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:
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.
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: