Gone, But Never Forgotten: RIP Massimo Campanini, The Eminent Historian of Islam (1954-2020) Commentary
(c) Dr. Mohamend 'Arafa (2018)
Gone, But Never Forgotten: RIP Massimo Campanini, The Eminent Historian of Islam (1954-2020)

The great well-known Italian fāqīh (scholar) of Islam and philosophy professor Massimo Campanini (MC) has passed away on the dawn of Friday, October 9, 2020, at his home in Lombardi, Milano (Italy) in the presence of Donatella, his wife; he left one son. He was 65 and recently has been battling neurodegenerative (Parkinson) disease. The European, especially the Italian, academic community, along with the media celebrate moments of joy and moments of pain through mutual mourning. Campanini’s prolific scholarship — including more than 40 (authored and edited) books, dozens of articles, and competence in at least a dozen languages, including Arabic — traced fault lines that define the contemporary Middle East. Some notable examples include his work on sectarian divisions, modern Islam, the moderate interpretation of the Qurān, and the rise of radical Islamists and deep-rooted authoritarianism, some backed by the West. Along the way, Campanini often gained a privileged vantage point for events in the region during a life that spanned the era of Abū Ḥāmid AlGhāzālī, Ibn Rušd (Averroès) among others, oil discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, and confrontations against the Islamic State (ISIS). He was an Islamist, historian, philosopher, translator/jurist, one of the most cherished historians of the contemporary Arab Near East, as well as a scholar of Islamic thinking in old Europe and the United States. 

Campanini graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1977 at Università Degli Studi di Milano (the State University of Milan). In 1984, he earned another degree in Arabic from the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (ISIAO). He started his academic appointments as a senior lecturer and researcher “Subject Expert” of Contemporary History at Milan University Faculty of Political Science. From 1995-2000, he was appointed as a visiting professor at Urbino University and taught a class on the History and Institutions in the Muslim World, then in 2001-2005, he moved to the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Milan, where he taught a class on Arab Culture and Civilization. In 2006, he moved to Naples as the winner of a research competition. He was appointed as a visiting scholar-in-residence at Università Degli Studi di NapoliLOrientale” (the University of Naples) and as an associate professor (2009) to teach a class on Contemporary History of Arab Countries at the Arab-Islamic and Mediterranean Studies department. From 2011-2016, he was appointed as a full distinguished professor “first bracket” – with tenure – of Islamic History at Trento University, where he taught classes on Islamic civilization and Arab culture, and Islamic law. He held academic appointments at the San Raffaele University, the University Institute of Higher Studies (IUSS) in Pavia, Scuola Superiore per Mediatori Linguistici (Campus CIELS) in Pàdova, and the Humanitarian Society of Milan. Lately, after his retirement, he remained an active scholar at the Ambrosian Academy of Milan. In 2017, under Renzi and Gentiloni governments, he was appointed as an Islamic adviser/consultant of the Italian Islamic Council launched by the Interior Ministry. He was also a frequent contributor to the Italian media, as Action of Migros Ticino, Viator, Corriere del Trentino, Il Fatto Quotidiano, luttoadomani, among many others.

Campanini worked on wide-ranging projects. He was not only a scholar of office but also a scholar involved in the public debate on Islam in the Italian and European public sphere. Along with the Arab world, he was often invited by civil society organizations (NGOs), Islamic and non-Islamic, to contribute to the debate, especially in northern Italy and the Milano area. One way to celebrate and honor Massimo is to reflect on his scholarly work and discuss how he helped explicate concepts such as tāfsir (interpretation), taʾwīl (esoteric interpretation) for the purposes of the conventional understanding of the Qurānīc text and articulate principles such as pluralism in the Islamic thought. He further argued that the Middle East’s dilemmas were mostly self-inflicted and were not solely inherited ills from colonialism or outside meddling. He praised and admired Islam as a great faith but fretted that it was being hijacked by extremism, intolerance, and anger. His work was directed towards four thematic areas: (1) Qurānīc studies; (2) Islamic – medieval and contemporary – philosophy; (3) Islamic political thought (theology); and (4) the contemporary history of Arab countries, particularly, the radical Islamist movements and Arab-Islamic socialism.

In the field of Islamic philosophy, he has contributed, written, and commented on the various famous “classical” Islamic scholars’ work such as al-Ghāzālī, Averroès, al-Fārābī, and the Egyptian modernist reformative/activist, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905). He argued that:

“Muslims could not simply rely on the interpretations of texts provided by medieval clerics; they needed to use ījtīhād and qīyās (reason and analogical deduction) to keep up with changing times. In Islam, a man was not created to be led by a bridle, but was given intelligence so that he could be guided by knowledge.”

In the same vein, he highlighted that:

“Abduh was against polygamy if resulted in injustice […], as he confirmed that most likely will be the case, hence prohibited, and believed in the form of Islam that would liberate human beings and abolish the religious scholar’s monopoly on exegesis and eliminate racial discrimination.”

Recently, he has been gathering new material for more work on the Qurānīc philosophy. As one of his final tasks he wanted to explore further, newly and creatively, as few jurists develop on, as his old friend, the known scholar of Islamic philosophy Oliver Leaman (1950).

In terms of political theology, Campanini principally elaborated on the concept of retrospective utopia linked it to the paradigm of the difference between aldāwlā (alkīlāfāh) alīslamīyyā model and the ISIS Islamic state’s vision. In contemporary history, he tied the dilemma of Islam and democracy in the Middle East to the military role in the formation of post-colonialism. Recently, he proposed a philosophical perspective to the Qurānīc exegesis towards a “philosophical Qurānology” notion, that is, a study of the Qurān through not only its interpretative tools but as a philosophical book. In 2019, he argued in the Journal of Qurānīc Studies, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London (SOAS) that the “transversal paradigms of travel and time to the West and Islam, [is] . . . the need for the three monotheisms to go beyond the too rigid limits of ideologism . . .” He argued that it was not complicated to prove how there are numerous roots of pluralism in the Islamic theory, ranging from the Caliphate’s cosmopolitanism to the normative divergence of religious law, from the conservationism of some Islamist movements to their classical, traditional roots and to the – mostly mysterious – political function of mysticism or Sufism. He immersed himself in topics as varied as Sufi mystic poetry and intricacies of Islamic law. 

In his recent book, Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qurānīc Exegesis (2016), he addressed the hermeneutic glitches of classical “medieval” theologians and philosophers such as al-Fārābī (died 950), Averroès (died 1198), and Ibn Tāymiyyā (died 1328), to the European Islam. He stated, “traditional religious authority within a non-traditional context or even a non-Islamic one, as well as educational systems in contemporary pluralistic societies.” He argued that it is significant to understand issues about the individual in relation to holistic community theory, of particular importance in Islam, the inclusion and exclusion that involves European Muslims who are a minority, as well as religious minorities in Muslim countries, as were problems concerning the thorny issue of training īmāms (religious scholars). He mentioned that “In Western Europe as well as in Italy, the [issue] of training īmāms is [predominantly] felt due to fears” rising from the prospect that religious leaders may spread the radical ideology. He underscored that despite the frequent references to hermeneutic methodologies, the enhancement of religious dialogue in the Islamic tradition, the relations between Western Christianity and Islam, literature appears to have had little coverage of the Qurān – as a revealed Book – and its legal theory.

On the other hand, in his 2010’s book: The Qurān: Modern Muslim Interpretations, Campanini argued that the lack and the absence of treating the Holy Book of Muslim, not only from the dogmatic/spiritual perspectives, but also from the legal approach – as the late M. Cherif Bassiouni emphasized – infers a degree of vagueness concerning the pluralism of Islamic thoughts, sources, and its reform and development. On the day Bassiouni died, his email account’s farewell message included quotations from the Prophet Mohammad, Pope Paul VI, and Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel. He quoted the hadith by the Prophet Mohammad: “If you see a wrong, you must right it: with your hand if you can, or, with your words, or with your stare, or with your heart and that is the weakest of faith.” Cherif often quoted from the Qurān, the Bible, and the Tālmud, saying, “I liked to build bridges and point to the similarities between the faiths instead of the differences.” Massimo said, […] “as a religion, or rather as an ideology, Islam, being founded on a “Book,” cannot avoid textual references to revelation, . . . it is evident that religious reformism differs from reform of religion.” Also, he used – as Bassiouni – to quote this Qurānic verse “From God we come and to God we return” (Q. 2:156).

Campanini explained that religious reformism indicates that those applying it should preserve a definite reference to religion. Religious reform can be accomplished and transformed into disguised secularism. So, in terms of modernism, civilizational īslāh (reform) and tājdīd (renewal) in Islamic thought represent religious imperatives that return the Islamic faith, its texts, principles, methodologies, interpretation, and inference to their authenticity and originality. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these notions involved the Muslim world and played a vital role as moderate interpretative tools of the Sharīeā, aiming the universality of Islamic law as a reaction to the challenge coming from the West, that had colonized and exposed to its dominium most of the Islamic territories. Moreover, he expressed that the debates regarding Islamic religious revival and reform – from a political-institutional view – have been enlivening for at least 150 years, if not more. The West had, so to speak, exported to the Muslim world the concepts of the modern state, the congressional system, and capitalism, as well as – from the cultural perspective – the notions of nationalism, secularism, and democracy had not formerly been processed by the Islamic thought.

On Iranian Islam, Campanini clarified that it is incredibly challenging, and one cannot effectively be a religious reformer, without argument based on a religious text of the Qurān, as ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush claims. He said “Luther [theology professor] reformed Christianity on the basis of the Bible” and also “[…] hyperbolically and mistakenly defined in the West as “the Luther of Islam,” is opposed by a religious reformer such as the Iranian Mohsen Kadivar, […] the Shīīte perspective of pluralism . . . It is interesting to observe that Kadivar opposes the Khomeinist régime although he is extremely active in promoting Shīīte reformism.”  In the light of that, this debate reflects a significant uncertainty experienced by contemporary Islamic thought, locked between the opposing tensions of modernity and tradition. I argue with Campanini that the balance has not yet been attained between the vision of those who, rightly ambitious for modernity, find it problematic to reassess their turāth (legacy), and those who are locked “pen sable” (in a pen), hence, the stubborn exclusivity of tradition, are no longer capable of thinking the unthinkable, therefore, all that is outside the pen of tradition, as democracy.

In his book “La Politica nell’ Islam [Politics and Islam: An Interpterion]”, he clarified why democracy is scarcely practiced in the Arab and Muslim world. Further, he discussed how Thailand’s Imtīyāz Yusuf stimulated interreligious dialogue with the Buddhists, and the possibility of harmonizing Islam with the Pancasila, as a founding principle of the Indonesian Constitution – as the largest Muslim country in the world with 240 million believers – acknowledges the religious’ unity as an abstract, imprecise notion; a dīn īlāhī (divine) principle. Likewise, he said that syncretism has led, in India, for instance, to the hybridity between the indistinct principle of the Brahmin in Hinduism and the powerful personalist idea of monotheism placed on the worship of Allāh (Unique God), with frankly perplexing results. It seems that this approach paves new ways for religious research while concurrently isolating itself from the founding Qurānic nucleus.   

He also argued that pluralism is undoubtedly the prerequisite for interreligious dialogue and internal reform processes that look forward to the future in a global, and thus inevitably “open” world. However, pluralism cannot infer a loss of a religion’s founding descriptions, nor in general, those of any ideology. Therefore, pluralism must not become, à la Hegel, a “night in which all cows are black,” but maintain clear individual specificities, especially theological ones. The intrinsic clashes in the written book foundations (Torāh, the Gospels, or the Qurān) are “closed” because prophecy has been ultimately interrupted, and humanist plurality questions the identity of religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.). Tensions inspire a rebalancing of the theoretical basics of religions and ideologies, including the hyper-secularist ones. He said that “I believe that French-styled laicité is a religion, a religion with no God but nonetheless with the same “extremist” effects and implications, with a view to avoiding all radicalisms, not only Islamic but also Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindus, etc.  . . .” He said:

The fact is that very little is said about Islam, at least in Italy, except in the case of terrorism or the kidnapping of young cooperators. One of the clichés that are propagated about the religion of Muhammad [Mohammed] is that Muslims read the Qurān, their holy book, in a dull and uncritical way, without the slightest historical awareness. This involves both [the] Orientalist studies and has repercussions on the rethinking that Muslim intellects themselves are conducting on the pillars of faith

In an interview conducted by Mohammed Hashas, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science at LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome, when asked about himself, Massimo said: 

I believe to be a free-thinker, normally antagonist towards consolidate and mainstream positions, both in thinking and in politics. I am not comfortable with the Western society I live therein because I believe it grounded on hypocrisy and false prejudices. The main one is the conviction that we Europeans and Americans (mostly white of course, […]) are depositary of absolute and universal truths, eternal, out of history – we would be indeed the makers of the end of history. Europeans and Americans are the Biblical elected people [remember the Pilgrim Fathers] and God incarnated for us; therefore, we have the burden to civilize the world. Since my early youth, I was uncomfortable with this perspective. 

