Soroush, Abdolkarim (1945–)

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Soroush, Abdolkarim

Abdolkarim Soroush is a prominent Iranian philosopher, reformer, and scholar. He has come to symbolize a secularizing strain in Iran's contemporary discourse on Islamic reformation. Initially a supporter of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Soroush became increasingly critical of the Iranian clerical establishment in the 1990s. His various lectures and publications have become subject to censorship and he has been living and working in exile since 2000.


Abdolkarim Soroush, born Husayn Haj Farajullah Dabbagh, was born in 1945 in southern Tehran, Iran, to a lower middle class family. Soroush underwent his primary schooling in the Qa'imiyyeh School. After spending six years there, he continued his secondary education at Mortazavi High School and a year later transferred to the newly inaugurated Alavi High School. After completing his high school education, Soroush took part in the universities' nationwide entrance examinations in both physics and pharmacy. He successfully passed both exams and decided to focus on pharmacy. Once he completed his degree at Tehran University he served in the army for two years, fulfilling the national compulsory service, after which he moved to Bushehr to render part of his medical service. In Bushehr he was the director of the Laboratory for Food Products, Toiletries, and Sanitary Materials. After one year and three months he returned to Tehran where he was briefly employed at the Laboratory for Medicine Control.

In 1973 he left for London where he studied analytical chemistry at the University of London (MSc). He then continued his studies at Chelsea College and specialized in history and philosophy of sciences. Prior to and during the revolutionary period sweeping Iran, Soroush became politically active by giving speeches that were then transcribed and produced into pamphlets and books. In those years Soroush emerged as an ideologue of the regime and took part in public debates with its critics, most commonly Marxists whom Soroush would adamantly confront, charging them with dogmatism and historical determinism.


Name: Abdolkarim Soroush; born Husayn Haj Farajullah Dabbagh

Birth: 1945, Tehran, Iran

Family: Married; two sons, Abdolkarim and Soroush

Nationality: Iranian

Education: Degrees from Tehran University in pharmacology; M.Sc. in analytical chemistry from University of London; extended studies in the philosophy of sciences at Chelsea College, London.


  • 1980: Director of Islamic Culture Group at Tehran's Teacher Training College
  • 1983: Research Member at the Institute for Cultural Research and Studies
  • 1990: Cofounder of monthly magazine Kiyan
  • 1991: Professor and lecturer at Tehran Academy of Philosophy
  • 2000: Visiting professor at Harvard University
  • 2002: Scholar in residence at Yale University; visiting professor at Princeton University
  • 2003: Visiting scholar at Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin, Germany
  • 2006: Visiting professor at the Free University of Amsterdam ISIM (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World-Leiden)

After returning to Iran, Soroush affiliated himself with Tehran's Teacher Training College where he was appointed the director of the newly established Islamic Culture Group. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran's universities closed and brought the educational system to a halt. A new body was formed, named the Cultural Revolution Institute, which was composed of seven members including Abdolkarim Soroush. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revolutionary Iran's new spiritual leader, had personally appointed all members. The main task of this body was to reform and revise the basic curriculum and accelerate the reopening of the universities.

In 1983 Soroush secured a transfer to the Institute for Cultural Research and Studies from his previous post at the Teacher Training College. That same year the Cultural Revolution Institute changed its name to the Cultural Revolution Council and increased its membership to a total of seventeen. Soon thereafter Soroush disassociated himself with the Council and handed Khomeini his official resignation. Since then he has no longer held any official position within the ruling system of Iran, besides occasional advisory functions to specific government bodies.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soroush started developing a more critical perspective toward the ruling Iranian regime. In 1991 he cofounded the monthly magazine, Kiyan, which at one point became the most visible forum of religious intellectualism. In this magazine he published his most controversial articles on religious pluralism, hermeneutics, tolerance, and clericalism. The magazine was shut down in 1998 along with other magazines and newspapers under the direct order of the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In 1996 Soroush left Iran for an extended tour of lectures in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

In 1997 Soroush returned to Iran after the landslide win of reformist candidate Mohammad Khatemi in the presidential elections. This electoral victory was widely believed to have signaled the emergence of a more open and tolerant Islamic government. Although Soroush managed to establish a new Institute for Wisdom and Research and the promising conducive political environment allowed for various new and old journals to reemerge, Soroush was increasingly subjected to harassment and ultimately lost his job. His public lectures at various universities in Iran were frequently disrupted by hardline Ansar-e-Hizbollah vigilante groups, and he was physically attacked on various occasions.

