Spiritual progress and intellectual progress

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar May 7, 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. ToynbeeCarrel) 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.

The epistemology of Ibn Taymiyya

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar March 22, 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.


Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar  November 27, 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).

Historical Definitions of wasaṭiyya

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar September 30, 2017

On September 30th, the fourth meeting of our cooperative seminar with al-Azhar for this year took place. The chosen topic was the historical definitions of “wasaṭiyya”, usually translated as “the middle path.”

Three speakers presented their research on this topic: Ms. Inès Ata from the Department of Human Sciences (for women), Mr. Tarek Amin from the Department of Language and Translation (for men), and brother Jean Druel, from the IDEO. Each speaker reiterated the fact that every Islamic movement believes they are on “the middle path”, as compared to the extremes they condemn, whether they be secularist, literal, or violent extremes, or between tafrīṭ (indifference) and ġulū (exaggeration).

It is therefore impossible to define “the middle path” in absolute terms if we approach it from its dimension as a morale virtue; everyone can claim adherence to it. Or, to put it another way, it is futile to define wasaṭiyya as a “middle path” between secularism and jihadism. If the “middle path” is a compromise between the two, the jihadist would be right in saying that he is ‘more Muslim’ than other, which would be devastating for the community.

Historically, wasaṭiyya finds its foundation in the Qurʾānic expression “wa-kaḏālika ǧaʿalnākum ummatan wasaṭan” (Q2, al-Baqara, 143), which Denise Masson translated as: ‘And thus we have made you a just community’. A frequent interpretation of this expression is that Islam is a middle path between a Judaism considered as too focused on the law and a Christianity seen as so spiritual that it is not applicable. In this configuration, one does not become ‘more Muslim’ when they move closer to an extreme. The speakers also insisted on the communal dimension of Islam in the quoted Qurʾānic verse, where consensus among believers is supposed to be a guard against extremism.

Lastly, in Muslim theology, wasaṭiyya is the prerogative of the Ašʿarite school, which is defined by its balance between a literalism which rejects rational discussions of the text, and a rationalism which would not be held accountable to the letter of the text. In this configuration, it is the balance and negotiation between the letter and reason which makes Islam, not the abandonment of one or the other of these two features.

The Effectiveness of Religious Discourse: Between Teaching and Reality

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar May 8, 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”?

Rationality and Affectivity in Religious and Extremist Discourse: The Model of Fraternity

A closed seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

 March 25, 2017

On March 25th, the second meeting between the IDEO and the DEIF (Department of Islamic Studies in French) in the School of Languages and Translation (for Men) at Al-Azhar University was held. The meeting focused on “Rationality and Affectivity in Religious and Extremist Discourses: The Model of Fraternity,” which meant to delve deeper into topic launched at the first meeting, “extremism,” by discussing the specific religious value of “fraternity.”

The first lecture, given by Hazem al-Rahmany, a student of DEIF, began by giving an overview of the call to a universal fraternity as found in the fundamental texts of Judaism, Christianism, and Islam. He compared this “cosmic call” to the current institutional dialogues. If those of Vatican (John Paul II, Pope Francis) or the sheikh’s of Al-Azhar (Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib, Muṣṭafā al-Marāġī) were to pursue this perspective, extremist organizations such as Daesh would be characterized as in contradiction to this “call”, as they represent a restrictive fraternity which excludes non-believers, even members of the same biological family.

The second lecture was given by Hind Amin, a teaching assistant in the faculty of Human Sciences, and holds Master’s Degree in Translation after her translation of the book Le Terrorisme, by Arnaud Blin. Hind concentrated on the question, “Does Religious Discourse Lead to Extremism?” She presented four mechanisms of religious discourse: (1) the mix between religion and thought, (2) the return to a primary universal principle, (3) foundations based on sacred ancestors and (4) peremptory statements or authoritative arguments. She then proposed an argument: extremist discourse has its origins in the revolutionary ideologies of the twentieth century as taken up by decolonization movements. Islamism is situated in this general historical continuity, and has been strengthened through specific causes found the Arabic world (The question of Palestine, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

The third lecture was given by Rémi, a member of IDEO. He presented a historical study of “fraternity” and its uses in the West since its Greek origins, which already contained a duality between limitations on a community (the “city”) and universalism (first the Stoics, then the Neo-Pythagoreans). In the developments of Christianity, where relations were rooted in the “home of Spirit” and calls for a “new creation”, saw the sense of the fraternity shrinking from Christian communities to congregations only. The idea of “fraternity” then underwent the criticism of Luther who, however, failed to re-universalize it, confining it to a “holy fraternity in baptism”. It is the pietism of Johan Arndt which, in the seventieth century, returns to a spiritual fraternity, and in the end be secularized by the Freemasons and the French Revolution. Rémi then proposed a Christian theology of fraternity. By distinguishing an original “fraternal love,” he used the fratricidal quarrels of the Bible to show that this love is not original, but rather must always to be built. It is a reality of the Kingdom of Heaven of which is necessary to be prepared for and to build. Rémi was then finally able to make a climactic point which showed how fraternity was negated in nationalist thinking: religious discourse affirms fraternity as a Divine grace which must be realized everywhere; extremist discourse hoards it and distributes it selectively.

