Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts

​​​Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts

The fourth seminar in a series entitled, Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts, was organised by Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) on Thursday, November 20, 2003. The seminar, titled, Self-perceptions of Muslims in the Twentieth Century: Sources, Predicaments and Prognosis, was dedicated to exploring Muslim political and social experiences since the nineteenth century and the responses of Muslim intellectuals (a term that itself was scrutinised) to these experiences.

Professor Reinhard Schulze, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Berne, Switzerland, was the keynote speaker. Dr. Aziz Esmail, Governor and former Dean of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, was the discussant.

Seminar speaker, Reinhardt Shulze (left) and discussant, Aziz Esmail (right) engage audience in discussion about self-perceptions of Muslims in the twentieth century.

In his talk, Professor Schulze focused on the self-perception of Muslim intellectual elites of the nineteenth century. He argued that their self-perception was shaped, to a great extent, by the then prevailing intellectual culture in Europe. This happened, in part, because of the 'naturalness' which was associated with Western intellectual concepts as well as because of the inability of the Muslim intellectual heritage to provide concepts that could be utilised to interpret social and cultural conditions of the age. One result of this lack of 'transferability' between the Islamic tradition and European modernity was a heightened consciousness among intellectuals to see themselves as providing an "independent objective critique" of social conditions in Muslim societies. This claim to objectivity led, in turn, to their pre-occupation with "establishing a fixed, positive notion of Islam as fait social." Such an objectification of 'Islam', a wholly new phenomenon, was caused mainly by the embeddedness of intellectuals in a global intellectual discourse whose main currents included positivism, historicism, scientism, liberalism and utilitarianism. According to Professor Shulze, much of the contemporary discourse on Islam in the Muslim world can be understood by approaching it from the above historical perspective.

Seminar participants included scholars and practitioners with an interest in the study of Muslim civilisations.

In his comments, Dr. Aziz Esmail, while agreeing with the general thesis of Professor Schulze's presentation, raised a number of questions for further exploration. With regard to Professor Schulze's analysis of Islam's objectification in the modern period, he argued that this has its precedence in Muslim history as well. To exemplify this, he drew upon the work of philosophers in Muslim societies who struggled to create 'transferability' between Quranic and Greek worldviews. He also pointed out the need to take account of the entire history of Muslims in order to assess the struggles of Muslim intellectuals in the modern period.

Participants discuss a wide range of ideas at the AKU-ISMC seminar on 'Self-perceptions of Muslims in the Twentieth Century: Sources, Predicaments and Prognosis'.

A wide range of ideas were debated during the general discussion. Among these were an engaging dialogue about the possibility and means of understanding the past and a discussion about the conceptions of the term Islam in various phases of the history of Muslims. The need for creating an universalisable intellectual discourse that might help transferability of ideas across cultures was also debated. Many participants spoke about the implications of the arguments raised in the discussion vis-à-vis contemporary and future challenges of Muslims.

Earlier, in his welcome address, Dr. Filali-Ansary, Director of AKU-ISMC, summarised the explorations in the previous three seminars in the series and articulated the Institute's goal of bringing together scholars from various persuasions for meaningful intellectual encounters.

The seminar was attended by over 25 participants, primarily academicians and professionals. Participants were appreciative of the Institute's efforts in creating a quality forum for intellectual debates about issues of concern for Muslim societies. ​​​​​