No one here today will doubt that Islam has, in the West, a “bad name.” I leave it to you to conjure all the dramatic instances that prove this statement. The last, you may recall, occurred this summer in Florida where, if not for the intervention of world leaders including President Obama, the Qur’an was to be burned by an obscure pastor of a non–denominational church. The so–called “ground–zero mosque” heightened the drama for weeks this summer to the point where New York City witnessed huge demonstrations for and against the project; political leaders in the City and beyond made their positions part of their bid for office; and, as customary in this country, pundits filled the air–waves with incendiary and often ignorant pronouncements.
Muslims themselves, in this country 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. Whether in this country or in Europe, the non–Muslim public can feel bewildered by the moral, ethical and legal positions articulated by so–called authorized voices of Islam in the West. The multitude of points of view available on the internet amplifies the confusion to an extent unimaginable only a few years ago.
The absence of a central authority in Islamic theology and tradition heightens the anxieties of Muslims and non–Muslims alike regarding Islam. Unsurprisingly, there is a thriving “fatwa stock market” (as I call it) in the Muslim world that often relies on the internet to communicate its message, and intentionally frustrates dialogue with other cultures and faiths.
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. One can even venture to say that 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. Various dimensions of Islamic civilization and culture cannot be properly understood if they are not interpreted in light of the context that produced them, whether the impressive openness of Al–Mu’tazila, the fundamentalism of Al–Muwahiddin, or the political and religious agendas of today’s Wahabbis.
What makes our moment different 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 while being part of world civilization in the 21st century. In the “flat world“ of today—in contrast to the times of Al–Mu’tazila or Al–Muwahiddin, or the Wahabbis of the 18th century, or even that of the Islamic reform movement of the 19th century—information is transmitted globally in an instant. The Muslim world can no longer hide certain truths about its lack of economic development, education, women’s rights, freedom of expression, rule of law, and regard for our shared humanity. Any open–minded Muslim intellectual or ruler would easily recognize these lacks as plaguing the umma today, from Malaysia to Nigeria, from Morocco to Azerbaijan.
Yes, Islam has a bad name — but let’s be truthful, it’s not all the fault of its enemies. Islam, I submit, is what Muslims make it to be and, thus, the importance of this symposium. This event could not be happening at a more opportune time, considering the stakes of the relationship between the Muslim and the non–Muslim world, particularly the West. Reading and interpreting the Qur’an, the foundational text of Islam, has always been and will remain the ultimate basis for building an understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam is a faith and a way of life informed by an understanding of the faith. How we interpret the Qur’an is not simply a matter of piety. It has real implications on how Muslim societies, whether 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, as any science, it relies on intellectual tools and categories, we should not hesitate to apply what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “the sciences of suspicion”—the modern human and social sciences—to its interpretation. In fact, I submit that this is the most important challenge that the Muslim world faces today.
Two major thinkers who took up this challenge in the most impressive way and who had planned to be with us here have sadly departed this world. I speak of my former teacher, dear friend, and colleague, Mohamed Arkoun, who passed away two months ago, and the other giant of modern Islamic thought, Professor Nasr Abu Zayd, who I did not know personally but only through his works and correspondence; he passed away last spring. We mourn their deaths and we pay homage to their lives, their intellectual struggles, and to the extraordinary importance of the body of rigorous research they left behind. Generations of Muslims and non–Muslims will look to the work of these two eminent scholars when it is time to ponder the question, what does it mean to be Muslim in the 21st century? There are two other important voices absent from our discussion: the Syrian thinker, Muhammad Shahrur, author of the seminal book, The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading, and Mohammad Amin Abdullah, the eminent Indonesian scholar of Islam and of the Qur’an in particular. Muhammad Shahrur could not be with us today for health reasons. As for Professor Amin Abdullah, we had hoped until yesterday that he would be present, but he was denied an entry visa.
I intended for these remarks to be both general and provocative, to challenge us to measure up to the task before us; as intellectuals, our foremost duty is to rigorous and clear thought or, as you might say in French, une pensé sans fard. Piety serves its purpose, although nobody can ultimately know its role in our salvation. 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 Mohamed Arkoun and Nasr Abu Zayd apply the tools of critical thought? I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the most important question before us in this symposium and before the Muslim world today.Back to the top.