Reviving Islamic Epistemology as a Solution to Jihadi Terrorism

Image by Crystalina

I do not pretend to have a silver bullet solution to the problem of Islamic terrorism. A successful strategy against Islamic terrorist organisations would encompass a re-organisation of geopolitical alliances in the Middle East, effective military actions, and socio-economic changes (fairer distribution of resources, better education, etc.) in the majority of Muslim nations. On the other hand, it has become increasingly common to hear that Daesh/ISIS (as a matter of fact Sunni jihadism) is an ideology and that the struggle against an ideology needs to be fought in the realm of ideas. This proposition, however, has yet to be articulated properly and, if possible, in a manner recognisable by Muslim themselves. Any attempt by the West at “de-radicalising” Muslim nations could create the opposite effect than the one sought and could result in an increased reification of a set of Muslim identities that are self-perceived as under threat.

Here, I discuss some guidelines aimed at tackling the issue of terrorism and grave human rights violations arising from some Islamic identities (note that I will always use the plural) from within the context of Islamic world-views. More precisely, I argue that a revival of Islamic epistemology would be beneficial to Muslim communities and the world at large. The reason is that before the contemporary jihadi problem, the Islamic world did create flourishing civilisations. During the Golden Age of Islam (approximatively from the 8th to the 11th century), Iraq was a global centre of knowledge and human development. Muslim scholars were the vanguard in all the major fields of science: mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and medicine, but also philosophy and poetry. This scientific boom later had a profound impact, in turn, on the development of Western civilisation.

If important steps in these fields of research were the results of Islamic civilisation, and had a great impact on human history, it is highly implausible that Islam itself is the problem. Rather, it is the historical development of some doctrines within the Islamic world that has to be responsible for contemporary issues related to violence and intolerance. I argue that it is these historical developments that need to be better understood if we are to better comprehend the Islamic world nowadays and rectify what has become problematic.

This means that Islam needs to be taken seriously and analysed thoroughly. There is a tendency, in the West, to view religious phenomena as purely subjective realities. This tendency is further reinforced by some postmodern ideas that render our relationship to truth, as such, highly problematic. No doubt, religion is not scientific in the same sense that biology is scientific. But that does not mean that it cannot be treated in a scientific way, using valid methodologies to derive some objective understandings about it.

I am aware that the idea of “testing” Islam could generate criticism in an age of widespread Islamophobia. I argue, however, that political correctness about Islam is the genuine Islamophobia: people are afraid of what could be found about Islam’s history and ethical framework. I argue against this form of paternalism and put forward the idea that showing respect to Islam means treating it as an equal set of ideas worthy of open-minded, yet critical, investigation. Reliable Islamic scriptures show us many times that a deliberative approach was embodied by the Prophet and his household when debating with non-Muslims. The idea that Muhammad was an intolerant warlord is based on cherry-picked, historically problematic, narrations (yet, indeed, present in some compilation of ahadith) and on the conflation of Muhammad’s behaviour and the actions of some of his first successors (who engage in offensive warfare against non-Muslims).

It is not commonly known in the West that Islamic texts create great opportunities for objective investigations in the content of Islamic doctrine and history given that the Canon of Islamic scriptures offers tools for a critical assessment of its own content. For example, sayings attributed to Muhammad (hadith) are accompanied by a list, or chain, of narrators whose biography can be studied in order to establish the likelihood of the veracity of a claim. If a narrator’s biography portrays him or her as a shady character, it is highly plausible that the narration is false.

It is possible, using these tools, to reach some objective truths about the message of Islam and it is these tools that can be used to offer an immanent critique of the current extremist currents of Islam. My argument is that, using the proper traditional and modern methodologies (critical historical analysis, hermeneutics, etc.), the justifications given by extremist currents of Islam could easily be debunked. Did Muhammad order the torture of people? Did Muhammad consummate his marriage with a nine-year-old? If, after careful investigation, the answer to these questions is no, and some prominent Muslim scholars (mainly Shias but also some Sunnis) do argue that the answer is no, both terrorists and Islamophobes’ claims will lose their legitimacy.

There are two major obstacles to this idea. The first one is political. Many countries in the Muslim world have used Islam as a tool for nation building (On the topic, see Vali Nasr, Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power). Engaging in a critical analysis of the Islamic scriptures used to establish the “imagined community” (this term is borrowed from Benedict Anderson) required for a stable nation could very well shake the foundation of these nations and jeopardise the hold on power of religiously backed political leaders. Political elites in the Muslim world are, therefore, unlikely to accept this epistemic upheaval to take place in their countries.

The second one is theological/philosophical and involves the use of reason in Islam. Historically, some schools of thoughts such as the Twelver Shias (by far the current majority of Shias) and the Sunni Mu’tazilites (gradually faded out and/or integrated within Shia Islam between the 10th and 15th century) emphasised the compatibility between faith and rational enquiry. The “Golden Age of Islam” was in fact, mainly, driven by these two schools of thought. For example, the Buyid Dynasty, an Iranian Shia Dynasty, was the most influential dynasty in the Muslim world during the 10th and 11th century. Nowadays, however, given the minority status of Shias and the disappearance of Mu’tazilite doctrine, as well as the continuing influence of medieval scholarship, the majority of Muslim scholars do not see reason and critical analysis in a positive light. There are taboos and red lines that cannot be crossed in deliberations about Islam. This presents a real problem for developing the revival of Islamic epistemology that I argue is necessary in order to solve many of the political and social issues that are present in parts of the Islamic world.

Despite these obstacles, I believe that the current political situation coupled with the increased access to information in many languages will lead an increased number of Muslim scholars and laymen to engage in this epistemic revival. Muslims living outside of the “Muslim world”, because of freedom of speech and safe access to controversial information, are, however, much more likely to engage in this new approach to their faith than Muslims living in closed traditional societies. Openly engaging with Islamic scriptures in many Islamic countries remains a challenge and the beginning of an Islamic epistemic revival in these societies is likely to happen only once these countries become more democratic.

Image courtesy of Crystalina [CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons]

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About Nicolas Pirsoul

Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral candidate in politics & international relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, deliberative democracy, Islamic and Middle Eastern politics.

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