Crónicas de uma Muçulmana

The west should pay greater attention to religion

Western societies have greater difficulties understanding Islam because of their lack of a religious understanding of the world; they have lost the "ear" of faith - says Aziz Esmail, the Muslim philosopher 

Faranaz Keshavjee (

Can one appreciate Shakespeare without knowing the Christian culture? And can Italians appreciate Dante's power in its totality? May be not, especially if they do not understand the Christianity of that time. It is the power, rather, the sound of faith, that the west seem to have forgotten.

It is interesting. The person who speaks like this is not a man of faith - that is, a Christian believer. He is a Muslim. A philosopher, a man of letters, and also an opera lover, and of classical music, further to his many other identities, as he is keen on pointing out: Aziz Esmail, was born in Kenya, and is Indian by origin, further to being an Ismaili by faith. He learned literature, philosophy, psychology and psychoanalysis, Islamic studies, and he is interested in medicine and biology. Like the ancient kind of humanistic philosophers, he is against the compartment of knowledge. He is not, at all, an ordinary man. He was a lecturer in Kenya and in the US. He is currently living in London. He was in Portugal to give a talk in his community. "Expresso" newspaper talked with him about faith issues, religion and ideology. In sum, on identities. Further to the relations between Muslims and Christians, among many other things, like democracy.

He says: " the west should pay greater attention to religion. There is a negation of the role of faith in the evolution of the European societies". The lecturer explains why. Mainly for practical reasons, that is, intellectual: to understand the identities of the various Muslim communities which live in Europe and the United States.

" One of the reasons why western societies find it so difficult to understand Islam is because they do not have a religious vision of the world, they do not understand the power of faith. If the Europeans could understand their own past, it would have been much easier for them to understand why their "Muslim cousins" (spiritual cousins in the abrahamic tradition) hold on to faith". Islamic tradition is still linked to what was the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, with which the Europeans, more so than the Americans, have made a rupture. The past is there and it cannot be erased. The Professor points out the French example, where its revolution of 1789 has made a rupture with its own history, but where you will stumble on God at every corner, in any church. In the schools, however, God's presence is denied. And should it be present? Aziz Esmail does not want to be misunderstood. However, his is a view that "the school is a place where people should be encouraged to become citizens, and to become part of a wider culture. Furthermore, that the tribal, or ethnic symbols, do not let this happen". And what about the veil? That's a different question.

Esmail does not only talk about Christianity because this is an issue that does not only have to do with religion but that cuts across all cultures. You do not have to be a practicing Jew or Christian to be able to understand the Jewish and Christian traditions. " We should be able to have a religious musicality". Is it not true that, even if you are not a musician, you can have a musical ear? " In order to understand their own past and their history, it is important that the Europeans are sensitive and 'have a musical ear' so that they can hear the sound and feel the logic of faith", he says. "I say it for the love of Shakespeare - we cannot miss him, nor Molière, or Kant, or Hegel, and all the other thinkers that are not comprehensible outside the western context. It does not matter if Hegel was a believer or not, but you cannot understand him without understanding what it was that he was in favor or against.

After all, it is human identity, in its greater sense, that has to be understood. Otherwise, all knowledge will be a technological one and we will only know about the internet, the mobile phones, computer games, in sum, technologies. The philosopher reminds us that " it is here that lies the danger, even of capitalism, which becomes senseless, if it is disconnected from its Judeo- Christian roots.

The enigma of Revelation

So we ask, and what does this all have to do with Islam or the Muslim world? We get back to where we started. We began by asking about Islamic philosophy (which Esmail prefers to call "a systematic thought") and he talked about the differences and commonalities in between the three societies of the book - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. " They have much more in common that what is divisive in between them", says the philosopher.

Being monotheistic religions, all three believe that God communicates to humanity in some form, usually through individuals (the prophets in Judaism, the Logos in Christianity, and Muhammad in Islam) and they also believe that these messages are incorporated in a book. There is a charismatic event in their origin - the Revelation, which is then codified in the form of a systematic thought, or even in Law. The big difference is that Muhammad is not accepted by the other two religions as an inspired messenger, nor is the Qur'an as the divine book of revelation. That is, "Jews and Christians do not accept Islam and, furthermore, they do not accept Islam as a faith, by all means". Esmail talks as an intellectual, not as a believer: " it is as an intellectual that I should ask myself what does Revelation mean". Being common to the three religions, revelation is an enigma: " the secular modern thought does not have the vocabulary to understand it; we lack the concepts that help us understand it from the humanistic point of view". For a believer, of course, this comes from a different world.