At the turn of the century he took temporary residence in the West. From the year 2000 onward, Abdolkarim Soroush has been a visiting professor at Harvard University where he taught various classes on Islam and Democracy, Qur'anic Studies, and the Philosophy of Islamic Law. The following year he was a scholar in residence at Yale, and in 2002 to 2003 taught Islamic Political Philosophy at Princeton University. In 2003 to 2004 he took on a visiting scholar position at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. For the academic year 2006 to 2007 Soroush was the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World—Leiden (ISIM) visiting professor at the Free University of Amsterdam.


Soroush has attempted to develop an ambitious philosophical framework for the project of reconciling revelation and reason, religious duties, and human rights. His overarching endeavor is to combine and synthesize ideas he gathered from his traditional Islamic learning with his intricate knowledge of Western sciences and philosophy.

His body of work is ambitious and consists of a variety of rhetorical and didactic themes that make it hard for the lay reader to fully comprehend the particulars of his arguments. It is only in the last few years that his work has gained notoriety in the West, because most of his work was originally published in Persian and was limited to readers in Iran and the diaspora community.

Soroush is inspired by the fusion of mysticism with the rationalist trend of Islamic philosophy dating back to the medieval Mu'tazilite school of Islamic thought. Soroush's work displays strong mystical tendencies that can be detected in the conceptual structure of his various arguments. He frequently refers to the great mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi in his writings and lectures. But he is also familiar and often draws from Western intellectuals such as Juergen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and others.


The Iranian state may be the first ever case of a state that intends to make society religious. But the fact of the matter is that it is neither desirable nor possible for a state to make a society religious, because faith is not amenable to force and because the use of force is not the best way to present faith.


I'd noticed this problem in Mr. Khatemi, a problem which I'd previously spoken about in more general terms: lack of vision theoretically leads to lack of courage in action. If you are committed to a line of thinking clearly and decisively, you'll also find the courage to act.


His most notable publication is a compilation of articles that originally appeared in the pages of Kayhan-i-Farhangi as a series of articles under the title "The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of Religion." One key tenet of Soroush's philosophy is drawing a crucial distinction between religion and religious understanding by emphasizing that religious understanding is merely a variety of human understanding. For him, religion remains constant, whereas religious understanding evolves as time passes.

Soroush posits that human interpretations of sacred texts are always in a state of flux because of the influence of the changing times and conditions that believers live in. No interpretation is absolute and fixed for all time, and he points out that religious knowledge is the product of scholars engaged in the study of the unchanging core of Shi'ite Islamic texts. Various scholars interpret the texts differently, depending on their methodology, which may range from the rules of Arabic grammar, to inferential logic, to Aristotelian philosophy. In addition to the particular methods for the study of religion, successive scholars will also be influenced in their interpretations by the advances that have been made in the natural and social sciences. So, the presuppositions of a scholar's intellectual worldview are time-bound. Discerning between correct and incorrect interpretations of religion is an issue of methodology, but because knowledge is a public good, the criteria for distinguishing correct from incorrect knowledge must be open to public scrutiny.

Although there may not be an absolute interpretation of religion, that does not imply that any unsystematic, arbitrary, or haphazard reading of the text should be a valid understanding of religion, or that there is no difference between correct and incorrect understandings.

Another related topic of interest is the role of the clergy in a political system. The clergy's authority, according to Soroush, is based mainly on their expertise in jurisprudence, the technical interpretation of traditional Islamic law. However, as Soroush explains, jurisprudence is only one framework for interpreting the core concepts of Islamic belief, not for conclusively defining them.

The clergy and the centers of power are interconnected in a way that limits the proper development of religious knowledge. Furthermore, structural impediments need to be removed in order for the clerical establishment to reform itself. Seminary students should be encouraged to raise deep and probing questions about the texts they analyze so that the human understanding of religion can be enriched. These students should not be made to feel that a critical reading of religious texts will be perceived as a lapse in faith. Soroush believes that the current system in place only reinforces the ulama's obsession of maintaining their popularity and seeking to expand their audience at the expense of jeopardizing their religious integrity.

Another focus of Soroush's criticism is the income sources of the clergy. The religious establishment has historically been financially supported by the state or by the people. Soroush advocated abolishing both traditions. By relying on external sources for income, the clergy have inherently lost their independence and sense of accountability. Only when the clergy engaged in religious activity are no longer motivated by personal gain but by the genuine desire to understand religion better and cultivate this understanding among the public will they regain their pivotal role in society.

An interrelated current of Soroush's thinking can be found in his writings on ideology, specifically religious ideology. He emphasizes abandoning Islamic ideology as such, because it hinders the growth of religious knowledge. For him, ideologies are meant primarily to fight rival ideologies and to defeat a specific enemy in a specific society. The purpose of an ideology is mass mobilization that is led by the clergy, acting as a class of official interpreters. In an atmosphere of an ideological society, reason and intellectual inquiry are pushed aside and give rise to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. In order to maintain an official ideological platform that legitimizes the ruling regime, an official class of government-supporter ideologues are imbued with the task of formulation a defense of the ruling ideology.

Soroush's rejection of Islamic ideology as the legitimizing factor in an Islamic state does not amount to his negating the role of religion in politics. Rather he advocates a religious democratic state in which democracy is compatible with religion and an essential to a religious society.

Souroush has enthusiastically embraced key facets of Western development, namely tolerance, freedom of expression, essential oneness of religions, negation of technical domination, preservation of the ecosystem, women's rights, and most importantly, democracy. Although he acknowledges that Western societies have positive features, he is quick to point out that they have defects too. First and foremost on his list of defects is the West's hedonist fetishism with physical gratification.

Considering it both necessary and important to borrow selectively from the West, without succumbing to a blind imitation of Western culture, Soroush has frequently called for a greater dialogue between Iranian and Western cultures. Selective borrowing from Western culture can benefit Iranian culture, provided that this borrowing is the result of free choice.

Commenting on the creation of a state based on Islamic principles, Soroush believes that religiously derived methods of government are insufficient for administering a modern state. Governance methods, according to Soroush, are essentially nonreligious because they are set up to deal with how to plan and administer different aspects of public life. This task necessitates qualified administrative bodies that draw from their expertise in such fields as sociology, economics, and public administration. Religion, per se, offers no specific method or plan of how to govern other than a few legal codes in the shari'a (Islamic law) that only cover a limited range of issues.

Soroush has faced a barrage of criticisms over the years. To many in the legalistic spiritual establishment of Iran, Soroush is at best misguided, and at worst a heretic. He has been viewed by some of his critics as too concerned with pushing religion out of public life and confining it to the private spiritual life of individuals, as is increasingly the case in Western societies. From a theoretical perspective some believe that his concepts are flawed because they do not present an institutional mechanism capable of translating public beliefs into political structures. His response to such accusations has been to the point: It is not Islam per se but the critic's interpretation of Islam that is opposed to democracy.


Abdolkarim Soroush is a leading Iranian philosopher and the embodiment of the Islamic reformation because he uses the dominant religious language of political discourse in Iran. Admirers have referred to him as the Martin Luther of Islam. Others have cautioned attempts at this type of comparison, given the great political, economic, and cultural differences between Luther's Germany and Soroush's Iran.

In recognition of his outstanding intellectual work he was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 2004, and in 2005 Time magazine ranked him as among the top hundred men and women whose influence, talent, and exemplary behavior is transforming the world.

His ideas and thoughts have initiated a heated debate and helped create an atmosphere where other reformers could test their ideas and the general public could demand greater participation. Followers in London set up a website under the name Seraj that provides updated information about lectures and interviews he would be giving, and about his publications.

He has a diverse following and it has been noted that Soroush's works have become the subject of many academic dissertations. Many of his books have been reprinted and recently translated into many languages (such as Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian, and English).


At this stage it is too early to assess the legacy of Abdolkarim Soroush's overall volume of work. What make Soroush stand out are his credentials as a devout Muslim and a supporter of the postrevolutionary process.

His major contribution to the debate in contemporary Iran is his contention that Islam is open to different interpretations and therefore cannot and should not be made ideological. Revelation allows for ambiguity of meaning, thus making the same religion adaptable to different societies and historical circumstances. It is his stern belief that no single individual or specific group should claim privileges on holding the true and final interpretation of religion.

The underlying implications of this argument are far-reaching. Namely, it implies that the interpretative work of the clergy (ulama) is not definitive, but rather human and historically situated, thus challenging the clergy's self-subscribed exclusive domain of interpretation.


Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz. "Contentious Public Religion: Two Conceptions of Islam in Revolutionary Iran. Ali Shariati and Abdolkarim Soroush." International Sociology 19, no. 4 (2004): 504-523.

Jahanbakhsh, Forough. Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran (1953–2000). From Bazargan to Soroush. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

Matin-asgari, Afshin. "'Abdolkarim Soroush and the Secularization of Islamic Thought in Iran." Iranian Studies 30, no. 1-2 (1997): 95-115.

Sadri, Mahmoud. "Sacral Defense of Secularism: The Political Theologies of Soroush, Shabestari, and Kadivar." International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15, no. 2 (2001): 257-270.

Soroush, Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated and edited by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Vakili, Valla. Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush. Occasional Papers Series. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997.

Wright, Robin. The Last Great Revolution. Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. New York: Random House, 2000.

                                                 Kristian P. Alexander