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Studying Islam

To challenge the simplistic notion that Islam is still in its medieval period, we must engage it academically for its own sake not simply out of self-interest


Special to Globe and Mail

January 8, 2008

Interest in Islamic studies has expanded in recent years, but not always for the best of reasons. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the powers of the day needed to understand the religious motivations of their colonized subjects. The rule, for decades, was the self-interested study of Islam; objective academic discipline was the exception.

How much further have we come today?

"Islamic studies" now seem equally driven by non-academic motives.

Western societies are grappling with three distinct Islam-related factors: a new, visible generation of Western Muslims, accelerating migratory flows and terrorism, seen as a threat to both the West and the Islamic world.

International politics the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats against Iran, eventual Turkish membership in the European Union also impinge on the field, as scholars attempt to understand, to prevent and even to mobilize against the perceived danger of violent Islamism. Key questions are often framed in binary terms, as a clash of civilizations. In each of these instances, Islamic studies are directly or indirectly involved in the attempt to understand and to prevent, to protect, to dominate or even to fight the adversary of violent Islamism.

It comes as no surprise that sociologists, political scientists and terrorism experts produce reams of research on Islam, Muslims, identity, immigration, Islamism, radicalization, violence and terrorism. Much of their work is funded or commissioned by government agencies or major corporations. Today, like yesterday, non-academic criteria propel and justify research.

But this carefully orchestrated infatuation with Islamic studies reduces several centuries of Islam's legal heritage, philosophy, mystical thought, and social and political vitality to a subsidiary position. Beyond the concern generated by the conflict in Iraq, the richness of the Sunni and Shia traditions and their millennia-long relationship earns only lip service. Rationalist philosophers such as Averroes are cited as examples of "reasonableness," while the thought of Islam's many eminent theologians and thinkers is ignored.

The time has come for universities in the West to reconcile themselves with an approach to other civilizations and cultures particularly that of Islam driven neither by ideological agendas nor collective fears.

The "global war" against "radicalization and terrorism," that would make contemporary Islamic studies a discipline besieged by dangerously utilitarian political considerations must give way to a holistic vision.

If we are serious about respecting the diversity of civilizations, about the need for dialogue, about promoting common values, we must urgently rethink the content of our curricula. The courses of study offered in our universities must embrace the study of religion, of theology and theological scholarship, of the teaching of Islamic law and jurisprudence.

It is generally accepted that practising Jews, Christians, Hindus or Buddhists can perform their academic duties objectively. Muslim faculty members, however, face serious obstacles. Practising Muslims may see their objectivity questioned and be expected to espouse "pro-Western" views.

The commonplaces of violence and terrorism and the insistence that "Islamic authorities" denounce these abuses conceal from us a world caught up in intellectual ferment. From Morocco to Indonesia, from the United States to Australia by way of Europe and Turkey, a body of fresh and audacious Islamic thought is emerging. It is not only the work of thinkers known to and recognized by the West.

Today, an evolutionary process is sweeping through every Islamic society. Any Islamic studies curriculum must turn serious attention to this intellectual effervescence, which in turn implies mastery of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and other languages.

Only then can Islamic studies challenge the simplistic notion that Islam is still in its medieval period, that it must evolve and experience its own renaissance before it can catch up with the West and modernity. For when such academic preconditions become a prerequisite, the study of a religion or civilization ceases to be academic or objective. It feeds into ideology and justifies domination.

If contemporary Islamic studies are to evolve in a meaningful way, we must distinguish between Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and political Islam, Islamism and Islamists on the other. Even if this has been done, there remains room for serious critical reappraisal of the instruction on offer in many of our universities.

How else to explain why certain violent groups are lent an interpretative authority based on little more than either willful negligence or ignorance? Perhaps the outstanding example of this treatment is Ibn Taymiyya, the 13th-century scholar who some consider the quintessential extremist thinker. The speech and actions of today's violent Islamists become windows through which the Islamic heritage, and Islamic scholars themselves, are interpreted and judged.

Contemporary Islamic studies face another major challenge: that of reconciling students drawn to the field with this complex, multilayered and multidimensional world. Knowledge of languages, cultures, memories and histories, of social dynamics and evolution are the essential parameters if we are to study the other as he actually is, and not as a demographic, cultural or political threat.

As more and more Western Muslims enroll in Islamic studies programs, they bring with them their "insider's" knowledge and sensibilities.

Meanwhile, professors and instructors have begun to question the old paradigms more insistently, to objectify "Islam," to transform it into a more coherent, more complete and ultimately more academic discipline.

Islamic studies must be taken seriously. Politicians, university administrators, faculty and students must say so; they must make a firm commitment to re-evaluate critically and constructively what our academic institutions offer today.

Tariq Ramadan, a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, traces the changes and continuities in the West's interest in Islam in the December, 2007, issue of Academic Matters: The journal of higher education (



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