Excerpts from Zulfikar A Hirji’s Introduction to the Muslim Pluralism Seminar Series

The Series explores in an interdisciplinary manner the diverse ways in which Muslims have addressed issues of authority, governance, knowledge, gender, material culture, social relations, space, language, ethics and the sacred.

The aims of the series are four-fold:

  1. To critically assess the engagement Muslims have had with their own diversity and their responses to it;
  2. To delineate Muslim constructions of self, other and community;
  3. To outline methodological approaches by which historical and contemporary pluralism within Muslim societies might be examined and understood; and
  4. To assess if approaches to the study of diversity amongst Muslims are relevant for other communities.

The proceedings from the seminar series will be published in the form of an edited volume of papers by The Institute of Ismaili Studies in association with I. B. Tauris.


  • “The Contemporary Challenge of Pluralism in the Management of Competing American Islamic Identities”, Professor Patrice Brodeur, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Pluralism Project, Connecticut College, Tuesday March 5, 2002 11:30 am
  • “Islam and Cultural Pluralism: Reflections from Indonesia and France”, Professor John Bowen, Professor of Anthropology and Law, Washington University at St Louis, Tuesday April 11, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Muslim Identity and Mosque Architecture”, Professor Hasan-Uddin KhanDistinguished Professor of Architecture & Historic Preservation, Roger Williams University and Visiting Professor of Architecture, Massachussets Institute of Technology, Wednesday May 15, 2002 2:00 pm
  • “Reform and Pluralism in Islam: The Responses of Contemporary Iranian Intellectuals”, Dr Farhang Jahanpour, Scholar and International Media Commentator on Iranian Affairs, Thursday October 10, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Muhammad Iqbal and the Crisis of Representation in British Indi”, Dr Faisal Devji, Head, Graduate Studies, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, Thursday October 31, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Orientalism and Muslim Modernism”, Dr Chase F. Robinson, Lecturer in Islamic History, University of Oxford, Thursday November 7, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Tolerance and Pluralism in Early/Classical Islam”, Professor Joseph van EssProfessor Emeritus, Universität Tübingen, Germany, Wednesday November 20, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Art and Pluralism in Islam: Seeking Out the Visual Boundaries”, Professor James Allen, Professor and Keeper of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, Thursday November 28, 2002 3:00 pm
  • Citizenship, Citizenship Education and Diversity in the Contemporary English Context: From Policy to Practice”, Dr Dina Kiwan, Research Officer, Evidence-based Policy and Practice Centre, Institute of Education, University of London, Thursday December 5, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Observing the Observed: Multiple Discourses on the Veil”, Professor Tazim R. Kassam, Director, Graduate Studies Programme and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, Syracuse UniversityThursday December 12, 2002 3:00 pm
  • “Pluralism: Reflections from the Work of Rumi”, Professor Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History, Harvard University, Monday January 27, 2003 3:30 pm

For Muslims, it is the axial text of the Qur’an in which God, while sufficient unto Himself, reminds humankind that it is He who has created the diversity of languages and colours of humanity (Sura XXX: 23) and the diversity in all His creation (Sura XXXV: 27-28), and it is God who created humankind, male and female, and created nations and tribes in order that they might know each other (XLIX: 13). Indeed, it is God who teaches Adam the names of things (Sura II: 31).

A central feature of human pluralism has to do with the discursive act of naming and its concomitant processes of defining, creating distinctions and constructing difference; it is a process of knowing the world and living in it. Over the next year, the series on Muslim Pluralism aims to explore and examine the lines along which Muslims construct differences between themselves and others, and the ways in which they reconcile these differences.

It is intended that each seminar in the series will examine the subject of Muslim Pluralism through a sub-theme, such as law, gender, or material culture, and/or look at a region such as the Central Asia, Indonesia, Africa, or Europe. These themes and regions are meant to be heuristic devices and do not preclude the interactions between them. In sum, the series seeks to problematise the plurality that exists amongst Muslims both in history and at present. It aims to elucidate and reflect upon the various manifestations of this plurality, be it in philosophy, literature, art, education, systems of governance, or doctrine. It will also examine how difference amongst Muslims is understood and managed and consider the implications of Muslim pluralism for the future.

An underlying feature of pluralism, that paradox between the singularities and diversities of human experience of the corporeal world, is part of the historical and contemporary discourses of many societies and cultures. For example, the 16th century European Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne put the paradox in the following terms:

‘As no event, no face, entirely resembles another, so do they not entirely differ: an ingenious mixture of nature. If our faces were not alike, we could not distinguish man from beast; if they were not unlike, we could not distinguish one man from another; all things hold by some similitude; every example halts and the relation which is drawn from experience is always faulty and imperfect.’

(“On Experience” in The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Penguin: London 1991)

By comparison, the 15th century Benares-born poet Kabir articulated the paradox of diversity and singularity in the following lyric: