On Contemporary Shi’ah Religious Thought

The following is a translation of some excerpts from an interview that Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh had with the Baḥrainī newspaper al-Ayyām about contemporary religious thought.1

Although this is roughly a decade-old interview now, the issues discussed continue to be relevant today. We have selected two particularly interesting questions that were asked of the Shaykh with their answers:

1. “Can we start by you providing us a list of the challenges that confront Shī’ah religious thought at this point? What is the nature of questions that contemporary religious discourse faces?”

There are several challenges as well as critical questions that Shī’ism currently faces which are difficult to encompass with such brevity. However, we can try to summarize a list of challenges in order of perceived priority as follows:

1. The most important and difficult challenge is the epistemological one; that is, revising the methodologies used in religious studies from their very core to draw a blueprint of their underlying assumptions. Today, we are in urgent need of clarifying the logical paradigm that ought to be adopted in religious studies. Should it be Aristotelian logic, inductive logic (al-istiqrā’), or another logical paradigm? Our religious seminaries have not ceased to be highly dependent on traditional Aristotelian logic, and this leads to the presumption among students and teachers alike that it is the only logical paradigm which can be used to systematize thought, while in fact it has been critiqued heavily in the contemporary period. We do not mean to say that this form of logic, over which much religious thought has been constructed, is barren; rather, we only seek to draw awareness to the developments in logic in the last few centuries. It is important for religious discourse to not be tied to a single mode of logic, defending it as though it is a sacred methodology and casting conspiratorial aspersions on those who critique it.

It appears that the step that Shahīd Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr took in his “The Logical Foundations of Induction” would have been critical had it been destined to survive. Unfortunately, the religious climate did not sufficiently respond to the level of discourse demanded by this thesis, aside from a superficial analysis of some of its propositions that certainly demand study. Even the students of Sayyid al-Ṣadr themselves did not sufficiently labor behind further practical development of this theory. I believe that had these endeavors been allowed to grow in the religious sphere, they would have had formidable and long-standing repercussions.

2. Another important challenge is transcending the merely polemical inclination of apologetics in dealing with religious issues. By this, we don’t mean to say that we should no longer defend our religious principles, God-forbid; rather we should open a parallel discourse that is even more pressing in the current age: revising our interpretation of religion in a way that seeks to remedy its practical weaknesses and intellectual gaps. Simply limiting ourselves to defending the creed without gathering the courage to critique ourselves will eventually lead to the compounding of our internal methodological defects, whether via ignoring them or seeking to justify them. Eventually, this will result in us being confronted by several extremely difficult issues next to impossible to reconcile down the road. Religious thought today is therefore charged with the project of revising its fundamental precepts without allowing itself to be consumed in the furnace of defensive apologetics.

3. Religious theory in the current age also faces the challenge of confronting reality. The revolution of Imām Khomeinī had enormous consequences that are hard to fully enumerate; however, a very significant one was that it subjected Islāmic (Shī’ī) religious thought to practical and direct experimentation. The last two decades have revealed the defects in the iteration of religious thought proposed by Imām Khomeinī, specifically in establishing a government and building a religious society governed by Islām. A great number of jurists today are convinced that the currently espoused religious paradigms of fiqh and uṣūl are no longer capable of answering the exigencies of today—in turn this exposes the weakness of the current jurisprudential theory as a whole. Several Shī’ah jurists believe that the central problems are not secondary to the cliched justification of “It’s the Muslims not Islām” or “It’s the application not the theory.” They are convinced that the jurisprudential theory itself, as derived by human thought, also suffers from core issues that need to be resolved. In fixing this problem, it will not suffice to accuse Muslims of misconduct or a lack of correct application of principles, even if these two issues may have a role that should not be ignored.

4. Another significant challenge is related to the sources of knowledge; religious thought relies on three principal sources: rationality (al-‘aql), intuition (al-qalb), and credal texts (al-naṣṣ). It appears that a methodology derived from credal texts and bolstered by rationality is the most formidable, although the religious experience of Shī’ah Iran has precipitated a heavy influence for intuition and epiphany owing to the large historical Persian literary corpus of mysticism. However even today we have not ceased to witness confusion about how to epistemologically envision religious thought, and we continue to witness extremist views about how to manage these three epistemic sources. So long as this issue remains without an even perfunctory solution, we will remain in a constant and unproductive loop of conflicts.

Of course, these are just some of the major challenges that I believe Shī’ah religious thought must constructively address.

2. If we would like to acquaint ourselves with the current views on the reform of religious thought in Iran, how could we summarize them?

Perhaps we could summarize the various methodologies of religious thought in the following manner:

1. Traditional Textualism (al-Turāthī al-Qadīm): this is the view that believes in the traditional hermeneutics of theology and uṣūl al-fiqh. It seeks to preserve the previous structures of thought (these are best embodied in the writings of al-Bayḍāwī), although there is occasionally an inkling of evolution or divergence. There are many marāji’ in Iran that adopt this view and it has a formidable current of support in the religious seminaries especially in Qum and Mashhad. This group is further divided into two subgroups:

a) A group which opposes any project to establish a religious state, believing that this is solely the responsibility of Imām al-Mahdī (ajtf).

b) A group that opposes any effort to revise Shī’ah religious beliefs, heading a movement of theological confrontation.

2. Contemporary Textualism (al-Turāthī al-Jadīd): this is a view that opens itself up to many contemporary viewpoints, believing that the terminology of fiqh, uṣūl, and philosophy has evolved. They also believe in some minor evolution in religious precepts and hold that it is necessary to present the religious corpus in a new manner. Their leaders often head institutions for revising religious texts and these leaders include prominent marāji’ in the seminaries such as Nāṣir Makārim al-Shirāzī, Sayyid Maḥmūd al-Shāhrūdī, Shaykh Bāqir al-Īrwānī, Shaykh Ḥasan al-Jawāhirī, Shaykh Miṣbāh al-Yazdī, etc.

