Saturday, 24 March 2012

Holy Trinity or Asma' Husna'? The Prospects of Comparative Theology

Francis X. Clooney
Klaus von Stosch is a German pioneer of Comparative Theology (CT), associated with the Centre for Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies (ZeKK) at the University of Paderborn. This approach to the study of religion, is not yet very well established in Germany.  Comparative theology was first introduced by the renowned theologian and Indologist Francis X. Clooney.

In close cooperation with Muslim theologians, von Stosch focuses primarily on the Christian-Islamic nexus. In the fall of 2011, he delivered guest lectures in Christian theology to Shiite students in the Iranian city of Qom. Early this year, he was a guest at the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, together with the Islamic religious educationalist Mouhanad Khorchide from the German city of Münster (see also the blog post of 26 November 2011). This month, the Paderborn centre, in cooperation with the Centre for Islamic Theology in Münster and the Mercator Foundation, will convene a week-long workshop discussing eschatalogical concepts in Islam and Christianity, including perceptions of violence in the Bible and Koran.

German comparative theologian Klaus von Stosch (r.) with
Mohammad Taghi Ansaripour of the University of Religions in Qom (Iran).

Von Stosch has just released Comparative Theology as a Guide to the World of Religions. Essay on Comparative Theology (in German).The purpose of CT is not just to introduce yet another subject in the existing disciplinary curriculum, but rather to define a new universal task for all theological disciplines. 'Only then can Christian theology undergo a complete reorientation', he says. 'It is an approach that emanates from the self, but tries to integrate the view of the self held by others into one's own theology'. Through a methodical and meticulous comparison of individual subjects, it intends to detect inter-religious affinities. To cite one example:

CT takes a more open view of the spiritual world of others. As a Muslim female employee in Stosch's department carried out research into liberation-theology traditions in Christianity and Islam, she encountered something that could represent an Islamic analogy to the Christian Trinity concept: the 99 names of God as mentioned in the Koran and in Islamic tradition. These names are often set out as contrasts, for example "the First" and "the Last", "the Manifest" and "the Hidden". Stosch views this as a "functional equivalent in Islam, a way for Muslims to perceive diversity in unity." But, he emphasises: "That doesn't mean there has to be an argument over who is right.
Comparative Theology aims to establish shared outlooks like these – without making any attempt to reduce them to some common denominator. The aim is to developed 'concrete understanding above and beyond religious boundaries'. 

ZeKK also provides the opportunity for Catholic and Protestant trainee teachers, philosophy students and soon, prospective Muslim religious education teachers to attend seminars in comparative theology. Muslim and Christian theologians serve as lecturers. As part of this approach, "team teaching" by tutors of various religions is the method of choice, because it promotes and conveys an authentic, dialogic religious interaction. In one post-graduate colloquium, Christians, philosophers, and local and Iranian Shiite Muslims discussed the philosophy of Nietzsche. In addition the Centre is also a involved in the nationwide Graduate College for Isamic theology, an initiative that trains academic staff for the newly envisaged Islamic theological institutes in German (see blog post of 26 November 2011).
To read the entire article, click here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Abdolkarim Soroush: Critical Rationalism and Religious and Political Reform in Iran

Abdolkarim Soroush
On 15 March, the Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush (real name: Hosein Haj Faraj Dabbagh) delivered the Sir Karl Popper Memorial Lecture 2012, at the London School of Economics (LSE). Although he has never directly studied under Popper, Soroush memorated that he was studying philosophy of science at Chelsea College (later absorbed into King's College London) when Popper was teaching at LSE.

In his preliminary remarks Soroush noted that there is, and always has been, a very vivid interest in Iranian intellectual circles in philosophy, traditionally also extending into theoretical mysticism (in which Soroush is something of an expert too). However, when it comes to modern Western philosophy, until relatively recent, that interest was generally restricted to continental philosophy rather than the analytical Anglosaxon tradition.

In fact, prior to the revolution of 1979, Popper's work was virtually unknown in Iran -- except for his The Poverty of Historicism.
 (for free pdf download click here).

However, when he was appointed to the Cultural Revolution Institute in 1980, Soroush issued a directive making the teaching of philosophy of science mandatory for all university studies. This set in motion a wave of interest in the writings of Karl Popper and his work was translated into Persian and studied across Iran, including the shi'a seminaries in Qom. For almost ten years, Popper was one of the most widely read and discussed Western thinkers in Iran. As an anecdote, Sorouch recounted how, also later, President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami during his term in office (1997-2005) encouraged his cabinet members to study The Lesson of the Century (1992), an interview with Popper which was published in book form.

According to Soroush, for many Iranians the attraction of Popper's thought lay in its combination of anti-Platonic, anti-nominalist, and anti-Marxist views. Recalling the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Soroush stated that Popper's criticism of these various philosophy schools eventually brought together these forces against Popper and eventually led to the repression of his ideas in Iran.
Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994)
Soroush's personal sympathy towards Popper's thinking comes from the modesty it exudes -- for example, his encouragement of piecemeal social engineering (Soroush recalls the Popperian anecdote that when it rains one brings an umbrella, rather embarking on theorizing how the cosmos could be redesigned so that it no longer rains).

To listen to a podcast of the full lecture, click here.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

From Russia with Love? Welcome to salamworld

Qantara, the Germany-based news website covering the Muslim world reports on a new social networking initiative based in Turkey, but financed by Russian Muslim activists.
Social networking is big business. Facebook, with its user base of over 800 million users, is expected to raise billions of dollars when it becomes a publicly-traded company later this spring. [...]  Enter a new Istanbul-based startup, salamworld, which hopes to establish itself as the social networking giant of the Islamic world. The company says it will offer a halal-friendly space for Muslims to gather online.
Logo of Salamworld (photo: Salamworld) 
Even though the site won't be open to the public until the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, set for late July in the Western calendar, that hasn't stopped buzz in the Turkish tech world from bringing Salamworld to the fore.
Zuhair Al Mazeedi, of the Arab Institution for Social Values, in Kuwait, added that Salamworld can fix more than just the ignorance of non-Muslims about Islam. "There are many Muslims who misunderstand Islam – Islam has been hijacked by terrorists," he said. "We need to bring our youth back to the moderate and effective Islam. Many of our youth have no goals in life, and using such platforms can direct them into goals of life." 

Arab Spring
There is also widespread hope that the momentum of the Arab Spring can be built upon to facilitate political change in the heart of the Muslim world.  

Abdul Wahed Niyazov with OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
Turanian Connections
The startup capital has largely come from private investors in Kazakhstan and Russia. Chairman of Salamworld is the not uncontroversial Abdul Wahed Niyazov ValidovichPresident of the Islamic Cultural Center of Russia and a founding member of the Russian Muftis Council.  So is Salamworld designed to help the ummah – the global community of Muslims – or to cash in an empty market niche? 

Click here to read the whole article: