Rejuvenating Knowledge In the Islamic World: A Shared Vision
Mankind has just entered a new Millennium borne on the twin forces of globalisation and technology. It will call for not only a heightened economic and political response, but first and foremost an intellectual assertion to understand the new realities and to manage a future that will almost certainly be radically different than anything we have known.
- Globalisation and technology have made national boundaries porous not just to the flow of people and products – but to the incursion of ideas. The relentless advance of technological innovation is propelling us into a whole new era aptly named the age of knowledge, in which the key strategic resource is the creation and application of new knowledge.
- To thrive in this brave new world mandates the development of a modern mentality – based on knowledge that is up to the minute and in line with the temper of the times. But not all are equipped for the challenge. Hence the acknowledgement of a contemporary crisis in the Islamic world that makes “rejuvenation” imperative.
- Notions of rejuvenation are not alien to Muslim culture and history. Self-proclaimed “Renewers of the Faith” have been ubiquitous protagonists of the Muslim past. In its more esoteric and millenarian versions, the spirit of rejuvenation spawned such concepts as “Mahdism”. Rooted principally within a mystical tradition, these movements advocated a passionate “direct encounter with divinity”. A more formalised approach to ideas of the rejuvenation of Islamic knowledge occurred at the turn of the twentieth century with the emergence of a Muslim intelligentsia who, acquainted with contemporary secular ideas, aspired to locate Muslim thought within the broader realms of reason and science. It is this movement which continues to serve as the historical antecedent for contemporary trends advocating a rejuvenation of knowledge in the Muslim world.
- I believe two things are most important if we are serious about rejuvenation: the preparation of dynamic leaders who can bring positive radical change to move society forward and the inculcation of new ideas and new thinking as we respond to the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly evolving world.
- The stimulus I would like to suggest is a new spirit of inquiry and openness in Muslim societies.
- What is required is a revival of an intellectually and spiritually open brand of Islam, willing to participate in peaceful and fruitful dialogue with the world beyond. We cannot by-pass the route the West followed in the basic sciences and technology. In our case it will take a quantum leap to catch up. We need to embrace modernity. There is a precedent for this. It is a cliché now to talk about the Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation when Muslim scholars led the world in sciences and learning.
- Sadly these centuries of distinction gave way to a long and steep decline as a narrow orthodoxy reigned supreme and societies’ energies were channelled into suppressing heresies. Even worse was a fanatical rejection of the intrusion and influence of what were seen as alien cultures, and their alien ethical values. Not surprisingly this silo mentality resulted in perpetuating societies that became impervious to change. Meanwhile the West surged ahead to embrace rational enquiry, innovation and science. The Renaissance, the Age of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution all passed the Islamic countries by.
- No discussion of the present, or projection of the future, can be conducted without a rigorous examination of the past. Much of Islamic history continues to be perceived and propagated, especially among Muslim audiences, in idealized and romantic terms. Appellations such as the “Glory Days of Islam” have the effect of neutralizing and fossilizing the intellectual achievements of Muslim culture in the past. Instead, efforts at understanding the intellectual approaches and methodologies of the time, the cultural ferment and social climate of that epoch, must be initiated. The translation of Greek philosophy by Muslim scholars, for example, should not merely be accepted as a statement of fact, but appreciated as a genuine experience of intellectual engagement. It must be noted, too, that the peak of Islamic civilization occurred within a setting that was truly cosmopolitan. And that the achievements in Islamic thought inspired and induced, as a result of direct intellectual contact, major intellectual developments in Jewish, Christian and, in Mogul India, Hindu thought. This model Islamic civilization should serves as a source of intellectual empathy and emulation.
- In the quest for rejuvenating Islamic knowledge, it is important that we place Islamic thought within a larger cultural experience. While many leading Muslim scholars perceive a contemporary crisis between Islam and pluralism, Islamic history is permeated with examples of great cultural empathy and accommodation. That is why a purely scriptural approach to Islamic knowledge ignores the resplendent cultural resource inherent within Islam. The Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, for example, whose very cultural essence is pluralist, should commit themselves to studying the course of Islamic experience in the region.
