Monday, July 16, 2018

Reconsidering the Strategy for an Islamic Intellectual Revival

The idea of Islamic intellectual renaissance has not been new. It is no secret that Muslims cannot progress, stay true to themselves and help the world find intellectual balance and meaning in all subjects of modern knowledge before re-interpreting them based on the principles of their own intellectual traditions from the Quran and Sunnah.

This idea was perhaps first popularized in the 19th century by the Islamic ideologist, Jamal al Din al Aghani, in the face of colonialism of the Muslim lands. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal delivered lectures on the topic which are compiled in his book, “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”. Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and Syed Qutb of Egypt formalized this concept as did Maulana Maududi of the Indian Subcontinent. The Malaysian scholar, Dr. Naquib-Al-Attas, laid down the foundations of Islamic intellectualism in his seminal book “Islam and Secularism” in the 60s. His ideas were used by the Palestinian-American philosopher, Ismail Faruqi to establish the Islamic Institute of Islamic Thought in the United States. Faruqi was also the force behind the establishment of Islamic universities throughout the Muslim countries. Dr. Fazlul Rahman Ansari, a Pakistani Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, developed the ideas further and prepared a generation of Islamic scholars to work on this topic. Dr. Israr Ahmed laid down his ideas on Islamic intellectual revival in his book “Islamic Renaissance – The Real Task Ahead”.

Why have centuries of work on Islamic intellectual revival not been successful? Why has the Islamic world not been able to take leadership in various branches of modern knowledge after re-interpreting them on the basis of Islamic principles? Why are Muslims not leading the world in scientific and intellectual breakthroughs based on their own traditions? Why is it that the only solution many Muslims consider for intellectual growth is emulating the Western model? The reasons for failure are many and varied. They cannot be simplified in a few sweeping statements.

Colonialism fractured the educational system of Muslim countries such that those that studied modern knowledge distanced themselves from the religious sciences and those that studied the religious sciences became divorced from the understanding of modernity. The gulf between perspectives the former liberals and the later conservatives in Muslim countries have made the formulation of a single, coordinated, systematic effort in re-establishing Islamic intellectual supremacy almost impossible there. The liberals blame religious education for their lack of progress while the conservatives rarely reflect the broad-mindedness and intellectual honestly that Islam teaches. The latter has resulted in the formation of groups and sects where blind followers and fanatics do a disservice to Islamic ideals by espousing ignorance, self-righteousness and intolerance.

The economic race in has resulted in the modern Muslim who feels he needs to discard the Islamic intellectual frame of reference which makes little sense to him in order to succeed in his secular educational endeavors. This is especially true for students of modern social sciences. The emergence of Islamic universities in the Muslim world have made little difference. The education in these universities are of a lower quality than those in many of their secular counterparts. The administrators of these universities are lesser men than the intellectuals how helped establish them. Thus, they lack the personal commitment and intellectual capacity to run these establishments the way they were originally intended to. Rather than re-interpreting the modern branches of knowledge from Islamic sources, these institutions teach a secular curriculum with Islamic subjects grafted in without much holistic thought. The best that can be hoped for from these institutions is the production of a generation of students who are mediocre in their intellectual abilities, while having some consciousness of Islamic ethics and values. Economic pressures in Muslim countries have made the students strive to seek degrees to find well-paying work instead of seeking knowledge to do the hard work of intellectual revival.

Political pressure in Muslim countries means that the Islamic revival taking place there needs to follow the guidelines and approval of the government, which are not Islamic and increasingly misguided. Islamic intellectual revival cannot take place in an environment where there is no intellectual freedom. The recent labeling of fundamentalism and terrorism to all Islamic intellectual activity has made the road for Islamic intellectual revival especially difficult.

In the West, Muslim youth face a different set of challenges that made this revival difficult. The lack of an Islamic environment, economic pressures on immigrant Muslim parents, lack of good quality Islamic institutions, intellectual onslaught from the media, lack of Islamic education of the parents, distraction of the youth, peer pressure from the larger non-Muslim environment, lack of self-confidence in their Muslim identity, cultural baggage, social problems and lack of a stable, nurturing extended family means that the Muslim youth in the West need to be provided a well thought out and tailored environment if they can be expected to contribute to Islamic intellectual revival. If they are not provided the right atmosphere and upbringing, their Islam can dissolve in the larger non-Muslim societal fabric in a generation or two at most. While, if they can be provided with the right tools, environment and resources, giving them the best of the East and the West, they have the potential to contribute to this revival.

In order to do so, Western Muslim parents should be students of the deen themselves. They must be married for the sake of the deen and have made the purpose of their stay in the West, the service of the deen. Their home should be a place where they can nurture their children and bring them up on the deen. The father should be a good provider, role model as well as physically be available to the children. The ideal education for the children is to be home schooled by their parents. In the case, this is not possible, Islamic schools should be considered as the last resort. Effort should be made for children to learn their native language, Arabic and any Muslim language which gives a sense of confidence and pride to children. Quran should be studied at an early age and throughout the children’s lives in increasing levels of depth and understanding. Children should be exposed to chores and should volunteer their time in different organizations while pursuing theoretic education. Curiosity, the excitement of learning, experimenting, discovery and projects should be encouraged from an early age. The yearning to contribute to society and leave a legacy should be instilled from an early age, Children should be taken to conferences, study circles, field trips, motivational speeches and activities by Muslims that they look up to and like to be associated with. Media should be controlled. There should be no TV in the house. The internet should be monitored and used for fit-for-purpose programming. Video games, virtual reality immersion and excessive distractions should be checked. Physical activity should be encouraged as opposed to becoming fans of spectator sports. Children should be encouraged to contribute to the Islamic intellectual activities of their parents. Care should be taken to ensure that they do not inherit the cultural malaise from their home counties while upholding the ties of kinship of their extended relatives. 

Islamic intellectual revival has generally failed in the East due to a myriad of reasons. It is possible to work on it in the West, if careful, well thought out strategies are adopted in the upbringing of Western Muslim children. It needs hard work, financial resources, and an all-out effort. A life without meaning gives a person little satisfaction. In an age, where humanity has lost a sense of purpose in its existence, let us focus our efforts to leave an everlasting legacy on human intellectual tradition by providing that meaning.

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