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IslamiCity > Articles > Orientlism, Muslim Intellectualism and Political Islam
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So, the Orientalism today is not characterized by prejudice, rather it is characterized by a neglect of the non-western concepts.

Orientlism, Muslim Intellectualism and Political Islam
4/13/2012 - Social Political - Article Ref: IV1204-5070
Number of comments: 3
By: Dr. Syed Farid Alatas
Iviews* -

I would like to get your comment on the way sectarianism has influenced Muslim intellectualism. 

First of all, some of the sects do not have a vibrant intellectual tradition. Salafis and Wahabis are examples. In fact, their ways of thinking run counter to developing intellectual traditions. They are so influential that they inhibit development of alternative, creative intellectual traditions in the Muslim world. That is one way to look at the problem of sectarianism in the level of knowledge. You often find un-intellectual or anti-intellectual orientations in Islam are spreading. Such anti-intellectual sects become dominant and influential with enormous resources. They influence universities and students and researches through funding. The other problem of sectarianism is to do with the Sunni Shia conflict. It is a big problem as it creates a big division in the Islamic scholarship. In the cases of normal sectarianism, you have the possibilities of mutual interaction, but here you lack it. You take the case of Shia Muslim social thought and Shia philosophy. There are great scholars like Ali Shariati, Murtaza Mutahari and Allama Jafari whose contribution to the evolution of social theory and the philosophy of social sciences is vital. But they are generally not read in the Sunni world, which is a pity. Their writings are very erudite, relevant and very necessary for Sunnis to read. This hardly happens partly because Sunnis are prejudiced against Shias. They regard Iranian tradition of scholarship as an alien one. Even among people who are not overtly anti-Shiite, their view of Shiism is somehow strange and narrow minded. They are not interested to learn about Shia thoughts on various things. I think Sunnis will be intellectually poorer if they don't understand what Shiites have to say about various things.
 
Now we have the stream of political Islam. How do you look at the influence and impact it made on Muslim intellectualism, particularly on contemporary social sciences? 

Generally, the political movements in the Islamic world, from Jamat-e-Islami to Ikhwan al-Muslimin have not been very positive towards developing alternative intellectual traditions or autonomous social sciences in the Muslim world. But it will not be fair to put all the blame on them. They were not positive because, first of all, it was not their primary intention to create alternative disciplines. Secondly, these kinds of movements are a normal feature of our society, so will you have them. You will have extremists and parochial religious movements in all societies. But yet, their presence doesn't prevent the emergence of creative knowledge in those societies. Because, such societies provide you a space for alternatives. The problem in Muslim countries is not that there is political Islam. It is quite natural for political Islam to exist and we shouldn't argue against them. The problem is there are no alternatives; there is no alternative to politics and governments, the ruling elites. And there is no space for alternative knowledge, too. Sometimes, the governments even flirt with Islamic political groups in order to counter other groups and thus attain a balance. Saddam did this. Governments often let Islamic groups work legitimately so that they can watch them, use them and suppress other alternative groups. 

Let's look at the Arab Spring. Do you see an intellectual awakening? How is it going to influence the Muslim intellectualism in the long run?

Usually, intellectuals and great ideas precede revolutions. That is how it has always happened in history. Mao preceded Chinese revolution. Shariati preceded Iranian revolution. A host of French thinkers preceded the French revolution. Of course when a revolution takes place, if it is a genuine revolution, it develops in certain directions, and it produces a new generation of thinkers. But, I don't see any thinkers preceding the Arab Spring. What happened there was not preceded by new ideas. Can we see any thinker like Shariati who came up with really new ideas and seized upon people and used those ideas to inspire them towards a different society? In Egypt or Yemen or Syria, this is not happening. I am not saying that what they are doing is not right. But it is not a revolutionary kind of thing. 

You have an interest in inter-faith dialogue, too. Muslim world has a lot of preachers, but most of them, at least those who dominate, happen to be aggressively self-righteous in their attitude towards other faiths. Is it an ideal way? What kind of an inter-faith dialogue you propose to?

