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Interview (06 Jul 2018 NewAgeIslam.Com)


Islam Is a Universal Religion, Not an Arab Tribal Ideology: Muslims Should Be More Open In Their Engagement with Modernity


By Hussain Kodinhi

Jun 30, 2018





Dr Sabrina Lei



Dr Sabrina Lei is into the business of building bridges, that is bridges between faiths and cultures and across races and ethnicities. As a Catholic convert to Islam, she is fighting a crusade to remove misconceptions and prejudices about Islam, though she believes that Muslims themselves should be more open in their engagement with modernity. As director of Tawassut Europe Centre for Dialogue and Research in Rome, she thinks that Islam is more than adequately equipped for this task, given that Ijtihad (the power of reason) is at the core of this religion.

Married to Dr Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a Malayali and accomplished scholar of classical Islam, and deeply interested in India, she thinks that there should be a genuine cultural and religious dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, and that the best way of challenging the growth of militant right-wing ideology is to revive the refined Hinduism of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sree Narayana Guru.

Excerpts from An Exhaustive Email Interview:

You have translated a few books from Malayalam into Italian and have a few more in the offing. What draws you to Malayalam literature?

During the past decade or so, I have been spending a great amount of my time reading, studying and working on Malayalam literature, especially its expression in the form of novels. It was my husband – originally from Kerala – who introduced me to Indian literature in general and Malayalam literature in particular.

I have read and reflected on some of the important works of Kamala Surayya, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, O V Vijayan, M T Vasudevan Nair and some other writers that are available in English translations. I think the works of Basheer, Vijayan and Thakazhi are some of the finest artistic expressions of human imagination and drama.

Basheer is a storyteller par excellence like Anton Chekhov. And of course, Thakazhi’s Chemmeen is one of the finest modern romantic tragedies. (Incidentally, I have translated Chemmeen and O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha into Italian).

If these three writers had written in English or any other major world language, they would have been universally known and considered as modern literary giants. I have also translated Sree Narayana Guru’s short poetic tribute to one God into Italian and I am deeply interested in translating some of his religious and spiritual reflections too.

One of your major upcoming projects is an Italian translation of the Bhagavad Gita. What prompts you to study a classical Hindu text?

My Gita translation project is very much rooted in the classical Muslim tradition of learning and inquiry. I am a practising Muslim, and moreover a convert who accepted Islam after so many years of study; I consider the Gita as one of the finest forms of human reflections on God and various questions related to the spiritual life of human beings. In the Gita, we can see the stress on knowledge (Ilm in Arabic), devotion (Taqwa) the good action (Amal Al-Salih) as the path to knowing God. Of course, Islam approaches the path to God through the principle of Tawhid or an uncompromising belief in the oneness of God; however, as a Muslim, I can see the spark of Tawhid in the Gita, as Al-Biruni pointed out over a thousand years ago.

I have read both Iliad and Odyssey, the two Western epics, in the original Greek. Mahabharata, in my opinion, is as profound as its Greek and Latin counterparts. And it teaches us how to uphold the principle of justice and truth in a world of unbridled quest for power and prestige. My plan is to bring out a readable and beautiful translation of the Gita in contemporary Italian. One of the challenges that I am facing is my lack of knowledge of Sanskrit; however, I hope to overcome it to a certain extent based on my years of training in classical languages such as Greek, Latin, Hebrew and the experience I gained through translating classical western works, the Quran (I have produced two translations of the Quran into Italian, including Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s 1934 English Quran commentary) and other religious, spiritual and philosophical texts into Italian.

You are working on Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A gift to monotheists). He was one of the pioneers of the Hindu reformation. Do you think Islam too needs a reformation today?

Ram Mohan Roy was ahead of his time. I think in the current communal polarization in India, rediscovering the true spirit of Hindu philosophy, as taught by Ram Mohan Roy, is very crucial. His life, teachings and works can unite Hindus, Muslims and Christians in their belief in the common human heritage rooted in the faith in one God, I think. What is fascinating about Roy is that he knew a number of languages like Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Latin and Greek, apart from, of course, his mother tongue and he wrote extensively about three of the greatest religions, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; yet he was a Hindu who deeply believed in Vedic Hinduism.

Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin is one of his earliest works in Persian, with a brief introduction in Arabic. And the book, though it is a monograph, shows his deep knowledge of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith and classical methodology of Muslim scholarship. There can be no doubt that Roy was deeply influenced by the monotheism of Islam. He was, of course, a Hindu and he did it by reaffirming the monotheistic and the universal values of the Vedas by discarding superstitions and mere formalism. And he also tried his best to situate Hinduism in the modern era.

Indeed, Muslim Ulema (scholars) now face the difficult challenge of situating Islam in the 21st century’s complex globalised world. We now need a fresh rethinking on Islam and the reconstruction of many of the Muslim approaches to Islam in the light of the intellectual, spiritual and social crises that Muslims are facing today. Though we often hear the term ‘reforming Islam’, we must bear in mind that the reformation of religion is a very Eurocentric idea born out of the Catholic Church’s historic struggle with the European mind, and such experience cannot be applied elsewhere in the world, especially in the case of a religion like Islam that doesn’t have any hierarchical clergy as in Catholicism.

