Rationalism in Shi’i Philosophy and Jurisprudence

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


Soroush Dabbagh


Soroush Dabbagh
University of Toronto Mississauga


by Sussan Siavoshi / Trinity University, San Antonio

“I do not deny that it was through the path of Shar’ that I reached to the centrality of independent reason.” With this statement Ahmad Qabel one of the most loyal students of Hossein Ali Montazeri made a clean break with the traditional jurisprudence and even distanced himself from his mentor.
Reason, despite its position as one of the four sources used by Shii jurisprudents for deciphering the divine rule, has always played a second fiddle particularly to Quran and the Hadith. Moreover, in jurisprudence reason was never treated as an independent agent. Even Montazeri, whose changed views on politics stunned many, never assigned a completely autonomous role to human reason. However, in his later writings, Montazeri, despite his refusal to shun the traditional limit on the role of reason, created a small opening that allowed his younger students to delve much deeper, although none did as fundamentally as Qabel. Mohsen Kadivar’s position on human reason, for example, remained somewhere between those of Montazeri’s and Qabel’s. In this paper I first trace the evolution of reformist jurisprudential view on the nature and role of human reason by analyzing the positions of these three men. I close the paper by addressing some of the possible implications of this evolution for the future of Shii jurisprudence.

by Kathleen Foody / College of Charleston

This paper explores sites within the Islamic Republic of Iran that lay claim to reason (ʿaql) as integral to Islamic modernity. I focus on the ways in which scholastic journals of the Islamic ḥawza, such as Critique and Perspective (Naqd va Naẓar), The Light of Learning (Nūr-i ʿIlm), Islamic Government (Ḥukūmat-i Islamī) and others, express a singular interest in reason as necessary for coming to terms with specifically modern problems. This paper draws on recent work in the study of Iranian Islam that has situated Iranian discussions of Islam within broader currents of modernity (Mirsepassi 2011; Matsunaga 2009; Dabashi 2008; Rajaee 2007; Jahanbakhsh 2002; Mirsepassi 2000) and extends these arguments to focus on the local and global imbrications of Iranian constructions of modern reason.

Academic studies of Islam often distinguish the operations of the ʿulamaʾ from the activities of secular intellectuals; in short, while religious scholars hold unreasoned or unassailable commitments, secular intellectuals publically debate knowledge. Only recently have anthropologists of Islam such as Talal Asad and others retorted that Islamic practices of offering judgments should not be understood uniformly as failure to allow reasoned debate. I do not suggest that the place of reason in the hawza debates mirrors the commitment to public reason articulated by either Iranian intellectuals or secular critics elsewhere. One cannot ignore either the history of Shiʿi commitments to reason as constitutive of humanity’s relation to revelation or the claims to authority embedded in discourses of Shiʿi Iranian ʿulamaʾ. I argue, however, that debates over reason in the hawza demonstrate that the arguments of classically-trained Islamic scholars are marked by novel readings of the relationship between rationality, scholarship, and modernity.

Here, I compare hawza journals to the productions of Iranian Muslim intellectuals and highlight the ways in which both projects define their engagements—specifically with ruptures they understand as modern—as requiring a reasoning subject. Both projects are marked by a singular interested in the rationality of the scholar and both discourses suggest that this rationality must be divorced in some measure from the learned traditions of the past. The quality of the present demands a radical redefinition of the practice of even Islamic reasoning. In this sense a specifically modern notion of reason has become embedded in the intellectual and theoretical apparatus of the Iranian Islamic scholars and their attempts to theorize not only the Iranian political situation, but Islamic knowledge in general.

by Alireza Shomali / Wheaton College

The doctrine of the disparity of the human intellects displays a lasting presence in the history of the Perso-Islamic thought. As such, it has conceptually contributed to a political ideology and reality: that is, the disparity of Iranians’ political rights. Democracy, it is resourcefully argued, requires that the citizens enjoy equal rights of authorship of the law (collective autonomy). According to the doctrine of the disparity of the human intellects, however, there exists a natural hierarchy among people’s intellectual faculties. In the Iranian case this epistemological verdict has been historically translated into a nondemocratic political belief according to which those with inferior shares of intellect – including, allegedly, women and the crowd – are naturally in need of the Wiseman’s authoritative guidance and guardianship. The residents of the city, therefore, cannot have equal rights of citizenship: they are not citizens but the subjects of the State. The doctrine of the disparity of the intellects is also a recurrent theme in the Perso-Islamic mysticism, particularly manifest in the authoritative relationship between the Morshed (the guide) and the Salek (the follower). We may conclude that the relation of authority – and not democratic equality – between the members of the Iranian society is legitimated by not only the philosophical but also the mystical elements of tradition. My paper studies the deep-seated doctrine of the disparity of the human intellects as it occasionally surfaced in medieval Perso-Islamic thought. I shall choose a philosopher (Nasireddin-e Tusi), a theologian (Abuhamed-e Ghazzali) and a mystic (Eynolqozat-e Hamedani) as representatives of their respective intellectual schools and examine how their belief in the disparity doctrine contributes to their affirmation of political despotism as the noble mode of statecraft. It is my contention that the mentality of the likes of these cultural figures continues to in part foreclose the possibility of democratic citizenship in the Iranian context. My paper’s contribution, therefore, resides in its critical reading of a significant intellectual barrier to the egalitarian idea of political rights in contemporary Iran.

by Mehdi Najafiafra / Associate professor at Islamic Azad University, Central Tehran Branch

The nature of death and of life after death are among the most important and contested subjects in the Islamic world. Philosophers and theologians have tried to interpret these issues from various points of view, on the basis of reason and of religious texts, especially the Koran. According to the philosophers, the existence of resurrection is obvious, since the refutation of reincarnation leads to the admission of resurrection. Cosmology, ontology, and anthropology directly affected the opinions of meta-physicians. Obviously, philosophers believed that God is the one irreducibly simple Being, whose essence is not composite. His first emanation is one and simple, as is God. This first creation is called the Intellect that can know and conceive itself and its cause. By knowing, it creates the hierarchy of existence including the subsequent intellects, spheres and the world of ideas and imagination. The world of imagination stands between the intellectual and the material worlds: It is called Barzakh in the Koran. It is an intermediate realm and has two aspects: Having shape and quantity, it is similar to the material world; but since it is without matter, time, and space --it also resembles the intellectual world. Avicenna and his followers do not believe in the imaginal world, but Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra have accepted it metaphysically. The world of imagination and Platonic Ideas and their cosmological results are controversial issues in Islamic thoughts. The question about the ultimate fate of human beings, on the other hand, is related to the resurrection. Whether humans are merely the body, or whether they have an immaterial aspect which is called the soul, can influence the religious belief about corporeal and spiritual resurrection. Some theologians have denied the immateriality of the human soul, and therefore they deny spiritual resurrection, while philosophers advocate the immateriality of the soul and spiritual resurrection. Avicenna has represented three viewpoints on the corporeal resurrection and finally denied it philosophically. Suhrawardi has accepted it only in the world of imagination and has rejected it in the world of lights. Mulla Sadra in the some of his works like Mafatih-al ghaib, has accepted corporeal resurrection in the purgatory, as has done Suhrawardi, and in other works he tried to prove its existence in the intellectual world. He has presented eleven principles to prove the corporeal resurrection, which is criticized by me.