Islams: Between Dialoguing and Mainstreaming
Zaid Eyadat, University of Jordan 24 July 2013

In this paper, I aim at demonstrating the importance of internal dialogue within Islam in undermining the hegemony intolerant strands of Islam have had in order to have an effective dialogue between Islam and other religions and civilizations.

Although many trace back the fallout between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially in the West, to the attacks of September 11, feelings of resentment against Muslims and Islamophobia had been present and entrenched long before. Such feelings intensified and found an outlet and justification in the aftermath of the attacks. To better understand this, one has to recognize the complexity and fluidity of the Muslim identity and how it has been conceived in the West.

Historically, the distinction between Muslims and Arabs has been scant, if at all, and the two identities have been perceived as two parts of the same continuum due to their historical and demographic connectedness – noting that the Arabian Peninsula is the homeland of Islam. According to Gallup, negative sentiments towards Arabs have been rampant before September 11. The article “Americans Felt Uneasy Toward Arabs Even Before September 11” draws on historical data and several polls to demonstrate the antagonistic feelings towards Arabs and Muslims prior to 9/11 as well as the common perception that the ethnic affiliation is the same as the religious one, lumping Arabs and Muslims together (Jones 2001). This resentment towards Arabs was strengthened by fear and channeled more intensely against Muslims in specific post-September 11, likely because of the existential and religious justification the attacks were given.

Dialogue: Islam and the West

Finding the causal roots of this resentment and identifying its mechanism are important to proposing ways to counteract it by deconstructing the meaning systems such feelings have sustained and drew legitimacy from. I maintain that such systems of meaning and binaries, where Islam and its derivations are at one side, cannot be deconstructed without deconstructing the system(s) of meaning internal to and maintaining Islam as an ideologically monolithic self-sustaining religion. Thus, it is imperative that one recognizes and advances the role of dialogue and debate within Islam and amongst the different “Islams” in order to break the vicious circle of the self-legitimization of authoritarian Islam. I focus on the significance of the role dialoguing Islams have played in the larger inter-faith and inter-civilization dialogue. I concentrate the Amman Message and the Common Word as two of the most important and pluralistic documents that have served as a catalyst in the exchange and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims across civilizations.

First, I advance few propositions important to the understanding of the structuring of my analytical framework. Although Islam is a religion that is visible and influential both in the public and private spheres, the role it has been assigned in the political sphere has contributed to the construction of its contemporary negative image. The role it has played in people’s individual and collective lives is undeniable and is observed in the way mosques are built in both European and Muslim countries and function as support centers for the surrounding Muslim communities and a form of “public visibility” (Göle 2011, 383). However, the rapid politicization of Islam and the close resonance it has had with politics and the political interests of local and international actors have compromised its integrity and autonomy.

Second, the emphasis on Islam as a monolithic religion and undermining its diversity by marginalizing rationalism, from which this diversity derives and by which it is protected, as an indispensable element has facilitated the shaping of a one authoritarian image of Islam. Dialogue has been absent from Islam for at least 1,000 years because of the way rationalism, a prerequisite for dialogue, has been not only marginalized, but also condemned. On the one hand, this has prevented mainstream conventional Islam from “developing” into a modern religion capable of responding to people’s contemporary needs and preserved its centrality by appealing to authority and dismissing non-conforming strands as subversive.

I emphasize the role of rationality in conducting an effective dialogue and reaching a much needed religious pluralism, although I disagree with the argument that total and formal separation between religion and the public sphere and institutions is the only way to establish and maintain religious pluralism, which is tantamount to the uncritical assertion of the compatibility between Islam and modernity (Touraine 2011, 396). Rationalism does not necessarily entail this rigid secularist approach, which would alienate both pious citizens and traditionalist scholars rather than engage them. After all, the purpose of religious pluralism is ultimately to facilitate reaching a broader sociopolitical pluralism, both at the local and global levels, which can only be attained by depoliticizing religion while acknowledging its role in the political public sphere.

Dialoguing Islams

The canonical Islamic tradition, whose purpose and functions revolve around the identification of what Islam is and what it is not, was conceptualized and shaped by the exchange that took place amongst the different Islamic schools of thought and between them and the authoritarian texts. In that, the idea of dialogue and difference is indeed inherent to Islamic tradition. Unfortunately, the recurring and predominant convergence between them, probably because of the convergence of their historical and cultural contexts, caused the emergence of a new Islamic tradition that replaced dialogue; Indian scholar KP Faisal explains:

“The dominant pattern of this diversities can be found in the form of the different Madhabs (Schools of legal thought), namely, Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi, Hanmbali. These schools were founded by the eighth and ninth century Ulema … In all Madhabs, “however much they had at first varied in their stress in Qur’an and Hadith , this or that element in deriving the law, the spirit of law was much the same, and the same spirit pervaded all its branches” (Hodgson 1974: 336). This is the aspect of the legislation, which allows for the Unity among all the diversities. But this codification in the four schools represents a new shift in the intellectual paradigms. As Ziauddin Sardar observes: After [my stress] the codification of Sharia in to four schools, a new paradigm enveloped the Muslim Scholars; the paradigm of taqlid. ‘Taqlid’ means blind and unquestioning following and obedience” (Sardar 1979: 56) of any one of the four Imams of Madhabs. The practice of Ijtihad, the dynamic source of the tradition became dependent on the four schools or methodology of the Imams (Faisal 2011).”

Two milestone documents — the Amman Message and A Common Word between Us and You — have contributed to the re-assertion of dialogue within Islam as well as among Islam and other religions and civilizations through the reconfiguration of the role of ‘Ulama’ in their effort to end exegetical tyranny and monopoly. I reflect on their impact on (the integration of) ethno-religion minorities in the Jordanian society as well as the facilitation of mutual education between Muslims and non-Muslims. I also examine other progressive “enlightenment scholars” efforts which have developed a non-traditional hermeneutic approach to re-interpreting Islam rationally, mainstreaming marginalized Islams and deconstructing authoritarian interpretations based on discourse analysis. I specifically draw on the enlightenment’s argument about the impact of the cultural context and discourse on shaping and constructions of Islam.

The Amman Message

The Amman Message was release in November 4, 2004, during a time when increasing Islamophobia prevailed and thrived in a conductive environment of a “clash of civilizations.” The clash served to affirm an infinite number of dichotomies between I/Other, Us/Them, East/West, Islam/Hersey, amongst others, which existed in and used to validate a long and old tradition of Orientalist scholarship. This new history was shaped by “an aggressive and stubborn neocon foreign policy, in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, coupled with an equally stubborn and growing radical religious discourse from transnational movements such as Al-Qaeda and other extremist branches of reformist Islam, that have created hot spots in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and elsewhere” (Nakhooda 2008, 2). The divide had become Sunni/non-Sunni in the Middle East as well and had started to manifest in internal strife in Iraq, in which individuals and groups from across the Middle East have taken part (Gartenstein-Ross 2008,15). Meanwhile, both the Muslim consciousness and the West’s consciousness were being shaped by this rivalry and enmity and its dialectics.

While this crisis had external, local and international, manifestations in the form of clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims and the East and West, its core was internal, which necessitated the initiation of an internal dialogue first as a steppingstone towards starting an external dialogue in order to manage and mitigate the external crisis. The increase radicalization of the discourse employed by the rising Islamist movements and their doctrine – be them of the Sunni, Shi’a, or Salafi variety – represented a challenge and a threat to “traditional Muslim orthodoxy and its institutions that have for centuries defined the religious mainstream and sustained peace within and without” (Nakhooda 2008, 3). In its turn, this crisis of authority and “authenticity” instigated turmoil amongst Muslims everywhere, otherwise known as the Muslim umma, and a corresponding struggle between competing Islams and interpretations of Islam (i.e., holy texts).

It is in this point of Islamic and global history that the King of Jordan promulgated the Amman Message; its birth was a response to the internal crisis in authority primarily through initiating a formal internal dialogue between the different representatives and scholars of different sects. The Message‘s impact went beyond the denouncement of extremism and distortion of Islam and the calling for an Islam “open to the development of civilization and progress of humanity” (Stemmann 2008, 17). In its attempt to establish a “sustained engagement to reclaim the middle ground,” it also redefined the concept of the umma, the role of the umma’s ‘ulama (scholars), and created a forum for discussion amongst them, despite that the main goal was to articulate what is True Islam, or, according to the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, to “clarify to the modern world the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam. (Nakhooda 2008, 3; Aal Al-Bayt Institute 2008, v). To garner such a consensus on a reformist effort is highly unusual and unconventional (Gartenstein-Ross 2008, 19, 20); in that, the Message has transformed the role of the scholar from affirming interpretations and issuing individual fatwas to reforming Islam in a collective effort, one that relies on an overlapping consensus.

