Book Openers: Georgetown Professor John Esposito on the Future of Islam

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Georgetown professor John L. Esposito was working on a book about the future of Islam — pre-9/11. He promptly put it aside in favor of more pressing topics – Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (2002) and Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (2009) are just two.

John L. Esposito. Courtesy Gallup Poll.

Courtesy Gallup Poll.

Now, nearly a decade later, Esposito finally returns to his subject with the publication of The Future of Islam from Oxford University Press. About 50 percent of the book was written before 9/11, he told audience of 200 last weekend who were attending an “Islam and Authors” series at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland. The rest is informed by the post-9/11 political and religious tensions around the world.

One of the most intriguing chapters in Esposito’s newest book addresses the topic of reform in Islam. People have been asking Esposito, who has been studying Islam and teaching Islamic studies for more than three decades, whether Islam is capable of change. They wonder, is it compatible with Western notions of rule of law, human rights and gender equality?

“When people ask a question about Islam, they assume there is only one answer,” an exasperated Esposito told his audience. They ask questions like, “What does the Qur’an say about violence?” “Is Islam capable of modernity?” “Can it change?” There are many, many answers to those questions, he said, and the answers are constantly changing.

With an estimated 1.57 billion adherents, the world of Islam is no less complex and varied than than the world of Christianity, which includes such radically differing elements as Pentacostal, Quaker, Unitarian and Coptic Christians. But many Westerners fail to see that diversity and, out of fear, tend to perceive Muslims as a single homogeneous — threatening — mass.

“When a Christian blows up an abortion clinic, we don’t say, ‘There go those Chrisitians again,’” Esposito said. “But if it’s a Muslim [blowing something up,] we call them ‘Islamic terrorists.’”

In fact, Esposito noted, Islam holds reform and change as a founding principle. Mohammed was a social reformer as well as a prophet, securing rights for women that were radical in the Arab world of his time. Islam calls upon Muslims to follow Mohammed’s example and reexamine their practices regularly, making changes where necessary.

Of course, what those changes, if any, should be is a matter of heated discussion among Muslims today — and throughout history. “Some people are conservative,” Esposito said. “Some people think there is need for adaptation and change.”

How various Muslim groups perceive the past is often a point of conflict. Some Muslims look to past practices and traditions as authoritative. Others view them as interpretations of scripture appropriate to particular contexts, but suseptible to reform.

Reared in Brooklyn in an Italian Catholic family, Esposito spent ten years in a monastery. Since the Seventies, he has devoted himself to the study of Islam and to promoting healthier relations between Muslims and Christians. At Georgetown University, he teaches religion and international affairs as well as Islamic studies.

Esposito founded the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown and is its current director. He has served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, as president of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, and on the board of directors of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy.

Want to know more about Islamic law?

Sumbul Ali-Karamali will be speaking on Shari’ah Law at the Commonwealth Club public forum in San Francisco on March 11. Sumbul is a writing buddy of mine from the Religion Newswriters Association. A neat lady and an attorney, Sumbul’s book, The Muslim Next Door, takes a thoughtful look at Islamic law. If you can’t make the event, do check out her book. She’ll also be speaking at an upcoming ICCNC Islam and Authors event in Oakland.

The Future of Islam, by John L. Esposito, with a forward by Karen Armstrong, Oxford University Press, 2010, 256 page, $24.95.

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