By MARY-JANE DEEB
On June 27 the African and Middle Eastern Division and the Office of Scholarly Programs co-sponsored a symposium on the "Intellectual Debates in Islam in the New Global Era." This is the sixth symposium in the series on Globalization in Muslim Societies that was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
The first panel, "Critical Issues in the Debate on Islam," included Mohamed Arkoun, emeritus professor of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Charles Butterworth, professor of political science in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, chaired the panel.
Mr. Arkoun discussed the role of the Muslim intellectual in the Middle East and North Africa. He maintained that intellectuals in the region had little freedom to express their views or pursue their interests. Pressures from the top, i.e., from authoritarian governments, and from the bottom, including those he called "fundamentalists," blocked the free debate of ideas and the questioning of religiously and politically accepted tenets. He questioned whether men of religion could really be intellectuals being bound by their faith and their position, and argued that it was preferable for intellectuals to distance themselves from religion to better be able to look at religious questions critically.
Mr. Butterworth addressed some of the issues that Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East are currently discussing, including freedom of association, of speech and of the press; the contribution that Islam has made to Western civilization and that which the West is making to Muslim civilization; culture vs. technology; rationality vs. faith and ‘rationalist' approaches to knowledge vs. more traditional and less critical approaches to acquiring knowledge. Mr. Butterworth said there are several intellectuals in Egypt, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia whose work has shed led light on the intellectual ferment that exists in the region despite numerous state imposed obstacles.
The second panel, "Interfaces of Islam and Christianity" was chaired by this writer. It included Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Emeritus Professor of History at Yale and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress, and Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity in the Divinity School at Yale University.
Mr. Pelikan provided an overview of the impact of Islam on Europe and on Christianity in the first 100 years of its existence, from the seventh to the eighth century A.D. He argued that Islam, by not denying Christianity but merely claiming to be a continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, challenged Christians to look again at their own set of beliefs. Muslims believe that God had sent a new prophet to affirm the basic tenets of faith and ensure that humanity follow a righteous path. The impact of Islam, according to Mr. Pelikan, led to a great divide between the Eastern church and the Western Catholic Church, which has never been bridged.
The last panelist, Mr. Sanneh, discussed the other side of the issue: the impact the Christian West has had on the Muslim world. He focused his discussion primarily on the modern world since the late 19th century. He argued that the Western concept of a nation state was an intrusive construct that undermined the Islamic concept of an umma, a term derived from "mother," meaning a motherland for all Muslims irrespective of their national, cultural or ethnic background. National borders divided Muslims and created entities that were modeled on secular and Western philosophical premises alien to them. Hence the debates taking place in Muslim sub-Sahara African countries such as Nigeria include two schools of thought: whether it is better to "re-Islamize" the polity by "Islamizing" state institutions, or "Islamize" the society at a more basic level.
The debate that followed raised many questions on the best approach to the study of religion and society. One of the major questions is whether social science approaches of the West ought to be applied to the study of Islam in non-Western societies, or whether it would be better to find alternative methodologies that reflect more accurately the variety of cultures that exist within the Muslim world.
A cybercast of this symposium, as well as others in the series on Globalization in Muslim Societies (including the role of women, law, minorities and intellectual debates in Islam) can be viewed at www.loc.gov/locvideo/mslm/globalmuslim.html.
Ms. Deeb is the Arab world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.