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Outsiders' Interpretations of Islam- A Muslim's Point of View

by Muhammad Abdul-Rauf


     As the world continues to grow smaller there is growing pressure for all of us to try to live as one community of humankind. The pressure to become one is, in reality, a pressure exerted upon cultures and nations outside the big powers to conform to their ways of life. In reaction to this pressure Muslim intellectuals have sought to adapt what is valuable and necessary in the modern age to Islamic principles. This is the great challenge facing Muslim scholars today.


Islamic Studies and the contemporary challenges 

(Outsiders' Interpretations of Islam- A Muslim's Point of View)

 by Muhammad Abdul-Rauf

The purpose of this essay is to present a Muslim perspective on the relation of the Islamic faith to the scholarly disciplines that study it. Since historians of religions who write about Islam have gleaned their information mainly from Western experts in "Islamic studies," the focus of this paper will be on Islamic studies as such. The essence of the problem that needs airing is: Does the term "Islamic studies" designate an intellectual pursuit discovered and maintained only by Western scholars? This view, common though it seems to be in the West, ignores the study of Islam by Muslims themselves since the rise of Islam. Is the Western study of Islam, then, intrinsically misguided and harmful? This, too, is an attitude that is blind to obvious achievements, many by non-Muslims. Wherein lie the problems many Muslims experience with "Islamic studies?" The following anecdote illustrates a point that needs to be made.

On December 7, 1979, Al-Ahram, the leading daily Egyptian newspaper, carried an interesting story by a renowned contemporary writer. The writer told of his late friend, Salah Saljuke-former Afghani Ambassador to Cairo and an accomplished scholar and authority on Sufism-who about twenty years prior had paid him a visit one day and had looked very disturbed. "Saljuke told me," the author related, "to rise up and struggle to prevent a great disaster! America and Russia have now joined hands, this time to  undermine al-Azhar University. The Representative of the Soviet Union and the American Ambassador have counseled our President (of Egypt) to modernize al-Azhar and make it more relevant to modern times."

Moved by this appeal, the writer told his readers that he sent a letter to Egypt's President, warning of the disastrous consequences of such a step. He also wrote letters to all the newspapers criticizing the idea of "modernizing" the Muslim world's center of religious and intellectual training. He reminded the President and the media of the great prestige of al-Azhar and its fundamental mission especially to preserve the Qur'an and the religious and traditional sciences.

The writer received no response to his appeal, however, and none of his letters were published. Meanwhile, he learned from the press that a committee formed by official decree to reform al-Azhar was chaired by an acquaintance of his, the president of Cairo University, whose departure to Spain as Egypt's
ambassador had been announced a day earlier. The press report stated that while he was chairman the committee had decided it was time to transform al-Azhar University into a modern university that would include schools of agriculture, medicine, business, and engineering. It was only when the ambassador had returned of Spain that the writer learned from him, contrary to the earlier media announcement, that the committee had rejected the proposed reforms. The ambassador added that the chancellor of al-Azhar, in a poignant moment during the committee meetings, broke down in tears because he greatly feared the harm that would come to al-Azhar and to Islam as a result of the proposed reforms.

Before commenting on this story, let us go back to the time of our Prophet, Muhammad-God's blessings and peace be upon him-and trace the origins of that broad subject, Islamic studies.

The Origin and Growth of Islamic Studies in the Muslim World

During the Prophet's mission, his concern was to ignite men's souls with the torch of knowledge, and he discouraged his companions from certain kinds of speculation, most notably speculation on the essence of God and the unseen realities. Since the finite mind is unable to grasp the infinite, any attempt to operate beyond these limits can only lead to error.

As a result of the Prophet's mission, many questions were raised, and through means found in the Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunna they were answered. The Prophet was the Guide. At his death, the momentum of his mission nonetheless continued to guide his companions, who collectively and individually maintained
the glow of divine passion within their hearts and souls. After the passing of this first generation of Muslims, and with the development of Islamic civilization to include non-Arabic speaking peoples, new pressure began to weigh upon this growing society. An important goal was to help non Arab peoples assimilate Islam into their lives without distorting it. Considering the fact that strong remnants of ancient and well-entrenched civilizations, such as the Persian and the Egyptian, were now encompassed by the Muslim polity, the assimilation of Islam was no mean task.

The organic unity of this growing Islamic civilization was fractured by an ordinance of fate. The question of the nature of the Islamic state and the issue of succession led to the cleavage between Muslims who thereafter identified themselves as either Sunni or Shi'i. The painful experience attended by this cleavage led to another simultaneous separation of components within Islamic society, namely, the concentration of worldly concerns in the hands of those in pursuit of power politics and the concentration of spiritual concerns among those devoted passionately to the faith of Islam. This led to the rise of Sufism, many of whose proponents sought to differentiate themselves from established institutions.

With the growth of Islamic civilization, an educational system evolved that expressed the basic Islamic impulse of personal salvation. Since education is the means by which society safeguards and transmits its cherished values and heritage, the goal of education in Muslim lands was never divorced from a belief
in God or from the basic elements of the Islamic faith. This is true in spite of different opinions about some peripheral aspects of the content of this belief. Significantly, until this time, a clear definition of "Islamic studies" per se did not exist, since the notion of an "Islamic versus a "non-Islamic" subject of study had not occurred to early Muslim scholars. All divisions of knowledge were regarded as "Islamic."


The awareness of Muslim versus non-Muslim subject matters was consciously at stake in the conflict between the Muslim East and the Christian West during the Middle Ages. As the Muslim lands declined in power and came under the colonial rule of the West in more recent centuries, two simultaneous concepts of Islamic studies emerged, one outside the Muslim world and one within. Most Western readers will be somewhat familiar with the works and criticisms Western Islamists have penned about Islam. They will be less familiar, perhaps, with the impact this has had upon Muslim scholars who have sought to maintain their own tradition according to sources, standards, and criteria derived from the Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunna.

Western Islamic studies were given impetus by the need for the colonial powers to learn about and understand the people they ruled. As such, the complete heritage of Islamic culture, whether in the field of Islamic religion per se, or philosophy, or art, came under the one rubric of Western scholarship: "Islamic studies" (originally called "oriental studies"). It was promulgated by European scholars in European universities for European students.

Within the Islamic world, the colonial rulers established "secular" systems of education patterned after their own. As a result, the traditional Muslim educational systems came to be labeled "religious." Traditional Muslim academic centers became, in very short order, schools of "Islamic studies!"

With the eventual achievement of political independence, Muslim countries entered a transitional stage of working toward a political, economic, and social identity that would conform once again to their religious and cultural heritage. This is the state of development as of the 1980's. Although political independence was the first and easiest to achieve, economic and cultural independence have been less easy to effect. Western perceptions of an Islamic revolution all too often fasten on political rather than the internal economic, religious, and cultural dimensions of what I here refer to as a "transition."

The rapid increase in global communications is the result of unprecedented technological growth. More people today travel widely and come into contact with cultures that are quite different from their own. One result is that most of the technocrats of Muslim countries have been educated in the West. There was a time when the majority of them were infatuated with technology and with Western culture as a whole. As time passed, however, the "foreign" became less appealing, and this infatuation began to be replaced by cautious appreciation of technological rewards, with awareness of the drawbacks and, more importantly, the limitations.

Even in the West faith in science and technology as paths to human salvation appears to be on the decline. There is an increasing realization that values as much as material growth are a crucial aspect of the good and happy life. The search for bigger and better material standards of living only serves to heighten spiritual appetites. Recent discussions in psychology have pointed out the inadequacies of behaviorist and purely physiological theories of human nature. There is more to being human than we currently know. The growing hunger in the West for spiritual forms created a surge of interest in oriental philosophies and religions as possible avenues to personal fulfillment, if not personal salvation.

As the world continues to grow smaller there is growing pressure for all of us to try to live as one community of humankind. The pressure to become one is, in reality, a pressure exerted upon cultures and nations outside the big powers to conform to their ways of life. In reaction to this pressure Muslim intellectuals have sought to adapt what is valuable and necessary in the modern age to Islamic principles. This is the great challenge facing Muslim scholars today. We cannot yet claim that their attempts have succeeded. We can, however, affirm that with sincere attempts progress is being made. Examples include the creation of Islamic banks, whose express purpose, in keeping with Islamic law, is to obviate the need for fixed interest rates; resistance to the secularization of al-Azhar University, mentioned above; and the creation of the state of Pakistan. These are merely a few tangible examples, and by no means isolated ones, demonstrating three different fronts: economic, educational, and political. The challenge facing "Islamic studies" within the Muslim world, then, is to create and maintain viable Islamic systems to cope with current realities.


