Interest in Islamic Studies has grown rapidly in recent years, but not always for the best of reasons. The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed an upsurge of similar disciplines at a time when the colonial powers (specifically Great Britain and France) were attempting to understand the religious references and practical motivations of their colonized subjects. Research then was oriented toward a specific need: to determine the values and practices of the newly colonized. Acquiring knowledge of "the other" (a rare pursuit in any event) was a lesser consideration. The colonial powers' need to gain full mastery of the tools that would optimize colonial management, that would advance the "civilizing mission," and that would allow them to derive maximum advantage from the knowledge they acquired— directly from certain scholars (ulamâ)—with the intention of using religion and religious dignitaries to legitimize their power, were the dominant concerns. Orientalist studies unencumbered by political considerations were the exception. What flourished for decades was a self-interested study of and research into the question of Islam. From a political perspective, such a trend was as understandable as it was natural.
Today, "Islamic Studies" seem equally driven by self-interest. But now, such studies are dealing with data that is much more concrete and that interact in complex and far-reaching ways. Western societies are now experiencing three distinct phenomena that have drawn their attention to and expanded research about Islam: the increased visibility of new generations of western Muslims; an ongoing migratory flow that seems unlikely to slow and more likely to accelerate; and finally, terrorism, which looms as a threat to both the western and the Islamic world. To these domestic factors should be added the realities of international politics; namely, the central question of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the case of Iran, the question of Turkish membership in the European Union, and the pervasively binary way in which the questions of the clash (and possible alliance) of civilizations are framed. In each of these instances, Islamic Studies are directly or indirectly involved as part of an attempt to understand and to prevent, to protect ourselves, to dominate, and even to fight should the adversary be violent Islamism. As a consequence, sociologists, political scientists, and terrorism experts churn out a mind-numbing volume of research on Islam, on Muslims, on identity, immigration, Islamism, radicalization, violence, terrorism, and so on. Some of their work may be commissioned by governmental agencies and some by major corporations. Such subjects are seen as being of immediate concern and receive multi-million dollar funding. Today, like yesterday, research is fueled by self-interest.
The first difficulty to arise from this carefully orchestrated infatuation with Islamic Studies (and which may well be the major obstacle to be overcome) is the fact that it reduces several centuries of the Islamic legal heritage (fiqh), studies of the creed ('aqîda), philosophical progress (kalam), mystical thought (sûfi), and social and political inquiry (siyâsa shar'iyya) to elementary, contemporary surveys of political ideologies, migrations, and social movements. Over the last 30years, new specialists in Islam have emerged. They are primarily sociologists or political scientists, who have been joined in the last six years by terrorism experts. The study of religious thought proper (of theology, of its premises, its internal complexities and its development) has been relegated to a subsidiary position, if it is not totally absent. Beyond the ongoing and intense concern generated by the conflict in Iraq, we see little interest in the richness of the Sunni and Sh'ia traditions, their millennia-long relationship, and their respective theological and juridical realms.
Surprisingly, Islamic Studies appear to have abandoned the academic chairs that ought to have been theirs by right, where the emphasis was on the study of theology, philosophy, and the history of thought. It is considered proper today to quote the rationalist philosopher Averroes to illustrate to what an extent "something" or "someone" in Islam can be identified as approaching western philosophy. The omnipresence of Averroes in the academic discourse of political correctness stands also as a negative indicator of a lack of knowledge and recognition of Islam's great theologians and thinkers down through the centuries. Universities in the West must seek the kind of knowledge of other civilizations and cultures — particularly that of Islam (though we could also make the same argument with regard to India and China) — that is driven neither by ideological agendas nor collective fears. The decision to be taken is a political one, a challenge that cannot be avoided.
If we are to study the scientific categories that bear on the teaching of Islamic thought, its heritage, and its contemporary expression, we must adopt a holistic approach that would establish, as a prerequisite, those fields of knowledge to be given immediate priority. Obsession with the struggle against "radicalization and terrorism" paints a picture of contemporary Islamic Studies as an academic territory besieged by dangerously utilitarian political considerations. But, if we are to be serious about respecting the diversity of civilizations, about the necessity of dialogue between them, and about promoting common values, we must, on an urgent basis, rethink the content of our curricula. The study of religion proper involves theology and theological scholars (ulamâ), the teaching of law and jurisprudence (fiqh), and the study of legal scholars (fuqahâ') alongside an historical and critical approach to Islamic history and thought (with its philosophers and its trends), but all such disciplines are cruelly lacking today.
No less important is the question of the professors and instructors themselves: while it is generally accepted that Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists (even though they may be practising believers) can approach their field of study in an objective manner, everything seems to indicate that the same is not possible for Muslim faculty members, whose objectivity is cast into doubt (especially if they are practising Muslims), or who may be implicitly invited to defend theses perceived in the West as "pro-western." Even an informal, statistical survey of the profile of professorial staff in Islamic Studies in western societies would tend to confirm the trend — as reflected in hiring. Under the guise of objectivity (a fundamental requirement in the academic field that can brook no compromise), an essentially "exogenous" form of teaching has been established. If the intention is to understand the Islamic referential universe both "objectively" and "from within," such a situation becomes of necessity problematic.
The third challenge is to establish a distance between the stress generated by current affairs, and the objective study of contemporary Islamic thought. Violence, terrorism, and the repeated insistence that "Islamic authorities" denounce terrorism often prevent us from realizing that we are dealing with a world caught up in intellectual ferment, a world that, from Morocco to Indonesia, from the United States to Australia by way of Europe and Turkey, is creating a body of fresh, compelling, audacious critical thought, which is not merely the work of those thinkers known to and recognized by the West. Alongside the highly publicized statements about modernity, rationalism, women, the sharî'a, and violence by certain public figures, there is a deep-down, deliberate process of evolution underway in every Islamic society in the world. Far from rushing to conclusions, far from populist, ideological speech, the academic world must take this process seriously, study it, and present its outlines and its implications. A significant part of the Islamic Studies curriculum must be devoted to serious study of the intellectual production of its most prominent representatives (which implies mastery of Arabic, Urdu, and other languages) and of the relations and tensions between generations (by historically contextualizing data). Only in the light of such knowledge do the comparative theological and sociological approaches begin to make sense. Only then can serious correspondences be established, as opposed to the dangerous and simplistic notion that Islam is still in its medieval period (for Muslims, this argument goes, the year is only 1428); that it must evolve and experience its own aggiornamento before it can catch up with the West and with modernity. But when this kind of academic stricture is laid down as a prerequisite, the study of a religion or of a civilization is no longer academic or objective. Instead, it feeds into ideologies, maintains domination, and gives aid and comfort to arrogance.
In everyday speech and within academia, a distinction must be drawn between Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and political Islam, Islamism, and Islamists on the other. The distinction is essential if contemporary Islamic Studies are to progress in any meaningful way. Assuming the distinction has been made, there must still be a serious, critical reappraisal of the instruction being offered in many of our universities. Historical depth (the direct result of the break with the classical heritage, as noted above) is currently neglected; it is as though "political Islam" had sprung upon the world in the second half of the 20th century. At best, those thinkers of the classical period quoted by contemporary Islamists are identified without even taking the time to study what exactly those thinkers said (and not what their contemporary interpreters would have them say). So it is that certain violent groups are lent an a posteriori interpretative authority that is based on nothing more than a priori negligence (or ignorance). Perhaps the outstanding example of this treatment is Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered the original extremist thinker. Such reductionism is not merely reprehensible; it also reveals how authority and perspective can be shifted and reassigned. The speech and actions of today's violent Islamists are the windows through which the Islamic heritage and Islamic scholars are re-read and evaluated. Such an approach is neither serious nor academic, yet it is a recurring figure in research studies.
We must also insist on a historical perspective on the variants of political Islam (from movements reminiscent of liberation theology to violent and literalist movements, by way of legalist or pro-democracy movements, not at all unlike trends in Christianity and Judaism); and on the internal development of these movements (in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia, for example).
Contemporary Islamic Studies face the major challenge of reconciling students who are drawn to the field with a complex, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional world. Knowledge of languages, cultures, memories, and histories — of social dynamics and evolution — are the essential parameters for the study of "the other" as they actually are, and not simply as people who make up an objective, demographic, cultural, or political threat. This is what responsible citizens need; it is what the universities must focus on in order to provide them with the tools of knowledge and skill necessary to bring about social, economic, media and political action in the future.
The challenges are many. There are indications that things are changing and moving forward, owing to two concomitant phenomena: more and more western Muslims are entering Islamic Studies, bringing with them their knowledge and their sensibilities—from within—while, at the same time, professors and instructors have begun to question the old paradigms much more insistently, to multiply the angles of approach in order to objectify "Islam," and to transform it into a more coherent, more complete and, ultimately, more academic discipline. But we are still far from a satisfactory solution; the obstacles are many and complex. The question is both politicized and political. The investment of public and private funds in research is driven by agendas that are not always exclusively "academic," which explains the strongly ideological and utilitarian approaches favoured today. But the greatest obstacle—which must be hurdled before anything else can take place—may well be that of explaining to politicians and to donors that long-term investment in serious Islamic Studies programs — in a complete curriculum ranging from theology to philosophy by way of the political and social sciences — in close connection with contemporary internal dynamics is, in fact, imperative to protect the long-term interests of our democracies. Short-term political calculation is as a dangerous a game in a university setting as it is anywhere else. Only investment in basic research, coupled with full respect for scientific principles and objectivity, will enable students to deal with the challenges of globalization in the pluralistic societies of tomorrow. Islamic Studies, precisely for the reasons I have sketched out above, and particularly in the current political context, must be approached with full seriousness. It is incumbent upon politicians, university administrators, professors and students to have the courage to say as much and to make a firm commitment to reevaluate in critical and constructive fashion what our institutions offer us today.
Tariq Ramadan is a professor at Oxford University/Erasmus University