Studying Islam

Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Life & Society Topics: Islam Views: 14058

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

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 practicing Jews, Christians, Hindus or Buddhists can perform their academic duties objectively. Muslim faculty members, however, face serious obstacles. Practicing 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 (

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Tariq Ramadan) Paperback  SKU: 03904-5465 (Books - 272 Pages - Tariq Ramadan - English, E6)

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  Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Life & Society
  Topics: Islam
Views: 14058

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Older Comments:
With Allah may the peace be with you Alfa Ramadan this is a great idea in Islam.

I have read Mr. Ramadan's book and encourage every Muslim and Non Muslim to read it. If Islam is to be accepted worldwide, there must be change. This book offers an outstanding approach on how we must act in the future. It is of vital importance for all Abrahamic religions to accept each other. Read the book to see why!

I would first like to say a really BIG Thank you for your site. :-)

I was really very suprised at how little I knew about islam, I had always listend to what other peoples Interpriation of islam is and was. After studying and reading everything I can read on your site my views are so different and realise that I really needed to open my mind and forget the things I had been told about islam from people that really were just like me Ignorant of what being a Muslim is really all about. I started to read the Quran, but after some reading I realised that there was somethings I did not understand, so decided that i needed to learn about the history of islam before I would be able to fully understand. Thank you so much for all the information I have been able to read and learn from your site I was amazed at how little I knew of the history of islam. This really is for me I know that now but I feel I need to learn so much more and will continue to study every aspect of islam. P.s I now find myself saying to people did you know this about Islam ........ and saying things like contray to popular beleif this is not true about islam ..... Again a big thank you!!!!!!!

To know Islam go to the book, the Quran, if you see the beauty in it; consider yourself fortunate. If you don't see it, your out of luck. The truth will remain the truth. It won't change in time or for people. People will bend it and manipulate it, to their own demise.

Ride on AS. Your comments are well taken and UNDERSTOOD, compared to the mumble jumble of Tarik. Was it not the Tarik that was turn down visa to enter US? What is up Tarik? Trying to find another way to have a go at uncle sam's "paradise"?

Please i've enjoyed a number of your articles but this one is certainly not one of them.

For the avoidance of doubt the islamic domain is not interested in compromises with the "West" for its exstence. As Allah (SWT) says and paraphrased by AS (US) Islam has been perfected long time ago (over 1400 years now). May be the 'muslim' is still at its infancy but make no mistake about it, the honours lies on the child to learn to grow up or stand the chance of being left in the lurch.

AS FROM UK said:
Saif, I am not at all confused. If you read carefully, I pointed out with examples the ambiguity reflected by writer which leaves room for doubt. It would be best if that ambiguity was cleared up by precision & clarity, not just imprecise & muddled thoughts. The ambiguity allows for an interpretation that aids the think-tanks, so a well-meaning wordly-wise academic should be aware enough not to allow any room for doubt. One cannot be naive enough to think that the epistemology of Islamic studies exists in the vacuum of an academic ivory tower. The very "understanding" of Islam by experts does shape the real world, & this has adverse influences vide EDWARD SAID & ORIENTALISM etc.

a point must be made that muslim countries are sufferring from an intellectual dearth, as there are no muslims that lead in the arts, sciences, or thought, unfortunately in general. but this is not due to islam itself, so I must disagree strongly with ulga. you malign the entire muslim civilization, but you fail to account for centuries of muslim academic excellence in the past, when muslims led the world in all intellectual endeavors, the sciences and arts both.
AS, you seem to be confused. ramadan does not call for a reform of islam - he calls for a reform in islamic studies. a reform that will account for islam itself as an academic field, not just a source of knowledge for political means, etc. he also calls for differentiating between solely islamic studies, and the study of political islam, terrorism, etc.
the usage of "islamism" is a bit unsettling, however.
I would like to call on everyone to read the article with a sound mind, supressing with the utmost effort all biases.

to prevent and even to mobilize against the perceived danger of violent Islamism

perhaps this is too generous. oftentimes it is to mobilise against the perceived danger of islam, even if not violent. in fact, pushing the violent image is a result of this aim, not the influencing factor, in many cases.

Regardless of what is going on around the world, west cannot survive without Muslim lands. Muslims are always the most blessed people in the world. The west always looked towards east, especially, Muslims before in Science, now to its resources, both natural and human. The west is thirsty for spiritual needs, Islam only can fill it. As a struggling aethist, if ever I have to fill my spiritual barrel, only Islam I look to... Like Bernard Shaw had said, Islam is the future of Europe.


Arabic language is the fastest growng language in the American Universities already. Go to

Islam is the future of the west.

Despite the massive and greatest propaganda unleashed on Islam in the history of mankind, Islam is accepted by none other than more white caucasian highly educated women. It is far more popular in women than men. This is despite the fact that every T.V. channel is propagating against Islam taking the women issues. This is nothing but miracle.

Nobody wanted to go to churches. 300 billion dollars is already spent to convert Africa to Christianity, which is failed miserably.

Millions of missionary schools are opened all around the globe, but failed to deliver the Lord's love. Nobody is interested anymore.



The frequent use of the term "Islamism" and "Islamist" by the author is deeply disturbing. There is not such thing as "Islamism." I challenge any one here to tell me EXACTLY what Islamism is, as a neatly defined political ideology. The author seems to be propagating the biases of the Western news media (and the U.S. in particular). While there ARE extremists to be found who hide under the umbrella of Islam - folks who would gladly kill anyone who diasgrees with them - it is insulting to all Muslims everywhere to call them "Islamists." The author should know better.

There is simply nothing to study about modern Islam. There is no even one world-class university in the Muslim world, or even one county with human rights secured for all its citizens. Frankly, millions of Muslims are living with one dream only - to migrate to the West to secure a comfortable life for themselves and their children. And when the reach the West, they become very jealous of our civilasion as they have none ,so we hear how great Islam is, how perfect Muslims are, how much science is in the Quran...Islam and Muslims deserve to be ridiculed, nothing else!!!