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Religion and Society

Interpreting Religions between Secularism and Ideology

A Professor of Islamic Studies in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in the University of Exeter (UK) tackles the topics of the discussion proposed by Oasis #18.

Today in the diverse fields of world religions the interpreter of the text reigns supreme. Every revealed text needs interpretation . Apparent ambiguities require careful exegesis; historical contextualisation provides a grounding for revelation. In the Islamic Middle Ages, for example, much intellectual energy was spent in trying to understand the seeming anthropomorphic verses of the Qur’ān: were the references in this text to God’s face and God’s hand to be taken literally or were they metaphors for another reality? Or should they just be accepted without asking about the modality (bilā kayf) ? A related matter concerned authority. Who had the authority to interpret? Who had the authority to proclaim the text?

 

 

Today Islam faces similar kinds of challenges though these are not always articulated in a theological mode. It faces the triple challenge of interpreting its textually based ideology, reacting to secularism and embracing, integrating or rejecting modernity. And there are many articulations of Islam, many-sometimes differing- aspects of ideology confronting a whole plethora of secularisms and modernities. How does a world religion like Islam confront such challenges , interpreting both itself to the world and the world to itself?

 

 

This issue of Oasis provides context, discussion and some answers.

 

 

We have come a long way from the days of the early Renaissance when, as HE Cardinal Angelo Schola suggests, it was almost impossible not to believe in God. But today it is Richard Dawkins rather than the theist who gets the media limelight! Yet, as His Eminence suggests, the focus must be on that buzz word with which I began, interpretation. The Cardinal believes that “[There] is born as our specific task as Christians in Europe the need for a new cultural interpretation of faith, and more in general, of religions”. (see p. 8 of this issue). He stresses that this will not be achieved by “new theories and by words” but by living out the fullness of one’s Christian faith as Christians. Pope Francis provides an instructive paradigm.

 

 

This issue of Oasis illustrates both the ways of interpretation and dialogue and the manner in which we might articulate such a cultural interpretation of faith.

 

 

Rémi Brague insists that “ it is no longer a question of knowing whether we can do without God but rather of understanding………what kind of God we need”. (p. 16). One sees what he means. Man is forever moulding God according to her/his own intellectual and emotional likenesss but the emphasis here is surely on ‘need’. Augustine famously observed that our hearts were made for God and they would never rest until they rested in Him. Need and faith are surely intertwined and can serve as a rebuttal to that prevailing secularisation which, Francesco Botturi holds, requires proper clarification in any case (p.17).

 

 

Professor Olivier Roy, at the beginning of his article, takes us back to the old adage that Islam is one, one Way of Life, and that, technically, there should be no separation between politics and religion (p.31). Here again we are in the realms – theological, dogmatic, linguistic – of how one interprets a single vital word like Islam whose diverse modes and interpretations have had diverse consequences for humanity from its beginnings up to and into the 21st century. Islam confronts what several of its adherents perceive to be spectres, that is, democracy, modernity and secularism. Does it choose the path of violence and a narrow interpretation of the Lesser Jihād? Or does it choose a path of diversity, tolerance and co-existence, aware always of the Qur’ānic injunction that there should be no compulsion in religion (lā ikrāha fī ‘l-dīn :Q.2:256) (see pp.36ff of this issue). It follows that interpretations of texts should strive to be peace-loving and pay due regard to the circumstances of their revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl). An emphasis on our common humanity should be enough (see p. 37).

 

 

Belief can give rise to understanding (see Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, quoted on p. 64 of this issue) , theological and exegetical, and that understanding may engender dialogue in all its different forms. It may be a dialogue of exilic witness from afar, from a distant city like Paris (see pp. 81ff) , or the dialogue of simple presence as performed so magnificently by the seven Cistercian martyrs of Tibhirine (pp.91ff). They “chose to remain in an Algeria tormented by violence, bearing witness to the possibility of an existential dialogue with Muslims, capable, that is to say, of bearing upon everyday life and eternity”. (p. 91).

 

 

Whatever the mode of dialogue, interpretation will be key. This issue of Oasis bears witness to a variety of types of encounter and dialogue and discloses and interprets the life stories of some of those involved in such activities. It contrasts and highlights these with reference to some of the extremes of violence and fanaticism that have been undertaken by those who are clearly selective textual interpreters.

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