Reflections on the Islamization of Knowledge

June 4, 2009 | 10 comments
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The historical grandeur of Islamic intellectual achievement has been both a blessing and a burden for modern Muslims. There is, on the one hand, a great and justified sense of pride in the accomplishments of the giants of the tradition—the Sibawaihs, Ibn Sinas, Ibn Haythams, and Al-Ghazalis. But this pride is mixed with a nagging sense of inadequacy to the world-changing stature of these forebears—the anxiety, in other words, that the heyday of Islamic civilization has passed and may never be revived.

This is not to suggest that contemporary Muslim intellectuals view their tradition as a mere artifact for historical curiosity and nostalgia. On the contrary, since the nineteenth century there has been a vigorous debate about how to negotiate the encounter with Western learning, science and technology (which is also a debate about the encounter with Western power). In that time, the great majority of Muslim thinkers has affirmed the continued relevance of the Islamic intellectual and religious heritage to the challenges of the contemporary world. Many have recognized the need to incorporate new knowledge and disciplines into revised educational curricula, but few have capitulated when it comes to the values and worldview that inform such curricula.

Some Muslim intellectuals have tried to go beyond mere rhetorical allegiance to Islam by fleshing out what a theoretical Islamic framework for intellectual inquiry in the modern world would look like. Scholars affiliated with the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Virginia, for example, champion a program of research referred to as the “Islamization of Knowledge.” This program “endeavors to elucidate Islamic concepts that integrate Islamic revealed knowledge with human knowledge and revives Islamic ethical and moral knowledge” and aims to “contribute to the progress of human civilization in ways that will give it a meaning and a direction derived from divine guidance.” In addition to publishing books and journals under its aegis, IIIT sponsors conferences and educational programs, and is also known for its work in interfaith dialogue.

The IIIT publications, in a fair assessment, have had a modest importance in internal Muslim intellectual debate but little impact in wider academic circles. One notable exception is in the area of Islamic economics, which has attracted sustained interest in non-Muslim circles. (The Qur’anic prohibition of riba—typically interpreted as interest or usury—provided the doctrinal impetus for the rise of Islamic banking in the 1970s and 1980s.) Recent articulations of Islamic political theory have also not gone unnoticed. But in neither of these cases, as far as I know, has outside attention to these contributions resulted in fundamental changes to methodologies or paradigms in these disciplines. In addition, Islamically-oriented publications, including those from IIIT, that seriously set out an alternative framework for intellectual inquiry—such as those that attempt to critique epistemological bias in the social sciences or problematic metaphysics in the hard sciences—have had negligible influence outside the internal discourse.

Is there anything that we, as Latter-day Saints, ought to learn learn from the Muslim experience with modernity and secular knowledge? Would such a thing as a “Mormonization” of knowledge be possible or desirable? If so, what form would it take, and what success could we realistically hope for?

One of the premises of blogs such as this one is the notion that there exists a Mormon perspective (or perspectives) on any number of issues that is worth articulating, debating, or defending. This perspective could be informed by Mormon doctrine, historical experience, social and cultural practice, and even our intellectual tradition—however nascent this might be. In addition, the Mormon concern with education, both institutionally and individually, suggests that there ought to be a Mormon way of teaching (D&C 50 is one possibility) and a Mormon way of learning (“by study and also by faith”, perhaps).

I don’t believe, however, that any of this amounts to a Mormonization of knowledge, and I’m not bothered by that fact. My sense is that scholarship overtly published with such an agenda would be labeled as sectarian and would never be embraced in a wider arena. And, on the theoretical level, I am not sure how many disciplines are amenable to reshaping based on Mormon principles. (The advocates of the Islamization of knowledge are particularly preoccupied with the social sciences and, to a lesser extent, the humanities; perhaps that would also be true in our case.) What we can hope for is the presence of Mormon voices in various disciplines and professions, individuals whose interests and perspectives are informed by a Mormon experience. It is also reasonable to expect that the increasing outside interest in Mormonism and growing acceptance of Mormon studies as a legitimate academic pursuit and specialty will also help us mature as a tradition. In short, there is enough to keep us busy and motivated that I can’t see a Mormonization of knowledge movement meriting top billing on the Mormon intellectual agenda.

But my vision for our future may, I fear, be too small. Perhaps I underestimate what is possible and worthy of pursuit. Unlike Muslims, we have yet to come into our own as an intellectual tradition and are free, for the most part, of its weight. Our brightest days ought to be ahead of us, and who knows what natural-born world-shakers are in our midst.

10 Responses to Reflections on the Islamization of Knowledge

  1. Marc Bohn on June 4, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    “I don’t believe, however, that any of this amounts to a Mormonization of knowledge, and I’m not bothered by that fact.”

    From Brigham’s perspective wouldn’t all knowledge and truth in every field already be “Mormonized” in a sense?

    “All knowledge and wisdom and every good that the heart of man can desire is within the circuit and circle of the faith we have embraced.” Discourses of Brigham Young, 446.

  2. Marc Bohn on June 4, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Great post by the way. I think you capture what I hope increasingly reflects the position of Mormons in modern society… a people distinguishing themselves in various academic fields and in a multitude of professions and influencing the world for good thereby:

    “What we can hope for is the presence of Mormon voices in various disciplines and professions, individuals whose interests and perspectives are informed by a Mormon experience.”

  3. Mark D. on June 4, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    There is a centuries long history of Christian interest free banking as well, although “interest free” in this case usually meant structuring contracts so that it didn’t look like there was any interest.

  4. Jonathan Green on June 4, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Robert, that’s a very interesting comparison. I think you’re right that a “Mormonization of knowledge” would not be the productive. I think that distinctly Mormon contributions to academic disciplines will come to some extent through the study of Mormonism, but to a far greater extent through Mormon scholars’ thinking about Mormon stuff and then discovering relevance in their own fields, even if the connection is not made explicit.

  5. Mark D. on June 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    There really can’t be a coherent Mormon perspective on even the most directly relevant fields without a systematic theology. Since we don’t have one, the traces of the one we once had are largely ignored, and the general consensus is that one would do more harm than good, there may never be a Mormon philosophy, a Mormon metaphysics, a Mormon ethics, a Mormon approach to law, or many of the other approaches that Catholic scholasticism (for example) has in spades and which reverberate in Western language, culture and scholarship to this day.

    Mormonism without a philosophy is about as relevant to contemporary scholarship as Indiana Jones – parochial history and sociology excepted of course.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 4, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I am reading a book of essays by LDS psychiatrists and psychologists who apply LDS perspectives to mental health treatment. A distinct understanding of the nature of human identity and responsibility and purpose seems to make a material difference in both treatment goals and methods.

    On the other hand, I have not seen any distinctive contributions of Mormon doctrines in the “hard sciences”. There are simply not a lot of distinctive LDS statements about the nature of physical reality. Beyond encouraging skepticism about the identification made by “creatio ex nihilo” Christians with the Big Bang, belief in creation out of existing matter (perhaps of kinds not yet identified, such as “finer” spiritual matter) doesn’t seem to have a lot of direct implications. Belief in God as creator does not prevent Mormon scientists from having any of the full range of views on the relative active intervention of god in the process of creation and evolution. The main role of LDS belief seems to be more passive, in accommodating scientific inquiry rather than proscribing it, due to confidence in the ultimate finding of science that God’s role will in the end be confirmed, as He has promised.

    Frankly, I would like to see more LDS scientists willing to stick their necks out to consider the implications of a potentially more active intervention by God in evolution. While LDS belief does not prescribe that level of participation, it does affirm it, and it would seem to be a legitimate question to evaluate whether that line of demarcation can be discerned scientifically, since it seems to be universally acknowledged that it exists somewhere. Simply adopting the consensus mantra that science must be naturalistic in all its assumptions and theories is convenient for the LDS professional scientist, but it refuses to answer the call of God to use our tools of knowledge to learn all we can about the world God created. Surely one aspect of that world is ascertaining where the evidence of god’s participation is discernible and where it is not.

    Modern communications and computer technology allows us to hold in our hands instruments made of metals and minerals–”stones”–which glow by their own power and reveal information about all sorts of things. Essentially they function in the same way as the “white stones” and “Urim and Thummim” described in scripture. I am sure many LDS scientists and engineers have been involved in phases of the technology that got us to here, but has any of them consciously considered that he or she was working toward giving mankind the capability that is promised in Revelation and demonstrated in the Book of Mormon and its translation? We know that concepts used in speculative fiction have inspired real world researchers; yet a concept shown repeatedly in scripture seems to have had no influence on the course of research and development.

  7. Aaron on June 5, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Is there such a thing as Jewification of knowledge?

  8. Ben H on June 10, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Wow, what a bunch of boring responses! (comments 1-5, speaking collectively and not individually)

    I mean, surely there is more to be said in favor of a Mormonization of knowledge, even if you think in the end it is not an attractive project right now. Perhaps the problem is that Robert didn’t really talk directly about the reasons why Mormons would want to consider such a thing. Still, one would think that the bloggers at TimesandSeasons of all places could come up with some reasons on their own. Oh, well, I’m back from a vacation, so . . .

