For an Open Interpretation of the Koran

The reformist thinker and philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush is one of a new generation of theologians that openly speaks out in favour of human rights and secularism in Iran. Katajun Amirpur about an awkward Iranian intellectual.

photo: Markus Kirchgessner
Open for interpretation - the Koran

​​Most people consider the Islamic Republic of Iran to be a fundamentalist theocracy that fosters a radical interpretation of Islam.

However, such an interpretation of the Koran is now being rejected by a group of Iranian theologians. The group, which is supported by the forces of social reform in the Islamic Republic, is significant not only for Iran, but also for the Islamic world far beyond its borders.

A changing religious cognition

Abdolkarim Sorush is one of the protagonists of this movement. The crux of his main scientific theory is the changeability of religious cognition.

Sorush argues that because human cognition is changeable, so too is humankind’s cognition of its religion because cognition in any era generally depends on the prevailing state of science in that era. This is why faith is continually being elucidated in new ways. These new interpretations are adapted to suit the conditions in which the interpreting person lives.

Sorush is trying to justify a political system that is both Islamic and democratic. His starting point is the approximate nature of cognition. Humankind cannot really ever know what God expects of it. It will never find out what God’s law really is or what purpose it serves. God’s intentions are unfathomable.

The Koran: open for interpretation

Humankind can only ever know and understand God’s aims. That is all. Sorush goes on to say that this religious aim simply cannot contradict humane concepts. The text of the Koran is, like every other text, open to interpretation.

Sorush says that a rigid explanation of belief is a modern phenomenon. He points out that in past times, people assumed that religious cognition changed with time. This changeability, says Sorush, leaves room for new interpretations. And this is why democracy, Islam, and human rights are indeed compatible.

This attitude is sure to ruffle feathers in Iran, where discourse on such matters is still chiefly dominated by the opinion of the founder of the Iranian state, Ayatollah Khomeini. According to his image of humankind and God, God is the only one who has rights. Humans have no rights. Above all, humans do not simply have rights because they are human, as is the assumption in the western world.

While humans do have obligations to God; only God has rights. While God or his representative on earth might grant humans rights, he can just as easily taken them away again because rights are a gift of God, not of nature.

According to Ayatollah Khomeini, every human must submit to the good of the community, i.e. the Islamic community. This anti-liberal world view also permits the violation of individual rights for the benefit of the community because the community always takes priority. This explains why censure, force, and infringements of human rights are justified if the well-being of the umma, the Muslim community, requires it.

Human rights and religion in harmony

Sorush refutes this line of argument. For him, human rights are the commandments of human reason. This means that they cannot be in conflict with religion because on principle, nothing unreasonable can be God’s will.

The fact that human rights were established in a non-religious context does not mean that their implementation is impossible or unnecessary in an Islamic state system. On the contrary. While human rights are the brainchild of humans, the fact that they do not contradict religion means that God’s rights are not being infringed.

The logical consequence of this line of argument is that a whole series of punishments recognised by Islamic law need no longer be applied, e.g. the amputation of hands for stealing. Nor is it, according to Sorush, absolutely necessary to follow Islamic laws down to the letter.

To justify this point, he differentiates between first- and second-degree values. Second-degree values relate exclusively to the details of belief and therefore differ from religion to religion. First-degree values, on the other hand, such as justice, are the really important ones.

Searching for the essence instead of the dogmas

Details such as Islamic criminal law or dress codes are less important. They are the “skin” that outwardly keeps religion together and have nothing to do with the actual essence of religion.

Sorush argues that anyone who believes in the five irrefutable dogmas of Shia – the unity of God, the prophets, the twelve Imams, the resurrection and the justice of God – is a Shia. In his opinion, strict observance of religious rules is not essential. This is why human rights can be observed even in an Islamic system.

In this way, Sorush is fundamentally adopting an attitude towards human rights that is generally upheld by secularists. Like them, he assumes that humans also have non-religious rights simply because they are humans.

A concept such as this does not rigidly adhere to the interpretation of the Koran, but is instead guided by the ultimate will of the Creator. In principle, it is completely different from another school of liberal Islamic thought.

Other liberal Islamic thinkers’ apologetics describe how tolerant Muslims have been towards other religions in the past. They gloss over attacks on those who lapsed from the faith and emphasise how rare and politically motivated  not religiously motivated  such attacks were.

Sorush, on the other hand, completely ignores the question as to whether Islam was tolerant in the past or not. He does not employ the argument that Jews in Spain were better off under Muslim rule than they were under the Christians after the reconquest.

Nor does he play down the higher taxes and the lower blood money imposed on non-Muslims. Such aspects are irrelevant to his argument because he is trying to adapt his understanding of religion to suit the modern concept of human rights.

He does so because he considers it necessary in the modern world. Sorush is convinced that there is no alternative to this course of action. After all, the fact that the Islamist experiment in Iran has failed requires no further proof.

Katajun Amirpur

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan