Since the end of the 19th century, Muslim intellectuals have been trying to suggest ideas and concepts that could empower Muslim societies in their struggle against cultural, economic and political hegemony of the West. A variety of their intellectual projects has been developed in the process of continuous dialogue with the Islamic theological, political and legal heritage (turath). The issue of heritage and its place in modern society were a topic of fierce debates between Muslim scholars, theologians and intellectuals for almost the entire 20th century and still is a subject of a sharp controversy and discussions.
Dealing with the crises of post-colonialism and challenges of modernity, some intellectuals have suggested ignoring the heritage and following the Western model of modernization. For them, the Islamic heritage is a heavy outdated burden that needs to be got rid of.
Others decided that the main cause of the crisis is that Muslims deviated from the pure Islam practiced during Prophet Muhammad’s time. Consequently, they thought that a panacea for the crisis is to turn to the example of “the righteous ancestors” (al-salaf al-salih) under the slogan “back to Quran and Sunna” in order to repeat their experience.
Besides these two approaches, there is an alternative so-called reformist approach, which considers all appeals to total rejection of the heritage as a part of the destructive influences of colonialism. According to the advocates of this approach, rejection of the sources from which Muslims have been extracting knowledge for many centuries will lead to nothing but the aggravation of the intellectual crisis in the Muslim world.
At the same time, this approach is highly critical of the idea that following the “righteous ancestors” or repeating their experience can solve any cultural, social and economic problems in Muslim societies.
Supporters of the reformist approach try to renew, reconstruct or reform Islamic religious, political and economic concepts using Islamic methodologies and principles. They offer a thorough reconstruction of the body of Islamic knowledge and a new paradigm that would replace the traditional epistemological and methodological systems within the Islamic disciplines.
Searching for new patterns of knowledge and thinking about new paradigms, Muslim intellectuals entered into tough debates with both the secularists and the Salafis.
For reformists, such questions as what to do with the heritage, what role it could play in society and how to understand and interpret it in the context of globalization and national Muslim states – are not just a pure intellectual matter. For instance, the intellectual discourse of the pillars, on which the contemporary Muslim thought is rest – Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (1935-2010) and Hassan Hanafi (1935) – implies that knowledge is not neutral. According to them, Western colonialism destroyed not only the pre-modern social institutions of Muslim societies, but also various pre-modern forms of acquisition and transmission of knowledge. Therefore, a complete rejection of Islamic social, political and legal systems and concepts that are still accepted and understood by ordinary Muslims will only strengthen the Western cultural hegemony in Muslim societies. In addition, these thinkers acutely raised the question of whether the Muslim intellectual can or has a right to produce and rely on his own philosophical framework, which stem from the Islamic heritage or whether he has the right to produce a certain kind of narrative outside of the rules or patterns that commonly accepted inside the Western academia.
First, in order to put forward a new paradigm, Muslim intellectuals (notably those mentioned above) raised the issue of methodology and epistemology. They critically approached the Western historical and philological methods of study of Islam and Muslim societies, revealing their Eurocentric worldview, orientalism, broad generalizations, the use of knowledge for political and ideological (colonial) goals and the tendency to search external influences in the Islamic cultural heritage while ignoring its originality or peculiarities. The intellectual liberation reached the point that, for example, al-Jabiri ceased to refer to the works of Orientalists in general. He preferred to deal with primary sources directly, considering the very tradition of reference in Oriental studies adopted in Western academia – as a form of the cultural hegemony, which mostly prevents the Muslim intellectual to conduct a critical dialogue with his own heritage.
Calls for epistemological and methodological shift in Islamic disciplines
Al-Jabiri, in his four-volume magnum opus “Critique of Arab Reason” critically examined the epistemology of major Islamic disciplines and relationship between power and knowledge in pre-modern Muslim history. In the essence of his critical intellectual project, there is an idea that before the Arab countries became colonies of European states, there was a certain episteme (al-nizam al-ma’rifi) in the Muslim world – a system of knowledge, certain ideas, discourses, concepts, principles, intellectual foundations of the Arab-Islamic culture. Inside this episteme was formed what al-Jabiri calls “the Arab Reason” (al-‘aql al-‘arabi). A thorough analysis of Arab-Islamic culture (primarily written) has led al-Jabiri to the idea that there are three epistemological systems, which shaped and represent “Arab Reason” (“the Arab-Muslim way of thinking and cognizing”): bayan (methodology of classical Islamic disciplines as Quranic hermeneutics, law, the science of prophetic narration etc.), irfan (gnostic, neo-platonic, Sufi concepts) and burhan (“strong argument” – a rationalistic modes of thought, notably philosophical and legal heritage of Andalusia and Maghreb). According to al-Jabiri, in order to achieve a new Nahda – an intellectual and cultural revival, epistemological systems of bayan and ‘irfan should be reconstructed on the basis of burhan and then an epistemological break (qat’iyya al-ma’rifiyya) with the old modes of knowledge should be achieved. Islamic modernity (hadatha) and contemporary intellectual thought should be shaped on basis of burhan. Because of this intellectual position and centrality of Ibn Rushd’s heritage in his project, al-Jabiri was called by some of his contemporaries as “the last Averroist”.
