06/26/2009, 00.00
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Christians can save Islam from cultural death

by Samir Khalil Samir
The Islamic tradition could die out fear of modernity which it perceives as anti-religious. For some time all Islamic extremism has been proposing is a return to a mythical past, that of the first four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, by proposing unchanging and superficial ways of life. Christianity has confronted modernity for centuries and can help Islam achieve a necessary insight into the matter.

Venice (AsiaNews) – More than 70 people from 20 different countries gathered on the Isola San Giorgio in Venice for the annual meeting of the Scientific Committee of Oasis, a journal founded by the Patriarch of Venice Angelo Scola as a way to find “common venues” for dialogue between Christians and Muslims ((www.oasiscenter.eu ).

Held last Monday and Tuesday, the topic of this year’s gathering was Interpreting tradition in the age of Métissage. The term métissage, so dear to Cardinal Scola, looks at the ways cultures and religions engage each other in dialogue, comparing each other, copying one another, integrating and clashing, always changing as a result of their encounter.

This year, which focused on, tradition, put the spot light on the importance of passing on one’s faith and culture in an increasingly multicultural world.

A very important aspect of this process is how migrants (Muslims in the West) and minorities (Christians in the Middle East) are able to pass on their traditions to younger generations.

All those who spoke at the event, including some Muslims from France, Tunisia and the United States, stressed the importance of the school system as a place for passing on and confronting cultural traditions. 

The address by Fr Samir Khalil Samir was particularly significant. The Jesuit scholar looked at the difficulties Islam faces today, torn between a fossilised vision of the past (presented as the ‘true’ Islam by Muslim extremists) and modernity with all its problems.

To a certain extent Christians face similar difficulties because modernity brings secularism and rejection of the faith. But unlike Islam  Christianity has been involved in a dialogue with the modern world for a long time and for this reason can help it tackle the contemporary society, mitigating the danger of extremism, which only celebrates the ‘interment of Islam’.

Here is Father Samir’s address (translated by AsiaNews):

1. Tradition means continuity, identity and renewal Tradition (Lat. tradere) means passing on one’s precious legacy which will in turn be passed on to others and so on. Thus tradition presumes continuity in the here and now. It does not mean going back but assumes instead finding in one’s roots the inspiration that guarantees continuity, strengthens one’s identity and renews the present; in short, continuity, identity and renewal.

When tradition becomes identified with the past and stops inspiring the present it is dead. Because it no longer exists it is treated as something sacred; by making it sacred it is buried because it is no longer understood.

Increasingly we find ourselves in this situation in our Arab and Muslim societies. No longer do we have a future or a present; we are simply stuck with the past. We go back to the past and turn it into a myth, something sacred, for we have nothing else.

In reality in doing this we reinforce our cultural and spiritual death. The notion of tradition in today’s Muslim world means going back to the way things were in 7th century, an age that becomes sacred. We often focus on outer details like the beard, the veil or niqāb, the miswāk  (a kind of long toothpick from a root that Islam’s prophet used), the long white tunic, etc.

Conversely, Christians (most notably in the West) tend to reject their traditions. Some people think that they must forget or even reject their past to be modern. The danger in that case is of losing one’s roots and authenticity. It is a danger I see in Europe.

This can drive some to become traditionalists, to hang on to some details (for example, the Latin mass, the cassock, etc.). The rise of Mgr Lefevbre and his followers is a mirror image of the rejection of tradition.

The matter at hand is thus not limited to the Muslim world, but in this part of the world it is at its most visible and prominent.

2. Fear of modernity that appears anti-religious An obvious reason for this attitude is a fear of modernity. This is something we can see today in the Arab world. Today modernity rimes with the West whereas in the 9th-11th centuries it rimed with Islam. For many a Muslim the West is scary and repelling because it is estranged from religion and is secularised. All of a sudden, for many Muslims modernity looks like a new Jâhiliyyah (ignorance, the name given in the Qur’an to unbelievers), which the Qur’an and Islam fought vehemently. Modernity for many Muslims is a form of neo-paganism.

Consequently, many Muslims have sought refuge in the past and in religion, which to them appear as safe and lasting values and with a safe repertory of behaviours.

This why today there is a tendency to sacralise the age of the first four caliphs (Muhammad’s successors), known as the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs (al-khulafâ’ al-râshidîn) : Abū Bakr al-Siddîq (the upright ) (632-634 AD), ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattâb (634-644 AD), ‘Uthmān Ibn ‘Affân (644-656 AD) and ‘Alī Ibn Abî Tâlib (656-661 AD).

This period, which runs from 632 to 661 AD, is like a Golden Age, a heavenly time, but there is a great danger, because it means that heaven, the model to be followed and recreated, is behind us, not ahead of us, something towards which we can strive.

Lest we forget, except for the first caliph, all of other three were murdered. ‘Umar was killed on 4 November 644, ‘Uthmān in 656, and ‘Alī in January 661 by the Kharijites.

If we want to renew Islam we must face the challenges the modern world has thrown at religions, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam or others.

This is something Christianity faces everyday, especially in the West. If it turned back into its past, it will die. The same is true for Islam. However more often than not, the Muslim world seems to prefer to postpone dealing with the issue, and this will make finding a solution harder.

At the same time, this does not mean that we must uncritically adopt every new thing just because it is new. Insight into the matter is a must as well as a necessary condition for survival.

3. Conclusion

What is needed is a certain harmony between past and future, between traditions (which ought to inspire but not shackle) and modernity (which is not necessarily freedom or liberation).

Islam began finding this towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It started its own renewal from within by confronting Western civilisation and culture, helped to a great extent by Arab Christians who had begun the same process before them.

Sadly in the middle of the last century, this movement was swept away by new ideologies (nationalism, socialism, pan-Arabism, etc.) and began going backward.

I think that Christianity, which has already faced this situation for several centuries, could help the Muslim world to reach this insight.

Yet only Muslims can carry out this process, looking into their own tradition, criticising what must be criticised and maintaining what is best.

Christians and Muslims (and other believers) face the same challenges. By cooperating, by not opposing anyone, we can all benefit.

Tradition must be a source of life; otherwise it dies, hence the need for a critique and for insight to reach harmony and true liberty.

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