Reason and revelation
Reason defines truth, justice, public interest, and humanity
By Abdolkarim Soroush
February 27, 2001
From chapter entitled "The Idea of Democratic Religious Government"
Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush
(Oxford University Press, 2000), edited by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri.
Also see editors'
Modern science explains the world as if it were not created by a god,
not denying his existence, but rather finding no need to postulate it.
In other words, it is assumed that even if there were a god, science would
nonetheless be able to explain the world without relying on his existence.
Nowadays science seems to have left its imprint on the behavior of the
individual and the conduct of government as well.
In political culture of liberal secular societies, governments and individuals
act as if there is no god, proceeding in utter indifference to His existence
or nonexistence, never weighing His approval or disapproval of their policies
and behavior. Political struggles and deliberations are designed to satisfy
human beings alone. In this respect modern liberal democratic governments
stand in sharp contrast to the religious governments of the past.
The religious governments of yore (in the age of the Catholic popes
and Muslim khalifs) supposedly attended exclusively to divine, not human,
mandates. At most, they saw people's satisfaction as contingent upon, and
as a natural byproduct of God's satisfaction. Conversely, today's liberal
democratic governments pursue people's happiness to the exclusion of God's
approval. Yet perhaps we can enjoy the freedoms of modern democratic government
without ignoring the existence of God.
The problem of religious democratic governments is threefold: to reconcile
people's satisfaction with God's approval; to strike a balance between
the religious and the nonreligious; and to do right by both the people
and by God, acknowledging at once the integrity of human beings and that
The task of democratic religious governments is, obviously much harder
than that of democratic or religious regimes. It is immediately evident
that we are faced with the problem of God. The central and fundamental
questions are: 1) Does God exist? 2) If God exists, does He have any rights?
3) If God exists and has rights, must those rights be upheld?
Surely, those who are mindful of human rights cannot be indifferent
to God's rights, if such exist, nor can they neglect His existence and
rights in the conduct of human life. It is by no means less significant
to be concerned with the rights of God than with those of human beings.
Although secular thinkers may not be oblivious to these concerns, they
seldom if ever raise the question of God's rights in discussing human rights,
preferring to concentrate instead on securing people's contentment to the
exclusion of God.
One may summarize modern secular arguments about God's rights as follows:
A. God, assuming He exists, and assuming He has specific rights, can
defend or petition for His own rights with utmost might. Unlike weak and
helpless humanity, He needs no recourse to others' patronage.
B. It is impossible to do injustice by God. Even if human beings do
not observe His rights, still they cannot be said to have harmed Him. Defending
human rights has a moral dimension -- the defense of the oppressed and
the deprived whose rights are violated -- that does not enter into the
defense of God's rights.
C. Believers and nonbelievers still argue over the existence or nonexistence,
attributes, and deeds of God. These controversies have undermined traditional
certainties about Gods' existence. But this is a contest of faiths, not
of intellects. Neither side judges the other's arguments according to purely
rational criteria, and this alone renders the problem unresolvable. It
therefore, seems unjust and unfair to impose one side of the argument on
all parties, as if it were a certainty, and to force everyone to observe
all its consequences.
One cannot ask everyone to believe, to the same degree and in the same
sense, in the same omnipotent God. Consequently, one may not ask everyone
to observe the rights of such a God. Tolerance (Tasamoh) is the
best solution in this situation. The public sphere should be expansive
enough to allow a coexistence of religious and secular people, free from
antagonisms that result from unequal rights and the imposition of one side's
belief on the other.
D. Assuming God exists, ascertaining His rights is impossible. Each
religion invokes a different god and each claims a monopoly on the truth.
How is the knowledge concerning their truth or falsehood to be obtained?
How can we establish what God exactly expects from us? Once again, governments
should be neutral toward various religions. Governments as regulators of
public affairs, ought to concentrate on preserving people's common rights;
and leave theological issues to the citizens' private and inner lives.
Thus even if governments are still concerned with the questions of truth
or falsehood of different religions and the supposed rights of God, they
should remain impartial, guaranteeing the freedom and security of the contest
of opinions, while scrupulously maintaining the separation of politics
E. Religion should, above all, be humane. Just as the people serve their
religion, religion should serve its followers. Justice can not be religious,
but religion should claim justice, truthfulness, and humanity among its
attributes. Hence, in order to become acceptable to the modern humanity,
the intrinsic imperatives of every religion must be harmonious with these
No one should be compelled to tolerate inhumanity, mendacity, and injustice
in the name of God, history, patriotism, or any other shibboleth. Mining
the humanitarian resources of a religion is more important than ascertaining
its privileged divinity. In fact, it is humanity's right to reject inhumane
religions and even to contest their claim to true religiosity.
F. Since there is no way to derive "ought" from "is",
people's rights should not be decided on the basis of their actual aptitudes
and talents. Such a policy could easily foster racism and other assorted
biases. Human rights should be based either on humanity's ultimate ends
as revealed by the Creator (an impractical alternative for the above mentioned
reasons;) or on people's autonomous determination of their achievable objectives,
combined with governmental respect for certain rights and obligations that
facilitate the attainment of those objectives.
Natural rights simply mean principles whose observance promotes a more
humane, rational, secure, prosperous, and fulfilling life. Rational ends
such as justice, order, and welfare, and deliverance from discrimination,
strife, prejudice, fratricide, ignorance, hunger, and oppression are the
results of the long historical experience of humanity and a matter of consensus
among all reasonable people. It is not as though any of these principles
could be set aside for the sake of some religious dogma.
Human beings have suffered long enough at the hands of sectarian obstinacy,
bloody religious wars, bitter clashes over beliefs, and futile battles
over turf. They are now increasingly inclined to recognize one another
as brothers and sisters as equals; to acknowledge common rights for all;
and to refrain from relegating anyone to a subhuman status with lesser
rights solely on the basis of his or her color, language, nationality,
or beliefs. Being human is the only prerequisite for participation in such
universal rights, irrespective of race, color, ethnicity, beliefs, language,
nationality, or social class.
G. In the eyes of justice, inequality is an acquired state that precludes
no religion, family, nationality, or ethnicity from eligibility for certain
universal rights. In contrast, arrogating certain a priori rights to themselves,
some racists, religious bigots, or ethnocentrists fancy themselves superior,
and justify social inequalities and dogmatic restrictions in matters of
religious freedom, marriage, citizenship, and free expression.
H. History testifies that religious beliefs and rules have undergone
substantial changes at the hands of religious leaders and the clergy. For
example, church authorities used to burn heretics and skeptics at the stake,
and Muslims used to resist the presence of women in legislative assemblies.
These practices have undergone fundamental transformation. Such constantly
shifting ideas can not serve as the foundation of the rights of God and
man; nor is it wise to coerce or invite all people to observe them.
These are the arguments of today's secular thinkers, who are, indeed,
blameless in their skepticism. Western science, philosophy, and technology
have so shaken the foundations of human reason and mind; historicism has
raised such a storm; and scientific and philosophical theories advanced
so swiftly that no latitude has been left for stability and certitude.
Tolerance in the domain of beliefs is the correlative of a fallibility
in the domain of cognition that has encroached upon traditional dogmas.
The difference between the old and the new worlds is the difference
between certainty and uncertainty, a distinction that accounts for the
modern tendency to value human lives more than beliefs; in the old world
beliefs always superseded respect for human life. People used to kill and
be killed for their beliefs. Nowadays, killing people for their beliefs
is deemed unacceptable and a breach of human rights.
None of the foregoing arguments deprive anyone of his or her right to
believe. Nevertheless, many people are troubled by an implicitly lackadaisical
attitude toward the question of God, His approval, and His rights among
three groups of people: those who consider religion from without; those
who are still inquiring but are not yet committed to a specific religious
outlook; and those who lead a secular life in a religious society.
However, members of religious communities who seem immune to the relentless
inquiries of those outside their faiths and who fastidiously pursue their
own religious way of life, find such arguments unpersuasive. Thus, the
truly committed religious people take issue with two aspects of secular
1. Freedom of opinion is considered one of the primary human rights.
Now, conviction can breed the kind of certitude that fosters decisive action.
It is such decisiveness that manifests itself, at times, in holy wars and
other such crusades born of unshakable belief. Such attitudes, of course,
offend the sensibilities of the advocates of human rights. Secular antipathy
toward religious zeal is, in turn, bewildering to religious people.
One may, of course, propose that the universal declaration of human
rights advocates a particular form of freedom of opinion: the freedom of
flexible opinion, not of absolute conviction. This may be an intriguing
interpretation of the principle. It is doubtful, however, that it would
find favor among ardent believers.
2. If democratization of religious government means washing one's hands
of convictions and surrendering to skeptical or secular ideas and to people's
demands, to the exclusion of God, this would be tantamount to abandoning
the very idea of religious government in favor of an unreligious and secular
government. An unthinkable alternative for the ardently religious.
How can one expect the people of strong conviction to retain their belief
only inwardly, without honoring them in practice? Hence the dilemma of
a religious government: it must confront a universal declaration of human
rights that is oblivious to religion and the rights of the Creator; and
must contend with the demands of an increasingly a secular society.
Thus religious governments cannot easily adopt all the principles and
precepts of the declaration of human rights. Discord between the secular
advocates of human rights and religious leaders stems from the suspicion
of the latter that the invitation to democratization of the religious government
will ineluctable eviscerate any religious content, rendering society utterly
secular and reconstructing a faithless foundation. That is why religious
regimes are willing to sacrifice democracy in order to retain their identity.
