Humanizing Enemies: Iran’s Post-Religious Intellectual Discourse

by Jahandad Memarian

In Iran, intellectual discourse is moving in a new direction. Mostafa Malekian, one of the highest-celebrated intellectuals in the country, is slowly gaining a following tantamount to Abdol Karim Soroush, often described as the “Martin Luther of Islam.” This indicates a shift from the primarily religious paradigm toward one concerned with the modern human condition.

Soroush’s work was a key part of increasingly popular reformist beliefs, including secularism, freedom, and civil society. The Khatami administration was born out of this discourse, which had both domestic and international implications. During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, Iran’s foreign policy entered a new phase: from confrontation to conciliation. Similarly, Malekian offers a way to inevitable frictions in non-violent and constructive ways in Iran’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and deeply political society. This new discourse might spill over to interstate relations as well. Malekian’s compelling work, which is highly respected by scholars in the field, has received a raft of recent, overwhelming attention from students and journalists alike. He is currently the most sought-out lecturer at universities and research centers throughout Iran.

Malekian has devoted his life to decreasing the pain and suffering of others. His thoughts are unprecedented in the tradition of modern Iranian intellectual heritage. His rhetoric cannot be contained within existing genres; secular, religious, traditional, or even liberal are not big enough boxes. His approach is irreverent to other discourse, due in large part to his incredible reverence for life. Says Malekian:

I am not concerned with the tradition, nor for the modernity, nor for the culture and nor for any other abstract stuff of this kind. My foremost concern is with the humans of flesh and blood who are coming into this world, suffer, and then pass away. Our journey in life is to, first: Make human beings encounter the truth more and more so that they learn more truth; second, to suffer less and to feel less pain; and third, to develop our dispositions toward being good people. And to make these three targets happen, we are allowed to employ whatever is useful, be it religion or science, art or literature, and all other human achievement.

Malekian’s exegesis represents a welcomed turning point in Iran and establishes a new philosophical genre: “Rationality and Spirituality.” Unlike other religious intellectuals, Malekian feels that human spirituality can remain mutually exclusive from membership with organized religion, and that, perhaps more importantly, organized religion is not always the key to achieving spirituality.

Malekian sees a separation of modern humans from what might be described as “traditional humanity.” The evidential signs of this new modernity include autonomous rationality, a focus on the present, a lack of trust in former historical “truths,” and a growing, urgent concern for this world–for the current space we occupy–rather than the eternal or whatever great beyond may be waiting for us. The main trait of modern humans is self-determinism, which is derived solely from rationality. This characteristic enables us to break free from that which reigns over human life. For this reason, it’s not possible for humans in our modern culture to accept traditional religious values any longer. Instead, Malekian argues, what humans need is spirituality, a practice he defines as “religion that has become rational.”

In a former time, the traditional approach to religion called for followers to obey authority figures, to trust completely in a religious tenet’s historical underpinnings, to dedicate their lives solely to “life” after death and the rich promises of that afterlife, to respond openly and unquestioningly to a comprehensive metaphysical system, and to hold specific entities sacred. Malekian argues that, as a result, traditional intellectuals are inherently anti-democratic, anti-modern, and anti-liberal.

“Religion,” Malekian explains, “is beyond rationality and reasoning,” and for this reason, he suggests, efforts to reconcile religious views with views on reason–which is what religious intellectuals like Soroush continue to pursue–are unsuccessful. Our world has already undergone the age of enlightenment and there is no going back. Not only is it impossible, Malekian questions why we would even want to. This type of regression would undermine many of humanity’s achievements.

According to Malekian, three key reasons make spirituality desirable for modern humans: (1) It is not rooted in text. This freedom and lack of boundaries from scripture means that the very best, most uplifting, generous, and healing parts of every major world religion can be incorporated seamlessly under the umbrella of spiritual belief. In turn, this provides a type of openness to each religion’s sacred texts that was not previously accessible. (2) Metaphysical speculations reside at a minimum, with focus shifted instead to spirituality’s “psychological testability in this world.” (3) Ethical and practical values and ideals are honored over theoretical ones.

Malekian believes that in our once more traditional world, religion functioned as a way to highlight the greatest causes of human suffering alongside ways to recover from that suffering. But now spirituality can work toward that same goal, only without adherence to the strict, unbending guidelines found in so many traditional religious doctrines. Malekian’s spirituality denotes joy, inner peace and hope that exists in harmony with rational thought and action. The consequence of these achievements come in the form of compassionate action by the spiritual individual.

Writes Malekian:

I am very interested in the topic of love, and it is something that has not been emphasized in Islamic theology. In Islam and Judaism the emphasis has been on justice. Law overcomes morality. Justice sometimes is compatible with violence, but love cannot be compatible with violence. (Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers after the Revolution)

For Middle Eastern countries that are prone to conflict–such as Iran–philosophies rooted in love, compassion, and spirituality are particularly relevant, essential, and crucial today. Discord between polarized, warring factions pits different ethnic, religious, political, or socioeconomic classes against one another with little chance of cooperation or compromise from any side. With Malekian’s philosophy, those lines can be erased as differing groups find commonalities in shared spiritual sentiments and compassionate daily living.

Malekian examines the world–and humanity–through two lenses. The first is through a justice perspective, which includes individuals who make their ethical decisions while guided by principles of equality, fairness, and impartiality. The second is through a care perspective, which emphasizes compassion and attachment, preserving human relationships and minimizing hurt even at the cost of justice or equal rights. Malekian advocates for all of humankind to adopt a care perspective due to the way it aligns itself with the tenets of spirituality and harmony.

Mindful compassionate living or this philosophy of care is the reason Malekian advocates for individuals–all individuals–to unchain themselves from conflict, not only in our personal and professional lives but in our social and political lives as well. Compassion allows us to extend beyond the self, to take on the viewpoint and the pain of others and bear them as if they were our own. Malekian’s discourse is also a promising model of conflict resolution for Iranian society; it facilitates tolerance, coexistence, reconciliation and the humanization of enemies at a global level.

— Jahandad Memarian is a senior research fellow at Nonviolence International, a Master alumni in Western Philosophy from the University of Tehran, and a former Iranian Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara (2010-2011). Prior to that, Memarian was a researcher at the Iranian Parliament Research Center and worked as a journalist at Hamshahri Newspaper.

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One Comment

  1. I am encouraged and refreshed after reading of the growing popularity of Malekian’s ‘teachings’ in Iran
    but wonder if the analogy of Martin Luther to the teaching of Soroush is correct since Luther was adopted by the Nazis Party as the ‘Christian fount’ of German ‘anti-semitism’.
    My view is based on my belief that the humour, knowledge and sophistication of the Iranian people has been ‘kept’ from the populations of the present Western World for too long and that both groups are the losers as a result: hence, the need for a rapprochement between Iran and the Western World as soon as possible which, may now have been ‘advanced’ by Malekian’s thoughts.

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