The Effectiveness of Religious Discourse: Between Teaching and Reality

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar Monday May 8ᵗʰ, 2017

The third session in the series of meetings organized as part of the collaboration between the University of al-Azhar and the IDEO, aimed at examining the issue of extremism, took place on Monday, May 8, 2017 at the Faculty of Human Sciences (for Women).

As in the two previous meetings, three lectures were presented:

Hazem al-Rahmani discussed the didactic aspect of religious discourse based on the components of the communicative act, and then listed the factors that affect the effectiveness of this discourse, namely stereotypes, amalgams, bullying, etc. He also proposed several conditions needed to be fulfilled to make a  discourse more effective: between daʿwā (call to conversion) and takfīr (excommunication), fraternity and rivalry, flexibility and rigidity, peace and war, cohabitation and exclusion. He concludes by highlighting the importance of emphasizing the objectives of the law (maqāṣid al-šarīʿa) and the proper interpretation of the divine word, while taking care not to assume the politics of a sacred character.

Adrien Candiard began by referencing an event which occurred in Brazil in 2009 and revealed the degree of inhumanity to which humans can reach if they strictly apply moral rules deduced from religious law. This was the case of a girl forced to abort her child after a rape, and was excommunicated by her bishop. Adrien focused on this very complex relationship between the law and its application in limited cases. The theologians of the Middle Ages took from philosophers the concept of epikea (equity), which gives priority to the spirit over the letter of the law. The challenge is therefore no longer about applying the law in a “moderate” way, as if it trying to contain a potential for violence when applied to limited cases, but to apply the law in its entirety, even in its very spirit.

Nada Abdel Mohssen chose first to identify the different categories of religious discourse, as well as the mechanisms that currently govern its development, without forgetting the challenges that inhibit its effectiveness. She then tried to analyze the causes of the gap between teaching and reality, and the evils that hinder the desired transformation in religious discourse. She also recalled the initiative of the Imam Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1850‒1905), a key figure in the reform of Islamic jurisprudence. She concluded her presentation by proposing a few recommendations concerning the role and prerogatives of preachers, the most important of which is the need to constantly go back to the sources of Muslim culture.

The three presentations gave rise to a very lively discussion: Rémi Chéno recalled Pierre Bourdieu‘s theory (1930‒2002) on the pillars that religious, normative, innovative, and reproductive discourse, suggesting the addition of the media as a pillar. Oussama Nabil, for his part, insisted on the need to clearly distinguish between a protected, accredited, and religious discourse from and a free discourse, often-uncontrolled discourse. Jean Druel recalled both the importance and the urgency of producing a discourse more rooted in tradition (turāṯ), if we want it to be more effective towards certain Muslim trends, especially that of the Salafists.

It seems that our discussion stumbles on the question of “moderation”, of the “middle path”, which religious teaching in al-Azhar claims to follow, and which deserves to be defined in terms of its tools and its relationship with rational reflection. What does it practically mean to “moderate his discourse”? How to teach with a “middle path”?


Spiritual progress and intellectual progress

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO icon-calendar Monday May 7ᵗʰ, 2018 On May 7th, the latest session of our joint seminar between Al-Azhar and IDEO took place at the Faculty of Languages and Translations at Al-Azhar University. The chosen topic was “Faith and Reason”, based on a commentary by the famous Egyptian preacher Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1917‒1996) in his book The Pillars of Faith, Between Reason and Heart (Rakāʾiz al-īmān, bayn al-ʿaql wa-l-qalb, 1974). The chapter studied was entitled “The gap between spiritual progress and intellectual progress”. In this chapter, the author first calls for a piety that is not a detriment to the human person and his development. He then describes the world as lost in a sterile materialism and a wandering rationalism, cut off from faith in God.  He does this before making the observation that neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam today provide convincing answers to man’s spiritual equilibrium. The author concludes with a call to put into practice a true Islam, which orders good and forbids evil. The three speakers presented various aspects of the text. Jean Druel, O.P studied the literary construction of the text, Mrs. Héba Mahrous showed how the author’s vision fits into a more general Muslim framework, and Mr. Ahmad al-Shamli placed this chapter within the framework of the work as a whole. The discussion that followed opened the following questions: is the text, with a clear apologetic scope, the best approach for a philosophical and theological questioning?   How can one discuss the generalizations that characterize this literary genre of preaching? How does one evaluate the use of the human sciences in this text? The mere fact that the author references non-Muslim authors (i.e. Toynbee, Carrel) is proof of openness in itself. However, in the scheme of the text, the human sciences also serve as an argument to the idea that man has a very limited knowledge of himself and that one must trust that God is better equipped to say who man is and what he needs. Finally, it seems that the author simply associates “reason” with “Islam”, which automatically removes the tension with faith, without further discussion. Yet, a consequence of this equating reason and Islam is that other religions are then necessarily irrational as they are not Islam. Finally, the author’s conclusion on the need “to order The Good and to prohibit The Evil” (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-l-nahy ʿan al-munkar) is extremely ambiguous because al-Ghazālī makes no effort to insist on the difficulty of observing right from wrong in particular situations.

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The epistemology of Ibn Taymiyya

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO icon-calendar Thursday March 22nd, 2018 For this new session of our joint seminar between Al-Azhar and IDEO, we chose to comment on the same text, in order to highlight the processes of interpretation we use and to exchange our approaches. We chose an extract from a text by Ibn Taymiyya, which was commented on by three researchers: Adrien Candiard, OP, IDEO member, Mrs. Héba El-Zéftaoui, Assistant Professor, Mr. Ziyad Farrouh, University lecturer. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) is an extremely prolific writer who spent his life writing treatises and fatwās, most of which violently attack the scholars of his time, especially the Shiites, the Christians, and the Sufis of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (m. 638/1240). Ibn Taymiyya, a man of keen intelligence, criticizes the Muslim tradition for not having achieved any definitive result in achieving knowledge of God, but rather engage in scholastic conflicts and fantasies about God. In the long introductory fatwā to his book Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, Ibn Taymiyya offers a justification for the human possibility of being able to speak about God, as well as a rational method so as to not going astray. He, at the same time, differs from the Ašʿarites, represented by Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209), who always defer reason (ʿaql), and the Ḥanbalites, of which he himself was a disciple and who are represented, for example, by Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223), who always defer to tradition (naql). He criticizes the idea that one has to choose between the two. Human reason and revealed tradition are not in opposition. Rather, they must be able to express the same truth about God. The epistemological way explored by Ibn Taymiyya is based on the principle that the only sure and true thing is God himself, that He reveals His word in a rational way which is accessible to human intelligence. Moreover, since God is transcendent, none of our human methods of logical analysis apply to him, and rather than using syllogism (qiyās šumūl) or analogy (qiyās tamṯīl), Ibn Taymiyya describes the method he finds at work in the Qurʾān and the hadiths: the “Eminence way” (qiyās awlā), according to which we can attribute to God all perfections. In doing so, it goes beyond the debate over divine attributes, between unicity (the attributes of God are analogous to human attributes) and equivocity (divine attributes have no relation to human attributes). More fundamentally, Ibn Taymiyya rejects any reasoning that would be a pure logical game of language. He finds it more certain to start from the revealed given (i.e. the Qurʾān and Ḥadīṯ), and then build logical reasoning. In other words, he is nominalist: he refuses to confuse mental realities and reality itself, and criticizes theologians, rationalists, or traditionalists who believe that the fruit of their rationalization express some reality about God. Essentially, we can say that Ibn Taymiyya built analogies based on the revealed text and not on the “eternal” truths elaborated by the human mind. The three presentations emphasized different points, historical or theological. The discussion demonstrated that Ašʿarism, which is the official school of theology followed by al-Azhar, has developed, and that the attacks of Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century are not always relevant today. However, all theological schools are taught at the university in the theological faculties, and not just Ašʿarism. The question with which we closed our discussions was that of the place of faith between reason and tradition. This will be the topic of our next meeting at the end of April.

