These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.
Lesson 13 – July 7th, 2021
This is the last lesson of our series, in which we covered various interpretations regarding revelation, from the view of theologians, all the way to the view of those who consider it a religious experience.
In this lesson I will give an overview of some of the major critiques that have been offered on Soroush’s theories regarding revelation. Some of these critiques have been mentioned by various scholars, while some of them are my own which I have published in some of my works. I do not find some of the critiques by some scholars are valid or even strong, but I will be mentioning them anyways.
Before going over these critiques, I just want to clarify something for those who are not aware of contemporary Shī‘ī scholarship, especially within Iran, who may think most of these critiques, or the best critiques against Soroush are by scholars of the seminary. This is not accurate at all, and in fact, a lot of serious critiques on Soroush actually come from scholars who are known to be religious and political reformists themselves. I am simply making this point because some people think anyone who critiques Soroush must be from the religious seminary, or that his critics must all have very traditional views regarding religion and politics. This is not true at all, and as a matter of fact, a lot of his critics have very similar ideas on the role of religion in politics and also regarding religion and hermeneutics, but may differ on his interpretation of revelation.
I will summarize eight of these critiques:
1) A number of critics have said, Soroush’s assumption that faith (īmān) constantly needs to be renewed, and that this can only happen by revisiting religious texts and reinterpreting them is fallacious. Critics say, truth and falsehood are linked with the past or present; meaning just because something is old does not make it right or if it is new it does not make it true, likewise just because something is old does not make it wrong, nor does something being new make it false. These are logical fallacies.
Faith is a state and condition of the heart, and though understanding of religion plays a role in strengthening it, this connection does not necessitate the revisiting of religion. Further, just because someone revisits the religion and its interpretation, does not mean they will necessarily arrive at new conclusions, when in fact sometimes revisiting past interpretations could also further affirm that they were correct.
The crux of this critique is that just because faith needs to be strengthened in the modern era, it does not mean a new interpretation of religion needs to be offered to strengthen it, when in fact one can strengthen it even by reaffirming or being reassured of the truth of the past understanding of religion as well.
2) Some critics have said, by linking revelation with religious experience, Soroush has essentially negated any epistemic value for revelation, as there is nothing being revealed to the Prophet and rather everything is his own personal interpretation. According to Soroush’s theory, we gain knowledge by utilizing the Prophet’s own interpretation of what he witnessed to get to the message Allah intended on revealing, and the Prophet’s own interpretation is meaningless for us.
These critics are not saying revelation is not religious experience, but that the Prophet’s religious experience has epistemic value for us as a source of knowledge, not just as a mere interpretation by him of what he experienced. The fallacy Soroush commits in his theory is that he compared the concept of revelation in Islam with revelation in Christianity. In Islam the Quran is a central component, it was revealed on Prophet Muhammad (p) and through this book Allah conveyed guidance to humanity, whereas in Christianity this is not the case. In According to Christians, Jesus (p) himself is that revelation to humans.
3) In Soroush’s first theory, he cites a few verses as evidence
رَّبِّ زِدْنِى عِلْمًا
[20:114] My Lord! Increase me in knowledge
كَذَٰلِكَ لِنُثَبِّتَ بِهِۦ فُؤَادَكَ ۖ وَرَتَّلْنَـٰهُ تَرْتِيلًا
[25:32] And those who disbelieve say, “Why was the Qur’ān not revealed to him all at once?” Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly.
Critics say these verses cited by Soroush to argue for revelation being a religious experience, do not prove his case, and on the contrary they prove it is not a religious experience. The supplication for increase in knowledge does not fit with religious experience, because religious experience does not give you knowledge, rather knowledge comes after religious experience. Revelation is knowledge that is revealed to the Prophet, where as religious experience is just an experience.
As for the strengthening of the heart by Allah over a period of time and that revelation was spaced out, reconciles more with the fact that the meanings and words were being sent down to the Prophet (p), not that it was a religious experience which the Prophet then constructed into words.
4) Another fallacy Soroush commits is that he makes an assumption and takes it for granted, which is that Prophet’s experience is the same as the experience of all other humans. This is a major assumption made by Soroush where he treats the Prophetic experience in this world as any other religious experience, so he investigates people’s religious experiences, analyzes them, and then assumes these same qualities to be true and present in the Prophet’s experience.
However, Soroush does not once even attempt to prove that the Prophet’s religious experience was the same natural religious experience other humans also encounter, and that it was not something extra-ordinary or different to what others experience. There is no way for Soroush to know that the experience of the Prophet was the same as other humans, and that it was not an exception that occurs with the Prophets.
5) Some critics have said that the Prophet’s religious experience in context of history is not accurate. Religious knowledge does not change or alter depending on history or the types of question people ask, rather historical occurrences and questions people ask are merely opportunities to explain and convey teachings and guidance. In other words, even if certain historical incidents did not happen or certain questions were not asked, guidance and the message of the Quran would still be conveyed, but at other opportunities.
Historical events and context are tools that are used to understand the meanings of the Quran, but they are not a component that make up revelation itself, as argued by Soroush.
6) The second theory of Soroush also faces a lot of challenges. One of the critiques against it is that, what rational being wants to bring change in the world and in societies, but decides to do all of that based on dreams that he is witnessing? What epistemic justification does a person have for this and why should anyone listen to them? On the one hand, Allah wants to take people out of darkness into light, and has an extensive value system for them, but yet not once does He tell people that this will be done through dreams that I will make the Prophet witness, allowing people to misunderstand the nature of revelation for more than a thousand-years. There is no way to epistemically legitimize these teachings for humanity, which are mere interpretations of what the Prophet saw in his sleep.
Furthermore, how does Soroush explain legal verses in the Quran that command us to pray, or to cut the hands of thieves, or to whip those who commit fornication? What was witnessed by the Prophet here which led him to interpret it as command tenses? Are these verses also symbolic or do they really mean what they are apparently implying? Unfortunately, Soroush does not offer a consistent explanation for these type of verses.
7) Soroush cites a number of verses as evidence for his second theory, however I think he exposes his weakness in the Arabic language when citing some of these verses. For example, does he not know that using a past-tense verb to imply something in the future is a common sentence structure in Arabic? This is very normal, and it is not even restricted to just the Arabic language.
There are verses in the Quran that use the present-tense verbs, but speak about the future as well. How can Soroush explain these verses, when the assumption is that the Prophet saw this dream in the past?
As for the concept of the Quran not being in any clear order, or that verses are all over the place and some of them end abruptly, then it seems Soroush is ignoring the fact that the Quran was revealed over 23 years. The Quran is not organized in its historically chronological order, and it was not meant to be compiled in the language or style of the books of philosophers, logicians or jurists.
Finally, as for the contradictory verses of the Quran, Soroush ignores all the efforts of Muslim exegetes in reconciling and explaining these apparent conflicts away and takes these apparent contradictions on face-value. Perhaps Soroush is not convinced by the efforts of the exegetes in explaining these contradictions away, but the issue is that if these are dreams witnessed by the Prophet and they resulted in contradiction, how does that resolve anything for us? For example, what explanation, understanding and interpretation does Soroush have of [8:17]?
فَلَمْ تَقْتُلُوهُمْ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ قَتَلَهُمْ ۚ وَمَا رَمَيْتَ إِذْ رَمَيْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ رَمَىٰ ۚ وَلِيُبْلِىَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْهُ بَلَآءً حَسَنًا ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
[8:17] And you did not kill them, but it was Allah who killed them. And you threw not, when you threw, but it was Allah who threw that He might test the believers with a good test. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing.
I want to make a point here: I believe Soroush and many other scholars of Islam today have detached themselves from the literary culture of the Arabs. Particularly philosophers and mystics, whom Soroush is influenced by heavily, are often emerging from Persia and are many times not acquainted with the literary heritage of Arabic and how language conventions worked. For this reason, I believe a verse like above is only seen as a contradiction because some scholars look at it from the lens of a very precise philosophical lens.
If we look at this verse from its literary perspective, and how Arabic was spoken amongst the Arabs, there is no conflict at all, because the verse is not teaching a rule of physics or mathematics. The verse needs to be interpreted as a sentence, not as separate words, meaning you throwing the arrow has no value, rather it was Allah’s assistance, care and providence that was supporting you when you threw that arrow.
If the Quran says, [44:29] So neither heaven nor earth wept over them, nor were they reprieved; it does not mean that the heaven or earth can shed literal tears, rather this sentence in Arabic means no one was there to cry for them. These type of interpretations can only occur when someone has dived deep into Arabic literature and understand their prose, poetry, use of proverbs and idioms, which unfortunately our seminaries have become very weak in. Unfortunately, even jurists and legal theorists who believe religious text should be understood in this manner, they themselves do not always abide by it and fall into issues that they create for themselves due to them perceiving language of religion as a philosophical or mathematical language.
The historical evidence or reports cited by Soroush which say dreams are a part of revelation and prophecy, also do not help Soroush because those narrations are saying prophethood is not dream, as dreams are only one part whereas the majority of it is not from dreams. Even the Mi‘rāj, even those scholars who believe it was a spiritual experience and not a physical one, they do not all say it was a dream, rather it was a vision. In fact, if Soroush believes a spiritual experience only happens in dreams, then he should also acknowledge all the visions of mystics are also mere dreams which is not the case.
8) The last critique I want to mention against Soroush is that he thinks he has solved a lot of issues regarding religion, revelation, and hermeneutics with this theory of dreams. However, does it really solve anything, or does it make things more complicated and challenging?
We want to ask Soroush, let us acknowledge revelation and the Prophet’s religious experience was indeed a dream, but what is the method by which we can understand and interpret the Quran? What method and system has Soroush offered us to understand the religious texts? This is not an easy task to do, scholars have spent centuries working on a system to interpret the Quran – with the assumption of it being a language of wakefulness as Soroush says – but what is the system to interpret the Quran if it is the language of dreams? Further, what grants such a probative force, how is its binding force established?
With his theory, Soroush makes life even more difficult, because we have close to nothing historically speaking that tells us what the Arabs understood when certain objects were witnessed in dreams. How do we know what seeing the sun in a dream meant for an Arab at the time of the Prophet? Even if such data existed, is it reliable? In fact, who says what the Arabs understood from what was witnessed in dreams is binding?
There are many questions that Soroush’s theory does not answer, and instead of resolving, the theory actually makes things much more complicated and leaves us with questions some of which simply cannot even be answered.
We have tried to offer a really brief overview of critiques offered on Soroush, and with this we have completed our short series on the reality of revelation. There are many other discussions related to revelation which we did not have time to cover in our short series. Many people message me to ask me my own personal opinion on the matter, and while I do not wish to present my opinion in these short lessons, the truth of the matter is that revelation is a very complex phenomenon and requires far too much thought and reflection to come at a final conclusion. As we have already seen, every group has their set of arguments and each of those groups also have critiques and observations on them too, so this is a discussion that requires further reflection and engagement.
We pray to Allah (swt) to grant us the opportunity to study further and I hope this short series opens up our mind and offers some new horizons for further engagement with this subject.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.