The international symposium on the “Social, Ethical, Political, and Policy Implications of Islam’s Foundational Text: the Qur’an” was convened on November 10, 2010 in New York, New York, by the New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – the West. This symposium brought together an international group of scholars to participate in an intra–Muslim debate on the methods and practical implications of contemporary interpretations of the Qur’an.
Founder and Director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, Mustapha Tlili, opened the symposium by reminding the audience of the troubling Islamophobic events, in particular the demonstrations against the “ground–zero mosque,” that shook New York and the United States in the final months of 2010. Now more than ever, Tlili stated, there is a need for intra–Muslim debate and dialogue with the two–fold aim of challenging the misconceptions of Islam in the West and encouraging Muslim–majority countries to face the problematic realities of their own societies.
Before the start of the first session, Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought, Abdelmajid Charfi, briefly reflected on the important legacy of Algerian scholar Mohamed Arkoun who had intended to participate in the symposium but sadly passed away in the fall of 2010.
The participants in the first session explored the critical distinction between normative Islam and historical Islam, and discussed the methods they employ to interpret the Qur’an as a historical text.
Professor of Political Science at Colorado College, Robert Lee, presented the ideas of the late Mohamed Arkoun. According to Lee, Arkoun was primarily opposed to what he titled “Islamic Reason,” or the monopolistic hold of Muslim governments, the ulama, and Islamist movements on Qur’anic interpretation. In contrast to these groups, Arkoun believed that the Qur’an is an open and dynamic text and he argued that it should be submitted to analysis from a variety of different literary, anthropological, sociological, and historical perspectives. For Arkoun, the entirety of the Qur’an can not be understood as containing a singular meaning. Instead, the “truth” of the Qur’an can be found in the “plurality of meanings” yielded by critical interpretations of the text.
Following Professor Lee’s presentation, Senior Lecturer on Contemporary Islam at the University of Manchester, Andreas Christmann, presented the ideas of Muhammad Shahrur who was unable to attend the symposium for health reasons. Often compared to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Shahrur argues in his work that political leaders and the ulama have monopolized interpretations of the Qur’an and have used religious institutions and practice in a way that poses the “least resistance to political tyranny.” However, according to Christmann, Shahrur firmly believes that Islam can and should be reformed and that it can provide a necessary “third way” between radical fundamentalism and secular nationalism. He envisions an Islam that is entirely depoliticized, but forms the moral force of politics and society as a sort of “civil religion.”
The last speaker in the first session, Professor Emeritus Abdelmajid Charfi, approaches the Qur’an from a historical perspective. He argued that the historical context in which the Qur’an is read and interpreted has immense implications for the ways the text is understood. For Charfi, the differing interpretations that have emerged throughout history necessarily suggest that the Qur’an does not and could never have one singular meaning or “truth.“ Charfi summarized his subsequent arguments in three main points:
The panelists in the second session focused on how they combine theory with practice to address challenges the Muslim world is facing today.
Political scientist and author, Adel Rifaat presented on behalf of “Mahmoud Hussein,” the pseudonym under which he publishes with co–author Bahgat El Nadi. In their most recent book Penser le Coran (Grasset et Fasquelle, 2009), the authors seek to expose the historicity of the Qur’an using the original sacred texts, especially the testimonies of the Companions of the Prophet, in order to prevent radical fundamentalists and other literalists from claiming that historicity is imposed on the Qur’an by foreign intellectual traditions. Rifaat cited three main examples of this historicity:
Amin Abdullah was unfortunately unable to attend the symposium because his request for an entry visa to the United States was rejected. His ideas were presented by a member of the NYU Center for Dialogues staff. As a professor of Islamic studies at the Universitas Negari Islam Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Abdullah has spearheaded many curricular reform efforts including moving oversight of his Islamic University from the Ministry of Religion to the Ministry of Education when he was the university’s president. Abdullah explained that many Islamic universities in Indonesia are now required to integrate multidisciplinary approaches into their courses, including using social science methodologies to interpret the Qur’an and other sacred texts. He acknowledged, however, that many departments still remain rooted in traditional methodologies and practices.
Abdullah argued that the main project for the field of Islamic Studies today is eliminating misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between Islamic Studies, Islamic Thought and Islamic Religious Knowledge.
In his closing remarks, Mustapha Tlili underscored the need for a stronger dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. He encouraged universities and scholars in the West to realize the implications of this dialogue and to engage their peers in the Muslim world in order to continue the long, and too often obscured, history of intellectual cross–fertilization between the Muslim world and the West.Back to the top.