Study­ing Is­lam for the best of rea­sons

Daily Trust - - TRUST ISLAMIC FORUM - By Tariq Ra­madan

To chal­lenge the sim­plis­tic no­tion that Is­lam is still in its me­dieval pe­riod, we must en­gage it aca­dem­i­cally for its own sake - not sim­ply out of self-in­ter­est

In­ter­est in Is­lamic stud­ies has ex­panded in re­cent years, but not al­ways for the best of rea­sons. In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, the pow­ers of the day needed to un­der­stand the re­li­gious mo­ti­va­tions of their colonised sub­jects. The rule, for decades, was the self-in­ter­ested study of Is­lam; ob­jec­tive aca­demic dis­ci­pline was the ex­cep­tion. How much fur­ther have we come to­day? “Is­lamic stud­ies” now seem equally driven by non-aca­demic mo­tives.

Western so­ci­eties are grap­pling with three dis­tinct Is­lam-re­lated fac­tors: a new, vis­i­ble gen­er­a­tion of Western Mus­lims, ac­cel­er­at­ing mi­gra­tory flows and ter­ror­ism, seen as a threat to both the West and the Is­lamic world.

In­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics - the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats against Iran, even­tual Turk­ish mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union - also im­pinge on the field, as schol­ars at­tempt to un­der­stand, to pre­vent and even to mo­bilise against the per­ceived dan­ger of vi­o­lent Is­lamism. Key ques­tions are of­ten framed in bi­nary terms, as a clash of civil­i­sa­tions. In each of these in­stances, Is­lamic stud­ies are di­rectly or in­di­rectly in­volved in the at­tempt to un­der­stand and to pre­vent, to pro­tect, to dom­i­nate or even to fight the ad­ver­sary of vi­o­lent Is­lamism.

It comes as no sur­prise that so­ci­ol­o­gists, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and ter­ror­ism ex­perts pro­duce reams of re­search on Is­lam, Mus­lims, iden­tity, im­mi­gra­tion, Is­lamism, rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism. Much of their work is funded or com­mis­sioned by govern­ment agencies or ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions. To­day, like yes­ter­day, non-aca­demic cri­te­ria pro­pel and jus­tify re­search.

But this care­fully or­ches­trated in­fat­u­a­tion with Is­lamic stud­ies re­duces sev­eral cen­turies of Is­lam’s le­gal her­itage, phi­los­o­phy, mys­ti­cal thought, and so­cial and po­lit­i­cal vi­tal­ity to a sub­sidiary po­si­tion. Be­yond the con­cern gen­er­ated by the con­flict in Iraq, the rich­ness of the Sunni and Shia tra­di­tions and their mil­len­nia-long re­la­tion­ship earns only lip ser­vice. Ra­tio­nal­ist philoso­phers such as Aver­roes are cited as ex­am­ples of “rea­son­able­ness,” while the thought of Is­lam’s many em­i­nent the­olo­gians and thinkers is ig­nored.

The time has come for uni­ver­si­ties in the West to rec­on­cile them­selves with an ap­proach to other civil­i­sa­tions and cul­tures - par­tic­u­larly that of Is­lam - driven nei­ther by ide­o­log­i­cal agen­das nor col­lec­tive fears.

The “global war” against “rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and ter­ror­ism,” that would make con­tem­po­rary Is­lamic stud­ies a dis­ci­pline be­sieged by dan­ger­ously util­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions must give way to a holis­tic vi­sion.

If we are se­ri­ous about re­spect­ing the di­ver­sity of civ­i­liza­tions, about the need for di­a­logue, about pro­mot­ing com­mon val­ues, we must ur­gently re­think the con­tent of our cur­ric­ula. The cour­ses of study of­fered in our uni­ver­si­ties must em­brace the study of re­li­gion, of the­ol­ogy and the­o­log­i­cal schol­ar­ship, of the teach­ing of Is­lamic law and ju­rispru­dence.

It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that prac­tic­ing Jews, Chris­tians, Hin­dus or Bud­dhists can per­form their aca­demic du­ties ob­jec­tively. Mus­lim fac­ulty mem­bers, how­ever, face se­ri­ous ob­sta­cles. Prac­tic­ing Mus­lims may see their ob­jec­tiv­ity ques­tioned and be ex­pected to es­pouse “pro-Western” views.

The com­mon­places of vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism and the in­sis­tence that “Is­lamic au­thor­i­ties” de­nounce these abuses con­ceal from us a world caught up in in­tel­lec­tual fer­ment. From Morocco to In­done­sia, from the United States to Aus­tralia by way of Europe and Turkey, a body of fresh and au­da­cious Is­lamic thought is emerg­ing. It is not only the work of thinkers known to and recog­nised by the West.

To­day, an evo­lu­tion­ary process is sweep­ing through ev­ery Is­lamic so­ci­ety. Any Is­lamic stud­ies cur­ricu­lum must turn se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to this in­tel­lec­tual ef­fer­ves­cence, which in turn im­plies mas­tery of Ara­bic, Farsi, Urdu and other lan­guages.

Only then can Is­lamic stud­ies chal­lenge the sim­plis­tic no­tion that Is­lam is still in its me­dieval pe­riod, that it must evolve and ex­pe­ri­ence its own re­nais­sance be­fore it can catch up with the West and moder­nity. For when such aca­demic pre­con­di­tions be­come a pre­req­ui­site, the study of a re­li­gion or civ­i­liza­tion ceases to be aca­demic or ob­jec­tive. It feeds into ide­ol­ogy and jus­ti­fies dom­i­na­tion.

If con­tem­po­rary Is­lamic stud­ies are to evolve in a mean­ing­ful way, we must dis­tin­guish be­tween Is­lam and Mus­lims on the one hand, and po­lit­i­cal Is­lam, Is­lamism and Is­lamists on the other. Even if this has been done, there re­mains room for se­ri­ous crit­i­cal reap­praisal of the in­struc­tion on of­fer in many of our uni­ver­si­ties.

How else to ex­plain why cer­tain vi­o­lent groups are lent an in­ter­pre­ta­tive author­ity based on lit­tle more than ei­ther will­ful neg­li­gence ... or ig­no­rance? Per­haps the out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of this treat­ment is Ibn Taymiyya, the 13th-century scholar who some con­sider the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­trem­ist thinker. The speech and ac­tions of to­day’s vi­o­lent Is­lamists be­come win­dows through which the Is­lamic her­itage, and Is­lamic schol­ars them­selves, are in­ter­preted and judged.

Con­tem­po­rary Is­lamic stud­ies face an­other ma­jor chal­lenge: that of rec­on­cil­ing stu­dents drawn to the field with this com­plex, mul­ti­lay­ered and mul­tidi­men­sional world. Knowl­edge of lan­guages, cul­tures, mem­o­ries and his­to­ries, of so­cial dy­nam­ics and evo­lu­tion are the es­sen­tial pa­ram­e­ters if we are to study the other as he ac­tu­ally is, and not as a de­mo­graphic, cul­tural or po­lit­i­cal threat.

As more and more Western Mus­lims en­roll in Is­lamic stud­ies pro­grammes, they bring with them their “in­sider’s” knowl­edge and sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Is­lamic stud­ies must be taken se­ri­ously. Politi­cians, univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors, fac­ulty and stu­dents must say so; they must make a firm com­mit­ment to re-eval­u­ate crit­i­cally and con­struc­tively what our aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions of­fer to­day.

Tariq Ra­madan, a fel­low of St. Antony’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, traces the changes and con­ti­nu­ities in the West’s in­ter­est in Is­lam in the the jour­nal of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Aca­demic Mat­ters,


Chair­man, Jama’atul Iza­latil Bid’ah Wa’ikama­tis Sun­nah (JIBWIS) Gombe State and mem­ber, Gombe State Com­mit­tee on Mass Wed­ding, Sheikh Hamza Adamu (left) ad­dress­ing women on mar­riage in Gombe yes­ter­day.

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