Islamic Intellectualism


It is risky enough to predict the future, never mind to do so without first looking at the past. It is from the patterns and lessons of history, that we can form assumptions about the future. This being so, several valuable deductions can be made from Islamic history.

First Thesis:

Islamic history has always had an intellectual component. In the Qur’an, Allah (subhanahu wa Ta’ala) instructs people to observe, ponder, reflect, and use rationality to understand the world and their position in it. The Qur’an is the only “holy” script that makes such an appeal, and consequently, from its inception, Islam has been a rational religion par excellence.

Second Thesis:

Islam, from the beginning, encouraged and demanded intellectual activity and training. Islam is a religion, not a philosophy, and Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was a Messenger, not a theology professor.

Nevertheless, Islam demanded and demands intellectual activities. Early on, these activities mainly took the form of collecting, scrutinizing, and systematizing the Revelation and the prophetic tradition, the Sunnah. In this context, Hasan al Basri, Malik b. Anas, Ibn Ishaq, al-Bukhari, at-Tabari and others developed historiography, linguistics and jurisprudence to unprecedented levels.

In the Islamic civilizations of Damascus, Baghdad, Lahore, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, al-Fustat, Kairouan, and Fez, Muslims became the custodians of the Greek intellectual miracle. Furthermore, they developed and innovated the classical heritage, ultimately producing their own unique, intellectual tradition. The European intellectual exploits of the Renaissance would have been unthinkable without Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, al-Biruni, al-Khawarizmi, ar-Razi, lbn al-Haytham, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun.

It would be a mistake to claim that people like Ibn Hanbal, al-Ash’ari, Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiyya were not intellectual because they arrived at orthodox conclusions and opinions. Ibn Hanbal did try to protect Muslim doctrine from Greek philosophy. Al-Ash’ari, through his radical critic of epistemology, did deny the feasibility of metaphysical deductions. Ibn Hazm did reject the utility of qiyas and tafsir in certain situations. Ibn Tayrniyya did abhor that Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism had gained a foothold within Islam via Sufi circles. Nevertheless, they all employed intellectual analyses to arrive at their conclusions and opinions, thus perpetuating the intellectual tradition of Islam.

Western Orientalists are wrong to insinuate that Islam ever was monolithic. Rather, it was pluralistic in practice and intellectual thought. Except for tawhid and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad, almost everything, including the modalities of the other four pillars of faith, was open to discussion. Within Islamic Jurisprudence, half a dozen schools of law (madhahib) not only developed, but, also, as in Makkah, taught simultaneously, an intellectual feat unknown to any other system of law.

The notion of taqlid –in and of itself not at all irrational–did considerable damage by stifling innovation even outside of ‘aqida, ‘ibada and mu’amalat . Nevertheless, during the reign of taqlid , the Muslim world never stopped developing intellectually as exemplified by Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah, and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab.

In philosophy, intellectual battles were fierce. This is clear when one reads al-Ghazali’s devastating critique of philosophy (At-Tahafut al-Falsafiya ) and the equally opinionated reply by Ibn Rushd (At-Tahafut at-Tahafut ). How refreshing and how reassuring that diversity of opinion, as our Prophet put it, can be a blessing. Needless to say, if Ibn Rushd lived and wrote today, some contemporary Muslim fanatic would probably stifle his views in the name of Allah.

Third Thesis:

Lack of pluralism means decadence. Islam has always been pluralistic. The conflicts between A’isha and ‘Ali, Mu’awiyya and ‘Ali, and ‘Ali and the Kharijiyya were not only intense, but bloody. So were the conflicts between ‘Ummayds and ‘Abbasides, the Mutazila and Ash’ariyya, Sunnis and Shi’is, ‘Ibadi and ‘Alawi Muslims, not to mention the bloody suppression of Sufi extremism in the case of al-Hallaj. These attempts to make Islam monolithic resulted not only in the destruction of much intellectual pluralism; they, also, ushered in a phase of decadence from which we have only recently begun to awake.

Muslim decadence, also, resulted from other causes, including the cultural devastations wrought by the Mongol onslaught and the Catholic Reconquista in Spain. Political and economic insecurity drove Muslims underground intellectually. Religion was privatized, popularized, and made rigid in the most marginal details. In this way, Islam managed to survive both Western and Soviet colonization. This is the good news. The bad news, however, is that in this defensive mode Islam became politically irrelevant and almost Talmudic in its over-legalization. In the process, Sufism, too, degenerated into a folksy sort of Islam whose original spiritualism was ritualized.

Another contributing factor to Islamic decadence was political oppression. Despotism, and the suppression of religious critique by despotic rulers, became and remained the rule in the Islamic world. By developing their own administrative penal law (at ta’zir ), the rulers emancipated themselves, not only from their ‘ulama , but also from the shari’ah itself. Censorship turned into dependency until finally, in the 2Oth century, the ‘ulama were rejected by the Islamic movements of the youth.

This being the past what is the present?

For the first time ever, the contemporary world has been culturally colonized by a single civilization, the Occident. This process, under way since the late Renaissance, found its intellectual bearings in the European Enlightenment, also known as Project Modernity. Having origins in Europe and perpetuation in America, Occidental thought, technology, products and mores dominate the globe. The world has come to use one language, English. Neither Greek, Latin nor Arabic ever came close to this feat.

Since superior civilizations always spread, this is not wholly peculiar, except in scope. What is peculiar, devastatingly so, is that the Occidental ideology, the first ideology based primarily on atheistic assumptions, is becoming global as well. Kant’s critique of metaphysics and his dismantling of the proofs of God, Marx’s defamation of religion as “opiate for the people," and the ruthless Social-Darwinism propagated by Nietzsche are now common currency, as has been proven by the disasters of WWI, Stalinism, the Holocaust, WWII, Maoism, and ethnic cleansing.

