The Effectiveness of Religious Discourse: Between Teaching and Reality

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar Monday May 8ᵗʰ, 2017

The third session in the series of meetings organized as part of the collaboration between the University of al-Azhar and the IDEO, aimed at examining the issue of extremism, took place on Monday, May 8, 2017 at the Faculty of Human Sciences (for Women).

As in the two previous meetings, three lectures were presented:

Hazem al-Rahmani discussed the didactic aspect of religious discourse based on the components of the communicative act, and then listed the factors that affect the effectiveness of this discourse, namely stereotypes, amalgams, bullying, etc. He also proposed several conditions needed to be fulfilled to make a  discourse more effective: between daʿwā (call to conversion) and takfīr (excommunication), fraternity and rivalry, flexibility and rigidity, peace and war, cohabitation and exclusion. He concludes by highlighting the importance of emphasizing the objectives of the law (maqāṣid al-šarīʿa) and the proper interpretation of the divine word, while taking care not to assume the politics of a sacred character.

Adrien Candiard began by referencing an event which occurred in Brazil in 2009 and revealed the degree of inhumanity to which humans can reach if they strictly apply moral rules deduced from religious law. This was the case of a girl forced to abort her child after a rape, and was excommunicated by her bishop. Adrien focused on this very complex relationship between the law and its application in limited cases. The theologians of the Middle Ages took from philosophers the concept of epikea (equity), which gives priority to the spirit over the letter of the law. The challenge is therefore no longer about applying the law in a “moderate” way, as if it trying to contain a potential for violence when applied to limited cases, but to apply the law in its entirety, even in its very spirit.

Nada Abdel Mohssen chose first to identify the different categories of religious discourse, as well as the mechanisms that currently govern its development, without forgetting the challenges that inhibit its effectiveness. She then tried to analyze the causes of the gap between teaching and reality, and the evils that hinder the desired transformation in religious discourse. She also recalled the initiative of the Imam Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1850‒1905), a key figure in the reform of Islamic jurisprudence. She concluded her presentation by proposing a few recommendations concerning the role and prerogatives of preachers, the most important of which is the need to constantly go back to the sources of Muslim culture.

The three presentations gave rise to a very lively discussion: Rémi Chéno recalled Pierre Bourdieu‘s theory (1930‒2002) on the pillars that religious, normative, innovative, and reproductive discourse, suggesting the addition of the media as a pillar. Oussama Nabil, for his part, insisted on the need to clearly distinguish between a protected, accredited, and religious discourse from and a free discourse, often-uncontrolled discourse. Jean Druel recalled both the importance and the urgency of producing a discourse more rooted in tradition (turāṯ), if we want it to be more effective towards certain Muslim trends, especially that of the Salafists.

It seems that our discussion stumbles on the question of “moderation”, of the “middle path”, which religious teaching in al-Azhar claims to follow, and which deserves to be defined in terms of its tools and its relationship with rational reflection. What does it practically mean to “moderate his discourse”? How to teach with a “middle path”?