The Reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in the Islamic Republic of Iran
1. Introduction: A Historical Encounter between Spinoza and Iran
2. A Book Not to Be Given to the Vulgar
Almost all Muslim philosophers after al-Fārābi were inspired by his idea that prophets are different from philosophers. My own opinion more or less has been based on al-Fārābī’s attitude. Of course, you can find the reflection of these ideas in Spinoza as well. Someone who wrote an article criticizing me said that ‘Soroush has taken his words from Spinoza’. Spinoza took his words from Maimonides who took his words from al-Fārābī. The fact is that if someone does not know these roots, he will wrongly attribute these ideas to Spinoza, since Spinoza took them from al-Fārābī.17
3. Spinoza’s Critique of All Revealed Religion
During the doctoral course in philosophy at the University of Tehran, I felt the need to dedicate my doctoral thesis to that part of Spinoza’s philosophy that is not welcome in Iranian academic research, that is, his theories of reason, revelation, religion, and government. (p. 2)
4. Spinoza and Judaism
According to him (Spinoza), the Jews hate all other peoples. This hatred has become second nature to them because they foster it every day in their liturgy. Their manner of worshipping God not only differs from that of other peoples but is also contrary to them. … Even good qualities that he may find among his brethren derive from their (Satan) evil nature. (In Spinoza’s view) The unity of Jewry and their present affection for one another derive from their hatred for all other peoples, and as a result all other peoples hate them. The destruction of their kingdom (Palestine) was because the Lord also hated them’.
5. A New Reading of the TTP
After reading Khomeini’s ideas on the notion of the theologian as political guardian of the people (Vilāyat-i Faqīh), I was petrified. I started to ask questions about the hijāb and human rights, but Khomeini said ‘now is not time to think about that’.40
My father was sent to Paris by the [Iranian] National Front to figure out what Khomeini’s plans were. Khomeini told him to tell his friends that they would know about his plans in due time. (p. 194)
If the shocking message of the execution of a young Kurdish Iranian fighter44 proves the correctness of the philosophical ideas of Spinoza who lived and thought and wrote in another language more than three hundred years ago, it is because they are both warriors in a constant human battle. They are unknown friends of each other who unite to defend the natural right to freedom of thought and judgment. The weapon of one is thought and pen, and of the other action and life.45
6. The First Complete Translation of the TTP
I translated the book for the public, and as an intervention in the current situation in Iran and, god-willing, Afghanistan, and not for a scholarly audience … my face was turned more in the direction of the seminarians than the university students, sort of the Collegiants and Socinians of our own out of joint time. So, I was trying to hint that Spinoza’s original insight into the salutary or at least acceptable function of religion, that is obedience to God and charity to one’s fellows, is in harmony with the Qur’ān and in reading the Qur’ān in light of Spinoza’s approach, they might very well begin with this verse.58
It is not righteousness That ye turn your faces Towards East or West; But it is righteousness To believe in Allah And the Last Day, And the Angels, And the Book, And the Messengers; To spend of your substance, Out of love for Him, For your kin, For orphans, For the needy, For the wayfarer, For those who ask, And for the ransom of slaves; To be steadfast in prayer, And give Zakat, To fulfil the contracts Which ye have made; And to be firm and patient, In pain (or suffering) And adversity, And throughout All periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.59
I was after denouncing theology, not ordinary people’s religion, as I believe that Spinoza identifies religious evil at the down of modernity not with religion per se, but more with theology and the lofty political and intellectual ambitions of those who wish to exclude our understanding of religion from our understanding of nature, in the sense he has of nature, of course. So, I was at the same time honest when I placed that verse at the beginning of the book to protect it from evil eye! But I also placed a verse of Quran as the epitaph of the book to, performatively as it were, nail Islam and its holy book right inside and onto the TTP’s translation and graft it into the reader’s mind throughout the entirety of the course of reading it. I wanted to foreclose any possibility of evasion and distantiation, and to make sure, in so far as possible without provoking unwelcome reaction, that the reader was unable to avoid thinking about himself, his own faith and his own time, that is of Islam, Muslim scripture, the political ambitions of Muslim theologians, and the ruling theocracy, while reading about them in the stories of others.61
Never does Spinoza intend to insult the Qur’ān here; this is a mockery of the readers of the Bible who read the Qur’ān superficially and casually. As if it were a book from a strange land that, although it has exciting adventures, its moral teachings have nothing to do with themselves. By now it should be clear to the reader that, to Spinoza, reading scriptures in such a way means reading them in an inappropriate and superstitious manner. (p. 205)
Spinoza did not complete his TTP for a scholarly purpose, because it is a book of practical wisdom. This becomes clear when we understand why Spinoza put aside the Ethics for a while in order to compose the TTP, of course without abandoning his fundamental philosophical insights. Spinoza aimed to intervene in the affairs of his time and to contribute to the betterment of his world.65
If we look at the growing number of translations of his [Spinoza’s] work, and the books and papers published on his life and philosophy, we see clearly that his thought is becoming ever more popular. One could perhaps attribute this welcome to the necessity for the rethinking of the Enlightenment project in our time, a time that if we cannot say is altogether bewildered, we can say of it that it sees in astonishment that the problems it thought it had put behind for good are catching up with it, and confront it once again, as if the specter of the past is out pacing it into the future. Consequently, such problems as the relationship between state and religion, religion and morality, and morality and state are once again occupying our minds. Luckily, our country and our language Persian are expeditiously making us a contemporary of the world, such that it can be confidently said that we are more than ever before in modern times close to the edge of human progress and its troubles to an extent that it is no longer possible to disentangle our destiny from the destiny of the world …. It is for this reason that Spinoza is no longer unknown among us. (p. 8)
If you were a Bahāʾī67 in Iran, you would precisely understand what a predator the multitude can be. I am therefore a complete Spinozist and Machiavellian. And I consider Spinoza to be a completely revolutionary philosopher because of his emphasis on the concept of security and the paradigm shift in the philosophy of politics. This strand of Spinoza’s thoughts is important for us Iranians now not to enter it as a stereotype, but to enrich our thought by entering into an augmenting relation with the thought of Spinoza, in other words, to make a comparable philosophical attempt.68
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‘Mais, toutefois, les deux hommes que les philosophes de ma connaissance ont la plus grande soif de connaitre, c’est Spinosa et Hegel; on le comprend sans peine. Ces deux esprits sont des esprits asiatiques et leurs théories touchent par tous les points aux doctrines connues et goûtées dans le pays du soleil. Il est vrai que, pour cette raison même, elles ne sauraient introduire là des élé-ments vraiment nouveaux’. Seidel  (p. 339); and Manāfzāda  (pp. 105–107) also discuss ths section of Gobineau‘s book.
Notwithstanding the title of this chapter, (Did Spinoza adapt his philosophy from Mullā Ṣadrā?), Corbin himself does not believe that Spinoza took his philosophy from Mullā Ṣadrā, see .
‘How it can happen that men who are necessarily subject to affects (by P4C), inconstant and changeable (by P33) should be able to make one another confident and have trust in one another, is clear from P7 and IIIP39. No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm. By this law, therefore, Society can be maintained, 21 provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil. In this way Society has the power to prescribe a common rule of life, to make laws, and to maintain them—not by reason, which cannot restrain the affects (by P17S), but by threats. This Society, maintained by laws and the power it has of preserving itself, is called a State, and those who are defended by its law, Citizens’  (p. 519). I adopt the system of the Studia Spinozana in referring to the Ethics.
In 2009, and at the same time as the widespread protests in Iran, the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the purification or cleansing of the humanities, ‘Teaching many humanities in universities causes disbelief in God and Islamic teachings’.
Islamic Republic of Iran’s ’reform era’ lasted from 1997 to 2005—the length of Khatami’s two terms in office. On the structure of power in Iran after Revolution, read more in .
For instance, in 1996 Muḥammad Ḥassan Luṭfī translated the Karl Jaspers’s Spinoza, in Die grossen Philosophen into Persian ; published by Ṭarḥ-i Nu in Tehran.
Call interviews with Yūsuf Nawẓuhūr and Muṣṭafá Shahrāeīnī in October and November 2020.
‘After Dr. Nasr had read the translation, he told me it was very good but too much. I hope to publish this book after editing’. See the interview Mehr News Agency with Jahāngīrī.
Additionally, several other universities in Tehran, including Shahid Beheshti University (1973–1975).
See  (pp. 203–204). See also, an interview with Jahāngīrī conducted by Mehr news agency on 15 November 2007. ’I consider Spinoza the deepest and most accurate philosopher after the Renaissance. Descartes, predecessor and according to Spinoza, the brightest star of that era, was more knowledgeable than Spinoza, but Spinoza was more philosophical than Descartes. Descartes wanted to develop a philosophy based on the modern sciences of his time, which was as far as possible compatible with, or at least not opposed to, the principles of Christianity. Thus, he was always concerned and not free in his philosophical reflections. However, Spinoza had no worries, he thought completely freely and independently, his philosophical thoughts were only based on the principles and findings of human reason, and neither the Torah of Moses nor the Gospel of Jesus has any sway on him, so to speak. Although Descartes seemed more religious than him, I think he is morally superior not only to Descartes but to all Western philosophers. According to Bertrand Russell, he is the most noble and beloved great philosopher of the West. Among post-Renaissance European philosophers, I do not know any philosopher who is as fascinated by philosophy as he is. Spinoza devoted his whole life to philosophy and thought of nothing but philosophy: neither did he marry, nor amass wealth, nor seek a position. Unlike Descartes, he was indifferent to courts and courtiers and did not even accept a university professor position. He loved philosophy undeniably and was so preoccupied with scientific thought and philosophical reflections that he seemed to have forgotten everything else, so that once when he was in Rijnsburg did not even leave house for three months’; see Jahāngīrī’s foreword to the Ethics  (p. 13). Frederick Pollock and Will Durant are two scholars whose works Jahāngīrī referred to.
Interviews with Yūsuf Nawẓuhūr and Muṣṭafá Shahrāeīnī, October and November 2020; Qur’ān 3: 193: reference to translation used ‘Our Lord!, we have heard The call of one calling (Us) to faith, ‘Believe ye In the Lord,’ Additionally, we Have believed. Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, Blot out from us of Our iniquities, and take To Thyself our souls In the company of the righteous’.
See a short documentary on Jahāngīrī’s life, February 2012, prepared by Society for the National Heritage of Iran.
See the interview Mehr news agency with Jahāngīrī, ‘As Spinoza himself noted in the Preface to the book, he wrote it for philosophers who have the power to understand the meaning and non-philosophers he advised to refrain from reading it. I also do not consider it advisable at the moment to publish the translation that makes it available to the public’.
Eventually, as will be seen later on, he said so to a student who wanted to write a thesis on the TTP. It is interesting to know Ali Ferdowsi, on the contrary, translates the whole book in the hope the Shai clerics will read it.
For an analysis of Popper’s political ideas, see .
See the Persian lecture by Abdolkarim Soroush in Paris ‘Guftan az Ḥiss-i Nahān’, transcribed on (drsoroush.com) accessed on 12 May 2021.
The written English response, 15 April 2021.
See YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXtRmu8EoZg) accessed on 2 March 2019.
He has been named as ‘having encouraged or issued Fatwā, or religious orders’ for the 1998 chain murders assassinations of five Iranian dissidents. See, Akbar Ganji, The ‘Master Key’ in Chain Murders (iran-press-service.com) accessed on 12 May 2021.
Ironically, Soroush himself, was once one of the earlier fans of orthodox movements leaded by the Ayatollah Khomeini to the degree that he was one of the key decision-making members in the Cultural Revolution council, which after the 1979 revolution closed universities for three years (1980–1983) and, after reopening, banned many books and purged thousands of students and lecturers from the schools.
Daryoush Ashouri, Iranian translator of Nietzsche’s works, considers the Majid Sharif version fluent and authentic. Call conducted on January 2021.
‘Alī Murād Dāvūdī was professor in ancient philosophy at the University of Tehran. One of his most enduring works is a Persian book called The Theory of Reason in the Peripatetic School: From Aristotle to Avicenna, which still is one of the main sources for philosophy students in Iran.
Many articles of A Collection of Essays are elaborations of publications that had appeared previously in different Iranian Journals. For example, see .
He used the English version of the TTP by Elwes, and the secondary literature of Pollock, Alisson, Parkinson and Wolfson.
The interviews in October and November 2020. See also, An interview in the short documentary on Jahāngīrī’s life. See also, Jahāngīrī’s foreword to the Ethics,  (p. 17), ‘although Spinoza benefited from great philosophers such as al-Fārābī and Avicenna, he remained alien to Islam during his life’.
The interviews, October and November 2020.
Call interview, January 2021, ‘the scientific need of the early modern time was clearly in conflict with the religious prevailing, especially with regard to natural laws, and it appears to be a fact that Spinoza sought to resolve theological problems of his era through scientific interpretation of the Bible, which is to be found in all Abrahamic monotheistic religions’.
See  (pp. 3–4), ‘Although explicitly stated in the text, it is important to note here that Spinoza’s assessment of revelatory knowledge, prophecy, miracles, etc. in the context of 17th-century European thought, especially his philosophy in relation to Judaism and Christianity are understandable. Since Spinoza, like many Western philosophers, did not well know the truths of the religion of Islam and the Holy Qur’ān, his philosophy has nothing to do with this comprehensive religion with its divine dimensions. Therefore, it is not even applicable to Islam. Everything Spinoza has thought and written is only about Judaism and Christianity’.
See  (p. 245), where he argues that ‘according to Spinoza, those who do not observe the distinction between philosophy and theology are inevitably caught up in the debate over whether to make the sacred texts subject to reason or vice versa. That is, whether the themes of the Bible should be reconciled with reason, or whether reason should be used in such a way that it would not come into conflict with the contents of the scripture’.
See  (pp. 248–249), ‘This means that the task of the Kalām is to determine the principles of human belief because they are necessary for obedience. ... what Spinoza means by Kalām here is revelation, and in this view there is no conflict between the precepts of revelation and reason, but not in the sense that they are compatible with each other, because each forms an independent domain’.
Call interview, 10 January 2021.
See  (p. 207), ‘in Spinoza’s political philosophy, there is an element of libertarianism, and this is what distinguishes him from Hobbes, and brings him closer to Locke and Rousseau. According to Spinoza, religion can also play a social role and support civil society by pervading the moral life of the masses promoting justice and goodness’.
The importance of this trope can be seen as fear of censorship forced Ali Ferdowsi, the translator of complete Persian translation of the TTP, to delete a discussion of it in the introduction of his TTP translation, as he wrote to the author of this paper.
See verse 3 of Surah Āl ‘Imrān: ‘It is He Who sent down To thee (step by step), In truth, the Book, Confirming what went before it; And He sent down the Torah (Of Moses) and the Gospel (Of Jesus)’.
See (shahbazi.org) accessed on 12 May 2021.
See Jewish Studies Center (jscenter.ir) accessed on 12 May 2021.
See also the TTP 17, § 80,  (p. 1105).
See (iranrights.org) accessed 12 May 2021.
Call interview with Ladan Boroumand, conducted in August 2020.
In Persian, 25 Khurdād 1388. A presidential election took place on 12 June 2009 and caused a significant controversy when the office of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad almost immediately announced that the sitting president had won the election as he had received approximately two-thirds of the votes.
See ‘How Iran is trying to win back the youth’, by Narges Bajoghli, in The Guardian.
Call interview with Daryoush Ashouri, conducted in January 2021.
Ehsan Fatahian was a Kurdish Iranian activist, who was executed on Wednesday, 11 November 2009, in Sanandaj Central Prison after being sentenced to death by the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic for allegedly being a member of the armed wing of Komalah. He was 28 years old.
See (iranrights.org) accessed on 12 May 2021.
Named Dāvūd Mahdavī-Zādigān.
See (qudsonline.ir) accessed on 12 May 2021.
Read Hasana Sharp’s view for more precise discussions on Spinoza and women: Spinoza’s paternalistic concern in the Political Treatise is that women depend on men to such an extent that they cannot desire their own advantage because they are constrained to reflect the desires of those on whom they rely to survive. If this is grounds for excluding them from the commonwealth, it is because this dependency obscures in women an adequate knowledge of what is genuinely good for them, and thus what is good for all. Likewise, Spinoza notes that male rationality is undermined by female presence, and men, too, are prone not to desire the genuine conditions of freedom, but instead to pursue the parochial pleasures of feminine favor. Spinoza seems concerned that men and women legislating together would result in an inability to live by the divine and rational precept that is imaginatively conveyed in the history of the first man: “He who does good from a true knowledge of good, acts freely with a constant purpose, but he who does good from fear of suffering injury, is simply driven to avoid what is bad, such as a slave, and lives at the command of another [sub imperio alterius vivit]  (p. 577). In the final words of the Political Treatise, he presents women as provokers of irrationality, and thereby, similar to beasts, contrary to the nature of men. He observes that feminine beauty arouses passion in men such that they become changeable, inconstant, and contrary to one another and even to themselves  (p. 578). See also .
Another contemporary Iranian thinker who emphasizes the importance of the twentieth chapter of Spinoza’s TTP is Sayyid Javād Ṭabāṭabāī who called it ’a declaration of freedom of philosophizing and critical thought’; read more in .
Video call interviews with Ladan Boroumand, August 2020 and January 2021.
According to the Iranian Research Institute for Information Science and Technology (IranDoc), since 1991, about 46 theses on Spinoza have been defended in Persian. Many universities have not registered student theses in this database for many years. Therefore, it is assumed that the number of theses about philosophy of Spinoza, which are mainly Master‘s theses, is more numerous. There are also 75 Persian articles about Spinoza registered at the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies Tehran. Most of these theses and articles reflect topics that are most frequent in Spinoza courses in Iranian philosophy departments. Based on a document provided by the Supreme Planning Council of the Ministry of Science of Iran—revised 2 May 2017 at the University of Tehran, (p. 35)—the Ph.D. curriculum in the major of Early Modern Philosophy, Spinoza course, mainly dealt with traditional topics. The first master thesis dates back to 1991. It is only in recent decades that the popularity of Spinoza’s political and theological views has increased among humanities departments and non-academic approaches to Spinoza have been applied through Marxist readings.
