The thinkers who want to Islamise knowledge
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This article is an introduction to The Salvific Power of Knowledge and The Umma’s Rebirth Begins in Universities
Modernization of Islam or Islamization of modernity: the formula is regularly used to refer to two possible forms of interaction between Islamic tradition and the modern era. According with the first form, Islam is called to appropriate modernity’s founding values (freedom, equality etc.). The second, on the other hand, means emptying the great modern institutions of their Western content so as to infuse them with a religious nature, without proposing a simple return to the past. This is how the ideas of the “Islamic state”, the “Islamic Revolution”, the “Islamic economy” and so on were born, particularly amongst the Islamist currents. Nevertheless, during those same years after the failure of Arabist socialism, when Islam made its bid to transform the Middle Eastern political order, there formed a current that sees the answer to the Muslim societies’ malaise in the Islamization not of the political and economic structures but, rather, of knowledge. There are principally three thinkers behind this programme: Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and Ismail Raji al-Faruqi. The first was born in Iran in 1933. Today, after holding various academic posts both in his homeland and in the United States and a career marked by a remarkably interdisciplinary approach, he is professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Dissatisfied with the aridity of the scientific positivism which he encountered during his first year of physics at MIT, Boston, Nasr set out on an existential quest that found an answer in the traditionalism of, inter alia, René Guénon and Sufism. This was not the end of his interest in the natural world, however. Indeed, he obtained his PhD at Harvard with a thesis on conceptions of nature in Islamic thought. Published in 1964 with the title An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, this inaugurated his academic reflection on the need to re-open scientific knowledge to metaphysics.
If Nasr was the first to conceive of the need to rethink modern science in the light of religious transcendence, it was Naquib al-Attas who coined the term “Islamization of knowledge”. He did so in his book Islam and Secularism (first published in 1978), an excerpt from which we are proposing in this edition of Oasis. Al-Attas was born two years before Nasr, in 1931, in the Javanese city of Bogor, then in the Dutch East Indies and now in Indonesia. His life as an academic was taken up with two major veins: the Malayan Islamic tradition (which, for him, was not the expression of a particularistic identity but, rather, a variety of Islam’s universality) and the relationship between Islam and modern knowledge. Al-Attas’ education included time in British and Canadian universities and he stated unequivocally that the concept of knowledge that was developed by the West and then spread throughout the world “has brought chaos to the Three Kingdoms of Nature: animal, vegetal and mineral.” Indeed, Westerners have eliminated religion and revelation from their horizon, transforming science into a highly efficient tool for exploiting nature but one incapable of understanding the latter’s purpose, which cannot be separated from the Creator’s intention.
If this vision that has also wormed its way into the Muslim world through the educational institutions is to be opposed, it is necessary to recover a unitary conception of knowledge that is capable of embracing both the metaphysical and the empirical dimensions of existence. Like Nasr, al-Attas, too, was strongly influenced by the Sufi intellectual tradition according to which the heart is no less important than reason and spiritual experience is no less real than material experience. For him, excluding God from knowledge is not only morally reprehensible but also (and, perhaps, above all) epistemologically erroneous. Indeed, “all knowledge comes from God and is interpreted by the soul through its spiritual and physical faculties.”
Muslims are therefore called to a great work of redefining the sciences: both the natural sciences and the human and social sciences. These must be freed of their Western-derived concepts in order to be shaped by an Islamic vision. This undertaking is not an end in itself but, rather, a project with a very clear purpose: reintroducing a correct notion and educational practice amongst Muslims. In Islam, the purpose of education is to “produce a good man,” writes al-Attas. This is achieved by transmitting adab, a concept that, over the course of the centuries, has assumed the meaning of “etiquette” or “good manners” but, in the Malayan academic’s thinking, has a far broader significance since it indicates the capacity to order things rightly and discern “what applies to man if he must acquit himself successfully and well in this life and the Hereafter.”
If knowledge reform has the purpose of transforming all the educational institutions, then university is the privileged place for this great operation. University, al-Attas states, must go back to being a unitary structure in which the various faculties exist in a relationship of reciprocal interdependence, just as in the human body.
Regard for the university world also characterizes the work of Ismail al-Faruqi, an American philosopher of Palestinian origin who was born in 1921 and assassinated, along with his wife in their home in Pennsylvania, in 1986. In Faruqi, however, the project for the “Islamization of knowledge” (which is also the title of the book from which the second excerpt in this section is taken) assumes a more political and immediately operative value. Indeed, he is convinced that a restructuring of the Islamic educational systems is instrumental in the umma’s awakening and he specifies, with a certain precision, how these are to be re-organized, which textbooks they must use and how they can be financed. His objective is to overcome the system operating throughout the Muslim world, which is founded on a dualism between religious educational institutions and secular public universities and schools. In Faruqi’s vision there must be one single system integrating religious knowledge and profane knowledge, in which every student is obliged to receive religious instruction “regardless of their field of specialization.” This is only the first step, however. It is not enough to connect the different types of discipline: it is, instead, necessary to “integrate the new knowledge into the corpus of the Islamic legacy by eliminating, amending, reinterpreting, and adapting its components as the world-view of Islam and its values dictate.” Like the late nineteenth-century reformists, Faruqi laments the lethargy into which Muslims have sunk since the first glorious centuries of Islamic history, thereby leaving to the West the benefits of exploiting the knowledge that they had been capable of producing. Unlike his predecessors, however, the American-Palestinian thinker maintains that it is not enough to re-appropriate the knowledge and power developed by the West. It is first of all necessary to resolve the contradiction between Western knowledge and the Islamic vision of the world.
The work of al-Attas and Faruqi was not confined to the sphere of ideas. Rather, it became a concrete reality in two specific projects: the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, which was created within the International Islamic University of Malaysia and then absorbed into the latter’s structure, and the International Institute of Islamic Thought, founded in Virginia, U.S.A., in 1981.
With their criticism of empiricism, utilitarianism and the fragmentation of modern knowledge, the reflections of these thinkers have something to say also beyond the confines of the Muslim world. Moreover, by insisting on the metaphysical dimension of existence, they can find attentive interlocutors in other religious traditions harbouring similar concerns about scientism’s drifts. There is nevertheless the risk that this project is not limited to the legitimate desire to broaden science’s current horizons but is, rather, seeking to turn into an absolute and exclusive knowledge that integrally substitutes itself for every other form of knowledge.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
To cite this article
Michele Brignone, “It isn’t True Science if it isn’t Open to God”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 90-2.
Michele Brignone, “It isn’t True Science if it isn’t Open to God”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/it-is-not-true-science-if-not-open-to-god