The Zitouna mosque in TunisOur Arab societies have never been closed off within themselves. The vision propounded by Islamist literature which today insists on presenting the pre-Islamic era, the jāhiliyya, as an “era of ignorance,” has no historical foundation. Arabs, in fact, already well before the advent of Islam, knew to carve out a role in the cultural space of late Antiquity and clearly, following the conquests, these exchanges became even more consistent.
The same way of thinking
Having worked in the past on the Islamic-Christian disputes in Arabic, especially in the Abbasid period, I realized that in this kind of literature we are dealing with the same way of thinking, despite the presence of different theologies. A few examples will suffice: philosopher and Christian theologian, Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī made his living copying Qur’ans for Muslims. Reading the works of some Karaite (a medieval Jewish group that only accepted the Bible, rejecting the subsequent rabbinic elaborations, like the Mishna and the Talmud) authors like Qirqisānī in the tenth century, a researcher could wonder if these were Jewish texts, with so many echoes of Islamic thinking. The case of the famous Jewish doctor, philosopher and theologian Maimonides, who wrote the majority of his works in Arabic, is not an isolated one. Hybridization was a constant in the Mediterranean, but this did not exclude the use of violence both by the Christian side as well as the Muslim side. If referred to Islam, this observation on the use of violence is not false, but it does not tell the whole story, because the Muslim faith was also spread thanks in part to traders and Sufis.
Deconstructing the colonial period
After the period of decline and stagnation that followed Turkish conquest, the Arab world reacted with enthusiasm to contact with Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Authors like Tahtāwī in Egypt or Khayr al-Dīn in Tunisia recommended the adoption of the same institutions in use in Europe. It is crucial to note that this movement was hampered by the colonial period that followed and that we still suffer the consequences of this stalemate. Therefore, it seems absolutely necessary for the future of Arab thinking to deconstruct the colonial period, without denying the negative realities, but at the same time critically looking at the positive instances that came about as a result of contact with Europe. Furthermore, this deconstruction is not a voluntarist act, because it is already taking place on the internet and through social networks.
We are witnessing a clash between a conservative system and a progressive model rather than a fight between Muslim and non-Muslim societies. The woman is at the center of this conflict but change is inexorable. One example is the veil: by a trick of history, a symbol intended to subjugate women became instrumental for their emancipation giving them the possibility to access to public space. And, in fact, what is considered Islamic, is so only in part, because it does not create reality, it legitimizes it. Reality in itself is profoundly marked by the process of secularization. I remember alluding to this subject in the 1980s in Rome during an event at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Part of the audience was surprised by my diagnosis but today, even more so, I would confirm it.
In the last two centuries, the West and the Muslim worlds have lived out a love-hate relationship, oscillating between one and the other. Having said this, it is equally true that the arguments used in the Muslim world, and elsewhere, against European universalism are themselves European. Today, universalism is no longer a choice, it is a necessity. Especially in the realm of interreligious dialogue I note the emergence of crosscutting cleavages that transcend the boundaries of religions. In particular there is an increasing frequency of cases of believers of different religions who feel more close to one another than they do to their coreligionists, suffocated by the closed and ideological perspectives of their membership.
Abdelmajid Charfi, L’islam entre le message et l’histoire, trad. di André Ferré, Albin Michel, Paris 2004
Abdelmajid Charfi, La pensée islamique. Rupture et fidélité, Albin Michel, Paris 2008
Abdelmajid Charfi, Révolution, modernité, Islam, Sud Éditions, Tunis 2012
This article was translated from the original French
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