Islamization of Knowledge

Research: the Islamization of knowledge – Interview with Farid Alatas

Religioscope, 2 Jan 2008

We hear more and more about 'Islamic science' and 'Islamic economics', and over recent decades, calls for an 'Islamization of knowledge' and for attempts to develop Islamic models for approaching modern science have increasingly been heard. What does this mean and what does it involve for current developments across the Muslim world? Religioscope put these questions to Prof. Farid Alatas.

Syed Farid Alatas is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, where he has been since 1992. He lectured at the University of Malaya in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies prior to his appointment at Singapore. His books include Democracy and Authoritarianism in Indonesia and Malaysia: The Rise of the Post-Colonial State (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) and Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism (New Delhi: Sage, 2006), in which he documents various critiques of the state of the social sciences in Asia and critically assesses the prescriptions for alternative discourses that have emerged from these critiques.

al atas

Religioscope - In different parts of the world, we have seen in recent years claims that knowledge should be associated with some specific cultural or religious heritage. There are people claiming a Hindu science; there are those claiming an Islamic knowledge - or an Islamic approach to knowledge. In order to see the wider picture, before coming to Islam, could you elucidate the meaning of those different claims to indegenizing or religionizing knowledge?

Farid Alatas - If you put it in the larger context, there has been the consciousness that the Western cultural roots of the social sciences and humanities pose a problem for the development of social sciences in non-Western societies. So people have been thinking about developing new epistemological, metaphysical and cultural bases for the social sciences. This has taken the form of the indigenization of knowledge and the the indigenization of the social sciences; it has also taken the form of the nationalization of the social sciences to make them more in line with national interests in some countries. It has furthermore taken the form of the decolonization of the social sciences to allow them to be informed by local, or national, or indigenous interests - as opposed to colonial interests.

So it has taken various forms. One such form has to do with the Islamization of knowledge. What you have is the critique of Western knowledge in broad terms: it may be at the epistemological level; it may be more at the substantive or empirical level. And there have been various reactions in the non-Western world.

Within the Islamization of knowledge, there are at least two broad perspectives. There is the perspective associated with IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought), which was founded by Prof. Ismail Faruqi. It aims at the Islamization of disciplines: those involved speak about Islamic sociology, Islamic economics, Islamic anthropology, etc.

Then you have the other perspective, which is associated with my uncle, Prof. Syed Naquib al-Attas. It is more an approach influenced by the tradition of tasawuf, the Sufi tradition.

I should also mention a third perspective, which is related specifically to the discipline of economics. Before the idea of the Islamization of knowledge emerged, as early as the 1920s or the 1930s, there was already this idea of Islamic economics. In other words, Islam has a specific vision of the economy in terms of its ideals and that suggests a certain way of doing economic science. These Islamic economists have been engaged in developing that field for several decades.

Then the idea of Islamization of knowledge, as I have said, emerged in the 1970s. I would say that the Islamization of disciplines - i.e. the perspective associated with the IIIT - is a more positivist approach that seems to have a more mechanical view of how Islam is related to knowledge. Those concerned seem to approach the matter in terms of individual disciplines, and they imagine the possibility of Islamized disciplines.

I have to admit that very little headway has been made in terms of Islamizing these disciplines. We don't really see an Islamic sociology. It is very difficult to understand what is meant by these Islamized disciplines: they have not been put into practice, and the work that has been done on the Islamization of knowledge according to that perspective tends to be very abstract, and I would even say rather vague.

On the other hand, the approach very much inspired by Sufism does not speak of the Islamization of disciplines, but rather of the Islamization of the perspective that underlies the various disciplines. We are really talking about what my uncle once told me: it is the Islamization of the mind. The way I understand it, the discussion is about the way Islam provides the metaphysical and epistemological basis for knowledge. Those concerned are not interested in creating an Islamic sociology or an Islamic physics, but what they say is that, whatever your discipline, there is a particular metaphysical and epistemological framework that is provided by Islam. What they are doing is working out that framework, which can be fruitfully applied to any disciplines. There is a particular Islamic worldview, which suggests a particular framework.

Religioscope - I remember your quoting a statement by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas stating that Islamization should be understood as a freeing of knowledge from its interpretations based on secular ideologies and from secular meanings and expressions. So this would be a challenge not only for Islam, but for all believers, including everybody with a metaphysical approach. What then would there be specific to Islam?

Farid Alatas - In general, among all religions, there is the idea of the sacralization of knowledge. Presumably, each religion would have its own perspective on how to sacralize knowledge. As far as Muslims are concerned, I think that one of the things is that, epistemologically speaking, to move away from more secular perspectives, we would have to recognize that there are multiple sources of knowledge. This includes not just reason or sense perperception, but also revelation and intuition.

I think the Sufis really - for example, my uncle himself - talk about the importance of intuition, of ilham, as a source of knowledge. This is one example of how knowledge is sacralized: you recognize the sacred or divine origin of knowledge.

