The Thirteenth General Conference : Renewal in Islamic Thought
The Responsibility of European Muslims in the Renewal of Islamic Civilization
The Responsibility of European Muslims in the Renewal
of Islamic Civilization
Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini
General Director, Islamic Religious Community
I would like to thank, first of all, His Excellency Doctor Mahmoud
Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister and President of the Supreme Council for
Islamic Affairs for the honour he has granted us this year, and in the
past six years, of inviting the Italian CO.RE.IS. as the organization
representing Italian Muslims.
In 1997, having accompanied, here in Cairo, our President, Shaykh
`Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, I had the honour of presenting a report on
the role of Muslim intellectuals and their function as a bridge between
the Orient and the Western World. This was particularly appreciated by
Shaykh Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawwi.
The Islamic community and the Western World
Five years ago, the existence of a Muslim community in Italy, and
the debate on Islam in Europe were not as developed as they are today,
and my testimonial, which aimed at recalling the value of intellectuals in
the development of Islamic civilization, helped to create a new approach
in the relations between the Islamic World and Europe.
It all consisted in viewing the Western World not as an enemy or
as an entity foreign to the Islamic community, but as a place in the
World where millions of Muslims live, study, work, and pray. At the
same time, secularization, technical progress, and modern culture have
not been limited in influencing the society of industrialized countries,
but those of the whole World, preceding the actual process of economic
globalization and computer communications.
In other words, it was necessary to overcome territorial
connotations, which viewed the Orient as a religious World with a
traditional culture, and the Western World as representing, in an
exclusive and "evolved" way, the lay World and modern society.
Ironically, we see today another ideological contrast, where certain
Western groups claim exclusive rights on religion, national identity, and
racial purity, while several Orientals are promoters of the advanced
technological research, a radical evolution in thought and culture, and a
fast paced lay political renewal.
The Islamic Community and the Modern World
At the time when a reversal of roles between spiritual authority
and temporal power caused an unbalance which brought on a long
period of obscure religious machinations, totalitarian governments,
never-ending ideological wars, and a deep intellectual void, the Western
World took advantage of the discoveries made by the modern World to
make a clean break with its historic past.
Thus, after many years of crusades and colonization, the Western
World was able to create and to promote a new interest, in the form of
an industrial revolution and a socio-political acculturation, which was
progressively assimilated by the rest of the World, without putting aside
their own traditional roots, and by integrating the efficiency of progress
with the spiritual values present in the culture. In this way, the Orient
was able to embrace the novelties of modernization, all in keeping the
heritage of its glorious past, and naturally adapting to the new course of
history while maintaining its unity and its constitutive harmony.
A balanced compatibility and a natural integration between
religion and public life, have always been a part of all traditional
civilizations and of all religious communities in the effort of remaining
faithful to the original doctrine while actively and constructively taking
part in the inevitable changes throughout time.
The real problems only arise when the learned men, who are the
reference point and guardians of an orderly balance between a specific
spiritual identity and the natural development of man in the World,
cannot guarantee any longer the efficiency of their function. This causes
a state of confusion that generates a process of external decadence and
internal crisis amongst the people.
These are the exact conditions that can lead a society to fall
towards a closed fundamentalist attitude. The ghettos and the parallel
societies, created on the basis of ideals or nostalgic tendencies, are
evident proofs of the artificial and anachronistic illusions of close-
minded people lacking good common sense.
The Islamic and the modern Worlds can no longer be distinguished
and associated respectively with the Orient and the Western World;
East and West are now part of a single World, where the Islamic
community is actively present alongside other religious confessions, and
together they all make up the characteristics which are tied to modern
society and the post-modern era.
Thus, the fundamental reflection must now concentrate, not on the
relationship between two geographic aspects of the present reality, nor
on the assumed backwardness of a model in respect to another more
evolved, but on a level of a balanced compatibility and natural
integration between a religious dimension and a social perspective.
All this by giving greater importance to the work of learned men in
the present matters of concern and in the development of an Islamic
community able to integrate smoothly with the Western system and the
new forms of communications.
