Scholar Emerges As The Martin Luther Of Islam -- His Interpretation: Freedom Of Thought, Democracy Essential

TEHRAN, Iran - Abdol Karim Soroush is an unassuming figure. Small-framed, bespectacled and tenderly soft-spoken, he looks almost fragile as he sits at the big, round oak table in his office at the Research Institute for Human Sciences here.

But this gentle man is shaking the foundations of a faith that claims a billion followers. Both supporters and critics now call him the Martin Luther of Islam - a man whose ideas on religion and democracy could bridge the gulf between Muslim societies and the outside world.

"Soroush is challenging 13 centuries of thinking," said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. "He is proclaiming that understanding of religion is all relative. Put another way, no one interpretation is absolute. It is not fixed for all time and place. Who can say what God meant? This opens the door to all kinds of new ideas, political as well as religious."

An Islamic Reformation?

Soroush and contemporaries - such as Tunisia's Rashid Ghannouchi, Egypt's Hassan Hanafi and Algeria's Mohammed Arkoun - are shaping what may turn out to be Islam's equivalent of the Christian Reformation: a period of questioning traditional practices and beliefs and, ultimately, of upheaval.

Already, Soroush's impact extends far beyond the realm of religion. His writings are framing a new debate about political change - not just for Iran but for the Middle East.

In the region of the globe that has most resisted change, few ideas are more pivotal to the future than the relationship between Islam and democracy. Although the Iranian government has not formally reacted to Soroush's writings and teachings, many senior mullahs and officials are widely thought to feel threatened by his words.

But, contrary to the acclaim, Soroush does not seek, nor even welcome, media attention.

A bimonthly magazine called Kiyan, which means "source" or "soul," was founded in 1991 primarily to air his columns and the debate they have sparked. It now has subscribers in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Soroush is almost reclusive. Against the hustle and honking din of downtown Tehran, the quiet chambers of the institute where Soroush is dean of faculty seem like a sanctuary. In his office, soft music plays.

"Islam and democracy are not only compatible," he began, "their association is inevitable. In Muslim society, one without the other is not perfect."

Soroush, who is in his late 40s, speaks deliberately and in English. Among a long list of academic credentials, Soroush did graduate work in philosophy at the University of London.

"I have given two bases," he said. "The first pillar is this: To be a true believer, one must be free. To become a believer under pressure or coercion will not be true belief. And this freedom is the basis of democracy.

"The second pillar in Islamic democracy is that interpretation of religious texts is always in flux," he added. "Those interpretations are also influenced by the age you live in. So you can never give a fixed interpretation."

Everyone is entitled to an interpretation. Although some may be more scholarly than others, no one version - by a cleric or layman - is automatically more authoritative than another.

For the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as other Muslim societies, the practical implications of Soroush's words are profound - although he refuses to spell them all out.

"I will be better served if I do not get entangled in such political affairs," he said. "Let other people draw the implications and consequences."

Separation of church, state

The most basic are equality and empowerment of ordinary believers. As did the Reformation, Soroush's argument establishes the rights of individuals - in their relationship both with government and with God. And like democracy anywhere, the beliefs and will of the majority at the bottom define the ideal Islamic state. It can't be imposed from the top or by an elite, such as the clergy.

With haunting similarity to thinking during the Reformation, in which Protestants split from the Roman Catholic Church, Soroush's arguments in effect divide the roles and powers of church and state. That would be a stunning shift for the only major monotheistic religion that provides a set of rules by which to govern society as well as a set of spiritual beliefs.

But like Luther, the 16th-century German theologian who inaugurated the Reformation, Soroush is not abandoning the values of the faith. He instead argues against elitism.

Islam, he says, is a religion that can still grow. He believes in Sharia, or Islamic law, as a basis for modern legislation. But he views Sharia less rigidly than does the traditional clergy.

For a growing group of followers, Soroush represents the hope of reconciliation, both within Islam and between Islam and the outside world.

"He is finding ways to reconcile Islam and modernism for educated Muslims who have had problems with traditional Islam," said Mohammed Reza Bouzari, a businessman and Soroush follower for almost a decade. "He shows how understanding changes day by day, year by year. This is the only way to save Islam in the modern world."

Soroush prefers to avoid comparisons with Luther.

"I'm just a writer and a thinker," he said. "I'm not thinking of doing things like Luther did.

"Although," he paused, "perhaps Luther did not know what he was doing at that time."

He laughed easily. "But I am well aware that these ideas, if taken seriously, might be of some use or help some radical change in the way we look at religion."