Islam Unknown is a collection of eight conversations with unconventional Muslim intellectuals. In each episode, eclectic Dutch philosopher Fons Elders engages the thinkers in probing discussion on topics including gender, economics, sharia, secularism, colonialism, and the nature of religious authority. What emerges is a nuanced and illuminating series of contemporary perspectives on one of the world's great religions.
The discussions take place in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, many of them filmed at the Huize Piranesi, a 19th-century Dutch farmhouse that has welcomed thinkers for decades. Each episode also includes beautiful footage of Islamic art and Muslims going about their daily lives and prayers.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. "[Elders's] approach with each subject is genuine, reverent, and introspective...It is certain that anyone fortunate enough to view this film will benefit from its broad insights, opinions, and shared knowledge." —Library Journal
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. "There is a remarkable depth and breadth to each of the eight conversations. Elders is a skillful interviewer, posing thoughtful questions and then getting out of the way of his guest's response. An excellent classroom resource, appropriate especially to academic libraries supporting religious and Middle Eastern studies, ISLAM UNKNOWN is a strong choice for public libraries as well." —Educational Media Reviews Online
DISC ONE (4x26 minutes)
Asma Barlas — God is Uncreated, God is Without Sex and Gender
Professor Asma Barlas doesn't call herself a feminist — but she is a believer in "radical sexual equality" based on a reading of the Qur'an. "Unfortunately... men interpret God's word in ways that favour themselves, and then it becomes a closed circle and it is really difficult to challenge it," says Barlas, the author of Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an.
She argues that, like other texts, the Qur'an is open to multiple readings and that Tawhid — the fundamental Muslim concept of the oneness of God — clearly transcends gender differences.
Speaking during the third Conference on Islamic Feminism, held in Barcelona, Barlas is a lively and dynamic thinker who critically engages in her own tradition, while also holding the West to account for centuries-old anti-Islamic stereotypes that are still deployed in new forms today.
Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd — Truth With a Capital T: the Most Dangerous Concept
Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd was born and raised in Egypt, but was forced into exile by a charge of apostasy in the 1980s. He had always seen Islam as a religion rooted in social justice, and began to raise questions about inequality as Egypt liberalized its economy, creating greater wealth but also greater poverty.
In this conversation, Abu Zayd embraces the importance of ambiguity and outlines how colonial attitudes towards Islam have served as a kind of trap, binding both Christians and Muslims into false perceptions of each other. Those false perceptions, he says, have been renewed and reinforced through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After decades of exile, he remains a devout Muslim committed to a diversity of interpretations of scripture."If you adhere to the rational interpretation, you are looking into the Qur'an with one eye. If you adhere to the literal interpretation, you are looking with the other eye. You should open both eyes," he says. "The real faith is the faith that believes in uncertainty. In ambiguity."
This episode of Islam Unknown was filmed in the Netherlands — the country to which Abu Zayd fled — shortly before his death in 2010.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im — Everything I Do A Quest for Meaning
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is a Sufi dedicated both to Islam and to secularism.
An-Na'im is unwavering in his opposition to any Islamic state. Indeed, he says the idea does not appear in the Qur'an, and only became popularized in the 20th century as a reaction to European colonialism. In fact, he goes so far as to say "the notion of an Islamic state is a heretical innovation."
The soft-spoken author of Islam and the Secular State, An-Na'im fled Sudan for the United States in 1985, after his mentor — one of the most religious men he had ever known — was executed for apostasy. The experience has clearly influenced his view that religion can only flourish when the state is neutral. Further, he argues that fatwas — such as that against Salman Rushdie — are little more than un-Islamic power grabs.
While some (such as Mehmet Asutay, in episode 8 of this series) argue that Turkey is an example of co-existence between Islam and secularism, An-Na'im's vision of secularism is more radical — and he sees secularism not as a hindrance to religion, but as the only guarantee of the freedom of believers to freely practice their beliefs.
Amna Nusayr — I Became Another Woman
In this discussion, conducted in her Cairo home, Nusayr focuses the conversation primarily on a discussion of sharia and jihad — two notions that she says have been fundamentally misrepresented.
She separates sharia from cultural traditions — such as those subjugating women — which, she says, do not come from Islam. Islam, she says, tells men and women to be just and loving with each other. Rather than seeing sharia as the application of laws, Nusayr approaches it as having an inner spiritual meaning — an approach that Fons Elders notes is compatible with human rights and equality.
As for jihad, Nusayr again makes a distinction — this time between an internal spiritual struggle, and an external one justified by self-defence. She sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as rooted in politics, not religion, and — for someone who professes to love all nations — offers some controversial criticisms of Jews and the Jewish State.
Ultimately, though, she says that "our fundamental problem is that we don't know how to love each other."
