Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Cosmopolitan Muslim: Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009)

Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known as Gus Dur, has died at the age of 69 in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

The first freely elected head of state of the Indonesian republic after the fall of the Soeharto regime, Gus Dur's term in office (1999-2001) was troublesome and cut short by impeachment procedures which saw him replaced by Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the country's founding father, Soekarno.

His legacy as a Muslim reformist, however, will outlast the sad demise of his short-lived political career. Together with Nurcholish Madjid he was the face of the liberal and pluralist Islam which emerged in Indonesia during the last three decades of the 20th century.

Born in the East-Javanese district of Jombang, Abdurrahman Wahid was the grandson K.H. Hasjim Asj'ari (1875-1947), a prominent Muslim scholar and founder of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Now one of the largest Muslim organisations in the world (it claims a following of over 30 million), the NU has for decades represented the traditionalist Muslim establishment; the gurus or kyai whose bases of power were the Islamic boarding schools known as pesantrens found throughout rural Java. Hasjim Asj'ari's son -- and Gus Dur's father -- K.H. Wahid Hasjim served as the first Minister or Religious Affairs (1945, and again 1949-52) and succeeded as NU leader in 1947, until his untimely death in 1953.

After receiving both a secular and traditional Islamic education in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Jombang, and Magelang Gus Dur worked as a teacher at a modernist Islamic school (madrasa) affiliated with Pesantren Tambakberas and as a journalist.

In 1953, he was awarded a scholarship for study at Cairo's al-Azhar University. Forced to take remedial classes in Arabic before attending the university's Higher Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies, Gus Dur preferred spending his time reading world literature, watching European and American movies, and football. Bored with the curriculum at al-Azhar, Gus Dur opted for a transfer to the University of Baghdad, where he studied Arabic literature. Leaving Iraq in 1970, he made a failed bid to enter Leiden University in the Netherlands and then decided to travel home via France and Germany.

Back in Indonesia, Gus Dur joined the Institute for Economic and Social Research, Education and Information, also known under the acronym LP3ES . In addition he became a journalist, working for periodicals such as Prisma, Tempo and Kompas, and returning to Pesantren Tambakberas as a teacher.

As a descendant from an elite NU family, Abdurahman Wahid also become involved in the Pesantren reform policies initiated by Minister of Religious Affairs, Abdul Mukti Ali (1971-78), which he supported enthusiastically. These Islamic schools would provide the seedbed for the new Muslim intelligentsia emerging in the course of the 1980s and 1990s, which formed the constituency for the alternative Islamic discourse referred to as Islam Kultural (Cultural Islam) or Islam Sipil (Civil Islam), and for which Gus Dur himself coined the term Islam Kosmopolitan (Cosmopolitan Islam).

More interested in working as a public intellectual and writer than an organisational and administrative career, Gus Dur was very reluctant to become involved in NU affairs and only after a third appeal from his maternal grandfather Bisri Syansuri did he accept a place on the NU religious advisory council.

From this position he began to challenge the existing NU leadership which he held responsible for the organisation's rampant stagnation. Gus Dur proposed not only drastic internal reforms but withdrew the NU also from party politics, severing its links with the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan or PPP). His successful proposals for revitalising the stale NU made him very popular and in 1984 he followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps by being elected chairman of the NU -- a post he would continue to hold until 1998.

During those fifteen years, Gus Dur groomed a new generation of NU intellectuals, which came to be known as the NU Muda or 'Young NU Members'. Educated at reformed pesantrens, many went on to study at the State Institutes of Islamic Studies (IAIN) found in cities such as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and Bandung. The most talented would subsequently be given the opportunity to pursue postgraduate studies at universities in North America (in particular McGill University in Canada), Europe and Australia. Combining intimate familiarity with the Islamic tradition with knowledge of the latest advances of Western scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, they are now making their own contributions to the formulation of alternative Islamic discourses through a critical engagement with the Islamic heritage, informed by the cosmopolitan outlook they have acquired through their exposure to a wide array of intellectual influences. For more on this, read the article Indonesia's New Muslim Intellectuals in Religion Compass.

After leaving office, Gus Dur concentrated his efforts on promoting his own pluralist interpretation of Islam's civilisational legacy through lectures, publications and a think tank called the Wahid Institute.

Abdurrahman al-Dakhil Wahid was buried near his father and grandfather's shrines in his hometown Tebuireng, dstrict Jombang, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presiding at the funeral ceremony.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Female Iranian Reformist Ranked 3rd among top 100 Global Thinkers

Foreign Policy Magazine has ranked Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi (see also the post of 4 July 2009), as the third most influential global thinker of the past year. Here is an excerpt from the article:

for being the brains behind Iran's Green Revolution and the campaign of her husband, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Political scientist and Reformer | Iran

Of all the critical moments in the Iranian presidential election that captured the world's attention this year, one stands out: On June 3, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly questioned the credentials of his opponent's wife, wondering in a televised debate if her Ph.D. in political science was legitimate. Furious, the 64-year-old Rahnavard staged a blazing, 90-minute news conference in which she accused the president of lying, debasing her sex, and betraying the Islamic Revolution. The attack galvanized the opposition and rejuvenated the campaign of her husband, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Ahmadinejad should have known better. During and after the Islamic Revolution, Rahnavard had been an ardent Islamist who worked to discredit secular feminist groups. But years later, when the revolution failed to yield dividends for women, she changed course and became a driving force behind the nascent feminist movement in Iran. After she was placed on the High Council of Cultural Revolution, the body issued its first declaration in 1992 advancing women's rights. She was later fired as chancellor of Tehran's exclusively female Al-Zahra University for inviting feminist lawyer and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to speak.

This year, Rahnavard's rage at Ahmadinejad drove her husband's campaign. She began stumping with him and organizing supporters through rallies, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages. Campaign posters that depicted the couple holding hands subtly hinted at the liberal reforms Mousavi would make in office; she has more explicitly said these would involve greater democratization, a stronger role for women in the cabinet, and a relaxing of Iran's notoriously discriminatory gender laws.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Promoting Islamic cosmopolitanism through the arts

This week's newsletter has two items on artistic initiatives seeking to promote a cosmopolitan take on the Islamic heritage.

In Berlin Ha'atelier - Platform for Philosophy and Arts is involved in the exhibition TASWIR -- pictorial mappings of modernity and islam, organised in conjunction with Berliner Festspiele. In an interview with Qantara reporter Nimet Seker, the platform's director Almut Sh. Bruckstein Çoruh -- who is also curating the exhibition --explains that:

'the exhibition renounces any "regional" definition of what is "Islamic." It is not chronologically ordered. In no sense does the exhibition aim to provide a sketch of the history of so-called "Islamic art" from its beginnings through to the present day. And it is not conceived in terms of regions – the more than 50 participating artists are names on the international art scene. The exhibition doesn't try to show how contemporary artists from the so-called "Islamic world" come to grips with their own roots. It isn't meant to be a dialogue between cultures, which perhaps seems somewhat surprising'.

The exhibition's objective is to connect contemporary art with classical Islamic art, says Bruckstein:

'We posed the question as to the visual form of calligraphy. It manifests itself as one of the most paramount art forms, especially in valuable Koran manuscripts, Persian quatrains, and in Ottoman calligraphic arts. There is a visual dimension to the script. In the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, I saw Picasso's lithographic work for Pierre Reverdy's "Le Chant des Morts" and the question arose as to the connection between Picasso and the phenomenon of the line in Ottoman calligraphy. In the "Picasso and Koran" room, we are concerned with the phenomenon of the line in visual, acoustic, and melodic form'.

Through what it calls the workshop's 'encyclopedic curriculum', Ha'atalier seeks to pay special attention to cosmopolitan Jewish and Islamic traditions and create a 'portable pictorial atlas':

You can read the full interview with here. TASWIR is hosted by the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin until 18 January 2010. For more on contemporary art in the Muslim world see the earlier posts from 29 November 2008 and 24 January 2009.

The merging of Islamic and Jewish cultural influences is also explored in SIWAN, the new musical album resulting from a collaboration between Norwegian jazz pianist and composer Jon Balke and Moroccan-born Amina Alaoui, in which they try to capture 'the spirit of Al Andalus' or Medieval Muslim Spain.

'Behind this remarkable musical integration is a web of philosophical, historical, and literary interconnections, as Balke and Alaoui set texts from Sufi poets, Christian mystics, troubadours and more and – inspired by the tolerant and creative spirit of medieval Al-Andalus – ponder what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition. Setting new standards in transcultural music, Siwan shows what can be made today when artists of the most divergent background pool their energies'.

Monday, 16 November 2009

A Generation Ahead: French scholarship on contemporary Muslim intellectuals

'A generation ahead' that is how John Sidel, Sir Patrick Gillam Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), characterised the quality of French scholarship on contemporary Muslim thought in his introductory remarks for a one-day seminar on Islamic Intellectuals Across the Muslim World: French Perspectives on the Dynamics of Change, hosted by LSE on 7 November 2009.

In an introspective meditation Sidel noted that LSE tends to privilege Anglophone scholarship and that the present gathering presents a nice counterpoint to that. In his view the generically different academic milieu in France, where 'Islam' is not only more acutely problematised, but where there is greater prestige and priority attached to sociology and providing social context as opposed to the Anglosaxon obsession with individuated approaches to Islamic parties, intellectuals, ideas and texts, is more conducive for raising fundamental questions regarding knowledge and power, the education system and the accumulation of knowledge, social inequality and the problem of representation. Added to the French propensity towards recognising a more prominent public role for the organic intellectual this -- according to Sidel -- vindicates the qualification of French scholarship on Muslim intellectuals as being more advanced.

That is not to say that French scholarship on Islam has had no influence at all in the English-speaking world, aside from translations of the writings of Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, anthropologists specialising in the Muslim world such as Dale Eickelman and Talal Asad have been influenced by developments in French social anthropology.

Still, certain areas were for a long time considered as the province of British and American scholars. This applies, for example, to the Arabian Peninsula, as pointed out by Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, Professor of Social Anthropology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) at King's College London. Only after 9/11 can we detect Francophone voices discussing developments in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

One such voice is that of Stephane LaCroix, a student of Kepel specialising in opposition movements and dissidents in Saudi Arabia. His presentation on the 'Liberal Islamist Intellectuals' embedded the phenomenon on the Islamic revival (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya) whcih started to take shape in the 1960s against the background of the 'Arab cold War' between the progressive republics led by the Egyptian president Nasser and the conservative monarchies represented by King Faysal of Saudi Arabia. The latter also offered his country as a safehaven for members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who were facing increasing persecution at home. Initially, the Sahwa movement was not oppositional at all but that all changed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, when the country was flooded with American and other Western troops in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwayt. This event led to the embarrassing revelation that even with billions spent on defence, Saudi Arabia was unable to defend itself against foreign military threats.

As a result, the Sahwa movement, now uniting critical elements from the ulama, the class of religious scholars holding substantial political influence in the kingdom, and Islamists with non-ulama backgrounds, became not only anti-American but also anti-regime. Between 1992 and 1994 they engaged in a campaign that became increasingly challenging to the authority of the royal family and ulama loyalists, leading to a crush-down in 1994 and 1995 when many of its members were jailed.

Upon the release of the most prominent Sahwa campaigners in 1999, there occured a split: some reconciled themselves with the government and returned to their mid-1980s positions, others continued their political activism, forming the seedbed for the 'neo-Jihadist' Peninsula branch of al-Qa'ida. Another group remained politically active by advocating a reform of the Saudi state, calling for an Islamic constitutional state.

A key figure among this last cohort is Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, a former professor of comparative literature and founding member of the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). Subjected to repeated arrests, he is the face of the liberal Islamist intellectuals with non-ulama backgrounds. Al-Hamid argues that Saudi Arabia has turned Salafism into a conservative ideology. Politically the Al Saud dynasty can be compared to the Umayyad (661-750CE) or Abbasid (750-1256) Caliphs.

In al-Hamid's rereading, the 'pious ancestors' or al-salaf al-salih were not a conservative or authoritarian force, but a mix of a 'civil society' movement (al-mujtama'a al-madiniya -- allowing for a pun in Arabic which also can refer to the early Muslim community at Medina) and 'proto-political' parties (the Meccan 'immigrants' and Medinan 'helpers'). Consciously distancing himself from those Ulama dissidents who have opted not just for political quietism but effectively returned to into the fold of their class, al-Hamid is positioning himself as a 'meta-intellectual', a cultured and educated individual (muthaqqif) who has informed views of both modernisation and religious issues.

In October 2009, al-Hamid participated in the establishment of a Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).

Malika Zeghal from the University of Chicago (see also the post of 11 October 2009) assessed the position of Muslim intellectuals in the United States after 9/11, where they are forced into a discourse that she characterised as 'terse, coercive and self-limiting'. This is partly a result of the media and government's advocacy of 'liberal Islam', pushing certain Muslims who are considered as matching that profile into the limelight and presenting them as legitimate spokespersons for the Muslim communities in America. Thing singling out of a certain type of 'acceptable' Muslims have received a pseudo-scholarly and semi-official seal of approval through the RAND corporation's report Building Moderate Muslim Networks

While this endorsement has led to significant tensions within and among segments of the Muslim communities currently present in the United States, it has also provided an opportunity for select individuals to explain, redefine and rearticulate what the Islamic tradition stands for. Focussing on the contributions by intellectuals rather than activists, Zeghal identifies a 'new Muslim intellectual' whose emergence points to a disjunction between Islam as an 'abstract' and the heterogeneity of Islam as experienced by Muslims. However, she adds the caveat that this forging of an 'alliance' between Muslim reformers and the government should not caricaturise the US government's representation of Muslims in America too much.

A key figure in the silsilah or intellectual genealogy of these new Muslim intellectuals is Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani-born scholar who was appointed Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago after he had to leave his home country after his reform ideas were challenged by the Jamaat-e Islami. Combining an intimate familiarity of the Islamic heritage with a equal solid knowledge of Western scholarship in the human sciences, these newly emerging thinkers neverthless present a variety of viewpoints. Representative of this strand of thought are the jurist Khaled Abou el Fadl, who teaches at the UCLA Law School. the political scientist Muqtedar Khan, and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who founded the Zaytuna Institute in California.

A specialist on Islam in Southeastern Europe, Xavier Bougarel provided an introduction to a new generation of Bosnian Muslim intellectuals.

After religous life in post-WWII Yugoslavia had been reduced to a minimum, the 1960s witnessed a degree of liberalisation, in the wake of which there began to spring up new Islamic religious institutions in Bosnia. The faculty of Theology in Sarajevo (now renamed as the Faculty of Islamic Studies) became the training ground of Muslim intellectuals with a double academic background -- because of aside from their work in religious studies, they were also enrolled in other faculties.

One such scholar is Fikret Karcic. Educated in the study of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh, as an intellectual opposed to Islamic political activism he argues that fiqh continues to exist not so much as a distinct legal system as a set of moral values. In his view only a secular state can protect the autonomy of religious institutions in relation to political sphere. In 2005, he came out against three neo-Salafi muftis who sought a fatwa on polygamy. Rejecting their argument that the increasing number of Bosnian Muslim war widows necessitated a reconsideration of the illegitimacy of polygamy, Karcic insisted that it was the task of the state to look after its vulnerable citizens. Marriage law should have general validity for all Bosnian citizens and he issued a strong warning against positioning the Muslims as an Ottoman-style millet (religious community).

Karcic was also in charge of a project to define the Bosnian Islamic tradition, envisaged as a way to fend off the encroachment of Salafi tendencies in Bosnia. Core elements of his definition were its rootedness in the Sunni-Hanafi legal tradition; it being part of the Ottoman cultural sphere while permitting certain pre-Islamic elements, whereas the way it has currently been institutionalised affirms that Bosnian Muslims have become accustomed to live within the political framework of the secular state.

Another such scholar is Enes Karic, who is both a political scientist and Islamicist specialising in Qur'an interpretation (tafsir). According to Karic the Qur'an is a polysemic and mystical text, and any translation is automatically also an interpretation -- supporting his argument that there is not such thing as a monolithic Islamic tradition but a variety of Muslim cultures and traditions.
In political terms this means that Islam cannot be monopolised by any given political party and turned into a uniform ideology. That is why he too is in favour of a separation of state and religion, because only then can the diversity of Islamic cultures be guaranteed and preserved.

However, Bougarel detects a generation gap between Karcic and Karic on the one side, and a younger generation of intellectuals, such as Adnan Jahic, who is much less accommodationist towards a secular state. They tend to side with the new ulama trained in Saudi Arabia or at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Whereas scholars like Karcic and Karic tend to be interested in the history and sociology of religion, the upcoming generation is likely to specialise in traditional Islamic sciences such as fiqh or aqida (dogmatic theology).

In his closing remarks, Bougarel also notes that, compared to other Balkan countries, Bosnia has established closer links with the Arab world, while Albanian and Bulgarian Muslims maintain contacts with the Turkish department of religious affairs, Diyanet.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Obama and the 'Absent Word'

Recently, I have registered interesting responses by two very different Muslims to Barack Obama's historic Cairo speech * in which he sought to redefine America's relations with the Muslim world.

The more high-profile response came on 29 September from the leader of the world's most populous Muslim country. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) used again a G20 summit to present himself as the architect of a new global policy for the Muslim world's interaction with other civilizations.

Whereas in April he had outlined Indonesia's bridge function between the rest of the Asia, the Muslim world and the West during a lecture at the London School of Economics (mentioned my post of 3 September 2009), in September he provided a more generic vision for resolving the conflicts in the Muslim world and ease its relations with the rest of the global community. At the beginning of his second term in office, reinforced by an even stronger electoral mandate, SBY's confidence as a leading figure in the Muslim world rings through in the no less than nine imperatives he suggested in a speech entitled 'Harmony Between Civilizations' delivered at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School for Government, after the G20 meeting in Pennsylvania.

Recalling Samuel Huntington's seminal article of sixteen years ago, in which the latter defined a 'Clash of Civilizations' as the governing paradigm for the 21st century, SBY opined that, even though he considered it a counterproductive projection, it must yet be acknowledged that the fault lines identified by Huntington are 'not a trivial reminder' of the many complicated issues affecting international relations.

A more harmonious way of global interaction however would first of all depend on exercising 'soft power' instead of 'hard power'. SBY cited the example of the thirteenth-century Islamic civilisation which was at the time the most sophisticated in the world due to its enormous thirst for learning. The accrued body of knowledge was later utilised by the Western Renaissance, showing how 'civilizations have built on each other's knowledge and have become enriched by it'.

The second imperative is the need for a much intenser global dialogue. Some initiatives in that direction have actually been launched by Muslim states. In conjunction with Spain, Turkey established the Alliance of Civilizations and, more recently, Saudi Arabia convened the Interfaith Conference at the UN.

The third imperative is finding solutions for the actual political conflicts in which two out of every three Muslim countries are caught up. This needs also a degree of soul-searching on the part of Muslim nations, instead of blaming all problems on a concerted "war against Islam".

The fourth and fifth imperatives concern the need for moderation and turning multiculturalism and tolerance into a 'global norm'. This can only be achieved if globalisation is made to work for all (6) through a reform of global governance (7), as there can be no genuine harmony among civilisations as long as the majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims feel marginalised and insecure. While the G-20 is more representative of today's global dynamics, the UN Security Council still reflects the power balance of 1945 rather than 2009. Therefore the council needs to be restructured to keep up with today's geopolitical realities.

The real battlegrounds to achieve such a rethinking of world order lie in the education systems (8) where the global conscience (9) of future generations s shaped. His experiences with the overwhelming response to the tragedy hitting the Indonesian province of Aceh in northern Sumatra with the 2004 Tsunami, convinced SBY that such a global conscience indeed exists.

A week later, the French-Algerian historian of Islam Mohammed Arkoun formulated a more intellectualised assessment in his closing remarks at the conference 'Construction of Belief' (see my post of 11 October 2009). Engaging with what in Braudelian terms is called the 'geohistorical space' of the Mediterranean has been Arkoun's life-long scholarly concern, as it allowed him to move away from the geo-political dimensions of the post-WWII perspective on the relations between civilisations.

This forms part of his concern for various forms of 'reason' in which he has shown himself to be equally critical of the miserable track record of religious thought as well as the 'political theology; of modernity, which can be traced to the origins of monotheism (some 4000 years ago) and the Greek concept of logos respectively. Both have been ever present, working and creating the violence that has marred the history of the Mediterranean, and give Arkoun the long duree perspective needed to analyse the beginnings of the current situation in that region.

According to Arkoun, the Mediterranean Space cannot be accurately described in terms of a north-south divide grounded in notions of 'true religion'. However current-day modern thinking nor politics appear to be able to break free from what has become a vicious circle of the Christian-Muslim dichotomy in the Mediterranean. These two traditions have been at loggerheads since the end of the thirteenth century when the Muslim world turned against the so-called 'intrusive sciences' (al-Ulum al-Dakhiliya) that is the Hellenic legacy it had embraced in earlier centuries.

To deal with this polarisation a new dictionary is required to adequately conceptualise this situation. The Islam 'on the ground' is not reflected in the way it is ethnographically or culturally represented in scholarship.

In political terms, post-independence Northwest Africans had been expecting a democracy as propagated by the West, instead their region has regressed into an imagined model of the early community in Medina. Authoritarian regimes have created a fictive Islam, allowing them to claim to be following a divine law. Unfortunately, the way political scientists tend to study this situation is too short-term to accurately analyse the local phenomena. what is needed is a corrective through a new scholarship in religion.

So far this scholarship has not emerged because both intellectuals and politicians are locked into a form of logocentrism that has declared whole areas of our cultural heritage or civilisational legacy as 'The Unthought', which through existing power structures has been been reified into the 'The Unthinkable'.

It is in the realm of actual global politics that the missing key word (parole absente) has finally been pronounced by Barack Obama, when he acknowledged that until now the West has spoken with a hegemonic voice. This extends not only to contemporary post-war and post-cold war politics but also to the cognitive status of Revelation, to which Arkoun not only counts sacred scriptures such as the Bible, The Gospel, or the Upanishads for that matter, but also the oeuvre of Karl Marx to which a similar status has been attributed.

This sanctifaction and sacralisation much be recognized as the outcome of social and historical processes and the only way to escape from it is to trangress all boundaries of knowledge production, displace all theologies into the realm of linguistic analysis, and thus surpass hegemonic discourse.

* for the video of Obama's speech, click here

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A Cosmopolitan Canopy against Dangerous Dichotomies

The above title refers to two concepts developed by Dr Bruce Lawrence, the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor at Duke University and director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), in his keynote address to the 2009 Biannual International Forum on Asia-Middle East Studies hosted by the US Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis on 16 and 17 October. Revolving around the theme Transcending Borders: Asia, the Middle East and the Global Community, this year's conference was jointly organised by the academy's Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Library of Congress Asia Division Friends Society (LCADFS), and Shanghai
International Studies University (SHISU).

In his talk about 'Minority Citizenship: Lessons from Africa and Asia', Lawrence drew on his recent research in the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia, focussing in particular on his experiences in Indonesia and the Philippines.

His views on the issue of religious and ethnic pluralism are informed by his objection to the 'dangerous dichotomies', which posit 'fundamentalism' or 'Islamism' over and against forms of 'liberal Islam', and his agreement with the argument put forward by the Sudanese-born but US-based legal scholar and human rights theorist Abdullahi al-Na'im that -- also in Islam -- state and religion are separate, for the simple reason that states in their role as key actors in the current world order define what 'Islam' is. On these grounds, say al-Na'im and Lawrence, the conflation of Islam and politics becomes untenable. This in turn has major consequences for the interpretation of minority positions within varuying systems of political order.

Inspired by Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopyand the frequent references in recent social theory to the notion of cosmopolitanism, Lawrence suggests redefining the relationship between Islam and politics within the context of a 'Cosmopolitan Canopy' in which he seeks to accomodate three dyadic contrasts: the nature of the state (secular, not religious, as defined by Rawls), the function of what Habermas has called the 'public square' (agonistic rather than antagonistic), and the scale and scope of citizenship.

On a generic level this is currently developed at Princeton by the Oxford trained political scientis Andrew March as well as the earlier mentioned Abdullahi al-Na'im, who aside from his legal expertise is also a student of the Sudanese activist and Sufi leader Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (see the post of 11 September 2008).

In assessing the role of the extent to which religious beliefs inform experiences of citizenship and belonging, Lawrence proposes a further distinction between a vertical scale of belief/unbelief and a horizontal dimension expressing levels of citizenship. Finally the explanatory model must account for the divides between collective identity and individual voice, expressed in answers to five questions: (1) where am I? Who am I? Who claims me? (family, ethnic group, nation) What do I believe/practice/accept? (religion, language, race) Who represents me? (state, official custodians, or less formalized new voices).

Because of the complexities surrounding the unsuing tensions between collectivity and indnviduality, Lawrence believes that only ethnographies with their 'thick descriptions' can adequately capture the nuances of individual voices. It also provides opportunity for minorities to demonstrate how they see themselves. As a case in point he quoted the Indonesian writer Pramudya Ananda Toer, who once said that 'Indonesia' is not a designation chosen by the inhabitants of that Southeast Asian island republic -- who often use the word Nusantara instead.

In a further discussion of his findings in the Philippines and Indonesia, Lawrence stressed the importance of conceiving of these two nation-states as part of a continuum, a geocultural formation consisting of islands not separated but connected by water. This alternative understanding of insular Southeast Asia makes it easier to appreciate this maritime world as essentially an 'open society'. Such a less strictly circumscribed 'Phil-Indo Archipelago' can also accommodate the pre-Islamic aspects of the region's history. This kind of revisionist historiography can be found in Shinzo Hayase's Mindanao Ethnohistory Beyond Nations and the writings of former Swarthmore College President Theodore Friend.

Based on his own investigations, Lawrence concluded that the public sphere in this Phil-Indo Archipelago is characterized by a top-down, region-directed, centrist approach in which nation-state policies continue to privilege the metropole and its elites at the expense of minority groups often located at the geographical peripheries. In regards to Indonesia he added that the Indonesian 'sense of self' is still far removed from an 'Arab-Islamic' identity -- meaning that the sustained, intensive and enduring connections of Indonesia's Muslims to the centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East are maintained through processes of subtle negotiation.

Bruce Lawrence is the author of the following books:

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Construction of Belief: Comparative Perspectives Conference, in honour of Mohammed Arkoun

On 9 and 10 October, 2009, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations (ISMC) of the Aga Khan University (AKU) in London, organized a conference on Construction of Belief, honouring the work of Mohammed Arkoun, Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne and currently serving on the board of governors of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS).

The roster of speakers at this event included both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who approach the study of Islam through multiple disciplinary fields. According to Abdou Filali-Ansary, Director of the ISMC, the variety of academic specializations gathered around the table is not just reflective of Mohammed Arkoun's advocacy of a comprehensive or holistic research agenda for the Islamic studies as a field of scholarly investigation, but also of his overarching concern for the 'Human Condition'. Surveying contemporary Muslim thought, the catholicity (in the original sense of the word) of Mohammed Arkoun's work makes it difficult to classify, but suggests that he wishes to distinguish himself both from the deconstructive scholar and from the normative engagement of the 'preacher'. Prof. Filali-Ansary stressed that this 'Arkounian approach' has become the hallmark of the programmes offered at AKU-ISMC. These words were echoed by Dr. Aziz Esmail, the former dean of the IIS, noting that, for Mohammed Arkoun, Islam is first and foremost a human phenomenon.

The conference was kicked off with contributions by three eminent scholars from what Mohammed Arkoun himself -- not without appreciation -- refers to as 'classical Islamology' characterized by historical-philological approaches which provide -- as he pointed out repeatedly in the course of the conference -- the valuable data required for the critical engagement propagated by himself.

R. Stephen Humphreys, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke about 'The Authenticity of Sacred Texts', underlining that while the term is used freely in discourses on history and religion it is rarely ever properly defined. To illustrate various understandings of authenticity within the context of Islamic history, he explained how the notions works on very different levels in regards to the Qur'an, the Hadith and Sira (biography of the Prophet Muhammad), whereby the latter two sources respectively provide the authentication of doctrinal postulates (aqida) and ways of conduct (ahkam) professed in the Qur'an and the historical context for the reverence due to both this core text and the figure of Muhammad.

In a response to the points made by Humphreys, Arkoun added that our present understanding of authenticity is grounded in a nineteenth-century notion of historicity based on philological examinations. However, Arkoun's own view is coloured by what he calls 'historical psychology', which also seeks to include oral traditions. From this perspective, all texts are considered as 'reliable', i.e. 'authentic' -- even if traditional philological-historical investigations would qualify such characterization as an 'anachronism'. In this regard he also took care to point out that discussions such as the one engaged in at the present conference are still not possible in Egypt, Algeria or Pakistan. The fact that Arabic even lacks an adequate equivalent term for the notion of anarchonism is indicative of the psychological and epistemological obstacles which continue to hamper Muslim thinking.

Josef van Ess, perhaps the single-most respected authority on the formative period of Islamic discursive theology or kalam, presented an erudite but at the same time accesible and refreshing rereading of the construction of Islamic thought in the classical period, using the maqalat literature on the 'seventy-two sects' as a vehicle to explain how the later heresiography gradually evolved out if what in German is called Listenwissenschaft or doxography. Initially merely 'listing' linguistic and regional differences among the early Muslims, these text became the building blocks not only for historical and doctrinal constructions in which those claiming to represent the 'true Islam' would set themselves apart with designations such as Ahl al-Islam, Ahl al-Salat, Ahl al-Jama'a, etc., but also for bureaucratic classification systems -- such as Shahrastani's maqalat, which were used for tax purposes. In his conclusions van Ess stressed that, in spite of polemics and disputes, until the nineteenth century the situation in the Muslim world had remained relatively peaceful in comparison to the history of the viciously violent European wars of religion. Responding to a more generic observation by van Ess that all historiography is a construction in which even the sincerest attempts to establish 'the reality; remain locked, Arkoun suggested to call van Ess' theoretical imagination as 'denominational', which has as its greatest advantage that it depicts 'Islam' not as a monolithic whole but as a diverse tradition.

Retired Bonn University Professor for Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies Stefan Wild brought the discussion to contemporary times with an attempt to discover some commonalities between Muslims and Christians through the construction of the 'theological other'. Following a critical side note that the tendency not to translate the Arabic term Allah when writing about Islam in other languages than Arabic creates an 'otherness' that is distancing and alienating, he then discussed the terminology used in the Christian and Muslim traditions to underscore their common origins: i.e. hanif (a monotheist who is neither part of historical Judiasm, Christianity or Islam), 'Abrahamic' or 'heavenly religions' (Adyan samawiyya). He drew also parallels between the notion of fitra, or the primordial quality in humankind leading to worshipping the Transcendent, and Karl Rahner's 'anonymous Christian', as well as the distinctions made by Muhammad Shahrur between 'Muslim' and 'Mu'min' (believer), and the idea of Muslims as constituting a 'Community of the Middle Way' (Ummat al-Wasat). Ending with a reference to the Indonesian Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid that all non-Muslims who believe in God should be recompensed with Paradise, Wild closed by observing that these new ecumenical approaches tend to come from the geographical peripheries of the Muslim world, in particular Indonesia and the 'diasporas' in Europe and North America.

Moving from the theological to the historical, Mark Sedgwick engaged in a 'class-based' analysis to explain the waning influence of the Egyptian reformist Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) on the grounds of shifts in the make-up of what he calls 'disruptive' classes. In this project he correlates the growing disruptive influence of better educated but impoverished lower middle class urbanites and peasants to the increasing support base for more radical movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Adel Daher, a Lebanese-born but US-trained philosopher who has worked closely together with the poet Adonis, also used a secular explanatory model for a rethinking of ijtihad, challenging traditionalist and modernist Islamic positions which seek to exclude certain parts of the Islamic heritage from its purview. Using reason in a formal rather than substantive sense, Daher argues that even when grounded in a religious ethic such exceptions defy logic.

Adel Daher and Mohammed Arkoun

On the second day, Ursula Gunther, author of the first extensive intellectual biography of Mohammed Arkoun published under the title
Mohammed Arkoun: ein moderner Kritiker der islamischen Vernunft, shared her preliminary findings from her research among adolescent Muslims in Germany. To position herself in the field of religious studies, she started with the following quote from Carl Gustav Jung:

Oddly enough, the paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions while uniformity of meaning is a sign of Weakness. Hence, a religion becomes inwardly impoverished when it loses or waters down its paradoxes; but their multiplication enriches because only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.

Arguing that within the framework of postcolonial studies the Dutch-derived term 'pluriformity' allows for a better reflection on the diversity in contemporary religious life than the more common English term 'plurality',Gunther draws on earlier research by Charles Glock and Detlef Pollack to interpret the data of her qualitative-empirical research. Reformulating Grace Davies' now seminal phrase 'Believing without Belonging' into 'Believing and Belonging', Gunther argues that identity formation is a much more precarious and subtle than often assumed. The rich material provided by dozens of interviews with adolescent Muslims evinces that, until 2001, members of Germany's four-million strong Muslim community were regarded as 'guest workers' or 'foreigners', and only designated as 'Muslims' after the events of 9/11. In processing her data into a book, Gunther intends to use the methodologies developed in empirische Bildungsforschung, because education is a key factor in religious identity formation in the contemporary world.

Malika Zerghal, a political scientist currently teaching at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago presented a very perceptive reinterpretation of Habib Bourguiba's positions on gender issues in Islam. While Tunisia's first president is generally regarded as the epithome of radical secularist reform in postcolonial North Africa, a rereading of his speeches and writings in conjunction with al-Tahir Haddad's Muslim Women in Law and Society(1930)* and Rashid al-Ghannoushi's writings of the 1970s and 1980s shows some remarkable continuities in the discourse on women's rights. In her talk 'Veiling and Unveiling: State Reforms and the Transformation of the Meaning of the Veil in Tunisia', Malika Zeghal notes how frequently Bourguiba spoke of Islam: referring to it as a religion vecu, a 'lived religion' in the sense of Bergson's Vitalisme. Her analysis shows how, in the 1920s, Bourguiba actually favoured veiling as an act of defiance against French colonialism, while in the same time frame, Haddad argued for unveiling.

Although primarily written in the vein of a 'fiqhi method', the latter parts of Haddad's book are rich in anthropological detail, stressing a point which is also taken up by Bourguiba in the post-independence period and which can be contrasted with that of Islamic activists such as Ghannoushi. While the Islamists interpret veiling as safeguarding women's modesty and honour, Haddad and the 'later Bourguiba' claim that the veil and seclusion provide an excuse for sexual debaucherie.

At the same time, Ghannoushi joins forces with Haddad and Bourguiba in regards to the need for women to be empowered and emancipated, as well as the more general need for Tunisians to recapture their cultural personality. But where Bourguiba became increasingly opposed to the Islamic tradition, Ghannoushi saw this cultural personality embodied by that very tradition. Where Bourguiba considered unveiling a precondition to move Tunisian women from 'bestiality' to humanity, Ghannoushi insists that only through veiling women can shed their 'animal-like' state.

Malika Zeghal concludes that contrary to the general perception that Bourguiba's speeches on unveiling were rather superficial, this is not the case and the Islamist discourse in Tunisia must be seen as a reaction against these speeches. It demonstrates that Islamism is not something peripheral emerging 'out of nothing', but an explicit challenge of the religious grounding of Bourguiba's policies, and clear evidence of the degree of continuity that exists between the discourses of the postcolonial state and Islamism.

In a similar vein, Souleymane Bachir Diagne's paper 'Coming to Believe' also stresses the aspect of continuity. A leading Senegalese philosopher who studied under Althusser and Derrida at the École Normale Supérieure, he currently teaches in the departments of French and philosophy at Columbia University. He has written on the philosophies of George Boole, Muhammad Iqbal and Léopold Sédar Senghor, and -- most recently -- on 'philosophizing in Islam'.

Comparing the conversions of Augustine, Ghazali, Pascal and Malcolm X, Diagne challenges William James' distinction between gradual and crisis conversion as too radical and suggests to relativize the implied dichotomy. Not only is he opposed to only consider a crisis conversion as a 'true' conversion, but he doubts whether it is possible to pinpoint 'the moment' of conversion as accurately as James seems to imply. Even a crisis conversion is the outcome of a preceding sequence of events, so there has been a gradual preparation for 'the moment'. Inversely, gradual conversion usually also comes about through a sequence of key events or points of crisis. Inspired by Lyotard's analysis of the conversion of Augustine in paragraph 125 of Le Differend, Diagne argues that in spite of Augustine's adagium noli foras ire, that God is located within, it is neither the inside or outside that is important, but the quest or search in itself. He sees this also reflected in other archetypical conversions: Ghazali's intellect needed first to be in a state of perplexity before he became susceptible to the call in the night towards the light, Pascal's Nuit de Feu was conditioned by the earlier discovery that the intellectual mind finds itself in a cul-de-sac, and Malcolm X's autobiography evinces a sequence of events which prepared for the apodictic statement that he only became a genuine Muslim while performing Hajj.

In Diagne's view all these examples affirm that is not the spatial but the temporal, in a non-chronological sense, that is of key importance. The distinction between graduality and crisis is further relativized when recalling that it is often a matter of getting into the habit of believing 'and belief will come'. This brings Diagne to the final issue of agency in the conversion process, proposing to consider the Islamic notion of tauba or repentence as a kind of double agency in which the transcendent Infinite and finite man come together in the act of conversion. In response to the question whether such a 'deflationary' depiction of conversion would not turn the phenomenon into 'just another thing' and also fail in accounting for the significance of the 'external' dimension of the Transcendent revealing itself, Diagne replied that his attempt to dedramatize the supposedly crisis conversions of Augustine, Ghazali, Pascal and Malcolm X serves to stress the fluidity in our religious identities and is also partly informed by the Islamic dictum that one should not inquire or question the intentions and motivations of converts.

The final contribution to this conference was made by another scholar from Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Heyman Institute for the Humanities and a member of the Committee on Global Thought (headed by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz). Bilgrami's thoughtful engagement with the notions of 'Value, Enchantment and Modernity' betray his grounding in the philosophy of language. Referring to the conference title, he considers 'Construction of Belief' an accurate description as it prioritizes action over belief because in Bilgrami's view, belief is an abstract construction of practice. Together with an observation made by Arkoun in his writings and earlier at the conference, that religiosity should be regarded as 'animist' in the sense that it understands God as located 'within' the universe, it forms the starting point for a meditation on the origins of modernity.

This genealogical question has only become more acute since the emergence of a discourse known as
Occidentalism. Although he showed himself very critical if not dismissive of Buruma and Margalit's book of the same title (see also the post of 5 September 2009 ), he credits the authors for pointing out that the proponents of an Occidentalist reading of the history of modernity are of a similar mindset as the Orientalists who rejected Islam as backward. Why are the Muslim rethoricians of Occidentalism mimicking the Orientalists by labelling the non-Islamic West as Jahiliyya, contrasting its sinful metropolitan life with organic communities? How can rationalism, which on face value seemed to be something praiseworthy, now be vilified? How can the rights, codes and constitutions designed and developed in modern political philosophy now be demonized as the beginnings of cultural polution?

Bilgrami's diagnosis identifies two key problems in the emergence of modernity. First of all, as a corrective of Nietzsche's 'Death of God' thesis, he proposes that modernity did not proclaim his death, but exiled God outside the universe. Consequently, the imaginary faculties associated with what Arkoun calls the 'animist' understanding of religion prevalent in oral traditions are no longer available to ordinary people. This understanding of the divine 'within' the universe, which should not be confused with paganism as it also suffused pre-modern Christianity, has now been written out of intellectual history. But interestingly, dissenting voices of 'animist' understanding of God in the West have remained, for example in the philosophies of Spinoza and Newton. These two examples also show that there is no contradiction with rational sciences, because what is at stake is not how the laws of nature operate but a metaphysical question into the status of the Divine. Such a radical Enlightenment in the vein of Spinoza brings back an element of enchantment and begs the question what motivated other modern philosophers to posit a Deus Absconditus, literally a 'God put away for safety' -- safe from what?, asks Bilgrami.

It is in this context that the Occidentalist criticism of modernity starts to make sense, because this removal of God points towards sinister aspects associated with modernity's claim to hegemony, whereby rights, codes and constitutions often have a 'screening function' for cruelties perpetrated by the West in distant lands.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The New Shiite Manifesto of Ahmad al-Katib

Yesterday I was introduced to Ahmad al-Katib and I am now somewhat embarrassed having to admit that until then I did not know who he is. But after our brief initial conversation, I have become intrigued by his views and I look forward to learning more from him about his thoughts on the Shi'a tradition.

Ahmed al-Katib (this is the nom de plume under which he publishes his writings) was born in Karbala, a town in southern Iraq which is home to the shrine of Imam al-Husayn, the martyred son of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib and a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He received a traditional Shi'ite Islamic education at the renowned Hawza or 'seminary' of Najaf -- Karbala's 'sister city' and burial place of Imam Ali, but because of his dissenting opinions regarding key aspects of Shi'ite doctrine, he was never given an ijaza -- the equivalent of an academic degree.

During the 1980s, al-Katib lived in Iran, where he not only founded and directed an Arabic-language radio station opposing and challenging Saddam Hussein's regime during the dragged-out Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), but also continued his studies into the Shi'a Islamic heritage. Based on his research in Tehran and at the Hawza's in Qom and Mashhad, he articulated a very critical rereading of received knowledge in the Shi'a tradition, questioning the core of its doctrinal positions.

Al-Katib's critique hinges on his skepticism regarding the veracity of the notion of the so-called 'Hidden Imam'. The accepted view among Shi'a Muslims is that the last of the twelve Imams recognised by the Imami or Ithna'ashariya Shi'ites, who is assumed to have been born in 869/9CE, did not die but went into 'Occultation' or Ghayba. However, on the basis of his own examination of available sources on the history of the Imams, al-Katib comes to the very radical conclusion that there is no hard evidence of the birth of this alleged Last Imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, also known as the Al-Mahdi; the messianic figure said to return at the End of Times.

According to al-Katib, by casting doubt on the very existence of this Last Imam, the entire Shi'ite theory of the Imamate or legitimate succession of the Prophet Muhammad is undermined. This also affects the claims made by successive generations of Shi'a clerics to being the guardians or custodians of this legitimate authority, otherwise known as Wilayat al-Faqih (Arabic) or Velayat-e Faqih (Persian). Because the Supreme Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, lay claim to this guardianship, al-Katib's position in Iran became untenable and in 1990 he moved to London, where he still lives and works. Not surprisingly, many Shi'ites have responded negatively to his ideas; as he told me: 'there have been at least a hundred books written against me'.

Most of Ahmed al-Katib's publications are only available in Arabic and Persian, but an English translation of The Development of Shiite Political Thought is accessible online and he has summarized his findings in a 'new Shiite Manifesto'.

Youtube is hosting a series of videos of an interview (in Arabic) with Ahmed al-Katib. He maintains a blog at:

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Ethos of Islam in the 21st Century

The October 2009 edition of current affairs magazine The New Internationalist will explore the future of Islamic culture.

On 8 September, ASIA HOUSE hosted an event which provided a little preview of what can be expected. In the framework of its Understanding Islam Series, a panel of three UK-based Muslim intellectuals moderated by journalist Hadani Ditmars, Co-Editor of the New Internationalist and author of Dancing in the No-fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq, engaged with the theme 'Knowledge is Light: the Ethos of Islam in the 21st Century'.

Political scientist Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development (IPRD) (Its website appears currently to be down) and author of a number of books on both the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings and their aftermath, used the occasion to expound his views on the combined efforts of Western intelligence services and corporate interests connected with the oil and gas industry to manipulate politics in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia using the 'War on Terror' as a cover. While addressing very important issues and rightly highlighting the more sinister aspects of big business influencing international policy-making, his narrative was in way somewhat dated: reminiscent of the ideology-laden leftist rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against the military-industrial complex, updated with the by now equally stale conjectures of conspiracy theorists (as becomes also evident from the titles of some of his books which appear to rehash the same points: The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11, 2001; The War On Truth: 9/11, Disinformation And The Anatomy Of Terrorism and Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq)

A much more refreshing take on the ethos of Islam and the future of culture in the Muslim world and - perhaps just as important -- among the Muslim communities in Europe and North America, was given by the Indian-born poet and film-maker Mahmood Jamal. He made a case for a bold and courageous questioning of the Islamic tenets, rightly arguing that 'doubt' is almost a sine qua non to keep a culture fresh and retain its vitality. He concluded with a declamation from his collection of poems Sugar-Coated Pill.

You want to speak of War
I want to speak of Peace.
You say Punish
I say Forgive
You speak of God’s Wrath
I speak of His Mercy
Your Quran is a Weapon
My Quran is a Gift
You speak of the Muslim brotherhood
I speak of the brotherhood of Man
You like to Warn others
I like to Welcome them
You like to speak of Hell
I like to speak of Heaven.
You talk of Lamentation
I talk of Celebration.
You worship the Law
I worship the Divine.

You want Silence
I want Music
You want Death
I want Life
You speak of Power
I speak of Love.
You search out Evil
I warm to the Good
You dream of the Sword
I sing of the Rose petal
You say the world is a Desert
I say the world is a Garden
You prefer the Plain
I prefer the Adorned
You want to Destroy
I want to Build
You want to go Back
I want to move Forward
You are busy Denying
I am busy Affirming
Yet there might be one thing
on which we see eye to eye
You want Justice
So do I.

Polymath and prolific author Ziauddin Sardar was conspicuously brief in his comments, only noting that in addition to compassion, which Nafeez Ahmed had very correctly highlighted as a much more important theme in Islamic teachings than the antagonism towards other religions, it is the complex notion of Tawhid or 'Oneness' which holds center stage in Quran. This should not only be understood as referring to the radical monotheism of Islam, stressing the unity and unicity of God or the transcendent, but also to the integrity of creation.
This brought Sardar also to a different reading of khilafa. Instead of interpreting it as an injunction to the establishment of a caliphate or formation of an Islamic state -- used as the affirmation of the inseparability of religion and politics, Sardar suggest returning to the etymology of the word: the vicegerency over creation entrusted to man by God. Such an understanding, turning man into a trustee, would also be helpful in enhancing the awareness of the ecological questions facing mankind -- issues that are not featuring prominently in the thought of most Muslim ideologues. (See also his blogging the Quran).