Challenges and Dilemmas Facing Liberal Muslim Thinkers

October 18, 2007 // 9:00am10:30am

Abdou Filali Ansari, Director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations (AKU-ISMC), Aga Khan University, United Kingdom, discussed what in his opinion presents challenges to liberal Muslim thinkers and interprets obstacles to the development of this school of thought.

Dr. Ansari first summarized what in his view were the major historical markers in the development of the liberal Muslim school of thought. The first event, expressed normatively at the time, was during the mid 1900's when elite Muslims recognized a gap between Muslim societies and the rest of the world. The second event occurred during the post-colonial timeframe when new nation states were emerging; this particular timeframe was expressed in aspirations of political autonomy and participation in government and development. The third and final event was marked by the time immediately after the 1967 Six Days War, with the development of secularization processes in Muslim society, in which the religious heritage became an object open to various interpretations and began to be used as a defining parameter in Muslim life.

These historical events present to the contemporary liberal Muslim thinker the main challenge of how to interpret Islam's place in the modern world, for example, if a Muslim society can or even should exist without a Shari'a legal basis, and how to be a Muslim in the context of the modern world. This challenge revolves around finding current interpretations of religious history, and has resulted in the opening of public spaces for debates, the news outlet Al-Jazeera being a prime example. Thus in Mr. Ansari's opinion, the main contemporary dilemma liberal Muslims find themselves in is making the analytical switch to the more secular style of interpretation of the humanities and social sciences. This shift requires Muslim history to be rewritten, shifting from a religious world view to a more secularized view. Contemporary popular opinion seems to be caught in between these two views.

In conclusion, as discussant Daniel Brumberg, the Acting Director, Muslim World Initiative, United States Institute of Peace, observed, it is timely to host an event discussing the challenges to liberal Muslim thinkers in Washington DC, so as to best operationalize the discourse, taking successes and replicating them elsewhere in the Muslim world, helping to bridge the gaps between the elite and mass politics and secular and popular world views.

Drafted by Lauren DeHaven

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