The discussion that followed was very rich, thorough, critical, and by the admission of all, was a sign of the creation of a truly common reflection. One of the points of departure was if “siblings” could be utilized as a model of fraternity: Is fraternal love an origin to be found, or is it an eschatological aim? Is Cain imprinted, by nature, with envious hate, or is it a disfigurement of an original purity of siblings? Are the brothers in a relationship of love or necessity? Should fraternity really be used as the model of the universal love-relationship? Is there not a paradox in the pretense to a universal fraternity, knowing that the solidarity it demands risks being totally dissolved? Is not the reference to an original family (implied in the idea of “fraternity”), like the concept of heritage, simply a conservatism that fears a confrontation with modernity which promotes the contrary: the self-determination of the thinking subject and of the political community?

Extremism: History, Definition, and Diagnosis

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar February 18, 2017

The first meeting on the question of extremism, organized as part of the collaboration between al-Azhar and the IDEO, took place. The selected topic was: “Extremism: History, Definition, and Diagnosis”.

The Seminar was in French, and the morning’s work was followed by a lunch at the Priory.

Mohammed Ashraf (PhD student at the Men’s Faculty of Languages and Translations) presented several definitions of “extremism” from dictionaries and anti-radicalization centers. The extremist is convinced that he has the absolute truth, and is ready to use any means to impose it. He shows an inability to accept other opinions, and questions socially accepted norms. Extremism is therefore a relative phenomenon. What is considered extreme in one context will not be considered extreme in another. Any reform is extremist, in the sense that it calls into question a social and religious balance. As he disrupted the social balance of Mecca, the Prophet can be described as an extremist. The problem of extremism is therefore not so much its potential for reform, but rather its potential for violence.

Pacynthe el Hadidy (Teaching assistant at the Women’s Faculty of Human Sciences) raised similar questions: if extremism consists of distance from a center, who defines that center? Every doctrine generates its extremists, whether in politics, economics, or religion. The main problem of extremism is in taking violent action. However, even in this case, everything is a question of perspective. The resistance fighters of some are the terrorists of others. The extremist who commits a violent action feels authorized to do evil for a higher good. The potential for violence in extremism often rests on the dehumanization of the adversary, a refusal to engage in dialogue, a sense of helplessness, or a disappointment about the state of things.

Guillaume de Vaulx (Researcher at the IDEO) choose a more philosophical approach. He started from the following definition of the concept of extremism: “deviancy from a social norm that is made in the name of the norm itself”. This definition contains within it the following problem: how does one fight against this deviance which claims to be the most normal?

Three attitudes are possible:

  1. Denunciation of the extremism of the action (the value which serves as this standard is not affected).
  2. Denunciation of heresy of the interpretation on which it is based (the orthodox interpretation of the value which serves as the standard is specified).
  3. Denunciation of the value itself and social revolution recasting the norms.

Thus, in nationalism (returning to the example used by Pacynthe), we can ask: is the murder of Isaac Rabin simply an extremist action?  A religious Zionism as opposed to the secular Zionism of its founders? Proof of the very invalidity of Zionism itself (and of any nationalism)?

A philosophical questioning followed this sociological analysis. Regarding the first attitude, extremism means that values are not ideals, but rather middle paths. Here we find the opposition of Aristotelianism against Platonism, which entails that the value is not a good in itself, and that we should not cultivate it intensely.  Whereas beauty, truth, etc. are absolutes to which we are to seek, without a possibility of excess. In short, value is devalued. Guillaume calls us to start our working sessions from these ideals (i.e. truth, piety, etc. are to be considered absolutes).

The discussion that followed these three presentations focused on the following questions: how to evaluate the established social or religious order, and measure what deviates from it to the extreme? Is the  tendency toward violent action the only problem, or should we oppose non-violent extremes as well? Guillaume proposed a definition of extremism: “Extremism is a deviation from a norm (religious, social, economic, political…) made in the name of the norm itself, which we wish to promote to the extreme. By doing so, extremism forces the norm to reconsider its own ideals in the face of the potential for violence, which may become manifest when pushed to the extreme.”

The next meeting is scheduled for Saturday March 25, at 10 a.m. at the Faculty of Languages and Translation.

Cooperation with the University of al-Azhar

On November 27, 2016, we had the pleasure to finally sign a cooperation agreement with al-Azhar University, with their two French sections, one in the Faculty of Language and Translation (for men) and one in the Faculty of Human Sciences (for women). Negotiations had been ongoing since March 2015. The friendship and perseverance of the students and teachers were stronger than the administrative and ideological reservations. We will now be able to plan activities in common.

The first two meetings of the steering committee, established by a cooperative agreement between the University of al-Azhar and the IDEO, took place on January 11th and 14th.  We have agreed to organize a monthly seminar to address “extremism: history, definition, and diagnosis”. In a second phase, we would like to plan common activities to meet the challenge of extremism.