Islam’s Future and the Importance of Social Sciences

June 17, 2003

Muslims correctly value those who have knowledge with good reason and Ulema—Muslims scholars trained in Islamic law—have for centuries determined how Muslims understand Islam and the world.

Dangerous Ignorance

But over time, Muslims have mistakenly began equating knowledge with a narrowly defined conception of religious knowledge—and scholars again with narrowly defined conception of scholarship.

Thus, as the frontiers of knowledge expanded and human understanding of things and the scope of sciences expanded—sometimes astronomically—ironically the Muslim vision of what is knowledge and who is knowledgeable has actually shrunk.

There is no doubt in my mind that the diminishing Muslim vision of knowledge is singularly responsible for the decline of creativity, dynamism, vitality and power of the Islamic civilization.

Without a doubt, the Muslim world today lags behind all other civilizations in its production and consumption of knowledge. Today, most Muslims think of knowledge as that limited to familiarity with an essentially medieval Muslim understanding of law and jurisprudence.

Neglect of Social Sciences

Scholars are those who only “memorize” Quran and the related traditions—and are familiar with pedagogical and epistemological tools developed a thousand years ago.

It is therefore not surprising that, under the intellectual leadership of this class of scholars, the Ummah—the Muslim community—has gone from one low to another lower low.

The World According to Islamic Sciences

One area of knowledge that has been deeply neglected by Muslims is the arena of social sciences. Except for a few initiatives launched by American Muslims in the early 1980s, there has been very little attempt by Muslims to engage in the social sciences.

Social sciences—unlike Islamic sciences, which are essentially normative paradigms—have an empirical focus. Social sciences are more interested in understanding and describing the world as it is—rather than on postulating on how it ought to be.

While medieval Islamic sciences do provide a view of how the world ought to be a thousand years ago, they do not equip scholars with the training and tools necessary to understand the world as it is.

A Need To Understand Our Existence

Ulema’s discourses on how the world ought to be become meaningless—and therefore ineffective—because they are not grounded in contemporary realities. Very simply, if you do not understand where you are—even if you know where you have to go—you will go nowhere.

Hence, you need social sciences to understand where you are—and, on that basis, put religious knowledge of where to go to effective use. To put it bluntly, without social sciences, traditional Islamic sciences are useless.

The Success of Other Nations

In this context, it is interesting to note that the Quran exhorts Muslims to undertake empirical study in Surah Al Ankabut. Say: Travel through the earth and see how Allah originated creation (Quran 29:20).

Some countries—such as Japan, India and China—have trained social scientists who use advanced analytical and research skills in the interest of their nations—and provide the necessary information to make effective policy.

The progress and growth and development of these nations is indicative of the success of their social scientists.

Shortcomings of the Ulema

In contrast, the Muslim world often looks to “the Ulema” to ask all questions such as is it halal (religiously permissible) to eat gummy bears—or if one can marry two sisters simultaneously.

Questions even extend to asking if it is okay to join the WTO and whether democracy is a good idea. While the Ulema are “trained” to answer the first two questions, contemporary reality is outside their domain.

No wonder the Muslim world remains strikingly underdeveloped. The success of non-Muslims—and the failure of Muslims in worldly matters—can be explained only through the knowledge deficit that plagues the Muslim community.

Freedom of Thought and Knowledge

The Quran once again is so clear on this issue: Allah will raise up to (suitable) ranks (and degrees) those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge. [Quran 58:11]

While I cannot comment on the faith of anyone, I can understand that Allah has raised the West and the Far East to great heights. In large part this is purely because of their commitment to freedom of thought and knowledge.

The best universities and the most productive work in knowledge accumulation is taking place in the West and the Far East. Actually everywhere except in the Muslim World.

Upcoming Issues

Bringing about the required changes won’t be easy. Why? Social scientists must not only be consulted—but also encouraged to research, speak and write freely on the most important and pressing issues of their time.

The issues include matters of external and internal security, geopolitics, globalization, interfaith politics, economics, social and public policy—and short and long term planning.

Other issues that they can enrich are normative discussions based on empirical experience of institutions and policies that are best suited for our times.

A Need to Modernize

Social sciences are now very diverse, very complex and very advanced. They deal with issues all across the board and their findings impact policy at all levels.

The Ummah today does not need Ulema who are incapable of knowing the world we live in. Rather, what is needed are Muslim social scientists who are also familiar with the maqasid al Shariah—the divine way—to help develop and govern their societies efficiently and effectively.

These are painful insights for Muslims. After all, Islamic sciences—developed by human beings, not revealed by God—were quite advanced for their time and helped vitalize the Islamic world and make it a dominant and thriving civilization. However, they have enjoyed little development in over a thousand years.

Revising the Islamic Curriculum

While the former remains a dead tradition the latter is alive and growing.

Social sciences have also added Islamic studies to their realm and have developed a more nuanced, more sophisticated—and even empowering—vision of Islam by critiquing and building upon traditional Islamic sciences.

Today’s Muslim Scholars

Today it is easy to find Muslim social and humanities scholars who are also trained in traditional methods. Empowered by new learning theories, they are doing wonderful research. If the Ummah were to embrace their word, that would resuscitate the entire Muslim community around the world.

It is time for us Muslims to recognize that we have failed now for centuries to become leaders of humanity. We cannot fulfill our mandate as Allah’s vice regents on earth (Quran 2:30) because we have surrendered our vision, our faith and our reason to deadwood.

Power, it turns out, is a function of knowledge. Again the Quran says: Are those equal, those who know—and those who do not know? [Quran 39:9]

The Role of American Muslims

All of that is especially excruciating for American Muslims. We live in times when the basic objectives and even values of our community are questioned. It is time American Muslim social scientists stepped up to the plate and addressed some of these issues.

That will not be easy. Scholars by nature are isolationists. They need seclusion to think, research and write. It is not fair to expect them to come forward, but the community must also seek them and seek their guidance.

The future belongs to those who have thought the deepest about it.