Why and How to Islamize Knowledge

By Spahic Omer

(Summary: This study is about Islamization of knowledge (IOK). It focuses on the inevitability and legitimacy of IOK, as well as on the ways IOK should be implemented. For facilitating the task, knowledge has been divided into four main dimensions: knowledge itself as the end-product; application of knowledge for the practical aims of human life; processes and attitudes by which knowledge is generated (ethics); and the world of ideas and thought (worldviews and philosophies) whence knowledge originates and upon which it is based. Each science, or branch of knowledge, ought to be treated differently, according to its own specifications. Naturally, some sciences will concentrate more on some, and other sciences on other, dimensions. As part of IOK, furthermore, four comprehensive academic courses have been proposed to be taught in institutions of higher learning: Islamic worldview (or philosophy), Islamic ethics, Islamic civilisation, and Western civilisation. They are recommended not to be isolated courses with general contents, but to be integral segments of every academic program’s curriculum, designed and delivered in response to the different needs of different sciences.)

Islamization of knowledge (IOK) is a complex concept. It is more than what its literal meaning at first glance may suggest, insofar as the pure religious, social and political dimensions of the term “Islamization” are concerned. As a complete school of thought and a philosophy, IOK signifies “the adjustment of certain forms of knowledge to the contents of Islamic science, or the struggle to fortify the position of Islamic science within the context of contemporary knowledge, including its various perspectives and points of view” (Dzilo).

IOK divides opinion like no other. That is so especially on account of the sensitivity of the word “Islamization”, which targets a set of realms that epitomise the quintessence and, at the same time, the bastions of agnosticism and secularism, both as philosophies and ways of life. Calling for Islamizing secular sciences on which secular Muslim societies were built for about a century and a half, by colonisers and their internal Muslim partners, was set from the beginning on a collision course with governments and their institutional hierarchies. IOK was seen as a challenge – in some instances even a threat – to establishments.

Ignorance about the true meaning and agenda of IOK, which bred further reservation and misunderstanding, was also a factor. As was the fact that the proponents of IOK seldom assumed unified stance on some of its most critical aspects that went beyond IOK as a necessity, moral value, and an outward as well as mechanical procedure. By way of example, it is almost impossible to find two IOK scholars who agree on the mere definition of IOK, including its scope and modi operandi. And that, naturally, puts the advocates of IOK in a position of weakness, and its critics in a position of strength.

The context

During the past two centuries, Muslims went through a number of civilisational ups and downs. Undoubtedly, Muslims themselves were to be blamed the most for the predicament. However, some external elements played a role too, such as the rise of Western materialistic civilisation at whose heart lay aggressive expansionist and proselytising tendencies. The impact of some immaterial laws pertaining to the rise and fall of civilisations ought not to be ruled out either.

At any rate, having dominated the world’s cultural and civilisational scenes for more than twelve centuries, Muslims suddenly found themselves at a crossroads. So much so that their very cultural identities and civilisational existence were at stake. Commencing particularly with the early 19th century, the situation relentlessly went from bad to worse, reaching the nadir about a century later, in the first quarter of the 20th century, when the virtually lifeless Ottoman Sultanate and with it the debilitated and largely symbolic institution of Caliphate were abolished and a great many Muslim lands were divided between the leading European powers.

The ideological outlook of modern Western civilisation was determined by the Renaissance (14th-16th century) and the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) (17th-19th century). Its essence was composed of scientific enquiry, empiricism and freedom, albeit rooted in atheism, agnosticism, nihilism and ethical relativism. Its immediate upshots and, at the same time, arena for its dynamic processes and continuous advancements were the First (18th-19th centuries) and Second (19th-20th centuries) Industrial Revolutions. Modernity and post-modernity spelled the climax and perfect embodiments of everything Western civilisation ever stood for. The circumstance could be understood as “the end of history and the last man”.

While the West eulogised and extoled knowledge at the levels of theory, validity, sources, methods (epistemology) and application – making knowledge (science) the face of Western civilisation – Muslims to an astonishing degree were underachieving in the same department. It is not surprising, therefore, that ever since the two worlds started to interact, Muslims were in the inferior and Westerners in the superior position. From either perspective, it was impossible to imagine both sides dealing with each other on an equal footing.

In the course of those interactions, matters relating to science, knowledge, technology and education were always in the spotlight. That is why the processes of colonisation and control of Muslim territories and their peoples were normally done in the name of civilisation, modernisation, acculturation, industrialisation, enlightenment, and of late, democratisation.

Muslim responses varied, originating from and representing different sectors of the Muslim spiritual, cultural and civilisational consciousness and reality. However, the most critical sector was the one in connection with knowledge and education.

To Muslims, notwithstanding the extent of the sorry situation in which they had found themselves, knowledge was sacred. Seeking it and living according to its provisions is what the purpose of man as God’s vicegerent on earth is all about. It is an obligation. In Islam, knowledge is equivalent to faith, light and virtue. Ignorance is the opposite. It is iniquitous and is bent on ruining a person. 

This applies to all knowledge, as Islam makes no distinction along the ideological lines between religion and non-religion, and between spiritual and material domains. The spirit-matter, or physics-metaphysics, divide does not exist in Islam. They both complement each other for the realisation of a higher order of truth, meaning and experience for which the world has been created. Neither can do so in the absence of the other.

Nonetheless, since Muslims fared badly above all in the knowledge-related fields, they were easily caught off guard by the rapid rise of the West and their colonisation and westernisation programs. In reality, they were defeated and colonised because they were ready to be defeated and colonised, and were inclined to accept the unfortunate fate. Their biggest problem was the colonisation of the mind, and the biggest crisis was one of thought and creativity.

Three options

As a result, Muslims faced their most difficult dilemma yet. The challenge was unprecedented. Facing the power of an invading knowledge-based civilisation, Muslims were not in a position to face – and overcome – it on a level playing field. Some compromises had to be made, understandably the least painful ones.

From the perspective of Islamic orthodoxy and the mainstream Islam, three options presented themselves. First, Muslims could reject everything that was served by and in the name of the West and its civilisation, and live aloof from what was going on; second, they could import and embrace everything and live like Westerners; and third, as a middle path, they could reject irreconcilable components and incorporate compatible ones and live like true Muslims who sought a respectable place and prolific role in the existing state of affairs.

First

The first option was unfeasible for the following reasons. Muslims had to be pragmatic and accept that the presence of conquering Westerners in their midst, as calamitous as it was proving by the day, was real and they were there to stay for quite some time. It likewise has to be admitted that Westerners were reasonably advanced concerning many life aspects, specifically in the fields of science, technology and warfare, so it was unworkable for Muslims to reject them altogether and go back to square one concerning those aspects. Going about reinventing the wheel was not a good idea. Nor should it be forgotten that many things were continuously imposed, yet enforced, by hook or by crook. Muslims had to be smart, at times even manipulative, in order to mitigate the adversity. They were not an equal partner in negotiations, nor were they in a position to demand that things be on their own terms.

It must be emphasised that the underlying traits of the Islamic message were always practicality, relevancy, rationality and prudence. At no time was Islam in favour of individual or collective escapism, isolationism, anchorism and asceticism. They breed spiritual stupor and intellectual sterility. Consequently – as a small detour – Islam under no circumstances sanctioned theosophical, or pseudo, Sufism, religious formalism, theological fatalism and defeatism. Those are abhorrent innovations fully capitalised on by colonisers and Muslim hard-core secularists and modernists as part of their physical and mind colonisation drives. That likewise explains why to the same people such fundamental notions of Islam as jihad, shari’ah, shura, authentic Islamic education, Islamic polity, Islamic social system, Islam ethics and morality, etc., never occurred as attractive propositions. Colonisers and their Muslim backers did not endorse those notions because doing so could defeat the purpose of their very existence and function. The notions were antitheses of everything they represented and worked for.

The Prophet (pbuh) said that a believer who mixes with people and endures their provocations and annoyances is better than a believer who does not mix with people and does not endure their provocations and annoyances (Ibn Majah). Leading by example, it is well-known that prior to his prophet-hood mission the Prophet (pbuh) patronised the cave of Hira’ on top of al-Nur mountain. However, after the commencement of his mission, the goal of which, first and foremost, was building people and communities, the Prophet (pbuh) never returned to the cave again. The theatre of his operations was people’s dynamic real life with all its variations and challenges. The Prophet (pbuh) also said that the “monasticism” of Muslims is jihad (striving and struggling by all lawful means to make the Word and Authority of God supreme on earth). Monasticism in the sense of renouncing worldly pursuits for the sake of devoting oneself to mere spiritual work, is un-Islamic. It is a repulsive innovation.

Second

The second option was similarly unrealistic, but certainly more disastrous. Wholeheartedly embracing everything Western would have meant a renouncing of Islamic worldview, ethics and values, and a disavowing of the Islamic identity that had been moulded for centuries under the auspices of the former. That would have connoted furthermore a distortion of the purpose and message of Islam. If Muslims were ever to forsake their values, morals, standards and ways of life in favour of some foreign alternatives, that would put at risk everything they have, including their affiliation with Islam as a total system and program of life. Yet their very being Muslim would be questioned. 

Indeed, civilisation is consumed as a compendium. No material feature thereof can be served without the ideas and standards that underlie and permeate it. The latter is the cause of the former. What is more, the former is a physical expression and attestation of the latter.

The concern was additionally compounded by the case of Western civilisation which in its totality is built upon the premises of the rejection of God and Heaven, deification of man and his abilities, and the worship of matter as the only bona fide thing that exists. In its genetic makeup, modern Western civilisation is anti-spiritual. It feels contempt for all religions, but especially for Islam in that it stands out as the only philosophy and system that possess the potential to challenge Western civilisation’s ideological edifice and its monopoly and operating order. Hence, following completely Islam and taking on board completely Western civilisation is an impossible standpoint. The two as such are mismatched and so, irreconcilable. Something must give way, which within the framework of assertive westernisation, unfortunately, is Islam. 

No surprise that for the passionate exponents of westernisation (modernisation) in the Muslim world – before and now – Islam is anachronistic, old-fashioned and obsolete. It is anti-modern and anti-progressive. It is a serious liability. Its place is in the provinces of tradition, museums and archives. In practice, individually, it should not surpass the level of one’s heart and mind (personal experiences) and, collectively, the level of a few purely religious and ritualistic institutions strictly designated for the purpose (mosques, traditional madrasahs, Sufi lodges and tomb complexes).

If the first option as regards dealing with Western civilisation was aimed at desperately preserving people’s spiritual and moral wellbeing at the expense of material improvements, the second option aimed at procuring, if not completely then at least partially, both benefits. However – and history is the witness – the second option was a more painful disaster than the first. It destroyed many people’s not only spiritual, but also material happiness. It frittered away both of their dunya (this world) and akhirah (the Hereafter). Its tremors are still felt in many parts of the Muslim world.  

Third

The third option was the most viable and beneficial one, even though it was not perfect. It called for cool heads, visionary leaderships, systematic and long-term planning, and utter realism. It called for the least painful choice. Accordingly, Western colonisation and civilisation were to be perceived and dealt with as a necessary evil. In many a situation steps had to be undertaken out of socio-political, security and even religious expediencies rather than rigid principles, so long as the fundamental Islamic tenets and standards were not invalidated one way or another. 

Besides, Western civilisation was not seen as all doom and gloom. Many of its intrinsic aspects and qualities were unblemished. As such, there was nothing wrong in adopting them. Others, on the other hand, were rendered only mildly problematic, in which case they too could be used, but only after they have been duly modified and “cleansed” (Islamized). The more problematic those aspects were, the more complex and more intensive modifying and cleansing processes were needed. As for those features of Western civilisation as were un-Islamic beyond repair, they had to be rejected downright. However, adequate Islamic substitutes needed to be continuously worked on. The more indispensable those features were, the more urgent the procedures of seeking alternatives became. 

It was in nobody’s interest to keep repudiating the compellingly actual developments without providing Islamic alternatives. Doing so created unnecessary voids and deepened Muslims’ confusion and inferiority complex. It must have been very taxing to turn the back on the necessary, because it was improper, despite having no recourse to contingency plans. The situation played right into the hands of colonisers as Islam and Muslims thus appeared as though inept, out of touch and out of time.

This was the most workable and most acceptable course of action under the circumstances. It was realistic in the sense that it dealt with the problem exactly as it was, and it was idealistic and principled in the sense that it duly honoured at once the sentiments and requirements of Muslims. It was a win-win situation. It was also an affirmative action plan that motivated Muslims to take matters into their own hands and to be the only creators of their cultural and civilisational destinies. The initiative was one of a very few lights in the darkness that was crippling the Muslim mind – and soul – and the overall existential reality of Muslims.

All scholars, political leaders and social reformers that belonged to this school of thought spoke the same language. Their intentions and objectives were identical. But their methods, ways and strategies differed, sometimes widely, subject to the wide differences in contexts and conditions wherein they lived and operated. Therefore, one could often hear such different-yet-identical concepts and slogans as the revivification of Islamic thought, the reconstruction of Islamic thought, modernisation of the Islamic world, reconciliation between Islamic and Western civilisations, dialogue and mutual understanding between Islamic and Western civilisations, Muslim renaissance, Islamization (as a general concept and movement), Islamization of science, Islamization of knowledge, etc. 

For obvious reason, knowledge – often coupled with other vital elements – stood at the centre of each and every initiative and program. Knowledge is the soul of a civilisational drive, and its either deformation or absence the cause of a civilisational decline and eventual death. People of knowledge are leaders in their communities – yet the heirs of prophets, as per a disclosure of the Prophet (pbuh) – while societies that champion knowledge are leading lights of the whole world. Thus, with slight variations, Islamization of knowledge (science and thought), as a comprehensive system of thought and a total agenda for action, resonated most strongly of all those concepts and slogans. Its compass was so inclusive and flexible that under its wing all other concepts could be easily incorporated.

The inevitability of IOK 

To many scholars, IOK was always there. In various forms and with various degrees it manifested itself throughout Islamic history. It was the natural outcome of the constant and reciprocal relationships between Muslims and the rest of the world. As the final, all-encompassing and global revelation through the final prophet – Muhammad (pbuh) as the seal of prophets – Islam always stood open to constructive interactions and dialogue with all cultures and civilisations of the world. 

In the same vein, Islam enjoyed a reformatory, remedial and missionary outlook. It looked as much ahead, charting future courses, as behind, sorting out and setting many historical chapters right. It targeted as much individuals with their spiritual and moral configurations, as communities with their civilisational outputs as the consequence of the former. Islam thus both invented and adopted, originated and maintained, corrected and refined, and purified as well as perfected things. Hence, all these thrusts signified nothing but forms of Islamization, focusing on combinations of faith, moral values and knowledge. In today’s context, IOK is merely the latest phase in the progression of an age-old phenomenon. The phase is wrapped in the wraps of modern times and their unique challenges. It speaks the language of modernity.

IOK should be viewed through the prism of its theoretical righteousness and worthiness. It is certainly an undertaking that aims high and intends good. It is worth every respect and support. In passing, it is a Muslim duty to support and, if possible, land a helping hand to any constructive idea and program whoever and wherever they may come from. Sometimes, though, if no help or backing is forthcoming, keeping quiet and not undermining an idea or a program – largely due to ignorance, misguidance, resentment and jealousy – is the best from of support. 

Besides, knowing how scarce Muslim genuine civilisation-(re)building ideas and initiatives are, it becomes all the more incumbent upon all Muslims to support by any means necessary whatever they have, including the IOK project. Only Almighty God and His revelation are perfect, and only prophets of all humankind were infallible. Thus, people should not look at IOK through the lens of its people’s inherent shortcomings and recurring faults, and their personal leanings and penchants in relation to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Personal matters and affiliations, emotional preferences, and mundane politics are to be kept at bay. 

