Speaking on "The Challenge of the Believing Intellectual: Religion and Modernity," Professor Voll, who is also associated with the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, reviewed how an understanding of what it means to be an intellectual has evolved over time. In the past, an intellectual could not be committed to anything, any faith or any cause; he would have to be above any commitment to be objective, or be secular in a sense.
Times have changed and now it is possible to speak of being an intellectual and yet be committed to a faith or a cause, as Ismai’l Faruqi certainly was. That is why now we can speak of a believing intellectual, an intellectual who can examine issues from a unique perspective. Professor Voll opined that one of the most frequent conceptual mistakes made in discussing Islam and the West in the modern era was the identification of “the West” with “modernity.” This mistake has a significant impact on the way people view the processes of modernization in the Islamic world as well as on the way people interpret the relationships between Islam and the West in the contemporary era. Modernity is simply a phase of world history, a “set of processes that brought an end to the traditional lifestyles of medieval civilizations.” There can be and there are several “modernities”, each in a different cultural or civilizational environment, such as in Muslim societies. The techniques and infrastructure of change give modernity its unique character, according to Professor Voll. This understanding of modernity and modernization is the only way that we can maintain good relations between Islam and the modern West.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He taught Middle Eastern, Islamic, and world history at the University of New Hampshire for thirty years before moving to Georgetown in 1995. He graduated from Dartmouth College and received his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University. He has lived in Cairo, Beirut, and Sudan and has traveled widely in the Muslim world. The second edition of his book Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World appeared in 1994. He is co-author, with John L. Esposito, of Islam and Democracy and Makers of Contemporary Islam and is editor, author, or co-author of seven additional books. He is a past president of the Middle East Studies Association and also of the New England Historical Association. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies, the New Hampshire Humanities Council, the New Hampshire Council on World Affairs, the Sudan Studies Association, and the World History Association and is on the editorial boards Oxford Bibliographies-Online and a number of scholarly journals. He was the chair of the program committee for the 1999 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. In 1991 he received a Presidential Medal in recognition for scholarship on Islam from President Husni Mubarak of Egypt. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on modern Islamic, Sudanese, and world history.