Islam as a source of stability discussed


People in the Muslim world were increasingly turning towards Islam as a source of stability, a conference in Dublin was told yesterday.

Dr Thomas P. Hardiman, chairman of the Chester Beatty Library board of trustees, said that in his business travels in Asia and the Middle East he had noted that, even among the educated elite in Muslim societies, people were turning to Islam as a source of stability, while also being ready to accept modernity.

Opening a two-day "Understanding Islam" conference at Dublin Castle, he said: "This awakening does not seem limited to individual piety. It is not intellectual, not cultural, and not solely political, but can be a combination of all of these."

The general failure of liberal democracy to take root in these societies, which had continued through the 20th century, was related to the nature of Islamic society. He wondered whether this might not be a reaction to western liberal concepts.

Islam was a religion of diverse people with diverse cultural backgrounds, he said, where Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia was quite distinct from that of the Middle East.

Describing the conference as "very timely and important", he said it was a step on the way to understanding Islam. He referred to the very important collection of Islamic manuscripts at the Chester Beatty Library and how everyone there was conscious of caring for them.

They had been very fortunate to secure funding from the Getty Foundation to catalogue some of the manuscripts, especially those to do with Islam and the Arab world, he said.

Prof Neal Robinson, an independent scholar, said that until comparatively recently Christians had regarded the Qur'an (Koran) as the work of a false prophet.

And, while it no longer carried a "health warning" in a more secular age, most non-Muslims still found it a somewhat forbidding book. This was because they did not share the believer's experience of it as an awe-inspiring Arabic recitation that was to be reverently learnt by heart.

It also failed to meet most non-believers' expectations of literary structure and chronological order.

He advised that people not read it through from beginning to end but to begin with some of the short Meccan surahs. These gave an insight into Muhammed's spiritual life and introduced some of the book's major themes.

These included a condemnation of greed and materialism, the many signs of God's generosity and power, the history of human ingratitude and warnings of impending judgment.

A session on the history and religion of Islam was told that, following the death of Muhammed in 632, the early Muslim community had to decide who was to be their leader and what power and legitimacy he was to have.

Dr Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Middle Eastern History at St Andrews University, said Muhammed had made it clear he was the last Prophet and left no apparent heir.

He traced the growing divisions among Muhammed's followers, with some favouring a secular monarchy. He traced the rapid expansion of Islam in its early centures and how this had also added to tensions between the two groups.