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The Issue of “Dialogue” in Islamic Culture

Elie Chalala

by Elie Chalala. “If you are a traditional Muslim you might be disturbed by parts of this book. But if you are an enlightened Muslim you will realize that dialogue is a characteristic of the modern age. There is no dialogue without difference and without the ability to tolerate different opinions. There is no use in merely courteous dialogue, or a dialogue with those who hold similar views to yours,” wrote Mohammad al-Haddad in the forward to his book, “Qawad al-Tanweer, Min Ajl Tawseeh Da’irat al-Tahamoul al-Islami lil Rai’ al-Mukhalef – Nusous wa Mawakef(Principles of of Enlightenment: Expanding the Sphere of Islamic Tolerance of the Different Opinion –Texts and Positions–), which was published in Beirut by Dar Al Talia in 2009.

Al-Haddad (Haddad henceforth) has been an effective critic of Islamic extremism, declaring his views in both newspaper articles and books. Still, his writings have not endeared him to the group of Arab intellectuals that can be called, for lack of a better term, anti-Orientalist. Although in the introduction of his book he is quite conscious of how traditional Muslims would react to his book, he is silent and possibly ambivalent in terms of how non-traditionalists might respond. Nevertheless, he categorizes this type of Arab intellectual as being “enlightened,” stating that they would engage in dialogue with those with whom they differed. This is correct, but what about those “enlightened” intellectuals who take issue with him? The author is silent regarding this group.

Haddad cautions the reader that dialogue is not simply an intellectual luxury but part of the process that reproduces it, and one of the mechanisms and the conditions essential to its foundation. He offers a chronological history of the development of meaning in Islam. Meaning is a process that developed in three stages. First, human beings were unable to interpret the world around them, and so they began interpreting it in a way that was consistent with their psychological needs. As a result, religious ideas formed, comprising a knowledge revolution that separated facts from myths. Second, it gradually became acceptable to apply multiple interpretations to a given piece of data or information. Lastly, in the modern age, dialogue and meaning became inextricably linked, with dialogue being a prerequisite for meaning.

Since the concept of dialogue is central to Haddad’s book, he clearly defines the term in the forward. “Dialogue is a peaceful confrontation between different possible explanations attempting to influence each other, and when they reach an agreement, that agreement could be total or partial.” He also adds that in either case, dialogue legitimizes the plurality of meanings and interpretations and reduces the opportunity for a clash that would enable one meaning or thesis to defeat the other. An additional cautionary note added by Haddad: the reader should not confuse dialogue with dispute or argumentation, which revolve around one group overcoming another; neither should he confuse it with politeness or civility, which might inhibit the intellectual from taking a position so as to avoid hurting the feelings of the other party.

Having said this, Haddad continues to bemoan the lack of dialogue in Arab and Muslim culture. He laments the heightened importance of mosque preachers, satellites, and religious radio stations, whose influence by far exceeds that of intellectuals. Even the modern centers of culture, universities and research institutions, have been colonized by the pseudo-educated, whose rigid adherence to custom secretly masks a failure to command foreign language or to be abreast of avant- garde global developments and ideas.

Islamic thought, Haddad contends, faces both internal and external challenges. By internal challenges he means the crisis within Islamic thought itself, which involves greater censorship and an increased role for preachers and satellites, alongside the reduced prominence of intellectuals. The external threats are reflected by the deteriorating image of Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. Some contributing events cited by Haddad include the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh, whose film “Submission” criticized the treatment of women in Islam; the violent and bloody protests in 2005 against a Danish newspaper that featured cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban; and the 2006 Papal speech, known as the Regensburg lecture, containing unflattering remarks about Islam that incited controversy and condemnation in many parts of the Muslim world.

The fanatical reactions to these events are indications of disastrous failure, as Haddad puts it. Consistent with his critical assessment of the religious clerical establishment, he claims that religious leaders have waged a battle they are unqualified to lead, mainly due to their lack of understanding of modern culture and the mechanisms of dialogue. “You cannot confront the modern world by waving the rule of Sharia,” he wrote. Instead, “you can defend yourself by sober-minded dialogue.”