To return to the story quoted at the beginning of this essay, it indicated the deeply felt Muslim
desire to undo much of the 1961 Reform  Law of al-Azhar. This reflected concern on the part of
many Muslims about the status and conditions of the Islamic schools in the Muslim world whose
traditional scope has been the perpetuation of Islamic Studies par excellence. For example, instead of attempting intelligently and sensitively to bring al-Azhar into line with modern curricular needs in both method and content, the new law sought to change the age-old curriculum-highly venerated by Muslims throughout the ages-by adding technical curricula in medicine, agriculture, engineering, and business. The sacred center of learning would become secularized. Even worse, traditional requirements were to be rescinded and the traditional curriculum itself drastically amended. The former prerequisite for admission to the first level of preparatory classes-knowing the entire text of the Holy Qur'an by heart (which provided pupils with ready sources of all Islamic knowledge)-was to be eliminated or reduced.
This could only lead to immediate and serious compromise of Muslim academic standards. A complicating factor was that by introducing secular subjects into the curriculum, traditional textual and theological studies were in the same measure squeezed out.

Reform should have aimed at fostering independent thinking and critical reasoning rather than learning only by memory. There was room for reform by going back to classical texts as opposed to using the dull and colorless digests and the compendia culled from them in less creative times.
Why continue to treat works and forms rather than content and substance?
Reform might also have focused on the library with its precious volumes and thousands of manuscripts. Rather than allowing it to turn into a museum, which only serves to highlight the distance and antiquity of its holdings, the library could be so organized as to improve its reading facilities and encourage reader usage. Microfilming facilities could have been made available to scholars wanting copies of rare works and journals from all over the world on Islamic subjects added to collections of publications from the Muslim world. Departmental libraries could be similarly equipped. Students could be encouraged to acquaint themselves with the scholarship of non-Muslims, and taught how to approach these materials appreciatively yet with discrimination, so that horizons might be widened and stereotyped suspicions challenged. In short, the need for reform is not here disputed; the question is what reform should be sought and how it should be accomplished.

On the other side, Islamic studies in the West also needed to be examined. With inquisitive minds and speculative methods, Western savants were stimulated by their contacts with oriental cultures, looking beyond cultural phenomena to the social and historical forces behind them. The studies produced thus far have been less descriptive and analytical, more historical and conjectural. This has been especially true of works written about Islamic religion. Questions about the origins of Islam, the derivation of the Prophet's knowledge and ideas, the chronological order of Qur'anic passages, the authenticity of Hadith, and other matters, became major topics of investigation. Yet much has been left to guesswork, and methods worked out far from the "field" have been conjured up to explain Islam. Socialists turned to Marxist interpretations, finding in the theory of class struggle a solution to questions about historical causes, and they ignored the possibility of Islam's originality. In western Europe and America, the roots of Islam have been presumed to reach down into the Judeo-Christian soil. The given truths accepted and upheld by all Muslims for the past fourteen centuries-the life of the Prophet, his Sunna, the text of the Holy Qur'an, virtually the entire sacred content of the faith of Muslims-have been subjected to misguided critical analysis, sometimes ruthless and usually insensitive. The situation is further complicated by a legacy of unhappy past political experience and continuing cultural prejudices.

Interest in the study of Islam in Western institutions has not been without its salutary effects, however. It has indeed enriched the library on Islam in many respects, and it has posed a beneficial challenge to Muslim scholarship. Fair-minded orient lists have been instrumental in exposing some of the achievements of Islamic civilization to Western society. And yet it is dangerous when, in the name of being scientific, the origins of Islam are explained as arising out of economic or other cultural phenomena. Whatever may be said about Islam in relation to the place and time in which it arose, its unique and well testified claim upon its adherents cannot be explained away. 

