The new roads of islamic thought
Massimo Campanini 6 September 2018

From July 9th to July 11th, 2018, Casablanca, Morocco, hosted an important international conference on Sources of Pluralism in Islamic Thought. This is a topical subject, but above all one worthy of being debated with the wider public, whose perception is that Islam has been a never-changing monolith with no internal differentiations since the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

The conference was organised by ResetDoc – Dialogues of Civilizations of Milan (director Giancarlo Bosetti), by the King Abdul ‘Aziz al-Sa‘ud Foundation for Islamic Studies in Casablanca and the Granada Institute for Higher Education and Research (directed by Mohammed Ben Salah) and speakers included about thirty scholars, mainly from the Islamic world, as well as a few European and American ones.

It was not hard to prove how there are multiple roots of pluralism in Islamic thought, ranging from the caliphate’s cosmopolitanism to the normative diversification of religious law, from the environmentalism of some Islamist movements to their traditional roots and to the (mainly unknown) political function of mysticism or Sufism.

The speakers therefore addressed subjects ranging from the hermeneutic problems of classical theologians and philosophers (we would call them “medieval”) such as al-Farabi (died 950), Averroes (died 1198)  and Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328), to European Islam’s more strictly current issues. In this last case, the conference addressed above all the space that must be reserved to traditional religious authority within a non-traditional context or even a non-Islamic one, as well as educational systems in contemporary pluralistic societies.

Issues concerning the individual in relation to community holism, of particular importance in Islam, were also addressed, as was the inclusion and exclusion that involves European Muslims who are a minority, as well as religious minorities in Muslim countries, as were problems concerning the thorny issue of the training of imams.

In Western Europe as well as in Italy, the subject of training imams is particularly felt due to fears arising from the possibility that religious preachers could spread radical messages. This problem has been addressed in a book by Mohammed Hashas, also the main scientific organiser of this conference, and was discussed at a special round table.

In spite of frequent references to hermeneutic methodologies, discussed, however, at a rather general than more specific level, what surprised me most was the lack of in-depth discussions concerning the Qur’an as revealed Book. Of course the Holy Book was mentioned, especially during the first session of the conference when Asma Afsaruddin spoke of the enhancement of religious dialogue in the Islamic tradition, while Shabbir Akhtar addressed the relations between Western Christianity and Islam, but is never emerged at the centre of the debate.

This absence implies a degree of ambiguity regards to both the problem of the pluralism of Islamic thought’s sources and the problem of its reform and advancement. While on the one hand, as a religion, or rather as an ideology, Islam, being founded on a “Book”, cannot avoid textual references to revelation, on the other it is evident that religious reformism differs from reform of religion.

Religious reformism implies that those implementing it should maintain a solid reference to religion. Reform of  religion can instead reach the point of doing without it and become transformed into a more or less disguised secularism. It is useful to consider a few examples. One of the subjects discussed at this conference involved the modernism and reformism (islah) that engaged the Muslim world in the 19th and 20th centuries as a reaction to the challenge coming from the West, which had colonised and subjected to its dominium most of the Islamic lands.

The issues of modernism and reformism have been enlivening the debates of Muslim intellectuals for at least 150 years, if not more, at a political-institutional level, considering that the West had, so to speak, exported to the Muslim world the modern state, the parliamentary system and capitalism, as well as at a cultural and intellectual level, considering that the concepts of nationalism, secularism and democracy had not previously been processed by Islamic thought.

Hence a pivotal figure of modernist reformism such as the Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), an active promoter, among other matters, of a renewal of the traditional educational system used by the al-Azhar Sunni University, became the bone of contention between those, like the Tunisian Professor Mohammed Haddad who presented his most recent book in Casablanca and exalts him as a secularist ready to renounce religion so as to be able to pursue reform (but that would no longer be religious reformism), and those like Tariq Ramadan (not present at this conference), who considers him the source of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist thought.

