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