Of course there are aggressively self-righteous Muslim preachers and they have got a lot of followers and admirers. There are also a good number of Muslim leaders who are very committed to inter-religious dialogue. They are all over the world. Some of them do very good work; some of them are based in the west. They have done a lot to improve the image of Islam and made very close genuine ties with the Americans and the British and people from other parts of Europe. That is there. One of the big obstacles or deficiencies is that in this dialogue, Muslims have not developed an expertise or mastery in other religions, whereas the leaders of other religions, certainly the Christians and Jews, have developed mastery over Islam. You will see a number of Catholic scholars and even priests who have PhDs in Islamic studies. For example, Father Thomas Michael is a Jesuit priest from America, who researched under the supervision of Fazlur Rahman from the University of Chicago. He knows Arabic and his thesis was on Ibn Taimiya. There are several Catholic priests and Jewish scholars of his standing. How many Muslims are there? First of all, how many Muslim mullahs have PhDs? There are many ordained Catholic priests with PhDs in Islamic studies, which is a very good thing. How many Muslim scholars have PhDs in Christian studies, know Hebrew and read Greek commentaries of Bible? Extremely few. This imbalance is the problem. You cannot talk with equal erudition. 


Is that why many Muslim preachers often behave with arrogance and aggressiveness, during inter-faith dialogues?

Because they are defensive. Then there are others who are not defensive, but they are not able to discuss ideas and discourse at the same level of the Christian scholars. For example, if we want to have a series of Christian Muslim dialogue, putting fifty Muslims and fifty Christians on two stages, there will be several Christian scholars who know Arabic and have PhDs in Islamic studies, but on the Muslim sides, how many scholars will be there with such status? One or two. Even they are not famous or established. The result is that you cannot have an equal dialogue. You know there are Catholic scholars who know the Quran very well; they will be familiar with the great tafsirs, Sufis and philosophers, having been read their works in Arabic and Persian. How many of the Muslims know the Bible that well? The dialogue will be uneven. 

In one of your speeches, you mentioned that there is a noticeable shift in the old prejudiced attitude of Orientalist writings. Can you elaborate?

There is still Orientalism today, but it is not the same Orientalism that we had in the past in the 19th century or early 20th century. That Orientalism was characterized by Orientalist scholars having prejudiced, negative views about Islam, which clearly came across in their scholarship. They believed that Islam was a bad religion, a fake religion, and that Islam encourages violence, it is against women and human rights and so on. Quran is a confusing text, they thought. And very often we notice their researches had to do with the colonial powers and the colonial interests. Today, many of those western scholars who study Islam are studying out of genuine interest. I would say, many of them, probably most of them, are not against Islam. If they are against Islam, it doesn't encroach on their scholarship. They keep it with themselves, and this is because of the training. They are trained to be objective and to set aside your personal views and at least not to affect your research. As a result, there are many objective researches done by western scholars on Islam, and if there are problems, it is not because of prejudice, but because of theoretical and methodological problems. So, the Orientalism today is not characterized by prejudice, rather it is characterized by a neglect of the non-western concepts. It was also true about the Orientalism of the past, but today enmity or prejudice is not a dominant feature. For example, when they study Ibn Khaldun, they praise him as founder of sociology, recognize his genius, but, restrict Ibn Khaldun and his work to itself, not as a source of new ideas to use and apply. That is a way of neglecting Ibn Khaldun altogether. That for me is a major feature of Orientalism today. 

Muslims had a great tradition of establishing and running great centers of knowledge across the Muslim world. Where did Muslims leave that tradition and why they are left behind intellectually?

Those days, the great knowledge centers were supported by great rulers. Today, none of the rulers in the Muslim world are inspired by history. None of them are inspired by Harun Rasheed or Khalifa Maimum or any other Abbasid or Uthmaniya rulers. Most of the Arab rulers, for instance, are illegitimate rulers. Their primary concern is to maintain power. So, naturally, they are not interested in any other creative thing. 

You mentioned that there are various streams in the decolonization project. What is the possibility of pluralism here? Could people of different cultures and orientations work together?

Yes, of course. And such a joint effort is lacking. A lot of efforts are going on different parts - in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. Indians, Filipinos and South Africans are very active in this endeavor. In Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Morocco and certain parts of Turkey, there are strong movements. We have people working in various parts of the world, but with no coordination. People in these countries do not know each other and no idea about what others have been doing. This is the problem. 

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