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The Word of Mohammad

Interview
Reformer Abdolkarim Soroush on the Koran

Michel Hoebink

Muhammad is the creator of the Koran. That is what well-known Iranian reformer Abdolkarim Soroush says in his book The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience that will be published early next year. With this view, Soroush goes further than some of the most radical Muslim reformers. In an interview with Zemzem by Michel Hoebink, he gives a foretaste of his book. Michel Hoebink works for the Arabic department of Radio Netherlands World. The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience will be published early 2008 by Brill. Leiden.

Since the coming to power of president Ahmadinejad, it has become increasingly difficult for Abdolkarim Soroush to work in Iran. For that reason, he has accepted invitations to teach at western universities such as Harvard and Princeton in the USA and the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. In the past academic year he was a guest lecturer at the Free University in Amsterdam and the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Abdolkarim Soroush is regarded as the intellectual leader of the Iranian reform movement. Initially, he was a supporter of Khomeini. He held several official positions in the young Islamic republic, among which that of Khomeini’s adviser on cultural and educational reform. But when the spiritual leader soon turned out to be a tyrant, Soroush withdrew in disappointment. Since the early 90s, he is part of a group of ‘republican’ intellectuals who started out discussing the concept of an ‘Islamic democracy’ but gradually moved away from the entire idea of an Islamic state.

Soroush’s basic argument is simple: all human understanding of religion is historical and fallible. With this idea he undermines the Iranian theocracy, because if all human understanding of religion is fallible, no-one can claim to apply the shari’a in God’s name, not even the Iranian clergy.

In The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience Soroush makes clear that his view on the fallibility of religious knowledge to a certain degree also applies to the Koran. With thinkers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Mohammed Arkoun, Soroush belongs to a small group of radical reformers who advocate a historical approach to the Koran. In his new book, however, he goes one step further than many of his radical colleagues. He claims that the Koran is not only the product of the historical circumstances in which it emerged, but also of the mind of the Prophet Mohammed with all his human limitations. This idea, says Soroush, is not an innovation, as several medieval thinkers already hinted at it.

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How can we make sense of something like ‘revelation’ in our disenchanted modern world?

Revelation is ‘inspiration’. It is the same experience as that of poets and mystics, although prophets are on a higher level. In our modern age we can understand revelation by using the metaphor of poetry. As one Muslim philosopher has put it: revelation is higher poetry. Poetry is a means of knowledge that works differently from science or philosophy. The poet feels that he is informed by a source external to him; that he receives something. And poetry, just like revelation, is a talent: A poet can open new horizons for people; he can make them view the world in a different way.

The Koran, in your view, should be understood as a product of its time. Does this also imply that the person of the Prophet played an active and even constituent role in the production of the text?

According to the traditional account, the Prophet was only an instrument; he merely conveyed a message passed to him by Jibril. In my view, however, the Prophet played a pivotal role in the production of the Koran.

The metaphor of poetry helps me to explain this. Just like a poet, the Prophet feels that he is captured by an external force. But in fact – or better: at the same time – the Prophet himself is everything: the creator and the producer. The question whether the inspiration comes from outside or from inside is really not relevant, because at the level of revelation there is no difference between outside and inside. The inspiration comes from the Self of the Prophet. The Self of every individual is divine, but the Prophet differs from other people in that he has become aware of its divinity. He has actualized its potential. His Self has become one with God. Now don’t get me wrong at this point: This spiritual union with God does not mean that the Prophet has become God. It is a union that is limited and tailored to his size. It is human size, not God’s size. The mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi describes this paradox with the words: ‘Through the Prophet’s union with God, the ocean is poured into a jar.’

But the Prophet is also the creator of the revelation in another way. What he receives from God is the content of the revelation. This content, however, cannot be offered to the people as such, because it is beyond their understanding and even beyond words. It is formless and the activity of the person of the Prophet is to form the formless, so as to make it accessible. Like a poet again, the Prophet transmits the inspiration in the language he knows, the styles he masters and the images and knowledge he possesses.

But his personality also plays an important role in shaping the text. His personal history: his father, his mother, his childhood. And even his moods. If you read the Koran you feel that the Prophet is sometimes jubilant and highly eloquent while at other times he is bored and quite ordinary in the way he expresses himself. All those things have left their imprint on the text of the Koran. That is the purely human side of revelation.

So the Koran has a human side. Does this mean that the Koran is fallible?

In the traditional view, the revelation is infallible. But nowadays there are more and more interpreters who think that the revelation is infallible only in purely religious matters such as the attributes of God, life after death and the rules for worship. They accept that the revelation may be wrong in matters that relate to the material world and human society. What the Koran says about historical events, other religious traditions and all kinds of practical earthly matters does not necessarily have to be true. Such interpreters often argue that this kind of errors in the Koran do not harm prophethood because the Prophet ‘descended’ to the level of knowledge of the people of his time and spoke to them in the ‘language of the time’. I have a different view. I do not think the Prophet spoke the ‘language of his time’ while knowing better himself. He actually believed the things he said. It was his own language and his own knowledge and I don’t think that he knew more than the people around him about the earth, the universe and the genetics of human beings. He did not possess the knowledge we have today. And that does not harm his prophethood because he was a prophet and not a scientist or a historian.

You refer to medieval philosophers and mystics such as Rumi. To what extent do your views on the Koran find their origin in the Islamic tradition?

Many of my views are rooted in medieval Islamic thought. The idea that prophethood is something very general that can be found in different degrees in all people is common in both Shi’i Islam and mysticism. The great Shi’i theologian sheikh al-Mufid does not call the Shi’i imams prophets, but he attributes to them all the qualities possessed by prophets. Also mystics are generally convinced that their experiences are the same as those of the prophets. And the notion of the Koran as a potentially fallible human product is implicit in the Mu’tazilite doctrine of the created Koran. Medieval thinkers often did not express such ideas in a clear or systematic manner but rather tended to conceal them in casual remarks or allusions. They did not want to create confusion among people who couldn’t handle such thoughts. Rumi, for instance, states somewhere that the Koran is the mirror of the states of mind of the Prophet. What Rumi implies is that the Prophet’s personality, his changing moods and his stronger and weaker moments, are reflected in the Koran. Rumi’s son goes even further. In one of his books he suggests that polygamy is permitted in the Koran because the Prophet liked women. That was the reason he permitted his followers to marry four women!

Does the Shi’i tradition allow you more freedom to develop your thoughts on the humanness of the Koran?

It is well known that in Sunni Islam, the rationalist school of the Mu’tazilites was badly defeated by the Ash’arites and their doctrine that the Koran was eternal and uncreated. But in Shi’i Islam, Mu’tazilism somehow continued its life and became the breeding ground for a rich philosophical tradition. The Mu’tazilite doctrine of the created Koran is almost undisputed among Shi’i theologians. Today you see that Sunni reformers are coming closer to the Shi’i position and embrace the doctrine of the created Koran. The Iranian clergy, however, are reluctant to use the philosophical resources of the Shi’i tradition to open new horizons to our religious understanding. They have based their power on a conservative understanding of religion and fear that they might lose everything if they open the discussion on issues such as the nature of prophethood.

What are the consequences of your views for contemporary Muslims and the way they use the Koran as a moral guide?

A human view of the Koran makes it possible to distinguish between the essential and the accidental aspects of religion. Some parts of religion are historically and culturally determined and no longer relevant today. That is the case, for instance, with the corporal punishments prescribed in the Koran. If the Prophet had lived in another cultural environment, those punishments would probably not have been part of his message.

The task of Muslims today is to translate the essential message of the Koran over time. It is like translating a proverb from one language into another. You do not translate it literally. You find another proverb which has the same spirit, the same content but perhaps not the same wording. In Arabic you say: He is like someone who carries dates to Basra. If you translate that into English you say: He is carrying coal to Newcastle. A historical, human view of the Koran allows us to do this. If you insist on the idea that the Koran is the uncreated, eternal word of God that must be literally applied, you get yourself into an un-resolvable dilemma.