An Interview with Massimo Campanini: A Tribute
Mohammed Hashas 9 October 2020


Today the scholarly community of classical and contemporary Arab-Islamic philosophy and theology lost a great scholar and man, the Italian Orientalist, scholar of Islam, professor Massimo Campanini (03 November 1954 – 09 October 2020). Campanini taught at the university of L’Orientale in Naples and Trento; he was earlier affiliate with Urbino University in the 1990s, when he was still teaching philosophy in high school, and lately, after his retirement, he remained an active academic at the Ambrosian Academy of Milan, and a visiting professor at the University Institute of Higher Education (IUSS) in Pavia. Campanini has been sick lately with Parkinson’s disease; today morning a heart attack took him from us, at home in Milan, in the presence of his wife; he left one son. We were in touch a few days ago, about a book he has just finished editing, on Islamic political theology, and in which I have a contribution; it should be out soon with Lexington, posthumously now! Campanini has authored and edited some forty two books on Qur’anic studies, medieval and modern theological, philosophical and political thought and contemporary history of the Arab world, mostly in Italian language. His known works in English, besides various chapters, are An Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Edinburgh UP, 2008), The Qur’an, Modern Muslim Interpretations (Routledge, 2011), Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur’anic Exegesis (Equinox, 2016), and Al-Ghazali and the Divine (Routledge, 2018).

Campanini has written on al-Ghazali, Ibn Roshd, Ibn Khaldun, and on prominent modern and contemporary Arab-Muslim thinkers. He has been collecting fresh material for more work on the Qur’an and Philosophy, one of the last themes and tasks he wished to further explore newly and innovatively, and there are few scholars working on this, like his old friend the known scholar of Islamic philosophy Oliver Leaman (b. 1950). I found another book on Qur’an and Islam (Al-Qur’an wa al-Falsafa) in Arabic, published in 1958 by the Egyptian scholar and author Mohamed Yussuf Mussa and emailed it to him a few days ago; he was happy to receive it, commenting, on 03 October, “Splendido. Shukran!” Italian scholarship of Islam, and scholars of Islam worldwide, have lost a sharp and productive mind; his family and contacts have lost a great and loved man.

I have known Campanini first through his work, then for the last five years I came to know him in person, through conferences and seminars I was organizing or co-organizing either in Rome or in Casablanca, in collaborations with my home university then, or research foundations I work or collaborate with. Among the last major conferences he participated in was in Casablanca Seminars in July 2018; he gave a great talk, on Islamic thought and the question of reform, and continued to flush out his thoughts in another book launch in the same event, of which he was a star, as some participants conveyed to me then. He showed high mastery of the Islamic scholarly tradition, which he came to adopt as another source of his intellectual and personal/spiritual food since the 1980s. Campanini wished to see Islamic philosophy and theology flourish again, more rationally, more critically. He identified as a “hanif,” a believer in the Abrahamic God, as he writes in his booklet L’Islam: religione dell’ occidente (Islam, the Religion of the West, 2016). Today, he will have an Islamic ritual for burial, and tomorrow a Catholic one; he also wishes to be cremated, and this will be planned in due time later, as his wife Donatella conveyed to me. Even in his last departure from this material life, he leaves differently, “free” from the authority of one orthodoxy; he is buried “plurally,” “cosmically.”

Campanini assisted his students and close research contacts when he could, as a few of these I know informed me, seeing that I never was his student to know such details; this I could know only later myself when a new research center and library on Islamic history and doctrines was opened in Palermo, the opening of which he gratefully contributed to. Campanini was not only a scholar of office; he was also a scholar engaged in the public debate on Islam in the public sphere in Italy, in Europe and the Arab world; he was often invited by civil society organizations, Islamic and non-Islamic, to contribute to the debate, especially in the north of Italy and Milan area, but never in TV, to my knowledge; he was too critical to be invited by TV! He was very critical of Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, naïve political Islam, authoritarian Arab regimes, and he, like the philosopher Giorgio Agamben (b. 1942), was critical of the way States have managed the Covid-19 pandemic, and thought it to be another new means of surveillance and control of individual liberties. He always wanted to be “free” and to see others “free” too. Italian scholarship of Islam, and scholars of Islam worldwide, have lost a sharp and productive mind, and his close family and contacts have lost a good and loved man. I used to call him “Ustaz Akbar”, i.e. “Professor Massimo” in Arabic, a form that is formal but also expresses closeness, since it uses a title and the first name and not the last name; and he used to smile to the “Akbar” equivalent of his Italian name “Massimo.”

On this sad occasion, and seeing that for now I cannot attend his funeral, I have thought of sharing this interview I conducted with him in January 2020, as a form of “Conversations with Scholars of Islam.” He signed me a consent form on 13 January to publish this interview wherever and whenever I wish, and in whatever form, electronic or in print. I hope it reflects some of his intellectual energy and human spirit. Rest in Peace, Ustaz Akbar!



Interview with Prof. Campanini – 13 January 2020


Part I: Background and the Study of Islam-and-Muslims

Who is Professor Massimo Campanini?

I believe to be a free-thinker, normally antagonist towards consolidate and mainstream positions, both in thinking and in politics. I am not comfortable with the Western society I live therein because I believe it grounded on hypocrisy and false prejudices. The main one is the conviction that we Europeans and Americans (mostly white of course, WASP) are depositary of absolute and universal truths, eternal, out of history – we would be indeed the makers of the end of history. Europeans and Americans are the Biblical elected people (remember the Pilgrim Fathers) and God incarnated for us; therefore we have the burden to civilize the world. Since my early youth I was uncomfortable with this perspective. Unfortunately, Westerners predicate peace, but often wage war. It is not by chance that one of the heroes of my youth was Giordano Bruno, a “heretic” thinker  burnt by Roman Inquisition.


How did you come to the study of Islam, and-or Muslim societies?

I began to study Islam and Arabic in 1980 (after Giordano Bruno). I was going through a period of intellectual troubles  being unsatisfied  of myself and of my world vision and social collocation. I was under the shadow of scientism at that time and in revolt against received education and dominant paradigms. For by no means casual circumstances, after a journey in Egypt, I discovered the Qur’an and I began to read it in Alessandro Bausani’s translation and commentary. The ongoing study of the Qur’an led me to elaborate a more rational (in my view) idea of God and theology, so far away from any anthropomorfization and fideism and blind obedience to    My coming to the study of Islam was then pretty philosophical-theological and only later I devoted a bit of my studies to contemporary history of the Arab countries. Not by chance my very first book (1986) dealt with a philosophical-Mu‘tazilite commentary (and translation) of the Qur’an surat al-Kahf [The Cave].


Have these studies led you to studies or visits to the Islamic world? Is there some special story you wish to share?

I am not a traveler, at least not in body, rather in mind. However, I visited many times a (little) number of Arab countries, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, and only once Yemen. Aside from North Africa, I visited Istanbul in particular. I am pleased to remember two sensitive records, both occurred in Cairo. The times I entered Ibn Tulun mosque (I did so dozens of times), I always felt a breath of greatness, but also of peace and harmony: a great, and deep spiritual experience. My favourite journey has been to walk up and down across Gamaliyya, shari’ Muizz li Din Allah towards al-Azhar, Bab Zuwayla and then the Citadel via Darb al-Ahmar: noise, smells, colours – all was and is for me fascinating. And the people, very poor but full of dignity (no false beggars), and the voices of muezzins at night … Neghib Mahfuz was a master in describing all this.


Do you belong to an Orientalist scholarly tradition, or you prefer to stay “free” from influences?

Obviously I was educated in Orientalist scholarly tradition and I learnt a lot from it methodologically, but I believe I have always been quite “free”. My conviction is that, if you want to understand the “other”, you must try to think as the other thinks. Consequently, I preferred to see Islam through Muslim eyes and not through Orientalist (à la Said) eyes – at least as far as I was able to do so.


What are the major Italian, then European, or non-European scholars that might have influenced your choices and attitudes in this field of study?

No doubt Alessandro Bausani (d. 1988), Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) and Nasr Abu Zayd (d. 2010), I knew personally and often visited them in their houses. Bausani taught me to look at Islam with sympathetic but scientifically conscious attitude. Hanafi’s phenomenological approach modified definitely my views of religion and also of politics. Abu Zayd’s open-mindedness helped me to improve my methods in Qur’an reading. Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) and Fazlur Rahman’s (d. 1988) books also influenced me decisively, albeit indirectly.


Can you say that there is an Italian tradition of Islamic studies? What is its strength, and/or weakness? What is its current state affairs? Is it satisfactory, according to you?

Yes there was and there is, and very important, although often elitist. Italian Arabists and Islamists of the 20th century gave a huge contribution to scholarship, but they were not internationally recognized – apart from rare exceptions – and today’s situation is not very different. Obviously, it is almost impossible to be read and considered worldwide while writing in Italian, but there was and there is also a problem of parochialism.


What role do Italian scholars of Islam play in the public debates on Islam and Muslims in Italy, and in Europe in general? Or, if their role is invisible, how do you think it should be?

Their role is very limited, because, on the one hand, serious scholars do not enjoy much public space in Italy (poisonous journalism got the upper hand) and, on the other hand, because many prefer to remain closed in the ivory tower of study. My own experience is that in Italy there is little room for really engaged stances. The free world is free only up to a point.


Do you see a strong exchange between Italian scholars of Islam, and the Arab-Islamic world? Or, this has changed over time, and depends on various factors? Can you explain? 

Unfortunately no, or at least not enough. And for the reasons just explained [language intermediation, ivory tower attitude, centrist attitudes sometimes, etc.].


Are there certain areas and eras of study that you think scholarlship has ignored so far in the field, in your field in particular?

In the past century Arab-Islamic studies in Italy were mostly literary and linguistic, and mostly classical, with a great deal of space devoted to Sufism. Nowadays the situation has changed. Many brave young scholars  are studying also contemporary history, geopolitics, sociology, economics and so on. Philosophy remains a quite narrow field of studies, however, especially contemporary thought – usually neglected in our Academy.


Are there special historical, socio-political, or economic factors that have influenced such a study, either negatively or positively?

It is paradoxical, but not at all strange, that Arab-Islamic studies flourished under Fascism for colonial aims. After the second world war, they were circumscribed to a very narrow elite of specialized scholars and for a long while without enjoying public attention. I remember that, when I taught history and  institutions of the Islamic world at Urbino university in the late 1990s, sometimes my classes were literally empty. After 9/11 the classes were filled up of students (I was teaching in Milan at that time), but how much was their interest sincere? Actually, popular interest in Islam is strongly conditioned by contingent outward circumstances and today xenophobic  and islamophobic propaganda does not help to develop the field.  Again: Italy is a parochial country.


Part II: Events and Figures of influence in the field

Now, let us invoke certain modern and contemporary events, and figures, which you might have something to say about. Otherwise said, how have cerain events shaped your own choices of study and/or your field of study, events like the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the foulard/veil affair, the Rushdie Affair, the fall of Berlin Wall, the 9/11, 2001 terrorist events, the invasion of Iraq, or any other event of special importance to your background and studies?

As I have said, I began to study Islam for theological-philosophical reasons. And my main interest is always theologically-philosophically focused. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the third world’s struggle for liberation from European and USA imperialism heavily motivated my studies in contemporary history. I dare to state that I was among the first in Italy and not only in Italy to study, for example, socialism in relation to political Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood). Obviously, (almost) nobody read the papers I published in those years. Today I laugh to myself when I see oustanding (foreign) scholars acclaimed for the same ideas I discussed more than thirty years ago without any international recognizance. Politics always fostered my work, and yes Iranian revolution was a watershade, along with the Arab-Israeli wars or the Gulf wars.


What are the people or the movements or political agents that you think are of high importance for the influence they have on your field of study in particular?

From the point of view of philosophy and Qur’anic studies, I already acknowledged my indebtedness to, say,Hasan Hanafi or Fazlur Rahman. As to contemporay history, I have been and I am wholeheartedly “Nasserist”. Socialism and religion are still at the center of my research. Struggle for liberation – intellectual and political – is still the way.


Part III: The Future

The Arab World in particular, and the broad Middle East in general appears in turmoil, more so since the so-called Arab Spring since 2011. What aspirations and fears this historical moment brings to the field from a scholarly perspective? Does it impact the way the area is studied? Does it impact they way it is also taught for non-specialists and young students?

I believe that Arab-Islamic studies are essential in order to understand present historical dynamics. Scholarly studies and a really correct mass-media information would be fundamental in avoiding the clash of civilizations Westerners were ready to fuel however. The Middle East is a crucial geopolitical zone. Terroristic phenomena could be demistified if correctly interpreted. Unfortunately, at least in Italy, there is no political and public involvement aimed to improve knowledge of Islam. Mass-media (and sometimes Academia, alas!) picture Islam exclusively as a violent ideology. Common people are very scarcely informed about the intellectual and spiritual achievements of Islam. Obviously it is a precise choice: the creation of enemy is normal in the Western civilization. Communism first, then Islam and the “negroes”, and likely in the short future China. Young generations must be educated to widen their horizon. The World does not finish at New York. Rather, Jerusalem must be internationalized.

Let me close with one final question, with particular reference to some of your recent scholarly works. You have recently opend up to the study of the Qur’an philosophically in Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur’anic Exegesis (in English, 2016), and also Islam, The Religion of the West (in Italian L’Islam, religione dell’occidente, 2016).The first work is philosophically oriented, though some scholars would not agree to the idea of “philosophical theology” or “theological philosophy,”, and the second is more comparative theorelogically and historically, between the two figures of Jesus Christ and Muhammad. These texts summarize the interest you have expressed above in Islamic thought and societies. I do not aim at forcing some “intellectual dialogue” in your overall vast list of works, but do you think philosophy and theology are separable in the Islamic tradition? Or you think they were separate in the formative period of the intellectual tradition, and this was lost with time, and is now being revisited? Or, based on your critiqque of “Western” scholarship and mainstream thought (and politics), you thinl that revisiting what philosophy means is needed in this age of crises of all sorts (philosophical, theological, political, technological, human relations, etc.)? And do these questions find some reply in your second book referred to above (Islam, the Religion of the West)? Do you think the Islamic tradition belongs to the West, or, in retrospect, the West belongs to the Islamic tradition, if past philosophical exchange (i.e. Greco-Arab) is read historically, and not politcally? Please excuse the multiple questions here.

The questions are intriguing. Well, shortly 1) all depends on the meaning we give to “theology”. If “theology” means traditional ‘ilm al-kalam, undoubtedly theology and philosophy (falsafa) were neatly separated in the classical age of Islam. But if “theology” means theoretical reflection about the divine, thinkers like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) or Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) were theologian-philosophers. 2) Islamic culture underwent a deep crisis since the 8th/ 14th CE centuries and philosophy was “forgotten” as it were. But guilty was not theology in itself, rather jurisprudence (fiqh) that phagocytized [i.e. devoured] speculative sciences, emphasizing strict normativity and closure of ijtihad. Actually, Averroes did not have pupils until very modern times. Those scholars (and there are many of  them, Orientalists and Muslims alike) who extolled esoteric post-Avicennism or ambiguous  “philosophical” Sufism (Ibn ‘Arabi for example) as the zenit of Islamic thought make a bad service to Islamic culture emphasizing a “thought of darkness” (in ‘Abid al-Jabri’s terms). 3) I believe that present Islamic culture needs philosophy and needs to go back to Mu‘tazilism and  Mu‘tazilite creative spirit. Even in sensitive theological issues such as the createdness of the Qur’an. Muslim intellectuals need to embrace new methodologies of work, getting the best of Orientalism if it is necessary. And it is. 4) Islam belongs to the West insofar as, beyond  the common religious Abrahamic roots and monotheism, they shared the same historical landscape. In Late Antiquity, in the so-called Middle Ages, in colonial and post-colonial eras: Islam was and is a Mediterranean-Western civilization. Remember that Christianity was born as an “Oriental” religion!! We often speak of the dialectics Athens-Jerusalem, but there is a third vertex, Mecca – or Cairo and Cordoba if you prefer.  Obviously, many fundamentals are different. Nasr Abu Zayd was keenly aware that, for example, Islam cannot accept Jesus Christ’s divinity, while Christianity cannot accept that Muhammad “abrogated” the Gospels. Jesus and Muhammad conveyed substantially the same religious message, while their ethics was different. Moreover, in Christianity Jesus is the Logos, in Islam the Logos is the Qur’an. However, men live in society and society is much more flexible than religious ideologies. The crux is that Islam is the “other” of Europe and Europe is the “other” of Islam: they are ever quarrelling sisters. The famous Medieval and Illuministic tale of the three rings (from Boccaccio to Lessing) is telling and captures a real situation.


Where does optimism, or pessimism, lie if the scholar is allowed to hope, or if s-he can speak as a citizen-intellectual?

I am by nature pessimist. However I have the optimism of will and I have faith in knowedge and (human, not natural) sciences. As Enzo Paci and Umberto Eco said, truth is not an apparate or a system to be realized, nor a definite achievement, but an objective to be pursued. We must seek for the truth, ask for the truth without arriving at it, because only teleology maintains the horizons open.