Global Currents article

Beyond Aztlán: Latina/o/x Students Let Go of Their Mythic Homeland

Art Heals mural in Los Angeles, California. The image draws on the mythic imagination of Aztlán but depicts a Tongva woman and rebel leader, Toypurina, at its center. Photo Credit: Author.

On March 31, 2019, student leaders from the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA; the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán), a U.S. Latina/o/x organization present on many high school and college campuses across the country, voted to change their fifty-year old name. They decided that they had to drop two of the most mythically politicized facets: “Chicanx” and “Aztlán.” Although they haven’t decided on a final name, right now they have chosen an Espanglish acronym: Movimiento Estudiantil Progressive Action (MEPA). In an Associated Press story, some MEChA alumni criticized the students for running away from or trying to erase their history. 

Given that the names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” have been contested for fifty years, by debating these terms and voting to alter their names these students are actively participating in that history. In a statement on the decision, their national board made clear that they are not disavowing earlier generations.

Becoming MEChA: Historical Context

In the late 1960s, across the country, students mobilized to demand courses and programs of study that decentered modern European thought and reflected a greater sensitivity to the full human experience. The struggle for self-naming was part of the struggle for self-determination and greater educational opportunity that proliferated among these movements. For those engaged in decolonial struggles, there was often a hope that pre-modern stories and traditions might offer fuel in resisting contemporary colonial structures. The names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” were themselves invested with meaning by young people who were searching for names and ideas that would reflect their self-perception better than the terms outsiders had placed upon them.

At the same time, these movements were always more diverse in composition and less unified in perspective than later narratives like to depict. As a student of Christian scriptures, I am familiar with the ways on-the-ground human diversity often gets flattened in the memorialization of supposed moments of origin. I partially offer this reflection in the hope that MEPA narratives can do a better job of remembering how much of their fifty-year history has involved a multiplicity of perspectives and ongoing contestation.

Dominant Chicano movement narratives offer a clear and progressive origin story that begins with the triumphal inclusion of Chicano and Aztlán as terms of self-identification. In March of 1969, possibly 1500 activists met in Denver with a focus on Chicano nationalism. The term “Chicano” had started to circulate among activists a few years before. It felt like a reclaiming of an older term, and a variety of myths about the exact origin of the word abounded, though many thought it came from “mechicano,” a reference to the indigenous Mexica peoples. “Chicano” was also deployed with pride in contradistinction to the derogatory names that had been placed upon “ethnic Mexicans” (a term I take from historian Ernesto Chávez in order to speak to the pan-ethnic conglomeration of diverse peoples) by outsiders since the United States had seized and conquered the northern half of Mexico in 1848. From the history of 19thand 20thcentury lynchings in the borderlands amid Anglo depictions of “dirty Mexicans” to the use of “Operation Wetback” as a name for a mid-20thcentury federal government operation of mass deportations, ethnic Mexicans had confronted a variety of slurs employed to justify violence.

During the 1969 conference, the poet Alurista wrote the preamble for El Plan de Aztlán, where he renamed the southwestern United States “Aztlán,” the land the Aztecs migrated from before moving to the Valley of Mexico and the land to which they promised to return. Alurista intentionally drew upon a myth that antedated European colonialism, a myth that invoked both a pre-Columbian past and a future where colonial sufferings have ended.

MEChA Logo

In choosing the name “Chicano” for themselves and “Aztlán” for the lands on which they met, activists refused dominant depictions of ethnic Mexicans as foreigners. Instead, the United States was the foreign interloper in a grander history. Chicano/a/x activists were claiming a deep ancestral connection to the lands on which they lived. Precisely because ethnic Mexicans had faced so many forms of displacement and erasure in U.S. history, the powerful longing for place that rests behind these names persists through fifty years of engagement with Aztlán.

In April 1969, more than one hundred ethnically Mexican students, staff, and faculty from twenty-nine of California’s public colleges and universities met in Santa Barbara in order to craft a plan for higher education. But they also brought together several distinct student organizations and combined them into one new group: MEChA. The name was meant to signal a radical vision and commitment to self-determination. They were not “Mexican American” but Chicano. They were a movement in Spanish. They were not in California but Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the people we call Aztecs. Collectively, they became a mecha, a “matchstick” or a “fuse.”

Contestations over Aztlán

Yet Chicanos were themselves a diverse group, and they were more divided over the name and their platform than the October 1969 publication of El Plan de Santa Barbara makes it seem. Chicana feminist and Santa Barbara steering committee member Anna Nieto-Gómez has long observed that the published text flattened out the diversity of voices and the plurality of visions that had been present in Santa Barbara. Nieto-Gómez tells a different narrative about the Chicano movement’s history. For her, certain questions and practices of internal contestation were always part of ethnic Mexican student activism. 

Even in 1969, some young activists already wondered if the name “Chicano” represented too much of a break from their own past. The term “Chicano” was more commonly used within particular academic and activist contexts. What about friends and family who were not as educated in activist lingo? Many wondered whether the name worked to exclude rather than to unite. 

Aztlán, with its promise of a once and future homeland, was also quite pliable in its imagination and reception. Some participants in the Chicano movement, as filmmaker Jesús Treviño describes in his autobiography Eyewitness, may have hoped for a more literal reconquest of Mexico’s northern territories. And some activists, like Alfredo Acosta Figueroa as he describes in his book La Cuna de Aztlán, may have really believed that they had found the literal homeland of the Aztecs in a specific place in California. 

Most, however, quickly turned to a more spiritualized description, where Aztlán became more of a state of mind. They saw it as an alternate utopian space, or, as Luis Leal described it, “Aztlán symbolizes the spiritual union of the Chicanos, something that is carried within the heart, no matter where they may live or where they may find themselves.”

Current MEChA member from Seattle University, Nicolás Cruz, in his widely circulated paper criticizing Aztlán (“Reflections on Aztlán and Its Role in the Chicanx Student Movement”) makes note of the possibilities of this spiritualized approach. Cruz particularly engages with the analogy of what Israel means to different Jewish communities, highlighting their long history of contesting the meanings of homeland and diaspora. Yet, he still leaves that comparison wondering if spiritualizing Aztlán sufficiently addresses critics’ concerns. 

Cruz’s criticisms and those of other student leaders target these visions of Aztlán as themselves implicated in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and transphobia. In a move familiar to students of religion, many elder activists depict these criticisms as contemporary impositions that fundamentally misunderstand an ancient myth and the historical context of the movement from which these ideas emerged. But I would suggest that, even if we discuss them on different terms now, all of these critiques have long histories. 

Chicano Park mural of Aztlán. Photo Credit: Author.

As early as the 1970s, some activists wondered if Aztlán relied too much on a romanticized, imperial vision. Aztlán, as it was imagined, partially derived its power from Spanish interpretations and manuscripts. The Mexicas, to whom “Chicano” supposedly referred, also colonized and dominated a great diversity of indigenous peoples before the Spanish arrived. Many ethnic Mexicans are indigenous but not Mexica. Additionally, in the last fifty years, the U.S. Latina/o/x population has grown and diversified dramatically. Many members of MEPA trace their ancestors to various parts of Latin America and not just Mexico.

Moreover, appealing to the Mexica people and to Aztlán grew out of a 1920s Mexican nationalist revolutionary mythos that valued racial mixture (mestizaje) rather than indigeneity. As Néstor Medina has succinctly outlined in his book Mestizajecertain Mexican nationalists appropriated indigenous imagery even as they opposed indigenous rights and erased Mexicans of Asian and African descent. 

Attempts to narrate and contest the complex racial stratification of the Americas have hundreds of years of history, even if, again, how we name those contestations now looks different. So too, in the case of the Chicano movement, do we find long-standing concerns about how indigeneity is respected in relationship to mestizaje. Indeed, indigenous ethnic Mexican objections to the concept of Aztlán may have been one of the most important factors in the decision to change the name. Even Alurista quickly rethought his positions, and his Nationchild Plumaroja (1972) sought to be more gender inclusive and more focused on indigenous traditions rather than mestizaje

Since 1970s Chicano activism was borne out of solidarity with other minoritized communities, some activists also asked about the rights of other minoritized populations, such as African Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans. Aztlán seemed to refuse other claims on a shared space. 

In the history of settler colonization of the Americas, many colonizers entered territories and mapped new names (or misappropriated indigenous names) on places that already had names recognized by the indigenous people living there. What does the idea of Aztlán mean for the place names of the many living indigenous communities throughout the United States? Do visions of Aztlán enable solidarity with their quests for sovereignty, or does Aztlán simply become another settler colonial misappropriation and misapplication, where an indigenous name from one part of the continent gets appropriated and mapped onto another, erasing the claims of indigenous peoples? This question is at the heart of the current debate and decision to move beyond Aztlán.

The criticisms around the inclusion of women and LGBT* students also have longer histories, even if they are not as directly apparent in the vision of Aztlán. Triumphal unified narratives of the 1970s Chicano movement too often focused on the leadership of cis-male heterosexual mestizos. As Maylei Blackwell researched in ¡Chicana Power!, Chicanas formed their own organizations quite early in order to create space outside of patriarchal demands. The Chicana feminist newspaper Hijas de Cuauhtémoc was already in print by 1971, and in Houston, more than 600 Chicanas gathered for the Conferencia de la Mujer. 

Nieto-Gómez, among others, laid challenges to Chicano movement leadership structures that favored men and compelled women to be subservient, enabled sexual harassment and abuse, and that proclaimed an ideology of family grounded in patriarchal hierarchy while erasing women. Feminist critics specifically coined the term “hermanidad,” a more gender inclusive sense of siblinghood, to counter the more masculine dominated language of “carnalismo” or “brotherhood.” By the late 1970s, Chicana feminist Anna Nieto-Gómez was pushed out of Chicano activism because some figures wanted to eliminate practices of internal contestation, especially feminist contestation. 

As Richard T. Rodríguez has demonstrated in Next of Kin, LGBT* Chicana/o/xs also worked inside and alongside the movement to create their own visions of Chicano/x/a familia and Aztlán. In the early 1990s in her collection The Last Generation, author Cherríe Moraga said “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo [longing/yearning] inside me.” Yet this reflection is found in an essay (“Queer Aztlán”) that underscored the ways patriarchy and machismo had undermined the 1970s movement.

“Women of the Resistance” Mural in Balmy Alley, San Francisco. Photo Credit: Author.

Why Aztlán’s Time Is Up

Moraga may have found a way to queer Aztlán, but every generation wonders if they should continue to refashion the myths they have inherited or if it is time to create new ones. MEChA is not the first 1960s/70s-era Latina/o/x organization to confront such a name change. The National Council of La Raza changed its name to UnidosUS in 2017. Rodríguez has also wondered about whether familial metaphors are still usable, after the movement-era struggles around hermanidad and carnalismo (and queer belonging within and outside of both metaphors). He argues that the long-standing power of familia means that these metaphors cannot be abandoned, but he still awaits a “next of kin,” some other approach to fictive family.

To be sure, the generation that created MEChA, and the generations in between who benefitted from their struggles, have an emotional attachment to the name. Chicano scholar and activist Alvaro Huerta captures how important MEChA was to transformations in his consciousness and his life in “Reflections of a MEChista.” I wrote my 2016 book, Revelation in Aztlán, precisely because I was intrigued by the power that this mythic place name wielded for people who felt that they have been denied place in the United States. 

Today’s students, however, are still carrying forth the legacies of conscientization, rigorous intellectual debate, and critical social action that made Aztlán a potent utopian imagination for previous generations of MEChistas. Current students have seriously debated the meanings of “Chicano” and “Aztlán,” and despite recognizing their potent histories, they worry that the baggage associated with them hinders their abilities to craft the better world that earlier generations sought.

In this regard, these current students are also participating in debates that rage across the globe about how best to relate to the traditions our ancestors passed down to us, especially when those traditions seem deeply implicated in historical practices of oppression such as colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and/or transphobia. Some figures, like Moraga and Rodríguez, struggle to retrieve the histories of complexity and contestation without abandoning those myths. Some like Leal repurpose the content of those myths and how we engage with them, in order to find ways to make them useful to the current moment. 

But other generations give up on those myths altogether. In 1969, student activists decided to give up on the names they inherited, and they turned to a mythic past in order to create new names for their present. Current students have likewise decided they no longer wish to carry the names they inherited forward. What students of religion around the world should take note of here, however, is the students’ decision to reject the name without creating a finalized alternative. These students were skeptical that any previous tradition might be made usable for the present. 

For students of religion in the United States, we may see a familiar lesson in this decision to change MEChA’s name. Sociological studies of religion in the United States have found a similar dramatic decline in youth participation in Christian churches. Many of our students no longer want to associate themselves with inherited traditions that have been mobilized to oppress people. Even as these students have taken much of their vision of social justice from previous generations’ articulations of Aztlán, they wish to move their organization forward without evoking ancient mythic traditions. This decision is one option familiar to those who watch how minoritized populations navigate the competing modernities they have inherited.

Still, a change of name does not necessarily mean students are running away from their history or disavowing the struggles of generations before them. In fact, MEPA students embrace the same desire to self-name that marked previous MEChA generations’ quests for self-determination. They know that names are always ambivalent, contingent, and contested, that utopias are always unfinished works-in-progress. Future generations may someday find MEPA’s new name inadequate, but el movimiento will keep moving then too.

Jacqueline Hidalgo
Jacqueline M. Hidalgo is associate professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion at Williams College. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán: Scriptures, Utopias, and the Chicano Movement and the co-editor (with Efraín Agosto) of Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration. For 2018-2019, she is president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.
Global Currents article

Producing Motherhood? Uterus Transplantation for Infertility

Children hold hands with their mother in Dago, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal, 2010.

One of the main findings of the Science and the Human Person working group (the larger project to which these essays contribute) is that the discursive traditions of Islam and Catholicism offer valuable insights, but not a full account, of the human person. One of the project’s podcasts (in which I was honored to participate) described debates among Islamic jurists on the permissibility of organ donation. Herein I will weave together these threads, albeit partially, by outlining fundamental questions raised by the science and practice of uterine transplantation. I will further suggest that to better conceptualize, and eventually furnish, ethical guidelines that attend to the bioethics of uterine transplantation a multidisciplinary model is required, one where secular and religious bioethicists partner with social and medical scientists.

Procedurally, uterine transplantation involves removing the uterus from a living individual, or from an individual who fulfills the neurological criteria for death, and grafting this organ into a willing female recipient. Uterus transplantation, like limb and face transplantation, is part of the growing area of research into vascular composite allografts where multiple tissues types are transplanted as one functional unit. Uterus transplantation is unique in that it is a temporary measure; once the transplanted uterus fulfills its function in the donor it is removed and discarded. As with all organ transplants, the viability of the organ depends on a myriad of factors including the condition of the uterus when it is removed from the donor, the medical status of the recipient, the immunological compatibility between the donor and the recipient, the surgical technique utilized, and the efficacy of the immunosuppressive drugs the recipient takes to forestall organ rejection. In order for the donor’s sacrifice, the surgeon’s labor, and the recipient’s daily ministrations to be ethically justified, the ends of the procedure must be righteous and likely to be attained, while the risks and side effects relatively minimal. Accordingly, over the past decade, uterine transplantation has become an increasingly viable procedure with acceptable risk-to-benefit ratios, and the success of carrying to term and delivering an infant via a transplanted uterus increasingly probable. This biomedical advancement births bioethics questions both old and new.

For one, uterine transplantation forces clinicians and ethicists to (re-)examine the ambiguous line between therapy and enhancement; is this purported therapy restoring bodily function, adding a new physiologic capacity, or something in between? Uterus transplantation is an experimental procedure/emerging therapy for women with absolute uterine infertility (AUFI). AUFI refers to the inability to bear children because women either (i) lack a uterus (congenitally or because of surgical removal due to disease), or (ii) have a uterine abnormality that prevents embryo implantation and/or gestation to term. For these women, uterus transplantation holds the possibility of (re-)gaining the ability to gestate and birth a child. If uterus transplantation is judged to be a clinical therapy, then AUFI is termed a disease. To consider the therapy vs. enhancement question ethicists must delve into both the medical and the social bases upon which AUFI becomes a disease and uterus transplantation its treatment, as well as the implications thereof.

As noted above, women with AUFI are not all the same. Some cannot bear children for they were born without a uterus or without one that permits gestation. For this group uterus transplantation is technically not restorative because their bodies innately did not have the capacities theoretically offered by a transplanted uterus. Rather, in these cases uterus transplant offers an opportunity to rectify the body’s perceived deficiency by allowing for childbirth. This fix is based on patient desire, as well as on social expectations of womanhood and cultural notions of the normative body being one that contains reproductive capacity. Certainly, social scientific data will attest to the fact that some women with AUFI, as well as those unable to bear children for other reasons, experience profound loss. This sense of missing out on an essential part of life motivates their seeking procedures like uterus transplant. Yet this sense of something missing does not fully support a claim of uterus transplantation as restorative. It certainly adds meaning, value, and enhances perceived flourishing, but it does not restore an innate ability for someone suffering from AUFI. In one way it is more akin to enhancement in that it provides women without a uterus the chance of having a child of their own, much like a prosthetic extremity allows congenital amputees to gain a limb. The extremity adds a capacity, enhances functioning, but does not replace something that was lost, for the extremity was either not there or not fully formed or functional in the first place. The other group with AUFI, those who have had to undergo uterus removal due to disease are, arguably, different because they lost a capacity their bodies previously contained. For them uterus transplantation may be deemed restorative.

I am certainly not suggesting that clinical therapies must be restorative in order to be ethically justified; there are many genetic therapies and surgical procedures that seek to rectify abnormalities in structure, function, and phenotype that are part and parcel of ethical medical practice. Rather, ethicists (be they secular or religious scholars) must appreciate the ways in which uterus transplant and AUFI makes visible the ways in which social expectations and ideas about the normative body interact with the ethical ends of medicine. A host of bioethical questions arise when uterus transplantation is considered as a social practice: Is the fact that some women with AUFI suffer and are desirous of a solution sufficient enough justification to categorize it as a disease that demands medical remedy? Or does the fact that gestating and birthing is perceived to enhance the flourishing of some women sufficient grounding to make it part of routine medical practice? At present uterus transplantation is a procedure undertaken by willfully consenting adults, but if we could perform it on children with less complications and better success would it be ethically justified? On a related note, would medicine deem women who are born without a uterus diseased at birth or do they become diseased only because the need for a child arises later in life? Is either group, the child or the adult, somehow physiologically deviant due to no fault of their own, therefore making it medicine’s task to graft reproductive capacity upon them?

AUFI illustrates how all diseases are socio-culturally constructed; some have physiological or functional correlates (e.g. coronary artery disease), while others are thus classified because they are deviations from social norms (e.g. idiopathic short stature). Women with AUFI fit into both categories in that they are deemed to have a physiological or functional “disability” based on a “missing” function, and accordingly uterus transplant blurs the line between treatment and enhancement. There is no doubt that women with AUFI suffer considerably because they cannot have offspring. Although uterus transplantation may offer a solution to this suffering there are other potential “therapies” to not having children, such as adoption or gestational surrogacy. The appeal of uterus transplantation may be strong, and the procedure may be ethically justified, but it is also carries greater risk than these alternatives. In this case, as in others, ethicists need to fully consider the social forces that turn atypical anatomy or physiology into malady, and difference into disorder. Scholars may find interesting parallels to draw upon in the deaf community where some opt to not have their deafness (or that of their children) “remedied” because they do not see deafness as a disease and reject such stigmatization.

As religious bioethicists weigh in on the ethics of uterus transplant they need to examine conceptions of the normative body from the lens of tradition. For example, both Islam and Christianity have versions of an imago Dei doctrine. Does this notion offer insight into distinctions between therapy and enhancement when it comes to reconfiguring the body by adding a uterus?  When building out conceptions of the normative body based on scriptural indicants, both traditions must confront the issue that in some narrations womankind was generated from the first man. What sort of normativity can be attached to the uterus, an organ only present in female bodies? Similarly, both traditions speak to the value of procreation with scriptural texts that command the faithful to “be fruitful and multiply.” Does this directive envisage women without a uterus as being removed from God’s bounty out of wisdom, or can it ground uterus transplantation as a meritorious deed because of a desire to fulfill this teaching? In addition to these new wrinkles, uterus transplantation livens up “older” debates about organ transplantation in religious traditions. Although organ transplantation is generally permitted by Muslim scholars when it is life-saving, uterus transplantation is not technically life-saving for the individual recipient. Would the fact that it allows for a future generation to exist which would not have otherwise accord it life-saving status or does it have a different merit? Islamic scholars debate organ transplantation’s ethico-legal permissibility because it can, arguably, detract from the honor, dignity, and inviolability accorded to the human being as God’s creation because it reduces the human beings into a mix of interchangeable parts. Does uterine transplantation change this stance appreciably?

Continuing on to other social constructions, uterus transplantation necessarily implicates notions of motherhood. The transplanted uterus, if all goes well, would allow a woman to gestate and give birth to a baby. By definition, it would then appear, that uterus transplantation generates a child-parent relationship. Yet it has always been the case that motherhood is constructed upon social as well as biological foundations. Biomedical advancements have made the biological linkages between offspring and potential parents all the more varied, and uterus transplantation adds to this complexity. At one level, the link between a parent and a child is based on shared DNA, the propagation of these building blocks of life from one organism to another links one generation of a species to another. The DNA provides data on one’s origin and ancestry, generates one’s phenotypic and physiological profiles, and speaks to one’s probabilities for disease and longevity. DNA science has replaced “older” methods of evaluating the linkage between offspring and parents. For example, in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, the science of physiognomy was practiced to certify links between progeny and progenitors; today DNA science has supplanted this practice. Yet, modern biomedicine can now offer multiple other biological claims to parenthood as the chain from progenitor to progeny can be further subdivided. Nowadays the ovum and the sperm cell (either with or without the nuclei that contain the cell’s DNA) can be donated from people other than those who desire a child, and the womb within which the fused zygote is gestated can either be hired from a third party or, in the case of uterine transplant, come from a donor.

Figurine of woman with two infants. Photo credit: Nadia Carol, 2008.

Thus the couple desiring a child can legally claim to be rightful parents of an infant they have no DNA or gestational link to. Perhaps there is no ethical issue with such a claim because adoption provides some precedent. Adoption, in ancient times as well as today, has always been a practice that privileged social over biological bonds where accepting a child into one’s home and rearing them created a parent-child relationship. Contemporary biomedicine seems to have innovated beyond this older method with egg, sperm, embryo, and uterus donation. However it is likely that couples who have children via the method of egg and sperm donation plus gestational surrogacy would not consider themselves to be adoptive parents. Technically, however, they are not biological parents either. Is a new category of parenthood needed to cover this situation? Returning to the matter of uterus transplantation, the same question arises: does the act of gestation ground kinship ties and accompanying ethical claims? Gestational surrogacy arrangements, where they are legal, may provide some precedent, but these are also not without their controversies. Would the uterus donor be able to claim parental rights? Or in the case that the donated uterus was deficient in some way would the gestated child be able to make claims of the “right not to be born” against both the uterus donor and the recipient since the functional issue arose only after the uterus was transplanted into the new body?

A further complication, at least for Muslim thinkers, is that the womb and gestation are particularly significant in Islamic theology. One of God’s names is derived from the Arabic root for the womb; and Muslims are warned not to sever the ties of the womb lest it sever God’s mercy from the individual. Similarly the Qur’an emphatically declares that the “true” mother is the individual who birthed (and gestated) the child. Rearing is an important function but not one that grounds parental rights in this world or the next in the Qur’anic paradigm. As such a uterus donor’s ethico-legal claims of parentage would be harder to dismiss. Moreover, another analogy may be drawn from within the tradition. According to Islamic law, milk maids have parental rights, and some thinkers argued gestational mothers should be treated similarly. Does a uterus donor mother need to be added to the mix? Even if Muslims were to not seek uterus transplantation as a remedy the question is nevertheless pertinent to Muslims and Islamic law. With opt-out policies of organ transplantation gaining momentum in multiple countries, it is possible that a deceased Muslim women’s uterus may be used for transplantation purposes in the future. What would the relationship be between the child born to the recipient of that uterus and the children of the donor? Would kinship ties ensue, and the prohibition of marriage amongst siblings be invoked?

Having marked out several important bioethical questions uterus transplantation gives rise to, and noting how these questions have religious dimensions, I would like to close by discussing, in broad strokes, how social science and religious tradition might work together jointly to address these questions. In my view the project of defining terms such as motherhood and distinguishing between enhancement and restoration is a task religion can take up. Religious texts and scriptural teachings provide theologies and ontologies that provide frameworks upon which to build out such conceptions. At the same time, it is important to note that religious interpretations are not neutral; the way a text is read, understood, and explicated is contextually-dependent. These contexts go back, as well as carry forth, into time and make a tradition lived and always evolving. Hence when the religious frameworks are brought to address contemporary questions, their historicity and weddedness to social contexts must be acknowledged, and the frameworks revised as needed. Moreover, the experiences of motherhood, how notions of motherhood play out in society, and how patients invoke conceptions of restoration and enhancement in seeking healthcare are all topics of social scientific research. Even if the individuals studied are religious actors, their decision-making is also shaped by a myriad of other cultural, political, and social forces. Consequently social science has much to offer religious bioethics; it helps to clarify human experiences, understandings, and contexts, both historical and contemporary.

Scholars on this forum have grappled with the many ways in which biomedical advancements spur the reexamination of religious doctrine and teaching and also have forecast how religious theologies can give fuller meaning to the discoveries of biomedicine. They have further commented on how this bilateral exchange is framed by larger social, political, and economic forces. Attending to the pressing bioethical questions of uterus transplantation requires scholars from all three disciplines—religion, medicine, and social science—to come together in trialogue.

Aasim Padela
Dr. Padela is an emergency medicine physician, health services researcher, and bioethicist whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of community health, religious tradition, and bioethics. He is Director of the Program on Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago.
Global Currents article

Freedom of Speech? Palestine as an Exception

Contending Modernities Introduction:

Weeks before Civil Rights icon Angela Davis was to be honored for her unflagging commitment to human rights, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) rescinded the February 2019 award, due to concerns that Davis’ support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement had been challenged as “anti-Semitic.” In the struggle against modern day racism and oppression, solidarity for Palestinians had yet again been set aside—by a Civil Rights institute no less—as the “exception”: a site of injustice that only one identity group—Jews—might legitimately mobilize for or even discuss, and even then under great stigma. In the past few days, Davis has since been reconfirmed for the award by BCRI, and Michelle Alexander’s “Time to break the silence on Palestine” editorial has placed the issue squarely in the public eye—for the moment.

A year ago, on April 9th-11th, 2018, students from Columbia University and Barnard College held an “Academic Freedom Week” responding to the persecution of progressive academics. Below we share the lecture given on the first day by Columbia University professor and panelist Gil Hochberg on “The Palestinian Exception” (to freedom of speech). In her critique of the forms of censorship performed and enforced by pro- and anti-Zionist Jews and allies, Hochberg identifies the intrinsic narcissism of measuring “real” and “good” Jewish identity with the yardstick of the Palestinian “question.” Discourse and action defining the contours of Palestinian survival become circumscribed to Jews speaking from within Jewish resources about the politics of solidarity—by whom, for whom?—while other identity groups are relegated to a status as secondary allies or excluded from these conversations altogether. As Davis noted, how to navigate these complicated, layered questions of identity, authenticity, and solidarity is a question that strikes at the very heart of the indivisibility of justice.


April 9, 2018
Columbia University

1.  Anti Semitism/Anti Zionism

News doesn’t last long. A quick flipping through the online news sites of Fox News, CNN, ABC but also the New York Times, LA Times and lesser-known papers today reveals that the latest crazed attack on Gaza has already been forgotten. Hardly even mentioned. News moved elsewhere: to Syria, back to Trump and his kids, back to all sorts of questions and places. There is nothing surprising about this, of course. It takes a lot for Palestine to “enter” the news and it is almost impossible for it to stay there. Part of it is simply “news fatigue“ (how many times can you read or see the same thing, witness the same atrocities when nothing follows in the form of actual political change?). But part of it is of course the strong Israeli lobby and the sad bitter and perhaps inevitable “mix” of the Palestinian question with the longer and stronger (in terms of its impact) Jewish question, translating always to the ghost of anti-Semitism: new or old, real or not.

It is by now become a cliché to argue that a critique of Israel, or of Zionism, is anti-Semitism. I say a cliché because this argument is used time and time and again to silence criticism against the Israeli state, the occupation of Palestine, or Zionism as an ethnic-national principle of separatism that is undemocratic by definition (I remind you of the then Knesset member Ahmad Tibi’s brilliant phrasing: “Israel is Jewish and democratic: it is democratic for the Jews and Jewish for the Arabs”).

It is really a tiring argument that I trust many are tired of debating. Many have combated it before so I do not want to spend the whole time doing so again. Let me say a few words about this twisted logic and then move on to what I believe needs to be part of the next step of our public conversations about censorship and the Palestinian exception.

Anti-Zionism, like Zionism, like any -ISM, can take many forms. It can become or take the form of anti-Semitism, and so can Zionism. But there is absolutely nothing inherent in the critique of Zionism as a principle, or the critique of the state of Israel, that is anti-Semitic. The suggestion that any expression of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic is an indication of severe paranoia at best, and a manipulated rhetoric at worst. Unless we agree that Jews are by default hated and that anti-Semitism is a mode of collective subconscious; there is no logic to the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

At times this crude logic takes a particularly vulgar turn, making the entire discourse of freedom in Palestine out to be mask for anti-Semitism. This is a perverse argument that suggests that caring for Palestinians and their wellbeing is somehow really about hating Jews and seeking their destruction.

The issue with this zero-sum game (one is either for and against Jews or Palestinians), is not just that it is so limited but that it is further used as an effective silencing machine, time and time again.

Attack on Gaza, 2018, as presented by IDF. Photo Credit: The Israel Project, from IDF image.

Indeed, the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’ associated with the critique of Israel or Zionism is used by Israeli state officials, the IDF, and many supporters of Israel to explicitly justify state terror and protect Israel from international and domestic condemnation.

What Israel is fighting, the image at right seems to suggest, is anti-Semitism, represented by the Palestinian flag hugging the swastika. The two are the same. One hugging the other.

This tactic, which aims at silencing critique of occupation, state terror, racism, separatism, and other similar violations, is directed strategically. It aims at Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labor Party, for example, but not at Richard Spencer or Steven Bannon. And it is perhaps most effectively used in attacks against Jewish critics of Israel or Zionism, with the goal, as Judith Butler has noted, not just to silence critique but “to cause pain, to produce shame, to isolate and identify a political position with a personal pathology.”

Jews who criticize Israel or Zionism are thus said to be “self-hating” sell outs, in short: “bad Jews.” And as we shall see, there are bad Jews and good Jews, and real Jews, and all kinds of Jews, all aligned around in different positions vis-à-vis the question of Palestine.

2.  Good Jews, Bad Jews

Let me pause for a second and share a bad joke with you. And I warn you in advance of its poor taste. But it is nevertheless quite funny in a dark, bitter way. Or perhaps it is funny because it is in such bad taste, as is often the case with pessimistic jokes. It goes something like this: Why is the Palestinian question really a Jewish question? Because only Jews talk about it, and when they do it is mostly in order to argue among themselves about who is the better Jew.

I introduce this joke which is bitter and funny because it is at once a sad joke about the Palestinian ordeal, which supposedly no one but the Jews care about, and about the Jews who care about Palestine and Palestinians primarily because whatever they say about Palestine determines how they are viewed “as Jews.”

Caption: “Antizionism is simply a thinly veiled seemingly more ‘socially acceptable’ form of antisemitism. They are one and the same.” Photo Credit: The Israel Project, 2017.

In short the joke captures the irony of history: the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian question into the Jewish question, only that in the 21st century, this historical inseparability, about which Edward Said wrote so thoughtfully, has become somewhat of a farce. Now that the so-called “Jewish question” has no current political urgency, its dominance in framing the question of Palestine has become primarily an anachronistic, narcissistic, and essentialist question about what makes a good Jew.

And here we see how much power the question: “Is Zionism anti-Semitism?” has had at least since the early 2000s. I remind you of Lawrence Summers’ words, published while he was president of no less than Harvard University. Addressing what he saw as dangerous growing anti-Zionist sentiments among intellectuals, he wrote back in 2002:

Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.

Here of course we see the complete collapse between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One is the other. Therefore it also means that one cannot be “for the Jews” or “with the Jews” or a “good Jew” if one is anti-Zionist because if one is anti-Zionist one is (in effect or intention) an anti-Semite.

Responding forcefully to the implied accusations, Judith Butler published her defense of anti-Zionism a year later, in 2003. What is important to notice is the manner by which Butler’s response to Summers centered on undoing the tie between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, primarily by undoing the misguided identification of Zionism with Judaism. I quote from Butler:

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticizes Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness […] precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not?

But what does it mean to criticize Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness?

For Butler this means to develop an understanding of Jewishness itself as a non-identitarian project. In her book Parting Ways she writes: “being a Jew implied taking up an ethical relation to the non Jew.” This definition allows her to elaborate a discourse of “Jewish ethics” that is based on Jewish diasporic existence and history as one that ultimately leads to co-existence with non-Jews, and hence as radically different than the Zionist formation of Israel as a “Jewish State.”

The idea of basing one’s critique of the state of Israel on “Jewish sources,” “Jewish ethics” and “Jewish history” is also a tactic and position promoted by Jewish Voice for Peace. Indeed, one of their principles as outlined on their website reads:

We are inspired by Jewish traditions to work for justice and such work is part of our own liberation. We work to build Jewish communities that reflect the understanding that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israel.

I fully appreciate these efforts and think that as responses to accusations of internalized anti-Semitism and self-hatred these are effective strategies. They are also effective in combating the monopoly Zionism claims over Judaism. But this discourse of “Jewish ethics” has its limits as well, and I want to draw attention to these limits, not as a sign of my disagreement with Butler, JVP or others, as much as an expression of my sense that we must become more carefully attuned to how discourses on the left also function as censorship. These discourses also limit what we can say, how we can say it, and who can say what—for Jews and non-Jews—when we talk about Palestine.

Now, let’s face it. I am speaking partially, not only, but partially, as a Jew. Perhaps I am even here as a kosher guard (always good to invite a Jew when discussing Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Palestine). I by no means am implying that the organizers of the event had such intentions in mind. But I also don’t want to ignore this position from which I am speaking which is a position that comes with specific expectations, privileges, and limitations when it comes to speaking about Palestine.

I cannot but speak from this position, which is already over-determined in this context, but I try, very hard, to also speak across it. Because I come to the question of Palestine, to the question of our ability or inability to speak about Palestine, not just in relation to the censorship imposed on us by the right and by academic institutions, but also by the censorship imposed, directly or less so, by the left. When it comes to the question of Palestine, to the question of speaking about Palestine, or the question of who is allowed to speak about Palestine and how, the left has generated some clear frameworks of policed discourse that I find almost as problematic as the attempts to shut down the discussion about Palestine altogether by the right. One such frame is the one I call the “good Jew, bad Jew” framework. It sets the expectation for Jews to speak as Jews and mobilize “Jewish ethics,” thus inevitably turning the question of Palestine into a Jewish question and a question which is ultimately about Jews.

Protest against US supported Israeli bombings and invasion of Lebanon. Photo Credit: Danny Hammontree, 2006.

Of course the need to distinguish Zionism from Judaism, in light of Israel’s speaking in the name of the Jews, and as a Jewish state, is very important. But that work, I believe, is now mostly done. I am also quite wary of the language of authenticity (“real,” “true,” “authentic”) because it ends up functioning as yet another wall of censorship and identity regulations, once again in the name of “what makes a real Jew”—an essentializing discourse that renders one’s political views about the state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine in exclusively Jewish terms.

The question I generate for us (for some of “us”) today is: Do we want to go on playing the “good Jew, bad Jew” game? Do we need to play the “good Jew, bad Jew” game when we simply want to voice our resistance to state terror, military occupation, and racial segregation?

I end here, leaving you with the words of Mahmoud Darwish. Not with a poem, but with words he shared in an interview held in Amman back in 1996 with the Israeli literary critic and poet, Helit Yeshurun. At the time he was waiting for his permit to return home to Palestine:

Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestine problem comes by way of interest in the Jewish problem. . . If our war had been with Pakistan, no one would have heard of me. So we are unlucky that our enemy is Israel, which has so many sympathizers in the world, and we are lucky that Israel is our enemy, because Jews are the center of the world. You have given us defeat, weakness, and publicity.

These words are provocative. They are meant to be. And to take them seriously, I think, is to begin to reconsider and rethink the idea of what it means to be speaking “as a Jew” or from a “Jewish position” or about “Jewish ethics” when speaking or trying to speak about Palestine. Can a Jew speak about Palestine, about the atrocities that take place in Palestine, not as a Jew? Can she speak in the name of solidarity, not in the name of authentic Jewishness or Jewish ethics? Can the question of Palestine ever become something that isn’t already and essentially a Jewish question?

Caption: “Palestinians Collect Belongings from Gaza Ruins.” Photo Credit: United Nations Photo, 2014.

Gil Hochberg
Gil Hochberg is Ransford Professor of Hebrew, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersections among psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, nationalism, gender and sexuality. She has published essays on a wide range of issues including: Francophone North African literature, Palestinian literature, Hebrew literature, the modern Levant, Semitism, Israeli and Palestinian Cinema and art. Her first book, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007), examines the complex relationship between the signifiers “Arab” and “Jew” in contemporary Jewish and Arab literatures. Her most recent book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke University Press, 2015), is a study of the visual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian. She is currently writing a book on art, archives, and the production of knowledge.
Theorizing Modernities article

Border-Crossers: Interrogating Boundaries through Bodies

Ollagüe-Uyuni border between Chile and Bolivia. Photo Credit: Francisco Javier Argel, 2013.

The first panel at the Ansari Institute’s inaugural conference brought to the fore a core issue in global politics today: the issue of migration. Alicia Turner (York University), Erin Wilson (University of Groningen), William Canny (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and Atalia Omer (University of Notre Dame) provided us with perspectives into different aspects of forced migration that are located at the intersection of modern nationalisms, racisms, and the presence of global religions.

Rooted in her studies of the genocide of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, Alicia Turner prompted us to question the normative hegemony of borders and to identify the ‘silenced victims’ of the construction and enforcement of borders. Turner eloquently disclosed the intertwining relations between the hegemonic establishment of ‘modernity’ with the formal and informal presence of borders whose sole goal is to maintain control over knowledge production, and thus, over the differentiated ‘valuations’ of humanity. In the context of modern binaries, ‘humanity’ is a reward that can only be attributed to those who are within the border. Meanwhile, those who find themselves outside of the border only serve as ‘others’ to affirm the hegemonic selves of the former.

One epistemological goal of modern hegemonic binaries is to produce an illusion of neat and categorized history, in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ are easily differentiated from each other. This illusion works to sustain a façade of hegemonic stability and erases the inhumane realities of lives outside the border. In other words, those who live outside of the border not only pose a threat to their counterparts within the border, but also pose a significant threat to the order of life itself. Hence, as elaborated by Erin Wilson in her presentation, the acts of ‘border-crossing’ from outside the border into the border have always been designated a ‘crisis’ with all of its senses of danger and unpredictability. The acts of moving from one geopolitical locality to another by marginalized others—acts that are otherwise seen as ‘normal’ when they are taken by White ‘Western’ bodies—become an affront to the supposedly peaceful, normalized way of life maintained by the illusion of modern hegemonic binaries.

Furthermore, William Canny assessed the readiness and contribution of Catholic institutions and organizations in dealing with the issue of forced migration. One important point that deserves further discussion from Canny’s presentation is the problem of insularity among Catholic institutions in responding to the many forms of forced migration. The absence of a strong cooperative network among Catholic institutions has led to siloed and fragmented humanitarian work. A cohesive and systematic network is needed to effectively respond to the issue at hand. The same problem can be found in other major religious institutions around the world and has significantly weakened religious-based responses toward the protection of displaced people, immigrants, and refugees in general. In addition, the stated problem also presents a hurdle to tapping into global religious networks as a resource for the advocacy of the rights of migrants.

All of those different facets of the issue of forced migration were elaborated further in Atalia Omer’s rejoinder and response. Omer illuminated the violent underbelly of modernity by interrogating the contours of exclusivism that come with the erection of borders and boundaries. In addition, inspired by the conference of ‘Bandung of the North’ (Saint-Denis, May 4th-May 7th, 2018), Omer called for the construction of socio-political alliances of decolonized experiences in the Northern Hemisphere.

Views of the Nogales border wall from the north side.
Views of the Nogales border wall from the north side. Nogales, AZ. Photo Credit: Peg Hunter, 2018.

Another important point that was highlighted in Omer’s rejoinder concerned the ‘securitization of religion’ by the modern institution of the ‘nation-state.’ In this ongoing process of securitization, the presence of religion in public space is seen as yet another example of ‘boundary-crossing’ in which secularism is a norm and religiosity is an exception at best, and a threat at worse. Such a process can be seen clearly in the rise of Islamophobic policies in the US and many parts of Europe where Islam, and by extension Muslims, are relegated to a position of threat to the ‘cultural integrity’ of both regions, whatever that means. In addition to the violent implications against the marginalized-religious other, ‘securitization of religion’ also results in a skewed perspective where state-sponsored violence is justified due to the normativization of secular violence and the demonization of religious-based violence.

What we can infer from this panel is an interlocking presence of borders that are created out of political, racial, and religious differences and are employed to justify violence on marginalized others. These borders are then sustained and legitimated through the hegemonic presence of the ‘nation-state’ as the arbiter of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ violence. If there is one thing that ties these phenomena, it is the fact that the political, racial, and religious markers that compose those borders are also etched and negotiated on the bodies of the marginalized others as ‘border-crossers.’

A Way Forward?

What is left rather unexplored from the conversation on religions and forced migration in the panel are two key areas. First, there is the question of the ways in which external borders are projected onto the bodies of ‘border-crossers.’ Second, I question what alternative forms of plural and hybrid embodiment exist that can be used as models for thinking about the constructedness and fluidity of boundaries.

In this context, looking into how the bodies of women of color accommodate, resist, and reconstruct the various ‘borders’ that are imposed on them would be a fruitful endeavor to undertake. As a case in point, in many discourses surrounding bad/good Muslims in the US (which also automatically translate into bad/good immigrants), one’s decision to wear hijab or not wear hijab is intrinsically associated with one’s position within or outside certain borders. When a Muslim woman wears a hijab, she is both the icon of ‘oppressive Islam’ and the ‘ideal’ figure of the Muslims’ ‘faith.’ Meanwhile, when she does not wear a hijab, she is an ‘enlightened’ (good) Muslim who embraces the mythical gift of ‘agency’ from the ‘Western world,’ and also at once a traitor to her own community of Muslims. In other words, the borders are not only located out there in physical, socio-political, and conceptional forms, but also within the liminal bodies that are located at the forefront of ‘border-claims.’ On the one hand, this fact shows the pervasiveness of patriarchal paradigms that exploit women’s bodies as a benchmark of patriarchal morality. On the other hand, it represents a liminal capacity inherent in women’s bodies that could serve as a model for a microcosm of plurality in today’s world.

Another contemporary example of the fluidity of the ‘liminal self’ can be found in the lives of many Southeast Asian female migrant workers whose jobs as domestic caretakers reflects the hybrid role as ‘mothers’ (to their own kids back at home) and as ‘surrogate mothers’ (to the family that they take care of). This intersectional and violent experience is created in the ‘borderland’ between home and host countries, but is rooted in one embodied experience of motherhood. What the hybrid roles of female migrant workers show is a mode of being that takes on boundaries (with all of their violence) as a site in which to live through the shifting constitutions of selfhood. Using terminology from Muslim feminist theologian Sa’diyya Shaikh, the Southeast Asian female migrant workers are living up ‘moments of resistance’ in which deconstruction of the boundaries is not what counts, but rather their creative survival.

When it does not pose any danger towards the women themselves, the fluidity of borders within the bodies of women of color represents an appreciation of a plurality of living in which borders and boundaries have lost their exclusivist contours. Aware of the violence performed on them by hegemonic boundaries, many women of color embrace the beautiful mess of liminality in which they construct alternative spaces defined by multiple identities. In this context, ‘religion’ functions as one of the languages with which their creative survival is expressed. It serves as a locus for those ‘moments of resistance’ due to its capacity to deconstruct hierarchies and advocate for humanity in the name of the Divine. It is to such hybrid modes of belonging that we must anchor our hopes in a time where ‘humanity’ is seen as a privilege accorded only to those who live inside the border.

Lailatul Fitriyah
Lailatul Fitriyah is a third year Ph.D student and Presidential Fellow at the World Religions and World Church Program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is focused on the construction of feminist theologies of resistance in post-colonial Southeast Asia, feminist theologies of migration, and feminist interreligious dialogue.
Theorizing Modernities article

Sustainable Resources: Reimagining Our Relationship with the Earth

A global warming-affected farmer in Peru whose village is dependant on the Ausangate glacier. Photo Credit: Oxfam International, 2009.

With the United Nations climate change panel recently releasing a report that stated limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius “would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedentented changes in all aspects of society,” the Ansari Institute’s panel on “Sustainable Habitats: How Religions Can Repair Unsustainable Environments,” proves timely. While we are used to hearing scientists, economists, and politicians weigh in on the environment, it is less common to turn to religious traditions as potential collaborators. Nosheen Ali (Aga Khan University), Daniel Castillo (Loyola Maryland), and Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (University of Buffalo) showed the rich resources these traditions can bring to the conversation. One commonality that ran across each presentation was the importance of reimagining the relationship between humans, other animals, and the earth. Given that we are now in the age of the anthropocene—climate change brought about by human actions—such reimaginings are key for developing a sustainable relationship with the earth.

Daniel Castillo raised dual concerns from the Catholic tradition: how can the life of faith inform both the preferential option for the poor and the option for the earth? Castillo drew our attention to the reality that these two concerns are intimately interlinked: those who will suffer the most from the earth’s rising temperatures are those in the Global South who do not have the economic resources to shield themselves from the effects of climate change. Turning to the Hebrew scriptures, Castillo rejected the harmful anthropocentrism that has arisen in response to the Genesis 1 narrative of man having dominion over the earth. He instead emphasized Genesis 2:15, which calls humanity to cultivation and care. Castillo argued that the symbolic vocation in Genesis 2 is the gardener who lives out the imago dei (image of God) through love of God, neighbor, and the earth. Cultivation and care extends toward both neighbor and the rest of creation, emphasizing our embeddedness within these relationships.

Glacier ceremony celebrating Christ and spirit of the mountain, as part of the Qoyllur Rit’i. Photo Credit: Sebastien Lafont, 2008.

Nosheen Ali spoke from an Islamic perspective and the context of her fieldwork in Shimshal, Pakistan. Ali noted that policies focused on sustainability have become entrenched in the very capitalist system responsible for creating environmental degradation in the first place. We can learn from the people in Shimshal who, because of their view that nature is sacred, have developed forms of human labor that can complement the processes of nature. Yet, Ali noted, often this sacred view of nature is “denied legitimacy in mainstream notions of science.” She underscored the importance of making space for ecology as a spiritual concept. Ali then considered the history of asceticism in Islam, describing Baba Farid (1173-1266), a revered Sufi spiritual leader, who believed a practice of anti-accumulation was essential to his religious life. An ecological spirituality combined with an emphasis on anti-materialism offers a model for sustainable human practices.

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo presented her ethnographic research with impoverished Peruvians who “draw on indigenous traditions to collaborate with sacred, sentient landscapes.” Bacigalupo presented the Peruvian workers’ divinization rituals as a form of resistance against the extractive resource industry. They believe the natural world has its own moral agency and argue that we have angered the earth. This has led to a movement, amongst some Peruvians, demanding the recognition of the legal personhood of nature. Bacigalupo argued that this approach to nature as a sacred, sentient landscape has led to new models of mobilization against climate change.

These three scholars show us that ecological spirituality as an embodied practice has the potential to reorient our relationship with the earth. Practices of caring for a garden, cooperating with nature, and extending solidarity beyond human persons to the rest of the natural world foster a vision of a relationship with the earth grounded in kinship rather than extraction. This allows the human person to see herself as not only embedded in the human community but also in the broader community of the earth and all creatures.

Yet, as we recover and/or develop these ecological, spiritual practices, Ali warned us to guard against universal solutions. Each ecosystem has unique features, and so each community will need to develop their own ways of cooperating with nature. In the words of the American poet, novelist, and farmer Wendell Berry, the over-emphasis on “Think Big,” such as macro-level planning, policies, and laws, has blinded us to the power of “Think Little” and the creative possibilities that emerge when we fully engage in our own backyard and community. Religious actors, traditions, and resources can also help to further develop this point. For instance, within my own Catholic tradition, Pope Francis has emphasized that we require a “lifestyle and spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm,” because technical expertise can only provide, at best, a partial solution to climate change (Laudato Si’ #111). Pope Francis calls for an “ecological conversion” within each of our communities (Laudato Si’ #219). While public policies and laws are important, for Ali, Berry, and Pope Francis these measures alone won’t save us. We must also foster ways of thinking little within our local communities, which as a collective have the transformative power to impact climate change.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis, TN. Photo Credit: Gary Bridgman.

The Ansari Institute’s panel offers an important starting point for thinking about religious resources for combating climate change. Moving forward, it is important that panels like this attend to intersectionality at a deeper level. While the intersectionality between the environment and the poor was highlighted, other points of intersectionality, like gender, deserve more attention. During the question and answer period, Harvard Divinity School professor and Director of the Religious Literacy Project Diane Moore raised concerns to Castillo that the same Genesis 2 text being used to safeguard the environment has also been used to suppress women. For example, Genesis 2:18 states: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Historically, this has been used to justify a hierarchical relationship between men and women. The same text used to support a relationship of care with the earth has also been used, in one prevalent reading, to justify the subordination of women. In our attempts to correct a harmful tradition of anthropocentrism, can we use a text that has been used to discount women’s equity?

For the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, we must address both forms of oppression together because “the subjugation of women has formed the symbolic basis for the subjugation of the earth.” This means that work in ecotheology must also attend to gender. In the case of Genesis 2, the ecotheological reading of the human person as a gardener that images God by nurturing the earth must be in conversation with feminist theological interpretations of Genesis 2 that challenge sexist readings of the text. Otherwise, we risk realizing justice in one dimension only to undermine it in another.

The stakes of incorporating an intersectional lens are more than theoretical; there are substantive practical implications as well. For example, recent studies have shown that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in communities where they also lack equal access to other resources such as education and economic opportunities.  Given this reality, it is necessary to think about how religious resources and ecological spiritualties interact with gender as well as other pertinent issues such as racism and decolonization. Indeed, such a process is necessary in order to build a spiritually informed, holistic vision of climate justice.


Suggested Further Readings:

Theology and Ecology across the Disciplines: On Care for Our Common Home. Edited by Celia Dean-Drummond and Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser. London, UK: T&T Clark, 2018.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Moore, Niamh. “Eco/Feminism, Non-Violenc and the Future of Feminism.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 10, no. 3 (2008): 282-98.

Marie-Claire Klassen
Marie-Claire Klassen is currently a PhD student in Moral Theology at Notre Dame. Prior to attending Notre Dame she completed an MA in Global Studies, with an emphasis on religion and human rights, through the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies program.
Theorizing Modernities article

Scientific Literacy for Madrasa Graduates: A Project for Religious Renewal at the University of Notre Dame

[Re-posted from The Maydan]


The ink of scholars is holier than the blood of martyrs.

–Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.

–Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

–Albert Einstein


Bright boxes with eager faces lit up the computer screen, revealing a new batch of madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan. A handful of boxes were blank, cameras off to maintain the privacy of veiled female participants. One video feed was pitch dark, not for privacy, but because the power was out in the remote village outside of Delhi; it is a good thing that the laptop was charged and connected through the cell tower. Each of the twenty-six students in class that day logged in from a remote location. The camera of one of the participants, also from India, could be seen bouncing around, as if from the set of a reality show. He had logged in using his mobile device while on a train that had been delayed. One participant from Pakistan joined us from Saudi Arabia. He had not yet returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Half way through the customary first-day introductions, a box appeared with what seemed like the inside of Hesburgh library in the background. A Notre Dame student, helping with the project through the peace research lab, had just logged in to take attendance. Thus began the second year of an ambitious effort to advance theological and scientific literacy in Madrasa Discourses (MD).[1]

Professor Ebrahim Moosa, himself a madrasa graduate, initiated MD within the Contending Modernities (CM) research initiative in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies within the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Perception matters: Why is a Catholic institution interested in reforming Madrasa education? Within Notre Dame, MD aligns with the goals of the school and institutes within which it resides. The Keough School of Global Affairs advances “integral human development” through “transformative educational programs”; MD generates “greater understanding of the ways in which religious and secular forces interact in the modern world,” which is the purpose of the CM research initiative; and the activities of MD contribute towards “strengthening the capacity of all for peacebuilding,” which is the mandate of the Kroc Institute. The project is supported with external funding through the John Templeton Foundation, which encourages “civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.” The project’s image benefits from the reputation of Notre Dame as a ranked research university in the US that is committed to global engagement for furthering the common good.

 Authentic “Insiders” at the Helm

Mahan Mirza (l) and Ebrahim Moosa (r) in the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The project also has the advantage of having a strong team of authentic “insiders” at the helm.[2] As the Principal Investigator, Ebrahim Moosa is a world-renowned scholar and himself a madrasa graduate. As the lead faculty responsible for implementing the project, I have a background in the sciences, Islamic studies, and experience working with credible Islamic institutions with global recognition. Like-minded and authoritative partners in India and Pakistan serve as lead faculty to guide and mentor the madrasa participants. MD has no formal institutional partnerships overseas. Instead, MD has contractual agreements with individuals who, in turn, have strong ties to important institutions in their respective local contexts. The lead faculty in India, Waris Mazhari, is a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the most prestigious madrasas in India. He serves on the faculty of the Jamia Hamdard, is the founding director of the Institute for Religious and Social Thought, and he has been editing the journal of the Deoband “Old Boys Club” for almost two decades. Dr. Mazhari holds a Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia, a century-old institution of higher learning founded by prominent Indian Muslim leaders.

In Pakistan, our lead faculty Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir is the associate director of the Al-Sharia Academy where he edits an influential online monthly journal addressing topics at the intersection of Islam and modernity. Mawlana Nasir, also a graduate of the traditional madrasa system, has an MA in English literature, is completing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Punjab University. He served for several years on the faculty of GIFT University in his hometown of Gujranwala, just outside Lahore. The Sharia Academy is founded and directed by Mawlana Ammar’s father, Mawlana Zahid ur Rashid, who also the head of a traditional Sunni Madrasa, Nusratul Uloom. Our colleagues have provided invaluable support in the recruitment of students, supported curriculum development, taught regularly in the program, established an Urdu public website, and translated curricular and supplementary texts from English into Urdu for the journal. Our partnership helps to allay any concerns that our project has colonial or surreptitious designs through an intimate intellectual kinship forged on trust and mutual respect.

Goals and Methodological Principles of Madrasa Discourses

Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses 2017 Winter Intensive tour of the Qatar National Library.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.[3] This failure has resulted in a marginalization of religious scholars (‘ulama’) in society coupled with a collapse of their moral authority. Whereas the ulama were once the intellectual and spiritual guides in Muslim societies, they are now relegated to relics who are largely irrelevant if not ridiculed as being out of step with the times. In order to achieve the goal of raising the level of the intellectual discourse in madrasa circles, MD has recruited a handful of madrasa graduates to participate in a three-year curriculum designed to provide conceptual tools as well as language proficiency to help them better navigate contemporary academic literature in English. Although the instruction takes place in an intimate environment out of the reach of the public largely sequestered from social media, we have launched a public website Tajdīd to allow the conversation that is taking place in the classroom to spill over into the public sphere.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.”

Guiding MD are two vital methodological principles. The first is that we derive our inspiration to engage critically with new knowledge by appealing to terms or frames of inquiry that are native to the Islamic scholarly tradition. MD draws on the rich textual heritage of Islam to make the case for critical inquiry, dynamism, and creativity as aspects that are native to Islamic religious thought. Although MD is primarily an educational program, it is nonetheless framed within a broader agenda of peacebuilding, affirmation of human dignity, and furthering the common good. Conflict manifests in conceptual categories as well as lived social realities; it can be viewed through the imperfect temporal concepts of “tradition” and “modernity” or perhaps even less perfect cultural/geographic designators of “Islam” and “West.”


The Elicitive Approach

Drawing on theories in conflict resolution, then, and wedding these theories to the educational aspect of MD, our approach is an “elicitive” one. Contrasting with a “prescriptive” approach that “understands the training event as built around the specialized knowledge of the trainer, which is taken to be both transferable and universal”, the elicitive approach “understands training as a process that emerges from already-existing, local knowledge.”[4] The adoption of an elicitive model, which builds on frames of inquiry that are embedded within the vast storehouses of the Islamic scholarly tradition, enables MD to extend the conversations from the past to the present, leading us out from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This not only avoids the shock value of some of our provocations, it also allows us to proceed systematically, taking the familiar ground of the Islamic tradition as the intellectual journey’s point of departure. The elicitive approach allows participants to build on their existing knowledge base and encourages them to make organic connections instead of struggling to assimilate what is foreign in a manner that would be both disorienting and unsettling.

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity.”

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity. We do not tell anyone what the answers are, nor do we expect right or wrong answers. Our project is about questions. But we do expect participants to reason well. MD challenges anti-intellectual modes of religious thought that prevail in contemporary madrasa discourses. We do our best to highlight complexity wherever possible so that participants are not able to hide behind formulaic responses transmitted from generation to generation. By working through the rich history of the Islamic scholarly tradition, we emphasize that intelligent people can disagree. In fact, the Islamic scholarly tradition is built on creative tensions. If history is our guide, intelligent students should expect to arrive at different answers to the theological conundrums of our time. When grounded in sound arguments that are accessible to all in a transparent and shared public space, difference is not something to decry. Difference can be something to celebrate.

The Curriculum: History, Science, Theology

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest. History provides context for both theology and science; science is informed by history and influences theology; and theology is reconstructed in light of both history and science. Nonetheless, it has been helpful for us to isolate a dominant disciplinary lens through which to enter the conversation in any given year. Poetically, the three years mirror chronology: 1) history (past), 2) science (present), and 3) theology (future). The locus of theology in the future reflects the project’s ambition of “reconstruction” or “renewal” of theology in light of a more expansive view of the past and a receptive attitude toward new knowledge in the present: a kindling of the moral imagination.

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest.”

The program begins with confronting the pluralism of beliefs in human cultures. Human beings have always held different views about their origins and destinies. These differences manifest themselves in varieties of myths and religions. The very first class of the program invites students to confront pluralism through creation stories. We have used short and accessible articles published online by National Geographic series on “The Story of God” hosted by Morgan Freeman.[5] The website offers articles on “Creation Myths from around the World,” “Australian Aboriginal Stories,” and “What We Know about Where We Come from.” Unlike the other myths, new knowledge today helps us construct a fresh creation story by integrating the findings of multiple disciplines in the natural sciences. Beginning with pluralism enables us to get to the core scientific and theological questions that undergird our entire program: How do we privilege our beliefs over the beliefs of others? How did the Islamic scholarly tradition address the question of pluralism? What was the role of reason, independent of revelation, in classical Islamic thought, in answering these questions? Is science today adding anything new to the conversation that could be a game-changer for theology?

When the Abrahamic creation story that the Quranic account participates in is juxtaposed to other creation myths, it becomes evident to students almost instantly that our story seems just as “mythical” as the rest: God talks to the first man and woman in a garden with temptations by Satan or a serpent. The humans are deceived and banished to life on earth. On what basis can Muslims claim that their version is truer than the others? It so happens that the founders of one of the major theological schools in Sunni Islam, Abu Mansur Maturidi (d. 944), addresses this very question in his theological Treatise on Divine Unicity or Kitāb al-Tawḥīd.[6] According to Maturidi, if every group were to rely simply on its own traditions as authorities for the truthfulness of their creeds, there would be no way to mediate between them. For that, one must appeal to reason that is universally and independently accessible to all parties. This is why treatises in classical Islamic theology begin with a position statement on theories of knowledge. The fourteenth century theologian Saʿd al-Din Taftazani (d. 1390) informs us that by his time – almost five hundred years after Maturidi –theology (kalām) had become virtually indistinguishable from philosophy (falsafa).[7] Several centuries earlier, the formidable Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had already declared theology as “the universal science among the Islamic sciences.”[8] This is because “the theologian (mutakallim) is the one who looks into the most basic of all things (aʿamm al-ashyāʾ), which is Being (al-mawjūd).”[9] Seeing that the study of nature was a theological imperative for Muslim scholars of the past, how could it possibly be that insights into nature gained through the various scientific disciplines today are no longer relevant to the foundation of Islamic theology? Should not theologians today engage new knowledge in science and philosophy just as the theological masters of the past had done in their own time?

Our instinct to begin with pluralism is well founded. The sociologist, Peter Berger, affirms: “It is my position that modernity has plunged religion into a very specific crisis, characterized by secularity, to be sure, but characterized more importantly by pluralism.”[10] More recently, a pioneering work in the budding field of Big History entitled Maps of Time offers: “Maps of Time attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.”[11] Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, begins his reflections on A Theology of Engagement with the same question.[12] Markham argues that pluralism is a historical fact, that our traditions are heterogeneous, and that the Church might consider reorienting itself to derive lessons from this reality instead of posturing to change the world in her image.

Screenshot from the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The connections that the theme of pluralism allows us to make with history, theology, and science are developed in the first semester of the first year through the relationship between epistemology and history. We draw on competing ideas of “reason” used by scholars from across the intellectual spectrum from the likes of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We spend time with Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) to witness beginnings of theoretical approaches to history, but also ponder why such critical approaches were never truly absorbed into the mainstream theological tradition. We switch gears by turning to recent historians like R. G. Collingwood and philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, which stretches the discussion from the medieval to the modern period. Collingwood defines philosophy as second order reasoning, or “thought about thought.”[13] Collingwood connects history with philosophy by identifying both as concerned with “the science of absolute presuppositions.” History enables us to illuminate the dark corners of our own minds by empathizing with others as we strive to know the causes of events and motivations of actors on the historical stage. Given that historical reports emanate from the subjective vantage of observers, that observations are selective, and that interpretations of observations are theory-laden, it may never be possible for us to fully recover the past, even when we have copious reports about a particular event. This is why, argues Gadamer, every generation must re-interpret the past for itself. Successive communities of interpreters must constantly renegotiate meaning in light of fresh experiences that generate fresh questions.[14] Such notions of historical criticism are entirely new to MD participants, and they are indispensable for text interpretation and retrieval of “tradition” in contemporary academic discourses.   The second semester invites students to reflect more deeply on Islamic intellectual history and the meaning of “tradition.” Through writings by historians like Marshal Hodgson and Dimitri Gutas, we attempt to place Islam within the broader spectrum of human history, working with concepts such as Karl Jasper’s “Axial Age,” as well as the Greco-Arabic Translation movement from the ninth to eleventh centuries.[15] Foreign influences on Islamic thought in this formative period do not permit us to speak of the intellectual tradition as being “purely Islamic.” To further the historical sensibilities of students, we trace the divergent reception of Aristotelian cosmology in the works of great scholars like Biruni (d. 1048) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) demonstrate contrasting positions on the relationship between philosophy and theology. Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240) exemplify alternative modes of reasoning from their predecessors. Ibn Taymiyya levels a devastating critique on logic, while the latter decries system of thought altogether, setting sail to the winds of allegory. By the end of the first year, students come to view the Islamic tradition as one that is deeply contested.

Students engage with all this material online in an interactive classroom. In addition to the four core faculty members, we also have the privilege of involving guest instructors from various departments at ND. We have had guest appearances by Gabriel Reynolds in theology, Deborah Tor in history, Rashied Omar in peace studies, Thomas Burman in medieval studies, Hussein Abdulsater in classics, and Adnan Aslan in philosophy. The presence of guest instructors in the online classroom has been tremendously enriching for the participants.

The Second Year: Science

The second year focuses on the history and philosophy of science, contemporary theories in the philosophy of religion, “big history,” and the deep history of humanity as it unfolds through “thresholds of increasing complexity” from the earliest stages of the cognitive revolution to a globally networked technological society. Among the questions that we ask are: Does modern science liberate us from God? Is contemporary science independent of metaphysics? Does science prove things with certainty? Is the method of science universal? Is there such a thing as progress in science? How do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? What are the laws that govern scientific change? If scientific theories and worldviews change, how can we trust the scientific theories of our time? In order to engage these questions meaningfully, the course introduces students to competing theories of truth, thinking philosophically about “facts,” concepts like realism vs. instrumentalism, the underdetermination of theories, and “worldviews” as an interlocking web of theories comprising of empirical facts, philosophic ideas, and methodological approaches. We then apply these concepts to the history of science by studying the transitions from the Aristotelian-Medieval worldview to the contemporary worldview. Names like Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin come to life in our survey.

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science.”

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science. This article draws our attention to prophetic sayings such as Adam was sixty feet tall, a baby’s gender is selected by whichever partner’s fluid dominates, one wing of a fly has a disease while the other has a cure, and the sun will one day rise from the west. The exercise of close reading and careful analysis helps students identify strategies for interpretation that are useful as well as others that are weak if not downright fallacious.[16]

Another text authored by Anwar Shah Kashmiri (d. 1933), a renowned scholar in madrasa circles from the early twentieth century, argues that Quranic statements about nature and the heavens are not intended to be “realist,” but rather “perspectival,” describing things as experienced by humans rather than “as they truly are” according to the latest theories of science.[17] These arguments echo Galileo’s position in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which was rebutted by Cardinal Bellarmine.[18] In a fascinating twist, Cardinal Bellarmine’s response mirrors a position by another prominent Madrasa scholar of the twentieth century, Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943).[19] In this way, students are able to witness great debates on science and the interpretation of scripture in their own tradition today that replicate debates that transpired four centuries ago in Europe.

Our treatment of the contemporary worldview includes Einstein’s theory of relativity, Quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution. According to Richard DeWitt’s Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, “all of these theories require substantial changes in our worldview.”[20]  The changes required by these new perspectives to our intuitions about the nature of reality boggle the mind. According to them, space and time are no longer absolute, actions appear to have influences across distances at speeds faster than light, and we are what the universe becomes when it has a chance to evolve over billions of years.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Indian Madrasa Discourses students grappled with the relationship between religion and science in April of 2017. Here they meet with Hakim Syed Zillur Rahman at the Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences.

In the spring semester of the second year, we read a coherent account of human history and imaginative account of human future as portrayed in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.[21] Sapiens takes us through a journey that begins with the earliest humans, tracing different theories of their origins and evolution. Drawing on a vast array of sources in innumerable disciplines in the natural and social sciences, Harari expertly weaves religion, psychology, politics, ethics, economics, and empire, even including reflections on the meaning of life and human happiness, into his historical narrative. This narrative is not contested by experts; but it is one of the most coherent ones available that serves our purpose of theological provocation very well. Harari helps us start a conversation, not end it. These first two years of the program thus prepare the foundation for the work of theological reconstruction in the third year.

The Third Year: Constructive Theology

Out of the thirty-four students who began the first year with us, ten to twelve of the most promising students will continue to the final year of the program beginning fall 2018. These students will draw on the concepts and theoretical tools from the first two years to ask research questions and engage in a program of constructive theology. The research cohort of the third year may be clustered thematically into three groups. Let us take a look at the issues that each of these three research groups might deal with, bearing in mind that what is said here is provisional.

“The best of generations is my generation, then those that follow them, then those that follow them.”[22] This saying of the Prophet Muhammad has animated Muslim sensibilities through the centuries. It evokes a sense of loss with every passing generation as our temporal gulf from the lifespan of the beloved Prophet continuously expands with the flow of historical time. In that sense, decline is in-built in the very fabric of Prophetic religion. Devotees fulfill their longing to be near the Prophet – the best of creation –through obedience, emulation, and love.  It is natural for the breathtaking changes we witness today in our knowledge of the cosmos, nature, and history, accompanied by new patterns of life dictated by mechanical clocks instead of the rhythms of nature, not to mention our new conceptions on the origin of man and his possible future as an interstellar transhuman species, to be unsettling to adherents of revealed religion. The disorientation, loss, and confusion, is unimaginable yet understandable. The nostalgic tug from a past as we hurl inexorably towards an uncertain future poses a dilemma, if not crisis. Can believers remain faithful to their tradition while at the same time engaged and optimistic in what the future holds, or are they forever condemned to view paradigm-changing shifts in human understanding, technical progress, and social development with suspicion?

According to Islamic teachings, the prophet Muhammad is God’s final messenger to humanity (Q. 33:40). He comes at the end of a succession of prophets – reportedly up to 124,000 –to all peoples in every age for their guidance.  One of the reasons that God sent messengers was so that people would have no argument against Him on the Day of Judgment (Q. 4:165). The doctrine of the finality of prophethood is so central that it led the government of Pakistan to declare anyone who does not believe in it a non-Muslim.[23]

The finality of prophethood naturally implies that the Prophet Muhammad’s message is universal; it no longer applies merely to a particular group of people at a given moment in history. Instead, it applies normatively to all people until the end of time. This doctrine fits neatly within a linear framework of history that is common to the Abrahamic traditions. As the narrative goes, God sent messengers aforetime in succession because human society and civilization was in a process of growth and development, much like an individual slowly advancing through various stages from childhood to maturity. The message needed to be renewed or updated with changing times with successive prophets. After the prophet Muhammad, there would be no need for messengers because the guidance and teachings of the final messenger would suffice for future cultural and intellectual contexts – forever. That is why God has taken it upon Himself to safeguard the final scripture (Q. 15:9), and that is why traditionalists have paid scrupulous attention to the transmission of tradition from generation to generation.

The doctrine of the finality of prophethood has made it difficult for Muslims to disentangle Islamic norms from the cultural practices of the Prophet and his Companions in seventh century Arabia. Arabness was subsumed within Islam.[24]  Because of the fusion of Arab cultural practices with transcendent divine teachings, Muslim scholars have always been well aware of the need to separate contingent social culture from universal religious norms in the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.[25]  This tension, however, has never been fully resolved, with the result that the most venerated of scholars even today gravitate towards seventh century Arab culture, at times erroneously and anachronistically identifying later practices with prophetic norms.

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West.”

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West. Consequently, in adopting Islam and accepting the authority of scholarship whose provenance is in Muslim lands and whose content fuses divine doctrine with foreign culture, Blackamericans become compelled to disregard their own legitimate cultural experiences.  But how does one begin to identify the line between cultural experiences and transcendent doctrines?

What happens when Professor Jackson’s critique is extended to more stable doctrinal issues that ostensibly lie beyond culture, “intra-Muslim pluralism” notwithstanding?[26]  For example, are issues like slavery, marriage, and war under the purview of “culture” or “doctrine?” Our sensibilities in these areas are very different today than they were at the time of the prophet Muhammad. If the Prophet is the best example for all time, could his personal conduct in these areas be considered universal norms of exemplary conduct today? Even sympathetic observers of the Prophet Muhammad’s life will have a very difficult time considering his behavior as universally normative in these areas. The world has changed. But prophecy has ended. How does one square today’s moral norms with virtues that are anchored in the life of a seventh century Arabian prophet? Participants in the third research year may choose to develop research questions in this area, revisiting this doctrine in light of pressing new questions raised in an age of accelerating change.

The movement of history testifies that history did not end in the seventh century. In fact, with rapid Muslim conquests across much of the inhabited world in the first few centuries of Islam, Arabs encountered vastly diverse ethnic, linguistic, and intellectual worlds that they assimilated into their conceptual universe, interpreting scripture in light of ancient philosophy – the “new knowledge” of the time. Just like Islamic thought interacted with Greek philosophy in the past to forge a scholastic intellectual tradition that has been taught in traditional madrasas for centuries, how must the academic formation of Muslims today change in light of new knowledge about the nature of human beings, their place in the cosmos, and the miracles of techno-science?

Acceleration and Islamic Theology

A contemporary historical concept that helps us convey the urgency of the need to rethink long held assumptions about human nature and the human condition is “acceleration.” The German historian Reinhart Koselleck, speaking about the changing nature of human perception of historical time, writes: “there occurs a temporalization [Verzeitlichung] of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity.”[27] The columnist Thomas Friedman, in his recent bestseller Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations, speaks of accelerations in three areas, which he identifies as technology, the market, and mother nature.[28]

Cynthia Stokes Brown, scholar in the budding field of “Big History,” places acceleration in the context of cosmic history: “Acceleration, an increase in the rate of change, is occurring both in the universe and in human culture on planet Earth… On the cosmological or geological scale, change is measured in millions or billions of years. On the biological scale, with natural selection setting the pace, change occurs in thousands to millions of years. On the scale of human culture, large-scale change used to occur over millennia or centuries, but now it is taking place in decades or even years.”[29] Friedman observes that acceleration itself is accelerating, noting with sympathy that: “This is dizzying for many people.”[30]

In Homo Deus, the sequel to Sapiens, Harari argues that things are moving so quickly, we are seeing developments today that make it not too farfetched to suggest that human beings are at the threshold of making a bid for divinity:

Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible…This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions…humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human…Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities.”[31]

Among the people who panic are theologians who see demonic elements behind all these developments. Acceleration is also part of the end-of-time narrative in Islam. If one believes that one lives – after successive periods of decline – in the end times, one’s attitude to things that are new is grave, optimism in the future of this world is dull, and resolve to participate in science is stunted. What you end up passing down to the next generation is cynicism and closed minded conservatism. What can the outcome of an education that embodies an “end time” mentality be other than graduates who are sideshows on the stage of history—if future history remains to be made? Islamic culture needs to contend with the real possibility that there may be centuries if not millennia ahead of us that will witness the most rapid and sweeping changes to human experiences ever known to human history.

Islamic ideas of human nature are closely associated with terms such as nafs (soul), fitra (nature), ruh (immaterial spirit or divine breath). How are we to understand these terms today in light of modern science? Should science influence and reshape traditional doctrines and views, and to what extent? How much of a role does ancient philosophy play in the interpretation of these terms in the premodern scholarly tradition? Should traditional views guide scientific inquiry, and if so, how? Can religious voices lead in the path to scientific progress, or will they always follow, respond, and restrain? Phrased differently, can there be a scientist, working on the forefront of research and innovation, who is not at the same time a heretic? The cosmic decentering of humanity that began with Copernicus has not yet reached its culmination. Scientists are today contemplating the elimination of the distinction between human life and other kinds of life, whether biological or artificial. Can a religious scientist working in these areas be invested in the preservation of traditional theologies based in premodern interpretations of scripture, or must her lived theologies be as dynamic and fresh as her lived experiences?

The challenge for our research group will be to grapple deeply with new knowledge in science: Should there be limits to human enhancements and genetic engineering? What is the definition of human life, and when does it begin and end? As our knowledge of ourselves changes, along with our ability to manipulate who we are and what we can be, what social and political arrangements will be best suited to maximize human flourishing? When does manipulation of nature become unacceptable tampering with God’s creation, and when does is remain within acceptable boundaries?

Tradition, Traditionalism and the Heretical Imperative?

Questions of science and human nature intersect with ethics, governance, and public policy. This challenges students to think carefully about conflicts between classical Islamic thought and contemporary international norms in the areas of gender relations and human rights.[32] Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world recently came together through the convening power of Morocco’s monarch in a summit to address the issue of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Called the Marrakesh Declaration, an executive summary of the resolution that has been published online declares that the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in harmony with the principles of Islamic teachings, particularly as they appear in the Charter of Medina.[33] The Charter of Medina was a contract in early Islam in which the prophet Muhammad entered into a constitutional alliance with members of other faith communities. Although noble in its intent, the Marrakesh declaration stops short of offering any explicit legal opinion, instead sticking to principles and objectives of the law to make pronouncements that are aspirational. The declaration leaves the grunt work to others, for it calls “upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.”[34] In the terms of Rumee Ahmed, it is a summons to a wholesale “hack” of the legal tradition in the area of minority citizenship in Muslim majority societies.[35] Notably, the Marrakesh declaration does not mention women and gender. It only addresses the rights of religious minorities. Nonetheless, once conversation on equality of citizenship begins in light of emerging international consensus and norms, it will be impossible to exclude the issue of gender in Islamic law from re-examination. This is all the more so because the Marrakesh declaration affirms the values embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in turn affirms the equal rights of both men and women.

As Islamic law attempts to align itself with international norms, triumphalist readings of Islamic history will need to be revised, especially as the question of equality before the law within increasingly plural societies comes center stage. All of the tools and concepts that students will have acquired over the course of Madrasa Discourses will need to be harnessed to think critically and constructively about the present and future of human beings on this planet.”

It has become increasingly difficult to gaze at history as the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy. Rather, the champions of orthodoxy as well as heresy seem to participate equally in a kind of “Great Conversation,” to borrow a term from Robert Maynard Hutchins.[36] Debates between scholars of the past are to be visited in ways that show all sides as not only intelligible but also reasonable, allowing students to faithfully choose between them, without polemics or predetermining the winners and losers in these debates. In allowing students to see the construction of knowledge through the experiences of past scholars, we empower them to take their own experiences seriously in order to add to the conversation, thereby becoming not just consumers but also producers of tradition. This is precisely what the eminent sociologist Peter Berger proposes as being the only viable path for religious traditions today: to “try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in tradition,”[37] which he calls the inductive method in religion.

The shift to history will give students theological choices; having choices, in turn, will strengthen both individualism and pluralism; and including former heresies within the spectrum of acceptable religious possibilities will encourage scholars to develop new intellectual skills and adopt new professional roles that require the power of persuasion in settings that are more in harmony with liberal rather than hierarchical or authoritarian societies. Berger reminds us that “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means ‘to choose.’”[38]For premodern man,” he continues, “heresy is a possibility, usually a rather remote one; for modern man, heresy typically becomes a necessity…modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.[39]

Can Islamic education embrace “the heretical imperative?” Our educational institutions have become overcome with fear, fortresses for what Ebrahim Moosa calls “Republics of Piety.”[40] Madrasas are in the business of the preservation and guardianship of orthodoxy, afraid that future generations will lose their faith in an ever-changing world. But this is not tradition, it is traditionalism, which historian of religion Jaroslav Pelikan put so eloquently as being “the dead faith of the living,” in contrast to tradition, which is the “living faith of the dead.”[41] Muslim culture and institutions of learning today have lost the dynamic spark that once animated their intellectual culture.

Dynamism in Muslim educational culture will be driven in no small part by developments in techno-science that are accompanied by seismic shifts in conceptual worldviews and social norms. Friedman offers the analogy of riding a bicycle to help us understand how we might adapt to the dizzying changes that are soon to come due to the exponential changes taking place all around us.[42] He says that on a bicycle, although one is in a state of motion, one achieves a balance akin to what may be called a kind of “dynamic stillness.” Another metaphor that I prefer, perhaps because it is closer to home is of the whirling dervish. His center is still while the rest of him twirls endlessly away. I am arguing here that our intellectual culture needs to learn how to ride a bicycle or whirl like the dervish.

The ulama today no longer minister to masses whose faith can be taken for granted. Our educational institutions need to help the ulama adapt to their new roles as research scholars in an age of acceleration, teachers in public and private schools, counselors in times of crisis, pastors and community leaders, politicians shaping public policy, and, perhaps most importantly, public intellectuals interacting with leaders across the spectrum of human activity in civil society. Madrasas must be cognizant of the changing roles of ulama in a brave new world, where believers no longer flock to the faith in conformity to old patterns, but trickle in (or trickle out) by free choice.

If the world does not end soon, it is going to be a very different place for our children and grandchildren. Whether or not we are at the end of time, our engagement with new knowledge must be thorough, and it must allow us to be open to new theological possibilities. We have to be guided by tradition, but we also have to let new knowledge take us where it takes us. Can “innovation” and “choice,” even in matters of religion, become good words in the moral vocabulary of the madrasa?

Conclusions: What Lies Ahead for Madrasa Discourses?

I hope that this survey has provided a good sense of the rich and complex intellectual project of Madrasa Discourses. Our ambition is for the intellectual conversations we generate to have transformative ripple effects across madrasa circles. Before concluding this paper with some final thoughts about the future of MD, I would like to highlight some of our activities, challenges and unexpected developments we have encountered, and future prospects beyond the initial three-year term of the present grant. One of the major challenges we have encountered is the widely differing levels of preparation of students who are participating in the program. Some know English fluently, while others are just starting to learn the language. Some have read widely online, others only narrowly within their own area of study. Some are tech-savvy, others not so much. Some have completed their madrasa education with honors, while others have had a less rigorous formation. Students are only able to commit themselves to the program part-time, while the demands of the program to read and prepare for classes, learn English, and write, can be onerous. Providing individualized support and feedback to students has also been challenging for our mentors and partners in India and Pakistan, who are, like the students, engaged in the program on a part-time basis. That being said, the overall level of engagement has met or exceeded expectations in the first eighteen months of the program. Evidence from exams and essays, classroom interactions, as well as interactions in the onsite intensives, indicates that provocations are leading to a higher level of complexity in the thought process.

On the positive side, the new generation of madrasa graduates is already predisposed to receive and experience the world in way that we did not expect. The presence of technology has preceded the arrival of MD at the doorstep. Technology has penetrated beyond the walls of the madrasa to touch the private lives of individuals. This has been a game-changer. Students have smartphones, Facebook accounts, and they seamlessly navigate the World Wide Web. We have found students to be intellectually open to the world and even curious in ways that the previous generation of Madrasa scholars could not have been, simply due to the wonders of technology. Given that online communities are typically insular, tending to operate within self-affirming bubbles, our task is nonetheless daunting. However, we have both the resources at our disposal and a receptive audience.

Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service. Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive discussion group 2018, Dhulikhel

A second unexpected development has been the involvement of ND undergraduate students in the project, first through a generous grant from Notre Dame International and then through a one-credit Peace Research Lab offered through the Kroc Institute. The lab provides undergraduate students in Peace Studies the opportunity to participate in small group dialogue sessions with the madrasa participants on a weekly basis. Students take the opportunity to discuss contents of the course, talk about cutting-edge ethical issues at the intersection of science and religion, and learn about each other’s worlds. Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values hosts a website that students draw from to engage topics like genetic engineering, artificial wombs, and drone warfare.[43] We also stay on the lookout for relevant topics in the headlines. In one case, for example, students opted to discuss the implications of Saudi Arabia’s granting of citizenship to a female robot named Sophia. To set-up the small group discussions, students typically read a short and accessible article prior to meeting, such as Smithsonian Magazine’s “Why Saudi Arabia Giving a Robot Citizenship is Firing People Up”.[44] What is going on in Saudi Arabia? How is it related to Islam? What are the implications for having a robotic female citizen in an Islamic country? Is the robot citizen free or owned? If owned, will the relationship be governed by Islamic laws of slavery? Would that include the rights and privileges that male owners have over their female concubines? If the relationship is on the basis of free association of citizens, does the robot have autonomy? Does the robot have any duties towards society? Will the robot have religion and be subject to Islamic law (as a Muslim or non-Muslim)?

Small group interactions of this kind have the added benefit of advancing the English learning objectives of MD. To that end, ND students also rotate in the reading of two chapters of Sophie’s World to all of the madrasa participants once a week. Not only does this further help students in English comprehension, the fictional novel surveys the history of western philosophy, which is valuable, relevant, and interesting for all who partake in the reading. ND students are also invited to help with other aspects of the project based on their availability on an individual basis. For example, a team of three students is working with the CM program manager to make the MD curriculum accessible to the wider public on the Internet.

In addition to the online classes, there are three major activities the program undertakes: production of instructional videos, convening of summer and winter onsite intensives, and publication of a website in Urdu, Tajdīd.[45] The motto of the journal is “where religion meets new knowledge.” The site presents articles and blog posts from students, guest writers invited to address topics of relevance, translations of English language material into Urdu, updates from events and activities related to Madrasa Discourses, and a discussion forum where readers can comment on the website content. The journal was launched in October, 2017 and is managed jointly by the faculty team in India and Pakistan, with Dr. Waris Mazhari, the lead faculty from India, as the editor. The content of the journal is designed to align closely with the material being covered in the curriculum, allowing conversations from our controlled classroom environment to spill over into the wider community of madrasa scholars.


The video modules produced by MD are designed as instructional aids for the online classroom. In the first year, MD produced eight videos. The first is a project trailer that has been published on the CM website.[46] Three videos accompany the first semester on “Conceptualizing the Past,” while four videos help us to “Contextualize the Islamic Theological Tradition.” Modules three and four are each introduced by a preview trailer, and the research year is introduced by a video featuring graduate students and young scholars sharing their insights into how to form research questions from different fields of inquiry: history, political science, sociology, theology, and peace studies. These videos involve interviews, animations, conversations, and commentary from experts at Notre Dame, including Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza from the MD project, Hussein Abdulsater from the department of classics, Celia Deane-Drummond from theology, and Scott Trigg from the history and philosophy of science.

Turning to the onsite intensives, MD brings all participants together twice a year for face-to-face interaction, dialogue, and intensive engagement with a variety of intellectual topics to broaden their intellectual horizons. We have met twice in Nepal for two-week intensives in the summer, and once in Qatar in the winter at the College of Islamic Studies in the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha’s Education City. A second meeting is planned for this winter at the same location in Doha. Topics have included religion, modernity, secularism, and fundamentalism (Scott Appleby), gender equity and social inclusion (Shubham Amatya and Prakash Bhattarai), anthropology, ethics, and plural cosmologies (Leela Prasad), liberal citizenship and the challenge of human rights (Mohammad Fadel), science education and the theory of evolution (Rana Dajani), contested political theologies (Ebrahim Moosa), language, scripture, and interpretation (Ammar Khan Nasir and Waris Mazhari), theology in an age of acceleration (Mahan Mirza), Islamic law and gender (Saadia Yacoob), new horizons of moral imagination (Gerald McKenny), Mulla Sadra’s alternative cosmology (Mahmoud Youness), narrative theology and scriptural reasoning (Jason Springs), and intersectionality and faith-based action for peacebuilding (Atalia Omer). These intense sessions are accompanied by dialogue sessions between the madrasa participants and Notre Dame students where individuals from diverse backgrounds find ways to work through their differences while forging at the same time deep human connections. True to the theory of strategic peacebuilding, the deeper human bond that develops through friendly interaction in a safe space enables participants on both sides to appropriate their differences within a deeper framework of trust that is the bedrock of sustainable peace.

After the first two years of the Madrasa Discourses program, we see sufficient evidence to think the program will continue in some form into the future. The most tangible outcome of the project will be the curriculum of the first two years, the written reports of the research projects in the third year, and a vibrant online journal and discussion forum. If the research activities are even modestly successful, they will be formidable pieces of scholarship that will create a buzz in the madrasa scholarly circles within South Asia and perhaps beyond. Given the global reach of the South Asian madrasa community with Darul Ulooms (another word for Madrasas) present all over the world, including in the West, we hope to thereby initiate a long overdue conversation amongst the ulama on the vital issues of theological change, science, law, and society. Translations of the research papers from Urdu into Arabic and English would extend the conversations to the madrasa scholarly community beyond South Asia.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Madrasa Discourses students and a Notre Dame peer discuss the day’s lecture below. Conversations on religious identity, politics, secularism, science, and gender spilled over into all activities, as students eagerly engaged in what for many was a unique experience of open exchange with new philosophies, traditions, and people.

The curriculum that we are developing is designed to transform the intellectual culture of traditional Islamic thought. The curriculum can be used by individuals, groups, and institutions, and adapted to local needs and contexts. In time, the curriculum may be translated into different Islamicate languages such as Urdu, Persian, Turkish, or Malay. Faculty from Notre Dame may support the program through instructor training (“teaching the teachers”), leading workshops or intensives of the program in different parts of the world, and convening participants periodically in conferences and symposia to develop research agendas and further the production of new theological knowledge in light of new scientific knowledge. If funding is available, a small cohort of instructors from around the world could participate in a year-long residential program at Notre Dame where they are exposed to research methods in different disciplines, participate in residential life in a leading American university, and engage in Madrasa Discourses seminars on campus. As a capstone project, Residential Madrasa Fellows could design programs with texts and methods to suit their respective local contexts. What better place to house such a transformative educational program than at the Keough School at Notre Dame?

While our future plans remain aspirational, and while the madrasa participants work on their own research projects, the core faculty of MD are also working on research papers that they hope to compile into a research volume. A symposium anticipated for spring/summer2019 will invite scholars to respond to drafts of these papers. A select array of responses will also be incorporated into the final volume, which can model the kind of conversation we hope that MD will generate into the future. Instead of merely provoking and challenging, as the curriculum does, this book will also offer some answers, with the following caveat: renewal of religious thought may not result in a single answer at all. Renewal may provide a set of contending responses in creative tension with each other. MD, then, provides a forum not for us to come to agreement, but to elevate the level of our disagreements. That is how living traditions always are: rich, diverse, and in internal dialogue around the great questions of their time.

*Re-posted from The Maydan. This paper was originally written as an internal report to update colleagues at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute about the project (Jan, 2018). Parts of the paper appeared previously in a presentation at the Notre Dame Islamic Studies Colloquium on “Religious Renewal in an Age of Quantum Weirdness” (April, 2017) and at a conference on “Islamic Education in Europe” hosted by the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo (Sep, 2017).


[1] A “madrasa” literally means “place of study.” In the South Asian context, it refers to institutions of religious education and formation.

[2] Elaborate bios of the core faculty are available online here.

[3] This thesis is spelled out clearly in Ebrahim Moosa’s What is a Madrasa? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).



[6] Abu Mansur Maturidi, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, Eds. Bekir Topaloglu and M. Aruci, (Beirut: Dar Sader; Istanbul, Maktabat al-Irshad, 2010), 65-66.

[7] Saʿd al-Din Taftazani, Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid al-Nasafiyya, Ed. Ahmad Hijazi al-Saqqa, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kulliyyat al-Azhariyya, 1987), 12.

[8] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Musṭaṣfā, Ed. M. Sulayman al-Ashqar, Vol. 1, 1st Edition (Mu’assasat al-Risala, 2010), 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[11] David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.

[12] Cf. Ian Markham, A Theology of Engagement, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

[13] Although students receive a copy of Collingwood’s Idea of History as supplementary reading, we discuss the philosophy of history through the introductory chapter of Robert M. Burns and Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s (Eds.) Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2007), 1-31.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 103-128; Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries), (NY: Routledge, 1998), 1-27.

[16] M. Akram Wirk, Mutūn-i Ḥadīth par Jadīd Dhihn kay Ishkālāt, (Gujranwala, Pakistan: Al-Sharia Academy, 2012).

[17] Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Fayḍ al-Bārī ʿalā Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Vol. 2, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2005), 511.

[18] Cf. Richard DeWitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 160-161.

[19] Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Al-Intibāhāt al-Mufīda fi Ḥall al-Ishtibāhāt al-Jadīda, Ed. Nur al-Bashar M. Nur al-Haqq

[20] DeWitt, Worldviews, 206.

[21] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015); and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, (HarperCollins, 2017).

[22] This is a well-known and well-authenticated prophetic report.

[23] See the wording in the second amendment to the Pakistani constitution: “A person who does not believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of The Prophethood of MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), the last of the Prophets or claims to be a Prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), or recognizes such a claimant as a Prophet or religious reformer, is not a Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution or law.” One should note that this amendment also carries implications for the ‘unorthodox’ minorities such as the Ahmedis in Pakistan.

[24] Paraphrasing Nasser Rabat’s sentence: “Arabness was thus presumably subsumed within Islam.” On Arabs and Arabness.

[24] See Ibn Ashur’s Treatise on Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah (IIIT, 2013) where he distinguishes between the prophet’s different identities as prophet and lawgiver: “The Companions clearly distinguished between the commands of God’s Messenger that ensued from his position as legislator and those that did not. Statements or actions ensued from God’s Messenger in the following capacities: legislation, issuing edicts (fatwa), adjudication, political leadership of the state, guidance, conciliation, advice to those seeking his opinion, counseling, spiritual inspiration, teaching high and lofty truths, disciplining, and non-instructive ordinary statements,” 4.

[25] Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical time, Reprint Ed., (MIT Press, 1990), 11.

[28] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

[29] Cynthia Stokes Brown, “A Historian’s Reflection on a Lifetime of Change.”

[30] Friedman, Accelerations, 32.

[31] Harari, Homo Deus, 49.

[32] Mohammad Fadel, a renowned scholar of Islamic law who led sessions at our summer intensive in Nepal (July, 2017), has published widely in this area. See: “Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform? The Case of ‘Never Shall a Folk Prosper Who Have Appointed a Woman to Rule Them,’” in Islamic Law and Society, No, 18 (2011), 131-176; “The Challenge of Human Rights,” in Seasons, Spring (2008), 59-80; “Back to the Future: The Paradoxical Revival of Aspirations for an Islamic State: Review of The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State by Noah Feldman,” in Review of Constitutional Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 1 (2009), 105-123; and “Muslim Reformists, Female Citizenship, and the Public Accommodation of Islam in Liberal Democracy,” in Politics and Religion, No. 5 (2012), 2-35.


[34] Ibid.

[35] See his Shariah Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law, (Stanford University Press, 2018).

[36] Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation, 5th Edition, (University of Chicago Press, 1991); this is the first volume of the originally fifty-four volume set of the Great Books of the Western World published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952.

[37] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[38] Ibid., 24.

[39] Ibid., 25. Italics in original.

[40] Moosa, Madrasa, 122.

[41] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[42] Friedman, Accelerations, 35.



[45] ]

[46]; scroll down to see the video trailer embedded in the website.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Field Notes article

In Pursuit of Our Aesthetic Past

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses students at the Doha Museum of Islamic Art in December 2017.

Having grown up in a society that fails to appreciate beauty and often condemns its expressions as an act of evil, I am amazed by the dazzling history of Muslim civilization. I always wonder how Muslims, such as the scholars I have encountered in New Delhi and many other parts of northern India, can claim today to be the heirs of their predecessors if they do not value beauty as transcendent and divine with the same vigor and enthusiasm.

Appreciation of beauty stimulates imagination and innovation, and historically Muslims excelled at its expressions. They produced the finest architecture, music, calligraphy, and other crafts. It all began with Muslims setting their feet on the fertile soil of the cradles of ancient civilizations: Egypt, Persia, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, etc. They mingled old traditions with the new spirit of iḥsān, a comprehensive concept, writes Oludamini Ogunnaike, denoting the “sense of beauty and excellence—at once aesthetical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual.” Their understanding of iḥsān drew from the verses of the Quran that give a big picture of the metaphysical beauty of God, and a scenic view of Jannah (Paradise) with its palaces sculptured from gems, surrounded by gardens, where streams of milk and honey flow. As many traditions including Islam assert, ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ Religious inspiration is evident in the designs of the elegant monuments and mosques from Spain to Indonesia. The profound beauty of these structures and decorative art still evokes ecstasy in their beholders.

Ogunnaike defines Islamic art as ‘silent theology’ that successfully holds the picture of Islam intact against contemporary virulent propagandas. He further says, “To many, the silent theology of Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than the most dazzling treatise, and its beauty can be more evident and persuasive than the strongest argument.” I would add to Ogunnaike’s point that past Muslim innovations in beauty serve as a source of inspiration and pride for Muslims even today.

However, some modern Muslim puritanical movements have challenged the role of beauty in Islam. The ideologues of these movements have fomented disregard of Islamic art among the ʿulamā and hence the masses. During my days of madrasa schooling, I heard some of my teachers and peers argue that art is not worth pursuing. It distances man from the remembrance of God and requires an excessive amount of money and resources, it is said. It is no surprise that Aurangzeb, a Mughal Emperor who did not appreciate art very much, is dearer to the ʿulamā than Shāh Jahān, the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. Sufis are also discredited by these ʿulamā members for their practice of arranging musical gatherings for seeking aesthetic experiences in the presence of the Divine. These reductionist Muslims often view Islam as a sort of strictly ritualistic system and deprive it of its aesthetic heritage.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Rasheed. Pillars at the HBKU College of Islamic Studies.

My experience of Islam has been very diverse between the madrasa and the university. Practicing conventional or ritualized Islam in my days of madrasa schooling seemed very simple. After coming to the university, however, my awareness of Islam grew in complexity with my increasing familiarity with its history and the civilization it produced. My readings about historical and religious understandings of Islam suggested that there is a gap between the way Islamic civilization thrived in the past and how Islam is practiced today. I admire the Muslim genius and fellow citizens of other faiths who contributed to this civilization. But I am also disturbed when I read about the paintings depicting humans on the walls of Qusayr in Jordan built by Walid I, the Umayyad Caliph in the first century of Islam, contrary to the centuries-old fatwa condemning representational art and prohibiting images of living beings (p. 271). This fatwa drew its validity from the hadiths (prophetic traditions) that forbade representational art, considering it a grave sin.[1] The question was whether the Umayyads disregarded the prophetic traditions altogether or if they had a different understanding of them. Debates on representational art developed a new dimension after the invention of the camera. In the Indian subcontinent, the permissibility and impermissibility of photography is still among the most debated religious issues. I faced such contradictions throughout my study of Muslim history. The question was, who should I consider wrong? The conventional view maintained by the orthodox ʿulamā is to perceive the religiosity of the rulers who encouraged and patronized arts with suspicion.

My amazement with Islam deepened as I delved more seriously into the intellectual history of Islam. I found an opportunity to do this in the Madrasa Discourses program, directed by Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza, Professors of Islamic Studies both based at the University of Notre Dame. This program teaches madrasa graduates modern science and Western philosophy in such a way that the students may develop skills to answer the modern challenges posed to Islam. This past semester we had a long discussion on ‘tradition,’ imagining it as a long rope that connects the past to the present. To keep it going, the people of the tradition have to add new threads to this rope in their respective times. If the people treat tradition otherwise, it will lose its viability. Similarly, Islamic art is one among several threads of Muslim tradition. There is a sense of continuity and progress in it from the very onset up to the modern times. Many of the expressions of this art have been lost, but many are still extant and make us recall the ingenuity and sacredness of the tradition of Islamic art. The best way to perceive it is to experience it personally in art museums, musical concerts, and by visiting renowned sites and monuments.

As a part of the program, select madrasa-educated students from India and Pakistan had a chance to visit the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar during the winter intensive in the last week of December 2017. The museum is located on an artificial island flanked by two huge lawns with a bridge in the middle that connects the old city to the museum. We were told that the architectural design of this museum was inspired by the famous 9th century Ibn Tūlūn Mosque of Cairo. An exquisite edifice, this museum is often portrayed as an example of generating new threads into the old rope of tradition. Inside the museum, it was as if we were visiting our past. A collection of metalwork, glasswork, textiles, manuscripts, and ceramics are housed there representing Islamic arts throughout the centuries. Examining them closely, I admired the inspiration they drew from the world that they lived in and from the tradition with which they were entrusted. Artifacts in the museum such as colorful rugs and silks with figurative designs, griffins crafted on tiles or a sphinx-faced lusterware ewer were evidently the mixture of creative Muslim imagination with the local cultures and civilizations of the lands Muslims came to inhabit.

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses at Doha Museum of Islamic Art.

I was surprised again, imagining the past to be so beautiful and so appreciative of arts in comparison to my present society. Questions troubled me: what was it that disconnected the vast majority of South Asian Muslims from this vibrant tradition? Why do we no longer show the same enthusiasm toward the spirit of creativity? Why do we fail to discuss and give due appreciation to aesthetics? There could be many reasons. I had a chance to discuss my concerns with Professor Ebrahim Moosa, who was with us at the time. I had already thought of an explanation for the dissonance I was experiencing: the recent dominance of a ritualistic and ahistorical understanding of Islam that was confined, in great part, to prayers only. I am not sure whether Prof Moosa agreed with my argument, as he added that Muslims no longer feel confident in performing creativity or talking about aesthetics as they did before. This may be one of the factors that killed Islam’s thriving artistic and aesthetic tradition.

Apart from the museum, we also witnessed an extensive display of magnificent architectural designs in the Education City in Doha. I think that Qatar has devoted much of its resources in reviving the aesthetic tradition of Islam and can serve as an example to Muslims of other nations. Muslims have historically seen beauty as sacred and tried to seek perfection in its expressions. Debates about aesthetics, arts, and erstwhile Muslim experiences should be introduced into madrasa education and students should be exposed to the historical meanings of their tradition. We should engage with the questions: What motivated many rulers and elites of Muslim society to patronize such arts, especially the representation of figures that were considered prohibited by orthodox scholars? Was it an act of indifference towards Islamic law or were there some historical and cultural impulses that led the practitioners and patrons of the arts to define the laws differently? There is a need to analyze the seemingly contradictory practices of past Muslims with the dominant contemporary orthodox Islamic tradition. This can help us understand the significance of art in the robust and cosmopolitan nature of Islamic civilizational tradition.

[1] Bukhārī mʿ Fathul Bārī, Vol 10, pp 314, 316, 323. The Hadiths are cited in Tasvīr ke Sharaʿī Aḥkām (The Rulings of Sharia about Making Images and Photography) by Muftī Muhammad Shafīʿ, published by Idāratul Mʿārif, Karachi, Pakistan

Mohammad Ali
Mohammad Ali is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India. He is also a student in the Madrasa Discourses program.
Global Currents article

Our Jerusalem of Unspoken Stories

Photo Credit: upyernoz. Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which some Christians believe to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, as opposed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Christmas has passed in Jerusalem, or at least two Christmases have. The 25th of December saw Catholic and Protestant Christmas, and the first week of January brought Christmas again—this time Orthodox Christmas. Armenian Christmas will arrive later in the month still. When I first moved to Jerusalem over a decade ago, it took me time to become accustomed to the celebration of Christmas day three times in a single year—remembering to wish Merry Christmas to our friends from respective communities on each different day—but for my children, who have lived their entire lives in the city, there is nothing unusual about it. Three Christmases fall in the season when they wait for sufganiyot, the jelly donuts served in Jewish cafes during Hannukah. This year it fell a few weeks after the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This lived diversity—as much if not more than the city’s shrines—is what makes Jerusalem holy.

Photo Credit: DYKT Mohigan. Sufganiyah doughnuts in Jerusalem, served during Hannukah.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jerusalem’s diversity ever since President Donald Trump announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While the international media has focused in large part on what the decision will mean for the viability of a negotiated peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and whether a two-state solution will still be possible, Palestinians inside of the city have been concerned about something that is far more difficult to talk about: whether the city as they have known it for generations will be wiped away as a result. Public discussions might focus on preserving the status quo over the city’s major holy sites, but private conversations are often about what will happen to the people of East Jerusalem themselves, to their street names and their cafes, their traditions and their holidays, their trees, their memories. As someone who has lived among Palestinians for years, I have had to wrestle with how much of the Palestinian landscape I have watched disappear: even more, I have had to come to terms with all that I have been silent about.


Loss and Memory

It is easy to say that the Palestinians I know are experiencing a trauma now over the potential loss of Jerusalem as their capital city. What is more difficult to acknowledge is that they have been losing Jerusalem for decades, and that this latest blow has left them not only despairing, but exhausted. In 1948, thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes in neighborhoods such as Baq’a and Talbiya, Katamon and Musrara—neighborhoods that are now in Israeli, West Jerusalem. Palestinians lost what we still call “Jerusalem villages”, those villages  such as Lifta and Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem whose economies, traditions and identities were intimately tied to the city. They lost ‘Ayn Kerim, a village that Israelis and tourists now experience effortlessly as a charming artistic village of historic old houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem—with little thought of who once lived in those houses. For Palestinians, these losses are still real and sustained, mostly spoken of privately, like a wound you would not like to expose openly. But every now and then they emerge unexpectedly. Last month, I found myself speaking Arabic with an elderly taxi driver, who ferried me across the city on Hebron Road and pointed to houses along the way, telling me the Palestinian families who once lived in each one.

Photo Credit: frauscharff. The new highway and separation wall through Beit Jala. Old olives trees grow beneath the noise and vibrations.

The building of settlements such as Gilo and Har Homa added more displacement, fragmenting the Beit Jala area known for having the finest Palestinian olive oil.  The construction of the Separation Barrier, which cut East Jerusalem off from those outlying villages whose identity has always been inextricably tied up with the city, was yet another loss. Suddenly Al-Quds University—“Jerusalem University” in English—located in the neighboring village of Abu Dis, was severed from the city after which it was named. The faculty who lived in Ras al-Amoud at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, accustomed to driving up the hill and arriving at the campus in ten minutes, now had to drive around the wall for three quarters of an hour in order to teach their classes. Residents of the villages of Beit Jala and al-Azzariya found themselves cut off by the wall from their fields, their friends, their places of worship. Christian pilgrims accustomed to following the footsteps of Jesus on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem found themselves at the separation wall after Bethany, cut off from where Jesus entered the city on his donkey in Bethphage.

To pretend that today’s borders of Jerusalem correspond to the porous and complex ways in which lives are lived is to misunderstand the ways in which Jerusalem has been experienced by Palestinians, or in fact the way in which any city—particularly one with such religious significance—is experienced by those who inhabit it and its environs. The most recent loss for my neighbors in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa came not in the changing of borders but in the building of the Begin Expressway, a process which saw many of them lose land, ancestral olive and hawthorne trees.  More importantly and even more intangibly, the roaring of cars made them lose silence—the most profound reminder of their past as a village.

The population itself was transformed by these changes. The Christian population declined dramatically after 1948, and now stands at around 2% of the city’s population. The issuing of permits means that thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank can no longer enter Jerusalem, except by official permission. Arabs from surrounding countries can rarely get visas, which changes the shape of the holidays: almost no Syrian and Lebanese Christian pilgrims on Easter, Muslims forgetting the ancient tradition of visiting Jerusalem after Mecca to bless the Hajj. These are also losses, for how much of a city’s identity is not only its streets, but in those who pass through them and greet one another?


The End of Nablus Road

Despite this, East Jerusalem today remains astoundingly diverse. On Nablus Road, where I lived with my family for seven years, we had neighbors who traced their arrival in the city to the Arab conquest. A few shops down the Abu Khalaf family, who were Kurdish in origin and traced their history to the armies who came with Salahadin, sold dry goods. The Freij grocery store was owned by an old Greek Orthodox family, and the street vendors were from Hebron and spoke with a different dialect. The White Sisters were Franciscan nuns who spoke French and Arabic; the Schmidt’s Girls College across the street taught their Palestinian students German; the nuns beneath us spoke Spanish; the Garden Tomb, where some Protestants believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, was staffed mostly by British volunteers; and the Ecole Biblique housed the French Dominicans. The Syriac Catholic Church’s community on the same street had its origins in thousands who had escaped the Seyfo massacres against Syriacs in Southeastern Turkey in 1915. Further down the road were the Balians, some of the most famous Armenian ceramicists in the city, the American Colony, and the Nusseibeh house—one of the Muslim families who held the keys to the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom. Thousands of Muslims passed down the street on the way to Friday prayers.

Photo Credit: Miriam Mezzera. Kebab and salad vendor in Musrara, East Jerusalem.

Ours was a single street in Musrara, one of the first neighborhoods that had been built outside of the Old City walls in the late 19th century. During the fighting of 1948 the neighborhood had been split in half, with the other half of Musrara—the larger half—eventually ending up in Israel after its mostly Christian Palestinian residents were displaced. Though that half is only a few blocks away from its Palestinian counterpart, nearly all of the Palestinian history has been wiped from its landscape. Today it is inhabited by Jews largely from North Africa and Iraq, a steadily increasing population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and NGO workers. This population has its own diversity—but there is little room in it for the memory of who was once there. None of the decades-old stories that are part of daily life on Nablus Road are part of their Musrara. The municipality has even gone so far as to change the street names for the neighborhood to Morasha, to create the impression that it has always been Israeli.

Are Palestinians naïve to fear that the same might happen to the rest of the city, or is that fear rooted in lived experience? Nablus Road is a single street, but in the Palestinian Quarters of the Old City there is a similar complexity—churches ancient and new, mosques and Sufi shrines, gypsy communities and African communities that speak Arabic, Greek and Armenian and Syriac speakers. The Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa mosque are entered often and freely by locals, organically part of the lived environment. I used to slip into the Holy Sepulchre on the way to buy vegetables. What will happen if those textures, those stories, those people become part of an Israeli, Jewish capital? Will they be allowed to remain in all of their diversity?

One thinks of this excerpt from Mourid Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, which began circulating on social media immediately after Trump’s declaration:

Photo Credit: Flavio. Ancient olive tree in Beit Jamal.

All that the world knows of Jerusalem is the power of the symbol. The Dome of the Rock is what the eye sees, and so it sees Jerusalem and is satisfied. The Jerusalem of religions, the Jerusalem of politics, the Jerusalem of conflict is the Jerusalem of the world. But the world does not care for our Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the people. The Jerusalem of houses and cobbled streets and spice markets, the Jerusalem of the Arab College, the Rashidiya School, and the ‘Omariya School. The Jerusalem of the porters and the tourist guides who know just enough of every language to guarantee them three reasonable meals a day. The oil market and the sellers of antiques and mother-of-pearl and sesame cakes. The library, the doctor, the lawyer, the engineer, and the dressers of brides with high dowries. The terminals of the buses that trundle in every morning from all the villages with peasants come to buy and to sell. The Jerusalem of the white cheese, of oil and olives and thyme, of baskets of figs and necklaces and leather and Salah al-Din Street. Our neighbor the nun, and her neighbor, the muezzin who was always in a hurry…The Jerusalem that we walk in without much noticing its “sacredness”, because we are in it, because it is us (142-3).


Silence and Imperfect Language

As the crisis of Jerusalem has come to a head, I have had to confront the fact that I have been watching the slow erasure of much in the city for over a decade and have said relatively little about it until now. In part it is because the term most often used to describe the process—Judaization, seems unhelpful and even problematic to me—for it is not the imposition of a specifically Jewish identity onto the city that is the issue, but the imposition of any dominant identity onto a city with such multiplicities. If I do not suggest other terms here, it is because they, too are imperfect—and I have learned that to speak of this conflict with imperfect language is to have everything else that we argue dismissed in the process because of these imperfections.  Because I have never found the language to discuss what is happening, I have largely refused to speak or write about it, for fear of offending, of misspeaking. As writers, we are called to invent new language if we must: I have not.

Photo Credit: Dvorit Ben Shaul (c) 2017. Ein Karem home with Islamic-style Seal of Solomon pattern, perhaps built during the pre-1948 Palestinian days in ‘Ayn Kerim, before it was depopulated and absorbed into Israel under a new name.

But even if I were to invent new language, my suspicion is that this language, too, would only briefly suffice. This is a conflict in which we have who have witnessed Palestinian lives have lost control even of the language in which we tell our stories. I have become accustomed to well-meaning friends sitting me down and explaining that what I call a “settlement” is in fact only a “neighborhood”, that what I call “Musrara” is in fact really “Morasha.” Among the many things we do not control in Jerusalem is even the vocabulary in which we can describe what we have witnessed with our own eyes: knowing this, I have chosen to remain silent.

By my refusal, I have helped to perpetuate the fallacy of how we talk about Jerusalem. The main difference between the way people outside of Jerusalem and Palestinians within Jerusalem are engaging in the current crisis is that outsiders discuss it within the boundaries of a hypothetical future. For them, Trump’s declaration marked the end of the possibility of a two-state solution with a shared capital, something that had not yet been accomplished.

Palestinians discuss it in terms of what has already happened and what is ongoing—as a culmination of what has been lost. Refusing to give space to this discourse is to deny the depth, history, and complexity of their attachment to the city, to erase from the conversation the texture of human relationships, of trees and flowers, of houses in neighborhoods, of feast day pilgrimages—it is to deny the legitimacy of the pain they have already felt and the loss they have already endured. It is also to deny the complexity of what is at stake in the present.

And what is at stake? The diversity of Jerusalem’s population tells the story of its history and its universality—it makes the city’s holiness about its people, not just its stones, and is a reflection that the city belongs to the entire world. It assures that Armenian pilgrims will find a piece of themselves in its people, that Greek pilgrims will stumble upon an old community of Greek speakers across from the Patriarchate, that Muslim visitors who shop at the Abu Khalaf shop will unknowingly continue a relationship with the family who once organized the Hajj to Mecca, that when they speak to a Dajani in the street they will be chatting with the old guardians of David’s Tomb. It assures that the city remembers the love of Jerusalem in the Jews of Kurdistan, who brought their delicious soup to the Mahane Yehuda Market; devotion to the city among Aleppo’s Jews, who brought their distinctive liturgy to their synagogue in Nachlaot; and of the Jews of Eastern Europe, who still speak Yiddish in the streets. It assures that liturgy will still be practiced in the language that Jesus spoke, in the city in which he died. It assures that Jerusalem will not lose its Friday prayer, its Saturday Shabbat, its Sunday church bells, its languages, its silences.

Stephanie Saldaña
Stephanie Saldaña received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. Now a resident of Jerusalem, Saldaña teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University. She has written two books, The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith and A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, and is the founder of Mosaic Stories, a project to preserve the threatened cultural heritage of the Middle East through research and storytelling. 
Field Notes article

Facing Down Intolerance: Sharing Madrasas in the USA

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Seven Notre Dame undergraduates joined Madrasa Discourses students in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here they pose in a temple courtyard with a Pakistani madrasa graduate: (L-R) Sumera Rabia, Jebraune Chambers, Maggie Feighery, Alaina Anderson, Nabila Mourad, Kirsten Hanlon, Molly Burton, and Alice Treuth.

“How was Nepal? What exactly were you doing there?” Since I’ve been back in the United States, I’ve struggled to answer these questions. There’s no simple and cohesive answer to describe all of my experiences at the Madrasa Discourses Kathmandu Summer Intensive. What is even harder is trying to explain the context the madrasa graduates are coming from and the need for the Discourses project without reinforcing many people’s perspective that Islam lends itself to extremism and fundamentalism. As soon as I try to describe madrasas (Islamic seminaries), with their intense focus on the Qur’an and often outdated syllabi, I can see some people solidifying their ideas that madrasas create terrorists or all Muslim communities are ultra-conservative at best. I have to rush to explain the warm welcome I received as soon as I arrived, how I was immediately treated as a sister, how every one of the madrasa students wanted to hear the Notre Dame girls’ opinions in discussions, and explain that madrasas are not breeding grounds for terrorism. My incredible time at the Kathmandu Summer Intensive introduced me to many amazing, kind scholars as well as to the strengths and weaknesses of their education. I was able to understand the need to update the framework in which Islam is interpreted and studied around the world in a fuller context because of the people I met and the stories I heard. This juxtaposition of an education system in need of reform and incredibly intelligent scholars is hard to explain, especially when you mix in a currently (and unfortunately) politically charged subject like Islam.

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Re-Entry to the United States, Los Angeles Airport.

I’d like to share all of my experiences, good and bad, but worry about how my stories will be interpreted hold me back at times, fearing I will inadvertently solidify simplistic, anti-Muslim views. The vast majority of my friends and family are very tolerant, open-minded people who choose to see the good in the world. It’s easy to tell them what happened in Nepal without trying to use a filter or without needing to overemphasize the good things. However, there are some people that I’m close to that are not as open. For example, I have a family member who, while she is a good person, has been previously misinformed and has unfortunately stuck to that misinformation. So, with her, it has been great sharing the many good things that happened. However, as soon as I start trying to explain the importance of the project, she cuts in and asks if madrasas create a lot of terrorists or if Muslim societies are typically fundamentalist. Even after I assure her that the answer to both of those questions is a definite no, she seems suspicious. As soon as I start talking about my frustrations with a lot of the gender discussions that took place in Kathmandu, I can practically see her more negative view of Muslim cultures hardening.

A few nights after my return, the topic of my trip to Nepal came up, and this family member mentioned that one of the participants from the Madrasa Discourses sent her a friend request on Facebook. Her first thought was, “ISIS.” When she told me that, I had to force myself not to walk away from her mid-conversation. I was shocked and repulsed that someone in my own family could say something like that. I hate that there are people out there whose minds immediately jump to terrorism when they see bearded and/or traditionally dressed Muslims, but it kills me that someone so close to me could think this, even after I had explained how wonderful all of the Madrasa Discourses participants were. It’s so hard for me to change my family member’s mindset. I try to balance out the negatives by pointing out the need for change but also trying to explain the good intentions behind them. For this, I always return to my conversations on gender with Hafiz Abdul Rehman (Hafiz), with whom I formed a strong friendship.

Hafiz is a fairly quiet Pakistani school teacher. He’s a devout Muslim who joined these Discourses to learn about different approaches to the Islamic faith. He’s one person I know will bring the things he learns through the Madrasa Discourses back with him to share with others. He is a kind person to the core, is eternally well-meaning, and has so much love to give to the world. I had some amazing conversations with Hafiz the first couple of days, and he really helped me understand the madrasa graduates’ perspectives on the day the lectures focused on gender equality and social inclusion. While I did not agree with his (and most of the other madrasa students’) stance on gender “equality” or how women and men should be seen, he never got annoyed at my many questions. He heard me out every time, and he really tried to understand what I was saying and where I was coming from. In return, he helped me to see that the gender roles in their society help to create strong family units and are upheld by many out of a sense of love and respect. He liked to tell me, “people think we don’t love women in our society. But I think it is that we love women more than men.” He would cite passages in the Qur’an where Mohammed talks about how a mother’s love is unmeasurable or how the mother is most worthy of “good companionship,” even three times over the father. He shared his belief that the separation of men and women and women’s modest dress was to protect women. He told me, and I really feel he believes, that his society values women so much that it wants to protect and provide for women. He explained that the reasons women need to stay home are to raise the children and run the household; he used to laugh at that part and tell me, “really, the women are the bosses of the men, Alaina.” He said that men had to go work in order to give money to their parents and then to their wives. Through all of my conversations with Hafiz, it was very hard for me to voice my disagreements, not because he didn’t let me (he welcomed the opportunity to hear another opinion) but because I knew that everything he did and believed came from a place of love and respect.

Photo Credit: Jebraune Chambers. Madrasa Discourses students Waqas Khan and Hafiz Muhammad Bilal photograph the Kathmandu skyline.

These are the things that I want to share with people. I want to show them that even the negative aspects of my experience (like my frustrations with many madrasa graduates’ beliefs about gender dynamics) had positive parts. Most of the time, I found that participants perpetuated these lifestyles out of a place of love. Other times, it seemed that lifestyles continued because of a lack of understanding of other viable options or because they didn’t know how to challenge the status quo. Back in the US, my struggle is that some people stop listening after they hear that traditional or gender-segregated lifestyles are being perpetuated in the madrasa graduates’ communities. (By the way, these lifestyles are culturally grounded and vary vastly among Muslim societies globally.) I can’t figure out how to reach people with an anti-Muslim bias in an effective manner. For some, I choose only to share the positive aspects of my experience. For others, I allude to some of my frustrations surrounding certain conversations in Kathmandu without going into detail. But really, I want to tell everyone the whole story. And, to me, the positives of my Nepal story vastly outweigh the negatives. Yes, there is a huge need for change and for updating, as I learned, but there is also so much good and so much love that I encountered. There is so much in my Nepal experience that gives me hope for the future and for a positive change and updating in Islamic scholarship/madrasa education, however quickly or slowly it may happen.

I loved my Nepal experience. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed the entire thing, the food was sometimes unrecognizable and I put my foot in my mouth far too many times to claim constant enjoyment, but overall, the feelings I take away from my two weeks in Nepal are love and enlightenment. I learned so much, and I met so many incredible, impressive people. I want to share this experience, this entire experience, with others. The fact that I will come across more intolerant or misinformed individuals is a given. Thus far, I have not found an easy way to break open that dialogue with those individuals, but I hope that the more I share my experience, the easier it will be for me to navigate those tricky conversations with a cool head. Sharing my experience has already helped my family member see a little better the world the madrasa graduates I met live in, and I’d like to think that little by little, my stories will help others become more understanding, too.

From left to right, Pakistani Madrasa Discourses students Muhammad Usman, Muhammad Tayyab Usmani, Zaid Hassan, Hafiz Muhammad Bilal, Lead Faculty Ammar Khan Nasir, and students Hafiz Muhammad Rasheed, Waqar Ahmed, and Hafiz Abdul Rehman on a cultural field trip in Lalitpur (Patan), outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Alaina Anderson
Alaina Anderson is pursuing majors in psychology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. She joined the Madrasa Discourses project for the 2017 Kathmandu Summer Intensive.
Field Notes article

Sharing Madrasa Discourses at the United Nations

Aadil Affan presents on education in Bihar, India, at the well of the UN General Assembly.

Before joining Notre Dame’s Madrasa Discourses project, Indian madrasa graduate Aadil Affan would have told you that accommodating or accepting other cultures was a heresy (bid’ah) unacceptable to his version of Islam.

Educated in a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, for most of his formative years, Affan is a young religious scholar, a member of the ulama, and his word carries weight in his community. His perspective on Islam’s approach towards different religio-ethnic groups, on scientific innovations, and many other things, may one day guide the position of the co-religionists around him.

Yet after six months in the Madrasa Discourses project, this recent MA graduate in Arabic from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, shared a remarkable about face, in no less an esteemed location than the United Nations (UN). Affan’s essay on global citizenship, language, and cultural understanding was selected among 2,000 submissions to the UN’s “Many Languages, One World” youth competition. He writes in his essay:

There are some religious values and cultural norms that we all share, which are acceptable to all. The contemporary world in its present situation needs dialogue among diverse peoples and communities. Such inter-religious dialogue can help to eradicate hatred between people of different faiths which is spread by evil elements. When people start connecting over common human values it leads to mutual cooperation and understanding.

UN headquarters, New York City.

On July 21st, 2017, he presented at the well of the United Nations General Assembly, proposing a solution to the grave paucity of education in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. No less remarkable was the fact that his essay, attached below, is written in Arabic, a second language for the young Indian. After visiting the UN, Affan joined his classmates at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal, where his colleagues had been involved in a rigorous exploration of how concepts such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism intersect with Islamic thought today.

When asked about how the project has influenced him, Affan points to an essay he read in the course by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Islam in the United States called, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”. “Islam is like a “crystal clear river… Its waters [] are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow” writes Abd-Allah (1). Assigned in a Madrasa Discourses module that shed light on the encounter and exchange between Muslims and other societies, such as Greek philosophy and Persian courtly culture, students explored the flexibility of Islam in welcoming new practices and modes of behavior. The openness that Muslim societies showed to the variety of human experience enabled them to organically plant roots in new places, and humankind has benefitted as a result, not least through the “epoch-making” translation of millions of important Greek texts to Arabic that preserved Aristotelian and other works for posterity (Gutas, 8).

In their second semester of Madrasa Discourses, students read about Islam’s rich intellectual history and its relation to local and international cultures in Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; Deborah Tor’s “Islamisation of Iranian Kingly Ideals in the Persianate Fürstenspiegel”; Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam; Michael Cooperson’s essay on “Culture” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam; and Abou El Fadl’s Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Experts, including Rashied Omar, as well as others like Gabriel Reynolds, Deborah Tor, and Thomas Burman from Notre Dame visited the online classroom to interact with students and share their knowledge about the material.

Madrasa Discourses course in Kathmandu, July 2017. Here Pakistani student Waqas Khan poses a question to the lecturer.

Channeling what he learned in an online session from Notre Dame’s Professor Rashied Omar, Affan noted that Islam is a “culture friendly” religion, and that many other religions today appreciate diverse forms of good conduct and behavior. This does not mean “blind acceptance,” Dr. Omar notes in a 2015 sermon students also read: “The process of adopting sound customary practices from local cultures was facilitated by Islamic jurisprudence through the technical process known as al-‘urf or al-‘adah” (7).[1] Yet this friendliness and openness is important because “culture governs everything about us, molding our instinctive actions and natural inclinations,” Affan went on. “It’s human nature to love peace and hate disorder.”

Originally taught a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition, which left little if any room to question the authenticity of material, or to consider the possibility of different and equally legitimate perspectives, Affan tells us the Madrasa Discourses program “has changed my way of thinking…. I am now enjoying navigating uncovered areas of Islam that were previously hidden from me.”

In his sermon, Dr. Omar enjoins: “This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth” (10). Affan took that message to heart and applied it to his role and place in India. Through teaching and service in their respective homelands, many other Madrasa Discourses students are also actively involved in creating and strengthening Muslim identities which are deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and influential in shaping positive and relevant Muslim discourses in the modern world. Aadil Affan’s successful essay is but one prominent example.

Congratulations, Aadil!


Biography: Aadil Affan is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he recently completed a Master’s in Arabic Language and Literature. Originally from Katihar Bihar India, Affan learned the value of education early and received his primary and secondary education at Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow. He plans to continue his higher education in the hopes of one day becoming a professor. He is also an avid cricket player and enjoys reading.

[1] Omar, R. (2015). Fostering Inclusive Muslim Cultural Traditions and Practices. ‘Id al-Adha Khutbah’ on 24th September 2015/10th Dhu al-Hijja 1436. Claremont Main Road Masjid, South Africa.


Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Global Currents article

Muslim Jurists’ Contribution to Islamic Bioethics

San Francisco sculpture of human genome. Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith.

Technological progress represents one of the key characteristics, and concurrently one of the fruits, of modernity. Biomedical sciences and their technological applications in particular have witnessed revolutionary progress from the twentieth century onwards. This progress managed to achieve near-miracles by eradicating some lethal diseases, enabling humans to live longer and also to have a better quality of life in general. However, as rightly put by Thomas Misa, “Technologies interact deeply with society and culture, but the interactions involve mutual influence, substantial uncertainty, and historical ambiguity, eliciting resistance, accommodation, acceptance, and even enthusiasm” (Misa 2003, 3). In their interaction with modern biomedical technologies, Muslim individuals, societies, and countries have had to grapple with questions related to which of these technologies should be resisted, accommodated after modifications, or unconditionally welcomed. Specialists in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), or jurists (fuqahāʾ), were at the forefront of those who tackled these questions from an Islamic perspective. The contribution of Muslim jurists to the emerging field of Islamic Bioethics is so seminal that some critical voices find it unfortunate that there is almost no substantial contribution from other disciplines, including Islamic theology, philosophy, and Sufism.

In this essay, I give a concise analytical review of Muslim jurists’ contributions to Islamic bioethics based on works written in Arabic by Sunni jurists today. I address three main questions: What are the identities of the contributing jurists? How do they address the ethical questions posed by modern biomedical technologies? What are the key challenges that need to be addressed in the future?

Who Are the Main Contributing Jurists?

So far, we have no Muslim jurists who specialize in addressing exclusively bioethical issues. Almost all of them are graduates of Sharia faculties who received training in addressing a wide range of topics that cut across almost all aspects of life including social, political, financial, and bioethical questions through the lens of Islamic jurisprudence. So, unlike the situation in many Western countries where theologians and philosophers will specialize in bioethics and dedicate their whole career to this field, we still have no bioethical jurists or juridical bioethicists in the Islamic tradition. One of the main consequences of this situation is that we do not see any specific interpretive techniques or modes of reasoning which are unique to Islamic bioethics. In their attempts to address bioethical questions, Muslim jurists do not feel compelled to develop any new techniques that go beyond the traditional system of Islamic jurisprudence, as will be explained further in the section below. They are usually confident that the system which helps them answer questions related to modern domains like economics and finance will also do the job with the field of bioethics.

Some of the contributing jurists have engaged with bioethical questions early on in their careers by writing their M.A. theses or Ph.D. dissertations on specific bioethical issues. Because of the relatively new character of these bioethical issues, many postgraduate students are inclined to choose such topics so that they will not run the risk of rehashing what their predecessors have already said on exhausted topics. Some of these works have found their way into wide circulation and have become important references in the field. Just as examples, I refer to the works of Muḥammad al-Shinqītī on medical surgery,[1] Saʿd al-Shuwayrikh on genetic engineering,[2] and Ismāʿīl Marḥaba on biobanks.[3]

Besides these junior jurists, many senior and prominent jurists also write on bioethical issues to show how their long-established expertise will help them address such complex questions in a robust and rigorous way. Just as examples, I refer to the works of Mukhtār al-Sallāmī[4] and Muḥammad Naʿīm Yāsīn[5] on miscellaneous bioethical issues and Muḥammad Raʾfat ʿUthmān[6] on genetics.

How Do Muslim Jurists Address Bioethical Questions?

As mentioned above, the jurists who write on bioethics are generalists who address all types of questions through the lens of Islamic jurisprudence without developing any specific methodology tailored for the field of bioethics in particular. Like the approach to any other issue in Islamic jurisprudence, the jurist usually starts with consulting the main sources, namely the Qur’an and Sunna, looking for relevant scriptural references and then follows with consulting the so-called secondary sources of legislation including those related to induction, deduction, inference, and so forth. Weighing between possible benefits and expected harms, which comes close to the well-known risk-benefit assessment in mainstream bioethics, is one of the most frequently used tools to assess various biomedical technologies from a juristic perspective. In this specific regard, contemporary jurists try to benefit from the relatively new concept of fiqh al-muwāzanāt (lit. “jurisprudence of balancing”) which has roots in classical fiqh.[7]

Because of the novel character of most of the bioethical issues, jurists heavily depend on the mechanism of independent reasoning (ijtihād) where they would independently examine available sources without necessarily adhering to any of the established schools of law in the Islamic tradition. One of the relatively unique aspects of practicing ijtihād in the field of bioethics is that it usually assumes an interdisciplinary character. Because of their educational background, which consists of training exclusively in the Arabic language and in disciplines related to Islam as a religious tradition (the so-called al-ʿulūm al-sharʿiyya), contemporary jurists have hardly had access to biomedical sources. In order to grasp the crux of the bioethical questions at hand, they get external help from biomedical scientists who simplify the biomedical information they need so that they can give informed answers. This mechanism is known in Islamic studies as collective ijtihād, and it was institutionalized by the beginning of the 1980s. Three main transnational institutions took the lead in this regard, namely the Organization of Islamic Sciences (IOMS) based in Kuwait, the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The three institutions work closely together but they do not necessarily adopt identical positions on the bioethical issues they discuss (Ghaly 2019, 47-51).

What Are the Key Challenges Ahead?

The field of Islamic bioethics has witnessed considerable progress during its five-decade history, thanks to the contribution of Muslim jurists, among others. However, this nascent field still has various challenges ahead that need to be addressed.

Genome Engineering Lab 7. Photo Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, 2018.

First of all, the aforementioned mechanism of collective ijtihād entails serious difficulties. The collaboration between Muslim jurists and biomedical scientists was premised on the idea that the role of scientists would be restricted to providing biomedical and technical information about the issues at hand, whereas developing the Islamic perspective would remain the exclusive right of those who are experts in Islamic normative knowledge, namely the jurists. However, this division of tasks proved to be impractical and often unimplementable during the actual collective deliberations. It is true that some scientists are themselves willing to engage in the process of ijtihād and cross over the boundaries of their discipline by jumping to normative conclusions about how a specific issue should be judged from an Islamic perspective (Ghaly 2015). The real problem, however, seems to lie in the very nature of biomedical sciences. Unlike what Muslim jurists and some scientists think, biomedical information does not only convey value-neutral facts, but often also implies value-laden and normative positions. Additionally, it is true that both jurists and scientists can share common religious beliefs as Muslims, but they belong to different disciplines, each of which has its own terminologies, fact-finding methodologies, ways of reasoning, and also its own biases.

Just to give a concrete example showing how such challenges can affect the communication and collaboration between these two groups, I refer to discussions on the beginning of human life. Within Islamic jurisprudence, determining the beginning of human life is closely tied to the metaphysical concept of the soul, where life would start by the ensoulment of the embryo at a specific moment during pregnancy, a process determined in the Prophetic traditions. On the other hand, determining the beginning of human life in biomedical sciences cannot be based on a metaphysical concept but rather must be based on measurable and verifiable criteria that can be observed and tested through the scientific tools of the physician. Such discrepancies in the epistemology of each discipline created two main divergent approaches. The advocates of one approach were in favor of medicalizing the tool of determining the beginning of human life, and they argued that the recent advances in modern embryology makes dependence on metaphysics in such issues an archaic idea that cannot be part of our modern world. However, the proponents of the other approach could not envisage the possibility of betraying the long-established methodologies of fiqh, where scriptural references including a specified number of days after which ensoulment takes place, cannot be overruled in the name of complying with scientific progress (Ghaly 2012).

Another challenge relates to the scope of interdisciplinarity in contemporary Islamic bioethical discussions. As mentioned above, many critics argue that the Islamic tradition cannot be reduced to the discipline of fiqh only and thus these discussions should be broadened by engaging other Islamic disciplines like theology, philosophy, and Sufism. Additionally, the complexity of questions raised by modern biomedical technology cannot be properly and comprehensively understood by consulting experts in biomedical sciences only. Contributions from other disciplines like medical anthropology, sociobiology, and philosophy of medicine should also take part in these collective discussions. However, the abovementioned issue, resulting from involving biomedical scientists in the process of ijtihād, should forewarn us that broadening the scope of interdisciplinarity may also come with its own challenges.


[1]Muḥammad al-Shinqītī, Aḥkām al-jirāḥa al-ṭibiiya. 2nd ed., (Jeddah: Maktabat al-Ṣaḥābā, 1994).

[2]Saʿd al-Shuwayrikh, Aḥkām al-handasa al-wirāthiyya, (Riyadh; Dār Kunūz Ishbīlya, 2007).

[3]Ismāʿīl Marḥaba, Al-bunūk al-ṭibiyya al-bashariyya wa aḥkāmuhā al-fiqhiyya, (Jeddah/Cairo: Dār Ibn al-Jawzī, 2008).

[4]Mukhtār al-Sallāmī, Al-ṭibb fī ḍawʾ al-īmān, (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 2000).

[5]Muḥammad Naʿīm Yāsīn, Abḥāth fiqhiyya fī qaḍāyā ṭibbiyya muʿāṣira, (Amman; Dār al-Nafaʾis, 2008).

[6]Muḥammad Raʾfat ʿUthmān, Al-Mādda al-wirāthiyya: al-jīnūm, (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 2009).

[7]See for instance Nājī Ibrāhīm al-Suwayd, Fiqh al-muwazanāt bayana al-naẓariyya wa al-taṭbīq,  (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2002).

Mohammed Ghaly
Mohammed Ghaly is professor of Islam and Biomedical Ethics at the research Center for Islamic Legislation & Ethics (CILE), College of Islamic Studies at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University. During the academic year 2014-2015, he was Visiting Researcher at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, USA. Besides his book Islam and Disability: Perspectives in Theology and Jurisprudence (Routledge, 2010) and the edited volume Islamic Perspectives on the Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Imperial College & World Scientific, 2016), Ghaly is the single author of over thirty peer-reviewed publications.
Global Currents article

Precision Earth Medicine

Fumigation against mosquitoes in Peru after flooding in 2012. Photo Credit: EU CESVI, 2012.

The emergence of any powerful technology forces us, as individuals and as a society, to reflect upon who we are as humans and how we relate to our planet, providing an opportunity to establish new ethical norms. The recent advent of CRISPR gene editing and in particular its proposed application to genetically engineer the environment necessitates such reflection.

CRISPR gene editing allows for the precise alteration of any genetic code. In humans, CRISPR-based therapeutics could cure heritable diseases, fight off viral infections like HIV, and even be deployed in cancer treatments. Paralleling recent advances in genomics, CRISPR marks the dawn of a whole new era in personalized precision medicine; where not only is the genetic basis of disease known, but where disease-causing mutations can now be repaired. The ease-of-use and low price tag of CRISPR has also allowed scientists to expand their focus beyond the human to the environment. In what I call precision earth medicine, CRISPR can be used to genetically design wild species in order to achieve desired health outcomes. Strategies using CRISPR gene editing are being developed to suppress vectors of infectious disease, restore valued ecosystems, and protect threatened species. This technological leap is straining our ethical frameworks.

Precision earth medicine is now possible because CRISPR enables the production of what are called self-propagating gene drives. An organism expressing a self-propagating gene drive encodes for a desired gene edit, as well as the CRISPR machinery to make that same edit in its future offspring. When an organism with a gene drive is released to mate in the wild, its offspring inherit that gene edit and the CRISPR tools needed to make that same edit in the gene it inherits from its wild parent. Over generations, gene drives can force inheritance of gene edits even if they are detrimental to a species’ wellbeing, to potentially impact every individual of a species. In this way, the release of only a few gene drive organisms can alter the evolutionary arc of wild plants and animals.

Reference materials on display at a mosquito specimen sorting table at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 1, 2016. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Mozer O. Da Cunha.

The most mature gene drive project to date intends to inhibit malaria transmission in Sub-Saharan Africa by suppressing its vector, the mosquito species Anopheles gambiae. CRISPR-based gene drives were recently engineered in laboratories to spread sterility in female mosquitos and have since been demonstrated to collapse a laboratory mosquito population in 11 generations. Since mosquitos only have a lifespan of about five weeks, if released into the wild this gene drive-bearing mosquito could cause the Anopheles population to be eradicated in as little as four years.

Eliminating the Anopheles mosquito species could save millions of human lives, but could also disrupt food webs or cause ecosystem disturbances. Unintended consequences to human health are also possible; a more difficult to control vector could evolve to transmit malaria or cause the malaria parasite to become more pathogenic. Moreover, when nearly 200 species are predicted to go extinct every day, is it morally acceptable to intentionally drive a species to extinction, even if it does cause human suffering? These are big decisions that will be informed by how humans view their role in nature and by a pervading environmental ethic.

Yet technology and how humans relate to technology tend to fall outside dominant frameworks in environmental ethics. When it comes to the environmental application of technology, ethical decision-making tends to revert to basal, either-or stances: organic farming versus GMOs, wind versus nuclear power, trees versus engineered carbon capture. A space for nuance is shrinking and as a scientist who generally supports technology, but who also feels a deep kinship with non-human nature, I struggle to find an environmental ethic that fits. When faced with decisions about if and how a gene drive should be used, this ethical void becomes frighteningly apparent.

To meet this void, I’ve found myself pulling from two divergent theories in environmental ethics: ecomodernism and deep ecology. Ecomodernists believe technologies (think intensified urbanization, nuclear power, and synthetic biology) can reduce dependence on natural resources. Their goal is that through technology human survival will eventually decouple from its dependence on the natural world and in doing so allow non-human environs to thrive. I’m drawn to the ecomodernism ethic simply because it acknowledges a role for technology in the human relationship with nature, but its inherent anthropocentricity makes it inadequate; ecomodernism holds humans and their technologies supreme, and in doing so severs the human relationship from the non-human world. This disconnect is dangerous because responsible decisions about environmental deployment of CRISPR will require humility and respect for the ecosystems being altered and the cultivation of these virtues requires we be in relationship with non-human nature.

On the other side of the spectrum, the deep ecology school of thought subscribes to the power of relationship and the interconnectedness of both human and non-human species. Humans are part of nature, not separate. Deep ecology also tends to bestow intrinsic value to nature; nature holds worth in and of itself, irrespective of how or if  humans can benefit from it. However, often accompanying a deep ecologist’s ethos is a deep distrust of technology. Humans are part of nature, but somehow the fruit of our creativity—technology—is separate. Despite a strong focus on relationship, technologies are often excluded from that relationship. The deep ecology ethos, in its current form, is inadequate to support technology decision-making because it is biased towards not using technology to begin with.

Chesapeake Waterbird Food Web. Image Credit: United States Geological Survey.

I predict most deep-ecologists would be against a gene drive-based strategy to reduce malaria transmission, simply due to the fact that it’s a technological intervention. Moreover, a deep ecologist would likely argue that the mosquito holds intrinsic value and thus it is morally unacceptable to intentionally drive it to extinction, no matter the benefit to human health. An ecomodernist, on the other hand, would likely feel there is a moral obligation to use a gene drive, given that it could promote human flourishing and reduce human impact on the environment by reducing insecticide use. And here we arrive at a moral impasse where human health is pitted against environmental heath. To relieve this tension and enable responsible use of gene drive technology we will require a new environmental ethic (or at least a more thoughtful interpretation of existing ethos): one that respects both humans and non-human beings, and one that places us, as humans, and by extension the technologies we create, squarely within an interconnected planetary web.

To develop this new ethic, technology must first be perceived as natural. We must be reminded that technologies don’t just fall from the sky—they are products of human ingenuity are thus part of the evolutionary trajectory of our planet. Let’s take CRISPR gene editing as an example. CRISPR or clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats is a molecular process that evolved millions of years ago to immunize certain bacteria and archaea against viral infection. By encoding CRISPR tools and viral genetic codes from previous virus infections into their genome, bacteria can pass along protection against future infection to their offspring. Prokaryotic CRISPR systems had been destroying viruses for million of years when scientists Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, George Church, Feng Zhang and colleagues adapted this ancient system to develop CRISPR gene editing technology that can instead make genetic changes to any living thing. Here is just one example where humans have used what is available in nature to create new tools. This is not obviously different from harnessing fire or the development of wind-powered energy. CRISPR gene editing has been developed from within our planet not without, and thus deserves to sit within our planetary relationships.

So, what do decisions about gene-drive technology look like when decision-makers are equipped with an ethic built on respect and relationship? First and foremost, decisions would require that the flourishing of both humans and non-humans be equally upheld. Secondly, by inviting technology into our planetary relationships, decisions would reflect an appreciation that technology, when used appropriately, can be part of achieving that goal. In this way, the either-or scenario (mosquitos versus humans) disappears and a more nuanced, middle-ground approach comes into focus. A technology guided by a middle-ground ethic could result in a gene drive that merely impairs the mosquito’s ability to transmit malaria, but doesn’t impede its survival. This approach would save human lives, while still allowing the mosquito species to continue to live and thrive within its ecosystem. Such a strategy reflects a respect for the interconnectedness of human and environmental health and invites technology into that relationship to augment the flourishing of both.

As a global community we are standing at a cross roads. How we decide to wield new technologies in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and biodiversity loss will shape the future of our shared planet. With CRISPR in hand, we as humans enter into an entirely new relationship with the non-human; a relationship that will require deep humility and respect for both nature and technology. It is of critical importance that our environmental ethos evolves to meet this challenge.


Natalie Kofler
Natalie Kofler is a trained molecular biologist and the founding director of Editing Nature at Yale University, a global initiative to steer responsible development and deployment of environmental genetic technologies.
Field Notes article

Harmonizing the Theology of the Past with the Realities of the Present

Madrasa Discourses students Manzar Imam and Faisal Nazir explore the Kathmandu Temple District, July 2018.

As the Madrasa Discourses program approaches three years, our most advanced students are preparing to apply what they have learned to their respective professions. This coming July 2019 select students will present research showcasing their new methodological capabilities and broader literacies among scholars in their home communities. Focusing in particular on the experiences of the 2018 summer intensive, Manzar Imam reflects on the questions that Madrasa Discourses has helped him begin to answer, and reflects on the path forward.


One of the biggest challenges confronting the followers of Abrahamic traditions today comes in the form of questions about the relevance of and justification for their practices. Around the world, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are showered with a flurry of such questions. As a combined challenge it calls for a combined effort to both understand the nature of those questions and offer the best possible answers. The task is herculean. But, just as the human mind has the capacity to ask questions, it also has the temperament, the depth, and the capability to seek and, in many cases, find convincing answers, because the Creator has endowed the human mind with an abundant power of imagination and strength of logic.

The July 2018 fifteen-day intensive Madrasa Discourses program held at Dhulikhel in Nepal attests to that human endeavor and endowment.

One of the overarching concerns of the Madrasa Discourses summer intensive program was whether theology has or can have answers to the contemporary objections raised against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And, if theology can provide these answers, how then can this knowledge be disseminated and communicated to others, and especially to religious teachers such as Islamic ‘ulamā? It is to help answer these questions that a group of madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan have been selected for training in modern philosophy and science and other branches of knowledge with the objective to develop scientific and theological literacy.

Understanding any system of beliefs, and grasping the nuances of its ideational threads and the philosophies involved in their justifications, requires thorough study, deep research, and high interpretational skills. As with the clergies of all religious traditions, cultivating these faculties can be challenging enough in its own right, but the attitude of traditional ‘ulamā hardly leaves any scope for meaningful and engaging discussions in the wider Muslim society.

The problem with most ulamā is not their intention, but their approach to addressing present-day issues. Heavy reliance on texts leaves behind the larger objective and context leads to a kind of blind wisdom. What is the solution, then? How can this be corrected? Can teaching some contemporary subjects alongside a traditional madrasa education help? Correcting this problem must address not just the teaching and the texts, but also the suffocating atmosphere in which new ulamā are trained: an atmosphere where no questions are asked and, if any are posed, they are neither addressed nor encouraged. This resonates with an observation from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who remarks: “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There is something wrong there.”

Dr. Saadia Yacoob’s approach to exegetes of some of the Quranic verses, presented last July 2018―especially those related to marriage, divorce, alimony, adoption, and a husband’s position in family—need to be more widely acknowledged, appreciated, and circulated. Yacoob, an assistant professor of religion at Williams College, Massachusetts and a Muslim with a background in Islamic jurisprudence, articulates compelling and convincing arguments for an urgent need to approach theology from a broad historical perspective. She sees this need in all the theology schools such as the Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’ī schools, etc.

Yacoob’s extensive lectures on sexual violation in Islamic law elaborated upon the history and processes of law formation, and underscored the significance of careful study of the contexts in which Islamic legal rulings are located. In her own words, “You know the usūl [theories] but there is a larger cosmology that needs to be understood.”

Issues of zinā (adultery), khula (a woman-initiated divorce), tamlīk (ownership), dower, dowry or more contemporary subjects like the status of milk banks and other surrogacy-related concerns have to be looked at with fresh insights. We must take into consideration the bioethics that historically and culturally precede jurisprudential logic, and then consider the epistemological, ontological and larger cosmological bases that provide the possibilities of diverse interpretations.

Though these usūl are derived to a large extent from traditional primary sources, there are other important sources that can provide input. As University of Notre Dame PhD student Mahmoud Youness noted in Dhulikhel, quoting Mulla Sadra, a seventeenth century Iranian mystic and theologian, “change is the divine sunnah.” There is a need to re-examine the tradition with fresh eyes and new perspectives.

For instance, the patriarchal leaning of Islamic fiqh has been well known, and is now being countered, especially by feminist scholars of Islam. The unfortunate part of this pushback is that Muslim feminist scholars―who are not necessarily all women―are forced to fight on two fronts: first vis-à-vis non-Muslim or mainly Western feminists, and second against their own traditional uṣūlī ‘ulamā, who, in most cases, are unwilling to budge from their traditional positions, making the Islamic fiqh look archaic and illogical.

Having studied both in madrasas and in Western institutions, Dr. Ebrahim Moosa of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame says that the task of answering the questions facing Islamic theology today cannot be met by those who have neither been educated in madrasas nor understood the legacies of Islamic sciences. It can also not be accomplished by an individual. It is the responsibility of modern day ‘ulamā who have interactions with both theological and scientific literacy and training. The task is not simple, and the responsibility is challenging and demanding. He further says that those ‘ulamā who have no attachment to their Islamic roots and have jumped on the modern intellectual bandwagon cannot effect this change. It is with this spirit and hope that Professor Moosa encourages the Madrasa Discourses participants to encounter wide literatures, including poetry which promotes thinking outside of the box and which, besides lamenting the loss of past glory, nudges us towards the neglected path of deep academic engagement that has been the hallmark of Muslim culture across civilizations.

Besides great theological insights, one of the biggest lessons of the 2018 summer intensive was the exchange of ideas between participants of different faiths and nationalities. A Christian American student wearing burqa as a mark of respect to her Muslim Indian, Pakistani, and South African counterparts on the penultimate day of the program to “get a sense of how it feels” was simply an overwhelming sight for me. Gestures like these help us promote the idea of interfaith engagement and encourage us to accommodate differences rather than to obstruct or oppose them.

If well begun is half done, the Madrasa Discourses project of the Contending Modernities program promises participants a bright future into the great academic legacy of not just Islam but other traditions such as Christianity and Judaism which are faced with similar challenges. The success of this program will not only open opportunities for interfaith dialogue but also for exchange of ideas within diverse Muslim intellectual traditions.

Manzar Imam
Manzar Imam is a PhD candidate at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi, India. He is also a participant in the Madrasa Discourses program.
Theorizing Modernities article

Welcoming Complexity Together

US border wall meets the Pacific in Tijuana.
US border wall meets the Pacific in Tijuana. Photo Credit: Jonathan Macintosh, 2009.

What role does religion play in promoting the flourishing of the individual, community, and environment? How can the “metaphysical anguish and ontological delight” that allows us to “cross,” in the words of Ansari Institute Director Tom Tweed, between life stages and through space mobilize resources and structures for holistic human development? The inaugural conference for the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame, held on the 25thand 26thof October, 2018, took a close look at the ambivalent role of religion in the present-day migration and ecological crises, as well as in the public discourses of media misinformation. In this series, we cover the event in essays by University of Notre Dame doctoral students Lailatul Fitriyah, Marie-Claire Klassen, and Khan Shairani.

The genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Global North depictions of “good” and “bad” Muslims. Irreversible climate change. Each panel recognized the complicity of religions in structures of violence, be it through the construction and upholding of subjective boundaries of belonging that participate in and reinforce modern orientalist and nation-state divisions; or through the undergirding of an anthropocentrism that has given carte blanche to the despoiling of the water, earth, and air on which we all depend. With the emergence of the modern nation-state and international economic system, religious traditions—simultaneously siloed beyond the public sphere and folded into the modern imaginary of the nation as ethnically-cum-religiously homogenous—have absorbed and furthered these exclusivist formations. The fact that churches are among the most segregated places in the United States is a glaring example. In her essay, Lailatul Fitriyah explores the layering of borders not just without but also within, or on, the bodies of policed “border-crossers,” sharing the scenario of Muslim women of color navigating and contesting boundaries of national and religious expression.

Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion Inaugural 2018 Conference Poster.

At the same time, religions provide “powerful narratives of history and the universal,” that offer alternate understandings of human community and trajectory, as noted by panelist Erin Wilson (University of Groningen). Religious language and values can be used to make visible and contest cultural and structural violence, challenging, for example, the underlying worldview of the modern nation-state system through alternate readings of community (who deserves to belong?) and human worth (which identities are valued most highly?). By some readings, certain religious and social histories may create orientations, even obligations, towards forms of solidarity that supersede modern boundaries. But to build peace, religious actors “must claim a normative platform,” Diane Moore (Harvard University) argued, “rather than pretend to be neutral.” The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s refugee resettlement efforts come to mind, emerging out of Jewish experiences of seeking refuge and evolving to support refugees of all backgrounds. Laudato Si’ resoundingly critiques the modern economic system and how it assigns value.

Could religion’s most powerful positive contribution to flourishing be to promote a generative understanding of complexity? Panelists put forth examples of the ways in which religious teachings could disrupt existing assumptions, invoke empathy, and give legitimacy to new ways of knowing and being. In her essay, Marie-Claire Klassen relays religiously- and spiritually-grounded re-orientations of the relationship between human and earth, including, in one case, the attribution of sentience to the landscape.

These efforts face an uphill struggle as they seek to question the frames through which society subconsciously operates; the “air” we breathe. The media can play a destructive role in this sense, reifying broadly accepted discourses like “religious violence” without exploring how religious identity is both internally multifaceted and interwoven with other social, cultural, and political markers, as Khan Shairani notes. In addition, the changing nature of religious authority, a topic of particular interest here at Contending Modernities through our “Authority, Community, and Identity” working groups, may change the playing field, as orthodox forms of religious expertise and knowledge transmission fade or splinter, and new actors take the stage deploying novel modes of authorization and communication. Complexity, and, as audience member Caesar Montevecchio (University of Notre Dame) commented, ambiguity, can be troubling; they require a predisposition or openness towards uncertainty. Perhaps, Tweed closed, our aim should be to construct communities that welcome complexity, together.

Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Field Notes article

Theology and Contingency in a Modern World

Madrasa Discourses student Farheen in the temple district of Kathmandu, July 2018.

The Madrasa Discourses 2018 summer intensive brought together a diverse and vibrant group of people in an intellectually stimulating environment in Nepal. The participants—who included madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan, students from South Africa and the University of Notre Dame, and faculty members from India, Pakistan, the United States, and South Africa—helped bring different perspectives to discussions on the challenging issues of Islamic legal tradition and gender justice, human nature and the body, conflict and peacebuilding, pluralism and inter-faith dialogue, and Muslim responses to modernity.

For instance, how did the medieval mercantile society define and value different bodies? Under what legal assumptions could one buy, sell, own or manumit another human? How was the full or partial tamlik (ownership) of another’s body legally thought about? How many kinds of ownership were there? How did these assumptions shape what we have inherited as Islamic law? And, do modern Muslims share those assumptions? Some of these questions kept us thinking during the three days of lectures and discussions with Dr. Saadia Yacoob from Williams College, USA. Most of us had never heard of the term tamlik, while others had read it in the madrasa without giving it much thought. However, this term, when it cropped up in Yacoob’s lecture, became a focus of long discussions and a cause of acute discomfort for many. The readings assigned by Dr. Yacoob were a collection of dense and nuanced texts on Islamic law, including Sexual Violation in Late Antique Near East by Hina Azam, excerpts from Her Day in Court by Maya Shatzmiller, 11th century jurist Al-Sarakshi’s Kitab al-Mabsut’s portion in which he writes about zina (adultery) and legal accountability and Kecia Ali’s article from Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Why, then, did only a single concept, tamlik, elicit unending explanations and discussions from the participants from India and Pakistan?

Azam’s piece on sexual violation in the pre-Islamic period in the Middle East discusses two competing systems of ethics—propriety and theocentric—that shaped legal thinking on sexual violation and women’s autonomy across various legal systems, including Ancient Mesopotamian laws, Mosaic and Rabbinic laws, Roman and Christian laws and pre-Islamic Arabian customs. Propriety ethics regarded “sexual violation of females as primarily a property crime, akin to usurpation—the unlawful taking of another’s possession for one’s own use—or abduction—the unlawful removal of live property from the control of its owner” (p. 24). Propriety ethics views sexual violation as a crime of a man against another man; therefore the remedy consists of the violator paying the wronged party, that is, the father or husband of the woman, as compensation for his loss. Theocentric ethics, on the other hand, regarded sexual violation as a transgression against God, that is, a sin. Theocentric logic therefore required physical punishment of the violator, rather than simply a monetary compensation for the theft of female sexual and reproductive capacity. Legal thinking about the female body reflected a tension between the two types of ethics that co-existed in varied combinations in ancient Middle Eastern legal texts, which formed the context for Islamic legal discourses on the topic later on. Maya Shatzmiller discusses the monetary value assigned in Islamic legal discourse to different bodily functions such as intercourse, breastfeeding, pregnancy, and taking care of the young (pp. 93-117). First intercourse, that is, the consummation of marriage, triggers property rights of mahr (dower) and nafaqa (maintenance) for the bride, while pregnancy triggers property rights of the unborn child.

Al-Sarakshi’s text is one of the Hanafi legal positions on the punishment accorded to a man and a woman engaged in zina (adultery) in different scenarios of legal accountability and consent (pp. 54-55). The case of a mature and sane woman involved in a consensual illicit sexual act with a mature and sane man led to both being punished. If the woman does not consent, is a minor, or is insane, she is not punished but he is. However, if the man is insane or a minor and therefore not legally accountable he is not punished, but interestingly, the woman also goes unpunished. Al-Sarakshi reasons that since the primary doer in the sex act is a man (the woman being the locus) she cannot be punished if he is not. Moreover, in any of the above scenarios, the man is being punished for committing adultery whereas the woman is punished for making herself available and therefore facilitating adultery. Dr. Yacoob assigned this reading to tease out the assumptions about human sexuality at play in legal rulings and to point out that if these assumptions are taken away, the internal logic of the laws crumbles. Therefore, religious texts are not interpreted in a vacuum by the jurists, but with some presumptions that shape the legal rulings.

Madrasa Discourses students view a video at the 2018 Dhulikhel Summer Intensive.

Finally we turned to Kecia Ali’s argument that in Islamic jurisprudence, “the overall framework of the marriage contract is predicated on a type of ownership (milk) granted to the husband over the wife in exchange for dower payment, which makes sexual intercourse between them lawful” (p. 165). Marriage, as understood in Sunni schools of Islamic law, therefore is an exchange of exclusive sexual access to the wife in return for dower (mahr) and her continued sexual availability in return for financial support (nafaqa) by the husband. A husband’s right to unrestricted sexual access to his wife also allowed him to control her mobility. The idea of ownership contained in these terms used in juristic discussions on marriage prompted a large number of responses from the Madrasa Discourses summer intensive participants. Many tried to explain that tamlik really doesn’t mean ownership or that there are different kinds of ownership, that a husband’s ownership of a wife is different from the way one owns an inanimate object or a slave, and also that modern Muslims don’t think about their wives as their possessions. One participant shared how a friend’s joke about owning his wife caused a lot of uproar in the families on both sides, due to which he had to apologize to his wife. This whole discussion, and the discomfort around the term tamlik, is precisely what Ali pre-empts when she argues that this way of thinking about marriage is “unthinkable today for the majority of Muslims” (p. 165).

By the end of Dr. Yacoob’s session, heads were spinning, both because none of the participants had thought about Islamic law in this perspective, but also because it was liberating and scary at the same time. It was paradigm-shifting to recognize that in the formative period of Islamic law, gender norms were the outcome of human interaction with the texts, and different presumptions or approaches to the texts could have and did lead to different legal rulings. This liberates Muslims to rethink Islamic legal tradition. This rethinking, however, is not going to be smooth or painless. It requires a constant struggle with oneself and one’s beloved tradition, one’s identity and the political realities of Muslim communities around the globe that shape popular discourses and attitudes.



Ali, K. (2006). Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence: The Necessity for Critical Engagement with Marriage and Divorce Law. In O. Safi, Progressive Muslims on Gender, Justice and Pluralism (pp. 163-189). Oxford: One-World Publications.

al-Sarakhsi. Kitab al Mabsut. Beirut: Darul Marifa. (الجز اللتاسع من كتاب المبسوط لشمس الدين السرخسي, دار المعرفة, بيروت-لبنان)

Azam, H. (2015). Sexual Violation in Islamic Law: Substance, Evidence and Procedure. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shatzmiller, M. (2007). Her Day in Court: Women’s Property Rights in Fifteenth-century Granada. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Talha Rehman
Talha Rehman is a PhD candidate at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, India. She holds a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies and is currently pursuing her research on Contemporary Feminist Discourse in Islam. She is also a participant in the Madrasa Discourses project.