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.

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