Tuesday June 06, 2023

The deepening crisis of scholarship

December 21, 2016

Part - I


One’s view is primarily that of a creative writer. But since one’s interests straddle history, politics, culture and society, there is an inherent compulsion to comment on issues that surround us.

At times, one feels like – to paraphrase Milan Kundera – a hedonist trapped in an intensely political world. The compulsion to comment becomes greater because of the gravity of our situation as people – an obvious slide down socially and intellectually for decades. The purpose of this introduction is to accept that if friends who are academics and scholars find the arguments made here flawed and afford intellectual criticism, one’s understanding of the issue will be reviewed. This is primarily because discussing scholarship is essentially the forte of academics and scholars.

Who are the ‘we people’ in this context suffering from a deepening crisis of scholarship? The term refers to those belonging to South Asian Muslim societies. I find South Asian Muslims a valid overall category of analysis for this commentary rather than segregating people into Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi societies or going down to the level of Pakhtun, Kashmiri and Bengali societies, etc.

However, there is one difference that needs to be acknowledged. While both Pakistan and Bangladesh are essentially Muslim societies due to the majority population, India has a large Muslim society within its folds. The Muslim community in India is intrinsically linked to but is, in some ways, distinct within the modern Indian society and culture. It is larger than that of Bangladesh and comparable only to Pakistan and Indonesia in terms of population.

The schools of thought within politics, religion and social science and the pioneering educational institutions that shaped various South Asian Muslim viewpoints during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost entirely existed in what is now India.

Politically, we are now different people in South Asia in terms of our states and citizenships since the partition of British India into two sovereign countries in 1947 and, subsequently, of Pakistan into two separate states in 1971. We also speak different languages and belong to separate cultures or, in some cases, subcultures. But our civilisational underpinnings and intellectual traditions are common. Rooted in the universal milieu of the Subcontinent or the South Asian civilisation in modern parlance, there is also a South Asian Muslim civilisation, culture, psyche and sensibility. Within that, there are multiple shades of ideas and opinions, conformity and resistance, priorities and preferences, and, norms and practices. But I believe that there is a unity in diversity, to use a cliché that sounds appropriate in this context.

Therefore, the crisis of scholarship is evident all across South Asian Muslim societies. Undoubtedly, there are individual scholars and academics in different disciplines who continue to contribute to human knowledge and have made a mark in their respective fields. But not only are they exceptionally small in number given the 600 million strong population they come from, there is also a lack of formidable scholars in some significant fields of knowledge and inquiry. We have not gathered a critical mass of academia or scholars of substance in any single area or discipline of knowledge. Even within the growing Indian intellectual prowess, scholars of Muslim origin are scarce and only conspicuous by their absence in certain fields.

For the sake of convenience, let us look at the state of affairs in the fields of philosophy and religion, physical and life sciences, social sciences and humanities. Let us also explore some examples of the educational, research and policy institutions across these countries which are mandated to generate and impart knowledge. Then, let us try to understand why this problem has occurred and how it can be addressed. This is only possible if there is an acceptance among the elites and educated middle classes of South Asian Muslims that there is a crisis.

Beginning from philosophy and religion, I am treating the two diverse disciplines together because South Asian Muslims have treated the two together – rightly or wrongly – borrowing from the post-Islamic Arab tradition. One small example is ‘logic’, which is being taught as a subject in our madressahs.

Philosophy is a Western tradition. But in South Asia, it was a late import. The Arabs played a major role in the Middle Ages to bridge the gap created by European Christianity between the ancient Greeks and modern-day European traditions.

In our part of the world, there was ancient wisdom instead of philosophy, ethics and morality, mathematics and literature. But since there is a universal human civilisation as well – which encompasses our collective knowledge, experience and wisdom – the discipline of philosophy is now fully embraced by most academic and intellectual cultures across the world. If we look at ourselves, we have not produced a single philosopher in modern times who has influenced the way any particular subject or, more generally, the world is understood better or differently. We only have some good interpreters and commentators.

There has been a tension between philosophy and religion as well – which can be observed in the writings of some of our major religious scholars and is perhaps similar to the one the Christian world had with philosophy. As a result, there were also some who employed the tools of philosophical inquiry to appreciate and explain religious doctrines. There was an attempt to rationalise belief. Unfortunately, that is not philosophy. But even within the remit of religious scholarship and theology, it is important to note that the last credible scholars who produced original work were all born before the partition of India in 1947.

The early and mid-twentieth century was the time when there was a heightened sense of identity taking roots among the Muslims. But they were not radicalised, exclusive and intolerant. Today, in societies which are so overtly religious, what we have attained at the most is the production of proselytisers and agitators.

There are critics and commentators, interpreters and teachers who have a definite view on things that are happening around us. Some of them are forward-looking and inclusive as well. But can you think of a seminal work in the last 50 years that has influenced the way Muslim societies are ordered and the fashion in which they operate? This, in fact, is the greatest irony. In a country like Pakistan, where religiosity is worn on the sleeves and even social practices and commercial activities demand religious approval, the absence of sound religious scholarship is mind-boggling. Iran, a theocracy, and Egypt, a secular but Muslim country, also have scholars of significance. Agreeing or disagreeing with one another is a different business altogether.

But South Asian Muslims have been unable to go beyond institutions such as Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema and Darul Uloom Deoband or the school of thought propounded by the Jamaat-e-Islami in the middle of the last century, in terms of scholarship and theology since then. Even from among those who acquired Western education, we had produced people, ranging from Muhammad Sulaiman Mansurpuri to Syed Ameer Ali.

We have coined the general term ‘intellectual’ for anybody commenting on anything with a smattering of English words even when the conversation is happening in a vernacular. The term ‘analyst’ is used for anybody appearing on a television talk show (which is worse when you are called ‘senior analyst’). In a similar vein, we not only use the title of ‘Aalim’ for our religious commentators, but also believe that our religious preachers and proselytisers are actually scholars. This has led us to a situation where the issue is not merely ideological and political but gets compounded by ignorance and unreason.

There may be a few exceptions to prove the rule, such as Maulana Waheeduddin Khan and Javed Ahmed Ghamdi or Late Asghar Ali Engineer and Late Dr Farooq Khan, who are also commentators and interpreters in my humble view.

But imagine having a serious scholarly dialogue on religion with any of our popular preachers – who are called scholars – from either the Tableeghi Jamat or any congregation for that matter. And then imagine the possibility of a similar dialogue 40 years ago with the writer of works like Tafhim-ul-Quran and Khilafat-o-Malukiat – Maulana Abul A’la Maudoodi. The decline is so shockingly obvious.


To be continued

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.