Islamic Studies

The Tension Between Scholars And Activists In Islamic Revival

By Dr. Muhammad Bugaje

Originally published at

The Link Between the Islamization of Knowledge and the Islamization of Society

There seems to be some kind of cold war between Muslim scholars and Muslim activists. After conceding that Muslim activists, members of contemporary Islamic movements, have helped in stemming the tide of secularism in Muslim countries, Fazlur Rahman, for example, believes that, that was all they have to offer Islam. The greatest weakness of neorivivalism, as he calls the phenomena of Islamic movements, “and the greatest disservice it has done to Islam, is an almost lack of positive effective Islamic thinking and scholarship within its ranks, its intellectual bankruptcy, and its substitution of cliché mongering for serious intellectual endeavor.” “It has often contended,” he proceeded to say, “with a real point, that the learning of the conservative traditional Ulema, instead of turning Muslims towards the Qur’an has turned them away from it. But its own way of turning to the Qur’an has been no more than … picking upon certain selected issues whereby it could crown itself by distinguishing Muslims from the rest of the world, particularly from the West.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr rarely expresses his reservations and when he has to it comes in some veiled reference but nevertheless strong enough to reveal some anguish. In the preface to his ‘Knowledge and the Sacred’, which were collections of lectures made soon after the Revolution in Iran, he could not hide his brush with the revolutionaries, as he related that, “When the invitation to deliver [the] Gifford lecture first reached us, we were living in the shades of the southern slopes of the majestic Alborz Mountains. Little did we imagine then that the text of the lectures themselves would be written not in the proximity of those exalted peaks but in sight of the green forests and blue seas of the eastern coast of the United States. But man lives in the spirit and not in space and time so that despite all the unbelievable dislocations and turmoil in our personal life during this period, including the loss of our library and the preliminary notes for this work, what appears in the following pages has grown out of the seed originally conceived when we accepted to deliver the lectures.”

Similarly the activists have always held Muslim scholars with some disdain, looking down at their commitment and belittling their seemingly futile research. Even the IIIT, which was started by people who were first known more for their activism than their scholarship, were felt by some activists to have started the Islamization of knowledge as an alibi for not getting involved in political activism. This claim may be difficult to substantiate, at least from the documents of the IIIT, but that it could be made at all is significant enough. In a recently published interview with Taha Jabir, some of the questions asked betray this feeling that because the IIIT concentrates on thoughts, it suggests therefore that it sees no value in the activities of Islamic movements.

An appreciation of the inextricable link between the Islamization of knowledge and the Islamization of society seems to have been lost, even as many Muslim mujaddids who brought radical changes in their respective societies were first and foremost scholars. It needs also to be appreciated that accessing power is not as difficult as staying in power. Ideas and creativity is what allows systems to last and not prowess. This has been amply demonstrated by Muslim history and is particularly so today. For identification and delineation of the problem and the synthesis of ideas are the domains of the intellectuals. In the words of al-Attas, “to lack of intellectuals is to lack leadership in the following areas of thinking:

(1) the posing of the problems;

(2) the definition of the problems;

(3) the analysis of the problems; and

(4) the solution of the problems.

Even the posing of the problem is itself an intellectual problem. A society without effective intellectuals will not be in a position to raise problems.” As Zia would argue, “Intellectuals are the only group in any society which systematically and continuously, in sharp contrast to the specialist and the professional, try to see things in wider perspectives, in terms of their interrelations, interactions and totality. This is why intellectuals have been at the forefront of new synthesis and thought. Most of the major changes and reforms in western civilisation, for example, have been brought about by the intellectuals … And what better evidence of [the] importance of intellectuals and their powerful influences can one give than by simply pointing out [how] the Soviet Union rules in the name of a single intellectual, Karl Marx, who spent most of his time in libraries …”. But in this same example, we equally find evidence of the co-operation of scholars and activists before reforms can be realised or ideas actualised. The complimentarity of the scholars and the activists hardly needs any further emphasis in an enterprise where none can do without the other and only both can do….


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