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Jari Kaukua is keen to increase awareness of the diversity of Islamic tradition

11 Sep 2017

Academy Research Fellow Jari Kaukua and his team have secured a substantial grant from the European Research Council to continue their research on Islamic philosophy and to expand their team base.

The team’s research is concerned to trace and unravel the philosophical discussion that has been going on since the late 1100s and to find out how it has influenced present-day thinking. Their examinations include not only philosophical but also theological and Sufi literature. Sufism refers to Islamic mysticism, which has become increasingly theoretical during the period under study. Other areas of focus for Kaukua include the debate among natural scientists about the methodology of science; the nature of scientific knowledge acquisition; and the principle of systematic scientific thinking.

Discussion grounded in large text corpuses

There has been some critical commentary about the return to the old theological tradition, both within reformist and fundamentalist Islam. Critics insist that the outdated, traditional interpretation of Islam cannot be expected to show any capacity for self-renewal or to provide a meaningful answer to the question of what everyday life today holds for Muslims. But Kaukua maintains it is important to keep this research tradition alive.

“We need to identify the most relevant perspectives to this tradition, the perspectives whose rejection would mean discarding the whole tradition; and on the other hand to identify the perspectives that are historically variable and that could perhaps be explained in their original context, and that we might be able to discard without having to dispense with everything else.”

One of Kaukua’s main research interests and motives is to increase awareness of the diversity of Islamic tradition, not only among Muslims but also Western people. Many second- and third-generation Muslims living in Western countries today are interested in their own heritage. These are the people who according to Kaukua are best placed to influence the way in which Islam is interpreted among Western-living Muslims. Of course, there are also examples of young radicalised adults who have gone in the exact opposite direction.

Interpretation of religious law presents challenge for secularisation

In contrast to modern Christianity, which represents almost secular social ethics, it is difficult to separate Islamic ethical thinking from religious law, which presents a challenge for its secularisation. Even more moderate Islam commentators will therefore have difficulty talking about doctrines that are in sharp conflict with so-called modern ethical convictions.

“It’s impossible for them to take a very radical stance on the question of in what respect Islamic law is historically contingent and variable. Overly radical secularisation would risk alienating a large part of the community members whom they should be serving. For this reason, they can’t just flatly begin to dispute these problems,” Kaukua says.

Kaukua does not want to deny the problems inherent in some of Islam’s doctrines.

“But these problems aren’t very important or central to the everyday life of most Muslims. We shouldn’t just brush them aside, but on the other hand, if we devote all our attention to them, we’re bound to be left with a distorted bigger picture. Besides, it’s unlikely we’d get very far just by probing into these sore points. I’m sure it’s a more promising approach to articulate the general ethical principles based on relatively undisputed texts, and then proceed to critically examine these problems against this systematic background.”

It is easier for us to recognise the diversity of the familiar Christian tradition, Kaukua says:

“If someone describes themselves as Christian, that’s not yet saying very much. How does this person understand the main doctrines of Christianity; what does this person think of the role of Christ and the church? Similar questions can be asked of virtually every central Islamic doctrine. But it’s easy to forget this in the case of an ideological tradition that is more alien to us. It may also be convenient to brush the whole question aside, for various reasons, even from an Islam-critical or islamophobic perspective, or from the point of view of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.”

Growing interest in Islamic philosophy

Kaukua says that history of philosophy research has changed enormously since his early postgraduate years, when he would still have to explain and justify to scholars of medieval philosophy why he was interested in studying Islamic philosophy.

“The change during these past 15 years has been quite dramatic. If today you were to write an overview of the history of medieval philosophy and only included those works of Arabic history that were translated into Latin, most peer reviewers would come back and say sorry, there are so many gaps in this presentation that it’s just not acceptable.”

This shift also reflects the way that conceptions of medieval philosophy have changed over the past 100 years. According to Kaukua, it was still commonplace in the early 1900s to view medieval philosophy as a fruitless hairsplitting exercise and as a slavish repetition of Aristotelian dogmas. These perceptions have been changing with the growth of general knowledge.

“I’m sure that today, even educated laymen no longer look upon the Middle Ages as a dark age of oppressive religion that aimed to exterminate all rational thought. These views have been turned around by the work of research scholars in the twentieth century. The same effort is now underway in the field of Islamic philosophy and theology.”

Original text in Finnish and photo by Eetu Lehto

Last modified 11 Sep 2017
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