Islamization of Knowledge: Premises, Challenges and Perspectives

Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani (www.islam-online.net)

Why Pursuing the Islamization of Knowledge?

In order to achieve potency and effectiveness in any Muslim "renaissance" endeavor, it is very crucial that the addressed constituency precisely realizes its gist and nature of the discourse; i.e., its foundations, objectives, requisites, applicability and challenges. On the other hand, the targeted constituency should be conscious of the Divine, gets a notion of social commitments as the spirit of that discourse permeates through the society, and realizes the vast contrast between status quo and the sought after 'civilizational' reality, as well as the requisites of reaching that reality in terms of facing challenges and overcoming obstacles.

Understanding and perceiving any discourse entail the realization of three requisites:

(a) The resurgence discourse should take into account the basic characteristics of its targeted constituency; i.e., its psyche, social structure, historical experiences, character dimensions and its cultural climate. Thus, the discourse could be refined (and fine tuned) so that it may fit and influence the targeted constituency with all its specificities.

(b) The discourse should avoid complication, intractability, generalization or reductionism; rather, it should attain ease, articulation, sound construction, tractability and reasonableness.

(c) The targeted constituency itself should be aware of its role in the endeavor proposed by that discourse; as well as the purposes, means, obstacles, challenges, priorities and the overall position of that role in the resurgence endeavor.

The above requisites are necessary so as to deliver any discourse that seeks to motivate or to move any targeted constituency towards a certain undertaking. Examining those requisites is imperative when the objective is to deliver the various contents and dimensions of the Muslim discourse, in particular. The formation of this discourse is based on the divine revelation and the collective Muslim thought and is articulated with a universal appeal to the mankind-regardless of any racial, ethnic, lingual and cultural backgrounds or characteristics. The above requisites are further emphasized when the discourse is meant to transcend particular iconic personalities, generations, times and places so as to approach, guide and enlighten all nations and generations-in the present and future.

The issue of reforming Muslim thinking systems and the Islamization of knowledge had neither encompassed genuine interest nor received adequate attention from contemporary Muslim thinkers and intellectuals, despite of its importance and precedence. Furthermore, the reasons behind lacking interest in this central issue were not carefully studied so as to track down flaws and construct an agenda. Within the circle of Muslim thinkers, there was never a lack of serious attempts to approach crucial reform issues; however, they did not rise above the individual efforts in order to develop as institutional endeavors. Such efforts fell short of accomplishing their historical mission of reform and revival, in spite of their significant contribution in perpetuating the venture of intellectual reform and cultural renewal.

The adequate formulation of the contemporary Muslim civilizational enterprise requires the contemporary Muslim mindset to locate the issue of reforming Muslim thinking and Islamization of knowledge in the right niche, entitling it sufficient priority, ensuring its precedence and considering it as the key issue in solving the crisis of the Muslim world and the torch that will diffuse the intellectual and scholastic glooms in which the Muslim world has been engulfed for the last two centuries.

The Muslim reform movement in the 19th century and the 1st half of the 20th century had, no doubt, exerted tremendous efforts, offered great sacrifices, and accomplished numerous achievements. Nevertheless, achievements were not comparable to sacrifices. Moreover, the “qualitative civilizational shift” (i.e., the rupture from the imperialist hegemony rein, which is "crucial", to say the least, for Muslims to transcend their status quo) did not materialize in spite of all those tremendous efforts. This situation entails an accurate and close scrutiny of all efforts and endeavors, in order to equip the new reform undertakings with the right prerequisites and safeguards-so as to avoid failure and to acquire the sound renewal content.

In our outlook, the main reason that the achievements of the Muslim renaissance intellectual movement did not offset the projects which the revival endeavors throughout the two past centuries had managed. In that pursuit, such efforts succeeded in dealing with certain issues but failed to treat others. Besides, the reform and renewal endeavors neither did fully encompass their realm or approach all aspects of the crisis, nor manage to prime the Ummah (nation/community of Muslims), to emerge from that crisis. Most reform movements were engaged in treating the symptoms of the crisis, its direct expressions, and its reflections on the Muslim daily life-albeit, roots and causes of the crisis had never received adequate diagnosis, treatment and research. In general, this assessment should not be construed as to undercut the contributions, gains and accomplishments of various reform endeavors; especially, their efforts to preserve the identity of the Ummah, to enshrine its authentic character and to maintain its ideals.

Our assessment shows that there is still an urgent and dire need for a systematic, epistemological reform endeavor that is able to identify the crisis origins, causes, impacts and outcomes, and to explore sound systems of thinking of reconstruction, based on the same pillars of the Islamic civilization in its first universality. That is to invoke and capitalize on our sense of humanity and calling on mankind to participate in building a well interrelated community whose elements are bound together through an inclusive social contract. Under such a social contract, people are at liberty to "contract(-ualize)" amongst themselves in a manner that is free of race, class and regional prejudices so that they may reach a state of harmony and tranquility which nations often fail to realize. The bases of that harmony and tranquility are:

(I) the perception that man is equivalent to his fellow man;

(II) the perception that all physical and metaphysical facts are accessible to the mankind and Man is able to grasp them through his multiple progressive senses, skills and mental faculties which are mutually dependent on each other without discord, contradiction or exclusion.

The instinctive cognition is subordinate to sensual cognition which are, in turn, subordinate to mental cognitions/reason. Reasoning, in turn, leads to premises which conclude that the unseen can only be realized via divine revelation and should be received with submission.
Thus, extending this call to Man, in the name of sheer humanity, is sufficient enough to tap and emphasize the human potentials in their ultimate shape and to empower such potentials boundlessly.

In order to restore their universal role and effectiveness, Muslims do not need to reformulate or to renew their religion itself; instead, they need more epistemological and systematic recognition which could enable them to regenerate the will, persistence, competence and determination-to renew their perception and intellect systems, their knowledge of religious ideals and practices and to rectify their practical and behavioral conduct through principles and notions based on their creed and sources of religious ideal and practice.

The genuine renewal attempt and sincere response to the renewal challenges have to start with realizing the commitment to humanity and to work on Muslim consciousness so as to harmonize all our cognitive means. Thus, Man may overcome the woes of confusion, instability, and conflict amongst various thoughts, creeds and sentiments. Furthermore, peace shall prevail between reason and revelation, as well as the spiritual and the material. The power of insightful thinking will be fully unleashed to traverse and read the universe in complete freedom. Man should not endure any confusion in regard to the purpose or the destiny; divine revelation will come to mankind’s rescue: rectifying, enlightening and guiding. Man is thus called to read the revelation so as to remedy his march and to come upon truth. The intended reading is to integrate two distinct interpretations: one for the divine revelation and another for the universe. In reading the universe, revelation shall provide Man with support, guidance and affirmation. Hence, Man will be able to realize the conditions of cultural renewal and achievement, without falling into false pride or becoming self-centric.

Most of the renewal attempts, during the two past centuries, had started from premises that are in dire need for elaborate revision and intrusive scrutiny. That is, some reform and renewal movements has assumed that our legacy (as manifested in Muslim intellectual representations, thinking systems, creeds, jurisprudence and knowledge) is perfect; therefore, they do not need any review or reconsideration. Accordingly, it is enough, for the Ummah, to locate (the sources of) its heritage and to identify its treasures in order to find all that it needs of truth and guidance.

This argument was predicated on the fact that this heritage was the product of an era when the Ummah enjoyed glory, prosperity, progress, predominant worldview and global prominence. However, the present state of the Ummah is the exact opposite of its state in that era. The argument then goes further to emphasize that all what the Ummah needs now, to emerge from the crisis and to realize the longed-for qualitative shift (i.e., the rupture from the imperialist hegemony rein), is to acquire the necessary sciences, technologies and industries from the West and to cling to our heritage as it is. Other reform and renewal movements sought to undertake some heritage revisions, renew some of its genres, reproduce it, present it in a contemporary idiom, and to attain adequate awareness of that heritage in order to achieve the long-awaited breakthrough. Others, however, deemed that undertaking renewal and reform shall be convenient if most of the heritage categories, themes and theses can be explained, interpreted or remolded in a modern manner so that heritage literature may approach the contemporary thought or be comparable to it. Consequently, the wheel of transformation is expected to turn in the pursued direction.

Although everybody rehearses and endorses the infamous premise of the classic scholar and founder of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, Imam Malik ibn-Anas (715-795 A.D.): “Throughout the Ummah’s historical experience, successors might not attain righteousness save through the ways and means of the predecessors.”

Evidently, the predecessors’ ways and means of attaining righteousness are perceptible. Nonetheless, reform and renewal movements did not emphasize enough the need to refine “reading” methodology and reconstruct human recognition through the combined “reading” of the Revelation and Universe. Reform and renewal thinkers who opined for the necessity of re-reading (i.e., re-induction of) the Qur’an were daunted by a panoply of problematics such as the interrelations between the glorious Qur’an and the conditions and environment of its advent; as well as the academic disciplines and literature that emerged from studying the divine writ and became known as the Qur’an sciences, i.e., themes or studies such as abrogation, the exact and the allegoric case, causes of revelation advent(s), exegesis, etc. Throughout this voluminous literature, specific historical awareness, notions and cultural complex not only had highly informed and imbued through the whole classic traditional scholarship but also imprinted its historically-bound perspective and understanding on the divine writ texts. Thus, any Qur’anic understanding that is distinct from that in heritage classics is deemed suspicious, far-fetched and merely an unfounded construal that does not stand classic academic scrutiny.

Consequently, the renewal movements were unable to realize that, right from the beginning, they had to pursue an “epistemological” approach to “reading” the glorious Qur’an as if it has just been revealed in their own era so as to be able to treat emerging changes, challenges and circumstances in thought, thinking systems, knowledge, culture and life. The Qur’an itself shall be both the starting point and point of reference of such treatment. Responding to the challenges and questions implied by the hegemonic Western universality and its manifestations, (i.e., modernity, globalization and their implications) cannot be predicated on any ijtihads, (i.e., intellectual inductive endeavors).

All that has no foundation even in exemplifying ideals from the glorious past, citing classic writings produced in different historical context, and offering analogy with classic philosophical debates and cultural interactions. The answers to these major questions shall be inferred from the glorious Qur’an as the ultimate point of reference; that is, the divine revelation is solely sufficient to provide for that genre of transcendental answers and infallible holistic remedies.

The sought-after pursuit shall not be a de novo reading that is conveyed via comparisons, approximations or interpretations. Instead, there needs to be a (re-)reading which enables the divine scripture to articulate its restorative answers in addition to its responses to the questions and challenges of all ages and generations. As the Qur’an was revealed to be an eternal explication of all matters, it is preserved from loss, safeguarded from alteration, maintained as utterly complete and perfect.

Moreover, with its global discourse and governing status, the glorious Qur’an comprises the bases to affirm its status as the last divine message and revelation and the deputy for prophets and messengers.

The revival of the works of iconic figures of our legacy (i.e., their particular intellectual representations and perception of religion) cannot be deemed as a renewal of religion, as much as the blind imitation of the West cannot be considered as modernization. The real renewal has to be manifested in terms of reformation of Muslim mind and reconnection with the divine injunction-as the sole initiator of thought, knowledge, jurisprudence and thinking. Also in this regard, we can not dismiss the Messenger’s traditions and all implications of the era of divine revelation and prophetic venture (considering that the Messenger’s seerah, biography, and traditions are the mandatory and explanatory source of the divine writ).
The modernization enterprise, in the Muslim world, within the Western frame of reference has failed to realize its pursuit and became on the brink of surrendering to the Islamic revival movements, as they are referred to in some Western circles in the early 1980s. But, in general, the revival movement, in most places, remained occupied with 'horizontal' expansion.

In other places, it became too dependent on the renewal literature and legacy of reform movement and had consumed it. Reform, per se, is then altered only to find out that the challenges and obstacles of the classic heritage are no less formidable than those of modernity. Soon afterwards, the revival movement started to endure some depression in most places; it even started to retreat in other places. That is contrary to the divine injunctions, i.e. established ways, that once divine messages gain momentum they do not lose it before realizing their objectives. In the context of retreat, a process of dusting and polishing of obsolete endeavors of modernization-especially secular (materialistic) ones-was initiated.

Unexpectedly, the West found new allies among the Marxist-Leninist ideologues and their likes. Hence, the West began to blow some life in these actors to provide them with capacity and resources so as to use them in confronting the surge of Islamic revival. Numerous studies were conducted in regard such tale of the modernization enterprise in the Muslim world and the reasons of its failure. That was a prelude to re-launch that enterprise anew in the Muslim world in order to distract the Ummah, divest its viability and destroy its revival potentials, to say the least.

Accordingly, such attempts are trying to convince the Ummah that the Western modernization enterprise has failed due to certain obstacles that need to be eliminated, namely two matters:

First, the Muslim mentality, with its formation and structure, is utterly behind the failure of the Western modernization enterprise in the Muslim world. For, the classic legacy constituents of the Muslim mentality impeded its chance to understand that modernization enterprise. Or rather misunderstand it, and was not able to receive it or interact with it as the western Man did. Other than that, it is undoubtedly ipso facto successful. It is universal and scientifically sound; thus, it is an academic imperative for this enterprise to thrive wherever it is adopted. This success is evident in various experiences such as those of Japan, Korea, India, and other places.

It is then the Muslim mind and traditional culture that are guilty of failing the Westernized modernization enterprise; for, the Muslim psyche, along with its mental formation and structure, heritage and intellect collectively, contributed to that failure. Consequently, the Muslim mind has to be anatomized-by the West-so as to discover its syndromes, to eliminate some of its components and to be reshaped allover again. This requires reading every relevant scheme-such as history, language, culture, knowledge and classic resources-then comes choosing the niches through which the terrain will be re-invented for the Western thought to be repackaged and put forward again. The sought-after 'new entry' has to drop the alienation aspects of the Western enterprise which, in turn, has disillusioned the masses and frustrated the potentials of that enterprise. Thus, it has not achieve in the Muslim world what it did in the West or elsewhere. The new attempt was meant to be another opportunity for the Westernization venture to pursue some breakthrough in the Muslim world. Accordingly, several Western scholars, researchers and their disciples (even the many Muslims amongst them) dedicated their academic career to investigate the 'bits and pieces' of the Muslim thought (literary works, history and humanities, in particular) which they may cite to 'corroborate' to celebrate the soundness, credibility and truimphalism of the Western thought.

These contemporary academics assume that Western colonial-era orientalists did not attain enough success in pursuing this line of (academic) thinking and research. The formers believe that classical orientalists and other vanguards of the earlier campaign of (intellectual) colonialization misread the classic Muslim works-as their tools and methods were not advanced, adequate enough to enable them to render a formational analysis of the Muslim mind rather than a structural analysis.

Consequently, the market was flooded with works on "traditions versus modernity", "the genesis and making of Arab mind”, “the structure of Arab mind”, “the assassination of Arab mind”, “the making of Muslim thought”, “the historicity of Muslim thought”, etc. In our view, the orientalists, to a far-off extent, had succeeded in creating an academic climate and certain systematic thinking in academic institutions and intellectual circles that engendered the present academic fashion and made its gurus-which have resumed their self-prescribed orientalists’ mission in the Muslim world.

Second, and in relation to the first, the orientalist scholars did not emphasize or appreciate the significance of expedient exploitation of Muslim terminology and idioms-so as to locate the right niches for conveying the Western thought and notions to Muslim elites and masses. For instance, if Socialism is to be presented to Muslims as a manifestation of the Marxist-Leninist thought, the Muslim mind will show reluctance to accept it due to its inherent constitution, structure and cultural legacy. However, when Socialism is presented as a concept shared even by of some Messenger’s companions, such as Abu-Dharr al-Ghafari and ‘Ali bin Abi-Talib-may Allah be pleased with them, or as predicated on the ibn-Khaldun’s social thought, or as the jurisprudence of certain Imams of reference, Muslims are expected to consider Socialism more favorably.

Once the notion of joining the international Socialist movement is offered and portrayed as solidarity with and struggle for the interests of the poor, wretched and deprived against feudalism, exploitation and colonialism; Muslims are more likely to accept it, especially, if the notion was referred to stems from the Muslim historic experience (such as the Khurramiyya, Qurmuti and Zanj revolts).