Surely, IOK is larger than individuals, institutions, political parties, and ethnic together with national entities. These are the benchmarks to be observed not just by the people of IOK, but by such as study and criticise it as well. Everyone needs to transcend the level of those artificialities – as Islam teaches us by means of each and every of its precepts. People need to reside at higher planes of reality and truth. 

It is true that IOK is not flawless, but it is not all bad either. Why the sincere efforts and contributions of the protagonists of IOK cannot be duly acknowledged, and their weaknesses, plus failings, overlooked, if not honestly corrected. Why their positive involvements and ideas cannot be brought today to another level of comprehension and application, or at least integrated into something contemporarily bigger, better and more visionary. IOK was never meant to be an end product. Rather, it was aimed to be a stimulus, direction, precursor, and even raw materials for an ultimate renewal of Islamic authentic thought and for the impending (re)building of Islamic culture and civilisation. Yet again, productive and creative thinking is by no means a forte of today’s Muslims. Which makes optimising whatever they have and could harness doubly necessary. Definitely, applying Islam’s harsh condemnation of wastefulness and profligacy should extend into the realm of ideas too. Wasting ideas and knowledge has to be declared un-Islamic and sinful. 

The legitimacy of IOK

The legitimacy of IOK is further corroborated by the fact that Western civilisation was created chiefly by the properties of empiricism, rationalism and humanism. When they are used aright, reason, senses whence experiences are derived, plus intrinsic human nature and intuition, can generate tremendous – albeit not all – goodness. They are all divine gifts to man in his capacity as God’s viceroy on earth.

Needless to say that above those faculties and capabilities there is revelation as the highest and most commanding source of knowledge and civilization-building. It is only with revelation on-board that man can be true to himself and can become a complete and truly competent representative of Heaven on earth. It is only with revelation, furthermore, that man can attain true success and be genuinely happy. Without revelation, man can be knowledgeable, wise, powerful, cultured, advanced and good only in relative, worldly and metaphorical terms. Nonetheless, as qualified as they are, those are still positive and constructive characteristics, profiting man as far as they go.

IOK recognises the roles and contributions of heavenly gifts in Western civilisation, which the Western man managed to utilise as much as he could. Those roles and contributions are then to be supplemented by the roles and contributions of the revealed knowledge and the revealed guidance, after all the necessary adjustment and purification (Islamization) works of the former have taken place. Thus fused into a unified whole, both human and revealed knowledge can start affecting people’s thinking and performance patterns, functioning as a blueprint for a new modern civilisational model.

The core of this approach is easily detected in the contents of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah. 

In the Qur’an

The Qur’an says: “He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding” (al-Baqarah, 269).

Wisdom (hikmah) in this verse is normally understood as profound knowledge, good judgmental power, and overall comprehension in relation to the truth entailed in the Qur’an. However, since the apparent message of the verse is general, wisdom could also be understood in general terms as proper understanding (fahm), sound intelligence (‘aql) and correctness (isabah) in thought and action. 

Wisdom is the asset and entitlement of humanity to which all human souls are inclined. Different people contribute to and benefit from it differently, with God’s revelation – clearly – being the only source and conduit of ultimate and perfect wisdom. Thus, if there is a hierarchy of people’s abilities and outlooks, and of their ways of dealing with dissimilar sources of wisdom (understanding, intelligence and judgmental correctness), there is also a hierarchy of wisdom itself, that is, its grades, scopes and intensities.

If in the above verse “wisdom (hikmah)” signifies all wisdom, and “good (khayr)” all good, then the expressions “whom He wills” and “whoever has been given” should be comprehended as encompassing all people as God’s creation and His voluntary and involuntary servants, the best and most distinct of whom are those who possess “genuinely understanding minds and souls (ulu-l-albab)”.

Moreover, the Qur’an says: “They (non-believers) know what is apparent of the worldly life, but they, of the Hereafter, are unaware” (al-Rum, 7).

In this verse, the Qur’an is explicit that non-believers can possess knowledge (true information and understanding) about the outward aspects of this life. However, on account of who they are, they will fall short of grasping life’s inner reality which is a prelude to grasping the ultimate reality of the Hereafter. That limited knowledge of matter (physical world) is innocuous and if need be, can be resorted to.

The Qur’an also stresses that in the absence of the divine knowledge and guidance (the truest wisdom) mankind can have only little knowledge: “And they ask you, (O Muhammad), about the soul. Say: ‘The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And you (mankind) have not been given of knowledge except a little’” (al-Isra’, 85). As little as it is, that quantity is still called knowledge.

In the Prophet’s Sunnah

The Prophet (pbuh) said that wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he is most deserving of it (and let him claim it) (al-Tirmidhi).

He also said that people are like gold and silver; those who were the best of people in Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic time of ignorance) were still the best ones in Islam (after embracing Islam), provided that they attained religious understanding (idha faqihu) (al-Bukhari).

This means that people are born good and pure. They are born in the purity and wholesomeness of Islam as God’s only religion. People intrinsically crave for goodness and feel contempt for evil. However, when they choose to embrace falsehood in lieu of truth, they only rebel against nature and their selves. They contaminate their souls, placing impediments between their artificial being and the actual being of truth. 

