Islamic Intellectual Leadership at a Crossroads

This week, Islamic intellectualism was struck a double blow with the death of Professor Dr. Mohammed Arkoun and Professor Dr. Fathi Osman. They were preceded in July by the death of Professor Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd. May Allah accept their souls in peace and grace. (Note: I do not include the Lebanese intellectual Shaykh Fadlallah because of the following observation.) All these men made substantial contributions to the growth of Islam as a system of ideas without assuming or wanting to assume any form of political leadership.

There is sometimes an unnecessary rift between leading ideas and leading people politically such that intellectuals who are also activists sometimes have to make tough choices regarding their self-representations, their modes and circumstances of operation, and even the projects they put their energies into. In US academia recently, women scholars had a list discussion about the merits of activism vis-à-vis the promotion process for most US academies. If you play too much of a role in the day-to-day lives of Muslims at every level—but especially where the majority abide, which is rank and file—then your credentials as an intellectual are questionable. For women, that is.

For men there are no such constraints. So even if these three men did not approach matters of political office or community leadership, they had the privilege of skirting in and out of activist circles. In all honesty, the way of Islam has always been both intellectual and activist. That is, the world of ideas affected the status quo, which affected the organization of the society, which affected its political structure, which affected comprehensive change. A cursory look across 1400 years of Muslim history will bear this out.

Africa is wide and vast, but the places where Islam took root (at least initially) are the places where education, intellectualism, moral imagination, and spiritual creativity took root first. These established a wide-ranging change that affected all aspects of the society. We still talk romantically about al-Andalusia. But what impresses me most was not the tumultuous political history per se—nor whether Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side—as much as the impossibility of their coexistence without the comprehensive affect of their mutual intellectual cooperation. This bred a new paradigm, for the time (which some mistakenly think we need to revert to in order to go forward at this juncture in history).

Yeah, I know you know the bylines about Islamic philosophers who revived, preserved, and further developed Aristotelian and Hellenistic philosophical traditions; or about Arab and Muslim medical treatises that led the world until modern medicine; or about Muslim contributions to building the foundations of math, astronomy, agriculture, and a host of other disciplines. It is clear that there is an important value in thoughts, in the world of ideas, or in ways of knowing.

I see this theologically in two primary facets of Islam: first, it seems it was already pre-conditioned when the first word of revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was “iqra’: read (or recite).” Second, that revelation, the Qur’an, is replete with passages linking ideas and actions; or more precisely, right ideas, and right actions, iman wa al-‘a’mal al-salihah. The relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis has come under attack recently, and by these three scholars in particular. If you challenge some of the presumptions about orthodoxy, you effect change in orthopraxis and all of these men were vanguards in this respect.

Islam is built upon ideas. If we contribute to the world of ideas in any way, but in particular in such a way that everyone benefits from the contributions, then we also contribute to Islam.

This week, Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece for the Guardian lamenting the constraints of being described as a “Muslim intellectual and scholar.” It was the same as being assigned a pre-determined category which must speak about certain topics or his intentions are suspect. Among the topics he mentioned: secularism, Islamic penal code, Muslim women’s rights, headscarf or burqa, and equality, it is interesting to note how many have to do directly with women or with gender identity and politics.

He was concerned that using vaguely poetic or philosophical language might be seen as an attempt to mislead the readers. Otherwise, he should just stick to these button issues. Isn’t it curious that women are expected to address these topics no matter what their intellectual discipline? Failure to do so is tantamount to moral irresponsibility. The double whammy comes when we do address them, because then we are immediately cast into the category of activist, and therefore not intellectual or intellectual enough. Let’s face it, knowledge is power and to enter the world of ideas is powerful.

In 2009 a Wahabbi-funded publication called “The 500 Most Influential Muslims” was published. Nice and glossy, more than 200 pages, with the entire text also online, and given away free in so many places I cannot count them. Propaganda for sure. My shaykh said to me, I see you made it into the book. I told him I do not need the recognition of the particular parties involved, including the neo-Orientalist scholar who edited it, to affirm my contributions to Islam (or to my faith, for both are part of my devotion to Allah). They do have a substantial number of women included, so I would not complain on that count. But, here’s the thing: there are no women under the category of Muslim intellectuals.

Apparently women don’t think.

So it is even harder to adjust to the loss of these three men whose intellectual contributions helped to shape the ways we think about and in fact live Islam today; both for women and for men. I am not so excited about the void they are leaving and the ones who might assume their position in the future—especially the men, whether or not Tariq Ramadan feels comfortable being included among them.

We have an increasing number of men recognized as intellectuals whose self-appointed role as leaders gives me pause. Is this the result of having leading ideas that we all can follow and benefit from, like these three men? Or what about the question of the integrity of leadership, does it bring the scholarly contributions under question? Whatever happens in the future, if women’s ways of knowing are not integrated, we will simply be repeating the patriarchy of the past. I am not inclined at all to follow such footsteps, no matter how many institutional accolades, glossy publications, endowed locations in academia, or other strategic awards they might be given.

Once the ideas become the purview of the powerful, they have failed to lead in their own right, but are rather manufactured for the greatest effect.

There was modesty in these three men. Somehow, what they contribute was more important than what others might think about them. Few of those who want us to think that they are the next generation have such modesty, my friend Tariq Ramadan included. This is a difficult role to fulfill, and the general status of our community just about closes the door to such an option for a woman. We had better keep our focus on the matter of burqas and broomsticks.

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