The modern scene is, however, also characterized by post-Newtonian Physics, ushered in by Planck, Einstein, Hahn, and Heisenberg; new mathematics, ushered in by Frege; new microbiology and medicine; and new communications technology.

This being the present, what is the future of Islam in the 21st century?

First Assumption:

Given the communications revolution, Islam, always intended to be universal, will become universal.

Second Assumption:

English will become Islam’s main language for da’wah .

Third Assumption:

Muslim scholarship will move west. Scientists always seek environments conducive to their research, and this gives an enormous advantage to places where academic freedom is guaranteed and where one is not persecuted for publishing unwelcome views. There has already been an exodus of qualified Muslim scientists to Europe, the U.S. and Canada. In 1999, the first Nobel Prize in natural sciences conferred on a Sunni Muslim, was given to an Egyptian working in Germany and the U.S.

Fourth Assumption:

Lay intellectuals will become increasingly important. In the past, the corruptibility of some ‘ulama and their marriage with governments lead to the prominence of lay reformers. Al-Afghani, Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Asad, Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Abul-Ala Maududi, Abbas Madani and other leaders of Islamic movements were not products of traditional ‘ulama training. This trend is bound to grow, restoring to Islam the ideal of a religion free from sacramental clergy and an institutionalized “church.”

Fifth Assumption:

Muslims will produce “Occidentalists.” In the time of the Prophet, Muslims had access to Jews and Christians, and knowledge about other monotheistic religions was locally available. Later this changed, and the Occident and Orient grew apart. Christian Orientalists, ever since John of Damascus, started to defame Islam. Muslims lacked Christian specialists until the 20th century when Christians started to convert to Islam in large numbers.

Sixth Assumption:

Muslims will tackle the Sunnah issue. Muslims obviously don’t have a Qur’an problem, but they do have a Sunnah problem. Goldziher, Margoliuth and Schacht were not justified in being sweepingly skeptical, but they were, also, not entirely wrong in asserting that parts of the body of ahadith are questionable. Dr. Fazlur Rahman, in his book Islamic Methodology in History, identified a major cause of this when he pointed out that from the time of al-Shafi’i, Muslims felt obliged to project the entire living Sunnah back to the Prophet. Equipped with new methodologies for historical critique, including computer-based linguistic analysis, 21st century Muslim intellectuals should be able to reestablish maximum authenticity for most of the Sunnah.

Seventh Assumption:

If the Sunnah challenge is met, Muslim intellectuals will develop convincing models, ones that include human and women’s rights, for an Islamic State and economy. Since Prophet Muhammad dictated the Constitution of Madinah, Muslims rarely had to make an intellectual effort to cope with issues of state and government. Al-Mawardi and Nizam al-Mulk are cases in point. Today’s intellectuals face a different challenge. They must develop, from scratch, the theoretical bases of an Islamic “democracy,” i.e. a state that is neither a theocracy in the Shi’i sense, a monarchy, or a community without shari’ah. They must tackle the challenge of integrating Western notions of human rights into the framework of Islamic jurisprudence. Part of this challenge involves restoration of women’s rights worldwide and reinterpretation of Qur’an 4:3, 4:34, and 2:228.

Eighth Assumption:

Muslim intellectuals will develop guidance for Muslim dhimmi. The presence of millions of Muslims in non-Muslim countries is a new problem in Islamic history. Only India, under British rule, experienced a problem of this magnitude. These Muslims need to know how to behave under non-Muslim law, especially on issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, halal slaughtering and riba . We need nothing less than a madhhab for dhimmi Muslims.

Ninth Assumption:

Western intellectual Muslims will develop new modes of da’wah. For 200 years, the Muslim world has experienced the military, industrial and commercial consequences of the Age of Reason, without understanding Western rationalism, scientism, and progressiveness. Today, due to colonial education and Muslim immigration to the West, we have a growing number of Muslim intellectuals who can understand Western ideology on its own ground and by its own rules. These intellectuals are equipped to dismantle the fundamental delusions of Enlightenment rationalism and its over-confidence in the rationality, maturity, and independence of man. In other words, through understanding the Western ideology, they can dethrone “sovereign” man and reinstall faith in God in full accordance with the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy and science. Muslim intellectuals must start from Descartes, Kant, Hume and Comte, but avoid arriving at Marx, Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche. Their task is to reground faith by pointing out the irrationality of atheism; the ambivalence of agnosticism; and the probability and plausibility of the existence of God, i.e. the rationality of faith.

Tenth Assumption:

Muslim intellectuals will stop acting apologetically. This necessarily presupposes the existence of, and in turn will produce, Muslim intellectuals who are assertive and proactive, rather than apologetic and reactive.

Eleventh Assumption:

Muslim intellectuals need to be intellectuals. Muslim intellectuals have a very special role to play, but this does not mean they all must become activists. On the contrary! It would be a major contribution toward the expansion of Islam if a Muslim intellectual did no more than quietly demonstrate that one can be a successful academic and, simultaneously, a convinced and practicing Muslim. The importance of this is witnessed by a common reaction that myself and other Muslim reverts receive: "How can one of us, obviously well educated and not stupid, opt for that religion!”

Twelfth Assumption:

Islam will become the dominant religion of the 21st century. If my first eleven assumptions are correct, my final assumption is that, Allah willing, thanks to the impact of Muslim intellectuals, Islam may well become the dominant religion of the 21st century, at least in North America and parts of Europe, with enormous repercussions for the rest of the globe.


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