DISC TWO (4x26 minutes)
Reza Aslan — A Cosmic War is a Religious War
In this wide-ranging conversation about politics, society and culture, Reza Aslan argues that young Muslims are better off in the United States than they are in Europe.
Aslan sees Islam as a religion based primarily on practice, rather than creed. He says its one essential credo — there is no God but God — is so malleable that "it allows Islam to be whatever people want it to be." The result has been a diverse and eclectic religion. But that has also allowed Muslims to be defined by colonial powers, and has left them vulnerable to jihadists who provide their own compelling narrative to young Muslims — particularly those in Europe.
The genius of bin Laden (who was still alive when this conversation was recorded), Aslan says, was "his ability to connect local grievances with global grievances to create a single narrative — a narrative of suffering and injustice at the hands of the West." So, a young Dutch Arab Muslim can link the racism he faces with the war in Chechnya, the suffering of the Palestinians, and the occupation of Iraq. He's been provided with a ready-made identity.
Despite the misguided rhetoric of the war on terror, Aslan, who lives in Los Angeles, says American Muslims are less likely to be seduced by such rhetoric, because of the nature of American identity. "The American identity is a constantly mutating one... You become part of us, and America changes to become part of you."
Anouar Majid — We Are All Minorities
Anouar Majid is a believer in the power of heresy. In this conversation, he looks at the history of how Europe and Islam have defined themselves in opposition to each other, and argues for a new relationship — one based on cultures that encourage a multiplicity of points of view.
While the current conflict between jihadists and the West may seem to have arisen in the last few decades, Majid reminds us that "there is a genuine clash between Islam and the western tradition" that goes back centuries: "Europe came together more than 1,000 years ago when they developed a common consciousness of the threat of the Muslims." Indeed, he traces the very notion of the nation-state to the Spanish expulsions of the Jews in 1492 and the Moors in 1609 — both of which reinforced the idea that statehood and faith were one.
"The Muslim became the prototype of the Other, and therefore all minorities in modern history," Majid says. And in an era of globalization, just about everybody is a minority of some kind. "We are all strangers in this world... All our differences together create the beauty and richness that makes life worth living."
This deeply engaging conversation covers a remarkable amount of ground in just half an hour. In addition to his defence of heresy and overview of Muslim-European relations, Majid also delves into the historical affinity between Jews and Muslims, and calls for a "much more robust dialogue of civilizations."
Ömer Özsoy — Also the Qur'an Is the Work of its Time
This episode of Islam Unknown delves deeper than some others into theology, but also engages with one of the most divisive social issues to have marked Islam in the West: the headscarf.
Ömer Özsoy is firm in his belief that the headscarf is not mandated by the Qur'an, but that Muslim women in western societies should nonetheless have the right to wear it as they please. To him, it is not a question of religion, but simply one of human rights. In a secular society, the theological underpinnings of the debate are irrelevant. "The issue is that there is a religious group with a certain conviction. That's it! That must be respected, provided that this religiosity does not infringe on the freedom and rights of others."
While Özsoy worries that anti-Semitic arguments are being recycled as anti-Islamic — and that they will ultimately lead to more isolationism — he is also optimistic that these areas of conflict will ultimately lead to greater understanding between traditions. "This is how we can get rid of the images handed down by previous generations," he says. "Muslims must end the image of an immoral Europe, and Europeans the image of an irrational Islam."
This conversation is in German, with English subtitles.
Mehmet Asutay — Justice: The Essence of Any Moral Economy
In the wake of the global financial meltdown, many people are seeking alternatives to the global financial system. One of them is Mehmet Asutay, who has devoted himself to developing a model for an Islamic economy that emphasizes social justice.
Asutay believes the economic crisis was caused by the disconnection between finance and the real world. But the answer does not lie in Islamic banking, which he says takes a narrow, legalistic approach to issues such as the ban on charging interest. What Asutay hopes for instead is a moral economy — an economy that offers equal opportunity to resources and that recognizes that, regardless of differences, humans are equal in their relationship to God.
For Asutay, an Islamic moral economy need not be all-encompassing. Each society can develop economic models that best suit its needs. And an Islamic economy should not discriminate against non-Muslims. Saying that he appreciates "the humanistic nature of secularism," Asutay says he sees the Islamic economy as being rooted in religion but geared towards justice.
While he does not claim to have one overarching economic solution, Asutay says it is clear we need to develop trust as a key to economic activity — and that our participation in a consumer society makes us all culpable to some extent: "I don't see this as just a failure of a financial system, I see it as a failure of homo economicus. Each one of us individually has contributed to this collapse."
Elders' hope is that the conversations will contribute to a new understanding of the diversity of Islam, and to a decrease in Islamophobia among Americans and Europeans - a much-needed corrective to popular Western perceptions of Muslims.