The role of Muslim Western scholars
Abd al-Wadoud Yahya Gouraud
An increasing number of Western Muslim scholars and theologians have decided to act and cooperate in Europe to refute and to respond to any manipulations of the genuine Islamic doctrine and practices. In such a religious and civil commitment, it is about to show and to clarify the Truth and the orthodox interpretation of Islam and of its message as well as to reaffirm, promote and concretely testify the universal values of human justice, peaceful coexistence and social harmony that represent the authentic spirit and character of Muslim endeavour in the society, wherever, whenever and whatever be it.
Furthermore, these Western Muslim theologians make it a duty to teach and explain to their fellow-citizens, Muslims or non-Muslims in Europe, that the attachment to spiritual identity and to religious integrity and expression of virtues is on a par with a better integration and an added-value capacity to participate in the spiritual, historical and material development and life of European contemporary society. More than a social convention, it is for us a religious responsibility to love harmony and unity, and to work for insuring them between God’s creatures. On the other hand, it is important to promote interfaith dialogue between representatives of Abrahamic religions in Europe, as an effective key to widely disseminate a spirit of respect and faithful cooperation that can counter both religious-based discriminations, such as islamophobia, and radicalizations. These disturbing and increasing phenomena are both far from the real knowledge and practice of the religious teachings and virtues that are common to true Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and so are they from civil rules and human values, which are as indispensable as the latter for achieving mutual respect, cultural and religious diversity and social cohesion.
The Koran reveals: “To God belong the East and the West” (II, 142). From this point of view, East and West are integrated in a unity and a universality that express themselves by the very presence of the different religious communities that live, pray, work and testify in every part of the Earth. That is why one cannot identify in an exclusive way Islam with the East nor Catholicism with the West. Indeed, as well as there are Oriental Christians, there are also Muslim Westerners, who strive to live their faith with intelligence and serenity, and to highlight the spiritual and universal principles within the contemporary society, alongside their fellow-citizen- believers or non-believers. These intellectual presence and sacred action, combined together to serve the Truth and the common good for Humanity, can contribute to respond to the crisis of values as well as to tackle the loss of spiritual landmarks that many modern countries suffer from, in both East and West. Religions do not escape from the effects of such a crisis which continues generating number of confusions and divisions inside them, but also outside when it comes to the reality, the scopes and governing principles of inter-religious dialogue, particularly between Christians and Muslims.
In 2009 the relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, from the East to the West by way of the Middle East, was marked by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in Holy land. His journey led him to reestablish or to pursue dialogue with representatives and authorities of the three religions of Abrahamic monotheism. In these places, in three respects holy, where sacred symbols of a shared prophetic history coexist, this return to spiritual and historical sources constitutes for the believers- Jews, Christians or Muslims-, an obvious recall of the common origin of Divine Revelations, the spring from where emerges Spiritual Light. It is also an encouraging sign towards future perspectives and legitimate hopes for interfaith dialogue, with help from God.
Perhaps it is important to clarify that every dialogue between the believers and representatives of religions, if it is aimed to be “inter-religious”, should necessarily reflect the contents and character of these celestial messages, in order to become a genuine “religious” dialogue between men of goodwill who, in the name of and in the unique God, recognize themselves mutually as followers of different paths to Him. It is on the basis of this deep and sincere understanding that can profoundly settle ways to peaceful coexistence, fruitful collaboration and social cohesion between peoples, civilizations and cultures.
After the lecture given by Pope Benedict XVI at a University in Regensburg, which could lead to confirm the risks of a certain incomprehension and intellectual closing that prevent any true dialogue, it was necessary to intervene in order to balance tendencies of dogmatic exclusiveness, by trying to raise dialogue between the believers and the representatives of religions on real intellectual basis. That is how it is possible to regain the high quality of exchanges and mutual understanding between men of different religions and faiths, as a positive contribution to the human society equilibrium. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg pointed out the need to redesign or update a method of inter-religious dialogue between believers in Europe and elsewhere so that it will be capable of clarifying the natural relationship that exists in every believer between faith and reason; transcendence and immanence; contemplation and action; theology, philosophy and thought; inspiration, content and form; mystery, symbol and ritual; and spirit, soul and body.
In this field, reciprocal ignorance provokes misunderstanding and prejudices, which inevitably consolidate exclusiveness, then progressively degenerate into fanaticism, or even worse into terrorism. Only the sense of God’s Transcendence, Unity and Absoluteness, through a metaphysical vision of the unique Truth of every Revelations, can save us by knowing how to make a right use of faith and reason, intuition and speculation, thanks to the Spirit that God has put in every man and woman. This is the way for recognizing the bottomless Divine Mystery which manifests itself in the multiplicity of Revelations and of distinctive theological expressions.
An interesting example of intellectual commitment and religious evidence as part of a beneficial dialogue between the representatives of different religions, and specially between Islam and Christianity, was the interfaith message addressed to the Christendom’s authorities of the world in April 2009 on the occasion of Easter, by a group of Muslim Western scholars, from the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS) and the Islamic Institute for Advanced Studies (IHEI) in France. The title of this message, “Unto Him you will all return”, records several Koranic verses in which God says that all men, whatever their religion is, must necessarily go back to Him, to find in His Unity the true Peace and real Knowledge of His Truth, where all duality, multiplicity, relative oppositions and visible differences, which exist by Divine Will, resolve themselves.
With this intellectual message from Muslim Western scholars to Christian authorities and scholars, we can see how it is possible to implement and follow God’s order by calling “people of the Scripture” (ahl al-kitâb) to “come” (ta‘âlaw, literally: “elevate themselves”) to a “common word” (kalima sawâ’) between us and them, that is to say the pure Uniqueness of God in faith and worship. When inter-religious dialogue is built on this sacred and strong basis it becomes an exchange of religious testimonies where each part bears witness of the One God. Each one can therefore recognize the other as expressing some aspects of the Absolute Truth.
Making the religious dialogue a qualified and thorough communication not only leads to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect but helps also find common interests and ways of commitment and contribution in the societies. With that level of spiritual and intellectual action, in the name of the Unique God, the message and activities of these Muslim Western scholars managed to create the political, cultural and social conditions that can allow, on the one hand, to give concrete solutions to the crisis of values, and, on the other hand, to promote, through a better knowledge and collaboration between civilizations and cultures, social cohesion between peoples. Only thanks to a better knowledge of the cultural and religious richness and diversity there can be real mutual understanding and recognition between peoples and civilizations as well as respect for their values, symbols and specificities. These shared knowledge and acknowledgement can also improve and deepen the quality and acuity of a human citizenship, in search of a peaceful coexistence and open-minded co-operation, within the framework of each country as well as beyond any relative belongings to particular nations.
That is why it is necessary to maintain a preventive plan of information and training on Islam and Muslims because several difficulties still remain in the European context. Indeed, the lack of knowledge about religion in general, and about Islam in particular, risk creating grave confusions, prejudices and unjustified amalgams between terrorism and Islam, provoking phenomena of racism and islamophobia. Because one cannot think that all immigrants and foreigners of Islamic culture and origin represent a potential danger for the EU’s security and its individual States. In front of such an ignorance and misunderstanding, as Western Muslim theologians and believers, we work hard to change wrong ideas and representations by clarifying and reminding our brothers as well as fellow-citizens what Islam teaches, for instance, as the true meaning of jihad instead of the so-called jihadists, the worth of peace over violence, the priority of knowledge over blind ignorance.
Indeed, extremist and violent radicalism is the furthest thing possible from an orthodox interpretation of Islam, which on the contrary, calls for the most harmonious integration possible of the faithful in the society in which they live. This contrast of method or doctrine, in comparison with the traditional teachings of Islam, manifests itself most directly in certain crucial issues such as the relationship with other religions, the interpretation of the Jihad, the confusion between the application of religious doctrine and political propaganda, the respect for the sacredness of life. It is important to clarify these very issues, to highlight the differences and interpretive errors of radical deviations from traditional Islamic doctrine. Tools must be provided to identify the correct interpretation of Islamic doctrine to both provide positive doctrinal guidance to people of the Islamic religion, and to prevent the emergence of islamophobic prejudices in the mind of people of other religions or of secular background.
