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Religion and Society

The Muslim Press in Italy between Spirituality and Militancy

From the student publications of the 1970s to the works based on Sufism, the panorama of a rich and detailed production that reflects the diversities and the contradictions of the various souls of Islam in the peninsula.

This article was published in Oasis 4. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-18 11:04:12

Amongst the first publications promoted by Muslims in Italy should be listed the small volumes published by the Union of Muslim Students in Italy in the 1970s. These were in large part works of intellectuals connected with Islamic radicalism, figures such as al-Mawdûdî and Sayyid Qutb, which were translated usually, and often badly, from the English. From the short introductions of these works emerges the approach of the promoters. This was an approach that was heavily influenced by the situation of crisis that had been generated in the Muslim Arab world after the defeat of 1967: a return to Islam as the only ideology able to meet the strong desire for redemption after the loss of credibility of the Nationalist and Socialist options that had dominated during the early 1960s. It should be observed that the Islamic presence in Italy, which at that time was less bound up with the migration of workers, witnessed at the outset the prevailing of the role of these students who were concentrated primarily in the university cities and towns. From this characteristic also derived the character of these publications. This was not, therefore, material connected with a specific community or centre located in a specific territory, and even less was it material connected with recognisable figures who were active in our country. Instead, within them prevail subjects and issues of a general kind that were strongly connected with tensions within the Muslim world at the time. The situation of the periodical bulletin Il Messaggero dell'Islam, published by the Islamic Centre of Milan and Lombardy, was very different. Established in 1974, this Centre began as a prayer hall frequented by many immigrants and some converts who had a decisive role in the organisation of the activities, which included publishing, of the Centre itself. Its aim was to make the presence of Islam in Milan and Italy visible and stable. It began to publish the journal that I will analyse in this paper in 1982 and so far there have been about a hundred and fifty issues. Since 1984 it has had a real mosque in the locality of Lambrate. I will analyse this journal because of its age, because it is quite widely read, and because the relative regularity with which it has been published. What kind of Islam is presented in this journal? One is dealing here with a radical approach of a Salafite kind which advances the traditional Islamic programme in its canonical forms. Given that it does not operate within an Islamic national context, much space in the journal is given over to relations with the West and with Christianity, which are often not very distinct, with a projection from an Islamic point of view onto the host environment. The Islam that it proposes is of an 'antagonistic' kind, both in relation to the deviations of other Muslims and as regards the surrounding environment. Even since its origins, this journal and the group of which it is the expression have clearly declared their rejection of inter-religious dialogue as is commonly understood already in its third issue (December 1982), at Christmas, this bulletin, in a leading, article defined Christianity as an 'idolatrous cult' and in a long article emphasised the vision of the Koran of Jesus. This seems to have been a prelude to the adoption of a clear stance on the relationship with Christians that was expressed in an article of the seventh issue (April 1983) entitled, in eloquent fashion, 'Impossible Dialogue'. It takes as its starting point a speech made by Cardinal Martini (who was defined as 'Prince of the Catholic, Apostolic, Trinitarian and Incarnationist Church') in which he declared: 'the deepest opposition of our time is not specifically between those who believe and those who do not believe but between those who believe in God and those who worship idols'. The article sees this statement as 'true only if read from an Islamic perspective'. However, it does not take advantage of this to condemn modern forms of a neo-paganism but to observe that the opposition is 'between the numerous fictitious divinities proposed for the adoration of men by small groups of 'inventors of religions' which, with varying degrees of success, have come to form a part of the history of mankind'. However, the most interesting statement in this article is: 'the dissolution of identity is not a consequence but a cause of dialogue' and it goes on to argue that only a weak and confuse awareness of one's own religious belonging can lead to an emphasis on such bizarre ideas as dialogue. Naturally, Christian initiatives in this sector are stigmatised. Indeed, the meeting at Assisi promoted by the Pope ('an able showman in this society of performance, the star system and the soap opera') is rejected in net terms. However, variations are not absent and these I would like to explore. The Islamic Centre of Milan wants to present itself as the representative of Muslims and has developed a certain competition with the mosque of Rome, but this necessarily also leads it to present itself as the interlocutor with the civil and religious authorities. A certain kind of maximal stance, however, does not always favour this. A worsening, however, seems to have occurred with the article's response to Cardinal C.M. Martini, who, indeed,was one of the first religious authorities to address the challenges of interculturality and who dwelt upon the question of the compatibility of two different ideas of the relationship between religions and society in his traditional address to the city which was given on the occasion of the celebrations of St. Ambrose in 1990. In line with its original approach, the journal reacted in its edition n. 80 (Dec. 1990-Jan.1991) to the 'provocations' contained in the message of the Archbishop which were defined as being 'an open inadmissible interference with the internal affairs of the Italian state in relation to policy towards the phenomenon of so-called extra-EU immigration, most of which comes from the area of Islam'. This 'non-interference' of religion in the political sphere appears, paradoxically, to be very secular in character and hardly 'Islamic', and in referring to it as a premise the authors evidently did not realise that they were locating themselves along the same lines as that distinction of fields to which the Cardinal himself referred. I am unable able to say whether the emergence of such contradictions or a perception of what was opportune soon brought about a drastic change in directions. Two issues later (n. 83, April-May 1991), in fact, an article appeared on the front page bearing the title 'A Duty of all Believers: to Fight Together against Injustice. Leaving Aside Theological Differences'. In May 1993 (n. 103), a further and long article bearing the name of Abdul Gialil Randellini returned to the subject with similar observations. Five years later, in issue number 120 (July 1998), a long article entitled 'Islam and Europe. Overcoming Obstacles for a Constructive Relationship' analysed not only the prejudices of the West as regards Islam (like other previous and subsequent articles on Islamophobia) but also the preconceptions held by Muslims towards the West. An approach of interesting and significant self-criticism, which was unprecedented up to that point, outlined in the article eloquent examples of attitudes and statements that should be avoided which were not only counterproductive but also held to be not in line with the authentic Islamic spirit. We are really light years away here from the positions expressed twenty years previously. Other publications of this Centre, of the publishing house 'Il Calamo', are, on the other hand, expositions of Islamic doctrine, descriptions of Muslim worship, and a life of the Prophet by 'Abd al-Rahmân Pasquini which is of a traditional kind, involving apologetics and some flavouring of a polemical kind. This author has also ventured into a partial translation of the Koran. The Prophet and the Koran Another Italian convert to Islam, Hamza Massimiliano Boccolini, the head of the Islamic Cultural Association of Naples Zayd ibn Thabit, has published a life of Muhammad in which we find greater references both to Islamic sources and to orientalilist works, a fact that is probably due to the academic background of the author. This allows him to produce a work certainly of a hagiographic character but also one that is somewhat better documented. He is also the author of a study of the Neapolitan Islamic community.1 In Naples the mosque of Corso Lucci in 1999 published a volume entitled Storie dei Sahaba ('Stories of Sahaba') by Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalvi, translated by Mario Abdullah Cavallaro: this is a collection of edifying anecdotes on the companions of the prophet which has achieved a certain diffusion amongst Italian young Muslims. With respect to the Koran, the most widespread complete translation is that by Hamza Roberto Piccardo of the UCOII, recently criticised by Magdi Allam in the Corriere della Sera for the militant character of the notes that accompany the text. This is not the place to explore the subject of the various Italian translations of the Koran and thus I will confine myself to emphasising that in fact the notes may constitute the most original contribution made in Italian versions of the Koran promoted by Muslims. The same source points out other publishing initiatives but above all the translation into Italian of the works of Tariq Ramadan (published both by the publishing house al-Hikma, which is connected with the UCOII, and by other publishing houses). Ramadan is a controversial figure but one who is also interesting for two reasons: on the one hand, he has a large number of followers, and thus represents positions with which a significant number of Muslims, especially second generation immigrants of the Francophone area, identify, and, on the other, he strives to propose a reading of Islam that is faithful to tradition but at the same time is able to emancipate itself from some dependencies on models of thought that prevail in Muslim countries. More linked to the singular and polyhydric personality of their author are the works by Gabriele Madel Khan, who has also translated the Koran into Italian in a version that, however, remained for a long time inaccessible because of its high price but which is now in paperback form, having been published by the publishing house Utet. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which has its headquarters in Rome, for long published a photostat bulletin but this is no longer issued. It contained news connected more with Arab diplomatic circles in the capital or initiatives of the major International Islamic institutions than with the realities of Muslims in Italy. Recently the Italian section of the World Muslim League has been engaged in the publication of the on-line review Islamica. So far, however, there have only been two issues those of the autumn of 1998 and the spring of 1999. The purpose of this review is said to be that of offering a voice to the presence of Muslims in Italy under the auspices of the World Muslim League. This aims to be not an exclusive body but one that co-ordinates the various associations that already exist. Explicit reference is made to the recently create Islamic Council and its primary purpose an understanding with the Italian state. So far, however, this has not produced the results that were hoped for. The intention is to move out of 'subject ghettos' of a political, sociological or folkloristic kind, just as it is declared that the intention is not to engage in mere propaganda. An Alternative Trajectory In the case of the volumes published by the members of the CO.RE.IS. (the Islamic Religious community) we are faced by certain relevant new developments. As with the examples discussed above, the role of Italian converts to Islam within the field of Islamic publishing in our country is evident. These two types of production are also similar because these are texts intended for a Italophone public, as is indicated by their tone and subjects as well as by the fact that they are in Italian. But there are also notable differences. First of all there is the fact of belonging at a publishing level to publishing houses of prestige, as well as the different character of these works, which not only have a more dignified graphics design but also a much more rigorous approach. These are works that are explicitly based on Sufism, understood as an esoteric doctrine that is transversal