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” (Hasan 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 epitomize 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 colonizers 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.
During the past two centuries, Muslims went through a number of civilizational 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 civilization at whose heart lay aggressive expansionist and proselytizing tendencies. The impact of some immaterial laws pertaining to the rise and fall of civilizations ought not to be ruled out either.
At any rate, having dominated the world’s cultural and civilizational scenes for more than twelve centuries, Muslims suddenly found themselves at a crossroads. So much so that their very cultural identities and civilizational 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 civilization 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 civilization ever stood for. The circumstance could be understood as “the end of history and the last man”.
While the West eulogized and extoled knowledge at the levels of theory, validity, sources, methods (epistemology) and application - making knowledge (science) the face of Western civilization - 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 colonization and control of Muslim territories and their peoples were normally done in the name of civilization, modernization, acculturation, industrialization, enlightenment, and of late, democratization.
Muslim responses varied, originating from and representing different sectors of the Muslim spiritual, cultural and civilizational 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 realization 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 colonization and westernization programs. In reality, they were defeated and colonized because they were ready to be defeated and colonized, and were inclined to accept the unfortunate fate. Their biggest problem was the colonization of the mind, and the biggest crisis was one of thought and creativity.
As a result, Muslims faced their most difficult dilemma yet. The challenge was unprecedented. Facing the power of an invading knowledge-based civilization, 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 civilization, 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.
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 emphasized 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 capitalized on by colonizers and Muslim hard-core secularists and modernists as part of their physical and mind colonization 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. Colonizers 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 (Sunan Ibn Majah). Leading by example, it is well-known that prior to his prophet-hood mission the Prophet (pbuh) patronized 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.
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, civilization 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 civilization 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 civilization 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 civilization’s ideological edifice and its monopoly and operating order. Hence, following completely Islam and taking on board completely Western civilization is an impossible standpoint. The two as such are mismatched and so, irreconcilable. Something must give way, which within the framework of assertive westernization, unfortunately, is Islam.
No surprise that for the passionate exponents of westernization (modernization) 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 civilization 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.
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 colonization and civilization 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 civilization 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 civilization 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 colonizers 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 civilizational 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, modernization of the Islamic world, reconciliation between Islamic and Western civilizations, dialogue and mutual understanding between Islamic and Western civilizations, 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 civilizational drive, and its either deformation or absence the cause of a civilizational 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 civilizations 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 civilizational 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 civilization-(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 criticize 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 civilization. Yet again, productive and creative thinking is by no means a forte of today’s Muslims. Which makes optimizing 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 civilization 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 recognizes the roles and contributions of heavenly gifts in Western civilization, which the Western man managed to utilize 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 civilizational 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) (Sahih 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).