Each year at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, several thousand scholars gather to read papers and mingle—and, not least, to see the books on display. Often there will be a book or two standing out from all the rest. Where was the convention, not so many years ago, during which everyone seemed to be carrying a copy of Tom Wright's Jesus the Victory Of God or Richard Hayes's The Moral Vision of the New Testament, or both?
At this year's convention, now in progress in Denver, no single title seems to have clearly separated itself from the pack. But there is a noteworthy if entirely unsurprising trend: books on Islam, backlist as well as new titles, are much more prominent than in years past.
Because "modernity," however that protean reality is defined, has been driven by the West, there's a great asymmetry between Islamic knowledge of the West and Western knowledge. Muslim intellectuals are likely to be familiar with the broad currents of modern Western thought and with many influential texts. In the West, the situation is much different. While there is a very strong tradition of specialized scholarship in Islamic studies, the typical Western intellectual is likely to be almost entirely unfamiliar with Islam, with texts both classic and modern, and with the figures whose ideas are helping to shape the Islamic world.
How much that will change in the near future remains to be seen. But there's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. The presence of many young Muslims in Western Europe and the United States will surely lead in time to a greater representation of Islamic voices in the pluralistic public conversation. And some young Westerners may find the otherness of Islamic thought intensely appealing—consider, by way of analogy, the vogue for Khomeini and the revolution in Iran among certain French intellectuals 20 years ago.
This increasing presence of Islam will unsettle many established assumptions. A recent article in the New York Times focused on young Muslim women at elite American colleges and universities who are choosing to adopt traditional dress and other practices which their own mothers have rejected. Imagine how similar practices would have been treated by the Times if they issued from fundamentalist Christianity. And how will the arbiters of feminist correctness deal with the issues raised by these young women?
Religious conversations will be profoundly affected to the extent that a robust Islam enters in. We've noted earlier some of the ways in which the secularization thesis has been undone by the flow of events. The Islamic revival delivers what may be a knockout punch.
All this constitutes a tremendous challenge and a great opportunity. For many years, a few Christian thinkers—the name of Kenneth Cragg comes first to mind—have been urging their fellow believers to begin to learn something of Islam, and that means something more than what we're offered in the newsmagazines. This needs to be done at the level of popular instruction, but it also calls for a sustained intellectual engagement. Even at this moment in Denver, I suspect, that is already beginning.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
In early October, Books & Culture Corner reported that "until a month ago, learning more about Islam was a low priority for all too many Americans. Since the attack, that has changed … The impulse to learn, to understand, is welcome, but the quality of the information has been very uneven, and it often comes with a distorting spin."
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)
Play Ball | Baseball, leisure, and worship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Is God a Body-Snatcher? | The restless intelligence of philosopher Peter van Inwagen. (Oct. 30, 2001)
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)