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Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO icon-calendar  Monday November 27ᵗʰ, 2017 A new session of the joint meetings, organized as part of the collaboration between the University of al-Azhar and the IDEO to discuss the issue of extremism, took place on Monday, November 27, 2017 at the Faculty of Human Sciences (for Women) on the topic of literalism. Three lectures representing both sides were given. Khalil Mahmoud, lecturer in the Department of Islamic Studies of the Faculty of Language and Translation (for Men), began by discussing the characteristic features of the extremist reading of the Qur’anic text, as well as the many interpretations and deviations that might occur from any work that does not take into account exegesis of the All-Wise Qurʾān. He then warned against the ignorance and negligence of some very important elements for understanding the divine message, such as the conceptual and contextual frameworks, in addition to the causes and circumstances of the revelation of the Qurʾānic verses. He also tried to highlight the weakness of a literalist reading of fundamental texts in that there is an absence of a sufficient theory of exegesis. Jean Druel, OP, Director of the IDEO, followed with his talk and approached the subject by beginning from a reading from an article by Gilles Dorival (Professor Emeritus at Aix-Marseille University and Specialist in the History of Biblical Traditions) on biblical interpretation, so as to pose some very important questions: what is meant by “interpretation”? Does the reader intervene or not in the building of meaning? Can he rely on his personal knowledge? Starting from Théagène de Régégium (6th century BC), who was one of the first to ask the question of interpretation in the face of Homeric poetry and propose an allegorical exegesis. These texts contain several meanings: an apparent first meaning and several types of hidden meanings that the reader is invited to build. In the same perspective, and always around the question of the interpretation, Jean Druel, OP mentions the contribution of Philo of Alexandria (1st century AD) for the application of allegorical exegesis to the Bible, an exegesis that made it possible to rid certain difficulties from a literal meaning. Jean Druel, O.P also recalls Cassian‘s thought (5th century) regarding the foundations of Sacred Scripture and the richness of the spiritual doctrine of the four senses (or levels) of reading proposed by Judaism and Christianity: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical.  He ends his reflection by raising the public’s attention to the following facts: there is no sense independent of the reader. The literal meaning itself is not immediate, it must be constructed, and this requires the deployment of adequate tools and knowledge, constantly taking into account the evolution of words and connotations. These are all things that would make it possible to avoid the impoverishment of meaning and literalism which he describes as the “disease of interpretation”. Miss Merihan Ali, teaching assistant in the Department of French Language, Literature and Interpretation, began her presentation with a definition of the notion of “literalism” and a distinction between the latter and another bordering notion, namely “literality.” She chose to divide her presentation into three parts representing the three fields of application of the notion studied. First, Islamic literalism and doctrine, where she emphasized the importance of critical reading and reasoning (iǧtihād) to find a way of fidelity that is not blind to the evolution of time and to the diversity of societies. Second, literalism and Qurʾānic interpretation, in which she put forth a number of examples of literalist translations of some Qurʾānic verses and Sunna texts, in order to show the detrimental effect any wrong interpretation would have that would aim to issue jurisprudential opinions without possessing the necessary skills. And third, biblical literalism and interpretation, where she highlighted allegory as a process of interpretation of biblical Scripture widely used by Jewish and Christian exegetes over the centuries. She then finished her talk by concluding that even if the truth of the divine Word is absolute, it does not mean that we have access to this truth. It is only by means of an objective reading of the text, which gives rise to a plurality of interpretations and gives way to reason, meditation, and iǧtihād which can free the spirit from divine revelation. The three presentations gave rise to a very rich discussion, during which Professor Roqaya Gabr recalled the importance of the work of grouping and translation done by a group of specialists (exegetes certified by al-Azhar) as part of a project of the Ministry of Waqfs: al-Montakhab, Selection in the Exegesis of the Holy Quran, Arabic-French in 4 volumes. The Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, affiliated with al-Azhar, published the first version of al-Montakhab in 1997. For his part, Rémi Chéno, O.P praised the effort of al-Azhar while drawing attention to the need to respect the openness of a text and to accept the fact that it is open to multiple interpretations. Prof. Sahar Samir Youssef, Head of the French Section, Faculty of Human Sciences (Women).

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