Likewise, 'democracy' has been characterized as the "Islamic shura" (mandatory consultation) and the "republic" as the "caliphate polity", etc. As the Ummah dwells in this labyrinth, departs its Muslim cultural model, goes culturally astray and the Western thought with all its Greek, paganish and crusaders’ roots and with all its ideas-Darwinism, Freudism, Marxism, Existentialism, Socialism and Liberalism-as counterparts to the thoughts of al-Ghazali, Averroes, Avicenna and ibn-Khaldun; such thought is more likely to meet acceptance from Muslims.

Thus, we come across some of today’s academics that devote their career to specialized and in-depth research in Islamic history and Muslim heritage. A process of linking numerous modern intellectual theses or categories to Muslim works and resources have been initiated; despite the fact that most of such modern theses are no more that one century-old. Newly forged terminology such as Muslim Left and Muslim Right (as well as a new classification of the Messenger and his companions and their followers as liberal, democratic, capitalist and socialist!) started to infuse the intellectual arena in the Muslim world. Another process is the one that draws classic notions from the tradition to characterize some Western modern representations in order to cover them with a blanket of legitimacy which is signified by such classic notions. So, odd intellectual representations are characterized as ijtihads, and rejectionism (of historic mainstream established doctrines) is misrepresented as renewal. Some absurd representations were disguised as art.

Therefore, the issue of concepts and notions is, to a great extent, considered an issue of utmost interest and it deserves more comprehensive treatment.

How did the Muslim Enterprise Cope?

The Muslim enterprise, as it was articulated, did give proper attention to intellectual challenge proposed or put it in its accurate context . This is one reason showing why the Muslim endeavor fell short of realizing its fundamental objectives and why the intellectual malaise persists and is manifest in the collective mentality of 'borrowing', disregarding the divine and historic rubrics, ignoring the universality of Islam or misunderstanding it. The interaction with the West, most negative and receptive, did not leave much of room to give the intellectual issue its due significance. The confrontation had rendered plenty of field perception and insight and revealed the due importance of the intellectual challenge. And by examining the failure causes of the Westernization process, the Muslim need for to (re-)construct its intellectual foundations and civilizational requisites-dire as it is-further emerges and reinforces the central issue of Islamization of knowledge and reforming Muslim thinking systems. It is an attempt to sort out various pitfalls and weaknesses in the Muslim system of thinking and to build up on aspects of intellectual strength.

As the thrust of the intellectual and cultural undertaking is to tackle the subjective (inherent) reasons which caused the previous enterprises to fall short of reaching its objectives, it has also taken into account the essential Muslim assumptions, Islamic comprehensive outlook, realizing balance and moderation in all matters and fine-tuning ratios amongst all various dimensions. Inasmuch as these issues are advantageous to the intellectual and cultural endeavor, they also represent a grave responsibility; as we maintain that the Ummah’s resurgence, its progress and prominence, its attempt to cross the gap of 'underdevelopment', its pursuit of assuming a prospective global civilizational role, and its aspiration to deliver the whole mankind from gloom and doom-all are dependent on this central endeavor.

This, by no means, should be interpreted as the Islamization of knowledge and reforming Muslim thinking systems represents a rejection of or a revolt against the previous intellectual and reform endeavors. Instead, they are entitled to their due evaluation and rectification, in order to benefit from their positive aspects, as well as from the practical field experiences of various resurgence attempts.

What Can Islamization of Knowledge Offer the Resurgence Movement, Ummah and the World?

The above inquiry is valid, legitimate and too important to be overlooked. The Islamization of knowledge is an attempt to re-introduce the majestic Qur’an to the World, Ummah and resurgence movement as the only book that is capable of delivering-not only our Ummah but also-the whole mankind.

Solely, the majestic Qur’an has the alternative, universal, epistemological and systematic conception. However, the bearers of the Qur’an did not endure enough the epistemological and systematic dilemma to realize its comprehensiveness. The de facto intellectual, socio-economic and the overall situation and cross-civilizational encounter worldwide the World’s shows that, still, in general, peoples still live in relation to-or in the shadow of-their own cultural heritage.

Mankind is enveloped in the mentality of opposing dualities, (i.e., man and nature, spirit and matter, the reality and unseen, the worldly life and hereafter, etc.) Thus, the intellectual and epistemological underdevelopment shields Man (epically mid crescent region between the Atlantic ocean and the Pacific ocean) from any psychological or intellectual anxiety which makes him appreciate the need for epistemology or systematic thinking. The numerous classic resources, such as those of tafseer (exegesis) and other disciplines of knowledge, of the Qur’an, all provide convenient referential point.

As for those involved with the Modern thought and culture, they learned from the nature of the Western culture that this culture solely yields its own crises, engenders its own alternatives and does not tolerate any alternatives outside the Western intellectual paradigms or cultural ideas or ideals.

Here we may cite another cause of the failure that encountered the callers for modernity in the Muslim arena as a civilizational perspective and alternative, even within the Muslim renaissance's frame of reference. That is, the Muslim de facto state of affairs did not evolve or change qualitatively; thus, the modernization aspects and notions remained superficial and alien-at least from in a 'structural' sense-and did not emanate from or belong to the historical and cultural experience of the Muslim world. In contrast, the Muslim intellectual and social discourse has never lacked the modern or contemporary concerns, although the Muslim mentality invokes a heritage or emanates from the tradition; modern in its appearance and frame of reference but traditional in its content.

This conveys that the authors of this Muslim discourse live in and are preoccupied with the state of heritage (and tradition). And since the authors of this discourse did not experience the historical stages-with all their developments and turbulences-that were undergone in the making of the contemporary universal civilization, they suppose that they can separate between the (intellectual, social and cultural) notions and the mechanisms. For, they did not witness the difficult painstaking birth of the modern civilization. As the makers of this modern civilization attempted to precipitate that birth throughout stages of developing the steam machine, industrial revolution, technological revolution, communication revolution and the high tech revolution-their minds and concepts had to undergo a process of remaking so that the cultural and civilizational development keeps pace with the positivistic progression of scientism.

Thus, when the epistemological standard of modern civilization reaches a state of systematic thinking, the makers of such civilization, who have endured numerous development difficulties, would be conveniently able to realize the importance of the epistemological systematic thinking on the civilizational works.

In order to verify the credibility of the above argument, we need to examine the historiography of modern natural and social-science disciplines and their various epistemes and philosophies, so as to see how the epistemological remaking of the modern mind used to match the modern cultural and civilizational formation. Both realms have had apparent mutual impacts on each other, to the extent that an observer could feel that both modernity and its intellectual and epistemological standard had arrived at the dilemma together. Hence, emerging voices worldwide bemoan the failure of modernism and its decadent thought which ensued intellectual and epistemological deconstructionism. They are also disillusioned by the incapacity of the 'post-modernist' thought to pursue the sought after reconstruction. Furthermore, the post-modernist thought joined the deconstructionist trend as well. For example, if the modernist thought had already deconstructed religion and the universe (rendering a state that, in Max Weber’s ipsissima verba, is “the disenchantment of the World”), the post-modernist thought had, in fact, deconstructed 'Man'! And the deconstruction is still ongoing, which shows the depth and enormity of the modern era’s crisis of meaning and the dire necessity of exploring a transcendental systematic alternative outlook-so as to help Man reconstruct the deconstructed.

In the Islamization of knowledge, we realize the universality of the crisis and that there is no way to emerge from that crisis except via the eternal divine writ for “no falsehood can ever attain to it, neither in a stealthy manner” (41:42). Thus, it solely bears within its chapters and verses the transcendental worldview-along with its systems- which is adequately capable of philosophical reformulation of Man’s modern civilization. However, the majestic Qur’an and that worldview are with the Ummah, the Ummah that did not, unfortunately, participate in or keep pace with the making of the modern civilization. Therefore, it does not endure the crisis of the modern civilization, save through the reflections on and with the 'other’.

But the Ummah still suffers from dual underdevelopment, the epistemological crisis, on the one hand, and the civilizational one, on the other. As a result, the Ummah is unprepared to valve the implicit potentials of the glorious Qur’an-as the ultimate source of transcendental systematic wisdom which is especially necessary for this modern era and its intellectual and epistemological crises. The Ummah is also unable to properly introduce the Qur’an to the world of modern era, also in terms of its epistemological and civilizational standard. So Muslims often invoke the classic (heritage-oriented) awareness of the Qur’an.

In the West, those who perceive the crisis (of modern civilization) and search for solutions and alternatives are also unable to explore the Quran’s transcendental systematic worldview since they approach it as a mere scripture.

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