Diverse interpretations of evolving Islam

Judaism, Islam and Christianity are not strangers to each other, as noted by Ilkka Lindstedt, a specialist in Arabic language and Islamic studies. Lindstedt will serve as a teacher in a new study track focused on Islamic theology, to be offered at the Faculty of Theology from autumn 2019 onwards.

Ilkka Lindstedt, recruited as a university lecturer for a fixed term at the Faculty of Theology, ended up as a scholar of Islam by way of a winding path. Originally, he was supposed to become a translator of modern Arabic literature.

“My teachers in Arabic language and Islamic studies, however, got me interested in the rich history of Islam in its early and classic periods. Thus, I became interested in historical texts and the manifestations of Islam throughout the centuries.”

Lindstedt considers Islamic studies an extremely fascinating field of research.

“In the modern period, there have been considerably fewer scholars of the Qur'an compared to biblical scholars, making many methodological innovations novel or still waiting to be discovered in the field of Islamic studies. The study of early Islam in particular is a field full of competing interpretations and theories. It’s interesting to see which of the propositions will come to be accepted and which will be rejected,” Lindstedt notes.

As an expert in the field, Lindstedt continues to be amazed by the abundance and wealth of Arabic literature. He provides an example:

Ibn Asakir, who lived in the 12th century, wrote History of Damascus, a work that compiles the biographies of the learned and prominent people who lived in and visited the city. The modern printed edition of the work comprises 80 volumes and nearly 40,000 pages! With the help of this text, it is possible to observe the networks, opinions and debates of medieval Islamic scholars of Damascus in great detail. You could easily spend an entire lifetime, or even two, studying just that single work,” Lindstedt laughs.

Dialogue between religions is important in the modern world

When touching upon the meaningfulness of researching and teaching Islamic theology in a Finnish university, Lindstedt points to the changes taking place in the surrounding society. Islam has turned into a significant minority religion in Finland too, which he considers one of the reasons why it is important to understand changing interpretations of Islamic theology and intellectual history from different time periods.

“I find it essential to include Islamic theology in the research topics of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki in order to avoid the thought of Islam being something alien, clearly separate from Judaism and Christianity,” Lindstedt says.

He points out that as Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a wide range of theological concepts and figures of sacred history. Of course, different interpretations have been used to draw lines between the religions, as well as between movements within the religions, since time immemorial.

“It's interesting to study how figures of sacred history have been used in creating unique identities. For example, Paul, a theologian during early Christianity, posited that Abraham who is considered the progenitor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is specifically an idol to those who believe in Christ, whereas the Qur'an states that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian. In these writings, Abraham is interpreted in a manner that strengthens the identity of one’s own group,” Lindstedt notes.

Religious texts considered sacred and lived religion are not the same thing

University Lecturer Ilkka Lindstedt sees many opportunities for research cooperation between the various disciplines of the Faculty of Theology.

“Scholars specialised in biblical studies have applied perspectives of social research to Judaic and Christian texts, a relatively new approach in Islamic studies. I think they do have a lot of potential in terms of the Qur'an and Arabic literature. Furthermore, prolific research on gender and identity, as well as rituals, is being conducted at the Faculty.”

In the discipline of Islamic theology, the aim is to examine relevant questions expressed both in historical sources and in modern day life. Studies in the field provide students with an opportunity to familiarise themselves with a religious tradition comparatively unknown to most Finns.

“I guess the most common false assumption is that Islam has remained an unchanged entity throughout history. Islam’s internal diversity has not always been understood,” Lindstedt speculates.

“Common to anti-Islamic opinions is to pick individual verses from the Qur'an that are thought to affect the everyday life of all Muslims as is. Consideration is not given to how the core sources of Islam have been interpreted and understood across the centuries and today,” he adds.

Islam is constantly changing according to time, place and context, as well as the needs of communities. Research also offers a wide variety of interpretations.

“Many Muslims today read the core sources of their religion from, say, modernist or feminist perspectives,” Lindstedt states.

Read moreCourses in Islamic theology begin at the University of Helsinki's Faculty of Theology – Learning about textual and lived Islam