On how he came to the study of Islam and(or) Muslim societies, he said, 

For by no means casual circumstances, after a journey in Egypt, I discovered the Qur’ān and I began to read it in Alessandro Bausani’s translation/commentary. The ongoing study of the Qur’ān led me to elaborate a more rational [in my view] idea of God and theology, so far away from any [anthropomorphizing] and fideism and blind obedience . . . Hānāfī’s phenomenological approach modified definitely my views of religion and also of politics. Abu Zayd’s open-mindedness helped me to improve my methods in reading Qur’ān. 

On being an Orientalist, he added,

“Obviously, I was educated in Orientalist scholarly tradition and I learnt a lot from it methodologically, but I believe I have always been quite “free.” My conviction is that, if you want to understand the “other,” you must try to think as the other thinks. Consequently, I preferred to see Islam through Muslim eyes and not through Orientalist (à la Said) eyes – at least as far as I was able to do so.”

On his teachings, he said,

“After 9/11, the classes were filled up of students (I was teaching in Milan at that time), but how much was their interest sincere? Actually, popular interest in Islam is strongly conditioned by contingent outward circumstances, and today Xenophobic and Islamophobic propaganda does not help to develop the field. Again: Italy is a parochial country.”

Socialism and religion are still at the center of my research. The struggle for liberation – intellectual and political – continues. When asked about the future and the latest Arab Spring, he said,

“Terroristic phenomena could be demystified if correctly interpreted. Unfortunately, at least in Italy, there is no political and public involvement aimed to improve knowledge of Islam. Mass-media (…academia, alas!) [portray] Islam exclusively as a violent ideology. [The general public] are very scarcely informed about the intellectual and spiritual achievements of Islam.”

He added, “Jesus and Muhammad conveyed substantially the same religious message, […]. Moreover, in Christianity, Jesus is the Logos, in Islam, the Logos is the Qurān.” However, “men live in society and society is much more flexible than religious ideologies. The crux is that Islam is the “other” of Europe and Europe is the “other” of Islam: they are ever quarreling sisters. The famous Medieval and Illuminist tale of the three rings (from Boccaccio to Lessing) is telling and captures a real situation.” In the end, when asked if he is optimistic, he responded, “I am by nature pessimist . . . We must seek for the truth, ask for the truth without arriving at it, because only teleology maintains the horizons open.” 

On the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he said, “there is an Islamic medicine in the face of pandemics, by holding together the millennia and cultures, as a solid hook in the present.” He was too critical to be invited by official TV channels! He was very critical of Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, naïve political Islam, and autocratic Arab régimes. Like philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1942), he was critical of how countries have managed the pandemic and thought it to be another innovative means of surveillance and control of individual freedoms and public rights. He always wanted to be “free” and to see others “free” too.

   Recently, Massimo and I agreed in a – forthcoming article – that the Middle East may progressively breed extremism and anti-Western fervor. However, his once-solid optimism about the Arab Muslim world’s future and the West’s capability to spur reshuffling seemed stunned. We wrote, “when did the exceptional circumstance of the implementation of the Sharīeā begin and therefore of the sovereignty of God?” […] In the same vein, we argued that

pluralism of voices, as a natural characteristic of the Islamic pattern of thought, impedes the strict cross-referentiality of religion and public power. On the other hand, the state claimed to be supported by religious law but failed in depriving the ‘ulamā’ (scholars) of their religious authority or silencing civil society. Obviously, the same could be said of religion, it failed in impeding the autonomous rule of political power nor in silencing civil society,” we wrote.

Furthermore, we noted that Harvard Law School Professor, “Noah Feldman’s contention that all the ‘medieval’ experience of governance was, on the whole, the outcome of the practical realization of the Islamic state must be discussed and refuted.” 

