That’s the question John Allen poses in an interesting analogy between the current state of Christian/Muslim dialogue and “the early days of computing”, when it was considered “the rarefied pursuit of experts typing in strings of DOS commands to run even simple operations”.
My first wife (yes, folks, I’ve been married before–if you didn’t know that you haven’t been reading my conversion blog) got her first job after graduating from Uni looking after the University student computer lab. There was this new thing called the “internet” which none of her older colleagues could understand, so they gave it to this fresh young thing to look after. That was in 1989. You know what happened next. She just rode the wave going from success to success.
Well, all these years later, I do have the feeling that I might (belatedly and not so young or fresh) be doing much the same thing with our own local Muslim dialogue. I am beginning to be amazed by people contacting me as “the expert” in this area, when not so long ago I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you what the five pillars of Islam were, and wouldn’t have gone near interfaith dialogue with a barge pole.
Back to John Allen, his interview in the same column with 80 year old Muslim Sorbonne/Princeton academic Mohammed Arkoun reveals some interesting stuff. Arkoun is the author of a book called “the Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought” (you can read a bit of it here). Here’s some things he had to say about Benedict XVI’s approach to the question of faith and reason in Islam:
Pope Benedict has said that an intimate relationship between reason and faith does not exist in Islamic elaboration and expressions. This statement, historically speaking, is not true. If we consider the period from the 8th century to the 13th century, it is simply not true. … [But] after the death of the philosopher Averroes in 1198, philosophy disappeared in Islamic thought. … To that extent the pope was right, but he didn’t mention this history.
The fact is today, when one speaks with Muslims, they don’t have any idea about this history. … Muslims are totally cut off from their own tradition. … I cannot imagine the name of a Muslim today who could have a true theological debate on the level at which the pope can carry out the debate. For me, this is a battle inside Islam. We must make Muslims understand that they are cut off from their own history. Therefore, they have no right to simply rebel against what the pope has said. There is a part of truth in what he says, and I recognize that.
Although Allen challenges his assertion that it is the Pope’s duty to dialogue with scholars rather than with official leaders in Islam, Arkoun insists that:
[The pope should] create a kind of space of debate, instead of all these so-called ‘interreligious dialogues’ that have been going on since the Second Vatican Council. I’ve participated in so many of them, and I can tell you that they’re absolutely nothing. It’s gossip. There’s no intellectual input in it. There is no respect for scholarship in it. A huge scholarship has already been produced devoted to the question of faith and reason. All this is put aside and we ignore it. We just congratulate one another, saying, ‘I respect your faith, and you respect mine.’ This is nonsense.