    First, Mormons have universities. Surely there will be some differences in the way those universities approach knowledge and teaching. What are they? In fact, President (of BYU) Holland (now Elder Holland) spoke rather eloquently about the need for universities to actively work on finding and showing the unity of all knowledge. This is something Mormons need to do in our own way. What will be distinctive about that way?

    But before going into that question, actually, I would suggest that the very project of seeing knowledge as unified is distinctive (tho not unique) to Mormonism. There is a growing body of literature describing and documenting how the project of approaching knowledge as a whole has more or less disappeared from the modern university, at least in the U.S. But Mormons specifically believe that truth agrees with truth, and aspire to bring all that truth together. This is a religious call for us, as it may simply not be for many people.

    Simply put, where does a view of the whole happen in the modern university? In a physics class? a biology class? an economics class? nope. Certainly there is a physical aspect to an awful lot of the world, and an economic aspect, an a biological aspect, especially when we note the role of inorganic nature in relation to life. But these are specific ways of approaching the world, and usually focused on certain rather narrow bits of it, or more of it only in extreme abstraction. And it’s not like there is a class on biology as a whole, or physics as a whole, either, but rather a lot of classes on various bits.

    One might suggest that it is in the whole college experience together, with G.E., etc., that one gets a view of the whole of knowledge, but that would be a rather optimistic suggestion. I suggest that the experience of most students will not be much more interdisciplinary than the content of their courses.

    So, here is just one Mormon distinctive regarding knowledge: we seek to bring it all together and take a view of the whole. How might we go about this? Is it possible? What are the costs of ignoring this religious imperative?

  9. Mark D. on June 11, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Ben H, I agree it is possible. The problem here is that for a Mormon world view to be particularly influential in the academy, it needs to be reduced one, or perhaps a small number, of philosophical viewpoints. Well, you can’t really have a Mormon philosophy without something resembling a systematic Mormon theology.

    However, for historical reasons, the Church is traditionally hostile to philosophy and systematic theology. There are quotes from top level authorities saying whatever happens we want to make sure the flow is unidirectional, from the inspired authorities out to the Mormon academics, and never in the reverse direction, lest a renewed apostasy set in, for the same reasons and by the same process it is assumed the last one occurred.

    The Catholic Church has a policy – they don’t have an official systematic theology, let alone an official philosophy. However it is undeniable that some philosopher/theologians have had an enormous influence on Catholic understanding of certain points of doctrine, and even more so on the dominant Catholic approach to academic subjects for centuries afterward.

    If something like that could happen in the Church, so that LDS theological texts rise above the general level of quote books without being construed as either authoritative or apostate, then perhaps we might see a return of one or more rational theologies, followed by Mormon-ish philosophical approaches that might shed new light on a variety of primarily philosophical and social issues in a way “the prophet said so and I have a testimony that he is right” (unfortunately) does not.

  10. Ben H on June 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for picking up the conversation, Mark D.

    Why does it matter if LDS views are influential on others? I would think their main value would be for LDS. And I don’t see how we would even know if they will be influential until we work them out.

    That said, the fact that the IIIT hasn’t had a lot of luck influencing the wider intellectual scene I don’t think is terribly indicative of what effect a Mormonization of knowledge would have, either. First, it is not a university, whereas I would think that the obvious homes for a Mormonization of knowledge would be places like BYU and SVU. There are universities where Islamization could happen, but they are not in the West, where a lot of the action is intellectually and academically (for now). Second, a lot of its energy appears to be inwardly directed anyway. This is partly related to a third factor: it is just getting going. You don’t revive an entire intellectual tradition in ten years, or even twenty, let alone spread it. Similarly, Mormons would have to spend a while mainly talking to one another before they would even know what a Mormon take on knowledge would be. Various individuals might have ideas already, but it would be anyone’s guess whether they are sound reflections of Mormon thought until it went through some sort of peer review.

    I don’t agree that there would have to be a systematic theology for there to be a Mormon approach to knowledge. I think it would suffice for there to be a related set of themes and concerns that shape the inquiry. This is what we see in, for example, the nascent tradition of virtue ethics. There is no settled definition of what virtue ethics is, but there is an identifiable tradition. I suspect something similar could be said of Jewish thought, and perhaps Muslim thought. Certainly there is no fixed doctrine of post-modernism, but there is certainly post-modern thought.

    There certainly would have to be a greater depth and vitality of theological conversation than is typical in Mormon universities. That is happening, though. Give it another twenty years : )

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