Al-Jabiri’s famous interlocutor – Hassan Hanafi – in his immense multivolume intellectual project “Heritage and Renewal” offers a new paradigm in the Islamic disciplines. According to him, while the Arab-Muslim world is in deep crisis, suffering military defeats and does exist as a political object rather than subject, a new shift in interpretation of heritage and creation a paradigm that would harmoniously unite authenticity with modernity is a vital issue (and no less important than economic and political problems). First, Hassan Hanafi reconstructs methods and concepts of the Islamic theology (in its Sunni forms). Then, he creates new methodologies of the Islamic law (usul al-fiqh), hadithology, Quranic hermeneutics, Islamic philosophy (falsafa) and Sufism etc. The new paradigm of Islamic disciplines deals with the problems of the contemporary Muslim and the challenges of the modernity. Pre-modern scholastic theology shifts to the system, which promotes liberation, dignity, justice, development, progress, struggle against colonialism etc.
However, both projects became neither widespread nor mainstream. They were not supported by the political elites, but rather rejected or suppressed. Traditional Islamic institutions reacted to them with strong skepticism or harsh criticism. Despite the fact that Hassan Hanafi and al-Jabiri were involved into politics (the former established “Islamic leftism” movement and was one of the founders of the Egyptian “Tajammo” party, and the latter was a member of the “Socialist Union of Popular Forces” party), their parties were not popular and failed to gain power.
Interestingly, today the ideas and concepts of both thinkers are widely discussed by intellectuals and theologians in Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, rather than in the Arab world.
The project of the “Islamization of knowledge”
Nevertheless, among the reformist Muslim intellectuals, there are those who received support of political elites and whose ideas are institutionalized through a variety of universities, research centers and think tanks.
We are primarily talking about the project of “Islamization of Knowledge” (IOK) – an enterprise of American-Palestinian scholar Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (1921-1986). The core points of the project al-Faruqi discussed in 1977 at a conference in Mecca. His concept is based on the idea that the main reason of the weakness of the Muslim world is a deep crisis of the Islamic thought and education, and all other economic, political and social problems are results of this crisis. Therefore, the most important task of the project is to increase the level of education in universities, to reform the foundations (usul) of the traditional Islamic disciplines and to create a curriculum based on harmonious synthesis of secular and Islamic social sciences within the paradigm of tawhid.
Al-Faruqi believed that one of the subversive effects of colonialism is the division of secular and Islamic knowledge. In his opinion, because of this division Islamic community (umma) have the leaders who are not familiar with Islamic knowledge and separated from their cultural roots, values and worldview based on tawhidic paradigm.
The advocates of IOK emphasize that all social sciences, notably history, sociology and philosophy, reflect the ethos prevailing in the West after Reformation. These disciplines were a product of Western knowledge, an outcome of a Great Western Transmutation and established with a great skepticism and hostility towards what they had perceived as non-rational or religious. Thus, one of the main goals of the project is to extract from Islamic sources all the knowledge that could assist in addressing critical social, environmental, economic and other issues and dispel the idea that Islamic heritage is nothing but an exotic subject of research for the orientalists or obsolete and useless “folklore”.
Thus, Islamic political elites of some countries of the OIC supported the project of IOK. In order to implement the concepts of the project, two international Islamic universities were established – one in Islamabad (IIUI), the other in Kuala Lumpur (IIUM). In addition, al-Faruqi, with his like-minded colleagues, established in 1981 the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which has regional offices in Washington, London and in a few capitals of Muslim world now. The Turkish and Malaysian politicians are supporting the project and even relying on its concepts in their academic work (for example, Ahmet Davutoglu (who was a professor in IIUM) and Anwar Ibrahim).