and not limited to Islam alone but which tends to include within itself other faiths as well within the framework of the same religio perennis. How can one establish whether the vision expounded in these pages is in line with that vision which is commonly expressed in Muslim thought, of which it considers itself the faithful interpreter and the legitimate heir? Although worthy of consideration and respect, as well as being endowed with an undeniable appeal, this reading appears to me to propose one of the possible interpretations of how Islam 'should exist' more than an image of what 'how it actually sees itself and in large measure is'. Although not having any intention to contest it, seeing it as legitimate among the other possibilities, I cannot however avoid asking, on the one hand, to what point this approach expresses positions that are knowingly and systematically shared in the Islamic world, and, on the other, to what extent it differs from the others. In the preface to the second Italian edition of Islam interiore (Il Saggiatore, 2002) ('Inner Islam'), for example, reference is explicitly made to the figure of shaykh 'Abd al-Halîm Mahmûd, the rector of the University of al-Azhar from 1973 to 1978. One is spontaneously led to ask oneself to what point the thought of this prestigious Islamic authority corresponds to the synthesis of the esoteric vision expounded in the book by shaykh Pallavicini. On the one hand, it is undeniable that this shaykh of al-Azhar worked to promote an appreciation of Sufism by going beyond the resistance and the suspicion towards it that still persist within official Islamic circles. But how can one reconcile the statement that is often repeated in this book that 'proselytism does not exist in Islam' (e.g. p. 127) with the fact that shaykh 'Abd al-Halîm Mahmûd himself promoted within al-Azhar the creation of a Kulliyyat al-Da'wa (Faculty of Islamic Propaganda) in 1978. And above all how can we fail to comment on the very severe statements by Pallavicini on Judaism and Christianity? Although, on the one hand, it is legitimate for him to condemn 'ideas of Christian hegemonic exclusivism in relation to other religions' (p. 95), which for that matter have been officially and solemnly superseded by pronouncements such as those by the Second Vatican Council, on the other it is amazing that similar ideas on the part of Islamic authorities are not pointed out even though these authorities are willingly referred to in connection with other matters. How can one state that 'wanting to believe that God has provided the world with a single Revelation, to be identified with one's own' is a 'modern Western approach' (p. 111), thereby ignoring that the same position is commonly expressed continually by supreme world Islamic authorities? It appears to me that the subsequent volumes of other members of the CO.RE.IS2 are along similar lines: the original Islamic community is presented to us as an ideal 'theocratic society' without the minimum attention being paid to the questions that such a definition could legitimately raise. Problems and negative aspects are all attributed to a distancing from the original ideals and are said to have been produced after the splendid original age. The fact that at least three of the first four caliphs were murdered and that the deep fracture between Sunnites and Shiites that still today divides Muslims was produced at that time does not seem to provoke any concern. And yet without any qualms Western scholars are rebuked for 'embarrassing gaps caused by a lack of objectivity and academic rigour' and Arab nationalism is accused of 'losing its balance in trying to reconstruct an idealised and deformed historical past'. Even the scarce results of inter-religious dialogue promoted by the Church are attributed to the failings of the Church and nothing seems to invalidate the efficacy of the purported happy connections which for that matter are not specified that Islam is said to have admirably achieved with other religious traditions in the East! These European Muslims, who together with others conclude that 'Islam does not need to renew itself' and thereby cradle themselves in their own framework of self-reference, seem, therefore, not to have what should most characterise them the benefit of doubt, the capacity to raise problems, and a readiness to engage in self-criticism. To sum up, we can observe in Islamic literature in Italian an approach dominated by apologetics, when it is not propagandistic, which is very understandable if one takes into account the strongly polarised cultural climate that characterises what is currently written in Italy about Islam. However, there are appreciable variations in tone and different publishing typologies that reflect what is by now a variegated reality in which, side by side with a strong dependence on models from the countries of origin, one can detect attempts to adapt to the dual and unprecedented situation of converts and Muslim immigrants, who are more aware of the opportunities and challenges that a rooting in, or at least an integration with, the fabric of Italian society necessarily brings with it. I believe that the factor that will have most influence in the near future will be the role of the new generations, above all those that know how to cultivate humanistic and cultural interests without limiting themselves to the acquisition of technical-scientific knowledge. Of determining importance will be the relationship that these new generations develop with the 'historic' leaderships of their groups and within organised Islamic groups, on the one hand, and with civil society and institutions in our country, on the other. Without doubt such a development will also produce different forms of expression and transmission which should be followed, albeit bearing in mind that the value of what is published in Italy should not be overly emphasised as though Islam 'on paper' was more important that Islam 'in the flesh. A history, therefore, which is still completely to be written about but which, before this, has still to be completely experienced. ---------------------------- 1. H. M. Boccolini, L'Islam a Napoli. Chi sono e cosa fanno i musulmani all'ombra del Vesuvio (Edizioni Intra Moenia, Naples, 2002). 2. Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, L'Islam in Europa, with prefaces by Rocco Buttiglione and Amos Luzzatto, (Il Saggiatore, Milan, 2004).

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