- A large part of the discussion concerning contemporary Muslim life continues to revolve around issues of legalism. There is a need to broaden the discussion to include the humanities, the arts and the broader contours of cultural and social life, once the domain of such Islamic scholars as Ibn Khaldun. In this respect, there is a growing trend, principally among Muslim scholars located in the West, to concern themselves with such issues as Religion and Democracy, questions of Freedom, matters of Pluralism and to introduce a more vital Muslim contribution to this debate.
- We should however, as the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has cautioned, beware of the “Culture of Victimology” which has taken root among many Muslim constituencies. He has suggested that by personalizing issues such as the Gulf War and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Muslim communities have failed to address important contradictions within themselves. This, he suggests, has led to increasing social alienation and induced a culture of intellectual enervation within Muslim society. Instead progressive thinkers in Islam have called for a renewed spirit of reciprocity among Muslims. Many have associated the increasing rise of violence in the name of Islam with insularity of thought and isolation of experience. As globalization proceeds apace and as Muslim communities are forced to confront issues of plurality, there must emerge a recpect for difference and receptiveness to ideas. In this context, we should go beyond the division of the world between Darul Islam and Darul Kufr. Emphasis should be placed on one world and efforts made to foster better relations between people of diverse faiths and cultures.
- The intellectual gap between the developed and the Islamic world can only be bridged by a culture of openness on both sides – by open-minded inquiry and free, courageous thinking. The freedom and willingness to listen to, respect and learn from others. There is disagreement among Muslim scholars whether the door of ijtihad remains open. The fact is that the renewal of ijtihad today is essential for the revival of Muslim societies, a view forcefully articulated by, among others, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. The basic condition of ijtihad is the acquisition of knowledge through questioning and freedom of expression.
- But there is an important corollary to openness. We must be prepared to invest in the right kind of education apt for the millennium, designed to shape young minds to the habit of rational enquiry. As society becomes more knowledge-intensive, the role of institutions that create knowledge and educate people such as schools and universities become ever more important. In particular, we should move away from the anti-elitist belief in equality of access to university education and the notion of equality of standing of every university. Egalitarianism in education can only lead to an equality of mediocrity. The best universities should be allowed to compete vigorously for the best students and the best faculty, free from stifling bureaucratic control, with a commitment to strong academic leadership. Higher education should be committed, in the words of Harvard’s president, Larry Summers, to the “authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority”. The road to success starts with the acknowledgement that renewal does not come from the parroting of orthodoxy but the creation of insight.
- As we look ahead to educate the youth of tomorrow, the core question remains: what does it mean to be an educated person in the twenty-first century? First, he or she will be living in a world of scientific revolution. The basic understanding of science and technology is a crucial part of what it means to be truly educated. Even for the non-scientist, science and scientific thinking (of confronting belief with evidence, of submitting ideas and convictions to the possibility of falsification) will come to dominate an ever-widening range of human activity. Like it or not, science and technology are here to stay, and students have to be equipped to engage them. Second, the student should be able to engage the wider world in an informed and educated manner. As a member of the global community, the student needs to appreciate the contributions to human civilization from traditions quite different from his or her own. To be able to communicate, to work, to live and to thrive in multicultural settings.
- The choice of institutions, social frameworks and systems constitute an integral part in any attempt to bring about the rejuvenation of Islamic knowledge. Simply put, rejuvenation can only be achieved within the context of improved economic performance and effective political leadership in Muslim countries. Economic prosperity requires that we put in place sound and workable economic systems, create employment, distribute wealth equitably and ensure that basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, water and electricity are met. There is certainly a need for radical thinking and review of Islamic economics. Why is much of the Muslim world in poverty and how can we change this trend? What ways of cooperation and collaboration with world economic bodies are possible for Muslim countries without compromising the true Islamic values and principles?
- Effective political leadership can be achieved only where there is a common vision between leaders and followers arrived at through consultation and based on a system of government that practices democracy and the rule of law. We can take the cue from the Prophet, who, despite having direct guidance from Allah, introduced the system of syura, a system of administration based on consultation. Muslim leaders everywhere should adopt this practice which recognises the rule of law, respects the culture of consultation, and takes to heart the voice of the people. Such a system prizes transparency with accountability to God Almighty and the ummah.
- Notwithstanding the imperative of transforming institutions and systems, it is the more ambiguous aspects of the intellectual, psychological and philosophical condition of Muslim societies that we must negotiate in our attempt to inspire a true, meaningful and veritable rejuvenation of Islamic knowledge.