By Nabil Matar, Professor of English
Professor Nabil Matar previews the "Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences" conference in 2011, part of the National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures initiative and sponsored by the Program in Religious Studies.
With a grant from the Bridging Cultures rubric of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Program in Religious Studies at the University of Minnesota will be hosting a conference on "Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in Arts and Sciences." The event will include two keynote speakers, individual panels on architecture, science, philosophy, and technology, and the theatrical premiere of the famous twelfth-century story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Participants and guests will also visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a special exhibit, meet with Twin Cities cultural groups, and, it is hoped, enjoy stomping in the snow.
The conference celebrates the Humanities in Islamic civilization, beginning with the work of an Andalusian Muslim of Cordoba who captured in his life and single remaining work the multi-faceted quest for the divine. Student to Avicenna, Ibn Tufayl was a jurist and a physician, a philosopher and an astronomer. His philosophical tale about an abandoned child on a solitary island described the ascent of the mind through knowledge of the physical toward the metaphysical. It defined the empirical-cum-intellectual road that leads to fulfillment in God.
The keynote speaker is Wadad Qadi, the Avalon Foundation Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago and former editor of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, whose work on early Islamic history, philology, and theology has blazed new directions in scholarship, as witnessed by the Ph.D. students who still seek her guidance--even in her retirement.
In the course of the journey, Hayy employed the forms of learning that had reached their zenith in the World of Islam, from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. The conference will concentrate on some of those forms, showing not only their indebtedness to Greek, Persian, and Indian sources, but also their impact on the medieval history of Spain and France, Italy and Germany. The story of Hayy drew on earlier narratives, going back to Sanskrit, but then it was translated into Latin in 1671 in England. It was reputed to have influenced Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which, in turn, was translated back into Arabic in 1810 by John Lewis Burckhardt. While Arabic literature was making its way into the European imagination, the Arabic writings of Muslim astronomers were still being read, and annotated in Latin, in the sixteenth-century libraries of the "Renaissance" at the same time that mathematical theories, names, and words (from "admiral" to "zero") and literary innovations were becoming part of the swirl that ultimately produced our modern world.
And it is toward the modern that the conference leads as the participants explore the intellectual and cultural diversity that emanated from the Qur'anic foundation. One of the most exquisite legacies of the civilization of Islam has been its architecture, which is why a number of papers will focus on both the artistic and the social character of Islamic buildings, past and present, in the capitals of the Islamic Empires as well as in the small mosques of urban America. In America, the Moorish style of architecture will also be examined, having entered popular culture in the 1880s and decorating theaters, universities, and hotels from Atlanta and Tampa to Chicago and San Diego.
When Hayy reached a certain stage in his mystical ascent, he danced--which is why dance will also be part of the conference investigation of Islam, especially in southeast Asia. One panel will focus on problems of history and aesthetics in that region, starting from the early modern Islamic Empires (Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman, in the order of their dissolution) to contemporary expressions of political and social reevaluation. Another panel will look at media representations of Muslims and the role of the journalist in today's exchange of information--and misinformation.
The keynote finale will be by Anouar Majid. And if I can venture to guess what his paper will be about, judging from his previous publications (some of which have been through the University of Minnesota Press), then it will be an indictment of the restrictions of orthodoxy, i.e., ALL orthodoxy.