Finding humanity in unity

August 24, 2001

Abdou Filali-Ansary says it is time to repair the uneasy relationship between two traditions of Islamic scholarship Islamic scholarship has developed along two distinct lines, each giving birth to a separate tradition. The two traditions coexist and maintain an uneasy relationship. But they still lead to conflicting attitudes not only towards Islamic subjects, but towards much larger topics.

The first tradition is the "insider", initiated by Muslims when they established their community. Initially it aimed to provide the faithful with guidelines for their spiritual and social life, to help them behave and worship God as good Muslims. Its main objectives were to understand the tenets of the faith, to perform rituals and to implement sacred rules in social life. Over several generations, this tradition has evolved into a rich and diverse corpus of popular, artistic and cultural expressions.

The second strand originated from "western" scholars of Islam early in the Middle Ages and has evolved since the 19th century into part of the modern social and human sciences. It gave birth to another accumulation, still living and expanding, thanks to contributions by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Although this strand was accused a few decades ago of serving colonial interests, it contributes nowadays towards reshaping our understanding of the processes through which Islamic systems were built.

The first tradition was permeated by dominant views and concepts within those medieval societies from which it originated. Much of its expression claims a link with religious sources and it outlines and defends religious orthodoxy.

The second is built on modern views and attitudes to scientific knowledge and the kind of truth it seeks. It applies its approaches to the traditional line, which it views as a historical process, as open to scientific scrutiny as any other social phenomenon. It may be considered a new layer that is added on the first, in the same way that layers of modern scholarship were added to the traditional disciplines in other religious and cultural environments.

Some years ago, a controversy raged about what was called "orientalism", a term devised to refer to approaches considered to be biased by cultural prejudices.

The controversy was actually a clash, not between the first and the second traditions, but within the second, between some approaches that seemed intended to serve colonial policies and others, inspired by universalist and humanist principles. The dividing line was not between western scholars, considered as ill-motivated strangers, and Muslims, supposed to have better insights and more authentic views. The dispute was about the place of scientific parameters and ethical principles in the study of cultural and religious traditions.

Today, most scholars agree that particular histories and traditions should be approached without any prejudice as to the absolute value they claim within particular communities.

However, the dominant views on Islam, among Muslims and non-Muslims, remain strongly influenced by this conflict of cognitive attitudes. What is disseminated by fundamentalists as a "neo-orthodoxy" is more or less an impoverished version of the corpus built by earlier generations of scholars.

In the same way, the prejudiced views held within some "western" circles are an impoverished heritage of the orientalists' works. There is a deficit of knowledge of the traditions built under the banner of Islam and the way they should be understood and adopted within modern contexts.

Only a new realignment can help overcome such prejudices, including the entrenched (and often unconscious) assumptions embedded in prevailing attitudes among Muslims and non-Muslims. This would help overcome the dangerous conflicts of interpretation that weigh heavily on the consciousness of many of our contemporaries.

To Muslims, especially those who are attracted by fundamentalism, this realignment would bring fresh knowledge about their traditions and encourage renewed thinking about the sources of their views and the processes through which they emerged.

It would also generate a better understanding of the relationships between sacred principles and the formulae designed to implement them in pre-modern contexts.

To non-Muslims, it would provide access to the universal value of the diverse, original and sometimes difficult to understand aspects of thought and behaviour among Muslims. It would shed light on the principles that inspired the religion and the evolutions through which these principles gave birth to certain social traditions.

Through the realignment, Islam and the diverse expressions it has produced would be considered part of a heritage common to all humanity. It would be considered something other than a remote, foreign, adverse phenomenon, as was the case within western circles, or as the expression of an exclusive access to absolute truth, or the emblem of quasi "tribal" identity.

This knowledge - built following the universally accepted parameters of science - should help Muslims and non-Muslims reach a better understanding of the large spectrum of traditions that emerged from Muslim societies and that shape the views and attitudes of millions of individuals around the world.

In this sense, knowledge would be harnessed as a form of action. It would be mobilised to improve relationships and conditions of life among different communities.

Abdou Filali-Ansary is director of the King Abdulaziz al-Saoud Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca, Morocco.

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