Islamization of Knowledge

Institutionalization of “Islamization of Knowledge” in Malaysia: Present Problems and Future Prospect

Draft paper presented at the 2nd FOCUS Meeting, 23-25 January, 2009, Ampang, Malaysia


This brief presentation deals with the present attempt at “Islamization of Knowledge” in Malaysia, specifically at various institutions of higher learning. The institutions dealt with are grouped under two categories, namely those that overtly call themselves “Islamic” and those that are not.

Past Glory

As a people the Muslims used to be strong and significant. They upheld traditional Islamic values, intellectually exerted their energies in multiple fields, and were guided by the Islamic weltanschauung. As such their presence and intellectual contributions were well acknowledged for centuries, even by their enemies. Classical Islamic civilization that flourished in Andalusia and other places was so brilliant and forceful that it even influenced the development of knowledge and civilization in the West.

Present Predicament

However, due to weaknesses of Muslims of later generations, and a long process of Western colonization, the ummah has been rendered insignificant. Islamic civilization has lost its creative élan and is almost destroyed. Muslims have been forced to live and participate in an increasingly de-Islamized, westernized, secularized culture and civilization. Ultimately, Islamic civilization, including its concept of knowledge, was alienated even from its own ummah.

Fortunately, there was a turn of events beginning from the middle of the 20th century when colonial powers began to lose grips on Muslim lands. This finally brought about the Islamic resurgence in the 60s and 70s of the last century and the urgent plea for the reconstruction of the Islamic civilization. In the domain of knowledge, beginning from the 70s Muslims thinkers, led by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Ismail Raji al Faruqi and their peers, started to call for the process of Islamization.

Definition of “Islamization of Knowledge”

The process or concept of “Islamization of Knowledge” is actually a sub-set of the process of Islamization in general. According to al-Attas (1978), Islimization in general is:
…the liberation of man first from magical, mythological, animistic, national-culturaltradition, and then from secular control over his reason and his language.

As such, to al-Attas, 
The Islamization of present-day (Western) knowledge means precisely that, after the isolation process…, the knowledge free of the (Western) elements and key concepts are then infused with Islamic elements and key concepts…

Since the main issue is basically to negate Western-secular key concepts and elements and to nurture Islamic ones, the process is also referred to as “dewesternization of knowledge” by al-Attas (1978). To Seyyed Hussein Nasr (1993) the process is viewed as the “resacralization of knowledge” within the Islamic framework (Nasr 1993). The main idea in both is to epistemologically deconstruct and transform present-day Western-secular dominated knowledge to suit the Islamic tawhidic vision of life. This also means the integration of intellectual knowledge with revealed knowledge. This is indeed a daunting job, given the continuous influence and hegemony of the West over the rest, including in the enterprise of knowledge.

Institutionalization of “Islamization of Knowledge” in Malaysia

As expected, the right and best place to initiate and nurture the epistemological process is the academe. In Malaysia, a bold step was taken when a special university was consciously established in 1983 under the Islamic banner. This is the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). In terms of the issue at hand, the process of Islamization here involves not only a specific discipline of knowledge, but one whole academic institution. As an Islamic institution IIUM rightly decided to uphold a philosophy which clearly stipulates that knowledge should be propagated in the spirit of Tawhid. To that effect the university’s curriculum blends harmoniously contemporary disciplines with traditional Islamic values and moral virtues.

IIUM is doubly fortunate because the majority of its academic staff are Muslims, and are familiar with the idea of the “Islamization of Knowledge.” However, to ensure that the contemporary disciplines are thoroughly “Islamic/Islamized” a special faculty for revealed knowledge has been established from the very beginning. Soon after, a centre called International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) was also established. This institute was for a long time headed by Al-Attas. Aside from this, at one time even a branch of the US-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) was also attached to the university. Considering all this, and taking into account minor hiccups, IIAM may be viewed as a successful case within the “Islamization of Knowledge” agenda. The university is now linked to the League of Islamic Universities throughout the Muslim world.

Following in the footsteps of IIUM are the various university colleges established much later under the Islamic banner. One of them is Kolej Universiti Islam Malaysia (KUIM) set up in 2001 which has recently been upgraded as Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM). Like IIUM, USIM is also committed to the idea of the integration of revealed knowledge (naqli) and intellectual knowledge (aqli). The university is still young to be judged, but the process of “Islamization of Knowledge” should be easier here since its scope is narrower, focusing as it is only on the hard sciences. Besides, it can always benefit from the experience of IIUM.

