Islamization of Knowledge

A Critique of Modernist Synthesis in Islamic Thought: Special Reference to Political Economy

Is it the realm of theoretical constructs or positive applications that defines the essence of scientific inquiry? Is there unison between the normative and the positive, between the inductive and deductive contents, between perception and reality, between the micro- and macro-phenomena of reality as technically understood? In short, is there a possibility for unification of knowledge in modernist epistemological comprehension? Is knowledge perceived in conception and application as systemic dichotomy between the purely epistemic (in the metaphysically a priori sense) and the purely ontic (in the purely positivistically a posteriori sense) at all a reflection of reality? Is knowledge possible in such a dichotomy or plurality?

Answers to these foundational questions are primal in order to understand a critique of modernist synthesis in Islamic thought that has been raging among Muslim scholars for some time now. The consequences emanating from the modernist approach underlie much of the nature of development in methodology, thinking, institutions, and behavior in the Muslim world throughout its history. They are found to pervade more intensively, I will argue here, as the consequence of a taqlid of modernism among Islamic thinkers. I will then argue that this debility has arisen not because of a comparative modern scientific investigation, but due to a failure to fathom the uniqueness of a truly Qur'anic epistemological inquiry in the understanding of the nature of the Islamic socioscientific worldview.

Qur’anic Epistemology

Qur’anic epistemology is differentiated here from the historical legacy of epistemological pursuits in the sciences by Muslim scholars. The difference arises in terms of the domain of the former being independent of any originary leaning to Greek roots of thinking, which, contrarily, has been shared by many Muslim scholars since the age of Islamic scholasticism. Qur’anic epistemology is premised on the derivation of rules of life and thought (ahkam) emanating in originary form in the text itself and then lending itself to other intellectual pursuits. Thus, reason is seen as the subsequent cognitive product of the originary field of revelation. An originality of scientific investigation, rather than a synthesis of extra-Qur’anic epistemologies, characterizes the essence of Qur’anic epistemological endeavor.

Although my review of literature in this paper is not exhaustive, I will dwell on three primal foci of the modernist approach in Islamic sciences. I will then connect them to a similar pattern of inquiry that had evolved among Muslim rationalists and that is in sharp contradistinction to the ideas propounded by the religious philosophers (the mutakallimun). I will direct my critique simply to three premises of the modernist query that they consider to be an Islamic approach to the sciences. These are: a) the concept of a modernist integration through an epistemological approach based on a theory of language; b) the acceptance of the idea of pluralism in an otherwise unified Islamic world view; and c) the profuse use of utilitarian and neoclassical methodology embedded within a disparate mix between Islamic ethics and utilitarian behavior. Although my focus here is on political economy, the inference can be generalized to all areas of the sciences.

I would like to point out that all such methodological trends have deepened the process of taqlid (the uncritical acceptance of authority) in the midst of an unquestioned acceptance of the prevalent modernist views. Thus, authentic development of Islamic sciences has regressed-not progressed-over the years. The net result can be seen in a) a global reflection of Islamic scholarly obscurity, and b) the failure of the modernist approach, even at its best, to yield any prominence. Such an odd combination of “Islamicism” with modernism has not been able to create either of these mixable entities by means of the taqlid approach.
Although this section is not meant to be a detailed critique of Hellenic-influenced Islamic epistemology, here we will refer to the cosmological theories of Muslim scholars. These are found to have been premised on the idea of natural liberty and a physical concept of the unity of the universe, which is seen to arise either from a set pattern of the cosmological order or to be governed by the anthropic observation of scientific reflections. Thus either a rationalist approach or a benign reference to divine unity was invoked in such investigations. The Ikhwan al Safa’, Ibn Sina’, al Farabi, and Ibn Rushd are among those who belong to this earlier Cartesian type and Greek views of cosmology. The same reflection is seen to reappear with Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the natural liberty of the universe. In Ibn Khaldun, such a natural liberty is reflected in his understanding of how human societies change over time: the central factor was ‘asabiyah (nationalism, communalism). A reference to divine law is made as a precept of finality of sorts, rather than as a purposeful dynamics underlying a philosophy of history, which otherwise the Qur’an bestows on its precept of  historicism.

In the Ash’ari school following the Mu‘tazili debate on the nature of Qur’an and the originary order of creation, which, in turn, was followed by a1 Ghazzali’s philosophy of self and goodness, one finds a reductionist approach to individualism in the order of ethical wellbeing and moral upliftment. This was a forerunner of the utilitarian attitude to self-consciousness, whether for the individual or for society at large. It was this fear of creeping utilitarianism in Islamic thinking that became the root of the debate among the early fuqaha (interpreters on the Qur’an and sunnah) on the concept of public purpose (a1 maslahah wa al  istihsan).

The extraneous Hellenic roots of epistemologies are still to be found in the modern orientation to Islamic thought. Current developments in Islamic economics are heavily dependent on neoclassical economic methodology or its macroeconomic sounding in Keynesianism and post-Keynesianism. One such direction referred to in this paper as a ground for critique is the monetarist developments by Tobin, Brainard, and others (see below) that is now emulated by Islamic economists.

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