July 19, 2012 By

On the Future of Islamic Intellectualism

Interview with Dr. Syed Farid Al Attas

farid al athas photo

Dr. Syed Farid Al Attas is the Associate Professor in Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. In an interview with Muhsin Parari, Dr Farid Al Attas speaks on several issues that matter: the east-west dichotomy, decolonization of Knowledge, Islam, the Project of Islamisation of knowledge, Muslim intellectualism etc.
Discussing your personal formation as an intellectual, do you place yourself as part of the traditional dialogue between east and west?

That is a good way of thinking. Well, you know I was grown up in a household where there were always intellectual discussions. My father was an intellectual. He was a sociologist. He was one of the leading sociologists in south East Asia, in third world. And he was very strong critic of academic imperialism. He was a strong critic of domination of western ideas over non-western social scientists. He had spoken of this idea and conceptualized this idea in terms of the idea of the captive mind. So I was influenced by that as I was growing up. I remember, always hearing about Ibn Khaldun from my father, when I was a young teenager. Then I was fascinated by Ibn Khaldun even though I didn’t know anything about him. But, later on, when I went to universities I read on Ibn Khaldun and developed a serious interest until I began to write and publish articles on ibn khaldun and two books are also forthcoming. So I have done lots of work on Ibn Khaldun and I think most of this is because of my father’s influence. And my interest in ibn khaldun is part of the concerns in developing ideas form the non-western traditions, bringing them into the social sciences. In that sense, I think it is correct to say that I am trying to bridge between civilizations, because I don’t reject the conventional social sciences from the west. Only thing that I criticize it for being parochial, claiming it to be the universal. And our own intellectual traditions also need to be enriched by the developments took place in the west, in human sciences. Those people who know their own tradition as well as the western tradition are interested in creating something new from that.

So, is it right to define you specifically as an orientalist or occidentalist?

No, I would not accept these categories because one should be neither one. One should neither be an orientalist nor an occidentalist, because an orientalist or occidentalist would be guilty of creating false or problematic constructions of the other. Of course I am not interested in doing that. And I think, we are really cosmopolitan in the sense that we believe in all good ideas wherever it come from. So, we don’t select ideas or concepts on the basis of the ethnic, or national, or civilizational origin.

Of course, I am rooted to a particular tradition, Islamic tradition, in terms of my values and in terms of my interest. When it comes to doing sociology, your values may decide your interest or selection of topics, guide the way you put your findings to practice when it comes to bring about change and trying to influence the direction of things…etc. but the scientific aspect of the whole process, to me, is not determined by religion. It is determined by truth. When I spoke about truth I didn’t mean that religion was opposed to truth. What I meant was, when it comes to selection of ideas and concepts we cannot say that we restrict ourselves to Islam, we restrict ourselves to particular tradition, because concepts are tools. And any tool which is useful for the analysis of the society should be used, whether it comes from Quran or does not come from Quran is irrelevant. You cannot reject a particular conceptual tool or theory because it is not based on Quran. The fact that if that theory or concept is useful and brings knowledge, in other words, satisfies the requirements of truth, in terms of level of certainty, then by definition that knowledge is Islamic. But it doesn’t have to be explicitly a knowledge, or idea, or concept that is in the Quran.

Being influenced by your identity as a Muslim, how do you define decolonizing the knowledge? 

Well, decolonizing knowledge of course means….. Reading knowledge from the state of being colonized to one is not colonized. The colonization is that the mind of the scholar, at different levels, is colonized in terms of his attitude, kind of issues he wants to study, the way he prioritize his research, he may pick on issues, pick on topics which are not problems of the society. But, he picks such problems because they are fashionable in the social sciences in the west. So, he picks upon those topics. So he is not independent in his choice. His mind is colonized. One may also be colonized in terms of theoretical frame work also. We may choose frame works which are popular because we are not thinking independently. Decolonization can mean creating a mind more independent, autonomous from the influences around the scholar, whether it is western influence or influence from the state. Decolonization of knowledge means liberating oneself from both western as well as the local or national agenda.   One has to be rooted in a particular surrounding to understand the problems we see in the society but at the same time you should be autonomous that you are not dictated to. And you can creatively engage in a process and bring up new knowledge and ideas. Decolonization not only refers to liberation of the mind but also to dismantling of the academic structures which encourage colonization. For example, control of journal publishing by American-British publishers. Most of the academic journals are published in the west, especially in US.to some extent, Germany, France and Netherlands. And I believe vast majority of research funds come from western countries, as well. The research funds also have an impact on researchers’ mindscape, sometimes.

The terminology of decolonizing knowledge always orients on the eurocentricity of the knowledge. Are you also part of this anti-western movement?

Yea, I think I am. And I am not the first to do it. The older generation, my father’s generation was very active in doing that. The problem is not just of western hegemony. There are some other forms of hegemonies. For example, many third world countries, the state there is very imperialistic. Even that very state may encourage anti-western discourse, on the ground that western discourse is imperialistic. The same state may behave in an imperialistic manner, may control academic engagements, may control discourse…etc. I am interested in autonomy from that western discourse as well as our own governmental control.

The notion of islamization of knowledge was also part of this anti-western movement.it has both western and eastern routs. For example, Naqib Alatas is pioneer of that from the east while Ismail Razi Faruqi is from west. What do you see as the role these notions in the whole course?

