All reformist work must start with recognition of the world as it is. We must see and understand the world as it exists and not as we would like it to be. Only when we appreciate the true dimensions of contemporary reality, can we contemplate reforms that will create the world we want.
Most Muslim scholars and professionals view the world not as it is but as a rosy-hued mirage which is largely a figment of their own minds. They cannot see that their disciplines are an arena of power politics, where objectivity and neutrality are rhetorical rationales for control, and integrity is simply another name for expedient self-interest. The world of intellectual disciplines, natural or social sciences, is not a world of dispassionate rationality, Platonic pursuit of truth or moral virtuosity. It is a world where ideational and ideological battles are fought and where thought and tradition are divided and demarcated for domination and control. In this game, the Muslim scholar, scientist, economist is very much an outsider: unless he understands and appreciates this, his attempts to islamize this or that discipline will not only fail to usher in any reforms, but can, indeed will, surrender even more intellectual territory to the ideational universe of western civilization.
There are three aspects of contemporary reality that ought to be appreciated by anybody engaged in islamization efforts or working on legal, social and economic reforms in Muslim society. The first aspect is the most obvious, and perhaps the most [painful. Muslim thought is completely marginalized in the modern world. As it has made no input into the philosophical and intellectual pool of contemporary knowledge, it should harbour no illusions that it will be accepted on equal terms by and allowed to participate in the global knowledge industry. The corollary of this is that Muslim people are also totally marginalized and, despite an illusion of independence, are dependent on the dominant civilization, an even more painful fact. That Muslim people will be allowed to determine their own destiny cannot be taken for granted in a world where the umma has a dependent status.
This aspect of contemporary reality has a direct bearing both on reform movements and the islamization debate. Any country wishing to introduce the Shariah will face systematic opposition from the industrialized countries, as was so obviously the case with Sudan. Any discipline that Muslim scholars may islamize, if it is of any significance and presents a threat tot he dominant discipline, will be simply co-opted.
The second stark feature of our time is interconnection and interdependence. In the modern world everything is connected to everything else and is dependent upon developments in other spheres. Things do not exist in isolation; problems cannot be removed as it were from this interconnected, interlocking reality and tackled in isolation. In such a world, it makes little sense, as Parvez Manzoor ponts out in his introduction, to establish the Sahriah without introducitng social, economic and educational reforms. Or as Muhammad Arif argues, introducing Islamic banking without doing anything about the unequal distribution of resources, would not solve much. Economics is intrinsically linked to land reform, which is linked to politics And politics itself is linked to science, technology, medicine, social formation and so on. Reform or islamization, therefore, cannot be undertaken in isolation. The enterprise can succeed only if it is systematically tackled on a number of different fronts, when disciplines are allowed to merge and cross-fertilize, when a new universe of disciplines, geared to the needs of the Muslim people and culture and subordinated to the world-view of Islam, emerges. The present disciplinary structure, as I have noted elsewhere, has evolved in the cultural and intellectual milieu of the western civilization it is a direct response to its needs and world-view. Its boundaries are artificially maintained by the intellectual power and rigour that this civilization commands.
The third feature of our world is that diversity is the essence of survival. Contrary to Darwinian myth, it is not the fittest who survive, but those who use plurality of means. Monocultures dominate, isolate, alienate, decimate and finally bore themselves to death with uniformity. The analogy is most clearly demonstrated in agriculture: too heavy a reliance on a single crop ends in famine, monoculture has a limited future. But a multiplicity of crops produce abundance. Similarly, pluralistic societies have a higher chance of cultural survival and normally thrive.
What does this mean in terms of reform and islamization? It means that monolithic approaches to reform are doomed. The zeal of the righteous and the fanaticism of the revolutionary end in tyranny. All revolutions in history, even the one carried out in the name of Islam, end by replacing one tyranny with another. Iran is a shining example. Reform has to evolve, and be attempted, consistently and constantly, by a number of different means and methods. A reformist is not a revolutionary; he/she is not foolish enough to believe that the world can be put right by a single act of political violence. Changes can be brought about and reforms introduced only by the methodology of the Prophet: by consistent and planned work, step by step, allowing time for adjusting to change, taking stock of the changing situation, occasionally side-stepping for strategic reasons, with unshaking will and determination. Any other method is pure euphoria, a day dram of a card-carrying imbecile.