We have as historical fact that Muhammad's contemporaries, after years of resistance, mockery, rejection, and oppression, accepted the Prophet's teachings as divinely given truths, by means of the compelling forces of the miracles he achieved under their own eyes. The roots of Islam, as of Judaism and Christianity, are divine revelation. How can we now come, fourteen centuries later, and pretend that Muhammad got it all from Jews or Christians? There is no substantial evidence of Jews or Christians living in Mecca where Muhammad was born and spent the formative years of his life. He traveled to Syria twice on busy commercial trips, the last time being some fifteen years prior to his calling as Prophet. Even if he could have learned so much under these circumstances, why would he have waited so long to proclaim it? If his supposed teachers had the wisdom to enlighten Muhammad earlier, why did they not come forth later when the fruits of their labors began to change the world around them? Muhammad, who demonstrated abundant gratitude to all those with whom he had been involved in his early life, would surely not have concealed a sense of gratitude to any teacher he might have had. Could the inimitable noble text of the Holy Qur'an be simply a trading of words and ideas from the Bible? Even Muhammad's enemies, who refused to acknowledge God but who were endowed with a sense of stylistic appreciation, recognized that the Qur'an was not the product of a human mind.

As for the life of the Prophet, why look so hard for presumed weaknesses of character and evidence of moral turpitude, ignoring relevant information about his wisdom and integrity? For example, up to the age of fifty-three, including twenty-five years of happy marriage, Muhammad maintained a monogamous marriage to his first wife, Khadijah. Only after her death and after he had achieved a new social and political status following his invitation to help the citizens of Yathrib (later called Medina) attain civil order did he become polygamous. Why is it so difficult to see as reasonable the factors leading to his polygamy in this newly acquired status?
What compels some to believe stories about Muhammad's excessive sensuality in his later years? Again, when the Prophet decided to emigrate from Mecca, he hinted to his companions that they should precede him to Yathrib in order to avoid the certain wrath of the Quraysh once his own departure became known.
Why must some "analysts" find in this a reason to impute to the Prophet mistrust of the pledge from Yathrib, or cowardly assurances that his Meccan followers would surround him in Yathrib?

Muslims of all generations have believed that the entire text of the Holy Qur'an was revealed by God to the Prophet and transmitted to his contemporaries, the vast majority of whom entrusted it to memory tout a fait within the lifetime of the Prophet. It was also written down during his lifetime according to his wishes. Being the Word of God to man recited in prescribed diction and sounds, the Holy Qur'an is inimitable and not subject to the limiting dimensions of space and time. The order of its verses in each of its I I4 chapters, which are mutually and closely related, cannot be subjected to limits imposed by conceptions of finitude.

Even now, fourteen centuries later, serious attempts are still being made to advance accusations, often based on linguistic errors and inappropriate assumptions, claiming that some parts of the text of the Holy Qur'an were added or altered as a result of a putative process of editing.
Evidence for this is purely hypothetical. Why have certain orient lists wasted so many precious years of their lives trying to reorder the text of the Qur'an chronologically under the assumption that a human hand played a role in the formation of the text? Such programs of research are not merely an offense to the consciences of millions of Muslims, but are also misleading and thus unworthy to be considered as scholarship. The pursuit of knowledge about the contexts and circumstances in which the various parts of the Qur'an were revealed, a genre called "the occasions of revelation" (asbab al-nuzul), represents a well-known discipline among early Muslim scholars who were engaged in Qur'anic exegesis and the legal sciences. These works present a "history" of revelation that stands in conformity with the life of the Prophet, not a destruction of the tradition.

I should like to close by restating my respect for the serious undertaking by many Western scholars who have helped us learn more about Islam. Through painstaking efforts many have made useful contributions to our knowledge without demeaning the substance of Muslim faith, the Prophet, or the meaning of the Qur'an. Such scholars regard Muslims as a people in their own right, not as colonial subjects or objects of curiosity. The challenge now facing Islamic studies in the West, particularly in the United States, is to seek to become an effective bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Difficult questions must be faced. To what extent do Islamic scholars play a role in helping formulate United States foreign policy vis a vis Muslim nations?
How could Western Islamicists serve to lessen rather than heighten misunderstandings about a part of the world that now affects the West so profoundly?

Within the Muslim world, Islam is very much a twentieth-century way of life. When our Prophet Muhammad began preaching fourteen centuries ago, Islam was here to stay. In spite of the Sunni-Shi'i division arising from early political differences (and not atypical of major religious traditions) Islam has remained intact. Within the Muslim world, it will remain so. As an academic discipline in our American universities, Islamic Studies is therefore by no means an irrelevant subject. This is all the more reason, then, to go about it accurately and sensitively.

Excerpt from " Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies ",
Edited by Richard Martin, OneWorld Publications





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