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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Sells Reflects on “The Struggle for the Soul of Islam”


Event Recap

Michael Sells, a noted scholar of Islam and Professor of Religion at Haverford College, asserted in March 13 lecture at Boston College that what the Taliban and other conservative Islamic movements are really fighting is a war against the TV set, and what it represents: a culture of global advertisement and the idolatry of images. It was no accident, he argued, that the September 11 attacks were “choreographed” to ensure that the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center would be captured on TV; this was all part of Osama bin Laden’s plan to defeat the United States by what he believed was Americans’ enslavement to images.

Sells sought to convey a sense of the ideology motivating radical Islamic groups, and to contrast these movements with the much broader Islamic cultural tradition that is often hidden behind its politicized face. While some interpret the actions of groups like the Taliban, and the attacks of September11, as a vindication of the “clash of civilizations” theory, Sells argues that the theory offers too limited a view, because it fails to recognize that elements of Islamic culture have something to contribute to the West.

In identifying three things that are “right” in Islam—its sense of time, its poetry, and the Qur’an—Sells sought a way to “translate” these elements for his Western audience. The Islamic sense of time, for example, grows out of the experience of a lunar calendar with no fixed dates, and a daily system of five calls to prayer based on natural observations and an orientation to Mecca. In addition to its implications for the development of Muslim astronomy and mathematics, this system has helped to create a “non-transactional” experience of time in Islamic society; people are less concerned about getting where they need to go and more interested in developing relationships along the way. Sells notes that this notion of time is “not terribly efficient,” but might have something to teach us nonetheless. In a similar way, Americans could benefit by learning more about how traditions of shared poetry and the aural experience of the Qur’an have contributed to a rich culture. In sum, the present crisis demands what Sells calls an “apophatic” politics, one that resists fixed cultural categories and strives for an inclusive, non-oppositional perspective.