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Religion and Society

Time and the Text: at the Heart of the Theological Debate

For nearly thirty years the Islamic-Christian Research Group has been a protagonist of inter-religious dialogue: the intellectual courage to address certain subjects, the ability to co-operate in absolute mutual respect, albeit meeting the challenge of the most radical and profound questions. At the centre of contemporary reflection are the subjects, central to Muslim thought, of the nature of the Koran and the application of revealed law.

From 1954 to 1992 sixty-five Islamic-Christian meetings were held. After a promising beginning the need was felt to investigate the purpose of inter-religious dialogue and to establish rigorous instruments of scholarly inquiry. This need led in 1977 to the birth of the Islamic-Christian research group, the GRIC (1). In this way, the GRIC sought to remedy the failings of the meetings of the 1970s, going beyond the stage of sensitisation and reconciliation. One of the major results remains the untying of its members from the theological concepts of the Middle Ages, those concepts according to which every expression of a critical spirit is to be adjudged blasphemous, and this at a time when society, young people and the elites are turning their backs on the apodictic statements of religious thought that is barricaded in its antiquated beliefs. Thus the subjects discussed within the GRIC, which generally are of a contemporary character, have required an intellectual courage that is conscious of the radical crises which, managed by a certain decadent theology, have directed religions towards a bellicose fundamentalism.

 

In order to have a critical look at the historical inheritance of religious traditions it is absolutely necessary to have a university training and a doctrinal competence. Thus in the passing of that time which is indispensable to achieving an investigation of essential and shared subjects, one thing becomes certain, namely the 'culture of dialogue', which indeed is acquired through dialogue. Even more important, in beginning to restructure one's own specific theological constructions one perceives in a vital way the purpose of inter-religious dialogue.

 

The first work published by the GRIC, in 1987, after five years of collective work on the holy scriptures, was entitled 'The Bible and the Koran', and it provides in a masterly way the proof of the goodness of this dialogue in truth. For contemporary Muslim theology to admit that the Word of God reaches men in a human language, situated in time, constitutes a new stage. The consequences of this principle are notable. To confine oneself to the question of the other, one can ask whether it is necessary to take literally a discourse that a holy text presents for its homologue or another religion or whether it is not better to relocate it in the context of the knowledge of an epoch and a place. Thus we are at the core of the very thorny debate about the Revelation, or Word, of God and the application of the Shari´a or revealed law. Without appearing to, the work of the GRIC touched upon a 'black hole' in the history of classical Muslim theology. It sought to examine thoroughly the famous Mihna (literally 'proof') or Inquisition. This proof, never resolved in a theological forum, concerns the nature of a revealed text. Is it 'increated' or created? The debate on the Mihna degenerated into a political and ideological political conflict that took place from 833 to 844 (218-234) between the mu´taziliti (translator's note: the school of rational apologetics) and the traditionalists. At the heart of the controversy was the relationship between Time and the Absolute. Mu´tazilism argued that Transcendence dictated a message by having recourse to temporality. Its opponents categorically rejected this theory and argued that the text was increated, that is to say that it did not have any origin in time. The affirmed political triumph of this last thesis blocked for centuries any attempt at an innovative inquiry into a revealed text. The perceived holiness of the Koran brought with it a preconception that was hostile to any explorative (and vain) ambition in relation to holy texts.

 

This, for that matter, is one of the reasons why one of the founders of the GRIC and a distinguished expert on Muslim theology, Father Caspar, rightly observes that Christians, even though they may be amazed at these theological blocks, must always remember that their conception of Holy Scripture has undergone evolutions and, above all, they must become aware that the very notion of Revelation does have for them the same meaning that it does for Muslims (2).

 

And when, lastly, the GRIC raises the final question about revealed Law and its application one can only approve this soft style that does not in the least conceal disapproval of the literal approach: 'do our scriptures have as their task that of delivering to us historical information or proposing to us, through historical examples and references, religious values that are for ever?' (3).

 

With these kinds of questions we are at the centre of the political-social question of the contemporary Muslim world, to which is held up the idea of 'applying the Law' as the panacea for its complex problems, retrieving hashed and rehashed concepts. We find ourselves once again faced with the piercing problem of the interpretation of the Text. Is it not perhaps the tacit rejection of the principle of interpretation (ta'wil) that reappears when we enter the cul de sac of the inexhaustible and modern interpretations concealed by the Text. The ancient block continues and perpetuates the Medieval vision of the world and of man.

 

It is precisely in this logic that one can observe that almost all of the exegeses of the Koran of the modern epoch refuse to think anew about the meaning of the sacredness of the text of the Koran. They continue to confuse the sacredness of the source with the sacredness of its understanding, confusing the sacredness of knowledge, of identity, and of history. A cultural factor has contributed to the survival of this approach. We are dealing here with the amalgam between the unity of the scriptures and the unity of their reading (4). It is particularly in this field that the GRIC must engage in action, in particular through the translation into Arabic of its works (5). In disseminating these theses amongst young researchers and teachers the great questions will be reformulated in another light and with the help of a convincing scholarly instrument.

 

Hence the need to return to the current blocks. There will be a perception of the importance of a re-reading of the theological and historical heritage when it is possible to grasp what similar choices have produced in other religious traditions. Thus, even if dialogue in the from of group research does not reach definitive conclusions it will at the least identify the great questions that have already been raised in public meetings. And even better, it will move towards a mutual recognition of the 'authenticity' of every faith.

 

 

(1) On the GRIC see

 

Les écritures qui nous questionnent,

 

Le Centurion, Paris, 1987; cf. also Islamochristiana n.5/1979

 

and subsequent issues.

 

 

(2) Caspar Robert,

 

'Perspectives de la théologie comparée', in Recherche d'islamologie,

 

Louvain Neuve, 1977.

 

 

(3) Les écritures

 

qui nous questionnent, pp. 14-147.

 

 

(4) Ennaïfer Hmida;

 

'Les exégèses modernes du Coran',

 

PISAI, Rome, 1997

 

pp. 16 ss.

 

 

(5) It should be observed that its five publications, namely 1.Les écritures qui nous questionnent 2.Foi et justice 3.Pluralisme et laïcité 4.Péché et responsabilité éthique and 5.Universalité et identités en devenir have never received sufficient and fair coverage by the mass media. Only the first volume so far has been translated into Arabic, and this despite the successive attempts of the members of the GRIC with various publishing houses in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, and no interest has been displayed by the official authorities of the Muslim world.

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