[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.
Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.
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).
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
The project also has the advantage of having a strong team of authentic “insiders” at the helm. 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
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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). Several centuries earlier, the formidable Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had already declared theology as “the universal science among the Islamic sciences.” 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).” 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.” 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.” Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, begins his reflections on A Theology of Engagement with the same question. 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.
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. These arguments echo Galileo’s position in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which was rebutted by Cardinal Bellarmine. 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). 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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.
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. 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. 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? 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.” 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.
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.” Friedman observes that acceleration itself is accelerating, noting with sympathy that: “This is dizzying for many people.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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,” 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.’” “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.”
Can Islamic education embrace “the heretical imperative?” Our educational institutions have become overcome with fear, fortresses for what Ebrahim Moosa calls “Republics of Piety.” 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.” 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. 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.