Certainly, the fact that the Amman Message sought the validation of Muslim scholars in the first place to denounce extremism and certain radical strands affirms and reclaims the importance of authority and the conventional legal methodology of ijma’, or consensus; however, the mutual recognition of different authorities from different sects and strands of each other, by extension, recognized a certain decentralization of authority and diversity in Islam. The initiative, through different conferences and meetings, facilitated the coordination and cooperation between 200 Muslim scholars from across the world to meet and engage in a dialogue that is resulted in the arrival at a consensus on the Amman Message Three Points:

1.They specifically recognized the validity of all Mathhabs (legal schools) of Sunni, Shi‘a and Ibadhi Islam; of traditional Islamic Theology (Ash‘arism); of Islamic Mysticism (Sufism), and of true Salafi thought, and came to a precise definition of who is a Muslim.

2.Based upon this definition they forbade takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims.

3.Based upon the Mathahib they set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas, thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam (Aal Al-Bayt Institute 2008, VI).

It has since been endorsed by 552 leading Muslims scholars from across 84 countries in the first manifestation of consensus in hundreds of years, including “Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Mufti Taqi Usmani, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatolla Sistani, and others and grand muftis from several Muslim countries” (The Amman Message Website; Aal Al Bayt Institute 2008, 28; Nakhooda 2008, 5).

The aforementioned Three Points, did not only help mainstream different sectarian minorities, they also put in place a safety valve against alienating such minorities and others through the prohibition of takfir. However, any real critical reading of the document, including the Three Points will reveal an ambiguity that, while could serve to promote tolerance, may also be exploited by extremists. For instance, while it proposes an overlapping consensus amongst the endorsing scholars on a broad and ambiguous definition of who a Muslim is, it implies that anyone who deviates from this definition is not a Muslim as such; this exclusion could represent a leeway for extremists to declare non-conformists as apostates by implication, while the forbidding of takfir per se could prevent some from declaring the apostasy of those who deviate from the definition and not alienate them. The definition mentions “true” Salafism and does not explain it.

In paving the way for a mutual understanding at the external level as well as the internal, the Message emphasizes and highlights common values that Islam shares with other religions and values advanced by Islam that are a precondition for having an intellectual exchange and understanding across different religious and ethnic fault-lines. It asserts that:

“Muslims believe in all Messengers of God and do not differentiate between any of them. Denying the message of any one of them is a deviation from Islam. This establishes a wide platform for the believers of [different] religions to meet the other upon common ground, for the service of human society, without encroaching upon creedal distinctions or upon intellectual freedom…Islam confirms the principle of justice in interacting with others… [and that the] source of relations between Muslims and others is peace (Aal al-Bayt Institute 2008, 6, 8, 11).”

Such principles are found in the subsequent initiative, A Common Word between Us and You, also released and published by the Aal Al-Bayt Institute, but launched by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan in 2007.

A Common Word between Us and You

A Common Word takes this dialogue one step further and makes it inter rather than intra-faith; it represented a continuation of the dialogue project promoted by the Amman Message. The official launching of the initiative was marked when 138 scholars representing different branches and strands of Islam from across the world delivered the document “A Common Word between Us and You” to Christian figures, scholars, and authorities, including Pope Benedict XVI. The document was formulated by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad “in consultation with traditional Islamic scholars” and was “met with responses from Christian leaders the world over, including the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the patriarch of Russia as well as independent scholars; in response, a letter entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You” was “drafted by scholars at Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture … [and] was issued by the first four signatories .. and endorsed by almost 300 other Christian theologians and leaders .. [to] promote constructive engagement between these major religious communities” (Lumbard 2009, 2; Yale Divinity School 2007).

The paradox implied in the title in the Common Word between Us and You, reflects the resonating paradox found in the content. Despite the emphasis on the dichotomy very much apparent in the title, between the I and the Other, also just like implicit in the title, the initiative aims at mitigating and bridging the us/them divide through identifying a common ground where a dialogue can be had and an understanding reached. As in the Amman Message, this initiative acknowledges the differences existent between I/Other despite which it tries to reach an overlapping consensus on certain crucial, almost existential, issues and facilitate a dialogue and reciprocal exchange necessary to achieve that. Joseph Nnabugwu asserts that the label in the title “and its concept raise the issues of difference between us Muslims and you Christians or the People of the Book and call for a representation of a particular concept of monotheism – Tawhid” (Nnabugwu 2011, xiv). He later argues that the document tries to impose this uniquely Islamic concept of Tawhid on the parties to this dialogue, and the discursive process of identity formation it involves, by being selective in choosing specific quotes from the Quraan while negligting to mention intolerant ones. He condemns the document for quoting only the first two verses of Surat al-Ikhlas – “Say: He is God, the One/ God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all” – while failing to quote the subsequent verses: “He begets not, nor was He begotten” so as to “hide [its] tone” from “being a public protestation (Nnabugwu 2011,70). What Nnabugwu seems to not take into account is the need to highlight the commonalities rather than the differences between one another in order to identify a “common ground” for a conductive and pluralistic dialogue and alienate the Other. What he depicts and implies as euphemizing one’s ideology, if not as deception, is in fact a simple effort toward achieving the mission of the initiative, which is to find a common ground amidst the Us/You dichotomy. This attempt at religious pluralism facilitated the sense of integration and understanding by socio-religious minorities especially in the Arab countries. The Yale response to the Common Word was supported by many religious leaders and scholars from many countries, including Egypt and Lebanon, two of the most vocal countries about their religious diversity and struggle for equality and pluralism.

That said, it remains important to realize the broader impact of these initiatives; the very act of acknowledging the diversity of religious authorities, Islamic as well as non-Islamic, is a step towards paving the way for the deconstruction of the very concept of religious authority which would facilitate the inter-faith dialogue further and take it to the grassroots level where dialogue has more significance as it is driven and shaped by everyday forces and needs and frustrations – the same that have contributed to the rise of extremism that sought to appeal to religious authority it did not have in order to validate its actions both religiously and politically. This is why the politicization of religion did not just widen the gap between East/West and Islam/Christianity, it also made it possible for groups to exploit claimed religious authority to justify and condone political action.

Modern Islamic Thought

Efforts in that vein, the efforts spent by liberal Islamic thinkers to de-decentralize Islam and reform it have been also founded on the idea of undermining “authority” through dialoguing. Such efforts transcend temporal and special constraints and dialogue across them, lending the project more authenticity and originality. Similar to the two above documents, contemporary Islamic enlightenment thinkers and scholars have recognized the urgency of reconciliation through reforming and de-essentializing Islam and deconstructing the disfigured image and understanding of Islam and the Islamic faith and thought. This new line of modern and liberal Islamic thinking has developed and expounded a Quraanic hermeneutic approach to re-read, re-understand, and re-interpret the Islamic texts and deconstruct traditional interpretations that are no longer relevant and are only sustained by their appeal to traditional authority. Questioning such “authority” is thus important and is usually accomplished by thinkers like Abdullahi An-Na’im and Naser Abu-Zayd amongst others by understanding such authority and interpretations within their historical and cultural context which undermines their supposed divinity and unquestionable status.

An-Na’im starts his deconstruction of the authority concept and its questionability with emphasizing the crucial distinction between Islam and Shari’a. In order to appreciate the full implications of this definition and such a separation between Islam and the state, we need first to distinguish between Islam and Shari’a. According to An-Na’im, Islam generally means the monotheistic religion propagated by Prophet Mohammad, who delivered the Quran and “expounded its meaning and application through what came to be known as the Sunna of the Prophet” (An-Na’im 2008, 9). From these two sources, Muslims draw the dictates of their religion and their norms and values. Shari’a, however, is “the totality of the duty of Muslims” as perceived through “a specific human methodology of interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna” (An-Na’im 2008, 10). Thus, it bears to be emphasized that Shari’a is “derived from human interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna” which makes it, by default, subject to human agency and fallibility and takes away the divine from it. Shari’a principles are “what human beings can comprehend and seek to obey within their own specific historical context” (An-Na’im 2008, 10).

