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Islamic theology: “We must be pioneers of change”.

Misleading interpretation of the Koran may lead to violence. The commitment of Muslim women theologians and the search for the common good. We spoke with Shahrzad Houshmand, a Muslim theologian of Iranian origins, professor of Islamic studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

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Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, terrorist attacks in various parts of the world. Why do some passages in the Koran inspire violence in some people?

The Quran‘s verses are more than six thousand and those that can be interpreted as a justification of violence are less than ten. Yet, there are some people who, taking advantage of the ignorance of some of the faithful, manipulate those few lines to convince the faithful that violence is justified in the Quran. In Pakistan, for instance, the government has cut the funding sources for public education. This has favoured the opening of private schools, which most of the times, are Koranic schools often financed by other States (it would be interesting to identify these States ).
In these schools, students are just taught to write and memorize verses from the Koran, and not to interpret the text, also because the students are not even Arab native speakers. Few people, therefore, learn to interpret the Quran’s verses correctly, while the majority of the faithful can be easily manipulated. The abuse of religious terms is only a tool to justify acts of violence, which are completely condemned by religious leaders, by teachers in particular, by intellectuals, and by Muslims themselves.

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Millions and millions of Muslims suffer seeing the crimes perpetrated in the name of their religion. We are living very difficult moments. However, the Quran reminds us, that difficulty is an opportunity for a positive evolution. So we must broaden our vision of the events that are currently happening around us, and try to find opportunities for some improvement.

According to many academics, the problem with Islam is the refusal of a critical culture: is it so?

The creation of man is narrated through allegory in the Quran. “ Allah blew his soul into Adam and commanded the Angels to bow to him. When they ask why they were supposed to do so, Allah answered them, “Because Adam is able to understand and to know.” The sacred text, therefore, states that knowledge is the main criterion that determines the supremacy of human beings. A religion of this kind does not refuse criticism, at all! The history of Islamic civilization shows that Islam has always been open to the dialogue with other cultures, religions, philosophies, and sciences.

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Many inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, in the ancient times, bravely reached distant lands, such as Persia, Greece, India, with the main purpose of learning about other customs and schools of thought. Let’s not forget the role of Avicenna in the transmission of medical knowledge, as well as the contribution of Muslim scientists in mathematics, astronomy, agriculture … by ignoring all this, we jeopardize the relationship between cultures. Even, nowadays, besides some realities where obscurantism prevails, there are also many examples of Muslim thinkers who elaborate critical thinking about the doctrine.”

What is the role of Muslim women theologians in this reinterpretation of Islam ?

Nowadays there are many women theologians from Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia and Europe. But women’s role was important already at the times of the prophet Muhammad. The first person who believed in him was Khadija, who would later become his wife, even though she was a forty year old widow, and the prophet was just 25. She protected the prophet and was always on his side even during the most difficult moments of his public life. Khadija was a sort of spiritual guide to Muhammad, as well as her daughter Fatima, the only heir of the prophet, who called her “Ummi ABIH” (“mother of her father”). Finally Aisha, who was Muhammad’s only virgin bride, played a key role in the transmission of Muhammad’s teachings.

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The mother of Muslim spirituality was a woman, Rabia al-Adawiyah, who lived in Iraq in the first century of the Islamic calendar. Women were also the teachers of the Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi, who lived in the thirteenth century. And his disciples were mainly girls. We can see the important role of women everywhere in the Islamic world: in India, Persia, Turkey. Unfortunately, in recent centuries, Muslim women’s voice was lowered by force. Yet, today, Muslim women theologians are regaining their role and their work is considered worth noting.

Divisions within Islam, particularly between Sunnis and Shiites, are under the eyes of everyone: is it therefore possible to simply speak of “Islamic theology”? Is it as simple as that?

The Prophet said: “There are love and mercy in the differences of my people.” Diversity, can be a positive opportunity for exchange, and need not necessarily lead to divisions. The sources of the Quran are commonly recognised as the only ones by the entire Islamic world: yet while only a part of the texts is interpreted in the same way by all Muslim faithful, another part of the book is interpreted differently by Sunnis and Shiites. However, differences are in the plan of God, and they cannot, in any way, justify violence or wars.

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Can Muslim women be in the vanguard of promoting dialogue, while violence is distorting religion?

It is a major challenge. We cannot deny, that many Muslim woman all over the world, contribute to the growth and development of human society. If we just think of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded, in recent years, to three women’s rights activists: the Iranian Shirin Ebadi, then the Yemeni Tawakkol Karman and finally, a few months ago, the Pakistani Malala Yousafzai. Women from different geographical and cultural contexts, yet equally committed to renewing society. This is a sign that the Spirit leads us to act for the common good. Therefore, I do hope that we, the women, can be the pioneers of change. (C.Z.)

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