This is on the practical level. As for the theoretical level, the IIIT stimulated various Islamic scholars to contribute to al-Faruqi’s concept of IOK and produce PhD dissertations, academic books and articles within the theoretical framework of his paradigm.
For instance, Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman elaborated on Islamic theory of International Relations, attempting to propose an alternative to the Western IR theory. In his book, he drastically reconsiders all Islamic political concepts and creating explanatory models in a strong contradiction with traditional Sunni and Shia political discourse. Another intellectual and politician – Ahmet Davutoglu explains differences in political culture, attitudes to power and knowledge in Muslim and Western societies through the epistemological and ontological differences in Western and Islamic weltenshauungs/worldviews. In other words, according to Davutoglu, Western and Islamic political cultures are different because they represent completely different paradigms. These thoughts reveals a certain influence of al-Faruqi’s concepts. And Davutoglu’s idea that there is a hierarchy in Islamic paradigm – God – man – nature, according to which the person is a caliph (vicegerent) of God on earth, who is held responsible for his actions and has to contribute to development of civilization – is also shares certain similarities with al-Faruqi’s ideas.
It should be also noted that the concept of Islamization of knowledge is widely used in the development of Islamic economics and banking.
Previously mentioned thinkers are authors of different intellectual projects. However, what they all have in common is that they, albeit in different ways, try to reconstruct the traditional Islamic disciplines, concepts and ideas and to formulate new paradigms of knowledge. The issue of the Islamic alternatives and re-reading of the Islamic heritage in the context of globalized and rapidly changing world is still one of the major intellectual issues for contemporary Muslim thinkers from North Africa to Southeast Asia.
The fact that today in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and other Muslim countries, the parties that refer to the Islamic heritage in their political activity and articulate a new Islamic discourse became a strong political power even more emphasizes an importance of the Islamic heritage and the relevance of the theories, which Muslim intellectuals produce through the dialogue with it.
However, Western academics often criticize Muslim “renewalist” or reformist discourse for not considering historical facts carefully or even ignoring some of them, and for representing Islam as a completely monolithic entity, while in Western academia it is accepted that there are many forms of Islam, not one. Probably, sometimes scholars do not take into account that for Muslim intellectuals the heritage is not just about scientific research or pure academia. The heritage present in their life and it is a part of the ideological struggle and a historical memory of the society they live in. Therefore, of course, considering the heritage as a tool for the reforms in Muslim society or as a mean of combating the cultural hegemony of the West and mobilization the masses for political activity, Muslim intellectuals, consciously or not, misinterpret or ignore some historical facts.
And obviously, they cannot accept a concept that there are multiple forms of Islam, because reformist discourse mostly proceed from the premise that Muslims are united and agreed on the paradigm of tawhid. Within this paradigm, they surely can disagree over some other superficial or even important theological matters.
Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Republic of Azerbaijan
 A prominent Moroccan intellectual.
 A well-known Egyptian thinker, professor of philosophy at Cairo University.
 Hasan Hanafi. Al-Turath wa al-tajdid: mouqifuna min al-turath al-qadim (Heritage and Renewal: Our position regarding tradition). Cairo: Al-Maktab al-misri lil-matbuat, pp. 72-80.
 Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri. Nahnu wa al-turath. Beirut: Al-Markaz al-thaqafi al-arabi, 1993, pp. 14-15.
 Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri. Naqd al-aql al-arabi (A Critique of Arab Reason, 4 volumes, 1984-2001).
 Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri. Takwin al-aql al-arabi. Markaz dirasat al-wahda al-arabiyya: Beirut, 1994.
 Hasan Hanafi. Min al-aqida ila al-thawra: Muhawala li I’ada bina Ilm usul al-din (From Dogma to Revolution: a reconstruction of Islamic Theology, 5 vol.). Cairo: Dar al-Tanwir, 1988.
 Ismail Raji al-Raruqi. Islamization of knowledge: General principles and work plan. Herndon VA: IIIT, 1997.
 Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman. Towards an Islamic Theory of International Relations: New Directions for Islamic Methodology and Thought. Herndon VA: IIIT, 1987.
 Ahmet Davutoglu. Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. University Press of America, 1994.
 Refer to Ismail Raji al-Faruqi. Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life. h: IIIT, 199.