The philosopher makes a distinction between faith, religion and ideology. He explains: " faith is similar to art, because it is a perception of an order in the universe; it says that the world has meaning. Religion organizes this in a cult, in rituals, in social practices, which can become misguiding if they wish to substitute faith itself, with its formalism and ritualism. Furthermore, ideology is the use of faith symbols as claims of groups of people". Once more, Esmail cites his beloved Shakespeare: " If the British colonial regime had used Shakespeare as their claim for their superiority, it would have been their ideological use of literature". Quite convincing.

So, if the west has developed a rationalist thought, what happened with Islam? There are those who affirm that secularism did not take place in Islamic societies, but the professor is cautious: " it depends from what you mean by secularization". If one means the separation between the power of church and that of the State, this did not happen, partly because there was no church, and partly because State was not there in the Muslim world until the arrival of the colonial powers and of modernity - after all, the Muslim nations are a product of the political history of Europe.

However, "if we understand secularization as a thought that is based on reason and is free from dogma, then there are quite a few examples of this in Islam. We have the tendency to confuse religion with culture, however, the latter is much more inclusive - what can thus, one say of poetry, of the celebration of wine, of sex, of the pomp, of the pleasure that were part of the poetry of the great Abbasids", asks Esmail. " poetry is secular in the sense that it celebrates the glory of mundane life - just as was secular the philosophical thought present in Al-Farabi, Avicenna, or Averrois, in between the IX and XII centuries". This is not, however, the general perception, of those who think that the expressions of the Muslim world are mainly religious. Esmail regrets that this idea is also encouraged by the Muslims themselves: " it is an ideological vision, because all evidences show that there is a great variety of literature and thought in Islam".

And is it correct that faith be imposed in the public sphere? Aziz Esmail does not have a "black and white" answer. The theme is a political one and in Islam there are those who claim for either of these two sides. He himself considers that there is nothing that makes it compulsive to be either way. What he does not agree with is with the slogan "Islam is a way of life", that it does not separate material from spiritual: " a way of life is always when a believer takes his faith seriously, whichever it may be". It is not however, surely, to dress a certain kind of clothing, like women wearing veils, or men growing their beards - " that is a matter of a very specific culture".

A failed modernity

Aziz Esmail is peremptory, although he recognizes that these "gestures" ("details", as he calls them) can be recovered in the identity processes of the younger generations of Muslims, whose integration in the western societies has not always been successful, especially among the radical groups. " An identity should not be shouted out from the top of a roof", he says, " its affirmation implies a lie to others and many times, to oneself".

Elements like these ones are part of Islamic fundamentalism, however, the philosopher understands that one should not look only to economic and political factors to justify them. The question is of a different kind: " one should ask why is it that they express themselves in those terms?" Esmail goes back to its roots. He thinks that the Muslim world has failed in developing its own language of modernity, "partly because its modern phase has coincided with the western powers, but also because they failed in reaching modernity while leading their own ways". It did not have the historical time to do it. The initial anti-western discourse which manifests itself afterwards, through Marxist nationalism,´and which collapsed as well, ends up providing Islam with its own rebellion: "fundamentalism is exactly that: a movement of protest".

Another thing would be if the Muslim world had had the opportunity in itself to conceptualize these changes. Aziz Esmail asks:" how do we conceptualize democracy? In the Muslim world there is no vocabulary that links democracy to Islamic history, and that is why it becomes artificial". Thus, for many Muslims, this concept, in the terms as it is defined by the west, is unacceptable. In any case, the philosopher thinks that the extremist movements are a minority and that terrorism, although shocking and dramatic, is not by itself, the main problem. "The Muslim world suffers from the absence of freedom, of culture, of education, of scientific thought". That is, really, the true crisis. That is, really, a long term issue.


PS: The interview was conducted by Journalist Luisa Meireles and Faranaz Keshavjee and only comes in English version for non-Portuguese readers. The Portuguese version is published in the printed version of Actual in Expresso newspaper of June, 26, 2010. For the integral view of the interview in Portuguese only, please check the address