has always been an integral component of Islamic intellectual life. Muslim
scholars in search of knowledge travelled all across the Islamic world. The
craving for the acquisition of knowledge led Muslim intellectuals to constantly
undertake long arduous journeys. In the classic Islamic period, Muslim scholars
would travel only to Muslim polities. Their voyages were restricted to those
territories that were governed by Muslim rulers. Bernard Lewis argued in his
work The Muslim Discovery of Europe that in the formative and classic Islamic
period Muslims strongly believed that beyond the Islamic world, there was
nothing other than vulgarity, barbarity, and backwardness. This entrenched
belief held Muslim scholars back from exploring far-flung parts of the world.
Barring a few exceptions–Ibn-e-Batuta being one–Muslims restricted themselves
to Muslim politics.
Take a few
examples. Ibn-e-Sina was born in Bukhara, but travelled to Iran, Syria, Iraq,
and other parts of the Middle East. He never stepped out of Muslim polities.
Ibn-e-Arabi spent his early life in Muslim Spain, moved to North Africa, Egypt,
and Syria. He did not visit any Non-Muslim lands. Ghazali left Baghdad and
wandered all over the Middle East, and finally settled down in Tus. He did not
step out of Islamic lands. Ibn-e-Khaldun after his formative years in Tunisia,
travelled to Islamic Spain, Egypt and Central Asia. His missions never led him
to Non-Muslim territory even for the purposes of intellectual explorations.
Shah Wali-ullah as late as in 18th century embarked on a journey to Hijaz from
Muslim India. He did not entertain even a thought of stepping out of Islamic
lands. As mentioned, Muslim scholarly elite widely travelled all across the
Islamic world, but did not find any fascination in exploring other
colonial expansion of the West in the wake of 19th century led Muslim scholars
to revisit their reluctant attitude towards exploring other civilizations.
Though Ottoman rulers in late 18th century toyed with the idea of understanding
the Western civilization, but did not put up any concerted efforts. The first
serious attempt at visiting the West with an aim to understand their
civilization and to find out the factors that led to their rise was made by the
Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali. The Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali sent a delegation
of Muslim scholars to France in 1826. A talented graduate of Al-Azher Rifa
Tahtawi was also a member of this delegation. Tahtawi spend almost 5 years in
Paris, and came back to Egypt in 1831. He was fascinated by the ideas of
justice, liberty, and equality that defined the modern philosophical discourse
of the West.
his work The Paris Profile expressed his growing interest in the revolutionary
ideas of the West on politics, ethics, and morality. He translated a number of
French books into Arabic, and persevered painstakingly to inform Muslims
scholars about the progressive ideas that were at the backbone of Western rise
later, Jamaal uddin Afghani also made a voyage to Paris. Afghani was a
Pan-Islamist. His vision of Islam was political, but philosophic in
orientation. Afghani had a strong background of philosophy and mysticism; as a
result, understood the creative spirit that defined Western intellectual
endeavors. In his dialogue with the French philosopher Ernest Renan, Jamaal
uddin Afghani expressed his fascination with the scientific ideas. He held that
Islamic civilization was lagging behind the West for its inability to develop
innovative models of reasoning along scientific lines. Afghani was accompanied
by Mufti Muhammad Abduh in Paris. Abduh had a rigorous training in traditional
sciences. His exposure to the West enabled him to invent new ways to revive the
spirit of rationalism in Islam. To this end, Jamaal uddin Afghani and Mufti
Muhammad Abduh carried out a journal entitled The Strongest Bond.
India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan took the lead and founded a reformist movement. His
reformism rested on the pillars of a rationalist educational system that was in
line with the scientific rationalism of the West. In order to better understand
the Western sciences and their educational system, Sir Syed travelled to
England. His stay in England gave him a modernist outlook. Sir Syed built a
strong network of orientalist scholars with an aim to develop a modernist
theology that would align Islamic educational system with modern notions of
development and progress.
Sir Syed, Muhammad Iqbal also made a voyage to England and Germany. He earned
his Ph.D from Germany in Philosophy. Muhammad Iqbal was systematic in his
approach to Islam. In his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal
tapped into Western intellectual heritage to find solutions to intricate
problems that beset Muslim scholarly elite for centuries. Iqbal’s rationalist
discourse paved the way for the resuscitation of Islamic reform even in
traditionalist circles of South Asia.
Sir Syed of India, Namek Kemal from Ottoman Empire in late 19th century pressed
for the need to reinterpret Islam along modern lines of reasoning. Fleeing
persecution in the Ottoman Empire, Namek Kemal settled down in Paris. His
reformist agenda aimed at reforming Islam and the Ottoman Empire simultaneously
for the revival of Islamic civilization.
Islamists of the 20th century made several trips to the West. Syed Qutb
travelled to New York in 1940s. His stay in the United States of America had a
huge impact on his understanding of the world. The great Iranian scholar
Ayatoallah Khomeini stayed for a brief time in France in his 1970s. Considered
to the architect of modern Islamic resurgence, Maulana Mawdudi also travelled
to the United States of America. In fact, Mawdudi died in 1979 in Buffalo.
individual Muslim scholars continued their intellectual voyages to the West.
Late Dr Fazlur Rehman of Pakistan earned his Ph.D from Cambridge University,
and Algerian scholar Muhammad Arkoun settled down in France. Abdul Karim
Soroush of Iran is permanently residing in the West. Fateh ullah Gulen from
Turkey is in self-exile in the USA. The famous Sudanese scholar Naim Abdullahi
is also settled down in the United States of America. As established, the last
two centuries saw an unprecedented trend of voyages to the West by Muslim
scholars, and it continues to grow. Does this trend have an impact on Islamic
societies? Given the rise of secular educational institutions and the reception
of modern ideas amongst masses, one can only conclude that it has a palpable
Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy)
and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.
Headline: Muslim Scholars And Their Voyage(s) To The West
Source: The Eurasia Review