Stephen Chan: At the time of the Iranian rev­o­lu­tion in 1979, the French philoso­pher Michel Foucault said that this was a rev­o­lu­tion which enun­ci­at­ed some­thing new, some­thing spir­i­tu­al­ly new that had not been seen in the world before. Later he was round­ly crit­i­cized for hav­ing made such a state­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly after the cler­i­cal fac­tion won the rev­o­lu­tion. But for the first 100 days of what we call the Tehran Spring, where so much cre­ativ­i­ty and intel­lec­tu­al work sprang forth, it seemed that Foucault was in fact correct.

And Foucault would’ve been mind­ful of Ali Shariati in his time in Paris. Their cir­cles would have coin­cid­ed. And the thought of Shariati, the fusion that Shariati made of his thought, draw­ing from French and oth­er European sources and infus­ing the intel­lec­tu­al debate back home with the motifs of his work, the motifs of his thought, and the idea that progress was pos­si­ble on a spir­i­tu­al basis that all the same res­onat­ed in the mod­ern world, that was indeed some­thing new.

But when you look at how Shariati did it, if you tried to ana­lyze his method­ol­o­gy of thought, what you’re look­ing at is some­thing which is very con­fus­ing. There are all kinds of uses not only of French phi­los­o­phy, mod­ern French phi­los­o­phy, the Germanic influ­ences on that. There’s not only that, there’s all kinds of sud­den eli­sions, jumps in log­ic, which are cov­ered by ref­er­ence to poet­ic works from Persian his­to­ry. The kinds of tran­scen­den­tal leaps that you find in Rumi’s poet­ry sud­den­ly are used as epis­te­mo­log­i­cal devices in Ali Shariati’s work. 

And the call­ing for ref­or­ma­tion of the cler­gy. The call­ing for a ref­or­ma­tion of the Shah’s regime—although that had to be stat­ed in very sub­tle terms because of the dan­gers of per­se­cu­tion. All of this meant a fusion of let us say East and West which could not be demar­cat­ed along lines of what was ratio­nal and what was irra­tional. It was a mixture. 

So when you try to ana­lyze the resacral­iza­tion of the sec­u­lar state sys­tem, there are many mis­takes that schol­ars par­tic­u­lar­ly in the West make. They assume that resacral­iza­tion is sim­ply sec­u­lar­ism plus the sacred added on. As if the sys­tem was still con­ceived in the same way, even it wish­es to behave in a dif­fer­ent way. But what in fact is going on is frag­men­tary, a mix­ture. A com­bi­na­tion of devices of thought, devices of con­tin­gency and exi­gency. Really an unholy mix­ture that dri­ves things for­ward, so that try­ing to ana­lyze reli­gious thought in today’s world is not some­thing which can have com­po­nent parts eas­i­ly separated.

And the rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of scrip­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly by Western schol­ars, can be a very dan­ger­ous thing. Particularly if it assumes that scrip­ture can be inter­pret­ed along lines that the West would nor­mal­ly use. That is the assump­tion for instance that scrip­ture is nor­ma­tive. It teach­es you a moral code. It teach­es you how to behave well and with kind­ness to one’s fel­low human beings in the world. Scripture does­n’t have to be nor­ma­tive. Scripture that’s being used as part of a first prin­ci­ple to change the world might be used to man­date all kinds of atroc­i­ties in the world, so that the norms are neg­a­tive norms. They are what you might call abnor­ma­tive.

Not only that but scrip­ture is con­stant­ly devel­op­ing. We have new bod­ies of scrip­ture in the world today. Scientology of course is one of those. But The Book of Mormon: a sud­den rev­e­la­tion to Joseph Smith and sud­den­ly you have some­thing like an Old Testament saga set in the Americas of some­time in the past for which there is no archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence. But almost as if the open spaces of the West that Joseph Smith con­tem­plat­ed dur­ing his life­time need­ed to have a scrip­tur­al under­pin­ning. It was a scrip­tur­al saga for the new world of the new America.

And just over 150 years ago, the advent of the Bahá’í faith. And a very short body of scrip­ture, but very much a body of scrip­ture that is con­cerned with clean­li­ness. The amount of rit­u­al that is very very much in the Bahá’í book of faith almost as it were seems to give a rit­u­al­is­tic metaphor for the need of a cleans­ing of that part of the world from which it was drawn. This was tak­en as a cri­tique of Islam. Basically the same cri­tique that Shariati made but was far too wise to enun­ci­ate in direct terms. But of course this has meant that the Bahá’í is regard­ed in today’s Iran still as hereti­cal. But the need for cleans­ing is very very much some­thing that echoed Shariati’s work—prefigured his work.

So when you’re look­ing at scrip­ture, whether new scrip­ture or old scrip­ture, bear­ing in mind his­tor­i­cal con­text becomes extreme­ly impor­tant. Being able to read scrip­ture in the orig­i­nal lan­guage and dis­cov­er in that lan­guage how scrip­ture inter­sects with oth­er lit­er­ary, philo­soph­i­cal, and cul­tur­al trends from that peri­od in time, becomes very impor­tant. There can be no easy exe­ge­sis based on trans­la­tion, for instance. It becomes a cul­tur­al excur­sion. It becomes a social excur­sion. It becomes as it were a social anthro­pol­o­gy for which there are no defined rules.

Certainly in try­ing to look at trans­la­tions selec­tive­ly, in try­ing to look at com­men­taries selec­tive­ly, in try­ing to apply some kind of crit­i­cal the­o­ry to scrip­ture, that is an exer­cise that’s doomed to fail­ure. The inter­ro­ga­tion of scrip­ture, the sen­si­bil­i­ty of scrip­ture, the hermeneu­tics of scrip­ture for today’s world is some­thing which would daunt even the most aus­tere and gravest body of schol­ars, but is an exer­cise that all the same requires to be undertaken.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.