We hear a lot about the decline of intellectual and cultural production in the Muslim World, but very little attention is paid to the actual heyday of Islamic scholarship itself. Many of these traditions have indeed declined, but so too have recognition and knowledge of the most important spiritual, artistic, and scientific contributions Muslims have made. Islamic scholarship—from poetry to the philosophy of metaphysics—has been rich since the founding of Islam in the 7th century, but very few even know it exists.
A variety of factors have prevented many of the most insightful and stunning works of art and scholarship from gaining recognition. Pieces remain hidden treasures in the minds of a handful of academics and on the dusty shelves of libraries and museums around the world.
Language is a significant problem. Most of the great works in Islam were written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. Aside from Persian, each of these languages has a much greater oral tradition than written, and while many Muslims around the world read the Qur’an in Arabic, interpretive texts—both religious and artistic in perspective—are rarely looked at by the masses. Some of the most important literary tales have been passed down orally through the generations. (The tradition remains especially strong in Marrakesh.) However, much of the inner significance of Islamic scholarly tradition has been forgotten. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of great works have not been translated into English and remain out of reach to many western scholars and the English-speaking public at large.
In addition to the strength of oral traditions and the lack of English translations, other more intentional factors explain why the recognition of great literary and artistic traditions of the past have become stagnant in Islamic schools and Muslim communities. The pervasive nature of conspiracy theories have had a staggering negative influence upon many Muslim communities around the world. Diversity within Islam has been stifled, and Saudi-based Wahhabism, literalist interpretations of Islam, and extremist influences upon Muslims’ moral ethos have permeated significant portions of countries where Muslims practice. Accompanying a hyper-focus on one’s outer appearance and behavior (orthopraxy), the purposeful narrowing of Islamic interpretation has pushed aside the realities of diverse Islamic practice and expression. There are a variety of branches in Islam and different schools of law; however, Wahhabism and other movements have consistently denounced the historical pattern of diverse Islamic interpretation and expression. They have also renounced many great Muslim contributions to literature, poetry, and spiritual meditation; many of these works, traditions, and practices have been banned in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim contexts altogether.
One cannot overestimate the perverse influence of Wahhabism on global Islamic practice and belief, but there has also been a recent and resurging interest in the classics, driven by younger generations of Muslims. More English translations have emerged, providing many western-based Muslims with new access to Islam’s wealth of scholarship, and a renewed cultural interest in the arts has encouraged many South Asian Muslims to seek knowledge about Islam beyond Friday sermons, or khutbahs. Even so, the majority of texts remains inaccessible to English speakers due to a lack of a availability and the all-too-common pretentious, academic language often utilized in translations. For seekers of non-English speaking backgrounds, texts in their own language are often preserved in the locked stacks of libraries in the old sections of cities throughout Asia and Africa.
A heightened awareness and interest in the great scholarly and literary traditions of Muslims and Islam has begun, but it is still in its infancy. The recent completion of an online library of 50,000 Islamic documents housed at Al-Azhar University—a Cairo-based millennium-old institution of Islamic education—is a step in the right direction; over 7 million pages covering 63 fields in the sciences and arts are documented. Further treasure troves of knowledge, wisdom, and beauty are waiting to be rediscovered.
Do you agree that the Muslim World is at a low point in its cultural and intellectual history? What do you know about the “high point” of intellectual production? How important is the celebration of classic scholarly traditions for creating new ideas? Please share your thoughts below.