Wael Farouq: Arab Identities and Tribal Culture

Arab Identities and Tribal Culture
(Wael Farouq, May 23, 2018)

Transcript available below

Watch his speaker playlist

About the speaker

In his new book, Egyptian scholar Wael Farouq addresses such issues as tribal culture in Arab identity, the invention of the Caliphate, and the history and the role of the fatwā, including an analysis of what European Muslims are looking for as shown in their requests for fatwās today. Throughout, he examines the deeper roots of the perilous predicament of Arab reason revealed in the contemporary clash between religious and modernist discourse.

Professor Farouq is currently professor of Arabic language, literature and culture at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Catholic University of Milan (Italy) and at the Faculty of Linguistic Sciences and Foreign Literatures of the same university. Previously, he has been professor of Arabic language at the American University in Cairo (Egypt), Straus Fellow at the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice at the University of New York, and vice president of the Cairo Meeting.

He is author of several books and essays in Arabic, Italian and English in the field of Islamic studies and on contemporary Islamic thinking. Among other publications, he is a contributing author of the book Dio salvi la ragione (“God Save Reason”, Cantagalli, 2007) with Pope Benedict XVI, and coauthor of the book Pope Benedict XVI’s Legal Thought: A Dialogue on the Foundation of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He has recently published two books: Conflicting Arab Identities – Language, Tradition and Modernity (Muta, 2018) and Discourse Analysis of the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2018).

An excerpt from his monograph Hats and Turbans:  Adaptation to Modernity and Conventional Mind, (New York, 2012), can be read at: http://www.almuslih.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=295:modernity-between-exclusion-and-identification&catid=44:islam-in-history&Itemid=214.

For a companion lecture, see Robert Reilly’s Westminster talk, Not What Went Wrong in the Arab World, but Why It Went Wrong: A Theological Answer.


Barbara Gagliotti:

Good evening, everyone. My name is Barbara Gagliotti and I am the Associate Director of Crossroads Cultural Center and we are co-sponsoring tonight’s event. I’m very sorry to inform you that Robert Reilly will not be here tonight. He broke his arm last Sunday in two places and so he is in a lot of pain and he is also very sorry not to be able to be here to greet Wael Farouq, who is a friend of his.

Audience member:


Barbara Gagliotti:

He didn’t tell me and he seemed like he was… I didn’t want to ask, but of course, he’s on the mend, but, you know, it’s just not been so many days, so he thought he’d be able to throw his jacket over his, you know, arm and get away with it but that was that. He quickly understood that was not going to happen, so he asked me to step in.

And Crossroads Cultural Center is a co-sponsor of tonight’s event and we are an organization that finds its inspiration in the charism of Father Luigi Giussani. It’s a Catholic Lay Movement, which is present in 170 countries throughout the world and our goal is to bring opportunities for education, which offer the possibility to look at reality with- with openness, with curiosity, and with critical awareness.

Often our events, like the event that we’re going to- we participate in tonight, are the occasion for profound dialogue and frank dialogue and the occasion for surprising encounters like the one that we’ve had with our friend Wael Farouq.

Who could have imagined, I think, the importance of the chance encounter that that you between a Christian student of Arabic language and his Muslim professor that generated a long history of friendship and has opened pathways for greater understanding between cultures and religion and, you know, perhaps Professor Farouq will tell us a little bit more about that in the question-and-answer period, but that’s what we do to generate encounter, to generate an affection where you can actually speak of things and have a dialogue about things.

In addition to his academic work, and I won’t go into his biography because you’ve had that in the announcements that were sent out, Professor Farouq was instrumental in publishing the Religious Sense in Arabic. The Religious Sense is the seminal work of Father Luigi Giussani about the human person, about the use of Reason, about religiosity, and Professor Wael was extremely happy to bring that to light in- in Arabic.

He also dedicates quite a bit of his time to promoting dialogue between Christian and Muslim thinkers and leaders and we thank you for that. And the last thing that I’ll mention before I introduce our speaker is that the last time that we had the honor of hosting you was when you shared the stage with Robert Reilly in 2012 and this was at the National Press Club. Bob had just published his work on the Closing of the Muslim Mind and we were in sort of the waning period of the Arab Spring, so we had a very lively dialogue on- on was there any hope coming out of the Arab Spring and I hope that we can get a little update on that tonight, perhaps in the question and answer period.

So the format of tonight’s discussion will be a presentation followed by questions and answers and we ask that during the question-and-answer period that all speakers please approach the microphone because this is being filmed, so that we can put it on the websites and to be as succinct as possible in your comments and- and to make questions in the form of a question.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Wael Farouq, who is professor of Arabic language, literature, and culture at the Catholic University of Milan in Italy. He will speak on his latest work, which is entitled, “Conflicting Arab Identities,” so thank you. Thank you for coming, Wael, and being with us.

Wael Farouq:

Thank you very much, Barbara. I am really honored to be here this evening with you. I am really grateful for Bob Reilly for inviting me and for his hospitality and I’m going to ask you to excuse me for my English at the beginning because it’s not [just] the strong Egyptian accent but it’s also combined by an Italian accent, so God help you. The structure of the presentation I’m going to part from the explosion of the fatwa, this phenomenon that you can find in all [of the] Islamic world, especially [the] Arab world and after presenting this phenomenon I am going to speak about why, and I am proposing two answers, one within the Islamic tradition itself, what I call the ‘duality of Ummah tribe’, and the other one within the form of modernity that has arrived to the Arab world and after this i will move to speak also about the fatwa [in the] West and Muslims living in [the] West, but particularly in Europe because it’s a statistical study that I made on Muslims in Europe.

So this fatwa, this phenomenon is very important and it’s regarding all aspects of everyday life for all Muslims and for Muslim societies. As you can see here, starting from 1990 we have this explosion of this technology called fatwa. We can find fatwa on Facebook. Even the smartphones, there is an app for fatwa that is Google Imam.

There are a lot of forms, you know, of the fatwa in [the] modern world. Just to give you an image about how huge this phenomenon is, we will see that Islam will, for example, you know, you see 170 fatwa 24 fatwa per day.per day. This is only one one website in five languages other- There are others in sixteen languages. There are millions of people who are following… I am not going to read everything so we will stay with time. [There are] millions of people who are following the Imams who are issuing this fatwa and one of them, for example, you know, is followed by Amra Khaled, an Egyptian preacher, and he’s followed by 29 million [people], and he’s followed by 29 million [people], which is 3-4 Arab countries combined together, so it’s a fatwa that you can find in every- everyday life, Muslim, you can find it, you know, present from the very big questions to the very small questions.

One of these fatwas I- I found it, for example, on the Facebook page of Al-Azhar University and it’s about a young man who just was [a] student in American University in Cairo, just that his new smartphone, and as all we do, the first thing he was going to do is to personalize his smartphone. And as a religious young man, the first thing he thought to do was downloading the Holy Qur’an in his smartphone. The Internet is very slow in Egypt, so downloading took [a] very long time and while he is waiting for the download, his stomach started to move.

He got this basic, superficial, but very important need to go to bathroom, but he said okay I’m not going to waste two hours of the downloading, I will resist it until I complete the downloading of the Holy Qur’an and after[wards] he run to the bathroom and when he was on the limits of his tolerance, the download finished, and he started to run towards the bathroom. In front of the bathroom he stopped. It came to his mind a question. Can I enter the bathroom with my phone full of the words of God of the Holy Qur’an, the words of God and the Holy Qur’an and they stopped in front of the bathroom you know divided between the pain of his stomach and the pain of his of his mind cannot make a decision.

This fatwa give an example of what I want what I want to present today this young man is not poor because he is just got his new brand a smartphone he has got the relationship with technology. He is well educated. He is a student in university. He is everything that we used to give that not we used to give as an answer of the crisis of Islam today not the poverty of the lack of education not any of these things. He’s educated. He’s rich. He has he has everything but he cannot make such a simple decision with her to enter the bathroom or not, so this.

Final Note

Now, I think I [have been speaking for] fifty minutes that we agreed to, but if you ask questions, I will answer. These statistical studies show – and now we are doing this on a very large scale with the University of Bicocca in Italy. With the Department of Statistics we are studying now. Up to now, we asked 250,000 questions of Muslims living in Europe and the United States to study the structure of the text of this question and see the amazing things that [are] coming out from these questions.

What are really Muslims looking for in the West? They are looking for living in [a] harmonious way with others. The mosque, marginal. The hijab is marginal. All what we present in media and the public debates about Muslims, Muslims don’t care about it, okay? But this very few percentage makes rumors and they are very loud and they are here and the much more present. I think the best solution to the problems of Muslim of West is to give space for this silent majority of Muslims not living in another continent or on another- living with us here amongst us here in West, giving the same visibility space and voice and this extremist voices will be marginalized because the science prove that the majority of Muslims they don’t care about the other things.

You remember we left this young guy in front of the bathroom in pain. [He] cannot decide if he whether entered the bathroom or not seems very dramatic for us but for him was no drama because in one second he wrote a question to the Facebook page of Al-Azhar, “I am in front of the bathroom with my cell phone full of Qur’anic verses. What should I do?”

And the imam, ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week – not the same imams, they make them [take turns] – he answered to him, “My dear young man, do you by chance  memorize some verses of Qur’an?” The young kid [replied], “Of course, what a question! Yes, I do.” The imam asked him to leave his cell phone and his heart out of the bathroom. And this is what remains of Muslims today if they don’t gain back the attempt to build an Umma and they give up the elements of the culture of the tribe. Thank you very much.


Audience member:

I have one question. You talked about the importance of the Muslims in the Western world, this silent majority, how important it is. Okay, you spoke about how important it is for the voices of the silent majority, the Muslims in the Western world, to be heard to sort of overshadow these myths about the hijab and things of that nature. How will that happen? What is the mechanism that will happen when it appears to be that the Muslims, the silent majority, are afraid to express their opinions and concerns because of more radical Muslims?

See the Q&A…