Tandem Project

Cosmopolitanism as a Transcultural Phenomenon


Describing someone as ‘cosmopolitan’ often suggests a geographically mobile, open-minded person. For places, it usually refers to an eclectic melting pot of diverse cultures. At its core, cosmopolitanism encompasses the idea that all human beings, regardless of local, regional or national affiliations and attachments, also exist as ‘citizens of the world’ – kosmopolites in Greek. As an intellectual concept, cosmopolitanism neither developed nor remained in a vacuum. Initially coined by ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics and then Stoics, the idea has since enjoyed an active life of encounter and development across a wide array of philosophical and theological traditions, including European, Arab, Indian and Persian, from antiquity until today.

Tracing the Intellectual History and Influence of Transcultural Encounters

Developed by AGYA members Beate Ulrike La Sala (Germany) and Mohammad Alwahaib (Kuwait), the two-part interdisciplinary workshop on ‘Cosmopolitianism in Western and Islamic Thought’ seeks, on the one hand, to trace key encounters and mutual influences between Western and Islamic intellectual traditions. On the other, it asks how cosmopolitanism could or should be defined today. ‘We were hoping to go beyond a mere compilation of single case studies’, explained La Sala, instead aiming ‘to study the opportunities as well as dangers inherent to the concept’ by focusing on ‘its development and unfolding over the history of ideas’. The first part of the workshop took place at Freie Universität Berlin on 25-26 September 2019, while the second part will be held at Kuwait University in December 2019. The split location pays ‘homage to a positive understanding of cosmopolitanism’, said La Sala, while also aiming to ‘have an impact on the perception of the concept and related discussion’.

World Citizenship and ‘the West’

On the first day of the Berlin conference, philosopher Matthias Perkams (Friedrich Schiller Universität Jena) addressed the evolution of cosmopolitanism in relation to Western civilization. Focusing on cosmopolitanism as world citizenship, he traced the concept’s development from Zeno and the Stoics to Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, showing how the idea gradually became tied to notions of conscience and individual reason as the basis for judging concrete civilization, constitutions and laws. He then highlighted the strong link between cosmopolitanism and notions of natural law embedded in persistent European cultural heritage narratives of ‘Western civilization’ or the ‘Christian West’ (Christliches Abendland).

Dewesternizing Cosmopolitanism: Universalism and Pluralism in ‘Islamic civilization’

Massimo Campanini (Università di Trento Campanini), in contrast, argued that key tenets of cosmopolitanism can be found at the very basis of Islamic civilization. Starting from the Qur’an, he identified three concepts linked to different aspects of cosmopolitanism: one universal, one plural, and one relating to natural law and the will of God. He then offered examples of how these cosmopolitan ideas from the Qur’an were translated into practice in the history of Islamic Empire, when caliphates represented supra-national, multicultural polities. Yet, underlying the sources and practices of cosmopolitanism in Islamic thought and history, he noted, is a dialectic tension between universalism and melting-pot pluralism that cannot be ignored.

Cosmopolitanism and Rationality: Proving the Existence of God through Logic

On the second day of the workshop, Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (Freie Universität Berlin) discussed the difference between cosmopolitanism and universalism through the figure of Raimundus Lullus, a prolific 13th century Christian missionary in the western Mediterranean region who went on ‘to develop rationality as a weapon of universalism in the inter-religious struggle of his day’. Using a list of essential, undeniable truths received in a vision – widely known as universal predicates – Lullus developed a system of combinatorial logic to prove the truth of Christian doctrine. In addition to pioneering a rational approach to religion, Lullus’ cosmopolitan legacy also included penning a famous Christian missionary story that, unlike any other, left the matter of what monotheistic religion is ‘right’ open at the end.

Martin Luther’s Lack of Cosmopolitan Concern

Görge Hasselhoff (Technische Universität Dortmund) came next, discussing the curious case of German Reformation leader Martin Luther. Hasselhoff’s review of Luther’s use of the term ‘religio’ and a search for remarks on other cultures, people(s) and countries in his work turned up less than a handful of mentions, two of which appeared to be printing errors. For Hasselhoff, then, Luther represents the perfect example of a European Christian in the Middle Ages or early modern period who eschewed interest in the world around him. In contrast to his more cosmopolitan contemporaries like Swiss Reformation leader Huldrych Zwingli, Luther’s intellectual concern never exceeded the narrowly conceived ‘Christian world’ of the Mediterranean region.

Cosmopolitanism and Structural Idealism, Islamic Feminist Praxis and ‘Organic’ Philosophy

Switching gears, Mohammad Hassan (Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat) drew on Structural Idealism to critically analyze the relationship between ethical cosmopolitanism and our present, vastly unequal world. Social scientist Nesma Elsakaan (Universita degli Studi di Palermo) then presented transnational Islamic feminism as a case of cosmopolitanism in action. Finally, Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait) noted that, unlike sociology, economics or other disciplines, ‘there is no micro or macro philosophy’. Asking what role philosophy should play in a neoliberal world where the micro is increasingly determined by macro structures, he suggested developing ‘organic philosophy’ as a way to hew a middle ground and overcome the false dichotomy that Western philosophy has created between universalist cosmopolitanism and egocentric culturalism.

All in all, the first meeting of the two-part interdisciplinary workshop on ‘Cosmopolitanism in Western and Islamic Thought’ included a plethora of perspectives and covered a lot of ground. Participant Botz-Bornstein found the meeting offered ‘a good balance between philological precision and general philosophical concepts’, while Elsakaan reported leaving with a trove of new ideas for productively expanding her research. 'I’m excited to go explore the connections between Islamic feminist thought and the philosophical ideas of Ibn Rushd now', she said.


Disciplines Involved
Islamic Studies, Philosophy
Cooperation Partner
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Project Title
Looking Back to the Future: Exploring Cosmopolitanism as a Transcultural Phenomenon
Funding Scheme
Tandem Project
Countries Involved
Germany, Kuwait