Monday, March 16, 2009

The Edge and Detachment

Karen Armstrong talks with Bill Moyers about the scholarly detachment with which she approaches her subject:

You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century text as, poor soul, you know. And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.

And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other.
This approach to understanding Islam is necessary, vital, even essential for the tiny audience of scholars tasked with understanding it. This perspective can be genuinely fruitful both in and beyond the academy. But for the billion or so people who live in daily contact with really-existing Islam, it's doctrines and practices are considerably less academic, remote, or bloodless.

We need chemists who understand the finest details of nitroglycerin, but not at the expense of vigilance toward its uses in the world. We need scholarly detachment but we also need "edgy."

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