One purpose of this book is to show how to transition from what Haddad calls “the society of prohibition into the society of thinking.” To accomplish this, the author lays out five rules, which become the five parts that make up the book.

Perhaps the most important of the book’s contents are the sections that include the lectures (pp. 47-67) of Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), both of which presented significant challenges to Islamic thought. Renan and al-Afghani have become household names in the Orientalist debate and in turath studies. The former had a large number of critics, while the latter’s motivations have been questioned, especially after he changed positions on the role of religion.

While Haddad highlights in Renan what some Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals would consider an Orientalist perspective regarding the Muslim and the Arab world, he does not appear to be heading in the direction, i.e. labeling Renan as Orientalist. He does, however, imply that not many intellectuals have read Renan’s lectures fully, nor for that matter, al-Afghani’s rebuttal as well.

Haddad acknowledges that the Renan lecture caused uproar among Muslim elites when it was delivered in 1883, provoking heated responses both at that time and since. At the heart of the controversy caused by the lecture is a thesis that challenges modern Islamic thought: religious extremism did not come from outside the religion but rather from within. Islamic thought has and continues to exonerate Islam from any responsibility for religious extremism, insisting on its innocence. Rather than introspectively examining the basic structure of the religious tradition, Islamic thinkers have instead tended to blame the problem of extremism on external forces.

Most interesting is Haddad’s observation that the one Muslim intellectual who challenged Renan at the time actually made statements similar to Renan’s. This discourse, however, is widely unknown. That the real text of the exchange between Renan and al-Afghani has been kept out of circulation, Haddad writes, explains the lack of Muslim desire to openly discuss extremism. Haddad draws the reader’s attention to a section that has been omitted from al-Afghani’s rebuttal wherein it is claimed that extremism has played a role in Islamic history since the religion’s inception. According to al-Afghahi, Islamic reform was one attempt to eliminate this phenomenon.

The author laments the failure of Islamic thought to deal with pressure, whether emanating from within or without. Throughout his criticisms of Islamic thought, Haddad insists that the ability and willingness to engage in dialogue is a prerequisite for terming oneself an intellectual. What does it take then to be a real intellectual?

The real intellectual, according to Haddad, is the one who accepts dual membership: critical affiliation with his culture and mental affiliation with a higher cause that transcends nations, religions, nationalisms and cultures – a members hat leads him to form a universal language among peoples and coin solutions that respond to the highest aspirations of humanity.
Then Haddad proceeds to draw a distinction between the parochial and the universal and how the two may be reconciled in the conduct of the true intellectual. Thinking parochially alone amounts to redundancy without creativity and repetition without criticism. However, the attempt to reach the universal by sidestepping the parochial is an illusory and self-indulgent flight from the responsibility of disseminating ideas in a language understood by the majority.

Haddad adheres to the school of critical modernism that accepts this dual membership, which is represented in contemplating the parochial to reach the universal and contemplating the universal to realize the parochial. Only this would contribute to a society in which people interact with each other through reason rather than violence.

At the end of his foreword, Haddad seems to advance a solution for both the Muslim and the world communities. The Muslim intellectual must work toward expanding the sphere of dialogue within Arab and Muslim societies as a prerequisite for opening up to the universal; the same can be said about the world community, which should expand the universal dialogue to accept all human experiences as a step toward establishing a genuine dialogue that does not depend on domination and dictation.

The author also addresses those who see an irreconcilable dichotomy between tradition and modernity by offering his own take on the relationship between the two: Real Muslim intellectuals should rid themselves of tradition only insomuch as is needed to ensure a better future, simultaneously remaining fortified by tradition to the extent that it provides strength in confronting the difficulties of the future. Liberation here does not equal repudiation. Instead it demands placing the self in a larger context, where the local opens up to the universal, culture to humanity, the past to the future, and the opinion of one to the ideas of many.

This article appears in Al Jadid Vol. 15, No. 61 (2009)  –

Nell’immagine, personificazione della Pace, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegoria del Buon Governo, 1337-1340, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, affresco.

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