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Religion and Society

Mohamed Arkoun: Islam and the difficult balance between tradition and renewal

For some time now in the Muslim world a strong debate has been going on about the relationship between tradition and renewal, within which the question of the relations among different cultures takes on particular importance. The closer contact with western civilisation and the influence deriving from this have in fact been triggering a transformation process in Islamic countries at every level for at least a couple of centuries now.

 

 

It is evident that such a comparison, as stimulating as it may be, cannot but cause imbalances too and ask the crucial question of a just balance between the innovative forces on the one hand and the need to maintain a solid connection with one’s roots on the other. The various proposals that have been put forward until now to deal with such situation have not been able to resolve it. Instead there has been a polarisation between two opposing positions, both showing themselves inadequate and in many aspects counter-productive. On the one hand there are those who opt for modernisation, endorsing the laical and secularised approach of the west and supporting more or less explicitly the need to emancipate from the forms and the very conceptions of classical Islamic patrimony.

 

 

The limitation of this choice is that of presenting a loss of identity and the conforming to an external model, which moreover is perceived as hostile and the cause of numerous serious political implications. To the extreme opposite there are those who stress the perennial validity of the Islamic system and attribute the present state of decadence and backwardness of Muslim countries not to a presumed inadequacy of such a system in need of reform, but to its lack of application in systematic and coherent forms. The risk of this second option is that of imagining an impossible return to the past, mythical apart from everything else, which is not recalled for what is really was, but ideologically reconstructed according to the present situation. The disastrous outcome of other attempted roads and a widespread need for reassurance have led this latter approach to progressively gain ground in the Muslim world for some 20-30 years now.

 

 

Most of the Islamic intellectuals take part in the present debate, arguing in favour of this or that option, while it is more difficult to come across thinkers who able to face the issue from a point of view that does nor reduce the question to the simple acceptance or refusal of western modernity, proposing hypotheses of mediation capable of satisfying at the same time two apparently opposite but in fact complementary needs: on the one hand that of evolving, taking on the challenge of modernity in a positive way without limiting oneself to enduring it passively or subordinately, on the other that of remaining faithful to one’s own specificity, understood however not as a defensive withdrawal into oneself, but as a patrimony that needs not only to be preserved, but also critically revisited, enriched and valorised.

 

 

Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), Algerian by birth and French by adoption, was one of the greatest exponents of the first current. From his very first years at the Sorbonne, where he would later become lecturer, his studies were dedicated to classical Arab-Islamic Humanism, using this as a starting point to arrive at proposing a definite rethinking of Muslim thought and its very sources in the light of the more modern epistemological theories and today’s hermeneutical instruments. His reflections on the difference between the Koranic ‘fact’ are fundamental (or the oral communication of the revelation by the prophet Mohammed to his contemporaries) and the text deriving from it, as the static crystallisation of an originally dynamic phenomenon, as also the distinction between the thought-of, the unthought-of and the unthinkable in the traditional patrimony of Islam as in its present (and only apparently ‘updated’) reprints. Even though many of his works have also been translated into Arabic, the influence of his contributions outside the circle of Orientalists is unfortunately modest and his effort to demythologise and deconstruct has also caused him to be accused of acquiescence towards the west and its culture, or even of the open betrayal of his own origins.

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