Globalization and political upheaval in the Middle East should spur a reformation of Islam, a report by New York University’s Center for Dialogues concludes.
“Today we are faced with troubling Islamophobic events around the globe and political and social upheaval in countries with Muslim leadership,” said Mustapha Tlili, founder and director of the Center for Dialogues. “Now more than ever, there is a need for intra-Muslim debate and dialogue with the two-fold aim of challenging the misconceptions of Islam in the West and encouraging Muslim-majority countries to face the problematic realities of their own societies.”
The report, “Social, Ethical, Political, and Policy Implications of Interpretations of Islam’s Foundational Text: The Qur’an,” is drawn from presentations at a November 2010 symposium hosted by the center. The event brought together an international group of scholars to participate in an intra-Muslim debate on the methods and practical implications of contemporary interpretations of the Qur’an.
The report makes distinctions between normative Islam and historical Islam, offering methods on how to interpret the Qur’an as a historical text.
Scholars see the Qur’an as an open and dynamic text and should be analyzed from a variety of different literary, anthropological, sociological, and historical perspectives. Its truth, they contend, cannot be understood as containing a singular meaning. Instead, the “truth” of the Qur’an can be found in the “plurality of meanings” yielded by critical interpretations of the text.
However, the report notes, Muslim governments and some Islamist movements have monopolized interpretations of the Qur’an and have used religious institutions and practice in a way that poses the “least resistance to political tyranny.” Citing from the work of Muhammad Shahrur, author of the seminal book The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading and often compared to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the report posits that Islam can and should be reformed and that it can provide a necessary “third way” between radical fundamentalism and secular nationalism. Under this vision, Islam is entirely depoliticized, but forms the moral force of politics and society as a sort of “civil religion.”
The report adds that history has necessitated multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, noting the differing understandings that have emerged over time have demonstrated that the text does not and could never have one singular meaning or “truth.”
The report also considers how to combine theology with practice to address challenges the Muslim world is facing today. It cites the example of Indonesia, where many Islamic universities are now required to integrate multidisciplinary approaches into their courses, including using social science methodologies to interpret the Qur’an and other sacred texts. However, it adds, many departments around the globe remain rooted in traditional methodologies and practices.
For a copy of the report, click here.
New York University’s Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West emerged from the tragedy of September 11th, which highlighted the need for greater communication among and about the United States, Europe, and the Muslim world. The Center was founded as a forum for constructive debate among the various religious, intellectual, economic, and political sectors of American, European, and Islamic societies. It brings contentious issues between the Islamic world and the West into a more rational plane and promotes this approach to a wide audience, including the important constituencies of policy and decision-makers, policy analysts, the media, and educational institutions. For more, go to www.centerfordialogues.org.