While little attention is paid to them by Western media and intellectuals, there are many reformist thinkers in the world of Islam, writes Rachid Benzine in an article on “Islamic Modernity”, published in a special issue (April-May) of the French progressive magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, devoted to “The New Thinkers of Islam.”
Benzine cites such thinkers as Abdul Karim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, the late Fazlur Rahman, Amin al-Khuli, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayed, who all consider themselves fully Muslims, but are also well versed in secular academic disciplines (such as anthropology, history, linguistics). They do not want to reform Islam, Benzine emphasizes, but to develop a new way for Muslims of thinking about Islam in order to help an “Islamic modernity” emerge. According to Benzine, who has written a book on the subject and is the editor of a Muslim intellectual website, those thinkers represent the hopes of “many Muslims,” although no statistical evidence is provided.
One of the key elements in their approach is the attempt to put the Quran, the hadith and their interpretations in a historical context. According to them, this has been too often neglected by Islamic thinking. While they consider the Quran as a revelation, they acknowledge that it has been expressed in a human language, with its cultural and linguistical peculiarities.
According to Mohammed Arkoun, a retired professor from the Sorbonne University (Paris), in an interview published in the same issue, Quranic exegesis is currently being monopolized by “clerics” who are not trained in modern techniques of interpretation and threaten those who question their interpretations with excommunication.
What emerges from the contributions published in this 100- page long special issue is that the reality of Islamic thinking today might be much more diverse than most people usually think: both conservatives and modernists are actually engaged in new readings of Islam. Philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary suggests that there is a historical process at work, which may lead the world of Islam to democracy and modernity, although it might follow in paths different from those of the West.
However, Filali-Ansary adds that demographic pressure, poor economic circumstances and political failures won’t make this way an easy one.
(Le Nouvel Observateur, 43 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris; – Benzine’s website, in French, at: http://www.etudes-musulmanes.com)
— By Jean Francois Mayer