Most importantly, An-Na’im dedicates a big portion of his reformist efforts to promote the importance of dialogue and what he calls “civil reason;” such efforts come mainly as part of his project that is focused on sanctioning the relationship between Islam and politics and maintaining a religion-neutral state. An-Na’im emphasizes the separateness of the religion from the state but the importance of introducing both religious reasons and reasons accessible to all citizens in public deliberations and dialogue in order to facilitate genuine understanding and possible persuasion, especially but not exclusively in the political arena. The introduction of religious reasons here comes from An-Na’im recognition of the impossibility of actually preventing citizens from “acting politically according to their most basic beliefs” (An-Na’im 2005, 63). However, An-Na’im’s approach introduces certain sanctions to safeguard the autonomy and authenticity of religions from state (or any form of authority’s) intervention and distortion (An-Na’im 2005, 8). An-Na’im introduces the secular state as a preventive measure against the exploitation and manipulation of religions by the state and the ruling elite in their attempts to legitimize their control and actions (An-Na’im 2005, 1). For example, An-Na’im explains that in an Islamic state, the human agents of the state will use Islam as a justification for their policies, which, as explained earlier, actually reflect the “political will of the state” not “the religious law of Islam;” correspondingly, I suggest, that the human agents of the religious authority will use Islam to justify their policies and political actions, which are only a reflection of their human will not divine will (An-Na’im 2005, 1). When certain policies and actions are introduced and enacted as based on the Shari’a principles rather than on “civic reason,” religious people are more reluctant to engage in contesting or questioning them as they are made to represent the will of God rather than the political will of the state and the ruling elite (An-Na’im 2005, 29). Supporting them with reasons that are open and accessible to the generality of the public, regardless of their religious convictions, is essential to ensuring that the support for such actions is made voluntarily and with no coercion, be it psychological or physical, and rejection is made on equally reasonable grounds that are accessible to others and not related to religious disagreement (An-Na’im 2005, 30). This is imperative to maintain the integrity of dialogue and reap its fruits, which can be accomplished only through maintaining the connectedness between religion and other doctrines and ensure an equal and safe distance between them.

Most importantly, not using the soft coercive power of the central religious authority to implement Shari’a principles, with whom at least some religious people are bound to disagree, “enhance genuine religious observance” of ethical norms and values that can be reflected in the policies and action agreed upon by people from different religions and doctrines, pluralistically, not as religious but based on their universally rational validity (An-Na’im 2005,1).

Additionally, the call by enlightenment scholars and the hermeneutic methodologies they have developed for the purpose of re-interpreting Islam in a way that is more consistent and compatible with contemporary times and needs can be depicted as a call for dialoguing with traditional scholars, who have established canonical Islam as well as the text itself. The idea to revisit traditional methodologies and interpretations as part of a broader historical and discursive context indeed validates such interpretations yet in a restrictive manner and based on the assessment of similarities and differences between the context that produced such interpretations and contemporary context(s). Reinterpreting the Islamic holy texts, taking both the context of its transcendence and, again, the context of its interpretation, is engaging with the text in a manner that is very similar to dialogue. This thought certainly promotes a “continuing dialogue with authoritative texts, and with present and past generations of scholars” (Zaman 2002, 38).


In this paper, I examined and analyzed three main projects that have contributed tremendously to the advancement of the importance of dialogue in Islam and amongst the different religions and ideologies. I highlighted the role such dialogue will have in the mitigation and eventual deconstruction of the many binaries existent between Muslims and non-Muslims both in majority-Muslim communities and across international borders and civilizations. Since one of the most problematic divides and conflicts have occurred along religious lines, religious pluralism, towards which religious dialogue (inter as well as intra-faith) is an important stepping stone, is a precondition for broader social and political pluralism and equality — the pluralistic component being represented in the recurring theme of the overlapping consensus envisioned and arrived at by these initiatives and all through them. I highlighted the importance of having such dialogue in order to acknowledge and validate the diversity in religions and religious authorities. In order to facilitate tolerance and acceptance of the Other, one has to question traditional authorities and (the understanding) of their interpretations an edicts that have hindered dialogue and exacerbated religious conflicts and contributed to the preservation of the status quo for too many years.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

The final/definitive version of Zaid Eyadat’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 507-516, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue


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