In other words, what we need in the Muslim world today is a new Muslim epistemology, considering the stagnation and lack of dynamism in the current Muslim intellectual space. There is something that we may describe it as the crisis of knowledge that Muslims are facing today, manifesting in Muslim Ulema’s intellectual inability to face the multifaceted challenges unleashed by the different forces of modernity. In other words, status quo is no longer an option for Muslims, if they want to actualise the principles of their religion, as a vibrant community fully alive to religious pluralism, gender justice, democracy, secularism. As Muhammad Iqbal urged during the early decades of the last century, Muslims should revive the spirit of the Ijtihad or critical thinking in many of the relevant religious fields.

For many Western thinkers, Quran and Islam are inherently violent and global terror is just a reflection of this violent ideology. Your view?

Yes, this is sadly true. However, when we go deep into the history of Islam and study the teachings of the Quran properly, we will be able to see that the story is quite different. First, the vast majority of Muslims have nothing to do with violence perpetrated by an extremely minuscule fringe of extremists who misuse and misinterpret the teaching of Islam and the Quran to support their violent ideology. Actually, as we learn from the recent extremely dark history of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, Muslims were their main victims.

You have argued for Western Muslim identity, similar to Indian Muslim identity and African Muslim identity. Could you elaborate?

Islam’s self-understanding is that it is a universal religion, not an Arab tribal ideology or it is not identical with Arab nationalism, as some Muslims seem to approach it. However, Islam, like any other religion, is actualized through the lives of people who belong to different national, cultural and social milieus. And such settings must be taken into account and absorbed into religious practices when one is practising a universal religion like Islam, with rich and diverse historical experiences, though not at the expense of the fundamental questions related to the faith and the basic principles of worship and ethics.

A hallmark of modernity is liberation of women. But the West sees Islam as discriminating against women. As a young woman, what is your take on it?

Of course, misogyny and regressive patriarchal cultural norms seriously threaten the civil and religious rights of Muslim women in many Muslim countries and Islam is often blamed for it. I think it is the patriarchal and misogynistic tribal approach and interpretation of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that played and continues to play a very negative role in this regard… The contemporary Muslim Ulema must learn to differentiate between the tribal misogynistic traditions from the universal teachings of Islam and discard the former while adhering to the universal principles of Islam.

How do you see the increasing threat of right-wing groups in India against religious minorities? Is there any comparison between right-wing groups in India and Islamophobic groups in the West?

Islamophobic groups in the West have a deep medieval form of religious hatred for Islam within their discourse. However, their presence also tells us about the deep economic, cultural and political insecurity and Western politicians’ inability to address so many pressing issues faced by the West today. I think the current growth of right-wing groups in India is a different phenomenon, though one can see fascist and even Nazi influence in their methodologies. One way to overcome this is to start a genuine cultural and religious dialogue between Muslims and Hindus in India. Another way of challenging the growth of militant right-wing ideology in India is to revive the spirit of the refined, enlightened and tolerant Hinduism, as taught by Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and other Hindu reformers through their original books and discourses on Hinduism.

Conversion has become a life-threatening act today. How should a civilized society treat the issue?

Conversion from one religion to another is a personal matter between an individual and her God. And when it comes to Islam, the Quran unequivocally teaches that there should not be any compulsion in this matter. That is why all classical Muslim jurists teach that forced conversion to Islam is null and void. Yes, I have heard about the sad episode involving Muslim convert Hadiya in Kerala; however, I also firmly believe that conversion only changes one’s religion, and converts should not cut themselves off from their parents, friends and society simply because of it.

Source: timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/islam-not-an-arab-tribal-ideology-but-a-universal-religion-says-muslim-scholar-dr-sabrina-lei/articleshow/64802784.cms

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/interview/hussain-kodinhi/islam-is-a-universal-religion,-not-an-arab-tribal-ideology--muslims-should-be-more-open-in-their-engagement-with-modernity/d/115750




TOTAL COMMENTS:-   3


  • Does Hats Off calling writer of this article a "neophytic fool" make him look smart? Who dishes out more shallow tripe than him in NAI?

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 7/6/2018 11:25:48 PM



  • neophytic fools and their shallow tripe!so there is a spark of towheed in the gita and there is a flame of it in the Qur'an. ergo!two bit authors with their one bit conviction in a religion they pretend to believe in for fear of their husbands. dime a dozen.

    this lady is just another frog croaking in the swamp of neophytic know-alls.
    By hats off! - 7/6/2018 6:36:43 PM



  • "There is something that we may describe  as the crisis of knowledge that Muslims are facing today, manifesting in Muslim Ulema’s intellectual inability to face the multifaceted challenges unleashed by the different forces of modernity. In other words, status quo is no longer an option for Muslims, if they want to actualize the principles of their religion, as a vibrant community fully alive to religious pluralism, gender justice, democracy, secularism."

    Wise words that our ulema must heed!


    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 7/6/2018 1:08:29 PM



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