New York University’s Casa Italiana
November 10, 2010
In November 2010 when the NYU Center for Dialogues convened its symposium on the “Social, Ethical, Political and Policy Implications of Interpretations of Islam’s Foundational Text: the Qur’an,” I could not have predicted the powerful transformations that have taken place across the Muslim world these past few months. As these events continue to unfold, analysts and journalists have repeatedly raised the question: what role will Islam play? How will Islam influence the governments and societies that blossom from these revolutions? These questions relate in a direct way to the central question and challenge of the symposium: what are the practical implications of contemporary interpretations of Islam’s foundational text, the Qur’an?
Believed by Muslims to have been revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, the Qur’an constitutes the root of Islam — the foundation upon which the Islamic religion (as it is practiced in various forms today) was built. Far from being a purely religious text, the Qur’an lays the groundwork for ethical, political, and social foundations of society. Unlike Catholicism, there is no one person in Islamic tradition with the ultimate authority to mandate how the Qur’an and its ethical, political, and social injunctions should be interpreted. Religious schools of thought that vary widely in their theoretical and theological approaches to the Qur’an have been established throughout the Muslim world, not only across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, but also in Central Asia, South Asia, sub–Saharan Africa, and China.
Despite the relative freedom of interpretation permitted by the lack of a central authority, various groups and individuals throughout history have tried to claim that authority and have prohibited different interpretations, sometimes violently. Today Muslims and non–Muslims alike are faced with the challenge of Muslim fundamentalists who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims and who view the world through the narrow lens of an interminable clash of civilizations between the West and an Islamic East.
The symposium on the “Social, Ethical, Political and Policy Implications of Interpretations of Islam’s Foundational Text: the Qur’an” was conceived as a forum for progressive Muslim intellectuals to discuss and disseminate their methods of interpreting the Qur’an and reflect upon the positive, practical implications of their work. By initiating an intra–Muslim debate, the NYU Center for Dialogues sought to illuminate the work of a number of innovative Muslim scholars who have found new and constructive meanings in the Qur’an that widen the traditional boundaries of Islamic exegesis.
The symposium’s agenda was divided into two sessions. In the first session, participants discussed the critical differentiation between normative Islam and historical Islam, as well as the methods they employ in interpreting the Qur’an as a historical text. This discussion naturally segued into the second session, in which participants explained how they apply contemporary interpretations of the Qur’an to challenges facing the Muslim world today — challenges such as curricular reform and Islamic fundamentalism.
There are several individuals who deserve acknowledgement and thanks; this symposium would not have been possible without them.
First and foremost I would like to thank the symposium’s participants: Robert Lee, Professor of Political Science at Colorado College (United States); Andreas Christmann, Senior Lecturer of Contemporary Islam at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom); Abdelmajid Charfi, Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought at the University of Tunis (Tunisia); Adel Rifaat and Bahgat El Nadi, political scientists published together under the pseudonym “Mahmoud Hussein” (Egypt); Amin Abdullah, Professor of Islamic Studies at Universitas Islam Negari Sunan Kalijaga (Indonesia); Dale Eickelman, Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations at Dartmouth College (United States); and Stefan Wild, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies at the University of Bonn (Germany). The participants’ outstanding presentations at the symposium are evidence of their rigorous research, and their firm commitment to both challenge previously held assumptions and broaden the field of Qur’anic interpretation for a new generation.
As the idea of this symposium was forming in my head, I was fortunate to have the encouragement of Ambassador Heidrun Tempel, then Special Representative for Dialogue among Civilizations at the German Federal Foreign Office and now Deputy Head of the German Mission in Jakarta. It was through Ambassador Tempel that we were able to secure the generous grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany, which made this symposium possible. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Ambassador Tempel and to her colleagues: Stephen Buchwald, Julia Fugel, Elmar Jakobs, and the rest of the staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations.
Finally, I would like to thank the indefatigable NYU Center for Dialogues staff, most especially Helena Zeweri, until recently an Assistant Research Scholar; Reema Hijazi, Assistant Research Scholar; Joanna Taylor, Junior Research Scholar; and Liz Behrend, Consultant. They all dedicated a significant amount of time during and after office hours to ensure the success of this symposium and I am very grateful for their outstanding work and proud to have them as colleagues. Finally, as has been the case with many other reports produced by the Center since its inception eight years ago, my thanks go to Shara Kay. We are fortunate to have her as our editorial advisor and we appreciate her intellectual and stylistic rigor.
The publication of this report comes at a significant moment in the history of the Muslim world. Over the past two months revolutions have overthrown old, despotic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and there have been widespread protests across the region demanding change and reform. As is already being seen with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islam will be an integral part of the discussion as these countries form new governments. We hope that this report, in its various translations, will serve as a valuable resource for the region’s emerging leaders and policymakers, as well as its citizens, and will aid the region in deciding how to best consider Islam in relation to government and civic life.
March 3, 2011
Founder and Director
Center for Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West
New York University