Friday, 25 March 2016

Ebrahim Moosa: A critical traditionalist against imperial political theologies

Over the last two decades, Ebrahim Moosa has developed into one of the most important Muslim thinkers and proponents of 'progressive Islam'.

Ebrahim Moosa

Originally from South-Africa, but since the late 1990s based in the United States, he forms part of a diaspora of Muslim intellectuals who are at the forefront of critical and innovative thinking about Islam and its place in the contemporary world. Moosa's intellectual genealogy also betrays a family resemblance with the so-called heritage thinkers from a older generation, such as Mohammed Arkoun, Hasan Hanafi, and Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri: intimate familiarity with the legacy of traditional Islamic learning and an equally solid acquaintance with the human sciences as they have evolved in the Western academe.

Born into South Africa's Muslim community of South Asian extraction, Ebrahim Moosa was educated at both traditional madrasas in India (graduating from the famous Darul ʿUlum Nadwatul ʿUlama in Lucknow) and universities in South Africa and the United Kingdom. After a career in journalism, Moosa then opted for an academic career which took him from the University of Cape Town to Stanford, Duke, and then on to Notre Dame University, where he is now Professor of Islamic Studies with appointments in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs. At Notre Dame, he also co-directs the Contending Modernities Project.

His reputation as an original thinker drawing from great erudition was made with his first major monograph. Published in 2006 under the title, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, it offers a radically new reading of the classical eleventh-century polymath. It also demonstrated Moosa's ability to straddle different intellectual traditions. In this award-winning book, Ebrahim Moosa introduces the notion of the Dihliz -- the 'in-between'. This liminality is reflective of the position occupied by scholar-intellectuals like Moosa himself; on the interstices of different intellectual traditions. It is from here that he contributes to the articulation of a new Islamic discourse that seeks to 'preserve from the old what is good, and take from the new what is better'.

In a recent interview, he self-identified as a 'critical traditionalist'; a Muslim scholar with an ability to challenge the way things are done at the centres of traditional Islam:
"the Madrasa used to be, once upon a time, a part of Islamdom's republic of letters, republic of knowledge, including cosmopolitan knowledge as well. But over time, in the Indian-subcontinent in particular, Madrasas have become more like institutions that are interested in identity formation, and also have become, what I call, a republic of piety. We have more piety, and less intellectual energy and the kinds of religious answers that deal with reality.”
The designation 'critical traditionalist' also colours how he interprets the idea of 'progressive Islam'. 
progressive Islam doesn't mean changing the Quran or changing Hadith, but is instead about having alternative methodological approaches that are going to allow us to find different kinds of answers from tradition, and answers that will be much more amenable to our experiences and our way of life, be much more equitable.
“The key thing about progressive or critical traditionalist approach in Islam, to me, is that we must see that all knowledge must substantiate and support the fulfilment of human dignity. Human dignity is at the core of all Islam's messages. And if knowledge does not deliver on human dignity, then that knowledge really is questionable. So those kinds of interpretations of the past that talked about non-Muslims in a particular way, that talked about women in a particular way, are no longer dignified. That has to change. You can only change it when you are prepared to ask questions, and are prepared to challenge the paradigm of interpretation that has been prevalent thus far.” 
In another recent occasion, he noted that this requires a reinvention of Islam or, what I consider a more accurate suggestion: a need for Muslims to reinvent themselves. According to Moosa this means shedding:
[the] imprint of what I would term imperial Islamic political theology. As a throwback to former times, this imperial political theology needs to be excised from the political and religious imagination through critical appraisal, questioning, [...]
Ebrahim Moosa breaks ground for a bold and robust engagement with the Islamic tradition, and his own writings testify of a daring rethinking of religion in postfoundationalist terms. He also demonstrated that in the Third Ibn Rushd Lecture of the Muslim Institute in London:

His ideas for a progressive reinterpretation of thinking about Islam were further unpacked in the discussion: