Sunday, 22 December 2019

Syrian Muslim intellectual and critic Muhammad Shahrur (Shahrour) (1938-2019)

وفاة المفكر السوري محمد شحرور
The Syrian intellectual Muhammad Shahrur (Shahrour) has passed away at the age of eighty in Abu Dhabi. Although he made name as a thinker and writer about Islam, and the interpretation of the Qur'an in particular, Shahrur was neither a traditionally trained 'alim, nor a conventional scholar of religion. Educated as a civil engineer in the Soviet Union and Ireland, he made a living as a foundations expert in the construction industry and only published his first book on Islam in 1990.

His The Book and the Qur'an: A Contemporary Reading was both admired and derided. Not shying away from courting controversy, Shahrur's writings are characterized by a tone that is both anti-clerical and anti-traditional. While reaching hundreds of thousands throughout the Muslim world, the book was criticized and dismissed by both the Islamic religious establishment and other Muslim academic scholars of Islam, including figures such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who considered Shahrur's approach methodologically naive.
Shahrur's interpretation of scripture was part of a broader epistemological concern with reconciling revelation with advances made in the modern sciences. His idiosyncratic approach shows even greater confidence in the modernity project than the nineteenth-century reformer Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) or the Pakistani-American Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988). While his vocabulary is reminiscent of that of the controversial exegesis by fellow engineer Mahmud Muhammad Taha (1909-1985), Shahrur's 'scientific hermeneutics' drew on the neo-Kantian idealism and logical positivism of Western mathematician-philosophers, such as Alfred Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.

To learn more about Shahrur/Shahrour's work, click on the book cover images below for one of the few translations of his writings in English, Andreas Christmann's edited volume, or the section of the chapter on Scripture  in my Contemporary Thought in the Muslim World (pp. 69-72).

Friday, 29 November 2019

Amin Maalouf: From writing historical fiction to political commentary

Amin Maalouf (*1949)
Since the 1980s, Lebanese-born but France-based author Amin Maalouf has built up an impressive reputation as a writer of captivating historical novels and fictionalized biographies set in the Middle East. Books like Leo the African (1986),  Samarkand
(1988), and The Garden of Light (1991) put Maalouf on the map as a literary writer highlighting evocative episodes from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, featuring an Andalusian Muslim who converted to Christianity only to revert to Islam again; a lost manuscript of Omar Khayyam; and the story of the founder of Manicheism respectively.

However, The Rock of Tanios (1993), for which Maalouf was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt, had a more overt political purport. Set in his native Lebanon, it narrates the rivalries between competing religious sects in the nineteenth-century, obviously pointing at the Lebanese Civil War that had erupted in 1975, and that saw clan leaders with the same names at each other's throats again. It ravaged what was once considered the 'Switzerland of the Middle East', resulting also in Amin Maalouf seeking voluntary exile in France.

Aside from historical fiction, Maalouf has also written a history of the crusades through Arab eyes (1983), and a lengthy essay on identity and violence (1993), and a family history of relatives who settled in the Caribbean (2008). His intellectual stature was further affirmed by his election to the Académie Française in 2011 (Chair 29 to be precise, which was once held by Ernest Renan, the Orientalist and philosopher with notoriously negative views of Arabs and Muslims).

In his most recent book The Sinking of Civilizations (Le Naufrage des Civilisations), he engages with the shift from cultural traditions to economic interests as the determining factor in the formation of mentalities which seem to colour not only regional politics in the Middle East, but global affairs. While the rise of populism is often explained as a nostalgia for cultural purity in response to a sense of crisis in new identity formations in an increasingly interconnected world.

Speaking to the Qantara Website about his new books, Maalouf observes:
In the Arab world, petrodollars gave certain traditional societies influence and took it away from others. Saudi Arabia has gained more influence than any other, while Egypt, which did not have any oil, but played an important intellectual and political role, saw its significance dwindle. The instability that the petrodollars brought to many countries in the region – such as Iraq – had an impact on the rest of the world. What's more, the oil crisis of the 1970s was a decisive factor in the development of a new mentality in the West, which found expression in another economic policy, Thatcherism. [...] Pan-Arabism, which was seen as the most promising ideology during the presidency of Nasser in Egypt and raised expectations and motivated people, was utterly swept away by this defeat. Nasser died shortly after the war; there was nobody to fill his shoes. Instead, the door was opened for a form of nationalism that had a strong religious component. However, the radical Islamism that spread out from the oil-producing states caused tension and divisions within Arab societies. This was clearly illustrated by the Arab Spring. 
Read the whole interview here

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Critical Muslims in the context of critiques of 'Religion' as an analytical category

Here is a cross-link to my guest contribution to the blog maintained by the Critical Religion Association at the University of Stirling:

Critical  Muslims by Carool Kersten

seeks to understand what we are thinking about when we think about religion: for example, why has much of western culture identified one particular kind of ritual as ‘religious’ whilst other kinds of ritual are seen as ‘secular’ (such as military parades). Not all cultures make these divisions, but the dominance of western cultural norms around the world from the colonial era onwards has impacted in profound ways on how people globally think about these issues. Critical Religion examines religion from a positive critical standpoint, with a view to showing how open to re-interpretation or re-conceptualisation the term ‘religion’ is today in our intellectual, social, and cultural spheres. We try to do this in ways that seek out and identify the limits of the language we employ so that we can move beyond these limiting terms and concepts.


Friday, 5 October 2018

Critical Muslims - showcasing new and creative ideas and thinkers from the Muslim world

Dariush Shayegan & Abdolkarim Soroush
After a long period of neglect, the Critical Muslims blog is given a new lease of life with posts on two Iranian thinkers: The late Dariush Shayegan, who passed away this Spring, and Abdolkarim Soroush, currently one of the most renowned philosophers from Iran.
Click on the image to check this book

Abdolkarim Soroush on Rumi, Sufism and Pluralism in the Muslim World

In a recent interview, Abdolkarim  Soroush (*1946), Iran's best known living philosopher, explained the continuing relevance of the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273). Aside from the power of the poetry itself , Rumi's writings also offers a window on religious knowledge that is different from discursive Islamic theology:
Sufism or mysticism or irfan, as I like to call it, is a way of life that combines this world and the other world. Irfan actually comes from the word marifa, which means, "to know, knowledge". 
Is irfan part of theology? It all depends on the meaning of theology. If you translate theology into ilm al-kalam, it is not part of theology because, in that case, theology means demonstrative science – looking for the footsteps. You work with proof (burhan) and with evidence (dalil). But an arif doesn't look at dalil, he is looking for the thing itself and not the signs of it. Therefore Sufism cannot be part of ʿilm al-kalam in the traditional sense of Islamic theology. In traditional Islamic thought, theology and Sufism are two utterly different approaches.
 In contrast to the prophets associated with the foundation of new religious traditions, Sufis play a different role in the dissemination of religious experience and knowledge, offering interpretations that are more in tune with the demands and challenges of today's increasingly interconnected world.

For earlier posts on the thought of Abdolkarim Soroush on this blog, click here and here

Click on the image to check out this book