Considering the above secular arguments, the suspicions of the faithful
do not seem altogether baseless. For its followers religion yields a definition
of humanity and a description of human rights that are compatible. Changing
human rights requires changing the definition of humanity, not a trivial
and easy affair.
One definition of humanity makes religion necessary and another dispensable.
Therefore, religiosity is compatible only with a particular definition
of humanity and its rights. The slightest breach in this definition will
destroy the edifice of traditional religion -- hence the understandable
resistance of religious scholars and leaders to the new definitions of
humanity and its rights.
But the debate does not end here. It is valid to argue that in a secular
society a democratic religious government is impossible because religious
governments are not answerable to the people. In such a society the best
form of government would be a secular democratic regime. However, it is
not valid to argue that nowhere and under no conditions may one perceive
the desirability of a religious democracy, even in a religious society.
The truth of the matter is that a religious government can be an appropriate
reflection of a religious society. Indeed, in such a society any purely
secular government would be undemocratic. Whether religious regimes are
democratic or undemocratic, though, depends on two conditions:
1. The extent to which governments partake of collective wisdom
2. The extent to which governments respect human rights
A combination of democracy and religion would entail the convergence
of reason (Aghl) and revelation (Shar'). Every theoretical
achievement will have to become practically viable.
Of Concordance of Reason and Revelation
Religious scholars cannot afford to be oblivious to extra religious
knowledge. Nor can they shirk the responsibility of balancing the knowledge
inside and outside religion since, many basic religious values such as
truth, justice, humanity, public interest, and so on are integral to nonreligious
value systems as well. If religious justifications are invoked in this
context, then a circularity or a tautology will result.
On the other hand, arguments that are adduced for the truth and justice
of religion are generally rational, human, and nonreligious in nature,
yet they are influential in understanding religion. Therefore, disregard
of rational criteria and of the necessity for the harmony of religious
understanding and rational findings is a breach of religious responsibility.
It is reason that defines the truth, justice, public interest, and humanity;
that attributes these properties to a particular religion (or else it would
not become a rationally acceptable religion) and that undertakes the task
of understanding the teachings of religion.
In these tasks reason would be undermining itself if, eschewing its
general principles concerning truth, justice, and humanity, it assigns
a different set of interpretations of those principles for religion; this
would be analogous to pulling the carpet from underneath one's own feet.
Thus, one may state the following: preconditions for democratizing religious
government is historicizing and energizing the religious understanding
by underscoring the role of reason in it.
By reason I do not mean a form of isolated individual reason, but a
collective reason arising from the kind of public participation and human
experience that are available only through democratic methods. For democratic
governments "common sense" is the arbiter of society's antagonisms
and difficulties; religious governments assign this arbitration to religion;
while dictatorships leave it in the hand of one powerful individual.
Religion, however, never judges a situation independently; the judgement
is refracted through the interpretation of religious texts, a task that
falls within the domain of reason, which always harmonizes its comprehension
of religion with its other precepts.
The debates concerning slavery epitomize this process. Contemporary
Islamic scholars attempt, through various means, to bleach the blemish
of the approval of slavery from the face of Islam. They explain that slavery
was specific to a particular epoch; that its radical abolition was impossible
at that time; or that its approval must have been a reactive measure imposed
on Islam by the practice of other nations.
All these explanations have but one purpose: these thinkers have correctly
understood that slavery is incompatible with human rights and dignity.
These thinkers then, through rational deliberations, have helped bestow
a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of matters divine upon
the religious society, an understanding that will affect its overall way
of life and government. Because an autocratic God is the best patron of
an autocratic government and vice versa.
We may conclude that the appeal to mere religious convention cannot
forestall the renewal of religious understanding or innovative adjudication
(Ijtihad) in religion. Such renewal requires extra religious data.
Therefore, democratic religious regimes need not wash their hands of religiosity
nor turn their backs on God's approval. In order to remain religious, they,
of course, need to establish religion as the guide and arbiter of their
problems and conflicts.
But, in order to remain democratic, they need to draw in dynamic the
adjudicative understanding of religion, in accordance with the dictates
of collective "reason." Securing the Creator's approval entails
religious awareness that is leavened by a more authentic and humane understanding
of religiosity, and that endeavors to guide the people in accordance with
these ideals. In thus averting a radically relativistic version of liberalism
rational and informed religiosity can thrive in conjunction with a democracy
sheltered by common sense, thereby fulfilling one of the prerequisites
of democratic religious government.