3. Political and Revolutionary Textualism (Al-Turāthī al-Thawrī wa al-Siyāsī): this group tends to intersect somewhat with the first and second groups on various fronts and is headed by Āyatullāh Alī Khāmeneī. This group is distinguished from the other two by taking a political and sociological take on religious discourse. It often evolves with political life and is very invested in evolving jurisprudential theory in the interests of the Islamic government. As such, it often promotes the development of fiqhī concepts that fit under the purview of the Khomeinī paradigm of employing Islamic jurisprudence for the sake of establishing a religious government. It is in this context that we see a great deal of evolution in the jurisprudential theories of securing public interests (fiqh al-maṣlaḥah), government (fiqh al-dawlah), and sociology (fiqh al-mujtama’). Among the pioneers of this view include Āyatullāh Imāmī Kāshānī, Āyatullāh al-Taskhīrī, Āyatullāh al-Shāhrūdī, Āyatullah al-Jīlānī, Āyatullah Muḥsin al-Kharāzī, etc.

This movement also tends to focus relatively more on defending Islām with rationality, given that it is often challenged by the products of Western thought. Therefore, it will often seek to defend itself against the intellectual ramifications of views held by Soroush, Malekian, Shabestari, Kadivar, etc. Among the leaders of such critiques, we find Shaykh Ṣādiq Lārījānī, Dr. Muḥammad Jawād Lārijānī, Dr. Abdullāh Nasrī, Shaykh Miṣbāḥ al-Yazdī, Shaykh Alī Akbar Rashād, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Wā’iẓī, Dr. Yaḥyā Yathribī, etc.

I believe that this group has served religious thought under political premises in ways that cannot be denied. From one angle, it has given primacy to philosophical thought in the Shī’ah mind, drawing from Imām Khomeinī and Allāmah Tabātabā’ī as its sources; from another angle, it has escaped the web of literalism that is heavily featured in the fiqh of textualism while evolving the notion of fiqh al-maṣlaḥah and general political jurisprudence despite their persistent limitations.

However, the current political climate in Iran recently has perhaps been the reason for some of the conservatism that remains attached to this view.

4. Traditional Revisionism (Al-Ittijāh al-Tajdīdī Dākhil al-Fikr al-Madrasī): this group has enacted several essential changes to jurisprudence and claims as its pioneers Sayyid Muḥammad Jawād al-Mūsawī al-Iṣfahānī (who dismantles the view of khabar al-wāḥid in his teachings) as well as Al-Ṣādiqī al-Ṭehrānī who relies heavily on the Qur’ān for deriving his fiqh. It should be said that this group primarily focuses on doing away with some of the influential terminologies used in fiqh such as ijmā’, shuhrah, al-sīrah al-mutasharri’ah, etc. It also seeks to attack the basis of the theory of khabar al-wāḥid.

Subsumed under this heading is also the school of tafkīk based out of Khorasān and led by Ustādh al-Ḥakīmī; this group seeks to separate between the three modes of religious thought alluded to earlier (intellect, intuition, and credal texts) and in turn has important epistemological consequences.

5. Radical Revisionism (Al-Ittijāh al-Tajdīdī Khārij al-Fikr al-Madrasī): this group relies on conclusions wrought from outside the framework of traditional religious teaching and it is possible to survey some specific individuals here:

a) Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Modarresi Tabātabā’ī, who has sought to critique religious thought from a historiographical lens, whereby he has derived certain conclusions about Shī’ah fiqh and theology.

b) Abdolkarīm Soroush who has based his experience on the philosophy of science, trying to critique religious thought epistemologically from outside the religious fold. Soroush’s thought is best characterized as a mixture of current Western thought on the philosophy of science and Ṣūfī mysticism derived from the writings of Rūmī, Hāfez, Sa’dī, etc.

c) Muḥammad Mujtahid Shabestari who has tried to dismantle the notion of sanctimony attached to religious sciences, viewing them from a humanistic lens. In Iran, Shabestari and Soroush together have proposed a new approach to theology that fits with the exigencies of contemporary humanism. They state that it is not possible for religious understanding to remain insulated as exclusively Islamic; rather, it must necessarily be derived from a fusion of religious and environmental realities. This proposal for a new theology has received a great deal of attention among Iranian scholars and researchers, leading to important conferences attended by the likes of Shaykh Jawādī Āmulī and Dr. Abū al-Qāsim Fanā’ī. Shabestari also has a great deal of contributions about religious pluralism, freedom, and human rights that we will not have the opportunity to survey here.

d) Muṣtafā Malekiān who believes it is necessary to not only study religion from the rational perspective but also from a perspective of spiritual and psychological conviction. He calls for the establishment of a philosophy of religion that critiques religion from the outside and as such he has proposed a philosophy of fiqh that seeks to objectively analyze and comprehend its principles away from ideological inclinations. This theory enjoys support even within the religious seminary such as from Shaykh Mahdī al-Mahrīzī. The philosophy of religion has been a paramount issue in Iran and many thinkers have participated in it including Fanā’ī and Soroush.

The efforts of this latter revisionist group have been extremely fruitful and have triggered unprecedented intellectual movements only rivaled by the Iranian revolution and constitutionalization. It is necessary to read the body of literature triggered by this movements with careful attention towards benefiting from the rich knowledge they bring to the table.  


  1. The full article can be found here for advanced readers: https://hobbollah.com/hewarat/%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D9%83%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1/