The scenario is rather different in universities like Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) etc which are not established under the banner of Islam. Generally in these institutions the notion of “Islamization of Knowledge” as such is not part of the official agenda, thus not necessarily given special attention. The multi-religious, multi-cultural composition of their faculty members is also an inhibiting factor. Even amongst Muslim academics themselves many are not aware of the notion while some are openly not in favour of it. They are probably more aware of, and attracted to, trendy ideas and praxis that are also related to epistemology such as critical theory, deconstruction, postmodernism, feminism and post-colonial discourse. As for the university management in general, of late they are more occupied with the pressing needs of KPIs and issues of “research-intensive university,” and especially the annual world ranking conducted by Times Educational Supplement.  

This is not to say that in these institutions of higher learning the idea of relating or aligning knowledge to Islam is completely absent. On the contrary, it is present, though not intense and not overtly referred to as “Islamization of Knowledge”. This is partly due to the initiative taken by Institut Aminuddin Baki (IAB) in the early 1990s in organizing a series of workshops on “Islamization of Knowledge” for lecturers from various public universities. Thus many academics at UKM, UM, USM and other universities have been made aware of the idea regarding “Islamization of Knowledge”. Some of them in turn have initiated their own programs within their own campuses.

At Universiti Sains Malaysia, for example, the idea has been crystallized since 1989 with the establishment of the Secretariat for Islamic Philosophy and Science (SEFSI). The main function of the secretariat is to familiarize academicians with the Islamic intellectual tradition and the Islamic concept of knowledge. Hopefully this would enable them to align their respective disciplines, be it in the hard sciences or in the arts, with the Islamic concept of knowledge. Aside from SEFSI, there is an outfit called Centre for Islamic Development Management Studies (ISDEV) established in 1995. ISDEV is a graduate studies program that trains social science students in development management based on Islamic values and concept of knowledge.

To intensify the above process USM’s present Vice Chancellor has from time to time encouraged his fellow academicians to emulate Andalusia. For this the Andalusian intellectual model has been discussed in a series of seminar (at both national and international levels) as well as a series of booklets (Dzulkifli Abdul Razak 2006). The idea is not only to rekindle the Islamic intellectual tradition, but also to sustain development, the environment, mankind and nature at large.

Very much in line with this and the above is USM’s transformation plan which was recently submitted to the Ministry of Higher Education for the APEX status and which will be executed soon (Universiti Sains Malaysia 2008). In this plan “Islamization of Knowledge” or other phrases pertaining to Islam are not mentioned. Instead, what is highlighted is simply “Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow” and “integration of science and arts.” Nevertheless, the virtues promoted, such as equity, accessibility, availability, affordability and quality; are all compatible with Islam. Its principle regarding the integration of science and arts is also in line with the Islamic principle regarding the unity of knowledge. 

With the tagline “Ensuring Tomorrow’s Sustainability”, and using the Blue Ocean Strategy, USM is now going for the bottom billions. It is working towards the upliftment of the billions around the world trapped at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Indeed, USM regards knowledge as a form of trust from Allah. Thus the university should nurture academics and produce graduates who would be able to utilize knowledge according to Allah's will in performing his role as the servant and vicegerent of Allah on earth.


In conclusion I believe what is being done at USM is also being carried out at other universities that are not labeled Islamic, albeit differently and with different intensity. If this is so, then there is future prospect for “Islamization of Knowledge” sans the name. But, advocates must persist with their hard works, and new activists must be recruited from time to time. The future for “Islamization of Knowledge” at those institutions labeled as “Islamic” is even brighter.

Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. 1978. Islam and Secularism.

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak. 2006. Islam Hadhari in Action: Lessons from Andalusia Series.

Al Faruqi, Ismail Raji. 1995 Islamization of Knowledge.

Mohammed Muqim, ed.1999. Research Methodology in Islamic Perspective. 

Md. Salleh Yaapar. 1997. “Perceptions of Islamization of Knowledge,” Al-Hikmah.

Nasr, Seyyed Hussein. 1995. The Need for a Sacred Science.

Universiti Sains Malaysia. 2008. Transforming Higher Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow.


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