Nonetheless, this in no way implies that such people live their lives entirely detached from virtue and goodness, however relatively and incompletely. Thus, if they were to give up their wrong ways and adopt Islam instead, they only need to decontaminate and purify, i.e. Islamize, themselves and the problematic aspects of their lifestyles. They need to return to their innate and natural ways, and just be themselves. They do not have to convert, but revert to Islam.

The Prophet’s continuous interactions with non-Muslims denote an additional evidence. For example, he advised his companion Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas, who was seriously ill, to go and see a man called al-Harith bin Kaladah, a non-Muslim. He was “a man who gave medical treatment.” 

The Prophet (pbuh) furthermore hired a man called Abdullah bin Urayqit, also a non-Muslim, to benefit from his expertise as a guide in perhaps the most important matter and at the most critical juncture of his life: hijrah or migration from Makkah to Madinah. That was a time when the polytheist Quraysh wanted the Prophet (pbuh) at all costs dead or alive, setting a bounty of 100 camels on his head.

The Prophet (pbuh) also said about ‘Umayyah bin Abi al-Salt, a polytheist poet: “His poetry believed but his heart didn’t”, and “He almost believed in (through) his poetry.”

As an additional verification, the Prophet’s and Muslims’ cooperative economic, social, political and neighbourly relationships with the Jews of Madinah are well-documented. At the outset, Madinah was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city-state in which Jews occupied a noteworthy position. While composing the Constitution of Madinah, the Prophet (pbuh) referred to all the integral groups as “one community (ummah)”. They formed “one and the same community as against the rest of men.” The Constitution established all groups in their religions and possessions, assigning to each of them their rights and duties. 

The following Qur’anic verse to some extent sums up this Islamic standpoint: “God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you about the religion or expelled you from your homes. God does not love the unjust people” (al-Mumtahanah, 8).

The totality of knowledge 

Knowledge is not to be viewed as a mere product, or an outcome, made available for use in order to satisfy the private or institutional aspirations and superficial needs of clients (end-users). Nor is it to be professionalised, nor commercialised, in the narrow senses of the two subjects. Rather, knowledge is to be seen in a more comprehensive light. It is an all-inclusive universe that involves the totality of life and targets the multidimensionality of man in his capacity as the former’s pivot. It is furthermore a never-ending process that inspires, transforms and enriches. It lies at the core of man’s terrestrial mission. It is yet his mission, for man is created to know and act accordingly.

It is therefore no coincidence that knowledge is hardly ever mentioned in isolation. As a familiarity, awareness and understanding of life experiences and realities, knowledge is always accompanied by such concepts as seeking, acquiring, gaining, applying and affecting. Simply put, knowledge is life and life is all about knowledge. Both are hallowed. Just as the phenomenon of life cannot be relativized, fragmented and unhallowed, neither can knowledge be disintegrated, undervalued and deconsecrated. Knowledge is inseparable from man, existence and truth. 

That is why in philosophy knowledge as an idea, experience and quintessence of life, attracted a great deal of attention. The study of knowledge is called epistemology. It constitutes one of the four main branches of philosophy, the remaining three being ethics, metaphysics and logic. Epistemology is concerned primarily about the nature of knowledge, its sources, methods, validity and scope, and the nature of relationships between justified beliefs, mere opinions and scepticism. Here, too, the questions of the universality, totality, practicality and trustworthiness of knowledge are readily apparent. By the same token, in virtually all religions knowledge is held in high regard as well. 

To look upon knowledge as no more than information, facts and skills about observable things and events, is grossly inappropriate. It amounts to an insult to that most noble entity and pursuit. Positively, from the most prominent Greek philosophers to the revealed message of Islam, people are bad and behave unethically only because they are ignorant, or because they misuse or abuse knowledge. For the same reason – letting thereby inflated egos and selfish interests to preside over attitudes, judgments and decisions – people choose falsehood over truth, and darkness over light. While knowledge, or the lack of it, is the root cause, worldviews and life involvements are the effects.

Four dimensions of knowledge 

By and large, knowledge has four dimensions: knowledge itself as the end-product; application of knowledge for the practical aims of human life; processes and attitudes by which knowledge is generated; and the world of ideas and thought (worldviews and philosophies) whence knowledge originates and upon which it is based.

When it comes to IOK, the implications of these four dimensions are serious and need to be duly observed. As systematised branches of knowledge, sciences pertain differently and to different degrees to the four dimensions. There is no room for generalisation, though, nor for one-size-fits-all approaches and methods. 

Each Western science should be studied meticulously so as to ascertain its position vis-à-vis the four dimensions, and to determine the points where it meets Islamic worldview and principles and where it diverges from them. Then, predicated on the findings, appropriate methods and systems of Islamization for each science can be devised. 

It goes without saying that each science will have its own IOK logic, scope, method(s) and procedure, in that every science has its own individuality, compass, methods and objectives. For example, engineering must not be treated like humanities, nor built environment sciences like social sciences, nor natural sciences like formal sciences, etc. 

Not respecting this rule inevitably renders IOK, especially in the eyes of students and scholars in pertinent fields, thorny, irrelevant, hyped, tedious and unwanted. For instance, to focus so much in formal, applied and exact sciences on knowledge itself as the end-product (the first dimension) will prove arid and counterproductive, as knowledge in those fields, generally, is exact, authentic and experiential. The focus should rather be on the remaining three dimensions (application, ethics and philosophy) which envelop and bring into operation – and into life – the knowledge in question. 

Similarly, not to concentrate most of all on the first dimension in human and social sciences will also be ineffective and unrewarding. This is so because the scope of human sciences: the philosophical, biological, cultural and social aspects of human life, and the scope of social sciences: society, civilisation, human behaviour and human relationships, correspond to the focal thrusts of Islam as a religion of human development and society as well as civilisation-building. 

It is in the arenas of human and social sciences, unsurprisingly, that Islamic knowledge and its Western counterpart are incompatible most. And since that type of knowledge is the foundation and soul of all other knowledge types, it is right there that IOK should be most active. Indeed, man and society are the spheres where the Islamic transcendent and monotheistic identity, and where the Western materialistic, hedonistic and profane tendencies, assume most importance. Despite the undeniable import of the other three dimensions – which must not be neglected in any way – the first dimension (knowledge per se) should predominate in the orb of human and social sciences. Success therewith will lead to and will facilitate successes in other branches of knowledge and their sciences.  

The first dimension (knowledge itself)

As the first dimension, knowledge itself as the end-product, whenever in conflict with the teachings of Islam, should be appropriately Islamized and substituted with the adequate Islamic knowledge also as the end-product. This is extremely challenging as Muslims (wide circles of scholars) are thus required to master not only Islamic sciences, but also their Western counterparts. However, that is the price to be paid for the challenge of reviving Islamic civilisation and for leading the way. Stakes could not be higher. It is a “no pain, no gain” situation, which means that only hard, disciplined and tenacious work leads to improvement and progress, and guarantees greater value rewards. 

In doing so, there shall be no room whatsoever for mediocrity, half-heartedness and complacency. Nor should emotional outpouring, sweet-talk and empty rhetoric be welcome, because things are purely results-oriented. It is only concrete outcomes and achievements that are taken into consideration – and listened to. 

IOK is not about superficially criticising the problematic facets of Western thought, after which the created cavities are patched by simply quoting Qur’anic verses and the hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh), and then life gets back to business as usual. Not only is this method faulty and unfulfilling, but it also can seriously backfire. In this manner, IOK will increasingly tilt towards becoming an unattractive proposition, appearing as though an unworthy undertaking. Even the most passionate advocates of IOK by this inappropriate method, sooner or later, will arrive at the same conclusion. This explains why some individuals and institutions, which had adopted IOK as their raison d’etre, ever more falter today. 

This in addition calls for having faculties, colleges, institutes, centres, etc., in Muslim universities for studying exclusively Western civilisation and thought. No doubt that many Muslims devote themselves to doing so today, but such is done principally on Western terms and so, leaves a lot to be desired. The Muslim world needs Muslim experts on Western civilisation and thought produced by Muslims and for Muslims. This will prove as important as mastering Islamic civilisation and thought. Without knowing the ways Westerners think and how they do things and why, Muslims will not be able to diagnose their major problems adequately. Getting to the bottom of the root causes will keep evading them. And without overcoming causes, effects will not be overcome either.

People have misgivings about, fear and yield only to the unknown. Knowledge puts its proprietor in an advantageous and strong position. Lack of knowledge ensures the opposite. Knowledge is superiority and control, ignorance inferiority and capitulation. As a Latin aphorism goes “knowledge is power” (scientia potentia est). Ali bin Abi Talib also said: “Knowledge is power and it commands obedience.” 

Unsurprisingly, no sooner had the Western world started seeing Islam and Muslims as ideological rivals and even existential threats, than they embarked on extensively studying them. That gave birth to Orientalism as a Western scholarly discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose groundwork nevertheless dates significantly further back. Still today, most of reputable Western universities feature academic programs whose focus, partly or completely, is on Islam, Muslims and the Muslim world. Studies are on Western rather than Islamic terms.

Apart from specialised institutions and academic programs dedicated solely to critically studying the West and its civilisation and thought, there should additionally be two core courses in each and every Muslim academic program: one for Islamic civilisation and the other for Western civilisation. Since the purpose of having these two academic courses is more than just teaching and educating students, in the conventional meaning of the terms, some of the best and most capable instructors should be appointed for the purpose.

As said earlier, the knowledge of humanities and social sciences will be affected most by IOK. Which is understandable because all knowledge must be seriously problematic if it originates from, and rests on, the premises that there is no God and Heaven and that religions are mere fabrications and are regressive; that life evolved on earth and that man, too, evolved from apes; that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications and that man is also composed only of matter; that life is an accident or a result of a series of coincidences and that man and his life are also accidents; that life has no metaphysical meaning or purpose and that truth is neither known nor knowable; that man is fully in charge of earth and its resources, and of his own destiny, and that the only aim of life is pleasure-seeking, etc. 

If truth be told, there is no single knowledge aspect especially in psychology, sociology, anthropology, civilisation, law, philosophy, visual arts, economics and education that does not have an IOK question mark over it. Most contemporary problems faced my man as an individual and a member of society are due to the failure of humanities and social sciences. Some of such problems are racism, discrimination, erosion of the family unit, immorality, injustice, poverty, ignorance, spiritual and mental disorders, substance abuse, LGBT, etc.   