As Muslim theologians and European citizens, the best response we can propose to prevent and counter radical ideologies based on misinterpretation of the religious message – and according to what precedes, we had rather say anti-religious radicalization – lies in information, education and teaching, not to mention the example and leadership we can give by acting in conformity with the spiritual meanings and principles of Islam. In order to provide better information and education about what true Islam is, if compared with extremism and ideological distortions, we have strived for several decades in Europe, especially in France and Italy, to promote and transmit fundamental Islamic teachings on the matters of peace, respect for sacredness of life, civil responsibility. We endeavor to pursue this commitment with a spirit of cooperation, open-minded dialogue and cultural enrichment.
It is a two-level commitment with various methods and fields of action:
- Internally, which means within the Muslim community: this part of scholarly religious education is given to the new Muslim generations through Friday sermons, lectures and courses in Mosques and Islamic centers in order to help youths understand the meanings of the sacred texts, practice moderation and act virtuously with responsibility as European citizens
- Externally, in the heart of European society: information and sensitization about these issues are promoted through conferences, cultural activities, inter-religious dialogue and institutional relationships and commitments.
One of the objectives aims at giving the accurate and reliable knowledge and understanding of Islam’s reality and values by showing the common points of the Islamic religion and civilization with the Judaism and Christian ones. There are shared spiritual principles that can provide strong basis of dialogue and intellectual exchanges between the faithful of Abrahamic monotheism, as it is shown by some prominent examples of multicultural pluralism and coexistence in European history (such as Andalucia and Sicily).
New possibilities of mediation should be explored between Islamic communities and European governments, in order to counter both islamophobia and religions-based radicalization. The process will offer to citizens of Islamic faith and non-Muslims, public services, professionals and representatives of local and national institutions, a thorough panorama on Islam and the richness of its contributions to the West. It will also stimulate better collaboration between politics and civil society in seeking, together, solutions to today’s problems, as a concrete possibility to achieve desired order and equilibrium.
To prevent radicalization and terrorism in EU requires a large and thorough knowledge of the various causes and ideological roots of the problem to find antidotes and suitable methods to be implemented to treat this disease and to avoid any further development. The current EU’s strategy and preventive efforts to counter islamophobia as well as radicalization leading to terrorism can rely and invest on the participation of contemporary Muslim Europeans in the preservation of security in Europe and in the world and in preventing conflicts whose origins are claimed to be religious. In such a perspective, we hope to find European institutions aware of the necessity to give visibility to and promote the voice of moderation and wisdom that correspond to the genuine spirit and values of Islam as well as the key of its harmonious integration and building contribution to Europe. Western Muslim theologians and experts, who have gained skills, experiences and community-based such as institutional recognition in their country, are ready to give support and intellectual cooperation in order to preserve and strengthen the peaceful and multicultural context of Europe that allows each citizen and inhabitant to share a common destiny with respect for the other and for the sacredness of life.
The antidote to the much-feared clash of civilizations may be found by investing in intercultural education, together with education for religious pluralism, democratic citizenship, peace and international co-operation by conflict prevention, especially in the Euro-Mediterranean context. It is necessary, therefore, to create a new global but plural model of culture and citizenship that are open to the contribution of the religious traditions and refuse instrumental use of them by fanatics: this model would harmoniously combine spirituality and civilization, faith and reason.
It is certainly up to the religious scholars and responsible in the Islamic World, together with other Muslim ‘ulama who are teaching and testifying in the West, to contribute to the sensibility towards awareness of and harmony between religious devotion and the responsibility of citizens living in the contemporary world. It is not about adopting formalism expressing nostalgia for the past, nor launching into a sort of common language or New Age syncretism that confuse the distinguishing features of every religious doctrine and every traditional culture. It is necessary to make the most of the intellectual heritage of the masters and the historical memory of the past in order to bring this knowledge up to date, playing our role as witnesses of a sacred deposit and of social progress that is able to benefit from the conquests and errors of humanity. Thus we must learn to share the spirit of fraternal collaboration and empathy, and to promote the development of a renewed understanding of the eternal essence of the Koranic message and Prophetic model, from East to West.
Promoting the knowledge of universal wisdom and Islamic sciences and contributing to respond to the current challenges in a spirit of co-operation and dialogue. This is the way it will be possible in-sha’Allah to proactively take part in the realization of the Divine plan for Humanity, knowing that unto Him everything will return.
May God give you success in this world and the Hereafter.