Opening Remarks: Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director, NYU Center for Dialogues (U.S.)
Mustapha Tlili, the symposium’s organizer, welcomed participants and remarked on the particular importance and timeliness of the event. This past summer, the Qur’an was to be burned by an obscure pastor of a non–denominational church in Florida until President Obama and other U.S. administration officials personally intervened. Even more recently, New York City witnessed huge demonstrations for and against the so–called “Ground Zero” mosque. Misunderstandings about the Muslim faith abound in the West. Meanwhile, Muslims themselves, in the U.S. in particular, do not seem to agree on what being Muslim is about. Those who speak in their name are often driven by a quest for power, and project conflicting images of Islam and different understandings of its holy texts.
The absence of a central authority in Islamic theology and tradition heightens the anxieties of Muslims and non–Muslims alike regarding Islam, Tlili explained. History tells us, however, that the search for a universally recognized truth has been part of Islamic tradition since the advent of the faith more than 14 centuries ago. To Tlili’s mind, if you strip Islamic history of its competition for political power, what remains can all be articulated in terms of interpretation of the faith, its tenets, and its underpinning fundamental texts — above all, the Qur’an.
What makes the current moment unique, Tlili continued, is the weight and challenge of globalization, which requires the Muslim world to confront its realities — to look in the mirror of modernity and answer the question of how to be Muslim in the 21st century. In the “flat world” of today — in contrast to the times of Al–Mu’tazila 1 and Al–Muwahiddin 2 — information is transmitted globally in an instant. The Muslim world can no longer hide certain truths, he said, about its lack of economic development, education, women’s rights, freedom of expression, rule of law, and regard for our shared humanity.
Tlili claimed that while Islam may have a bad name in today’s world, it’s not all the fault of its enemies. Islam, for him, is what Muslims make it to be and, thus, the importance of this symposium: how we interpret the Qur’an is not simply a matter of piety. It has real implications on how Muslim–majority societies, whether those of yesterday or today, build states, economies, ethical systems, legal systems, and relationships with the non–Muslim world. The science of Qur’anic interpretation has evolved through the centuries. But, if we admit that it, as any science, relies on intellectual tools and categories, we should not — Tlili said — hesitate to apply the modern human and social sciences to its interpretation. In fact, this is, according to Tlili, the most important challenge that the Muslim world faces today.
Tlili then paused to mourn the deaths of two major thinkers who had planned to attend the symposium: the first, his former teacher, dear friend, and colleague, Mohamed Arkoun (1928–2010), who passed away two months ago, and the second, the other giant of modern Islamic thought, Professor Nasr Abu Zayd (1943–2010), who passed away last spring. Tlili hoped the symposium would pay homage to their lives, their intellectual struggles, and to the extraordinary importance of the body of rigorous research they left behind. He also acknowledged two other important absences: the Syrian thinker, Muhammad Shahrur, author of the seminal book, The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading, who was prevented from coming for health reasons, and Mohammad Amin Abdullah, the eminent Indonesian scholar of Islam and of the Qur’an, who was denied an entry visa to the U.S.
Tlili concluded by stating that as intellectuals, the participants’ foremost duty was to rigorous and clear thought. Piety serves its purpose, he said, but critical intellect has a different function — one in which the sacred becomes an object for rigorous and clear examination. With everything that we know in the world today, must Islam be simply the Islam of piety? Or can it be the Islam to which Abdelmajid Charfi, Mahmoud Hussein, Amin Abdullah, Muhammad Shahrur, and the late Mohammed Arkoun and Nasr Abu Zayd apply the tools of critical thought? He submitted that this is the preeminent question facing the symposium and the Muslim world today.Back to the top.