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.