The reconstruction of Islamic Studies

Radwan al-Sayed

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For the last 10 years, Arabs and Muslims have been preoccupied with fighting extremism and terrorism. Perhaps, they may continue fighting for the next 10 years as well.

Institutional reforms

As a result of the 10 years’ bitter experience in dealing with this issue that is dangerous on religion, societies and countries, I have sought to comprehend it via two concepts: qualification and rehabilitation. By qualification, I mean cooperation among institutions to better comprehend the world, the phenomena of modernity and changes in societies. This will make our religious, cultural and media institutions qualified with the necessary knowledge. What must be qualified is the structure of institutions and entities so that they are better equipped to confront dangerous phenomena.

Simultaneously, educational programs must be rehabilitated, religious discourse must be renewed and imams and teachers must be trained. The public must be addressed to prevent the emergence of a new generation of extremists after what has happened in various regions in Afghanistan, Somalia, West Africa, Syria, Iraq and Libya which witnessed the activities of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The discipline of Islamic Studies

However, there is another dimension to the issue that has not drawn the same attention due to its relative neglect in universities and academic and quasi-academic institutions. The study of Islamic studies arose in Western culture and matured in the hands of orientalists. There are hundreds of departments and dozens of institutes and magazines that have thrived upon this discipline for more than a hundred years. It is well known that this discipline was highly criticized by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1977), since he considered that such an expression had colonial overtones.

But between Edward Said's criticism and today, fractures have emerged in the academics of these institutions due to two contradictory trends. The first one is the emergence of new commentators or new orientalists who have drifted apart from the traditions of Orientalism and decided to alter the image of the Quran and Islam by employing deconstruction to the texts from the historical context. The second one is represented in new Arab and Muslim commentators who criticized textual traditions and did not only work through militias but also via preaching ceremonies and specialties in the Sharia and Islamic studies colleges to conclude the full-scale implementation of Sharia.

Educational programs must be rehabilitated, religious discourse must be renewed and imams and teachers must be trained.

Radwan al-Sayed

While the new orientalists used academic instruments to vandalize what they considered was a stereotype, reaching for support not only from revolutions in the social and human sciences, but also from the Islamophobic movements in the West and the world, fundamentalists in Sahwa movements and religious universities wanted to highlight the urgent need to make us more Islamic and more keen on enforcing Islam.

As such, in the middle of these two zealot approaches, the western and eastern doctrines, there is no longer free space for contemplation and research! During the 1980s and 1990s, we, the ones who were teaching Islamics in universities of the West and East, suffered from these two tendencies. Therefore, all we did in Europe and the US was answer the question of when the Qur'an appeared and whether it is a text or a collection of narratives that were arbitrarily assembled a century or more after the death of the prophet (peace be upon him). Meanwhile, everyone in Arab and Muslim countries were busy answering how to restore Islam in societies and nations, why sharia is not implemented, what the meaning of the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is and what the repercussions of the Salafist eruption in Arab and Islamic countries are.

Sahwa’s misreading

I was among the few that considered that the questions of the new commentators and Sahwa movements were spurious. Sharia is implemented, and it does not need implementation; religion is ever present and does not experience estrangement. As for the Qur'an, it is a text that has been present in the life of the community since the days of the Prophet, peace be upon him. We are tired of looking into the origins of the book and its relationship with the Old and New Testaments for over 200 years! As for Islamic history, it has never witnessed the events forged and claimed by people from both doctrines, nor did orthodoxy change the image of religion or history.

After four decades of reciprocal repudiation and contradictory conflicting stubbornness, not only among ordinary people but also in universities and academic departments, it can no longer be denied that the damage has occurred and the cracks have widened due to disputes over major ideas about what Islam, sharia and history are, what the meaning of modern Islamic movements is, why there is animosity towards the new national state, what the phenomena of Al Qaeda and ISIS are exactly and why there is ongoing violence in the name of Islam. Evidently, these questions can only be addressed in research centers, workshops, and departments of Islamic and Arab studies.

Reconstruction of religious thought

Therefore, the Sheikh Zayed Chair for Arab and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut organized a workshop entitled Towards the Reconstruction of Islamic Studies. It will include dozens of renowned scholars in the field of Islamic Studies from the East and West and will discuss issues related to the reassessment and reconstruction of Islamic studies and the new contexts for new syllabi and even new texts. We hope that all of this will create a consultative approach over the origins and tasks of this discipline and status within human, social and historical sciences. We do not only have hope in the new syllabi and in the exposure and suppression of fundamentalists on both sides but also in the new generations of Arab and Muslim students who are now present in the universities of the West and East as they are establishing new horizons for Islamic Studies.

The rewards of research

In methodical research and the requirements of academia, we should not cede to the terms of certainty and prohibition as this will be tantamount to surrendering to dictatorships and violence. Methodical research calls for freedom, courage and responsibility and for challenging fabrications as well as everything taken for granted.

The Qur'an says: “Arguing with you concerning the truth after it had become clear, as if they were being driven toward death while they were looking on.” (Anfal: 6) It is absurd, unreasonable and even inhumane neutrality that we see today when we meditate on the body of the nation going to ruin. In our consciousness or unconsciousness, we look at this body as if it wasn’t ours and as if we have no relationship with it. The Qur'an says: “Do not throw [yourselves] with your [own] hands into destruction.” You must not do so, whether adventurously or out of cowardice. There is no might nor power except with Allah.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

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