Aramesh Doostdar, controversial Iranian philosopher, died on October 27, 2021 at the age of 90. He was born on May 24, 1941 in Tehran to a Baha’i family, though he was an atheist for most of his life. He was a staunch critic of the religiosity of Iranian society, claiming that Iran’s religious culture, not only in the post-Islamic period but also in pre-Islamic ancient history, brought about what he called the total lack of questioning in the society. Hence, his main thesis was “the impossibility of thinking in a religious culture.” Doostdar believed that this uncritical culture has been dominant in Iran since the formation of the first Iranian dynasty, the Achaemenids, and has continued up until the present day, as its symptoms can even be recognized in contemporary intellectuals.
“Doostdar believed that this uncritical culture has been dominant in Iran since the formation of the first Iranian dynasty, the Achaemenids, and has continued up until the present day, as its symptoms can even be recognized in contemporary intellectuals.”
Diagnosis of Iranian Culture
Faced with the predicaments of contemporary Iran, Doostdar diagnosed Iranian society with an ailment: a lack of questioning. Iranians, he held, do not propose any serious question of a philosophical nature on the fundamentals of existence. That is why no development or progress can be seen in the society, which he portrays as being plunged into stagnation.
Doostdar identifies Iranian culture, into which religion is deeply embedded, as the cause of this problem. A religious culture does not allow serious questioning and thinking whatsoever. Hence, Doostdar’s main and overarching thesis, which is repeated in all his works, is the causal link between religious cultures and the total lack of questioning in Iranian society (Doostdar, 1992, p. 29).
Doostdar traces this phenomenon to ancient Iran, when Zoroaster claimed that had encountered Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian God, who taught him Divine truth. In a religious culture, Doostdar writes, such a Divine truth cannot be questioned (Doostdar, 1992, p. 115). Doostdar also believes that the Achaemenids’ claim on the establishment of a divine kingship played an important role in diffusing this religious culture throughout Iranian society and culture (Doostdar, 1992, p. 123). Islam gave this religious culture a new life. A strong reason why Islam was able to spread all over Iran was the religious context of the latter’s ancient culture (Doostdar, 1992, pp. 88-95). Doostdar argues that with different religions reinforcing the same culture, Iranians were doomed to remain religious (Doostdar, 1992, p. 125). The translation of ancient Greek philosophical texts, in the Translation Movement of the 8th and 9th Centuries, did not make a difference to these circumstances, as Farabi’s and Avicenna’s writings do not point to real philosophical questions (Doostdar, 1998, pp. 244-245). This situation has continued to the modern era, and even Western-influenced intellectuals, such as Akhond-Zadeh, Marxist thinkers and people like Al-Ahmad could not escape the Iranian religious culture. Hence, despite all claims of emancipation, in the last one and a half centuries ago, we were as unquestioning as before (Doostdar, 1998, p. 13). What these intellectuals have done was no more than social or ethical critique that did not go beyond a discussion of routine issues of ordinary life (Doostdar, 1998, p. 10). Deep philosophical questions have never been raised.
“According to Doostdar, one can be Marxist with apparently anti-religious beliefs, but still deeply stuck in a subservient religious culture (Doostdar, 1998, p. 257).”According to Doostdar, one can be Marxist with apparently anti-religious beliefs, but still deeply stuck in a subservient religious culture (Doostdar, 1998, p. 257). For Doostdar, religious-mindedness does not necessarily mean a belief in religion and supernatural entities, but it is an attitude identified with religions, in which piety means avoiding unconventional questions and thought. A religious-minded person always needs an authority to rely on. He observes red lines and avoids posing questions incompatible with clichés dominant in society. Doostdar maintains that religious-mindedness is alien to questioning and understanding, and this is a symptom of religions, though it is not confined to them (Doostdar, 1998, pp. 43-44). It has been the characteristic of our culture from its very beginning and has continued across its diverse manifestations (Doostdar, 1992, pp. 114-115).
Scornful of Iran’s religious culture, Doostdar praises Western civilization, and particularly ancient Greek culture, which he describes as unique among all other cultures. According to him, Greek culture enjoyed art, tragedy and comedy as well as philosophy and abstract thinking. Modern Europeans are true students of ancient Greece, as they learned from it but did not remain mere pupils. They developed and expanded what they learned from the Greeks (Doostdar, 1992, p. 249). For Doostdar, only ancient Greece and the contemporary West have posed serious questions. Hence, no society and the world, at large, can do without the West, if they are to evade stagnation. Irrespective of the unforgivable and irredeemable harms that the West has done to others, it is undeniable that the best works in any aspect of life or in any area of research, discovery and invention have been achieved in Western culture (Doostdar, 2008, pp. 9-10).
“Doostdar argues that faced with the West, we, Iranians, have reacted in three ways: feeling no need to learn from the West and its knowledge; combining our own heritage and the achievements of the West; or listening to some Western thinkers and assuming that we have comprehended the core of Western philosophy (Doostdar, 1998, p. 86). “
Doostdar argues that faced with the West, we, Iranians, have reacted in three ways: feeling no need to learn from the West and its knowledge; combining our own heritage and the achievements of the West; or listening to some Western thinkers and assuming that we have comprehended the core of Western philosophy (Doostdar, 1998, p. 86). The third reaction was that of most Iranian intellectuals, who never transcended beyond the imitation of Western philosophers. We should not assume that we think in the same way that Western thinkers do, or that we have similar issues at hand, Doostdar argues (Doostdar, 1998, p. 86).
Doostdar’s diagnosis of Iranian culture has been subject to many criticisms by Iranian critics, such as Dariush Ashoori, Mohammad Reza Nikfar and Seyed Javad Tabataba’i. Doostdar’s metanarrative of Iranian cultural history is based on unjustified generalizations and extrapolations that ignore the complexities of the culture. He uses only one factor, that is, the capability to pose what he calls serious questioning, to explain more than two millennia of Iranian cultural history that covered a large swath of land from the Central Asia to the Perian Gulf. He, then, reduces all the intricacies of this culture into one issue, i.e., religious-mindedness. According to Doostdar’s essentialist account of Iranian culture, the only type of change in the history of this culture has been the replacement of one religion by another. Claiming that Islamic and Iranian cultures do not ask the most fundamental questions, he disregards many other types of questions that are asked and responded to in its history, as the latter type of questions do not comply with his definition of a serious question and what he finds worthy of asking.
“Doostdar’s Cartesian account of rationality has long been criticized by postmodernist thinkers as being one-dimensional.”Antagonistic towards religion, he is not able to see the richness of the questions posed in the long history of Iranian culture about religion or within religion, let alone in other areas of thought and scholarship. To make Iranian cultural history fit into his preconceived notions of how religion inhibits critical thinking, he distorts the culture in such a way that it does not resemble the lived, vibrant Iranian culture, nor does it resemble any other actual culture.
Doostdar’s Cartesian account of rationality has long been criticized by postmodernist thinkers as being one-dimensional. Such thinkers have shown that explaining the whole human history, or even a culture, by one or even several metanarratives can only be done at the expense of overlooking the various diversities and complexities of human history and culture. In Doostdar’s elitist thought, only one group of people and one culture with one type of questions are to be taken seriously, and others and their questions are not only lesser, but are totally worthless, philosophically speaking. He is scornful of ordinary people who live a routine life of repetition of daily concerns and needs, and do not think and pose any serious question (Doostdar, 1998, p. 50). For him, unless a person tries “to shatter the domination of religious-mindedness,” he does not deserve to be called a thinker, no matter whatever else he does or reflects on.
“…Doostdar’s account undermines the prospect of any political and social development in Iran. He sees Iran’s religious culture, constituted and buttressed in successive periods, so all-encompassing that any escape from it and any transition towards a developed society would be impossible.”Apart from the above critique, we must also recognize that Doostdar’s account undermines the prospect of any political and social development in Iran. He sees Iran’s religious culture, constituted and buttressed in successive periods, so all-encompassing that any escape from it and any transition towards a developed society would be impossible. In a society where nothing has happened in thousands of years, why should we expect any change now? Within a stern culture in which no serious question was posed throughout history, fundamental question can never be raised. Doostdar inadvertently and deterministically dashes any hope of change and development in Iran. That is why Tabataba’i, another prominent Iranian philosopher, has argued that Doostdar’s account of Iranian cultural history is “a recipe for collective suicide” (Tabataba’i, S. J. (2017), “Resale’i dar naqd-e tez-e ‘emtena’-e tafakkor-e Aramesh Doostdar,” Farhang-e Emrooz, no. 18, p. 66).
Doostdar’s main publications
Doostdar, Aramesh (1981), Molahezat-e Falsafi dar Deen va ‘Elm: Binesh-e Deeni va Did-e ‘Elmi [Philosophical Considerations on Religion and Science: Religious Attitude and Scientific View], Tehran: Nashr-e Agah.
Doostdar, Aramesh (1992), Emtena’ Tafakkor dar Farhang-e Deeni [The Impossibility of Thinking in a Religious Culture], Paris: Entesharat-e Khavaran.
Doostdar, Aramesh (1998), Darakhshesh-hay-e Teereh [Dark Radiations], Paris: Entesharat-e Khavaran.
Doostdar, Aramesh (2008), Khishavandi-e Penhan [Hidden Kinship], Bahram Mohyee (ed.), Cologne: Entehsarat-e Foroogh and Nashr-e Dena.
Doostdar, Aramesh (2018), Zaban va Shebh-e Zaban, Farhang va Shebh-e Farhang [Language and Pseudo-Language, Culture and Pseudo-Culture], Cologne: Entehsarat-e Foroogh.
Seyed Mohammad Ali Taghavi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran, Iran, and is affiliated with the University’s Center for Culture and Communication Research. His previous appointment was with Ferdowsi University of Mashhad (2004 to 2020). He received his BA and MA from Tehran University and his PhD from the University of Hull, the UK. His research interests are: Islamic and Western political thought as well as Middle Eastern studies. His publications include The Flourishing of Islamic Reformism in Iran: Political Islamic Groups in Iran (1941-61), RoutledgeCruzon: London, 2005 and Foundations of Political Thought and Practice in Islam, SAMT: Tehran , 2013 (in Persian). Dr. Taghavi was a Visiting Scholar with the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University from September 2016 through May 2017.