Algerian-born, Prof. Mohammed Arkoun is viewed by many students of religious studies as a leading thinker in an effort to articulate the Islamic message in global contemporary terms. This can only mean that he is seeking to imagine a worldcentric perspective on Islam, much as I envisage in my doctoral dissertation. In his book "Re-Thinking Islam - Common Questions, Uncommon Answers," Arkoun is asked:
Can one speak of a scientific understanding of Islam in the West or must one rather talk about the Western way of imagining Islam?
This is a part of Arkoun's response:
"The notion of "imagining" evoked in the question is new; the nonspecialist is not likely to grasp it, for even the experts have not succeeded in mastering the shape, function, and operation of this faculty we call imagination. To be brief, I will say that the "imaginary" of an individual, a social group, or a nation is the collection of images carried by that culture about itself or another culture - once a product of epics, poetry, and religious discourse, today a product primarily of the media and secondarily of schools. In this sense, of course, individuals and societies have their own imaginaries tied to their own common languages. There are thus French, English, and German ways of imagining Islam - imaginaries, as they have come to be called - just as there are Algerian, Egyptian, Iranian, and Indian imaginaries of the West. Since the 1950s the powerful, omnipresent media, drawn daily to report on the violent happenings of the moment - national liberation movements, protests, and revolts in the numerous and diverse countries inhabited by Muslims - have fed the Western imaginary of Islam.
The misperceptions inherent in this imaginary go beyond current events. Although the problems of Muslim societies have indeed become knottier and more numerous since the emergence of national states in the 1950s and 1960s, another serious confusion - one that has contributed directly to the shaping of the Western imaginary of Islam - has also emerged in this short time. That is, all the political, social, economic, and cultural shortcomings of Muslim societies are hitched together and to Islam with a capital "I." Islam then becomes the source and the prime mover of all contemporary history in a world that extends from the Philippines to Morocco and from Scandinavia, if we take account of Muslim minorities in Europe, to South Africa.
It is true that the sort of Islamic discourse common to fundamentalist movements, especially those engaged in the most decisive political battles, proposes the powerful image of a single, eternal Islam, the ideal model for historic action to liberate the world from the Western, imperialist, materialist model. The media in the West seize upon this monolithic, fundamentalist view of Islam that dominates the contemporary Muslim imaginary and transpose it into a discourse suitable to the social imaginary of Western countries without any intermediate critique from the social sciences. The field of perception is open to the confrontation of two imaginaries overheated by accumulated confusions about each other.
This everyday labor of stimulating and amplifying the two imaginaries is complicated by a much older and more serious issue, one that reaches to the most sacred origins of the three monotheistic religions. Ever since the emergence of Islam between 610 to 632, there has been continuous rivalry among three religious communities - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim - all striving to establish a monopoly on the management of symbolic capital linked to what the three traditions call "revelation." The issue is enormous and primordial, yet it has nonetheless been buried by secularized, ideological discourse: the ideologies of nation building, scientific progress, and universal humanism in nineteenth- twentieth-century Europe. Then, beginning with the Nazi catastrophe and the wars of colonial liberation, the question of revelation was buried under the no less deceptive rhetoric of decolonization, of development and underdevelopment (in the 1960s), and of nation building in the Third World countries that had just recovered their political sovereignty.
To this day, no one has studied revelation in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arab manifestations and as a function of the historical and anthropological conditions for the emergence of these three traditions. That constitutes a failure of the comparative history of religions, of social science, and of the human sciences, which have left the task of "managing the goods of salvation" to the theologians of each community. That is to say that they have perpetuated theological discourse in its function of legitimating the drive for power of each community. This fact condemns discourse to the confines of a cultural system that excludes all others who have the sacrilegious pretension to draw upon the same symbolic capital." (1994, pp. 6-7).
~ Excerpted from "Re-Thinking Islam - Common Questions, Uncommon Answers" by Mohammed Arkoun, Ph.D, translated and edited by Robert D. Lee. Prof. Arkoun obtained his doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, France, and is one of the most influential scholars in Islamic studies today. In a career of more than 30 years, he has been a critic of the tensions embedded in his field of study, advocating Islamic modernism and humanism.