For islamization, the diversity of modern reality has a special significance. It means that if islamized disciplines become an appendage of western disciplines, they will be co-opted and swallowed up by the monolith. As such, they, like the dominant disciplines themselves, will have no real future. But if the islamized disciplines develop independently of western disciplines, they have a real chance of flourishing in themselves and genuinely enriching the western ones. On this basis, Islamic economics , supposedly the most islamized of contemporary disciplines, has nowhere to go!
Once we have moved into the world as it is, we can begin to shed the fallacies that have enveloped our thought and action. The prime illusion we must abandon is that we can solve our problems by borrowing from others, or tacking them in isolation, or that every Muslim country is an independent, self-sufficient, self-reliant sovereign state. It is the indigenous and the whole that is the key to our intellectual and physical survival in the modern world. Only when Muslim countries begin to see themselves as a civilization and start relying on their indigenous capabilities and intellectual heritage can the umma solve its pressing problems and present a viable challenge to the dominant civilizations. Contemporary reality demands that the Muslim umma, the many and varied nation-states, act a single, autonomous civilization. Only by presenting a civilization front can the umma halt the advance of western civilization at its boundaries and undertake meaningful reforms within it. An individual state seeking to adopt the Shariah would thereofre have the protection and support of the entire Muslim world. Isolationism is out says the stark reality of our time. The same goes for parochialism and sectarianism.
Nothing has forced the Muslim world into subjugation and borrowed solutions more than parochialism and sectarianism. On the physical level, ethnic and sectarian identities have been overblown and turned into civil strife and national conflicts. Those who seek to assert their ethnic identity at the expense of unity are planting the seeds of their own destruction. Those who suppress or persecute ethnic minorities in the name of a national majority, are mortgaging their future. Ethnic diversity is a source of cultural strength for Muslim societies. The motto of our time, we can read out there in the real world, is live and let live.
Parochialism is a widespread feature of Muslim thought. Narrow adherence to fiqh (classical jurisprudence), to the dictates of this or that school of thought, whether it has any contemporary relevance or not, is one manifestation of this parochialism. The real world takes no account of the glories of bygone ages, rulings of historic times, outmoded thought and ideas. Its message is simple: adapt or perish. Muslim people have been on the verge of physical, cultural and intellectual extinction simply because they have allowed parochialism and petty traditionalism to rule their minds. We must break free from the ghetto mentality.
This means thinking imaginatively, boldly and universally. Islam is a universal world-view: it transcends all cultural boundaries and is not limited and confined by a single parochial outlook. This is stating the obvious; but the significance of this truism is seldom appreciated. For example, if Islam is a universal world-view, an economic system based on its principle should also be universal. Islamic economics therefore is a universal economics, not Muslim economics. Thus western economics, which is based on a particular culture and parochial (Eurocentric) outlook, should be an appendage to it, and not vice versa. This means, further, that Islamic economics has to be based on its own axiomatic structure, and not be derivative of western economic thought and its institutional apparatus. However, to develop an entire economic structure from first principles is so formidable that no Muslim economist has had the courage to undertake the exercise. And what is true of economics is also true of other social sciences as well as science.
A universalist world-view, by its very nature, must be dynamic and constantly absorbing change. The real world is changing rapidly; indeed, it is changing at a rate unparalleled in history the rate of change is itself changing! Under such circumstances, we cannot rely on static or pre-modernist formulations of the Shariah. Yet this is the spectacle that we are faced with: obscurantist rulings are dragged out from history as though they were eternal principles and forced into circumstances where they clearly do not belong. We must gain a fresh insight into the Shariah based on the factors that confront us. (1)
Why is it that most Muslim scholars fail to understand the dynamics of the real world? Perhaps it has something to do with the traditional nature of their education. Possibly it has something to do with their westernized thought and outlook which militates against breaking free from the dominant civilization. It could even be that they do not want to see We found our fathers on a course and by their footsteps we are guided (The Quran 43:22). Whatever the reason for the present sate of Muslim scholars, the real world demands a totally new kind of thinker.
In a given period of history, a civilization is judged by its dominant thought, by the prevalent trends in its cultural life as expressed in politics and morality, science and technology, economics and business, arts and crafts. Intellectuals are the voice of this thought and the pulse of the prevalent trends; they are also their instigators, their critics and their bodyguards. A civilization, a country, a community, cannot exist without intellectuals and a constant stream of new ideas. They cannot exist without constant criticism and self-criticism, without those who formulate it and express it. They cannot exist without a body of devoted people whose sole concern in life is ideas and their significance. Indeed, a society without intellectuals is like a body without a head. And that precisely is the position of the contemporary Muslim world.
The Muslim world today Is totally devoid of intellectuals. There are plenty of academics and bureaucrats, professionals and researchers, even a modicum of scientists and technologists but intellectuals are conspicuous only by their total absence. This is partly because traditional societies, drawing their sustenance as they do from classical and historic scholars, and anti-intellectual. Many of the dominant modes of thought in Muslim societies, like Sufism, are aggressively anti-intellectual. A society dominated by taqlid (blind imitation), both of its own past and western civilization, cannot tolerate intellectuals. The acute absence of intellectuals in Muslim societies is also explained by the fact that the few who do exist have let their constituency down: they are much more concerned with fashionable ideologies like Marxism, secularism, westernization than with the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of the community.
But who are the intellectuals, anyway? And why are they important? A simple definition would be that an intellectual is someone who gets excited by ideas. In his classic study, Intellectuals in Developing Societies, Syed Hussein Alatas defines an intellectual as a person who is engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason (2). This is a somewhat misleading definition: for while an intellectual may or may not think directly about material problems, all his thought ahs a bearing on the material world. In defining the Muslim intellectual, we must first point out that we are not discussing a creature who inhabits western sociology where, over the last hundred years, his/her social meaning has shifted and changed a number of times. Neither are we talking in the French sense of the term where intellectuals are that section of the educated class which aspires to political power, either directly or by seeking the influence and companionship of the countrys political rulers.
Muslim intellectuals are interested in abstract ideas as well as specifics, the real world demands both. Unlike Socrates, they are not interested in ideas for ideas sake, they search for ideas that lead to reform; but like Socrates, they seek propagation of thought, criticism and a questioning attitude, a goal for which they would eagerly lay down their lives. They move in a world not of total doubt and confusion, but within a world-view well defined by conceptual and ethical parameters. They seek not power but reforms. They do not have acquisitive and analytical minds only but also critical, imaginative and creative minds. They engage and transform.
Intellectuals are important because they do the work that other segments of society either do not know exist or are not equipped to handle, they tackle the problems which cannot be managed by specialists, academics and professionals. As Alatas points out, to lack intellectuals is to lack leadership in the following areas of thinking: (1) the posing of problems; (2) the definition of problems, (3) the analysis of problems; (4) the solutions of problems. Even the posing of problems is in itself an intellectual problem. A society without effective intellectuals will not be in a position to raise problems (3)
Intellectuals are therefore the only group of people in a society who are capable of moving away from the narrow confines of specialism or professionalism to see problems in their holistic and real perspective. Alatas also points out that the area of intellectual activity cannot follow any demarcation laid down by any particular discipline and is therefore transdisciplinary. Moreover, the intellectual attitude cannot be created by formal and discipline-orientated training in terms of syllabus and fixed number of years of study; the object of the intellectual activity is always related to the wider context of life and thought, penetrating into fundamental values and commitments; the intellectual pursuit is not a profession and therefore not subject to the sort of factors which determine the emergence and development of professions; and the intellectual interest involves the past, the present and the future. (4)
Intellectuals are the only group in any society which systematically and continuously, in sharp contrast to the specialist and the profession, try to see things in wider perspectives, in terms of their interrelations, interactions and totality. This is why intellectuals have always been at the forefront of new synthesis and thought. Most of the major changes and reforms in western civilization, for example, have been brought about by intellectuals. The Enlightenment, which laid the foundation of modern science and thought, was a purely intellectual movement. The intellectuals who conceived and perfected the Enlightenment, Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Diderot and Voltaire, are still widely read today and have a profound influence. The European Reformation too was the work of intellectuals. Without the thinking and writing of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, around whom people rallied in breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, it is difficult to believe that the Reformation could have taken place. And what better evidence of the importance of intellectuals and their powerful influence can one give than by simply pointing out that the Soviet Union rules in the name of a single intellectual, Karl Marx, who spent most of his life in libraries and whose works over the past century have been studied by countless other intllectuals. In turn Dad Kapital did not spring spontaneously from Marxs head; what he was doing in libraries across Europe was absorbing the thinking of many other intellectuals of previous generations. There is perhaps no more poignant example of how an intellectual who was influenced by other intellectuals finally reaches down even to the most remote peasant. All this simply by way of example.
In Muslim civilization the role of the intellectual is even more important, considering that the words read, ponder and reflect are some of the most oft repeated exhortations of the Quran, itself the Noble Reading. At its zenith, Muslim civilization was a civilization of intellectuals: manes like al-Farabi, al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, al-Biruni, al-Razi, al-Masudi, Abdul Wafa, Omar Khayyam come so easily to mind because they dominated entire spans of centuries. And when Muslim civilization faced a crisis, and no one was capable of defining its nature, discovering its cause or assuming the responsibility of formulating a solution, it was rescued by a single intellectual: al-Ghazali. Indeed, without the intellectuals Muslim civilization in history is inconceivable. And, there cannot be a living, dynamic, thriving Muslim civilization of the future without a body of critical and creative intellectuals. At a time when the Muslim world is engulfed in parochialism and sectarianism, when imitation and blind following is the norm, when kindness and tolerance are under retreat everywhere, when the globe is culturally and intellectually dominated by jingoist and chauvinist western logic and social grammar, the umma needs its intellectuals as it has never needed them before.
Much of the desolation of the contemporary Muslim panorama is the result of the almost total absence of vigorously independent and devoted intellectuals. There are, however, indications that intellectuals who are true to the world-view of Islam are coming to the fore; but their number is below the critical mass for take-off. However, if the Islamic movement ideologues, who dominate the reformist scene and the islamization debate, could change a few of their character traits the number of genuine Muslim intellectuals would swell beyond the critical mass and they could begin to make their presence felt both in Muslim society and contemporary Muslim thought.
Three basic features of these ideologues suppress thought and hinder the emergence of the genuine intellectual. The first is their marked tendency to dominate and control: they feel they have a monopoly on reason and judgement. This stems from their belief in their innate superiority and presumed righteousness; which itself is a result of a narrow-minded and blinkered outlook. Movement ideologues are shunned and avoided by many young thinkers and intellectuals because of their tendency to argue from authority and to dominate and control the activities of non-movement groups and societies.
A second and related trait is the guru mentality. This attitude reveals itself in the dictum that the mentor, the teacher or the spiritual leader, is always right, even when he is blatantly in error, and experience has shown him to be wrong. Even the Prophet, when it was pointed out to him that cross-pollination brings beneficial results, corrected himself. The guru mentality plays a great part in subverting critical and analytical faculties as well as the use of imagination. Many devotees would rather edit and translate poor works of the master than produce original scholarship of their own. And as the guru is beyond criticism, his mistakes and fallacious arguments are perpetually repeated.
The third, and related trait, of the movement ideologues, is their inability to take criticism. Most movement scholars regard criticism of their work in terms of personal attack; as a result they either isolate their critics or seek revenge. When faced with arguments, the stock responses are: How can I be wrong? I have been working on this problem for ten years; or You are not an economist, or a specialist in the field; you do not know, I know; or You are trying to discredit me and spread fitna (sedition, strife). Admitting error is a virtue, a strength, not a weakness; this is how knowledge is advanced. Entrenching oneself in an increasingly untenable and irrational position, and defending ones weakness as a matter of honour, is destructive both for the individual concerned and for the contemporary Muslim scholarly tradition. Masasbh, criticism, and self-criticism, must become a cornerstone of Muslim intellectual endeavour.
In addition, the body of Muslim scholars have to modify a few of their characteristics, too. Prime among these is the over-the-top trust and reliance on expertise, Islamic or otherwise. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the contemporary scholarly and academic landscape, that is beyond the comprehension of a good intellectual. It is true that contemporary knowledge is so vast, and, in certain areas, so deep that it is beyond the capabilities of a single individual to master. But one does not have to understand all aspects of every discipline. Moreover, once the jargon, which is designed to mystify the outsiders, is stripped away one finds a methodology and a thought process which can be mastered by anyone who is determined to understand it. In this respect, the true intellectual is a polymath: his basic tool is a sharp mind and a transdisciplinary methodology which can lay bare any discipline, any subject, any segment of human knowledge. Quite often the best and most devastating criticism of issues within a discipline comes from intellectuals outside the discipline. Expertise is a shroud behind which professionals hide their shortcomings. The more shallow and intellectually shambolic the foundations of a discipline the more it is defended by a priesthood of experts. (5) You are not an expert, a scientist, an economist, a sociologist, a heart-specialist, and therefore you do not understand is the last ditch defence of a poor professional.
