Imagine for a moment an alternative history. Imagine a world in which Muslim scholars never bothered to translate the Greek classics. Imagine that Harun Al-Rashid did not bother commissioning the translation of medical and mathematical texts written by non-Muslims. Imagine that Ibn al-Haytham never wrote The Book of Optics because it’s subject matter lay outside the concerns of Islam. Imagine that Ibn Khaldun never wrote the Muqaddama. Imagine, in other words, that the towering scholars of the Islamic world decided that their attention should focus narrowly on what was labeled as “Muslim.” What kind of world would this be?
Unfortunately this is the turn that Islamic scholarship has taken. Muslim scholars seem to take two paths. Either we abandon our Islamic heritage and become “secular” scholars, or we abandon everything we consider “outside” of Islam’s purview. In this instance, we turn inwards, to some extent “ lost in loneliness, with knives in our hands and a lump in our throats.” A peculiar hermeneutics has unfortunately taken hold of the Islamic mind. Our obsessions are parochial and selfish. We have come to inhabit a narrow universe of moral concerns, concerns that have been mislabeled as “Islamic.” We only reluctantly step outside. We read our own books. This artificial universe represents the historical shrinkage of our social and moral horizons. We are concerned with what we consider to be our own. Too many of us have become professional Muslims, to be called upon when a Muslim is needed in the room, on the panel, to speak about so-called “Muslim” issues.
Can we break out of a mindset that believes the only geographies of thought we are qualified to comment on are Muslim? Is it possible for us as Muslims to remember that we are part of a larger universe, one that encompasses a fabric and a whole that cannot be reduced to the label of Muslim with a capital M? Have we forgotten that the entire universe is muslim with a lower-case m? That all phenomena in the world submit to the laws of Allah and are thus worthy of our scholarship? Have we forgotten that our wellbeing as a community is deeply tied into the well-being of eco-systems that do not care for labels or artificial boundaries? Have we forgotten that our health is tied to the health of others? Have we forgotten that we cannot separate ourselves from other worlds?
Can we make it our business to break out of ghettos of though that have been imposed both from without and within? Can we once again make it our business to poke our noses into anything that strikes us? Can we reclaim our kinship to everything that has been put beyond our grasp, to areas that have been deemed as beyond our authority to comment on?
Can we make it our business to out-think mediocrity in all areas, be that amongst the representatives of our communities or those who claim to govern us and the communities we belong to? Can we liberate our minds to feel the joy of swinging a bat at whatever calls to be sent into orbit?
Can we turn our weaknesses into capacities? Can we analyze mainstream thinking, mainstream laziness and mainstream dogma through the lens of our politics, our literature, our religion and our lives? Through the lens of our own pain and our own loss?
In the spirit of these questions, let us therefore subject ourselves to a calculus that no one can match. Let us be confident enough to dismiss our critics as being too easy on us, too frightened to ask good questions. Let us hold ourselves to standards that are higher than those who do not know us can imagine.
Let us remember our relationship to stray cats, to strange plants and to the dark night sky. Let us allow our minds to range far and wide and deep across the plains. Let us not worry how much of it is ours to keep.
Let us break out of inherited geographies with determination, curiosity, confidence, rigour, good humour and an unfailing commitment to self-criticality, to justice and to truth.
Let us as Muslims reclaim our relationship to the whole.