Saturday, December 18, 2010

The 'Islamization of Knowledge'?

Akbar S. Ahmed Updated by Anis Ahmed
Scientific knowledge is generally considered objective, real, and value-free. The very concept of “Islamization of knowledge” or “Islamic science” raises a basic question: Are the realms of physics and chemistry, or sociology and political science, for instance, and “religion” exclusive and independent of each other, or is a marriage between “religion” and empirical knowledge possible? In the context of the twenty-first century, it becomes more important to understand why, when the postmodernist scholars were questioning even so-called modernity, some Muslim social scientists try to go back to a “tradition” that is perceived as the opposite of modernity. Any call to return to the norms of the Qurān and the sunnah, supposed to be seventh-century texts, creates questions about its relevance to the modern world.

Islam and Modernity.

This perception of European society as modern and enlightened, and of traditional societies as locked in the past, has been an integral part of the colonization project. The role of religion in a supposedly enlightened European society was marginalized and reduced to personal faith and practice. Those who believed otherwise were, consequently, regarded as unenlightened, deprived of the light of reason and critical thinking. This and other presuppositions of the western social sciences filtered into the mind and soul of the Muslim elite who were educated and trained in the western tradition. Against this backdrop, when a group of Muslim social scientists in the early 1970s came forward with the idea of Islamization of knowledge, not only their western friends but many Muslim scholars could not appreciate the concept. Three major responses could be discerned among them. First, knowledge is neutral; we cannot have a Hindu physics or a Christian sociology. Second, the mixing of “religion” and empirical sciences would be a step backward. Third, “Islamization” is only a political slogan for the legitimacy of certain Muslim rulers who acquired power through undemocratic means.
From a historical perspective, the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries saw a serious crisis in the Muslim communities. External political pressures, including the spread of secular and missionary educational institutions, caused tension and a visible divide in the Muslim society. The traditionalist response was twofold. Its total rejection of so-called western secular education was followed by efforts to protect ʿaqīdah (faith), assuming that formal teaching in how to recite the Qurʿān and read some legal texts, without full understanding of the spirit and message of the Qurʿān, was enough to protect ʿaqīdah in an increasingly secularized world. Second, the tension created by westernization and secularization resulted in a mushrooming of religious schools in rural as well as urban areas. Religious institutions in the early and medieval periods were centers of learning and produced intellectuals and scholars. The rise of formalism in madaris (sing: madrasah or school), on the contrary, resulted in the loss of critical thinking and freedom of ideas,thus contradicting the Qurʿānic and Prophetic dictum, “Conduct deep thinking indīn (religion)” (al-Tawbah 9:122; also the aī of Muslim).
A new concept of reform was introduced in the early 1970s when a group of Muslim social scientists, mostly trained and educated in American, Canadian, and British universities, founded the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1971. Its founding Executive Board included Professor Ismāīl al- Fārūqī (United States), Professor Anis Ahmad (Pakistan), Dr. Abdul amid Abū Sulaymān (Saudi Arabia), Dr. Al-Tijani Abugidiere (Sudan), and Dr. Abdul Haq Ansari (India). The purpose was not merely to add a few references from the Qurān or adīth as a prefix to the existing knowledge of social sciences. They called for basic research, for critical review of the presuppositions of western social science theory and research, and for taking stock of the Islamic intellectual tradition. One of their major objectives was to reconstruct the social sciences on Islamic epistemic foundations.
The founders of this movement, under the leadership of Professor Ismāīl al-Fārūqī (d. 1986), organized seminars, workshops, and working groups on the methodological and applied dimensions of Islamization of the social and human sciences. In due course there evolved a community of Muslim social scientists with a common vision. The First International Conference on the Islamization of Knowledge was held in Europe in 1977. The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) was established in Washington in 1981. A work plan and a theoretical framework on Islamization of knowledge was presented at the Second International Conference on Islamization of Knowledge, held in Islamabad in 1982. The proceedings of this conference provided both theoretical and applied models of Islamization of disciplines such as history, sociology, the physical sciences, and technology.

The genesis of this enormous task, taken up by the AMSS and the IIIT, of Islamization of knowledge, can be traced back to 1962, when Sayyid Abū al-Alā Mawdūdī, while launching the Islamic Research Academy at Karachi, focused on conducting basic research and reorientation in social sciences. In his inaugural address he called for an epistemic paradigm shift in the disciplines of the social sciences. He also called for a three-pronged strategy for social change. First and foremost, a critical appraisal of western thought in social sciences was needed in order to liberate the Muslim mind from the intellectual and cultural colonialism of the west. Second, classification and reorganization of the social sciences on the basis of Islamic value systems would lead to value-based psychology, sociology, economics, and political thought. Third, a curriculum reflective of this approach should be developed, and new textbooks produced for the various social sciences (2000, pp. 13–15).


The proponents of the Islamization of knowledge defined their project as follows:“It is rather a way and a method to formulate a methodological, scientific, mental approach to the humanities, social sciences and applied sciences. The ‘Islamization of Knowledge’ is scientific knowledge—the knowledge that originates from Divine norms and ideas. It is rational in its outlook, its approach, its search, its critical examination of the problems of life, and its treatment of individual society, nature and laws that govern its working” (Sulaymān, p. 85).In other words, it offers a general theory of knowledge founded on the integration of revealed knowledge and values with the rational, empirical socioeconomic and political thought and behavior of modern man. It is not a backward movement or a revival of premodern conservatism. It calls for moving forward with an ethical and moral worldview in a world of high technology.
A twelve-step plan for this ambitious task was proposed.

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