Archis 2004 #5

Islam doesn’t exist

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If Western and non-Western scholars have been ‘contributing to a huge animosity’, as stated in the question, they also did agree on something: the term Islam is used to refer to many different things at once. This, by itself, generates huge misunderstandings. Some have in mind a system of norms which they consider to be beyond history, beyond the facts of actual Muslim practice and beyond questioning. Others have in mind particular facts which include historical developments, artistic forms, local traditions of this or that Mus-lim society, etc. They think that they are talking about the same thing, while in fact they are considering different objects. Between the system of norms considered as sacred by the former and the everyday facts observed by the latter, there is a world of difference. Of course, such a contrast between objects assigned to one word can only generate a dialogue of the deaf. It has been one of the main labours of contemporary scholarship to face this situation (maybe a Sisyphean task?), but apparently without durable impact on the prevailing perceptions (Marshall Hodgson, Mohamed Arkoun, Abdelmajid Charfi, Wilfred Cantwell Smith have given this a good deal of their attention).

 

My suggestion therefore is very simple: we should avoid using the term ‘Islam’ as such, without any fur-ther qualification. We have to admit that there is no such thing as an Islam which can be a religion, a his-tory, a system of law, etc., which may be described as severe, aggressive, funny, etc. There are only Mus-lims who live their cultures, traditions, and religious views in multiple ways, who project the most diverse conceptions of what ‘Islam’ has been, is nowadays, and should be (or should have been). There are also non-Muslims who see Islam in different ways and project on it different conceptions, aspirations, fears, etc.

 

Muslim traditions have become, in a way, a heritage of humanity, in fact a shared heritage for all of us. Some identify themselves with these traditions (or, rather, with some of these traditions, viewed in differ-ent ways). Others do not. They consider them as belonging to (and shaping) the ‘Other’. Nevertheless, they have become an object of curiosity, animosity, pride, rejection, etc. and of intense debates on a world-level. It is important to attempt to reap the fruits (or some fruits) of these debates, at least in understanding forms of life and clarifying issues, rather than engaging in endless exchanges of accusations and mobilisa-tion of poorly understood terms.

 

We use words but, in fact, words and the way we use them determine our perceptions and our attitudes. If we agree to leave aside vast categories and abstract concepts (where everything appears in black-and-white, without shades of grey) and accept that we should look at concrete data, we will find ourselves among human beings, societies, histories, artistic expressions, etc. which display a world full of colour and life.

 

Abdou Filali-Ansari is a philospher and director of the Institute for the study of Muslim civilizations in London.