The Culture of Ambiguity


In his book, Prof. Thomas Bauer, professor of Islamic Studies in the Cluster of Excellence ‘Religion and Politics’, tells ‘a different story of Islam’; the result: for centuries, Islam was much more tolerant towards various values and claims to truth than the West thinks. The author sheds light on 1000 years of Arabic-Islamic cultural history, from religion, law and politics, through literature and art, to the treatment of sexuality and minorities.

Bauer aims at contradicting the distorted image of Islam as politically and religiously dogmatic, intolerant and prudish, which the West has created to be its ‘replacement’ enemy since the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Under the title, ‘The Culture of Ambiguity’, Bauer describes how Arabic-Islamic societies allowed contradictory norms to exist side by side, whether in the interpretation of the Koran, sexual morality, poetry, law or political debates.
“It was 19th-century colonialism that first put pressure on the Middle East to define unambiguous norms, like the West did,” the historian argues. If Islamism today promotes a narrow claim to truth, it learnt this attitude from the West. “It is only superficially a return to ‘traditional Islamic values’.” Thus today ideas are considered Islamic that in reality are fragments of Victorian morality.

It follows from the author’s conclusions that it is wrong to talk of a “re-Islamisation” in the 20th century. Instead, Islamism is “the creation of a new, intolerant, ideological Islam”, which takes its cue from the totalitarian structures of earlier western ideologies which showed no patience for any variety of viewpoints. In the West that changed after 1968: “But the Islamic world missed out on this transformation. Islam is not lacking an Enlightenment, as Europe had in the 18th century, but the revolt of 1968.”

New editions: 6th unchanged edition

  • English Edition: The Culture of Ambiguity – An Alternative History of Islam. Berlin: Suhrkamp Insel 2011.
  • Slovenian edition: Kultura dvoumnosti. Drugačna zgodovina islama, Ljubljana: Založba Krtina 2014.
  • Arabic edition: الالتباس ثقافة. للإسلام آخر تاريخ نحو. Cologne et al.: Al-Kamel 2017.
  • English Edition: The Culture of Ambiguity – An Alternative History of Islam.New York (Columbia University Press), forthcoming 2018.

Literature: Bauer, Thomas, Die Kultur der Ambiguität. Eine andere Geschichte des Islams. Berlin: Verlag der Weltreligionen 2011.