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Researcher Profile: Mohammad Fazlhashemi

SEEKING TO BROADEN THE IMAGE OF ISLAM

There is not just one Islam: there are many. Professor Mohammad Fazlhashemi wants to bring about a broader view of one of Sweden’s most widespread religions. There is keen interest in the University’s new Islamic theology and philosophy courses.

Islam is the second-largest religion in Sweden after Christianity. Nevertheless, it was not until two years ago that, at Uppsala University’s Department of Theology, Sweden’s first Professorship in Islamic Theology and Philosophy was set up.

Mohammad Fazlhashemi, then a historian of ideas at Umeå University, applied for the position, which suited him perfectly. It represented a big step geographically, but not in subject terms.

‘Although I was a historian of ideas, I was doing research on Muslim history of ideas and political thought within a religious framework, so there were plenty of connections.’

As an expert on political Islam, he is often invited to join in commenting on the course of events in the Middle East. He is glad to share his knowledge.

‘In Umeå, my supervisor Ronny Ambjörnsson used to point out that our salaries are funded with taxes and we must impart our knowledge to a broader public. I’ve had that in mind ever since.’

Besides being interviewed in the media, he often lectures to groups of teachers and other public-service employees. A couple of years ago his book on the Arab Spring, describing the recent democratic movement in the Middle East, was published. Since then, democratic aspirations have given way to violence in countries like Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State (IS) is trying to seize power.

‘To many people, the barbaric terrorists in IS have come to stand for Islam. I’m trying to balance that image. Why have extreme interpretations of this type arisen and what do they express? Understanding the answers gives us a better grasp of how to avoid the incidence of extremism,’ Mohammad Fazlhashemi says.

One of his books is entitled ‘Whose Islam?’ (Vems islam? 2009) and he makes a point of emphasising that Muslims are not a uniform category. Islam contains everything from extreme interpretive traditions to those that attempt to reconcile feminism and democracy with Islam.

What he calls ‘political Islam’ has often arisen in societies in crisis characterised, as he relates, by inadequate legal security and democratic deficits.

‘We know that extremist groups thrive in an undemocratic setting with economic problems and corruption. By working for better wealth distribution and against corruption, we can prevent them.’

But introducing democracy is harder in countries that lack democratic traditions, and where no agreed ground rules exist. When a second edition of Fazlhashemi’s book on the Arab Spring was issued, he had to write a new concluding chapter that was not as optimistic as the original one. Nonetheless, there are some encouraging developments.

‘In Tunisia, there’s a spirit of consensus between religious and secular groups. There, they’ve refrained from imposing sharia law because it leads to disorder and violence. If things turn out well, it shows that the extremist way is not the only solution and that conflict can be replaced by consensus.’

Last summer, for the first time, Fazlhashemi taught a summer course on the Arab Spring and political Islam. He is also leading four different basic courses in Islamic theology and philosophy. In the long run a study programme will be established, but this does not mean that the Department of Theology will start training imams. Just as for Christian theology, what the University provides is a ‘non-confessional’ education, while any vocational training for priests, pastors or imams is given under the aegis of other bodies,’ Fazlhashemi stresses.

‘The key point is that Islam can now be studied in a context of its own, and not from an outside point of view. There have long been courses in history and Middle Eastern studies, but the existence of Islamic studies in its own right is something new.’

On the research front, he has returned to medieval times, which were the setting for the subject of his doctoral thesis. He seeks to uncover the roots of modern political Islam at a time coinciding with the European Middle Ages and the Early Modern era.

‘One way of explaining political Islam is to trace it back to the colonial powers of the 18th and 19th centuries and the severe shortcomings of those systems. I’m looking into whether it’s also possible to trace the ideas and notions back to the theological and philosophical traditions that emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries and the period before our modern era. I want to broaden the perspective.’

Annica Hulth

Facts – Mohammad Fazlhashemi

Title: Professor of Islamic Theology and Philosophy.
Born in: 1961
Family: wife and three adult children.
Leisure interests: jobs around the house, walks in the countryside.
What makes you happy? ‘A lot, such as reading something good, eating well or listening to music.’
What makes you angry? ‘Injustice. Seeing people in need, for instance every time I walk past a beggar. What’s happening now in the Middle East, where totally innocent people are suffering from terrible difficulties and attacks in the name of religion, makes me feel enormously frustrated.’
Last book read: Arvet från Bagdad (‘The Legacy of Baghdad’) by Ingmar Karlsson.