People often misunderstand: they think that the Islamization of knowledge approach amounts to a different way of doing science. But I think the implication of this understanding of knowledge has more to do with the ethics of science and the way in which science is applied - when you think about the divine origins of knowledge or at least the role of the divine in the generation of knowledge and the responsibility that humans have in terms of the application of this knowledge in the world. I think the implications are more in that, rather than the actual doing of the science. As far as the rational scientific aspects of the work are concerned, the work of the physicist, the work of the medical scientist remain the same: we are not creating Islamic medical science or Islamic physics in that sense.

Religioscope - You wouldn't see the need for a specific type of training or school here; it is rather the way each professor and teacher would infuse his own approach with an understanding of the metaphysical?

Farid Alatas - Look at ISTAC (International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization) - the 'old' ISTAC, which was under my uncle - it was created specifically to Islamize knowledge, not only to teach the various branches, but also to provide that metaphysical and epistemololgical basis that should be infused by all scholars and teachers, whatever the discipline.

This understanding of the Islamization of knowledge does not suggest that, in order to do proper Islamic science, you have to conform to some Islamic requirements. While I imagine that the IIIT understanding suggests a more rigid approach - that there are certain areas with a boundary - you must accept certain rules and regulations in order to stay within the orbit of the Islamization of knowledge, whereas the other approach has more to do with your metaphysical and epistemological perspective, which anyway in Islam is so broad that it can encompass a variety of perspectives within the social sciences. With the first approach, there is the idea that there is an Islamic school of economics, there is an Islamic school of sociology: so other schools would by definition be excluded. But the second approach, informed by Sufism, does not lock you into a particular school within any particular discipline.

Religioscope - Could one summarize by saying that there is an approach that is a reaction against knowledge as being Western, and another approach that is a reaction against knowledge as being secular? Obviously, the West and secularism have often gone hand in hand. This would be a reaction against secularism, not any kind of clash of civilizations.

Farid Alatas - Definitely not!

Religioscope - Now, several Islamic universities have been established throughout the world since the 1970s: how far have some of them attempted to implement the Islamization of knowledge in their curricula? How far have they have been successful?

Farid Alatas - There has been very little development along these lines. It is still very much at the level of rhetoric. And I think it is likely to remain that way. The only way in which Islam can be brought into closer alignment with knowledge is if people start to do empirical work. And that takes me to my own understanding of these matters. I think that, rather than to talk about Islamizing knowledge, one should actually look at Islamic traditions as sources of concepts and ideas, and do actual research with that.

For instance, if one is an historian, a sociologist, or an anthropologist, one should look at Al-Biruni, at Ibn Khaldun, at various other thinkers, look at their concepts, look at their theories. The idea is to reconstruct their ideas, and undertake empirical historical research with these ideas. That is the way you make use of the Islamic tradition to contribute to knowledge.

There has been some movement along these lines, but it is a wide open area for new research.

Religioscope - You see the Islamization of knowledge going beyond the idea of decolonizing the mind - it goes much deeper. However, when we look around the world, those different attempts are quite often related to trends evoking 'unfinished decolonization'. In many cases, it has little to do with metaphysical considerations, but more with political ones, and not only in Islam.

Farid Alatas - That is right. Often the discussion on the Islamization of knowledge starts with a critique of the West, and in many cases does not go beyond it, with exceptions here and there. Regarding the work of ISTAC, for instance, they have been elaborating what they understand to be the metaphysical and epistemological basis for knowledge. They are doing it today, and I think there are scholars in other parts of the world who have been making some progress in that area. And in fact you have been seeing more and more literature in the past ten to twenty years that addresses epistemological issues, which would be of use to those who are interested in providing that basis for the social sciences and humanities. But for the most part, the work has been reactionary, reacting to what they see as the problems affecting Western knowledge and talking about the decolonization or dewesternization of knowledge, but not going beyond that in terms of elaborating an alternative.

Religioscope - If I understand your remarks, this approach had some level of success in economics, e.g. Islamic banking, but you see the approach as being doomed in the social sciences.

Farid Alatas - That is a good way to put it! Yes, I do see it as doomed. Where there is great promise is for the revival of thinkers from the classical Islamic tradition and the development of modern reconstructions of its thought, and then doing theoretical and empirical work. But this is rarely done.

I myself am interested in Ibn Khaldun, and I have started to do this. I have actually published in that area [see references below]. I think a lot more can be done, regarding Ibn Khaldun, as well as other such classical thinkers.


Alatas, Syed Farid. 2006. "A Khaldunian Exemplar for a Historical Sociology for the South", Current Sociology 54(3): 397-411.

Alatas, Syed Farid. 2006. "Ibn Khaldun" Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Blackwell Publishers.

Alatas, Syed Farid. 2007. "The Historical Sociology of Muslim Societies: Khaldunian Applications", International Sociology 22(3): 267-288.

Ibn Khaldun. 1967. The Muqaddimah, translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sachau, Edward C. (trans.) 1910. Alberinu's India: An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about AD 1030, Delhi: Low Price Publications.

The interview took place at the National University of Singapore and was conducted by Jean-François Mayer.

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