Islamization of Knowledge

Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds

Although the debate on the arrival of the Islamization of knowledge (IOK) concept continues among today’s scholars, giving it a practical framework is generally credited to the late Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, a Palestinian-American scholar and a founding member of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). Mona Abaza, associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University in Cairo, acknowledges this. She took over 10 years to collect and present her research in this book. The book is divided into three parts with 14 chapters, a hefty 71 pages of notes and bibliography, and a small index. The facts and figures about Malaysia covered in the initial pages are from mid-1998 and therefore, unfortunately, are outdated.

In the “introductory reflections,” which constitute part 1 of the book, Abaza submits that the topic under discussion is controversial even among Muslim academics. Nevertheless, she has set out to compare the IOK endeavors in two very distinct cultures whose Islamizers, she believes, have a primarily secular training but an Islamic outlook. While Malaysia propagates Islam’s values and internationalization, Egypt is stuck in debates with al-Azhar’s ulama and is thus “inward-looking.” She draws a rather interesting analysis of the love-hate relationship found in the Southeast Asian Muslims toward the Middle East arising from the Arab world as Islam’s birthplace yet politically unstable and a place where foreign workers are mistreated.

This part also attempts to contextualize the development of and philosophy behind IOK, including names and works of contributors from both countries. She laments the lack of these scholars’ empirical contributions and lambastes the quality of IIIT publications, supporting the view that IOK is plain rhetoric with a political agenda of the Islamizers trying to prove that they are the ones who know the true meaning of knowledge. The novel-like chapter describing the homogeneity and contrasts between Malaysia and Egypt and specifically Kuala Lumpur and Cairo is refreshing after some serious discussions on IOK. Especially interesting is the chapter on the images of intellectuals projected by Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, and Edward Said, and then as it is now perceived in the Arab and Malaysian cultures. One would tend to agree that intellectuals in the Middle East have been marginalized by the regimes; their freedom of expression often has cost them dearly, and the clash among the secular and Islamist scholars is far more dramatic than in this part of the world.

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