Saturday, 21 January 2012

Reviving the 'Islamization of Knowledge' Project?

A few days after former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister -- but now opposition leader -- Anwar Ibrahim's acquittal of a second round of sodomy charges, I visited the leading intellectual Osman Bakar in Kuala Lumpur. One of my PhD students, the Malaysian university lecturer Azizan Had, is writing a dissertation on Bakar's contributions to the Islamization of Knowledge, so I was curious to meet the man for myself.

Originally trained at the University of London as a mathematician, Bakar dropped his plans for doctoral studies in that field, opting instead for a more philosophical subject: An examination of the epistemological aspects of the relation between science and religion, in particular Islam. In 1987 he completed a PhD in Islamic Philosophy at Temple University under the supervision of the Iranian-born scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (himself a graduate of MIT).

Osman Bakar
Within a few years of his return to Malaysia, where he began teaching courses in philosophy and religion, Bakar found himself pulled into university administration and he ended up as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. After his mandatory retirement in 2000, he left for the United States and spent five years at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Following this stint overseas he again came back home and took a position at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC).

In 2008 he was tapped by then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to give shape to the latter's conceptualization of Islam Hadhari or 'Civilizational Islam', a notion that strikes me as not that dissimilar from the ways in which religion can be given a space in the contemporary Muslim public sphere explored in neighbouring Indonesia under the designations 'Civil' or 'Cultural Islam'.

Aside from this immediate context, Osman Bakar's continuing concern with the relationship between science and knowledge must be seen against the background of the 'Islamization of Knowledge' project which took off in the 1970s and 1980s. The term was coined in 1978 by Bakar's fellow Malaysian Syed Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931) in 1978, but it was also claimed by the Palestinian Isma'il Raji al-Faruqi (1921-1986). Consequently, these two intellectuals soon fell out over  accusations of stealing the other's ideas and what had the potential of starting out as a unified endeavour bringing together Muslim thinkers from across the Muslim world became a much more fragmented field.

In spite of these birth pains, Muslim intellectuals greeted the 'Islamization of Knowledge' Project with considerable enthusiasm. Soon other scholars, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and activists like the British-Pakistani Ziauddin Sardar also began weighing in. In Malaysia the project received the backing of the rising political star Anwar Ibrahim, the former firebrand student leader turned government minister and -- some whispered -- a possible successor of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The viability of  'Islamization of Knowledge' seemed further assured as the project also began tasking institutional form: In the United States in the shape of Ismai'l al-Faruqi's International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and in Malaysia by the establishment of the earlier-mentioned ISTAC, founded in 1987 by Syed Naquib al-Attas, but since then incorporated into the International Islamic University Malaysia.

Osman Bakar has written prolifically about the Islamization of Knowledge and related subjects, beginning with The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science (1989), which was re-republished a few years later under the much better known title Tawhid and Science. Since then it has been translated in a number of languages. In 1992 he co-authored with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Classification of Knowledge in Islam. Other titles include: A Critique of Evolutionary Theory and Islam and Civilizational Dialogue.

In spite of the initial optimism, by the  late1990s the project seemed to have run out of steam. In my discussion about this, Professor Bakar opined that this was due to the over-politicization of the project at the expense of its academic rigour. According to him, the epistemological aspects surrounding the issue of how religion and science relate to each other have not been pushed far enough. That is why,following Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's request in 2008 to help implementing and shaping Islami Hadhari, Bakar responded positively as he saw it as an opportunity to blow new life into the Islamization of Knowlegde Project.

The personal brainchild of Badawi, a Malaysian conceptualization of the notion of al-lslam al-Hadhari conceived by Arab intellectuals in the 1980s was introduced at the government party's 55th congress in 2004. Badawi's ideas were further developed in two books: Islam Hadhari  and Pembangunan Modal Insan, both published in 2006.

Bakar teamed up with a former colleague, the Afghan jurist Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Together they founded the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS), with a guarantee from the Prime Minister's Office for three years of financial support, as part of the administration's attempt to turn Islam Hadhari into government policy.

right to left: Prof. Osman Bakar (IAIS), Dr Carool Kersten (King's College London), Azizan Had (PhD student, King's College London)

The institute's objective is to reshape and revamp the I'slamization of Knowledge' project, by shifting the accent to a holistic epistemology that gives a prominent place to cultural contexts. Since its establishment in 2008, it has hosted or co-hosted a number of conferences and workshops, while Kamali and Bakar also travel the world to take part in other events to promote their ideas. The institute also publishes a journal: Islam and Civilizational Renewal.

With the resignation of Badawi as Prime Minister in 2009, it is unclear how much alive the notion of Islam Hadhari still is (the official government's website, for example, is currently  inactive). It will be interesting to see how successful IAIS will be in keeping a Malaysian variant of Islam as a civilizational concept alive.