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Bridging Islam and the West

—Laura Silver

From Winter 2011 issue
Has the relationship between Islam and the West always been as contentious, complicated, and controversial as it is today? Where might common ground be found? In an effort to answer those questions, the University of Minnesota’s Religious Studies Program and Institute for Global Studies, in collaboration with community and student groups, will sponsor Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences, an international conference that will be held on campus February 24 through 26.

Funded by a $170,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the conference will explore ways that Muslim contributions to literature, science, art, and architecture have influenced and helped build the foundation for those disciplines in the West. “People talk only about what’s going on today,” says Nabil Matar, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and a co-organizer of the conference. “The discourse is very contemporary, which is fine; it’s just that there is a long, long history of interaction and engagement between cultures and religious civilizations—between that elusive term the ‘Islamic World’ and the more elusive term, the ‘Western World.’  ”

The centerpiece of the conference will be the staging of one of the literary masterpieces of the medieval Islamic world, Hayy bin Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl, an Arab physician and philosopher in the intellectually adventurous court of caliph Abu Ya’cub at Cordoba, in 12th-century Spain. New York director Mohammad Bagher Ghaffari has dramatized the text into a play that will premiere at the conference.

Hayy bin Yaqzan, which means “Alive, son of Awake” in Arabic, is a story of spiritual discovery, and was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Hayy, an orphan raised on a desert island by a gazelle, evolves in his understanding of the natural world and God. Although the theological motif of Robinson Crusoe is often ignored, Defoe’s protagonist reenacts a similar spiritual journey when a shipwreck leaves him with nothing but a Bible. The performance of Hayy will demonstrate the profound influence of Muslim literature on the West. Hayy is, as Matar notes, “the universal human being. At the time, it was unique to say that the human is able to educate himself without recourse to religion, to history, to society; that we make ourselves, rather than being made.”

Hayy is well-known but little-read in the Muslim world today. Yet in its day it was controversial. “All monotheism likes to believe that it’s God who reveals himself, not you who can figure him out,” Matar says. “We may know his text, we may know his revelation, we may know his incarnation in Christ, but we never understand God. So the idea that a human being like Hayy can know God without revelation was, and continues to be, very problematic.”

William Beeman, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology, co-organizer of the conference, and producer of the play, describes the 90-minute production, which will be staged in the round with just a few actors and musicians, as relatively spare but powerful. “The simplicity of [Ghaffari’s] work with movement and symbolism is extremely evocative,” he says. “One can expect a very beautiful and lyrical performance.

“The play is really an exposition of early Islamic science at a time when nothing like this was known in Europe,” Beeman says. “Viewers should be curious about how this level of understanding arose in the Muslim world so far in advance of the West.”

Performances will take place February 24, 25, and 26 on the Arena Stage at the Rarig Center, 330 21st Avenue South on the West Bank of the Minneapolis campus. They, and all other conference events, are free and open to the public. For more information visit


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