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Culture

Prof. Ziaka Speaks about Intense American interest in Muslim Studies

By Theodore Kalmoukos

BOSTON, MA – Dr. Angeliki Ziaka,Associate Professor of Religion at the School of Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is deeply knowledgeable about Islam, which has come to occupy the center of global interest due to the identification of a segment of Islamists with the contemporary threat of terrorism.

She has specialized in Islam, Muslim Theology and History, Arabic-Islamic Culture and Interreligious Dialogue at the University of Strasburg on a French State scholarship, at the Pontifical institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI- Rome) on a Vatican State Scholarship and at Amman University in Jordan.

This semester she is teaching as a short term visiting scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in New York City.

She spoke with The National Herald regarding Islam, Muslim theology, and American interest in Muslim studies.

As to whether there is any interest in Muslim theology at Columbia, Dr. Ziaka said it is “very substantial and is evinced in the foundation of a separate Middle East Institute that dates back several decades. Inter alia, research topics at the Institute include the political, cultural and social influence of Islamic religion in countries where Islam is a majority religion. Islam features in the research of other University Institutes and Faculties, such as the Union Theological Seminary.”

She said “as a whole, American students are citizens of the world, and, in this sense, their understanding of and attitudes toward the world and the role of religions cover quite a range. Those who specialize in Islamic studies focus on learning the necessary languages which are the tools they will be using in their research and subsequently in their respective fields of specialization. These fields also cover quite a range, because the university offers a number of possibilities including Palestinian, Jews, and Iranian-Shi‘ite studies, but also an option investigating the role of the mass media in presenting Islam, among other things. I would say that the spirit of students in New York is open and extrovert with a quick turn of mind, reflecting the style of the city where they live.”

She was attracted to Muslim theology and history “initially by a need to understand our neighbors and later, on the level of scholarly research, by the investigation into the transformations and interpretations of Islam’s biblical background and the diversity of theological interpretations, schools and trends of thought that were generated within Islam.” She emphasized that “Islam is our close neighbor with whom the Christians and Jews of the East coexisted for many centuries in both conflict and dialogue.”

She emphasized that “it was the Byzantine theologians who first offered humanity a rich literature on Islam, in Greek and mainly apologetic in style; the first of these theologians was St John Damascene, who also held office at the court of the Omayyads in Damascus. In this sense, communications between the two parties and the continual renewal of the knowledge of the present and the past through education in order to achieve harmonious co-existence and cultivate a spirit of shared understanding are of pre-eminent significance. This is the main objective of the newly founded undergraduate program in Muslim Studies in the School of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the first study program in Greece to specialize in the Muslim religion.”

In explaining Islam, Ziaka said that “it is the third Abrahamic religion. It appeared at the beginning of the 7th century AD in Mecca. It accepts the validity of the divine revelation that was given to the Jews and Christians but, according to Islamic teaching, it comes to seal the initial revelation. For Muslims, this initial revelation is to be found in the Quran, which is the word of God and the guide of every faithful Muslim.”

Some of the basic tenets of Islam include a “strict monotheism and the absolute unity of God, faith in the Prophets including Jesus, and the expectation of the last days. The faithful is obliged to abide by correct practice, which is in, many ways, reminiscent of Judaic casuistry. The faithful bases his behavior on the Quran but also on the ethos and morality of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, which has been recorded in the so-called Muslim traditions (Sunna). These are the fundamental sources of Islamic Law.”

As to the Islamic concept of God man and creation, she said that “it is biblical. God is the creator; man and the creation are His creations.”

She expounded on the fact that “one of the great theological issues that arose in Islam from the very beginning and caused many disagreements between Islamic intellectuals is that of divine predestination and freedom of will. Today, many Muslims become witnesses to a violent Islam, thus articulating their understanding of divine predestination in the most extreme and inhuman manner.”

We asked her how many different gradations of Islam are there and more specifically, how does Islam in Saudi Arabia differ from Islam in Iran for example, she was keen to stress that “as we have already mentioned there are many interpretations, which, incombination with the pre-existing cultures in the countries where Islam became dominant produced a range of gradations.

Thus, the Muslims of Saudi Arabia belong to the movement of Wahhabism, which is a more recent movement in Sunni Islam, and inhabit the area that is the historical cradle of Islam, the “empty quarter” of the Arabic peninsula, whilst the Muslims of Iran believe that they are descended from Muhammad’s immediate family and constitute the branch of Shi‘is, and more particular of duodecimal Shi‘is, inhabiting a land with a rich pre-Islamic past. These are the reasons that have led a number ofscholars, mainly anthropologists, to speak of ‘many Islams.’”

Is there a clash of religions on the world stage? And how to explain the suicide missions of Islamic fundamentalists?“Religion may become a crucial factor in making and implementing policy but it can also become a mere political tool. The potential negative predisposition of religious believers to world religious and cultural diversity should be attributed to the religious education and instruction they receive but also to the political priorities of each country,” she said.

“Any form of religious education that focuses on the constitution of religious identity through the rejection or the fear of the other may, indeed, lead to conflict, militancy and fundamentalism, especially in adverse social,  political and economic conditions. To a great extent, this is what is happening in our own times and, hence, the role of both religious leaders and adherents of religions as a whole in shaping the future of mankind will be anything but negligent.”

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