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Western social sciences and Muslim social scientists


In his paper Beyond the Muslim Nation-States (1976), Dr Kalim Siddiqui wrote that

“...the Muslim political scientist must ask himself a simple question: is he any different from non-Muslim political scientists who have identical degrees, university posts and publications? The honest answer is ‘no’... In fact, the Muslim [social scientist] is the standard ‘believer’ in Islam, but his science is non-Muslim. The Muslim ‘faithful’ and the non-Muslim political scientist live in the single individual side-by-side and are the cause of much confusion. And when this schizophrenic ‘Muslim political scientist’ sets out to pronounce on ‘the political theory of Islam’ and ‘the Islamic State’, the confusion is worse confounded.”

The formulation of Islamic disciplines equivalent to the western social sciences was one of the Muslim Institute’s key objectives when it was established in the 1970s. Dr Kalim regarded this an essential pre-requisite to the re-emergence of Islamic civilization. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 changed the Institute’s priorities to the study and service of the resurgent Islamic movement. Twenty years later, Dr Kalim is no longer with us; the Muslim Institute is sadly defunct, although some of its work is being continued by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT); the Islamic State is functioning as a prototype Islamic society for the future; and the Islamic movement is an established force for change in the world. But the problems facing Muslim social scientists, and the challenge of developing Islamic understandings of social issues, remain largely unaddressed.

This last point was emphatically shown at the inaugural conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (UK) in London last month. The AMSS (UK) is an off-shoot of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the US, which is the centre for the ‘Islamization of Knowledge’ project. This has been characterised as the ‘adjectivization of knowledge’ by some commentators; Dr Kalim was among many who considered that it represents no more than cosmetic tampering with what remains essentially a western system of knowledge. The speakers at the conference were largely Muslim academics working in western or IIIT-type institutions, and in many cases their confusion was palpable. And nowhere was this more the case than in the politics workshop.

The problem is simple: the western-trained Muslim looks at Islam and society through a western framework of understanding. Instead of understanding society and the world through Islam, he (or she) tries to understand Islam in terms of the western concepts which he knows. Thus, in the politics workshop, the discussion revolved around the ‘compatibility’ of Islam and democracy, and the need to implement ‘neutral democratic values’ (such as social justice, freedom of speech and human rights (( as though Islam is lacking in these areas) in Muslim societies. Instead of non-Muslim concepts being studies, understood and judged according to Islamic values and standards, we find the westernised Muslim intellectuals trying to understand, and daring to judge, Islam through western eyes and according to western standards. This is inevitable because that is all they know, but it cannot possibly be correct.

The question, Dr Kalim once said, was whether it is easier to improve the intellectual training of future generations of ulama trained and brought up in Islamic traditions; or to improve the Islamic understanding of westernised Muslims. In the Draft Prospectus of the Muslim Institute (1974), he proposed a partnership in which westernised Muslims would play a leading role; later he sometimes saw them as part of the problem rather than the solution, not least because of many Muslims’ willingness to compromise their Islam in order to maintain their academic positions. The instinctive ‘political correctness’ of such academics is seen in their automatic, unthinking insistence on ‘democracy’, and their equally automatic rejection of all political jihad as ‘terrorism’.

Nonetheless, there were also many Muslim social scientists at the AMSS (UK) conference(particularly students(who were genuinely concerned with these issues, and whose commitment to Islam is unquestionable. The intellectual work that the Muslim Institute set out to do remains to be done, and must be done within the framework of the Islamic movement. The objectives of the Islamic movement cannot be fulfilled without it. This work requires, however, two key things: a recognition of the hostility of the west and the inevitably political nature of the Islamic movement; and the involvement of Muslims -- ulama and western-trained Muslim social scientists alike -- who are commited enough to reject the easy pickings of western academia, brave enough to question the west’s received truths, and humble enough to recognise their own limitations in each other’s areas.

Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 18

Sha'ban 08, 14201999-11-16

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