Dr Martin Nguyen
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Director of Islamic Studies, Fairfield University
This post concludes an online book panel on Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination with comments from the author. This online dialogue is hosted by the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 may be found on the Christian-Muslim Studies Network blog.
The bringing of Modern Muslim Theology into the world was very much a venture into the unknown. The book marked a new disciplinary direction in my work and it assumes a fundamentally different voice than the one that I am accustomed and was trained to express as a scholar. I am speaking theologically, rather than academically. This is all to say, that I wrote this work with different audiences in mind, unsure as to its reception on these multiple fronts. It was immensely gratifying, then, to have respected colleagues in the field address these various dynamics from their respective positions and perspectives.
‘The cultivation of faith, if it is to be both sustaining and transformative, must also be grounded in the lived experiences of the faithful’.
First and foremost, I wrote this book as a theologian, anchored to a community of faith and attentive to the needs and challenges of that broadly-conceived community. I am thankful, then, for Khalil Abdur-Rashid’s response that simultaneously acknowledges the pastoral and critical dimensions of Modern Muslim Theology. I am indeed seeking to ‘popularize’ and ‘domesticate’ theology for wider and richer engagement. This engagement, however, must move beyond mimicry and cults of personality. The cultivation of faith, if it is to be both sustaining and transformative, must also be grounded in the lived experiences of the faithful. The imagination ought to be marshalled to bring to life the histories, memories, and everyday interactions carried closely by that community. While I have offered some of my own re-imaginings in the book, I sincerely hope that the community of faith is able to develop other imaginative modes of faith that translate, transport, and transform.
In a similar vein, Ebrahim Moosa directed his response to my theological treatment of Muslim understandings of tradition. As he writes, ‘Tradition is to a large extent a mode of civility’. Taken with the rest of his review, Moosa’s engagement is at its heart a caution. While much of my book was aimed at broadening, reinvigorating, and reframing ‘tradition’, there is also the unavoidable politicization of the concept that perennially occurs. He poignantly brings out the ‘how’ of it in the cases of al-Ghazali and Malcolm X respectively, while also alluding to controversies that embroil the Muslim community today. How one deals with contention and contestation in the face of tradition, then, matters greatly, for its consequences ripple through space, time, and multiple interrelated communities. We ought to respond, then, with a renewed cognizance of our agency and its impact. Nonetheless, this turbulence, I have argued, is the norm, rather than the exception. In fact, the life of the tradition continues because it has had to struggle through the vicissitudes of our histories and our ethical ambiguity. While I may not know the future course that the tradition will take, I have faith in its ability to survive and overcome the community’s most contentious fractures and divisive fissures, as uncivil as they may manifest.
The inward focus of Modern Muslim Theology comes into sharp relief after reading Youshaa Patel’s provocative question concerning the inter-religious implications of my theological project. I will admit that Modern Muslim Theology was purposely written with little to say explicitly about inter-religious relations with other faith communities. My choice was deliberate. Too often, Muslim theology in the Euro-American Academy is only entertained when it is framed through its relationality to its primarily Christian, but sometimes Jewish, interlocutors. While such work has significance, it also reflects a prevailing power differential in the field of theology. Nevertheless, as Patel’s own body of work explores, religious identity is perpetually formed in contradistinction to others. A fully articulated modern Muslim theology, then, must invariably tackle questions of interreligious solidarity and difference. How the balance between the two (solidarity vs. difference) might be struck, however, I leave open, for the moment deferring instead to the ongoing work of many others.
‘Modern Muslim Theology was never intended to settle matters. My goal, rather, was to inspire sincere discussion, prompt critical reflection, and activate religious imaginations for the sake of faith’.
While I may not have explicitly engaged with other communities of faith in Modern Muslim Theology, there is in fact an implicit engagement at play for the careful reader. My own theological formation extends beyond the study of the Islamic tradition, past and present, and includes as well a number of Christian theologians. Underlying much of my writing are my responses to such voices, sometimes formulated in pointed contrast, sometimes formulated in agreement or at least resonance. On another level, then, my writing, though outwardly aimed at Muslim audiences, is also written in hopes of engaging the imaginations of other faith communities as well. Just as I have benefited immensely from my encounter with other theological traditions, I had hoped that this project, in its commitment to doing Muslim theology, might serve as a similar vehicle of religious self-reflection for non-Muslim readers. I took Lucinda Allen Mosher’s response, then, as a welcome affirmation of this aspiration. Indeed, having read Mosher’s reflection on prayer as a means of simultaneously turning to God and against the world, I find it heartening to imagine that the righteous engaged in this prayerful act of ‘turning’ traverse many religious horizons rather than Muslims alone.
Finally, Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s comments bring me back to that aspect of accessibility that I had hoped Modern Muslim Theology would bear. I may have composed the book as an academic and theologian participating in various scholarly discourses, but I also wrote the book in hopes reaching broader publics, Muslim and otherwise. The opportunity to visit Khalil’s classroom and engage with his students over their readings of the book allowed me to appreciate how the work was being received by undergraduate students, uninitiated and unfamiliar with theology as a trajectory of inquiry. I learned an immense amount in turn while listening to their questions and concerns. I hope others might find the book, or parts of it, useful in classrooms and beyond for thinking through and appreciating the religious issues and problematics that Muslim communities face today.
In sum, Modern Muslim Theology was never intended to settle matters. My goal, rather, was to inspire sincere discussion, prompt critical reflection, and activate religious imaginations for the sake of faith. My hope was to inspire others to think and live theologically. As these five probing and thought-provoking responses demonstrate, there remains much work to be done in this regard, but it is my genuine hope that this conversation continues and builds well beyond the scope of this initial venture.