Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations, Dartmouth College (U.S.)
The discussant Dale Eickelman thanked Tlili again for organizing the symposium despite the setbacks cause by visa problems, deaths, and other challenges.
Eickelman reflected on both sessions and drew out the common threads running through all of the presentations. He said each of the speakers combined thinking with practice, which is a courageous act in much of the Muslim world. Even if their work is not fully accepted in public, it is referred to in private discussions. The fear of public opinion on these issues is a characteristic of the current political moment, and can change over time.
The discussant observed that another theme common to the presentations was the difficulty of defining what it means to be a Muslim, for there is no agreement on the question among Muslims. Although the text of the Qur’an is stable, its interpretation is not. As one delves deeper, Eickelman added, even the text becomes unstable. For example, when early fragments of the Qur’an were found in Yemen, containing aberrations from the standard text, they were destroyed at the behest of conservative Islamic factions.
Eickelman compared Arkoun’s embrace of the multiplicity of meaning to Shahrur’s. Both are resolutely modernist although in different ways. Shahrur argues that since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, we live in a post–prophetic world. Since prophecy is at an end, humankind must rely on reason to understand revelation. In their separate ways, both thinkers, together with the late Nasr Abu Zayd, illustrate that the Qur’an is a defiantly open text that cannot be closed by anyone. One way of thinking about the debate over what it means to be Muslim is to invoke Oxford philosopher Walter Gallie’s notion of “essentially contested concepts.” 13
Eickelman commented that the stated intent of the symposium was to foster a dialogue among Muslims, with non–Muslims serving as discussants. This was also the model that Wild advocated in his comments during the first session. Yet, without identifying names, a reader of the symposium’s transcript would be unable to distinguish Muslim from non–Muslim participants. All share a passionate rapport with the text. As Charfi indicated, a passionate rapport is necessary.
Eickelman then commented on efforts to censor Shahrur’s first book when it was published in 1990. State authorities refused to censor him, responding to Shahrur’s attackers by suggesting that they simply publish their criticisms. Eickelman also recalled the experiences of El Nadi and Rifaat, who served prison time during their leftist student days. Their presentation today made a passionate rereading of their texts and approach to Qur’anic interpretation accessible to a wider audience.
Eickelman emphasized the importance of Amin Abdullah’s proposition for curricular reform in Indonesia. His presentation, the discussant said, like the others, reminded us how ideas and practices are inscribed in the times in which they occur, and of the limits of speech in many places in the Middle East.
Finally, Eickelman suggested the importance of what is not said in public. The Arabian Peninsula, for example, has a number of think tanks, but the approach to critical studies of religion is more restrained. While part of the Arabian Peninsula inspires forward thinking, many Gulf leaders are wary of publicly attaching their names to projects involving religious issues and prefer to donate privately. Westerners must pay closer attention to grey areas and layers of meaning. For instance, if explicit feminist statements are ineffectual in the Middle East, there is possibility in more subtle approaches that may not be initially noticed by outsiders less attuned to the realities and practices of contemporary censorship. Thus in the new Islamic Studies (Dirasat Islamiyya) curriculum used in the primary and secondary schools of the United Arab Emirates, textbook images depict women and men as equals, at least up to the age of eight, without heavy–handed explanations of how such images differ from predecessor textbooks in which representations of young girls were absent. There is a strong tradition of saying things indirectly in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Middle East, and outsiders would benefit from comprehending such local social norms.
To begin the floor discussion, Eickelman reviewed his main points, beginning with the idea that Qur’anic interpretation is not an arcane topic but one that engages practical reason and often occupies the center stage of public debate. It has implications for how believers think about their faith and its role in society. Because of the different audiences for interpretation, we must take an ethnographic approach and be sensitive to the grey areas, understanding that even if ideas are not publicly embraced, they may still resonate in private.Back to the top.