The Islamic Community and the Lay World
A particular schism between the lay World and the religious
dimension comes into evidence when the present day system of life is
This religious dimension is, in fact, often relegated to a purely
ritual context. Even if it guarantees a freedom of religion, it does not
seem to come into play in any other aspect of public life, being the
exclusive domain of the lay World.
In Italy, such division is not as clear since the Catholic Church
plays an active role by constantly participating with public events of
social and cultural character, and by inviting its followers to respect the
State's laws, all by keeping in mind to lead a life based on Christian
This last example allows us to propose a singular model of
compatibility between religion and the lay World: a citizen living his
religious devotion in all the aspects of his life, all by respecting his civic
duties towards the political institutions.
In other words, it is all a matter of distinguishing the points of
reference and of finding a natural balance that spiritual dimension and
social activity complementary of each other.
The lay World differs from the religious one by the secular
character of the management of power: those who swear fealty to the
laws of the State, accept the sovereignty of its Democratic Constitution.
A religious person living within a democratic nation will have to keep his
religious expression within a system that guarantees equal rights to all
citizens. This favours a balanced confessional pluralism, where every
person can freely practice his own faith, all in accordance with the laws
of the State.
Thus, it follows that at least in Italy, the Islamic faith is fully
compatible, since, with the exception of the requests made by certain
Islamic factions, every Muslim wants to practice his spiritual life in total
harmony with the rest of society.
It is not a matter of creating separate ghettoes, or of instrumenting
the religious needs of the community as a pretext in promoting social
revolutions of ideological and formalist nature. The majority of Muslims
in Italy, and in Europe, have no intention in playing the game of political
power proffered by some isolated group, but call for an urgency in
maintaining and transmitting to future generations the spiritual and
cultural identity of Islam, as an integral part of Human patrimony.
Spiritual Testimonial and Information on Islam
The renewal of Islamic thought in the fields of da`wah and
information, must inevitably take into account the new social context in
which we live, and acquire a greater consciousness of the temporal and
spatial characteristics of Islamic community today.
It is not a matter of modernizing the universal doctrine of Islamic
tradition, nor of adapting it to Western thought. The traditional Islamic
identity benefits, in a providential way, from the uninterrupted
transmittal of learned thought, handed down by various Muslim
intellectuals and masters, who succeeded in guaranteeing this transfer of
thought throughout the ages in all locations where spiritual centers
spread. The spiritual essence of Islamic faith and doctrine is directly
dependant on the arrival of the sacred in this World, and must not be
excessively rendered as an historical account, since it is part of an
expression Divine Mercifulness, Eternal, and above all Primordial.
We must be careful in not committing the error of generalizing the
Islamic civilization as a unique model of sacredness, or even worse, of
relating Islamic doctrine to determined geographic location and
The Islamic doctrine is the expression of the Divine Revelation
lying within the message of the Sacred Qur'an, and sustained by the
pure example of the seal of Prophecy, Muhammad, may the peace and
bliss of Allah be on him, while the Islamic civilization is the expression of
a traditional community of believers, which through time and place is in
a cyclic renewal, naturally adapting to this World's situations, all by
maintaining an orientation towards transcendence
At this point, it is necessary to point out that the archeological
research carried out for the historic reconstruction of the glorious past
of the Islamic origins, or the grammatical and literal speculations, on the
legal loopholes by the Islamic thinkers in the past centuries play an
insignification role in the true development of today's Islamic
There is a risk of confusing the da'wah with a missionary
recruitment of new adepts and information with academic literalism or
notions gathered through television.
The da'wah, on the contrary, is a task of religious testimonial by
the Muslim on himself and on his neighbours, which stands as an
example of integrity towards a spiritual perspective of existence and as a
calling towards a symbolic dimension of the human being, who lives
constantly with God in mind.
By the same token, information calls for a certain level of
preparation in communication and in the methods of teaching
comparable to the qualities of transparency and maieutics that the
Prophet Himself used when he talked to his companions "according to
their level of understanding", or as he dialogued with his Jewish or
Christian interlocutors in respecting their doctrines, and searching for a
spiritual convergence and a peaceful coexistence.
