‘Inter-faith understanding key to dialogue’

When an alleged terrorist plot to blow up airliners out of London’s Heathrow Airport was thwarted in August, George Bush, the US president, alluded to a war between the West and “Islamic fascism”. 

North Americans are eager to read and understand the Quran
North Americans are eager to read and understand the Quran

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Bush again referred to the war on terrorism, specifically citing the foe as Islamic fascists.


Recently, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a medieval text which criticised Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as forbearers of evil and violence.


After an uproar from the Muslim world, the pope apologised, saying the quote did not reflect his personal opinion and the Vatican issued a statement that said it supported inter-faith dialogue.


But such dialogue cannot be possible without an inter-faith understanding of sacred texts and interpretations.


Jane McAuliffe, dean of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and a professor in the departments of History and of Arabic at Georgetown, believes that North America and Europe have increasing Muslim populations, and while this is sometimes a source of conflict, it is also a frequent opportunity for collaboration.


McAullife is the editor of the recently completed Encyclopaedia of the Quran, which contains nearly 1000 entries presented in five volumes and is the first comprehensive, multi-volume reference work on the Quran to appear in a Western language.


Aljazeera.net: If a researcher with your expertise in Arabic and history were to have reflected on Islamic-Western relations 50 years ago, could she have predicted the world we live in today? Where do you see these relations in 50 years?


 Jane McAullife: I think that it is impossible – and irresponsible – to speak of either “Islam”or “the West” as monolithic, undifferentiated entities. There are countless connections between Muslims and non-Muslims in both Muslim-majority countries and Muslim-minority countries.


Both North America and Europe have ever-increasing Muslim populations, and while this is sometimes a source of conflict, it is also a frequent opportunity for collaboration.


Muslims and non-Muslims are getting to know each other as fellow citizens, people who work in the same organisations, whose children attend the same schools and who, together, can join forces to address the issues and problems that they confront in their various communities.


What factors went into deciding to compile such an extensive body of work on Islam, its history and minutiae?


The Encyclopaedia of the Quran is a six-volume reference work that is devoted to one aspect of Islam, the foundational scripture which has guided, and continues to guide, the lives of Muslims. My decision to launch this large research project was based on a compelling needs assessment: there is no existing reference work of this sort for the Quran in Western languages.


If, for example, you look at the analogous field of biblical studies, you’ll find dozens of encyclopaedias and dictionaries of the Bible. But until the appearance of the EQ, there has been nothing like this for the Quran.


A distinguishing feature of the EQ is its combination of alphabetically arranged entries on the major themes, persons, places and concepts of the Quran, combined with major articles that review the state of contemporary scholarship in all areas related to the study of the Quran.


How did you research the volumes of work you included in the encyclopaedia? Did you consult with Islamic scholars?


From its beginning the EQ was a collaborative project between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have served as associate editors, as members of the advisory board and as authors of articles for the EQ.


We began our task more than 10 years ago by compiling a list of entry words and article titles that we wanted to include in the EQ. These lists were researched and refined in several rounds of discussion. When consensus was reached on the content list for the EQ, the associate editors and I began to select the names of authors who could be invited to write the individual entries.


I then started to send invitations to authors and was gratified by the quick and enthusiastic response that I received to these invitations.


How has your work been received by academia on the one hand, and the general public on the other? Has there been support or criticism for your work?


Reviews of the EQ in both scholarly publications and those intended for a more general readership have been strongly positive.


Scholars in both Islamic studies and other fields of the humanities and social sciences have expressed their gratitude for a reference work that can assist them in their own work and can help to open the field of Quranic studies to them. 


Among the general public, particularly here in North America, there is a tremendous hunger for accurate information about Islam in all of its multiplicity. Many people are trying to read the Quran [in English translation] and they are eager for reference sources that will help them to understand what they are reading. 

Source : Al Jazeera

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