Joshua S. Lupo
Recently, I traveled to Pakistan and India to participate in the Madrasa Discourses (MD) project summer intensives. This project aims to enhance the theological, scientific, and theological literacy of recent graduates of Muslim seminaries in south Asia. I had the opportunity to listen to presentations by participants on the relationship between Islamic thought and topics such as evolution, feminism, human rights, and hermeneutics. I also had the chance to share meals, cab rides, chai tea boiled with milk (a new favorite), walks around cities, and visits to various tourist attractions. In these less formal moments, I learned about students’ families, their views on the current political dynamics in their respective countries, and the more mundane habits that make up their days. While these conversations were perhaps less “important” in a purely academic sense, they were significant in building friendship and community with the students. I learned about the importance of family for them personally as well as culturally, what their education was like in the madrasas they attended as younger adults, and the challenges they are facing as they continue their education.
These informal and formal conversations with the students led me to reflect on the challenges facing comparative religious ethics (CRE). CRE is the study of the similarities and differences between the ethical systems, norms, and practices of various religious traditions. CRE scholars debate whether there are truly universal, or cross-cultural approaches, to ethical reasoning. Some see common approaches in ethical reasoning, even if those patterns do not always appear the same on the surface. Others argue that ethical reasoning is so culturally bound and specific that is impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to construct cross-cultural patterns that remain true to each tradition.
My conversations with MD students helped me realize that comparative ethicists too often speak about ethics in terms of abstractions rather than as a part of concrete lived experience. In rides and walks through the streets of Delhi, for example, the students discussed with me the segregation and mistreatment of Muslims in India, the differences between arranged marriage and love marriage, and many other issues. In effect, we were discussing ethical matters, but we were not appealing to universal principles in explaining them to one another. We were comparing and contrasting our ways of being in the world, with all the complexity that those different ways of being entail. This dialogical approach did not necessarily address major ethical principles, but rather reminded me of the foundation on which any comparative ethics should be built: conversation. It is through conversation that mutual knowledge and cross-cultural comparison are made possible. For the ethicist, or the policy writer interested in creating an ethic or policy that reaches across cultures, it is important not to lose sight of this. To do so is to also lose sight of the other person’s humanity.
In many ways, the MD project is emblematic of this conversational approach. In working with recent graduates from madrasas, and expanding their education in science, theology, and the humanities, we dialogically engage with emergent scholars and leaders of the Muslim intellectual communities in India and Pakistan. These conversations are not undertaken without considerable risk. Some leaders in the communities where these students live are not happy about professors, even if they are Muslim professors, from a U.S.-based Catholic university coming to teach their students. Suspicions of Western interference run high in parts of the Muslim world, and not without good reason.
The students who have been through the MD courses nonetheless express a deep joy at the opportunity to be in conversation with our professors about the relationship between Islamic thought and contemporary science and philosophy. The success of this project thus depends on the trust that is built through ongoing dialogue.
For policymakers, like ethicists, it is important to always keep in mind the importance of face-to-face encounters, and the conversational virtues of trust, listening, and attention that make such encounters meaningful. Such encounters build relationships that can sustain themselves over the long run. Of course, one-on-one interactions are not always possible. We are restricted by both time and place. But even recognizing the complexity of our conversations with our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors should remind us that our dealings with other people in other parts of the world are just as, if not more, complex, and should be treated as such. To impose policy recommendations without this sort of engagement risks provoking reactionary responses and the justified feeling that such engagement is a mere attempt at recolonization.
Joshua S. Lupo is the Contending Modernities Content Writer and Editor and Classroom Coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses project.