See Nina Power: Antonio Negri in Iran, 4–6 January 2005, House of Artists and Centre for Dialogue Among Civilizations, Tehran; 7 January 2005, Isfahan/Radical Philosophy. See also the online session about Spinoza in the Agora Philosophical Forum (in Persian) organized by Jahanbegloo. A year later, he was kidnapped on his way to an international conference in Brussels by agents of the Islamic Republic.
The written English response to the author of this article, 26 January 2021.
See ‘I Am Not a Spy. I Am a Philosopher.’ (chronicle.com) accessed on 12 May 2021.
See (bukharamag.com) accessed on 12 May 2021.
I interviewed Ali Ferdowsi twice, on 1 September and 15 December 2020.
A collection of poems by Sultan Ahmad, a Jalayirid king who ruled parts of the present-day Iran and Iraq in late 14th and early 15th century, and corresponded with Hafiz, his great contemporary poet.
The written English response, 17 December 2020.
Qur’ān 2: 177.
The written English response to my questions, 17 December 2020. ‘I do believe that what Spinoza says about the Old Testament and Moses and all the other prophets applies to the Qur’ān and to Mohammad and wished to suggest that one could profitably extend the whole method, most of the arguments, and the book’s core understanding of the place of religion in the life of our species to Islam too. In other words, I was trying to direct the reader’s attention inward, and foreclose the often defensive move of reading such books as if they are about other religions, or peoples or times and not ours. More specifically, I did not want TTP read as if it was simply a rejection of Judaism, and an endorsement of any other religion. One can never be sufficiently careful about anti-semitism’.
The written English response, 15 April 2021.
‘To assuage any fears the censors might have by showing that this book is not against the Qur’ān as a religious book. I could do so because this did not contradict my own beliefs. TTP is against theology, a misreading and misappropriation of the holy books, and not the books themselves’ (the written English response, 17 December 2020).
See  (p. 78), ‘Hence if anyone reads the stories of holy Scripture and believes all of them without paying attention to the doctrine that the Bible uses them to teach, and without amending his life, he might just as well read the Koran or the dramatic plays of the poets …’.
‘…although I cannot deny that I was tired of the kind of appropriation that (forgetting ontology, epistemology and historical context) compares Sadra and Spinoza as if they were modern university professors in the analytical tradition debating scholarly theories. Spinoza was not a scholar of that sort, as were neither Nietzsche or Marx. I believed then at the time of deciding to translate the TTP, and believe it even more strongly today, that Spinoza himself too saw TTP as an urgent and timely intervention in the course of history. This choice of objective by Spinoza, which I assumed to belong to the very nature of TTP, had implications for my approach to the translation’; the written English response, 17 December 2020.
Call interview, 15 December 2020.
The written English response, 15 April 2021.
As discussed earlier, ‘Alī Murād Dāvūdī was one of the first victims of violence against the Bahāʾī. ‘Bahāʾīsm emerged as an independent religion in the 1860s from the heterodox Shī’ī sects of Shaykhism and Bābism and was named after its founder Ḥusayn ‘Alī Nūrī Bahāʾullah (1817–1892). Bahāʾīsm promoted a cosmopolitan worldview which stood in contrast to Islam’s claim to universality and Shī’īsm’s ethos as a persecuted minority  (p. 234). ‘The 1979 Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic elevated the otherization of the Bahāʾīs into an integral component of the official state ideology and policy. Although the Shī’ī clergy now dominated a powerful state apparatus, they still regarded the small Bahai minority as both an ideological and political threat to Iran and Islam’  (p. 238).
Call interview, 1 September 2020.
The written English response, 15 April 2021.
See (blogfa.com) accessed on 12 May 2021; see also the online session about Spinoza in the Agora Philosophical Forum (in Persian) organized by Jahanbegloo.
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Mirzaei, S. The Reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Philosophies 2021, 6, 42. https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies6020042
Mirzaei S. The Reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Philosophies. 2021; 6(2):42. https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies6020042Chicago/Turabian Style
Mirzaei, Sina. 2021. "The Reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in the Islamic Republic of Iran" Philosophies 6, no. 2: 42. https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies6020042