In my view point, for the most part of ‘islamization of knowledge’ entirely, has been unproductive. I mean, with reference to … there are several schools of thought among the proponents of the islamization of knowledge, with reference to Prof. Naqib, as he once told to me as he was really talking about Islamization of mind, not islamization of disciplines. What he meant was the islamization of the mind of the scholars. And I think that is very fair notion of the islamization. I do disagree with those he speak about islamization of disciplines, where they are thinking about having Islamic sociology, Islamic economy, Islamic political science, Islamic theory of international relations…etc. that I think is illogical. Those are illogical propositions. Because the disciplines are tools. They are scientific tools, you know. They are theories, concepts and methods which are universal. The mind of a person engaging in theorizing and conceptualizing be it Islamic or Christian whatever, that is merely a concept. That is not Islamic. For example, when ibn khaldun studies rise and decline of states why it is not islamic theory? It wasn’t islamic or unislamic, but it was a theory- a tool to understand something in the history. For example he says, the state is found in the tribal military support and the tribes are bound together by the feeling of communality which he calls asabiyya. Now, what is islamic or unislamic about the concept of asabiyya? It is merely a concept. That concept can be used by a muslim or nonmuslim. It is a tool.

On these grounds, can someone say that Islam independently doesn’t have any epistemology?

Islam does have an epistemology. That is sufficiently so universal but it doesn’t impose a particular theoretical framework, on any scientific disciplines. For example, any epistemology found in islam does not oblige somebody to be an empiricist, or does not oblige somebody to be a rationalist, or does not oblige somebody to be a conflict theorist, or a structural functionalist…etc. It does not oblige anybody to follow ibn khaldun. It doesn’t province anyone following the political economy frame work of Marx. Though the metaphysical and epistemological positions of Islam are of high level and universal it does not result imposition of any particular frame work.

There is a new group of scholars like Talal Asad, Judith Butler who are striving, on the ground of post secular turn, to give agency to traditional knowledge systems like Islam as independent critical categories; aren’t they part of the decolonizing movement?

Yea, there are people who do that. The impact of it is minimal. They are very well known. But they haven’t yet come to the main stream. They have not impacted the way sociology is taught. And they couldn’t have an impact on the writing of introductory sociology so that the sociologist might think in the same way. Unless you have to be a student of sociolgy of islam, then you will be coming to contact with the world of Talal Asad. And there will be some impact of Talal Asad on you, but not on mainstream, general sociology. And of course, some of these post secularist trends are part of this decolonizing notion, at large.

There has been the notion of affirming that islam has the potential of being an independent critical category, having its own analytical tools, be it social theory or political analysis or philosophy itself. Intellectuals like Ali Shariati, Muhammed Asad were among the pioneers of this idea which was also acknowledged by E.W Said. Do you also agree with that?

I agree with that; but I am also saying that those people you mention do not say that islam should be the sole source of the intellectual tradition, or that Islam should be the only source for conceptualizing a theory. What they are saying is that the tradition is sufficiently rich to generate these ideas. But they never said, certainly not Shariati, Said and Asad, they restrict our source of ideas only to Islam. In my own work on Ibn Khaldun, I have developed a theoretical frame work based on ibn khaldun’s model applying it to the study of ottoman history and applying it to the rise of Wahabi state and so on. Although the basic frame work was of Ibn Khaldun, I claim that ibn khaldun’s frame work lacks economic conceptualization of the political economy. There is no conceptualization of economy. He talks about two kinds of societies but he doesn’t talk about economic basis of the societies. In Marxist terms there is no more reproduction. So I bring in Marx and Max Weber to bring concepts of economy, to improvise ibn khaldun theory using Marx and Weber. So no tradition is self-sufficient. Marx and Weber cannot be used to explain rise and decline of North Africa. Because they lack certain things ibn khaldun has. But ibn khaldun also lack something. This is an example. I don’t think any tradition can be said to be self-sufficient.

But the problem now is that everybody looking at western tradition as the main tradition. And as people as shariati saying that is not the only tradition. Islam has its own tradition. But he himself was deeply influenced by western writers. The idea of sticking only to Islam itself is an unislamic idea.

The post arab spring muslim intellectualism has strived toward developing islam’s own academic tools to weave political conceptualization and policy making. The notion of Maqasid-us-sharia (objectives of sharia) was often taken under the consideration of the academia on this ground. Would you comment on it?

I find all these as normative approaches. They make claims about what our society ‘should be’. And I don’t see one analytical idea, category, concept or theory has come out of it. People involve in islamization of knowledge, to me, have not created a new theory or new sociological, political theory. The best they have done, I think, is in the field of economics. But Islamic Economics is also very problematic. To a large extent it has inherited the negative aspects of conventional economics in terms of abstract, hypothetical, deductive motives rather than the empirically oriented. And it has adapted the conservative bourgeois economics to some extent, using marxist terms. There is no strong critique of capitalism from their side. So the whole Islamic Economics is actually part of capitalist structure. But there are exception as such as theories by Baqir Sadr and Ayotellah Taleghani, from shia tradition, which is form the beginning of the anti-capitalist notions. Their approach is not islamizing the neo-classical economics but it is more an economical thought from the specific islamic tradition. So they are not to be included in that discipline of Islamic Economics that is really generated by Pakistani economists, sometimes funded by Saudi in seventies to eighties.

In conclusion, how do you see the future of muslim intellectualism?

I have a very pessimistic view about the future of muslim intellectualism. I think academic dependency, intellectual imperialism are here for a long time. There are pockets of dissents here and there. But main stream social sciences in all the muslim countries are unaware of such movements. The major institutions of research and universities in countries are generally in line with the global trend in social science. At the same time Muslims do not fund research. They fund very little money in the field, whether independent or colonized research. So I don’t take this situation in optimistic terms at all.

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