The second dimension (application of knowledge)

As the second dimension, application of knowledge for the practical aims of human life should be studied against the background of the Islamic notion of maqasid al-shari’ah (objectives of Islamic shari’ah), as preservation of life in its totality, religion, intellect, lineage (future generations) and property (private, collective and that of the whole earth). That will be the focus of IOK especially in the domains of applied, formal and natural sciences. 

Those sciences, powered by their empirical and scientific methods, appear to be pure and innocent as far as their natural, formal and practical scientific outputs are concerned. However, when it comes to the transfer of those outputs into physical environments and to their application in everyday life, things get more complicated. If mismanaged or taken advantage of, that form of scientific knowledge can become a source of great misfortune.

For example, the abundant presence of nuclear weapons and the weapons of mass destruction – as a result of which the world is no longer a safe and healthy place and it regularly appears as though on the brink of an all-out global catastrophe – is the consequence of about a century-old abuse of knowledge in some of the most critical scientific fields.

Indeed, the most painful ailments of today’s world – which is dominated and driven by Western civilisation – such as global warming, water, air and soil pollution, and wildlife extinction, are the outcomes of irresponsible industrial, engineering, manufacturing, urbanisation and built environment activities. These are mainly technology-oriented activities, which however represent the application of scientific knowledge “to the change and manipulation of the human environment.” 

If one thinks of World War I, World War II, the (World) Cold War, military globalisation, the hypocrisy of the War on Terror and the democratisation of the Middle East, endless physical, cultural, political and economic colonisation of the Other, one cannot but conclude that a great many sciences and technologies are rendered as harmful as they are useful. In equal measure, they are used for detrimental and beneficial ends. After all, the expression “mad scientist, doctor or professor”, used often in jest, is not entirely baseless. 

As part of IOK concerning the application of the knowledge of sciences in question, the following cardinal Islamic principles should be diligently taught and seamlessly integrated into curricula: man as God’s representative on earth, the relationship between man, God and nature, life as trust (amanah), Islamic environmental ethics, maqasid al-shari’ah, Islamic spirituality and sustainable development, excellence, justice and equality. These are to be handled not as add-ons to or the embellishments of curricula, but as essential units thereof. Their practical implications for the sciences concerned and for their better operational ends and objectives are to be accentuated most.

The third dimension (ethics)

The third dimension of knowledge pertains to processes and attitudes by which knowledge is generated – and used. This is about ethics and moral principles which ought to be observed. They relate to the people (scientists, scholars and students) involved in those processes and the ways the processes are carried out. They also cover the aspect of knowledge (sciences) application. 

Much has been said about the lack of personal and professional ethical commitment in this regard. People subscribe to the principle of “the ends justify the means”. In the age of materialism, liberal capitalism, consumerism, agnosticism and self-indulgence, it matters little if methods are wrong or unfair as long as the overall self-centred goals are good and justifiable. It is thus fair to assume that man is a wolf to man (homo homini lupus). 

Hence, corruption, fraud, greed, selfishness, abuse, personal immorality, dishonesty, double standards, etc., are rampant both at individual and institutional levels. However, it needs to be admitted that of late people speak more and more about ethics, but that is more due to emerging exigencies and as part of social constructionism, according to which meaning, knowledge and values are socially created. The emerging moral trends and codes were the result of ethical relativism. 

As a case in point, in the fields of sustainable development and environmental protection (environmental ethics), individuals, organisations and governments worry exclusively about their own interests and future, rather than the intrinsic interests and future of nature and its components. In fact, the latter is voraciously subjected to the former. People are not ethical owing to some universal principles and moral ideals they subscribe themselves to. They do not do good for good’s own sake, but because they have or need to as a consequence of certain regulatory duties and corporate obligations. 

For instance, in the United States the idea of business ethics as a scholarly subject was not adopted until the early 1970s. In Europe that was not the case until about a decade later. That was done as a reaction to the growing number of business scandals that at that time were shaking the corporate world. People wanted to distance themselves from what was happening, shoring up thereby their current position and future prospects.

In this dimension of knowledge, IOK should target with the divine and universal character of Islamic ethics the various forms of professional ethics and institutional codes of behaviour, which may be official and written or otherwise. Together with the positives found therein, IOK should aim at producing excellent professionals who will be able to see their careers as trusts, life missions, and the means for making the lives of people better and more meaningful. This however will be just a part of a bigger picture which concerns the philosophy and objective of Islamic education as a whole. 

In passing, Islamic educational models seek to produce holistic and righteous men and women – apart from being responsible professionals – who will be life’s and their societies’ genuine assets able to act constructively in all life milieus. Such men and women will be at once the servants and soldiers of truth. The effects of the ethical standards that govern the moral and spiritual wellbeing of their personal and family lives will be extended into the provinces of their dynamic social and professional engagements as well.

This IOK component is vital. Branches of knowledge can be wholesome and constructive only if their members are wholesome and constructive. The former is the effect, the latter the cause. Scientific communities shape their sciences in their own image. For example, there can be excellent sciences relating to the fields of the built environment, engineering, law, economics, medicine, humanities, human societies and social behaviour, etc., only when there are excellent and trustworthy personnel involved in them. 

Bad and corrupt engineers, architects, doctors, economists, etc. – and others who are involved in different capacities – beget bad engineering, bad architecture, bad medicine and bad economics. In effect, there is no bad and corrupt engineering, there are only bad and corrupt engineers; there is no bad and corrupt architecture, there are only bad and corrupt architects; there is no bad and corrupt politics, there are only bad and corrupt politicians, and so on.

This lays claim for having in academic programs, as part of IOK, a comprehensive course on Islamic ethics. Each program should feature its own course designed and delivered in accordance with its specifications. The course is to abound with case studies and real-life examples. In addition, the complete programs and their syllabi need to be infused with the soul and ethics of Islam as well, for Islamic ethics is to be practiced and lived, not just preached and theorized about. Within the framework of IOK, furthermore, producing comprehensive Islamic codes of ethics, or conduct, for various professions and careers, should be worked on.

The fourth dimension (worldviews and philosophies)

Unlike animals which act based on instinct, man acts based on thinking. Man is what and how he thinks. His actions are manifestations not only of his thought, but also of his inner self. Hence, thought and ideas are most powerful catalysts for civilisation and progress. Only with them, moreover, they can be optimised and sustained. No civilisational model can run on empty. The sterility of thought and the end of creativity spell decline and ultimate fall of civilisations.

For Muslims however, the problem does not stop there. Their troubles as regards the lack of thought and creative ideas are compounded by the fact that they keep importing and devouring foreign, predominantly Western, thought. So much so that the failing Western models – which are increasingly questioned by Westerners themselves, let alone others – still get the biggest support from the debilitated Muslim mind. As a result, the Muslim world became the largest and most profitable dumping ground for the Western intellectual and cultural waste. Throughout modern times, Muslim negligible civilisational performance was – and still is – placed on a Western life support. 

That being said, IOK urges that the worldviews and philosophies that underpin and give life to sciences, be thoroughly addressed. The success of Islamizing the first three dimensions of knowledge, to a great extent, depends on the Islamization of this fourth dimension. Certainly, Islamizing knowledge per se, its application and ethics, will be next to impossible without Islamizing the world of core ideas and philosophies that play the role of prime movers in everything relatable to knowledge. 

In the allegorical sense, no part of a building can be stable and safe as long as its foundation is unstable and unsafe. Also, the stability and health of a tree depend on the strength and health of its root. The same applies to the edifice of knowledge and its branches (sciences). Everything is tied to ideas (philosophy).

In every science, its philosophical dimension is to be Islamized. The Islamic ideas of God (tawhid as God’s Oneness), life and death, this world and the Hereafter, universe, man and society, culture and civilisation, history, prophet-hood, truth and certainty, matter-versus– spirit (body-versus-soul) dialectics, freedom and spiritual servitude – ought to lead the charge. 

In all academic programs an inclusive course on Islamic worldview, or philosophy, accordingly should be introduced, with each program featuring its own course designed and delivered in line with its specifications. Discussions, tests and assignments in the said course are not to be utterly abstract and detached from the demands of real-life. They are to be rendered alive, relevant and applicable. Every subject matter is to be accompanied by analysing its implications for and effects on life and knowledge. That will not be easy, though, hence some of the best and most qualified instructors will have to be appointed for the task.

The entire academic programs furthermore should be permeated with the soul and elements of Islamic worldview (philosophy), as much and as ingeniously as possible. For example, it is rightly said that if persons involved in the science of economics only believed that Almighty God is the Creator, Provider and Sustainer, and that man is no more than God’s trustee who will be held accountable for his deeds, the same science will never be the same again; if persons involved in human and social sciences only believed that man is God’s vicegerent on earth created with an honourable mission and purpose, that all people are equal and constitute one family, and that spiritual and moral refinement connote the final goal of all individual and collective undertakings of man, those sciences will be shaken and changed forever at their cores; if persons involved in natural and applied sciences only accepted as true that God is the Creator and Master, that man is His creation and vicegerent, that the universe is also His creation and has been subjected to man’s responsible use, that everything in the universe worships, glorifies and sings praises to the Creator, that life is replete with God’s signs which man, with the revealed knowledge (revealed signs) on-board, is bidden to discover, read and act upon, those sciences, too, will be altered completely. ***

One Reply to “Why and How to Islamize Knowledge”

  1. This paper highlights the concept of Islamization of knowledge (IOK) and elaborates the role of universities toward achieving that particular goal. Islamization of Knowledge still needs to be understood and delved with a deeper insight. Therefore, it is necessary to elaborate this concept and develop its methodology if it is to serve its purpose in finding out the solution to the malaise facing the ummah. One of the most important malaises confronting the ummah is the existence of educational dualism (secular-religious) in the Muslim societies that has resulted in its economic backwardness, political regression and intellectual retardation. The theory of Islamization of knowledge has been developed having some significant goals, namely to produce skilled future leaders with knowledge in true Islamic sense. In this purpose, Islamizing the disciplines, producing text books and having the institutional support with the vision of Islam is of utmost import. The fact that the role and the contribution of the Universities toward developing this idea and achieving its goals are of special significance, International Islamic University Malaysia can be the model for the others to emulate. Even since its inception, this university has taken on this challenge and today it is one of the main and most important centres of Islamization of Knowledge project in the Islamic world. The current study also focuses on how IIUM contributes to this project and it could be the model for others. It concludes with some suggestions toward contributing to this project as a university in general and as an Islamic university in particular. The methodology applied in the study is critical and analytical.

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