Workshop studies Arab-Islamic cultural heritage
Arab-Islamic Cultural Heritage, or Turath, was the subject of a February 10-11 workshop on a form of ideological discourse that has been widely employed by Arab and Muslim intellectuals to respond to the challenges of modern Western thought and culture. Over the course of the past two years a group of scholars have met periodically at UCLA and established an ongoing dialogue on a cultural heritage that is both vast and rich, and which defies any serious thought of encapsulating its diachronic manifestations or distilling its essential and transhistorical content. Nevertheless, it appears to be the case that at any given time, circumstances contrive to focus Muslim political and religious discourse on particular aspects of Turath which may be considered most relevant to contemporary controversy.
The current study of the Arab-Islamic Turath, based at the Center for Near Eastern Studies, seeks to achieve a political analysis of recent developments in the construction of Turath, and to examine the ways in which related narrative structures and suggestive symbols have been employed by radical Islamists, facilitating the strategic successes of Al-Qaeda in recruiting operatives and organizing transnational terrorist operations. The study also examines competing characterizations of Turath which challenge the Salafi/jihadi constructions and propose alternatives that represent the perspectives of secular intellectuals, liberal religious elites, established political authorities, and various groups of Diaspora Muslims.
Turath is human and not divine, and in that sense it can be differentiated from both divine revelation and the Shari`a, or divinely decreed Islamic law. Turath is also to be differentiated from the practice of the Prophet, which has been rendered canonical by the consensus of believers. The Arab-Islamic Turath is the traditional cultural heritage that today's Muslims have received from their ancestors. Turath literature is about the way in which Muslims have implemented the religious teachings vouchsafed to them through the Prophet under a variety of historical conditions.
In modern times, a large part of Turath literature has been directed at pointing out the errors that have led to the decline of Islam. Another part of this literature has attempted to prove the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy-simply because so much has been left to human interpretation and decision. Yet another part has been directed at demonstrating the compatibility of Islam and historical materialism, where the variations in Islamic practice (and fortunes) over the centuries have been attributed to class struggles rather than to limitations in the message. Yet another variation in the theme of Turath writings has emphasized the distinction between authentic Arab-Islamic cultural experience and the deleterious effect of the diffusion of alien, that is Western imperialist culture. This emphasis on authenticity has tended to transform Turath into an identity rather than a set of values. It is worth noting that the rise of this identity literature coincided with the decline of Soviet influence, the concomitant decline of pan-Arab nationalism, and the successful Islamic revolution in Iran.
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR caused an intellectual and ideological crisis on the Arab left, which drove some leftists to find a way to redefine the Islamic resurgence as a progressive movement. Consequently, their audience of radical university students was given license to support radical fundamentalist and terrorist groups or movements without necessarily adopting or shedding the residual Marxist baggage. From there, Turath literature has grown more religious in form, but linked to regional, doctrinal, ethnic and national interests. Above all, Turath literature gives political justification for the support of global Islamic jihad without demanding piety, orthopraxy or conformity of the adherent. And so the message of Al-Qaeda, whether in the imperative or hortatory mood, whether implicitly or explicitly, necessarily involves an interpretive application of Turath to the challenges facing Muslims in this historical era.
Participants in the workshop series, led by CNES Director Leonard Binder, include Robert Bianchi (University of Chicago), Eric Davis (Rutgers University), James Gelvin (UCLA), Najib Ghadbian (University of Arkansas), Amr Hamzawy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Iliya Harik (Indiana University), Robert Lee (Colorado College), Ellen Lust-Okar (Yale University) and Muhammad Sani Umar (University of Arizona). Further discussions and meetings are planned with scholars and educators exploring the living Turath.
Published: Friday, October 20, 2006
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