A Religion of Dialogue: Muhammad Talbi
13 June 2011

Muhammad Talbi, born in Tunis in 1921 and author of a doctoral thesis on the Aghlabidi dynasty presented at the Sorbonne in 1968, is one of the most well respected Arab historians, as well as – without a doubt – one of the most influential voices in Islamic reformism today. An expert on the medieval history of North Africa and a professor at Tunis University, Talbi is also considered an authority on the subject of Koranic exegesis and on the Islamic school of thought in both Muslim and Western academia.

As a scholar of Islam, Talbi is particularly careful to identify and conceptually process the pluralism of Islam, emphasizing the importance of the roles played by dialogue (hiwar) and reciprocal respect (ihtiram mutabadal), often distorted not only by extremist fundamentalism, but also by those in the West who tend to make Islam correspond to its own radical fringes. It is no coincidence that Talbi is very committed to promoting interreligious dialogue, in particular between Islam and other religions. 

A strong advocate of ijtihad – the rational interpretative effort that Muslims make in relating to the religious, moral, and juridical principles of Islam – Talbi is one of the most authoritative voices in Islamic “modernism.” Like many of the reformists in our discussion, one of Talbi’s main objectives is to find a harmonious synthesis between the Koranic precepts and modernity, especially regarding issues of democracy, human rights, and gender equality. He does, however, refuse to search for the foundations of these principles in the Koran itself, believing that a rigorous exegesis of the text, taking into account the historical period in which it was revealed, would not allow the identification of political principles – let alone laws – adaptable to the contemporary world.
With exegetic rigour, Talbi minimizes and dismantles Islam’s political and social dimensions, so dear to both extremists and to many reformists, such as the more secular al-Jabri (who identifies “consultation,” a sort of pre-democracy, in the shurà) or those who assume a perspective more “internal” to Islam, such as Ahmad Moussalli or Hasan Hanafi. Talbi instead emphasizes that most of the Koran’s political and social precepts, blindly followed by the literal exegesis of radical Islamism, must be seen as belonging to the historical context in which they were revealed.

“The Koran is not a constitution,” explains Talbi, and insisting on applying Koranic precepts literally means fossilizing a Revelation that is instead intrinsically alive and dynamic, the greatness of which lies precisely in its being able to adapt to life in all times and all places. For this very reason, true religion is ethical, merciful and apolitical, Talbi argues, and politics should abstain from taking possession of any religion, the details of which are not and must not become within the sphere of competence of politics. At best, says Talbi, the universal principles contained in the Koran can act as a “bridge” between Islam and modern democracy. The claim that the foundations of modern democracy already existed in ancient Arabia, or that its implementation in the Muslim world is nothing but the implementation of divine will, is unfounded.

Until now censored in a number of Muslim countries, Muhammad Talbi is the author of numerous books, many of which have been translated into or written in French, such as Un respect têtu (A Stubborn Respect), written with philosopher Olivier Clément. Unfortunately, Talbi’s two essays on Islam that are the most important from a philosophical perspective, Ummat al-Wasat (The community of moderation) and ‘Iyal Allah (God’s Families), are both written in Arabic and have not yet been translated. His very interesting essay entitled the Universality of the Koran, has been published in Italian (Jaca Book, 2005).