this tension remains intractable, and “Islam has found no better solutions than Christianity to this question.” The tension between reason and revolution, on the other hand, was illustrated strikingly for Soroush in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and still plays a role in Iran today. Revolutions, because they involve the “eruption of emotions,” are “very far from rationality.” People taking part in revolution need to be guided to find a balance between reason and emotion, and Soroush sees this as the task of intellectuals.

Finally, Soroush looks to the great Sufi mystic Rumi to exemplify the third great tension—between reason and love. Sufism teaches the elevation of love and the disdain for reason; as Rumi says, “reason is a businessman, always following its own interest.”

Soroush concluded by exploring ways in which these tensions can be addressed, if not resolved. Reason and revelation can relate in several ways—through understanding, analysis, theology, and critique—all of which can be helpful, but problematic as well. In the Muslim community, Soroush argued, there is great resistance to the idea that reason can critique religion, but it is a step the community needs to take. Rather than adopting the posture of a weak belief threatened by external critique, the Islamic community needs to develop its own qualified scholars who can participate actively in the wider scholarly community.