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Islamization of Knowledge: Survey and Selected Issues PDF Print E-mail

M. Aslam Haneef

In one of the early writings discussing the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world, Dekmejian (1985)  provides a list of events which to him, constitutes the ‘militant form‘ of Islamic fundamentalism at the turn of the 15th hijri century. The Islamic revolution in Iran, the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, armed opposition in various Arab countries, the assassination of Sadat, and other forms of armed attacks and struggle throughout the middle east are some examples of this 'militant form.' There is no doubt that these events occurred and did represent one dimension of a complex and wide-ranging phenomenon called the Islamic resurgence.


However, another dimension of this ―Islamic resurgence‖ that has not received as much attention from analysts like Dekmejian and many other experts on Islam in the west has been the intellectual dimension. Even the highly acclaimed University of Chicago study on Fundamentalisms did not focus sufficiently on the intellectual movements of the last three decades of the 20th century although the first volume on Fundamentalisms and Society claimed to assess the ‘progress of fundamentalist leaders and movements in their attempts to reorder scientific inquiry, to reclaim the patterns of traditional family life and interpersonal relations, and to reshape education and communication systems.‘


This study attempts to provide an analysis and evaluation of what the present writer considers one of the more important intellectual movements of the 20th century, namely the Islamization of Knowledge (IOK) project. It can certainly be considered one of the more credible and long-standing contemporary Muslim intellectual responses to modernity, if we take the late 1960s as its starting point. All proponents of IOK see the problem with modernity as being its philosophical outlook, more specifically its exclusive reliance on rationalism and empiricism as its basis of acquiring knowledge. Hence, the IOK has to be seen primarily as an epistemological and methodological concern against the position taken by the ‘modernity project.‘ Being almost 40 years old, there have been numerous studies that have attempted to discuss and analyze the IOK project. However, the works have usually been limited to the ideas of certain individuals or institutions and if comparisons are made, these are rather limited in scope and number. 


The realization by Muslim scholars of the ‘backwardness‘ of Muslim countries is not new. At the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, Al-Afghani, Abduh, Rida‘ and Iqbal have all described and analyzed the state of the Muslim ummah as they saw it, both at the intellectual and material dimensions. They have also all called for reforms in society. On the other hand, many of the Islamic movement/organization proponents mentioned in Dekmejian‘s study see the problems and the solutions to the backwardness of Muslims to be found in the realm of politics. In the case of IOK proponents, without exception, these scholars have all pointed to knowledge and education as the source of the problems and hence, from where the solutions must also be found.  Rather than pushing an ‘exclusion‘ or ‘confrontation‘ agenda, proponents of IOK are by definition, calling for interaction, engagement and dialogue.


While the proponents of IOK see knowledge to be the root cause of all problems, it is not an issue of lack of knowledge or ignorance per se, but of knowledge that has been interpreted through the western worldview and developed through methodologies that do not fall within the purview of the Islamic worldview and its epistemological foundations. It is important at this juncture to state that all scholars who claim to be promoting the IOK agenda, have to be by definition, supporting interaction with modern knowledge rather than adopting a rejectionist stance. By definition, IOK implies supporting the position that solutions to contemporary problems require the synthesis of both Islamic heritage and contemporary knowledge. However, as will become clear in the ensuing paragraphs, the emphasis on these inputs, what exactly needs to be done to these two inputs and how to go about creating this synthesis, are points of contention.


Notwithstanding the numerous contributions made by scholars writing on IOK, this study attempts to provide a thorough survey of the IOK agenda over the last three decades or so. Those following the agenda may agree with our preliminary observation that while the latter half of the 1970s and early 1980s saw the introduction and initial development of the concept of Islamization, the late 1980s and early 1990s can be viewed as a decade of ‘enthusiasm‘ and ‘active pronouncements‘ and attempts at ‘product development‘ i.e. ‘Islamized textbooks.‘ However, by the second half of the 1990s, many were beginning to question the ‘Islamized products‘ being put forward, and even called the whole project to question. What were the strengths and the shortcomings of the IOK? A more crucial question is, can the IOK project survive into the future, and if yes, what needs to be done? These, among other questions is what the present study hopes to discuss.

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