Islamization of Knowledge Needs a Stock-Taking

Ali Salman

In 1987, the celebrated Malaysian intellectual and philosopher Syed Naquib Al-attas founded International Institute of Islamic Civilization (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur with the support of then Minister of Education Anwar Ibrahim. ISTAC was a part of institutionalization of the Islamization of knowledge project, which formally dates back to an international conference in Mecca held in 1977. The establishment of International Islamic universities in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was also part of same project. The main motivation behind this intellectual movement was to find a spiritual, transcendental basis for producing knowledge especially from an Islamic viewpoint[1]. The underlying assumption is that the current knowledge is produced by the “hegemonic”, “Western” thinkers, which is arguably devoid of spiritual and moral dimension and Muslims should produce an alternative basis of knowledge, which derives from sacred sources. An additional motivation is the desire of Muslim intellectuals and scientists to regain their lost status at the global level in the post-colonial era. The emergence of Islamic Economics and Islamic sciences was the manifestation of this project which has influenced thousands of young minds especially those who came to teach and study at the international Islamic universities for last three decades.

When you enter the building of ISTAC today, now a part of International Islamic University of Malaysia, two imposing oil paintings welcome you. In one painting, you see the famous war hero of Muslims, a victorious Saladdin the Great (Salahuddin Ayubi, d. 1193) on the horseback, and you see a cross lying on the ground- an obvious remembrance of the victory of Muslims in the Crusades- 200 years of religious wars between 11th and 13th centuries. This is not arguably the best possible symbol for an institute which was built to study Islamic civilisation and later Malay world.

The Islamic civilisation’s contributions to the world of philosophy, science, medicine, and mathematics are now commonly accepted. In its high point, especially during the Andalusian period of 700 years spanning 8th and 15th centuries, Muslims and non-Muslims lived in a period of harmony in Spain that led to human flourishing, while wars on the borders continued to take place. The most famous Andalusian scholar Ibn-i Rushd  or Averroes (1126-1198) contributed significantly to the emergence of secularism (in the sense of rationalism) in the Western thought. Earlier than him, the towering Muslim scholar Imam Ghazali (1058-1111) was critical of philosophers in general while Ibn-i Rushd wrote a famous critique of Imam Ghazali’s critique of philosophers- though it is obviously too simplistic to contrast these intellectual giants here.

What can be easily established is this: in the contemporary debate on Islamization of knowledge, one notices the influence of Imam Ghazali, partially through Syed Naquib al-attas, who held Imam Ghazali chair at ISTAC for years, but one does not see any influence of Ibn-i Rushd!

In the book “Islamic Foundations of a Free Society”, Turkish academic Mustafa Acar mentions about the historical struggle between reason and tradition in the Muslim thought- namely Ahl al-Ra’y and Ahl al-Hadith and reaches a similar conclusion.

Last week, ISTAC organized an international seminar on Islam and multiculturism as part of its revival. During the inaugural session, it was an odd sound bite to hear the name of illustrious Saladdin the Great from YB Anwar Ibrahim in his talk. The context where Anwar used this reference is the general state of intellectual decadence in the Muslim societies and the state of education in general. While addressing his audience which mainly comprised academics and civil society members, Anwar Ibrahim essentially made two observations: the academic efforts for the intellectual revival in the Muslim societies have largely met with failure; and that the real change needed is at the political leadership level- hence the name Saladdin! I am not sure if he meant Saladdin as a war hero or Saladdin as a ruler who patronized knowledge. At least the wall painting in ISTAC that he got established thirty years ago remind us of the former Saladdin.

Thinking about politics, democratic transition in the Muslim world is actually happening at a fast pace. Now more Muslim countries live under a democratic rule than 25 years ago. Malaysia itself offers a promising case. One hears the echo of human rights and civil liberties even in the gulf kingdoms. However the real contest needs to take place is at the level of mind. Do the Muslim societies have an environment conducive for free thinking? Contribution in any field of knowledge is only possible under intellectual and academic freedom. Do Muslim countries have a reasonable number of well-functioning, independent public universities? An obvious answer to both questions is No. In the absence of an environment of free thinking and a very weak basis for good and autonomous universities, it is difficult to make tangible progress.

ISTAC should hold open and serious dialogue on stock taking of Islamization of knowledge project: where does it stand today and what are its effects after forty years?

As in the case of “Islamic Economics”, which according to Syed Farid Alatas has failed to achieve the status of an alternative development theory, the Islamization of knowledge has also failed to produce an alternative discourse to modernity. At best, it is a moral theory. At worst, it is another label for the mainstream modernization theory. We need a deep introspection of Muslim intellectual projects like Islamization to find nuanced answers. At the risk of being reductionist, we need to give equal, if not more, importance to Ibn-i Rushd- and many like him- in the efforts to carve out a ISTAC Baharu- or a new ISTAC!

[1] Muhammad Suheyl Umar, former director of Iqbal Academy, Pakistan. Personal communication with the author. Dated 10th February 2019. The author is grateful for historical insights that M.S. Umar has shared.

Ali Salman is CEO of Islam and Liberty Network, a global platform for researchers and academics, based in Malaysia.