Muslim scholars and ideologues, who aim to become true intellectuals, and participate in the genuine introduction of reforms and evolution of strategies for change need to penetrate the shell of disciplinary expertise. As I stated earlier, and as modern ecology teaches and western science is rediscovering, nothing in nature behaves as an isolated system. Everything is connected to everything else: in the real world an all-pervasive principle of interconnectiveness is in operation. There is therefore no such thing as pure physics or economics devoid of social, political, cultural, environmental and spiritual concerns. As a purveyor of ideas, a true intellectual ought to have mastery of more than one discipline. And as Islam also permeates every sphere of life, we cannot allow Islamic studies to become the sole preserve of experts. By definition, a Muslim intellectual must appreciate and understand the major elements of the world-view, culture, history, and thought of Islam. But a self-respecting Muslim intellectual would go much further: he/she would aim to become a truly interdisciplinary scholar. (6)
And this brings me to the second reason why Muslim intellectuals have to break disciplinary boundaries. Contemporary Muslim thought is not about re-inventing the wheel; where there is a great deal to be discovered and rediscovered, from the perspective of Islam, there is an equal amount of knowledge that we can draw upon and synthesize with the world-view of Islam. But synthesis is not an easy task; it is not a question of mixing this with that. AS Parvez Manzoor has pointed out, synthesis is presented in the Hegelian scheme as conciliation of two antitheses. And this is exactly how both the Muslim and western civilizations have perceived each other in history: as two real and irreconcilable antitheses. Any facile amalgamation of two traditions requires knowledge of the real world. A strong dominant intellectual tradition cannot be synthesized with a weak, ineffectual one; it would simply be co-opted. Synthesis therefore is a hazardous exercise; at the very least it requires knowledge of more than one discipline. Many problems in the whole question of the islamization of disciplines arise, as I have pointed out in Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come and Merryl Wyn Davies has shown in Knowing One Another: Shaping an Islamic Anthropology, (8) from the fact that Muslim scholars try to cast disciplines based on western axioms and intellectual heritage in Islamic moulds. These problems arise mainly form their inability to synthesize for synthesis involves axiomatic analysis and examination and raising of fundamental questions. And only true synthesis can make proper use of existing knowledge and generate new ideas and pragmatic solutions.
All this requires the re-emergence, and in a way this is what I have been arguing for throughout this essay, or the classical polymath. Contemporary Muslim intellectuals must become the counterparts of the polymaths who shaped Muslim civilization at its zenith. Muslim civilization of the classical period was remarkable for the number of polymaths it produces. (9) The motives and driving force behind polymathy were not based on just a deep love and respect for knowledge but also on a paradigm which emphasized the interconnection between the sacred and the profane, physics and metaphysics, thought and reality, and pointed out that the material universe was not inferior to the spiritual, that both as manifestations of Allahs bounty and mercy, were the vast creation of God from the mystics ecstasy to the mothers love to the flight of an arrow, the circumference of the earth, the plague that destroys and entire nation, the sting of mosquito, the nature of madness, the beauty of justice, the metaphysical yearning of man were all equally valid and could not be deprived of eternal values and human concern. Methodologies, deeply rooted in the conceptual and ethical parameters of Islam were the essence of enquiry. And classical polymaths were masters of methodology. It was this paradigm that the polymaths used to syntehesize the learning of earlier civilizations, transforming it totally for synthesis always produces something entirely new which is like neither one nor the other of the original components and integrating it completely with the world-view of Islam. Contemporary Muslim intellectuals have to rediscover this paradigm and develop into the kind of polymaths who can perform the great synthesis that is needed.
In a world that is shaped and controlled by another civilization, the real task facing the Mulsim umma is the creation of an intellectual space which is a genuine embodiment of the world-view and culture of Islam. Without this intellectual space, reformist ideas and programmes will bear no fruit. Muslim civilization has a dire need of genuine intellectuals; unless Muslims societies cultivate the barren lands of today intellectual vacuum, the ummas marginalized existence will be institutionalized. The real world offers us no choice but to start our homework immediately.
The article is from Abdullah Omar Naseef (Editor), Today’s Problems, Tomorrow’s Solutions: Future Thoughts on the Structure of Muslim Society, Mansell, London, 1988.