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Lecture series

"Islam is not monolithic"

München, 10/12/2016

Attitudes to Islam in this part of the world are often conditioned by misconceptions and lack of knowledge. A new series of public lectures to be held in this semester is devoted to elucidating the central features of the Muslim faith.

Source: VanderWolf-Images / Fotolia.com

MUM: People often speak of the Islam as if the term could only have one meaning. Is that really the case?
Kaplony: Islam is not monolithic, in the sense that it cannot be viewed as a homogeneous set of religious beliefs. On the contrary, when one speaks of Islam, one is dealing with a highly complex entity. There are the two major groups, the Sunni and the Shiites, which differ both in terms of what they believe and in how they respond to the social challenges with which they are currently confronted. The Shiites exhibit much more flexible in this respect, which allows them to adapt more readily and rapidly to contemporary developments. A good example of this, which surprises many in the West, is their attitude to drugs. On this issue, the Shiite regime in Iran is now pursuing a policy that has evolved from a strictly conservative into a relatively liberal stance over the course of a single decade.

MUM: Why do Shiites find it easier to adapt to change?
Kaplony: The explanation lies in the Shiite tradition: The Shiites in Iran recognize a succession of 12 legitimate imams, and believe that the 12th -- who disappears from the historical record in the 9th century -- did not die, but lives on in "occlusion", and will someday emerge to complete the work of the Prophet and reinstate the rule of justice. The Shiite clergy in Iran see themselves as the representatives of the "hidden" 12th imam. This implies that their decisions cannot be other than provisional, and enables them to base their judgments on contemporary realities. The Sunnis, on the other hand -- who make up the great majority of Muslims -- place far greater weight on traditions relating to the conduct of the early Muslim community, and are far less flexible in their approach to the challenges of the present.

MUM: Why do some people argue that the three monotheistic religions -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- are fundamentally incompatible?
Kaplony: In my opinion, the cardinal error that is often made is that the historical context in which the three religions and their central texts originated is ignored. With the Tanakh and the Old Testament, Judaism and Christianity share the same text. Of course, the Christian tradition then adds the New Testament. The Koran is over 500 years younger than the New Testament. It belongs together with a group of writings which have largely been forgotten – namely the Christian and Jewish Apocrypha – texts that were not accepted into the canon of Biblical texts. The Koran must be seen in the light of these Apocrypha and their subsequent interpretation by commentators. It clearly dissociates itself from the tradition of Biblical exegesis, it belongs to a different period and it is shaped by a very different conception of the world. In other words, attempts to compare it to the Bible are methodologically unsound. If one wishes to place the development of the monotheistic religions in their correct context, the Koran must be compared with the Christian and Jewish Apocrypha to which it explicitly refers.

Page 2: As a scholar of the subject, how do you react to the perception of Islam in the public sphere?