Interview with Islamic scholar and philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush

"The Sufis were prophets of pluralism"

Islamic scholar and philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush explains how he draws on the work of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi for guidance in his search for a comprehensive approach to religion that doesn't rely solely on rationality and logic, but also on a sense of the other dimension. Interview by Dara Alani

The Sufi thinker Jalal ad-Din Rumi is a major source of inspiration to you. What can a thirteenth century philosopher offer us today?

Abdolkarim Soroush: My first impulse is to give you a very general answer, followed up by a succinct "just read his work; just go and read it." Because Rumi's work is like a vast ocean: in order to experience an ocean, you have to wade into the water, you have to know how to swim in the ocean. If you read Rumi you will encounter a very different world and we need different worlds, because from the moment we are born, we are born into a family, a city, a particular country, a particular culture. We need somebody to come and help us change our view on the world – and that somebody can be Rumi.

We live, everybody lives, but we need people like Rumi to give meaning to our life, to tell us what the real essence of life is. Thatʹs the first aspect. The second is this: Rumi, as I understand him, had a direct experience of God, a direct experience of divinity. A man of the prophetic tradition, ongoing from the prophets. We need such people. We need to be able to look at them and say: here is prophethood, here is divinity, here is the embodiment of the meaning of life.

Theology can be regarded as the science dealing with questions that deal with our concept of God, creation and humanity and the relations between them. Within this context, can Sufism be seen as an integral part of theology?

Soroush: Sufism or mysticism or irfan, as I like to call it, is a way of life that combines this world and the other world. Irfan actually comes from the word marifa, which means, "to know, knowledge". Yet it also has a second: arif or irfan comes from arf in Arabic. Arf means to see, to smell. So an arif is somebody who knows how God smells. He can smell the fragrance, the ether of divinity. Rumi uses a very good simile by way of explanation:

Thirteenth century Sufi philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (photo: dpa/CPA Media)
Read what he wrote: "Rumi's work is like a vast ocean: in order to experience an ocean, you have to wade into the water, you have to know how to swim in the ocean. If you read Rumi you will encounter a very different world and we need different worlds. We need somebody to come and help us change our view on the world," explains Soroush

Suppose that you are hunting a deer, a musk ghazal. First you examine the ground, you see the hoof prints of the ghazal and you follow it. Later you still cannot see the ghazal, but you can smell the musk, so you are confident that you are close to the ghazal, even if you canʹt yet see it. You continue to go forward and suddenly you see the ghazal. So here you have three things. First you have the hoof prints, these are the signs of ghazal that are read by the experts (ulama). Once you smell the fragrance, however, you become more than a scientist, because now you feel it. Only by extrapolation could you say that these are the footsteps of ghazal, therefore the ghazal should exist; but then you smell the fragrance and eventually catch sight of the ghazal. So arif is somebody who smells the fragrance first and tries to reach the object he is searching for through scent.

Is irfan part of theology? It all depends on the meaning of theology. If you translate theology into ilm al-kalam, it is not part of theology because, in that case, theology means demonstrative science – looking for the footsteps. You work with proof (burhan) and with evidence (dalil). But an arif doesn't look at dalil, he is looking for the thing itself and not the signs of it. Therefore Sufism cannot be part of ʿilm al-kalam in the traditional sense of Islamic theology. In traditional Islamic thought, theology and Sufism are two utterly different approaches.

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