Acceptance Speech by Daryush Shayegan


(© D. Shayegan 2010)

The Iranian centre for dialogue of civilizations was created in 1977 with the participation of Iranian National Television, the University of Farabi and the Institute of Cultural research. Our project had from the outset two purposes. Firstly why of all the countries of the world we should be the one to undertake such a task? And secondly what were the aims that we wanted to achieve?

The first question is probably connected to the particular cultural situation of our country. Iran holds a special place in the Islamic world. Deep down, Iran remains a world at the crossroads of two great spiritual continents: on the one hand it looks towards the East, its language and its immemorial myths associate it with India and the Indo-European world, enjoying, so to say, the same pantheon of Gods and linguistic heritage, and, on the other hand, its position of bordering upon the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and its conflicting relationship with ancient Greece render it incontestably a neighbour of the Western world. Placed between the two worlds, Iran has played the role of privileged intermediary, an inevitable bridge between continents. That is why also the French scholar René Grousset calls Iran a veritable « Middle Kingdom» (Empire du Milieu) in the heart of ancient world. We know, for example, that there existed an Iranian form of Buddhism, the iconography of which influenced classical Persian poetry, we also know that in the 2nd century the Parthians and Sogdians, all Iranian ethnical groups, were active agents of the spread of Buddhism in China and that Iranian Messianism and eschatology infiltrated late Judaism after the liberation of the Jews of Babylon and their integration into the Achaemenid empire founded by Cyrus. One can provide many such examples, however the fact remains that Iran is still, in every sense, a country both mediator and median, as much in its capacity to assimilate these multiple influences and to recreate them in original form as in its inexhaustible efforts to elaborate the most impressive and prodigious syntheses. It is not an accident that a philosopher like Sohravardi, as early as the 12th century, dares to combine the prophet Zarathustra with the sage, Plato, and to reunite them in the prophetic lineage of the Abrahamic tradition. After the conquest of Iran by Islamic armies and the fall of Sasanid empire, we still witness during the Abbasid period, (the golden age of Islamic civilization) what Bernard Lewis calls the « Iranian Intermezzo»,[1] namely the emergence of a «new Iranian Empire under a veneer of  Persianized Islam».[2] The impact of Persian literature and the reputation of its poets were so overwhelming that after the fall of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, all the north of Islamic world was dominated by Persian civilization, with its centre in the Iranian Plateau, extending westwards to Anatolia and beyond and eastwards into the Central Asia and the new Islamic Empires of India. All these facts and the historic destiny of this «Middle Empire» compelled us to assume once again that role and to inaugurate a cultural centre capable of accomplishing that particular task.

Our goals were manifold. The most prominant in rank was, in my opinion, to resume once again cultural links with great Asian civilizations which were interrupted because of Western domination of the world. We knew that these cultural ties had been extremely fertile in the past, especially by virtue of schools or translations. For  example the translations of the Canon of Mahâyâna Buddhism from sanskrit into Tibetan, then into Chinese, and later into Japanese. Or the translations of classical sanskrit texts into Persian during the Moghul rule in India in 16th and 17th centuries, which gave rise to a host of highly interesting syncretistic schools of thought. Let me just mention, as an iconic figure, the Imperial crown prince Dârâ Shokûh, son of Shâh Jahân, the fabulous builder of Tâj Mahal, who not only translated with an amazing clarity and ease fifthy Upanishads from sanskrit into Persian but also wrote a book called «The Mingling of two Oceans» (Majma’ al Bahrayn) that is to say Hinduism and Islam, which caused his death. He was accused of heresy by his brother the shallow fundamentalist Awrangzib and savagely executed. Thus ended the sad story of a brilliant, lovable and enlightened prince, martyr of his work of tolerance and with his death vanished also irretrievably the hope of reconciliation between the two communities upon which depended more than ever the unity of India. Some say nowadays that if Dârâ had succeeded in his endeavour, there would not have been any partition of Pakistan and India after the independence of the subcontinent.

Our second purpose was to organize seminars and symposiums on most sensitive subjects by inviting scholars from all parts of the world. We had time only to manage one big symposium on the following theme: Does the planetary impact of Western thought permit a dialogue amongst civilizations? All the papers in English, French and German and the discussions that followed were later published in their original languages and Persian translations. We also had programmed several art exhibitions on pre-colombian, Indian and Japanese art. For this purpose I made several long trips to India, Japan and later to South-America. But the sudden explosion of Iranian revolution put an end to all our projects deemed by the new power as a futile luxury.

Our third purpose was to create a substantial library on all human sciences and art. We managed to accumulate in a very short span of time 40000 volumes. Here I have to thank particularly Reza Qotbi, the President of the Iranian National Television. Had it not been for his unpretentious generosity and his unselfish encouragement, we would not have been able to undertake and accomplish such an immense task. I also must thank my colleague Hossein Ziai, an eminent scholar on Islamic philosophy, member of our board of direction, who is a now the head of Iranian Studies at UCLA, for helping me assiduously in all our fields of activity.

Finally our last purpose was to set up new centres affiliated to our own in three countries : Egypt, India and Japan.

Our method of work

Our method of approach was comparative. What were the problems common to all of us who were caught between colliding worlds? What were our constant concerns and mental preoccupations or as the Russian Intelligentsia of the 19th century used to call our «accursed questions» (questions maudites), by which they meant of course cultural identity versus change and otherness, or if you will, encounter between tradition and modernity, historical gaps between different world-views, atavistic resistances, mental blockages, in brief cultural schizophrenia? Could we surmount all these differences by bridging our incommensurable differences? Whence do they arise? Has an Indian, an Arab, a Japanese the same attitude towards the mutations of modern times? There were of course many unanswered questions, but the essential method was to pose them bluntly without any preconceived ideas and prejudices. What I noticed in my comparative studies was astounding. I found out that almost all great Asian civilizations stopped creating after the 17th and 18th centuries. These two centuries were a turning point in the history of the world. The 17th century was dominated by the Cartesian innovation of systematic doubt and the Method of questioning, and the 18th century by the Enlightenment and criticism, its apogee was of course the Kantian philosophy. The Asian civilizations missed all the dramatic breakthroughs of modern times: the Renaissance, the age of Reformation and the Enlightenment, they remained on the sidelines of the changes shaking the world, of historic upheavals that transformed the landscape of our planet till the second half of 19thcentury. Few examples. The great synthesis of Islamic thought in Iran was completed in the 17th century during the reign of the Safavid dynasty (1571-1722). The Renaissance of the school of Isfahan, the impressive achievement of Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzî (1571-1640) brouht together a number of convergent currents and fused them together in the crucible of a prodigious synthesis. Sâdrâ was almost the contemporary of Descartes; while he was putting the finishing touches to an ancient movement of thought and adding the last stone to the imposing edifice of Islamic metaphysics, Descartes was short-circuiting the past and hacking out new avenues which were going to make man into the founding authority of the universe. All subsequent developments in Iranian philosophy have been, in a sense, commentaries on Sadrâ’s oeuvre, whose metaphysical content will never be surpassed. We could say almost the same thing about India and China.

S. Radhakrishnan identifies four periods in Indian philosophy: the Vedic period (1500-600BC), the Epic period (600BC-AD200), the period of the Sûtras and the Scholastic period which ended in the 17th century. All the schools of thought accepted by Brahmanism –except Buddhism and Jainism, considered as heterodox religions- were confined in very short texts called sûtras (very condensed formulations easily consigned to memory). It seemed appropriate to write commentaries on the commentaries, then again commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries, and so on. This whole literature of commentaries, which are often very tedious but of great technical rigour, constitutes the Scholastic period. This period saw also an extraordinary development of Indian thought, a sort of flamboyant Gothic shyscraper with an architectonic splendour unsurpassed in the history of civilizations but which ended by suffocating under its own weight. From the 17th century onwards, Hinduism was out of breath : there could be no more creation, only repetition, mannerism and eventually sclerosis.

China too was showing signs of exhaustion by the beginning of the 17th century. The great periods of Chinese history sprawl across nearly 4000 years, from the Xia dynasty (2207-1766BC) to the end of Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing period was a time of great compilations, encyclopaedias and literary collections. An attempt was made to catalogue what had been accumulated, to measure the present against the models of the past, to get back to the original sources of classical period (Tang dynasty 618-907), by stripping away the layers of supposedly fallacious commentary with which the canonical texts had become encrusted. But it did not innovate, or launch an era of new insights or creative visions. Even Joseph Needham who was an unconditional admirer of Chinese science and thought admits that, although the Chinese were inventive pioneers in many domains: they invented the compass, the gunpowder and the paper and movable type printing, they never reached the premises of modern science which, according to Needham, rests on three pillars: the Galilean mathematisation of the world, the geometrisation of space and the generalisation of the mechanical model.