Of Respect For Human Rights
The first issue concerning human rights is that it is not a solely legal
(Figh'hi) intra religious argument. Discussion of human rights belongs
to the domain of philosophical theology (Kalam) and philosophy in
general. Furthermore, it is an extra religious area of discourse. Like
other debates on matters that are prior to -- yet influential in -- religious
understanding and acceptance, such as the objectivity of ethical values,
the problem of the free choice, the existence of God, and the election
of prophets , it lies outside of the domain of religion.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with this argument, the discussion of
it takes place in the extra religious area of discourse. It is noteworthy
that Islamic theologians (Motakallemin) never hesitated to apply
philosophical theories (e.g., concerning goodness or evil, predetermination,
or the autonomy of human destiny) to their understanding of religion, even
where such an exercise resulted in bizarre theologies.
As we have stated before, a religion that is oblivious to human rights
(including the need of humanity for freedom and justice) is not tenable
in the modern world. In other words, religion needs to be right not only
logically but also ethically. The discussion of human rights is hardly
a cosmetic, superfluous, blasphemous, or easily dismissed. Nor is it merely
grist for scholastic and casuistic discussions within seminary walls.
Simply put, we cannot evade rational, moral, and extra religious principles
and reasoning about human rights, myopically focusing nothing but the primary
texts and maxims of religion in formulating our jurisprudential edicts.
Because religious jurisprudence (Figh') is nourished by theology,
the extra religious foundations of these rules must be clearly critiqued
and scrutinized; mere derivation from within cannot yield sufficient stability
and lucidity. Such an inward gaze will hinder the outside discussion.
The second issue concerning human rights is that every democratic religious
government, must be mindful of both the inside and the outside of the religion
in order to remain faithful to both of its foundations. Of course, mindfulness
is not necessarily tantamount to utter acquiescence. To be sure, contemporary
advocates of human rights can claim no monopoly on truth and justice; nevertheless,
religious societies, precisely because of their religious nature, need
to seriously engage in discussion of the issues they pose.
Not only did our predecessors passionately debate such extra religious
issues as the question of free choice and the question of the limits of
God's rights to overburden the faithful with religious obligations, but
Islamic society felt a religious obligation to allow such debates to spread
and prosper. By the same token, the extra religious debates of our day,
which happen to concern human rights, must be viewed as worthy and useful
exchanges of opinions in Islamic society.
The partisans in these debates deserve a blessed respect, and the outcome
of such discussions should be heeded and implemented by the governments.
Just as being humane is the condition of the truth of religion, so it will
have to be the condition of the legitimacy of the government as well. Observing
the rights of man (such as justice, freedom, and so on.) guarantees not
only the democratic character of a government, but also its religious character.
The third issue concerning human rights is the false assumption that
sensitivity to human rights is a surrender to relativistic liberalism.
Such an assumption is at once ignorant of the nature of liberalism and
an insult to religion; it gives liberalism more credit than it deserves
and religion less: liberalism is not the fount of all of human rights,
nor is religion their antithesis.
To be sure, human rights in its modern form was first formulated by
Enlightenment thinkers with no explicit allegiance to religion, no concern
with God's approval, no feeling for religion as a source of discovery and
justification, and thus entirely secular in outlook. It is equally true
that only belatedly, as a response to the secular challenge, did the religious
thinkers address this issue.
There were two reasons for this delayed reaction: first, religious thinkers,
already possessing a rich body of knowledge concerning ethics, rights,
and obligations, felt no internal impetus to address such problems and
thus felt no motivation to join the modern debate begun by secular thinkers.
Second, because the language of religion and religious law is the language
of duties, not rights, religious people habitually think more about their
obligations than about their rights.They concentrate more on what God expects
from them than on what they themselves desire; they look among their duties
to find their rights, not vice versa.
However, a greater sensitivity to duties than to rights is not necessarily
an antagonism to right; it is, rather, a valuable perspective that can
enrich the distance of rights and challenge liberalism's putative monopoly
of this issue. In any event, religious governments that are based on religious
societies will be democratic only when they seek to combine the satisfaction
of the Creator and that of the created; when they are true both to the
religious and extra religious concerns; and when they equally respect pre
religious and post religious reason and morality.
In the elusive and delicate balance between the two realms lies the
rare elixir that the contemporary world, because of its neglect, finds
unattainable or undesirable.
Mahmoud Sadri is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas
Women's University. He has a doctorate in sociology from New York's New
School for Social Research. He is the coauthor, with Aruthur Stinchcombe,
of an ariticle in "Durkheim's Divison of Labor: 1893-1993" Presses
Universitaires de France, 1993. For more information see his
page at the Texas Women's University.
Ahmad Sadri who is currently Associate Professor of Sociology
and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, received his BA and MA degrees
from the University of Tehran and his Ph.D from the New School for Social
Research, New York. He is the author of "Max Weber's Sociology of
Intellectuals" (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994). For more information
page at Lake Forest College.