Sunday, March 1, 2009

Intellectuals in contemporary Islam

Allow me to share with you what in my opinion is a very stimulating talk on the position of intellectuals in modern Islamic societies. Mohamed Arkoun, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, explains why free intellectualism has been gradually and systematically suppressed during the past three decades across the Islamic world.

The following are some points that I found particularly interesting:

  • As Arkoun expresses, "an intellectual must keep a distance from what he studies, even from his religion."
  • Since the end of the 18th century, Islam has accumulated sets of challenges that have become so complex, so pervasive, making it extremely hard to face, analyze and address them effectively today (which in my opinion does not mean that they cannot be adequately resolved, but it will take much more effort on the part of both Islam and the rest of the world than is currently being made.)
  • Intellectuals in the Islamic world have faced two pressures in the past 30 years. One from above coming from the state, and one from below coming from the revivalism of popular Islam and its varying fundamentalist interpretations. These twin pressures have forced intellectuals to practice self-censorship and in the process have prevented them from meeting their professional and ethical obligation to society, namely free speech and uninhibited critical thinking about pressing issues.
  • Although the 'Ulama (Muslim clerics), have more of an audience today than the intellectuals, there remain issues in Islam which only intellectuals have the possibility to access and address through social scientific lenses and methodologies.
  • There exists an area of religious study and thinking that remains off-limits to questionning and analysis. The level superseeding the consensual points of Islam's religious and traditional cannons, doctrines, texts and narratives cannot be adequately and freely intellectually explored, debated and reconsidered (think of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses")
  • The language barriers between European and Arabic tongues causes a problem for cross-cultural intellectual debate. Arabic intellectuals today conceptualize their ideas and arguments using the social scientific lexicon of European languages which reflects the historical/cultural experiences of the West and not those of Arabic/Islamic peoples. This creates misunderstanding and even confusion when trying to reach out to the non-Islamic world at the intellectual level while attempting to transmit the Arab/Muslim's natural identity and characteristics.
I know that the material is a bit heavy but I find it highly stimulating, especially when one considers the complexity of the issues it is addressing.

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