Islamic Humanism: From Silence to Extinction: A Brief Analysis of Abdulkarim Soroush's Thesis of Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge

By Vahid, Hamid | Islam & Science, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Islamic Humanism: From Silence to Extinction: A Brief Analysis of Abdulkarim Soroush's Thesis of Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge


Vahid, Hamid, Islam & Science


In a number of publications Abdulkarim Soroush has sought to propound and defend a thesis, 'the evolution and devolution of religious knowledge' (EDRK), according to which a religion (such as Islam) may be divine and unchanging, but our understanding of religion remains in a continuous flux and a totally human endeavor; he calls this view "Islamic Humanism". In this essay, I shall argue that the thesis of Islamic humanism collapses in the end into one of the various forms of religious nonrealism that have their origins in the works of some well-known contemporary Christian theologians.

Keywords: Islamic Humanism; Abdulkarim Soroush's evolution and devolution of religious knowledge; religious nonrealism; Islam and modernity; liberal Islam; religious thought.

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"It may well be that no one is injured when you fire your shotgun, but it would, at the very least, cause your neighbor's pigeons to shed some feathers."

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad

The Argument

The theoretical underpinnings of the thesis called "evolution and devolution of religious knowledge (EDRK) by Abdulkarim Soroush constitute an argument which appears in almost all of his works on this topic. (1) Because of its centrality, we may call it the Argument. In this section, I shall first expound and then criticize the Argument. Having challenged some of the cases that Soroush takes to support his thesis in the section that follows, I shall eventually show how it actually leads to nonrealism.

The Argument is, in fact, quite simple and can be thought of as having the following structure:

(a) Observation is theory-laden (p. 245). (premise)

(b) Meaning (interpretation) is theory-laden (p. 247). (from 'a')

(c) Presuppositions (background theories) are age-bound, and are, thus, in flux (p. 245). (premise)

EDRK: Religious knowledge (science of religion) is in continuous flux. (from 'b' and 'c')

It is rather difficult to make sense of the Argument, for as it turns out, it is both invalid and based on false premises. Nonetheless, we should try to be charitable when it comes to understanding its underlying motivation. Let us start with validity. The argument is manifestly invalid as there is no way that (b) can be derived from (a). Even assuming that "observation" is theory-laden, this can hardly result in any conclusion about "meaning". Observation, broadly understood, involves various forms of sensory contact with our environment. The resulting process, viz. perception, is what provides us with knowledge about the world. It is however a major issue in philosophy to understand how perception, as a type of cognitive process, works. At an abstract level, a cognitive process can be thought of as a function relating mental input to cognitive or behavioral output. For example, in the case of visual perception, input consists of stimulation of the retina which is then combined with various operations occurring in the visual cortex. The output would be the perception of whatever object that caused the stimulation. Accordingly, visual perception can be seen as a process that transforms sensory input into output that consists of a perception. It is nowadays (as in Cognitive Science) customary to try to understand cognitive processes by breaking them down into simpler sub-functions (as in Marr's computational theory of vision (2)) and finding out how the latter are accomplished. Another major question in the case of perception is whether the phenomenal character of an experience is detachable from its content and whether the latter has a conceptual or non-conceptual character.

Meaning, however, is a completely different animal. It is, generally speaking, what turns sounds or inscriptions into means of communication and understanding. Sometimes meaning is used in connection with what a speaker intends to communicate by a particular utterance (broadly understood). …

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