The decline of Asian civilizations brought their mutual cross-fertilizations to an end. The era of great translations leading to fruitful encounters between India and China, Iran and India, China and Japan came to a halt. These civilizations turned away from each other and were mainly oriented towards the Western world. They withdrew from history, entered a phase of expectation, refrained from renewing themselves and lived increasingly on their accumulated legacy. One is almost tempted to agree with Hegel that the Weltgeist was deserting the areas where culture had been extremely rich and was now taking asylum in the West. In one of my books, Cultural Schizophrenia, I called this withdrawal in oneself, this loss of touch with the changing realities of the world :«On holiday from History» (en vacance dans l’histoire).

On Holiday from History

What we really intended to do in our centre was, taking into account the epistemological shifts of knowledge, to renew a dialogue with these old civilizations and try to put an end to the phenomenon of « On holiday in History», in other words to resume a fresh cross-cultural contacts. What were, for instance the major cultural concerns of an Arab, an Indian, a Persian with regard to their traditions? How did they cope, so to say, with the new scientific and technological mutations that shaked their worlds? We knew that by the late 19th century when the non-Western civilizations were brought face to face with the technological power of the West, the modern age had already reached the apotheosis of its expansion and had undergone numerous paradigm shifts. As Michel Foucault states so pertinently in his evocative book : «The Order of Things» (Les mots et les choses), Order had replaced Analogy and then been unseated in its turn by History. The non-Western worlds were confronted, all at once, with a whole well-wrapped package of human sciences in which anthropology was sovereign and historicity was seen as the essential human dimension. The only epistemological tools available to help these defenceless civilizations assimilate the new world came from a knowledge of pre-modern type. They still inhabited a pre-Galilean world in which analogy, sympathy, magical relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, occult correspondences between things and beings were the prevalent principles of understanding. In short they lived in an enchanted world of projections, alienated in a world of analogies, where the old similitudes had ceased to be a source of certainty, they often tilted at windmills like Don Quixote.

This withdrawal from history can also be discerned to a certain extent in Latin America. Octavio Paz rightly points out that although the Iranians, Indians and Chinese, belonged to non-Western civilizations, the Latin Americans were actually an extension of the West, connected umbilically to Spain and Portugal.[3] Consequently they represent one of the American poles of the West, the other consisting of United States and Canada. But there is a fundamental difference between North and South America. For while the North Americans were born at the  same time as modern world, along with Reformation and the Encyclopaedia, the Latin Americans marched onto the world stage under colours hostile to the modern world,[4] those of the counter-Reformation and neo-Scholaticism. Hence the particular nature of Latin America which is not really the third world, but is nevertheless very much a poor relative of the West. Paz concludes: «That is where the great split lies: where the modern age begins, there too begins our separation».[5] In other words this break with modernity and the social reality embodied in it meant that ideas could no longer find counterparts in social reality, could only become masks and ideologies. They thus became screens shutting off the subject and his vision from reality, and this led to a divorce between ideas and attitudes.. The ideas may be the very latest thing in political fashion, but the attitudes remain rooted in tenacious, stubborn atavism. Defining the attitude of Latin American intellectuals he adds: «The ideas are today’s, the attitude yesterday’s, they grandfathers swore by Saint Thomas, they swear by Marx, yet both have seen in reason a weapon in the service of a truth with a capital T, which it is the mission of intellectuals to defend. They have a polemical and militant idea of culture and of thought : they are crusaders.»[6]

In this perceptive remark the Mexican poet uses two different periods- yesterday and today- to depict two different ways of knowing and being, as if we were confronted with two different epistemes (Foucault’s terminology), one affecting psychic, emotional and atavistic attitudes, the other shaping modern ideas which come from outside. Between them lies the abrupt discrepancy, a split which is crippling because it divides being into two unequal and ontologically incompatible segments. Indeed it is precisely where they meet that all kinds of distortions arise, since the two parts like reflecting screens facing one another, become disfigured by the mutual scrambling of their images. But why? Because our own world has not been yet wholly disenchanted : the heavens have not been completely purged of their symbols, and projections persist there, albeit in seriously mutilated forms. Trapped between historicity and hermeneutics of symbols, we are reduced to every  imaginable sort of bricolage.


