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Innovative Islamic Thought Will Come From the West, Analysts Say

Islamic scholars living in the West believe they could play a role in promoting understanding between the Muslim World and the West. A recent conference in Washington DC examined the influence of American Islamic scholars on the intellectual activity in the Muslim world and found that the impact varies from country to country.

The conference, titled: “Muslims in the United States: Influence and Innovation,” found that few works by Westerners have been translated into Arabic in recent years.

“Every year, fewer books are translated into Arabic in the whole of the Arab world than are translated into Spanish in Spain,” says Philippa Strum, Director of US Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where the conference took place. She says only a small Arab elite reads and discusses new western works. Most other Muslims are confined to traditional Arab scholars, especially when studying issues pertaining to Islam.

“As a result," she says, "although many aspects of Western thought and culture are quickly sweeping across the Arab world, few Muslim thinkers outside of the Arab world have any real impact upon Arab Muslim intellectuals.”

One of these few is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University and a renown authority on Islamic science and spirituality. Iranian scholar Gholamreza Aavani says Professor Nasr is widely read in Iran, to a large extent because he is Iranian-born and understands the spirit of that culture. Mr. Aavani says Professor Nasr is admired in Iran for teaching Iranian culture in the West as much as he is for teaching western culture in Iran.

“I think he has been very successful in conveying the spirit of Islamic culture, oriental culture, western cultures and so on. [Nasr teaches that] of course, man is a being, he is not God, but he has something divine in him. His spirit, no doubt, is divine. [God said:] ‘I blew into him of my own spirit.’ This is found both in the Bible and in the Koran and that is great,” says Mr. Aavani.

Analysts say messages such as Professor Nasr’s about the sanctity of human life could go a long way in deterring violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, especially suicide bombings. Other American Muslim scholars have found pluralism and equal rights for women to be part of Koranic vision, concepts that make Islam compatible with democracy. Unfortunately, most observers say these ideas do not reach many Muslims. Tamara Sonn, Professor of Humanities at The College of William and Mary, cites some of the reasons.

“Continued American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, reports of wide spread abuse of prisoners by US military personnel, continued stalemate in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, declining standards of living in many places in the Muslim world are the major factors contributing to growing hostility towards America and therefore are undermining the influence of all scholars, whether they are Muslim or not.”

Tamara Sonn says that in Pakistan, a country gripped by poverty and illiteracy, only one percent of the gross domestic product is spent on education and the publishing business is in decline. “Obviously, people who cannot read are subject to the influence not of what is in the books, but of what they hear.” Professor Sonn says that in Pakistan instead of reading, most people listen to and learn from their religious leaders. Cassette recordings of their sermons are distributed throughout Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. Their message appeals to the impoverished.

“The most common theme in these popular cassettes is the suffering of the majority of the poor, contrasted with the condition of the elites. Interestingly, the theme is often articulated as a matter of human rights.” Professor Sonn says western scholars who are hoping to reach Pakistanis with their message must consider the modes of communication most utilized by the masses: word of mouth and cassette recordings. And since the theme of human rights is already contained in many taped sermons, it could represent a good opening for American Islamic thinkers.

At the other end of the spectrum are Islamic countries where the works of western scholars are widely read and discussed, Indonesia and Turkey, for example. Ibrahim Kalin, Professor of Islamic Studies at The College of the Holy Cross, says the influence of American Muslims is a relatively new phenomenon.

“The influence has always been from the heartlands of Islam: from the Persian world, Cairo and partly the Ottoman world to the rest, that is the periphery of the Islamic world. In the modern period, you have a convergence of a number of influences coming from various sources, various corners of the world and, of course, Muslims in the West.”

Professor Kalin says innovative Islamic thought can only come from the West where new ideas can be freely expressed. The United States, he notes, is a home to Muslims from some 50 nations, making it an ideal place for discussing Islam. Analysts say Islamic thinkers from the Muslim world must also be included in those discussions.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.