Moving to the world of Iranian Islam, the ideas of a reformer of religion such as ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush, hyperbolically and mistakenly defined in the West as “the Luther of Islam”, is opposed by a religious reformer such as the Iranian Mohsen Kadivar, who presented at this conference the Shiite perspective of pluralism, and who in his works accuses Soroush of minimising both the Qur’an and the figure of the Prophet.

I cannot effectively see how it is possible to be a religious reformer, as Soroush claims to be, doing so without the foundations of religion. Luther reformed Christianity but he did so on the basis of the Bible. One cannot therefore see how Islamic religious reform can do without the Qur’an. It is interesting to observe that Kadivar opposes the Khomeinist regime although he is extremely active in promoting Shiite reformism.

This briefly summarised debate reflects a substantial uncertainty experienced by contemporary Islamic thought, locked between the opposing tensions of modernity and tradition. It is my impression that a balance has not yet been achieved between the vision of those who, rightly aspiring for modernity, find it difficult to reconsider their legacy (turath in Arabic), and those who, locked in a pen of what has been called (by Mohammed Arkoun, d. 2010)) “pensable”, hence the inflexible exclusivity of tradition, are no longer capable of thinking the unthinkable and thus all that is outside the pen of tradition such as democracy and historicity.

Such dialectics are characterised above all by Arab thought, one that seems to be experiencing the most problems in pulling itself out of the swamp. At this conference, three constitutive nuclei of contemporary Islamic thought effectively emerged: the Arabic; the Shiite, mainly Iranian, and the Asian.

Having mentioned the stalemate that Arab Islamic though appears to be experiencing, the Iranian school of thought is in turn processing new paths regards to the decisive discrimination represented by Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, as Kadivar’s reflections show. Asian Islamic thought exhibits syncretic characteristics that, in a sense, distance it from the historical foundations of Muslim culture and the Arab-Persian nucleus of that culture.

So while Thailand’s Imtiyaz Yusuf encouraged interreligious dialogue with the Buddhists, Amin Abdullah from Yogyakarta University defended the possibility of a harmonisation of Islam with the pancasila, the still founding principle of the Indonesian constitution (bearing in mind that Indonesia is the Muslim country with the largest population having 240 millions believers), which acknowledges the unity of all religions under an abstract, while simultaneously vague and imprecise, divine principle (din ilahi).

In the past, such syncretism has led, in India for example, to hybridisations between the indistinct principle of the Brahman and the powerfully personalist idea of monotheism centred on the worship of the Unique God, Allah, with frankly disconcerting results. It seems to me that this attitude paves new ways for religious research while simultaneously distancing itself from the founding Qur’anic nucleus.   

The issue involving the reform of Family Law in Morocco, discussed above all by Nouzha Guessous from the University of Casablanca, paid due “political” homage to the country hosting the conference. The Mudawwana law, approved in 2004, has in fact profoundly affected male-female relations in the Maghribi country and provided, a so-to-speak “pluralist” answer to Shari‘a Law, although the academicians who took part in this debate actually avoided passing circumstantial judgement on the effects of the application of a law that is without doubt modernising.

All in all this conference was per se evidence of Islam’s varied characteristics. Pluralism is certainly the prerequisite not only for interreligious dialogue, but also for internal reform processes that look to the future and not to the past in a global and therefore inevitably “open” world. I believe, however, that pluralism cannot imply a loss of a religion’s founding characterisations , nor in general those of any ideology.

Pluralism therefore must not become, à la Hegel, a “night in which all cows are black”, but, on the contrary, maintain clear individual specificities, especially theological ones. The dialectics intrinsic in the written foundations, set out in Books (be such books the Torah, the Gospels or the Qur’an) that are now in a sense “closed” because prophecy has been definitively interrupted and humanist plurality questions the identity of religions, of Christianity no less than Islam of Buddhism.

Dialectics also  encourages a rebalancing of the theoretical elements of religions, and of all ideologies, including the hyper-secularist ones (I believe that French-styled laicité is a religion, a religion with no God but nonetheless with the same “extremist” effects and implications), with a view to avoiding all radicalisms, not only Islamic but also Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindus etcetera.

Photo: NARINDER NANU / AFP