We argued that “Feldman argued, that, […] the Islamic State is founded on the Sharīeā and is the state of the law. In this regard, Feldman’s paradigm subject to a sort of discourse of disagreement. […], an Islamic theocracy has never existed, as Islam is not a theocracy because no church exists in Islam.” Moreover, 

Ibn Tāymīyyā formulated the sīyāsa shār‘īyyā because he was aware that the rulers were no longer applying the Law of God. Thus, it was necessary to formulate sīyāsa (politics) based on religious law because the Sharīe‘a (religious law) was no longer working. There is a wide debate regarding Islam’s compatibility with democracy. Many scholars argued that the question of a democratic Islam has no meaning at all, because the two terms are completely at odds. Surely, the question is highly controversial, […] it is significant to avoid the so-called “essentialist” interpretation of Islam. […] Going back to the initial question posed in the introduction of this piece, what is the most “true” Islam, the important point is not to pick a specific version and declare it representative of the entire religion, but rather, to simply make sure it is coming from a place of knowledge and understanding of the complexity behind the legal history . . . Why hasn’t democracy had an easier time in the Muslim world?

Regarding the editing process, we recently exchanged emails and when asked about how we can verify some of his Italian books cited in our piece, he wrote “Buongiorno Mohammed. The books of mine I quoted are all in Italian and there is no English translation. The same for the other Italian books. I don’t understand if the editors want to check the correctness of the quotations and of the page numbers. It would be however a very huge task. Let me know if there is a way to make the thing easier. Perhaps they do not trust Italians!” then I replied and then he gets back to me with this: “My friend Mohammed, you are really fantastic! All your suggestions are fine and precise. I will think about them one day more and then tomorrow confirm definitely. Grazie a presto!! Shukran!  –Massimo.”

I have known Campanini first through his work, then for the last four years, I came to know him in person, through conferences and seminars. I want to highlight the story of when I met him for the first time with my good Italian friend, Professor Giancarlo Anello. In June 2016, at the “Zero Conference” on Research in the Religious Fields by the European Academy of Religion in Bologna, we shook hands, and he started talking to me in Arabic. He gave a magnificent talk, on Islamic thought, the Egypt and Tunisia’s Arab Spring, and the question of reform, and continued to flush out his outstanding thoughts while at that event, of which he was a star. In 2018, while in Italy, teaching and giving talks around Parma, Naples, Catanzaro, and Milan, I dropped him an email saying, “Massimo, hey, I’m here in Milano, do you wanna catch up for a coffee or so?” He replied: “Oh great! Of course, would love to. Can you come to my house for a tea at 10:00 am? then he added, “take the metro from Milano Porta Romana station – in which my hotel was located – and get out at Corvetto, and you walk like 7 minutes to my building, I will be waiting for you downstairs . . .” 

Once I arrived, I was awestruck to sit with such a giant and witness his seemingly infinite library. Donatella, came, welcomed me, and made us all Egyptian tea. After telling him that I was a visiting scholar at Cornell Law School and teaching a class called Comparative Middle Eastern Law, he told me, “I am very proud of you, keep the good work forward.” Then I proposed the idea of co-authoring an article. In return, he told me, “what about writing a book together?” While I was both shocked and honored to have such an incredible offer, we agreed to just write an article — coming Fall 2021 by Barry Law Review. He invited me to tour to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana [historic library in Italy and Europe] to which I eagerly accepted. Together, we spent half a day browsing through historical texts and finished the day with Donatella, enjoying cake and coffee in a nearby café. I left thinking they were such a kind, generous, and wonderful family. 

After his death, Donatella – in a recent interview – conveyed that “Even in his last departure from this material life, he leaves differently, ‘free’ from the authority of one orthodoxy; he is buried ‘plurally,’ ‘cosmically’ and wished to have both Islamic and Catholic burial/funeral rituals.” Campanini was an aristocrat who ‘walked with Kings, but never lost the common touch.’ His charm, his charisma, and his sense of humor were enchanting. His soul was generous and his heart sympathetic; he was a supreme orator; an inspiring teacher; a gifted wordsmith; a remarkable storyteller; and a supreme scholar of encyclopedic knowledge. Campanini’s spirit will clearly reveal the kind of man he was.          – Farewell, MC! Gone, but never forgotten. May you rest in peace.


Dr. Mohamed ‘Arafa, SJD is an Assistant Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law (Egypt) and Visiting Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell University School of Law and Indiana University McKinney School of Law (Indianapolis).


Suggested Citation: Dr. Mohamed ‘Arafa, Gone, But Never Forgotten: RIP Massimo Campanini, The Eminent Historian of Islam (1954-2020), JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 31th, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/10/mohamed-arafa-farewell-campanini/.

This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org.

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