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CULTURE KLATCH

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Frank talk about Islam and the modern world

Qamar-up Huda of BC; Mohammed Rédouane Abouddahab of Lyon University; and Ibrahima Badiane of Senegal’s Islamic Institute of Dakar. By Justin Allardyce Knight PhotographyMust modernity pose a threat to Islam? Is it possible to be thoroughly modern and also Muslim? Those were among the questions that 16 Muslim scholars took up at a suburban-Boston mosque one Friday in June. The lively session was part of a 30-day "Church, State, and Society" seminar organized by Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. The academics were Fulbright Scholars visiting the United States primarily from Muslim countries; their fields ranged from political science to linguistics to Islamic history. The Boisi Center had arranged for them to attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Boston, in Wayland, then to remain for an open discussion of modernity. Several members of the mosque lingered after the service and joined the talk.

"This is a chance for the visiting scholars to meet an American Muslim community, some of them for the first time, and to have an exchange of views," said Qamar-ul Huda, an organizer of the event and professor of Islamic studies in Boston College's theology department. The Fulbright tour, which ended July 2, was developed to give the Muslim scholars exposure to America's religious diversity, its commitment to religious freedom and tolerance, and the ways in which religion shapes U.S. society, said Huda, who joined the BC faculty in 1997 and teaches the history of Islamic thought and Sufism. "We want to challenge their thinking," said Huda. "However, we're not just interested in teaching them, but also in what we in America and at BC can learn from them." The seminar was sponsored at BC by both the Boisi Center and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The discussion in Wayland was led by the visiting scholars themselves. Twenty participants sat shoeless in a circle on the carpeted floor of the mosque's prayer hall, where moments before they had bowed in prayer to Allah. Wearing Western business suits, colorful African robes, chadors, flowing white robes, and casual jerseys, the discussants represented more than a dozen different countries, from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to South Africa, France, and the Netherlands. Also represented were Senegal, Uganda, and Nigeria, as well as India, Pakistan, and Turkey.

The group began by exploring the ways in which modernity, with its emphasis on reason, individual rights, and material progress, and Islam, with its emphasis on tradition, community, and history, are in tension. But challenged by some of the scholars, as well as by a member of the mosque, they also explored the possibility that Islam needs to recapture a commitment to key elements of modernity that it once embraced.

"I think Islam is essentially modern in its ethos," said Aisha Mahmood Farooqui, a university professor in Hyderabad, India, who teaches courses on the development of Indo-Muslim thought and the role of women in Islam. "But it is true that in many Muslim countries, Islam has gotten sidetracked away from that."

"What is this problem between Islam and modernity?" Zafarullah Cheema of Sudbury, Massachusetts, asked rhetorically. A retired Pakistani-born engineer and a member of the Islamic Center of Boston, he had remained after prayers for the discussion. Cheema noted that early Islam gave equal rights to women and favored rule by the people, not kings and caliphs. He also said that the Koran urges Muslims to explore the heavens and know the physical world, and that, during Europe's Dark Ages, Muslim thinkers were on the cutting edge of science. "Islam should be the most modern religion," he said.

Many participants agreed, but some also cited inevitable strains. Mohammed Rédouane Abouddahab, a professor of American studies at Lyon University in France, said that Americans' emphasis on the present moment is foreign to Islam. "The question of tradition is very crucial to us," he said. "If you are a Muslim, the past is always there." Noting a spreading sense of alienation and spiritual malaise caused by the "cyber age," Abouddahab asked whether Islam should look to its dynamic early history, with its emphasis on community, to counter it. He cited the expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, when it spread triumphantly out of Arabia in all directions. Muslims during that era created models of governance, four main schools of law, and the ulama, or community of scholars, to preserve doctrine and tradition. Mention of Islam's golden epoch drew a reply from Huda, who warned against idealizing the "oldie goldie classical age" of Islam too much, noting, for example, the often bloody struggles over political power that distracted the Muslim world from its theology and mission. "If we are honest with our past, we have to admit that there are some things that did not work."

At first, the conversation moved haltingly as Malek Khaldun, a political theorist at Malaysia's University of Malaya who acted as moderator, tried to balance speakers' air time and involve everyone. But soon a more natural pace took hold, with several speakers gesturing dramatically and interrupting one another, never rising from their cross-legged positions on the floor.

Mary Lajah of Boxborough, an American convert to Islam and a mosque member, spoke freely. The three female Fulbright scholars in the room said little at first, but Farooqui, the professor of Islamic studies in Hyderabad, India, eventually spoke up, in her calm way, several times.

Mahmood of Pakistan (left), with Farhat A. Husain, a secretary in the president’s office at BC. By Justin Allardyce Knight Photography

Fulbright scholar Sadia Mahmood, a doctrinal student and instructor in comparative religion at the Fatima Jinnah Women's University in Pakistan, said that one aspect of modernity—the separation of church and state—challenges conservative Islam's long tradition of theocracy and laws dictated by the Koran. "In my country, the religion is the state and state is religion," she said softly. "There is no separation." A standard of modernity that requires dividing religion from government, she added, is unlikely to make much headway in her home country.

Mark Potter, a theology graduate student at Boston College who helped drive the scholars to Wayland, said the spirit of individualism that drives American popular culture poses ethical dilemmas for traditionalists of all persuasions. He cited the conflict between the time-honored expectation that aging parents will be cared for at home by their children and the more "modern" nursing home solution that maximizes the younger generation's career opportunities and income. "Modernity does seem to pose a challenge," he said, but it does so in a similar way for adherents of all ancient religious traditions, including Catholicism and Islam.

Fulbright scholar Levent Ermek, a Dutch politician who is involved with issues of pluralism and tolerance in his adopted country, pointed out a tendency within the group to blame modernity and defend Islam. "Many Muslim countries face huge difficulties, the exploitation of women, poverty, lack of democratic structures," Ermek said. "To admit and face these problems is not an attack on Islam. So we shouldn't be defensive."

Cheema, the mosque member from Pakistan, pursued the point and, by happenstance rather than design, got in the last word. He said that the lack of education and poverty in some predominantly Islamic countries had actually weakened Islam in those nations, opening the way for politicians and "chauvinistic elements" to usurp Islam for their own purposes. The answer, he said, is for Muslims not to reject modernity, but to absorb and use its best elements—among them, democracy and a more egalitarian understanding of human rights.

The 90-minute discussion ended without a consensus, chiefly because it was so engaging that everyone lost track of the time and had to rush out to keep to the day's schedule. Although Western individualism had come in for some harsh criticism, the scholars packed into vans and cars for their next stop: a visit to Walden Pond in Concord, made famous by a certain American individualist.

Richard Higgins


Richard Higgins is a freelance writer in Concord, Massachusetts.


Photos (from top):

From left: Qamar-ul Huda of BC; Mohammed Rédouane Abouddahab of Lyon University; and Ibrahima Badiane of Senegal’s Islamic Institute of Dakar. By Justin Allardyce Knight Photography

 

Sadia Mahmood of Pakistan (left), with Farhat A. Husain, a secretary in the president’s office at BC. By Justin Allardyce Knight Photography


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