By Ameer Ali –
One of the criticisms I receive against most of my writings on Islam and Muslims is that my thoughts are influenced by the West, that I read too many books and articles written by Western authors, that I write from a Western country and from a Western perspective, and, in short, that I am a Westophile. This blanket criticism by the guardians of Islamic orthodoxy against writings and voices of many secular Muslim scholars living and working in the West is part of a Westophobia that is growing in response to a new wave of Islamophobia that emerged since the American invasion of Iraq in 2001. I have listened to this criticism even in international conferences sponsored by Muslim countries and Islamic institutions. The time has come to confront not only Islamophobia but also Westophobia.
I have traced the historical development of these two phobias in another context (“From Islamophobia to Westophobia: The Long Road to Radical Islamism”, in Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 3:1, April 2016). If only the Islamophobes from the West care to look at the civilizational side of Islam, which they have arrogantly belittled and ignored, and likewise, if the Westophobes among Muslims could look at the rational side of Western civilization which they reject as godless, both groups will realise that their mutual animosity is built upon fluid foundations. While the Islamophobes are happy to welcome the financial investment, natural resources and markets from the world of Islam, they do not want to concede the historical fact that it was through the Islamic world that Europe at first and West later received the inspiration and resources for its enlightenment, which in turn caused its ‘culture of growth’. Likewise, while Muslim Westophobes have no qualms in borrowing, accepting and paying any price for the technological and scientific inventions from the West and modernise their societies on Western mimicry, they are unwilling to welcome and encourage the growth of the spirit of inquiry and secular critical thought that generated those inventions. It is the study of the resilience of this intellectual dichotomy between the two groups, the search for a way to break this resilience to enable the adversaries to realise their common fallacy and reform themselves that, in essence, forms the subject matter of Muslim scholarship in social sciences in the Western world.
In this progressive enterprise, questioning and critiquing received wisdom, its history, traditions and sources is unavoidable. Muslim intellectuals have studied the art of critiquing and questioning from the secular intellectual disciplines that they have learned from Western educational institutions. Some of them like the renowned sociologist Fazlur Rahman Ansari, went back, after his studies, to his home country, Pakistan, to develop this kind of research. Orthodoxy hunted him down and even threatened his life. His only choice was to emigrate to the U.S. Likewise, Bassam Tibi, an Islamologist, had to flee his motherland, Syria, and sought asylum in Germany to continue with his research; Akbar S. Ahmad, a Pakistani, writes and publishes from U.K.; the late Algerian scholar, Muhammad Arkoun, did all his critical research on Islam and published them from France; and so is Khaled Abou El-Fadl, an Egyptian, but works in the US, and Abdalwahab Meddeb, a Tunisian, writing from France. I do not want to prolong with an endless list of émigré Muslim intellectuals. When critical scholarship finds organised hostility in its home ground there is no alternative but for it to emigrate. This is the sad story behind the flight of Muslim intellectuals.
This does not mean that critical thought is solely the product of the West. In fact, it was the Muslims between the 9th and 11th centuries who pioneered this field of knowledge production. To be more accurate, the Muslims resurrected the ancient Greek critical thought, which Europe lost and forgot, and developed it before handing it back to Europe in the 15th century. Those who blindly attack Muslim critical scholarship as West oriented should study the history of the Mu’tazilites, the pioneers of rationalism, during the Abbasid Caliphate. Inspired by Caliph Al-Mamun’s translation movement and patronised by his Bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom, which was an academy of scholars, Muslim savants travelled in all directions of the earth in search of existing knowledge, brought them back to Baghdad and translated it into Arabic. Baghdad, under their influence, became the world repository of rare sources of knowledge. Not only did they collect and store existing knowledge, but through research and debates produced new and added to the stock, and more importantly, they secularised knowledge. This was the revolution that they initiated. They even went to the extent of questioning the origins of Islam’s Holiest of texts, the Quran. Such Muslim intellectual giants as Ali Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Kindi, Al-Qwarizmi, Al-Biruni and hundreds of other philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, and so on were the product of secularised Mu’tazilism. Even the great Al-Ghazzali started as a Mu’tazilite, went on to embrace Sufism, before becoming ultimately the unchallenged champion of religious orthodoxy. The fourteenth century Muslim sociologist and historian, Ibn Khaldun, was also a product of Mu’tazilite rationalism. This is the proud history of Islam, which Muslim orthodoxy hides and Western history skips. When religious orthodoxy dethroned rationalism and enthroned itself on the seat of knowledge production, with political support of course, the intellectual lustre and dimension of Islamic civilization began to fade until Europe, after the fifteenth century, came to dominate knowledge production. The rise of the West and the hostility of Islamic orthodoxy towards secular oriented and objective analysis of received spiritual wisdom combined to make Muslims stagnate and become eventually colonisable by the Wet.
Today’s Muslim scholarship in the West is a reaction to this closure of Muslim mind and its colonization by the West. Muslim scholars who are now researching, writing and publishing analytical works on Islam, Islamic history and Muslims are not simply Western influenced or Western products, but more than that. They are the intellectual progenies of a proud rational Islamic parenthood. They are continuing from where the Mu’tazilites left. The Western rationalist tradition undoubtedly came through the Islamic door.
The traditional pedagogy in the Muslim world was more concerned in promoting the art of memorising rather than analysing the religious texts, and as a result, there was no net increase in knowledge production in the Muslim world for over a millennium. Muslims excelled in narrow textual indoctrination rather than in broad analytical education. In this technological age, in which information and texts can be preserved in several ways, memorising anything has lost its preservative value. Yet, although technology can preserve accumulated knowledge impeccably only an analytical mind can add to the stock of knowledge. That is why modern secular education, in which the West is leading, develops the analytical power of the brain. Such an analytical mind is notorious for raising uncomfortable questions. Those questions challenge orthodoxy, provoke rebellious answers, which in turn provoke new questions. This process of questioning, answering and counter-questioning generates debates and discussions which ultimately enriches the knowledge stock. This was how knowledge was produced by the Mu’tazilites, and the West is in debt to these pioneer rationalists.
The Arabic word for knowledge is ilm, and is the most frequently mentioned word in the Quran, second only to the name Allah. However, the Quran does not distinguish between religious knowledge and secular knowledge. It is orthodoxy that separated the two, elevated the former and devalued the latter. Knowledge is knowledge whether it comes from the West, East or anywhere else. Didn’t the Prophet of Islam urge his followers to seek knowledge even in China? What knowledge did he mean? Religious or secular? What knowledge did the Arabs bring from China? They brought the knowledge about producing silk, paper, gun powder, pottery, ceramics and several other material products.
Blind Muslim Westophobia reject the analytical minds and the art of creating knowledge on a false premise that training such minds is a conspiracy by the West to destroy Islam. Therefore, to the Westophobes, Muslim scholars in the West are all intellectual mercenaries hired by Western conspirators. Nothing can be further from the truth. I do not deny that there are comprador Muslim intellectuals, who serve as native informers to Western powers. Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian scholar from Columbia University, has even identified a few of them (Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin White Masks, Pluto Press: 2011, pp. 38-64). To put all Muslim intellectuals however, who question the tenets of orthodoxy and demand radical changes into the comprador basket, is grossly unfair and only reinforces the Westophobia of critics.
The Muslim world desperately needs this analytic mind to keep pace with modernism and scientific progress. This was why Mohammad Arkoun, in his seminal publication, Islam: To Reform or To Subvert (London: Saqi Books, 2009), called Muslims to shift from a ‘mytho-historical’ mindset to a ‘tele-techno-scientific’ mindset. The time has come for them to think of what Arkoun terms as the ‘unthinkables’ and ‘unthoughts’.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia