On 9th and 10th February 2011, Professor Abdou Filali-Ansary of AKU-ISMC gave two lectures, one at the University of Cambridge and one at the University of Oxford. These lectures were offered in response to an invitation by the British Council, which promotes educational and cultural exchange and relationships between the UK and other countries.
Asked to speak about “Views on Islamic Pluralism” at Cambridge, Professor Filali-Ansary began by suggesting that the topic of the presentation ought not to be ‘Islamic pluralism’ but rather ‘views of pluralism in Muslim contexts’. He stressed that we must clearly distinguish between Islam as a religion and Muslims as peoples living in various historical conditions.
To consider how Muslims look at pluralism and diversity, it was suggested that we must adopt a variety of perspectives. At the level of the sources, it is noteworthy that one Qur’anic verse stresses the diversity of peoples and creeds as the will of God, who chose not to organise humanity into a single community. The same verse hints that humans should not fight over who possess the absolute truth, but rather compete in doing what is good.
Another perspective is historical, examining the ‘civil wars’ (the “Great Discord”) which ensued a generation after the death of the Prophet and brought lasting trauma to the umma. As a result of this, Muslim historical consciousness was associated with a sense of the tragic loss of unity. Also crucial was the “Middle Period” or the Muslim “commonwealth”. This period offered extraordinary possibilities for travel and exchange of knowledge across wide areas of the world and led to a great diversification of intellectual approaches, while maintaining a deep sense of unity within the umma.
This internally diverse Muslim world then came into contact with Europe, and traditional attitudes towards diversity were challenged. Secularisation in Muslim cultures was not simply a response to contact with Europe. Rather, secularisation and the increased contact with Europe led to an expansion of the ways in which Muslims understood the world around them, forcing them to take into account diversity beyond the Muslim realm.
In conclusion, it was suggested that the greatest challenge to the adoption and understanding of pluralism in Muslim contexts today is the survival of traditional scholarship in many Muslim contexts -- a scholarship which often promotes narrow and exclusivist views of the heritage of Muslims.
The lecture at St Antony’s College, Oxford was entitled “Liberal Thought in Contemporary Muslim Contexts”. Professor Filali-Ansary sought to identify three key moments in liberal thinking within contemporary Muslim contexts. The first “window” he suggested was in the 1920s and 1930s where remarkable independent thinkers emerged, adopting critical and rational perspectives on interpretations of the Qur’an and religious traditions that have prevailed for centuries.
The second key moment was a result of the more general challenge of historical-critical approaches (or Modern Historicism), through which the sacred was no longer seen as something that stood above society and history but rather as something to be approached through the discourses and acts of historical men and women.
The third key moment in liberal thinking was identified as the emergence, in contemporary Muslim contexts, of a ‘secular’ language and vocabulary through which politics and religion could be discussed and interpreted in new ways.
It is this latter vocabulary, argued Professor Filali-Ansary, which has made the recent, potentially epoch-making events in Tunisia and Egypt possible. For too long, the world had not listened to this new language through which people have been expressing their frustrations and aspirations; now it seems, it has made itself heard.
Coordinator, Planning & Academic Development
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations