Islam Today | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 25, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:18 AM, March 25, 2016

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Islam Today

In conversation with Professor Ebrahim Moosa, one of the most prominent intellectual theoreticians on progressive Muslim thought.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

“The word 'progress' often times becomes a controversial word, amongst both intellectuals and scholars, when the questions of whose progress and what kind of progress arises. And so, I like to define myself as a critical traditionalist. I'm a traditionalist, but with a critical bend,” says Professor Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies, in the United States. 

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Moosa was previously Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies at Duke University. He is considered a leading scholar of contemporary Muslim thought. Moosa has been named as one of the top 500 Influential Muslims in the World. According to the contemporary scholar Adis Duderija, Moosa is "one of the most prominent intellectual theoreticians behind progressive Muslim thought.”

The professor recently visited Bangladesh for a speaker's forum at BRAC University, where he spoke on the topic- “Faith and Education: Contestations around the Madrasa in Bangladesh."

His book was also featured in the speaker's forum- 'What Is a Madrasa?' “This book is basically my own journey in the Madrasas of India.” Through his own experience, Moosa tries to educate a general reader about what happens at the best of Madrasas, in terms of what kinds of subjects, texts and people they are studying and furthermore, and what is the importance of Madrasa in the lives of Muslims.

“There's some amount of history, there's some amount of explanation. I take the reader into a classroom in a Madrasa. I also talk about the image of Madrasas in the West and the way it has been marked and stigmatized as institutions of terror, which is not true. There are a few Madrasas in Pakistan involved in collaboration with the Taliban. But the majority of Madrasas don't do that,” he says. On account of that, at the end of the book, Moosa also writes letters to his own Madrasa teachers, asking how they are going to change the character of the Madrasas and make them places of intellectual excellence again, “because I've been arguing in my book, that the Madrasa used to be, once upon a time, a part of Islamdom's republic of letters, republic of knowledge, including cosmopolitan knowledge as well. But over time, in the Indian-subcontinent in particular, Madrasas have become more like institutions that are interested in identity formation, and also have become, what I call, a republic of piety. We have more piety, and less intellectual energy and the kinds of religious answers that deal with reality.” 

One of the major campaigns that Moosa's book attempts to undertake is saying that people who engage in the study of Islam and produce the knowledge of Islam must engage with lived reality, with the knowledge of today. They must realise that that knowledge is equally authoritative in answering questions like what is the meaning of Islam, how to interpret Islam, what is the meaning of all kinds of rules and regulations that we inherited from the past and how to apply them today in a new way and in a new context. “In other words, I'm calling for an intellectual renaissance in religious thought in Islam. That's what this book is all about.” 

Ebrahim Moosa firmly believes that Islam is a religion for all ages and eras. The key is to interpret it according to the time and world we currently live in. “Muslim communities are based on historical traditions. And I'm not saying everything in tradition has to be thrown out. You don't throw the baby out with the bath-water. I think retaining an element of tradition is important. But some parts of tradition have become outdated and anachronistic in today's world- the question of gender, relationship between self and other, questions about practices that understand the world in a very different way. Our world has changed, and with the arrival of science and scientific thinking, how do you bring all those things together in a conversation?” Moosa asserts that progressive Islam doesn't mean changing the Quran or changing Hadith, but is instead about having alternative methodological approaches that are going to allow us to find different kinds of answers from tradition, and answers that will be much more amenable to our experiences and our way of life, be much more equitable.

“The key thing about progressive or critical traditionalist approach in Islam, to me, is that we must see that all knowledge must substantiate and support the fulfilment of human dignity. Human dignity is at the core of all Islam's messages. And if knowledge does not deliver on human dignity, then that knowledge really is questionable. So those kinds of interpretations of the past that talked about non-Muslims in a particular way, that talked about women in a particular way, are no longer dignified. That has to change. You can only change it when you are prepared to ask questions, and are prepared to challenge the paradigm of interpretation that has been prevalent thus far.” Moosa also believes that that is probably one of the biggest challenges for Muslims collectively, “because certain strands of Muslim orthodoxy do not want the paradigm to be questioned. They think the paradigm is perfect. And because they think so, anyone who challenges it becomes the enemy. But that is the only way we can have peace amongst Muslims today.” 

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