Religious authority focus of annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue

April 21, 2010 | Events, UToday
By Meghan Cunningham

It’s unclear who is the voice of authority for Islam.

In the past, it was much easier to have clear leaders in societies where literacy is limited, because those who could read where those who interpreted the texts.



But as more learned to read, the proliferation of books, the breakdown of traditional authority, and most recently with individuals and the media offering up spokesmen for the religion, it has become convoluted, said Dr. Sherman Jackson, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.

“Religious authority has been so broken down that many don’t know who speaks for Islam,” he said.

Jackson will discuss this issue during the annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue. His lecture, “Who Speaks for a Religion: Questions of Religious Authority in Our Time,” will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 22, in the Student Union Auditorium.

So is the answer a person with formal religious training, or is authority given in a more informal way to someone with street credibility?

“One of the biggest mistakes, actually, is looking for a definitive, final answer,” he said. “It’s open to interpretation and it could be different when you’re talking about the authority to speak to the non-Muslim community or the authority to speak to fellow Muslims seeking religious advice or instruction.”

Other religions have similar questions, Jackson said, particularly those that have to negotiate their relationship with state structures.

As is the tradition of the annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue, Jackson’s comments will be followed by those from the Jewish and Christian perspectives.

Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, UT professor of Catholic studies, will discuss the Christian viewpoint, and Rabbi Moshe Saks, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, will offer the Jewish perspective.

A question-and-answer session will follow the speakers, and the evening will close with roundtable discussions that encourage inter-religious dialogue.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are good religions to engage in dialogue with each other because they are a religious family with historical and theological links, said Jeanine Diller, UT research associate professor of philosophy and religion, who is coordinating the lecture series

“As with any family, this shared understanding cuts both ways: It means that they can pretty quickly find common ground, and that they can pretty quickly find disagreements and fight,” she said. “We hope this event allows those interested in these traditions to examine honestly and openly these points of disagreement and agreement, engage each other about them, and come away with greater mutual understanding and respect, since that is so helpful to reducing the religious tensions worldwide that worry us all.”

The Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue is the culminating event in the UT Initiative for Inter-Religious Understanding Series sponsored by the Program in Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy.

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