Islam and Democracy. Prospects and Possibilities. A Critical Analysis of the Theory of the Religious Democracy of Dr Abdulkarim Soroush

Habibi, A. 2011. Islam and Democracy. Prospects and Possibilities. A Critical Analysis of the Theory of the Religious Democracy of Dr Abdulkarim Soroush. PhD thesis University of Westminster Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities

TitleIslam and Democracy. Prospects and Possibilities. A Critical Analysis of the Theory of the Religious Democracy of Dr Abdulkarim Soroush
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsHabibi, A.

This research is about Islam and democracy and the political theory of ‘democratic religious government’ of Dr Abdulkarim Soroush, an Iranian scholar and one of the leading figures in the debate on Islam and democracy in the Islamic world. The research endeavours to answer several questions: How far has the debate on Islam and democracy developed? Was the Islamic revolution in Iran an Islamic revolution and has it been a step forward for democracy there and an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy? What are the specificities of Soroush’s political theory and how far are they sustainable? Is he successful in offering, at least in theory, a political model that can accommodate Islam and democracy?

The research puts Soroush’s political theory into context and begins by exploring the background of the debate on Islam and democracy and the debate concerning Shia political thought and the legacy of the Iranian revolution. My research finding in the first chapter is that the political challenges posed by democracy as a political system based on the rule of people, regardless of their faith or gender, have been the most serious challenges Islam and Muslims have faced, especially in the past few decades. It also demonstrates how immature the debate is. The second chapter reveals how the Iranian revolution puts Shia Islam on a new track so that it can neither go back to its isolationist position nor resist the trend of secularisation and democratisation. A religion that, I will argue, was an impediment for democracy and open society, has become a force for reconciliation of the faithful’s spiritual needs and their human rights.

In the third chapter I explore Soroush’s religious beliefs and development in his religious thoughts. I will try to establish in this chapter how he has found Islam to be exposed to scholarly debate and an easy target for modern Muslim scholars and intellectuals equipped with modern methodology to rehearse it, adjust it and rationalise it in order for it to become compatible with modern forms of life and human rights. I also demonstrate in this chapter that whatever the contents of Soroush’s political theory, he is a faithful Muslim and his religious beliefs do not support a democratic political system.

Soroush’s political theory is the topic of the fourth chapter. In this chapter I have discovered how Soroush removes religious hurdles through his religious theory in order to present his political theory. It appears that Soroush believes what we have in the name of religion is nothing more than our knowledge and interpretations of religion. Since these are human understandings, they are like other human knowledge and, therefore, they are historical products that are timely and open to critical analysis and adjustable to humans’ socially evolving demands. I also explain in the fourth chapter why Soroush feels the existence of religion in public life is under threat and therefore endeavours to reconcile religion with the realities of the modern era to secure a space for religion. In doing this, Soroush loses theoretical consistency because he makes every effort, though unsuccessfully, to become the champion of all across the political spectrum, whether religious or liberal. Soroush’s contribution to the debate on Islam and democracy is significant, but he fails, as it will be argued, to offer a viable political theory on the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

The research concludes with an assessment of the prospects and possibilities of the ideas of compatibility of Islam and democracy and highlights the contradictions and challenges of the idea. The conclusion sets the steps and prerequisites for a serious debate on Islam and democracy and illuminates the tenability of the debate by raising serious doubts about the authenticity of the debate on Islam and democracy.

PublisherUniversity of Westminster
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