Friday, April 13, 2007

Reza Aslan at Wellesley: institutions vs. individualism

Had the amazing privilege of seeing Reza Aslan speak last night at Wellesley College. You’ll remember him from my blogs about No god but God, a book I recommend everyone drop everything and read if you want to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and its place in the world today.

The talk was riveting—he’s an energetic, witty and articulate speaker as well as writer. Since he was at Wellesley, a women’s college, he did emphasize the emerging role of women in Islam, itself a fascinating subject. Apparently there’s a new translation of the Quran by female scholar Laleh Bakhtiar coming out in a few months, I’ll be looking for that!

Other points Aslan made in his talk:

  • He’s often referred to this period in Islamic history as the Islamic Reformation, so he clarified what “reformation” means. Reformation is a universal phenomena. It takes place in all faith traditions. At heart it is a fundamental conflict of who gets to define a faith—institutions or individuals?
  • In Islam, there are competing institutions and an evolving radical individualism. Reform is an attempt to stop awry institutional interpretations and accumulated opinions and go back to the original foundational texts. Individuals begin to say, We don’t need institutions to interpret anymore.
  • The Internet has served a similar role to the printing press in this Reformation. Individual Muslims have access to wide opinions about Islam who never did before, especially women. It used to be your local imam was the only place you could go for interpretation, and you either agreed or disagreed with him. Now, online, you can find site after site with opinions, and you can find the ones you like.
  • Aslan spoke in particular about what it is to be Muslim in America, and the special responsibility of those who have figured out how to be Muslim in a pluralistic society to speak out on behalf of those around the world who have no voices.
  • He quoted someone as saying, “In America, everyone is more or less Protestant” meaning the Protestant ethic pervades everything, even non-Christian religions. [My thoughts: interesting. It’s part of our ethic to be individualistic rather than institutional in our attitudes, if you look at it that way. Hence, the success of our experiment with pluralism.]

I’m left with the conviction that individualism trumps institutionalization every time. History has shown again and again that as soon as you institutionalize a belief system, it loses its original inspiration. People become compelled to obey through law or coercion, rather than through free adoption of the ideas. And without free thought, inspiration cannot exist.

Which I suppose is as good an explanation as any as to why I blog!

Please check out Alsan’s book when you get a chance.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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At 4/13/2007 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Really thought-provoking. There is a whole new level of discussion that we could have re: the role of institutionalization and individualism. I'm not sure I am convinced that indi trumps insti every time, but I am convinced that the engine of change is with the elevated or inspired thought of the pioneering individual.

At 4/13/2007 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Kate said...

Laura...I think you have articulated with great grace why it is that I, too, love this "blogsphere"...somedays I feel like we each have a private office in a large ACLU law firm....we come out of our respective "offices" to grab a cup of tea at the shared "watercooler"...we meet at the photocopier...but then we head back into our individual offices to take calls, write "briefs" or reseach Biblical precedence....we all answer to the "Head" of the firm...but not to eachother...with one another we are colleagues, resources, cheerleaders...I love being a part of this "firm"...

At 4/14/2007 12:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

b.t.w. (by the way!) phenomena is the plural of phenomenon....
Great blog, as ever. Many thanks.


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