In light of the ongoing public debate that focuses on differences between Islam and the West, this presentation suggests a change of perspective. Instead of explaining differences, it aims at understanding similarities. Departing from the observation that both “Western Orientalists” and “Islamic Fundamentalists” conceptualize Islam as an “all-encompassing, determinant and unchanging” cultural entity, the presentation traces this image back to a process of the reinterpretation of Islamic traditions by Islamic reformers and Orientalist scholars in the nineteenth century. It identifies the origin of this image in the discursive and social interactions among Islamic Modernists and Orientalists providing the foundation for an essentialist interpretation of Islam that has developed through the twentieth century in a complex process of cross-cutting (self)-interpretations of Muslim and Western societies.
The presentation will substantiate this broader hypothesis by briefly examining the early phase of this process, in particular the relationship among scholars such as Ignaz Goldziher, C.H. Becker and Thomas W. Arnold, on the one hand, and Islamic reformers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh or Muhammad Iqbal on the other.