In fact these were our main preoccupations when we created the Iranian centre of dialogue. We wanted to resume a dialogue that had been brutally interrupted because of the successive onslaughts of modern times. We also wanted to understand and analyse our respective mental distortions and, learn from each other the different ways of surmounting our cultural idiosyncrasies, find, if possible, adequate solutions to our common problems. We thought that, given the spread of  modern ways of living and the global extension of new technologies, we shared somehow a common historical destiny. We also realized that in order to push further in this direction, we had to set up other centres in Africa and Asia. Three centres were supposed to be installed : one in Egypt under the direction of Osman Yahya a great Syrian scholar on Islamic mysticism especially Ibn ’Arabî, a centre in New Delhi and a centre in Tokyo under the direction of Toshihiko Izutsu, a Japanese scholar versed in Islamic philosophy, Buddhism and Taoism. Unfortunately the Iranian revolution put an end to our multiple projects and professor Izutsu whom I admired immensely passed away more than ten years ago. The dialogue of civilizations was later relaunched by the former president Mohammad Khatami as a cultural programme. It had a large echo all over the world. I don’t know whether they took into account our philosophical premises, but I know nonetheless that the idea flourished and was a success under his presidency.

After the revolution I lived for twelve years in Paris where I continued to pursue my research in intercultural relations. What struck me at that time was the nature of a religious revolution. In a book written in French: «What is a religious revolution?» (Qu’est-ce qu’une révolution religieuse?), I realized that a theocracy disguised as an utopian democracy is a perilous adventure and it leads fatally to the «Ideologisation of religion». Because once religion seeks power it is no longer in quest of eschatological transfiguration, but becomes an apparatus which acts as if what was to happen in future had already occurred, as if, in other words, the religious government had anticipated the messianic event of the last day. Religion was now trapped, as Hegel would say, in «the ruse of reason» and by trying to spiritualize the world it ended up by secularizing itself and by seeking to deny history it got caught, up to the neck, in its swamps.

Now let me conclude. What we were looking for in the nineteen seventies as a way out from our cultural dilemmas has now taken, by virtue of globalization and the huge electronic revolution of virtual reality, new forms of challenge. And whoever is geared to the accelerating rhythm of change must first, I think, understand that we live in a fragmented world of broken ontologies, a world in which the concept of interconnectiveness has been substituted to the old metaphysical foundations. And this interconnectiveness manifests itself at all levels of culture, knowledge and science: multiculturalism, plural identities, World Wide Web, holistic science. We live in a world of hybrid cultures where all levels of consciousness overlap each other.[7] If assumed with lucidity and without resentment this new mosaic configuration can enrich us, extending the registers of knowledge, enlarging the range of feelings, but driven back from the critical field of introspection –as in the case of an ideological tyranny and fundamentalism- these changes provoke blockages and disfigure like in a shattered mirror the reality of the world and the mental images.

We have to avoid at all cost all sorts of reductionism, we have to resort to new forms of looking at the world, we should perhaps adopt a combinatory and ludic art of managing the multiple layers of the mind. May be this approach is a third way, a way which escapes at the same time from monolithic visions of ideologies and from the illusion of unrealizable utopias.

DARYUSH SHAYEGAN, Tehran, January 2010.

[1] The Middle East, A brief History of the Last 2000 Years, Scribner, New York, 1996, p.81

[2] Ibid, p.75

[3] One Earth, Four or Five Worlds (Reflections on contemporary history), trans. H.Lane, Carcanet, Manchester, 1985.

[4] Ibid.

[5] La fleur saxifrage, Gallimard, Paris, 1984, p.74

[6] O. Paz, One Earth..op.cit. p. 164

[7] All these ideas have been developed in my book : Daryush Shayegan, La lumière vient de l’Occident, Le réenchantement du monde et la pensée nomade. Éditions de l’Aube, 2001 et 2008