Carrying out the da'wah, or transmitting information on Islam
presumes an effort in internal and external honesty, and to be really
effective must indispensably coincide with communicating an in-depth
knowledge of the Islamic doctrine. Only in this way are we able to
interpret the noble function of the witnesses of a religious identity, and a
universality of the human being, which really overcome the individual
ideological barriers and the geo-political borders. For this reason, the
learned men are not necessarily identified with university professors or
protagonists of the public scene, but rather with those who are able to
delve into literary science, and bring all things to their essential origin.
In doing this, they show the prospective of a real intellectuality that
makes the reading of every man on Earth understandable and
accessible, as the reflection of a celestial language
The Learned Men and the Contemporary World
The goal of every learned man is to recognise the signs of God
within and without us, and to convey them intelligently to our
neighbours. From this last statement we note how this title of "learned
man" or "intellectual" is today erroneously attributed to scientists,
legislators, critics, journalists, and philosophers, who in reality are
specialists in their fields.
However, they lost the ability of making a connection between the
object of their research to its universal principle, and as a consequence,
they are unable to convey to their audience the flavour of an authentic
growth in knowledge.
The intellectuals (`ulama') are those who have reached an openness
of intellect (aql), a vision with the eye of the heart (`ayn al-qalb) that
brings to a certain science (`ilm al-yaqu), and who can evoke in their
students a taste (dhawq) for the knowledge of truth (ma`rifah).
They are part of the spiritual groups that in every culture, in
centuries and in every place, have guarded, conveyed, and renewed the
traditional baggage present in all spiritual centers and in all religious
communities, and have been able to favour the intellectual vitality of a
group of peoples and cultures. Thus, it is not a matter of isolated
incidents tied to an ingenious individual, rather the view of a school of
theological reflection, of people qualified in reaching into the symbols of
man's life, in order to renew the eternity of the divine message in today's
Aside from the necessary characteristics of having an open mind, a
good preparation of his doctrine, a seriousness in teaching, and
flexibility in communication, a Muslim learned man must also be sincere
in his religious practice and honest in carrying out his duties of
transmitting and reviving the sacred science.
We must keep in mind that this sacred science must not be
interpreted as an abstract from reality, or confined to a phenomenal
plane, but as constituting the real essence of all human qualities and
all real values. On the other hand, we find totally unacceptable the
presumption of certain movements that would render "sacred"
every aspect of life and of the World, the presumption of
"Islamizing the conscience", seen in a formal and literal way, and as
a consequence, in a way that has little in common with Islam, the
sacred and needless to say, intellectual. These last statements, aside
from creating confusion on the reality of Islam, cause great
detriment on a communicative and a practical level, by justifying
the prejudices of those who associate religion with fanaticism or
Islam with integralism.
Shaykh al-Azhar `Abd al-Halim Mahmoud has had the
opportunity of writing, in Arabic, a biography on the works of a
French Muslim intellectual, Ren Gunon, who died here in Cairo
fifty years ago; he writes: I will never forget that day, a Sunday,
when we knocked on the door of Villa Fatma. After a long pause,
appears before us a shaykh of tall statue, whose luminous face
inspired veneration and expressed dignity and majesty; his eyes
radiated intelligence and his facial traits reflected goodness and
piety". Continuing his biography on Gunon, professor `Abd al-
Halim Mahmoud compares the depth of his research on Truth, to
that of one of the greatest saints and intellectuals of Islam: Al-
Ghazali, the author of Revivification of Religious Science.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of shaykh `Abd al-
Wahid Yahya Gunon, it is with great honour that I commemorate
the inestimable value of one of the first European Muslim
intellectuals, who has awakened in the Westerners and even in some
Easterners, the possibility of a new spiritual vitality and an
authentic release from the mistake (Munqidh mm al-dalal) of a
After having become a Muslim, adopting the name of `Abd al-
Wahid Yahya, Ren Gunon left France for Egypt, and would have
spent the last twenty years of his life right here in Cairo, integrating
within the Islamic community, while keeping epistolary ties and
intellectual exchanges with a Western World particularly
unreceptive to the evidence and metaphysical transparency
expressed by him Hence, it is no coincidence that shaykh al-Azhar
compared him to imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali: both,
in fact, in different times and on the basis of intense experiences of
spiritual research have practiced a detachment from the suggestions
tied to the aspects of this World, and have been able to identify
themselves with the primordial and universal nature of every man,
to the extent of being rightly called the revivers of religion.
Every epoch has its cyclic renovators (mujaddid) who express
this very function of reviving the eternal spirit of the Islamic
religion, by making a spiritual and intellectual effort (ijtihad) in
formally adapting the universal doctrine for the comprehension of
the people, in a way that they can continue practicing the rites
naturally, without losing consciousness of the symbolic and sacred
value of their passage on Earth. In other words, a renewal of the
natural dispositions towards spirituality must be made, without
falling into mystifying or militant deviations
Islam needs no renewal; what is indeed renewed is the miracle of
knowing Islam, and the relaying of its last message before the end of
time. Even decadent people, from both the East and the West, living in
this modern World, can rediscover the blessing of a spiritual elevation
that brings them to transcend every limit of time and space, and
contemporarily witness a religious dimension, lived in serenity, which
guarantees its constructive contribution to contemporary society Today,
fifty years from the death of Ren Gunon it is now possible in the
Western World, to be a part of the Islamic community dimension, and to
keep an intellectual and religious perspective even in the modern World.
It took all these years to finally form, even in Italy, a spiritual center
managed by European Muslim intellectuals. It is this very spiritual
centre, this religious community, these civilly responsible intellectuals
that can guarantee an efficient communication and information on the
knowledge of Islam, since, they represent the antidote par excellence to
the totalitarian tendencies of the integralist movements
The Italian Muslim intellectuals, reunited within the Italian
CO.RE.IS. in this last decade have set themselves precise
They made it possible for Islam to be recognized on the basis of equal
dignity in the context of inter-religious dialogue, favouring a
memorable historical exchange between the various religious
communities, as a concrete sign of spiritual convergence and peaceful
They favoured the process for the future subscription of a legal
agreement between the Islamic faith and the Italian State, obtaining a
favourable opinion from the Minister of Internal Affairs, as a moral
association for the Islamic cult in Italy.
The convinced the Minister of Education to review the study programs,
in light of a significant and growing presence of Muslims in the Italian
They collaborated with the Minister of Cultural Affairs in organizing
hundreds of cultural events and initiatives, aimed at presenting the
principles and the reality of Islam.
They obtained the unanimous political and technical support from all the
political factions to build the second official Mosque in Italy, the first to
be managed by Italian citizens in Milan, the economic and industrial
capital of Italy
They supported policies tied to a qualitative integration of Muslim
immigrants in Italy, acting as religious referents for the local authorities,
and co-operating with the diplomatic representatives of Islamic
They played an important role of cultural and linguistic mediation by
guaranteeing the preservation and the retransmission of the real Islamic
identity even to the new generations of future Muslim Italian citizens.
They represented the voice of Islam in Italy in all the major institutional
meetings and religious encounters with Islamic delegation from all over
Today, thanks to the particular sensibility and the intense work in
the inter-religious field carried out even by Shaykh Al-Azhar
Muhammad Said Tantawwi, the way towards a moderate, and at the
same time intellectually deep and dynamic manifestation of Islam in
Europe, seems to prevail, after years of historical prejudices and
political or ideological instrumentation.
For a new generation of European Muslims, as the one I represent
the constant search harmony with the whole Muslim community, and in
particular with the traditional learned sources present for centuries in
the whole Islamic World, has allowed us in guaranteeing the
manifestation of the real Islamic identity, and to efficiently carry out our
civil responsibilities as a religious minority in the Western World.
Knowing Islam in its doctrinal unity and within civil integrity is
possible even in Italy. In our function as Western Muslim intellectuals
we feel it our duty not only sharing spiritual brotherhood with all
Muslims, but also contributing actively to a real renewal of the Islamic
culture that can assume the responsibility of keeping alive the referral of
the presence of God in the World, and in all of us.
Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini