Lecture: Interlocution and Islam

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Thursday afternoon, Hamid Dabashi delivered a lecture entitled “Islam and the Making of Cosmopolitan Cultures” as part of the Islam, Globalism, & Cosmopolitanism lecture series sponsored by the Bruce Gould Fund, the Religion Department, and the Sociology and Anthropology Department. Dabashi, a Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, focused his talk on how cosmopolitanism has informed Islamic discourses from the medieval period to the post- 9/11 world. The thrust of his argument is that Islam has consistently developed through a conversation with itself and the social conditions which surround it, but that this conversation has become more amorphous and diluted today.

Dabashi began the lecture by discussing the ways in which Islam has entered into the public domain. Dabashi says that 9/11 forced a production of knowledge about Islam under duress, in a very rapid succession. Everyone with a microphone, from Osama bin Laden to Pope Benedict, had an opinion about Islam.

According to Dabashi, this has forced those who want to come out in defense of Islam to speak about in stark binaries. “You have to be on the defensive and produce a pretty picture of Islam– you have to say Islam is not violent, it is not barbaric, it is not provinical.” But Dabashi claimed that these binaries are false. “Yes, Islam can be peaceful, but it can also be violent. Yes, it is cosmopolitan, but it can also be provincial,” he explained. However, the speed of knowledge has made it difficult to explain more subtle complexities, and instead “we keep regurgitating and repeating those binaries.”

Dabashi said that the antidote to this problem is to “not fall into the trap of binaries, but instead, keep going back to our sources and telling our story in a manner that is viable and based on evidence.”

When speaking about cosmopolitanism in Islam, Dabashi said it was important to find terms that did not fall into false binaries or generic abstractions. Instead, Dabashi offered the idea of inter-locution: “that Islam has always been in conversation with someone else, and has articulated itself based on that conversation.”

The Qu’ran’s dichotomy of Meccan and Medinan verses (Meccan verses were produced before the Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Medina, and the Medinan verses were produced after) is an example of how Islam has articulated itself based on a conversation with its surroundings. “The Mecca/Medina chapters are incredibly different in every aspect,” Dabashi explained. “In Mecca, the Prophet was leading a revolution, whereas in Medina, it was about building institutions and making treaties, about being a statesman.” This paradox and tension within the Qu’ran exists more generally in Islamic discourses.

The formation of Islamic discourses is another example of Islamic cosmopolitanism. Dabashi discussed the Islamic discourses in philosophy, legal thought, and mysticism. The development of these discourses themselves are an example of cosmopolitanism. Islamic jurisprudence is based on the Qu’ran, the sunnah (actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the uses of analogy, and consensus of the community. These methods of deriving laws evolved hundreds of city-based schools of thoughts, which were eventually mainstreamed into the four main Sunni schools of thought. Even within these schools, there is much diversity and disagreement, and a high value placed on independent thought.

The philosophical tradition grows out of a high value placed on seeking knowledge. Says Dabashi “There goes a story about how a man exchanged a bunch of his soldiers so that he could have a book of Aristotle– and these Greek philosophers were translated first into Syriac and Aramaic and then into Arabic.”

The philosophical tradition grew out of the legal tradition, Dabashi explained. “If you wanted to study philosophy, you wouldn’t go to a school of philosophy. You’d go to a legal school, and you would have circles of students studying philosophy outside of classes in the law libraries or at their professor’s house.” In this way, philosophy developed out of a conversation with Islamic law, and changing social conditions.

“Legal scholars and philosophical scholars fought with each other constantly,” said Dabashi. “And then the Sufis showed up and they weren’t interested in jurisprudence or philosophy because those things didn’t have enough soul, so they developed a tradition of mysticism.”

“Islamic philosophy grew out of a conversation with Greek philosophy. Islamic law formed in conversation with Jewish law. Islamic mysticism formed in conversation with Buddhist mysticism and Christian mysticism,” he explained. “These discourses were created by real people engaged in real conversations and institutional development.”

Dabashi said that these conversations were going on in all different parts of the world, from North Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, resulting in infinite number of possibilities and discussions. He pointed to the example of 8th century Baghdad, where you could see groups of people who were uninterested in Islamic law or philosophy, but instead, were studying adab — language, literature, and humanism. “You could go up to them and ask them ‘Are you a Muslim?’, and one would say ‘Yes’, the other would say ‘No, I’m Jewish’, and another might say ‘No, I’m Christian’, or ‘No, I’m a Zoarastrian.’,” said Dabashi . “But all of these people could be studying the Qu’ran because adab scholars were interested in the beauty of its language.”

The colonial experience dramatically changed the sorts of conversations Islam was having with itself and other discourses. The rise of European colonialism in the 18th and 19th century and the combativeness it inspired in the Muslim world caused Muslim activists, intellectuals, and theologians to transmute Islam into ideology of political resistance. “There’s no conspiracy here,” Dabashi said. “Muslims themselves saw the onslaught of colonialism and began to wrestle with their own religion and faith in a manner that would response to a soldier with a gun on the streets of Cairo or Lucknow”

Islamism developed alongside socialism and nationalism, which were the other two responses to colonialism. Women’s liberations movements also developed as women moved into the labor force. “So cosmopolitanism in 19th and 20th century Muslim societies had to do with these vertical and horizontal conversations,” he said. “We saw globalization and changing of societies. New institutions sprung up, and language became more supple and responsible to social, political, and ideological conditions.”

According to Dabashi, Islamism as an ideology of resistance to the colonial project died with the Iranian Revolution, and the legitimacy of the ideology has ended. “What we are now seeing is not the revolutionary fervor Weber and Marx have spoken about as necessary precursours to revolution.” Dabashi said. “What we witness today culminated in the 9/11 attacks: iconoic, spectacular violence with no purpose, no revolutionary agenda, no sociology, no economics, no politics. Confusing the criminal acts today with revolution and resistance is historically illiterate.”

Today, Dabashi claims that Islam as an abstract ideology is up for grabs because “It has lost its interlocuter. It doesn’t know who it is in conversation with.” But perhaps, he noted, this more amorphous condition may allow Islam to free itself from the binaries imposed upon it.

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