On Becoming a Muslim Public Intellectual
Academic research and its relevance in Islam Today
Before I applied for a doctorate position at the Faculty of theology, University of Oslo, I spent considerable time reflecting upon why, as a newly wedded man, I would pursue a doctoral degree, instead of earning real money in a stable job, and hence living a “normal life” as most of us mortals do. Leaving aside more personal reasons, there is one important factor I would like to unpack: Many Muslims today, both in my Norwegian context and internationally, are trapped between two realities: a rising tide of Islamophobia and hate-speech on the one hand, and a stagnant, overly rule-based version of Islam that curbs freedom of thought and creativity. These two poles tend to bolster each other, consolidating narratives that Islam is incapable of change and evolution, and, furthermore, diametrically opposed to the humanistic and democratic societies of the Western world.
The vast majority of Muslims in the world are right the middle, between the storm of opposing poles; their Islam is not militant Islam, nor is it the stagnant, legalistic version too often promulgated by conventional clerics. For them, Islam is something more personal and alive. However, these Muslims lack a theological and philosophical foundation for their viewpoints, which can be utilised as a counter-narrative to the more reductionist, essentialist and ahistorical constructions of Islam and Muslims. And, because a theologically reformed understanding of Islam will need to take place on its own terms, a doctorate research in Islamic theology and philosophy seemed only natural to pursue.
In Islam there are no formal church structures, so, a couple effective ways to foster enlightened understandings of Islam comes from two channels:
With regard to academics, the Norwegian philosopher Knut Erik Tranøy (1918-2012) speaks of two dimensions that can be, and are, at work in academic Islam: one external and one internal.
Internal: The internal dimension focuses on the academic communities, on elements such as the internal relevance of the research one is conducting; that is, how one`s own research about X topic/issue can add something new, or “fill the gap” in a knowledge-field. Along these lines, it is important for academics to focus on displaying knowledge of relevant literature in the field, having taking into account real and potential objections of one`s theory and method, and findings, and on logical stringency,
External: The external dimension focuses on what Tranøy describes as welfare-effects, or agents of welfare (Norwegian, velferdsvirkninger). This is the situation in which I find myself. My position as a doctoral fellow is financed by social taxes the citizens of Norway pay. And, rightly so, society requires that the financial resources provided for academic research should be able to give something in return in terms of welfare-effects. Both philosophy and theology are academic disciplines, but we must not forget that these fields are also common, existential human activities.
It is sometimes said that philosophy and theology begin in the midst of suffering that causes our usual, commonly held certainties and a sense of Divine protection to collapse. The reality of human suffering, both private and collective, compels us to ask deeply existential questions. Now, at their best, theology and philosophy are all about finding wisdom – and wisdom is understanding matters that are important to human beings. That is why we as academics in the field of theology and philosophy, especially in Islam studies, should make our research more accessible to the broader public rather than just reducing it to the academic discourse of the few initiated. This external dimension, in which we take seriously our researcher-responsibility by acting as public intellectuals in order to nuance important public discourses on the role of religion/Islam in a pluralistic and polarized society. At the same time we give believers tools for everyday life; tools that can assist the average believer in challenging the fundamental assumptions which undergird dogmatic and bygone religious interpretations, and explore new alternatives toward more enlightened interpretations. The tasks of service the general public and of serving Muslims are essential aspects of the academic legitimacy of Islamic theology and philosophy.
I am honoured to be a part of research institutions (the Faculty of theology at University of Oslo, and the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California) that focuses on the external aspect of academic research. My colleague in Claremont, Andrew Schwartz, who is a process philosopher, asserts that “we don`t need fewer philosophers, we all just need to do philosophy better – and soon”. I venture to modify it a bit and say that we don’t need less of academic research, we just need to do it better. That is, we should continue to be agents of welfare within our own context and capacities by always emphasizing the wisdom-aspect of our academic research. I stand in this tradition and hope to contribute to it. Along with my colleague in Claremont, I want to help make philosophy "work" for Muslims and to help Islam "work" for the wider world so that, together, we might help bring about a world that is creative, compassionate, participatory, inclusive, respectful of diversity, and spiritually satisfying -- with no one left behind. This is part of my calling as a Muslim and as a human being in our fragile times. That is why I have chosen to become, as best I can, a Muslim public intellectual.
Farhan Shah, Muslim philosopher, Islam-consultant to the Center for Process Studies, Claremont, California, doctoral fellow at the Faculty of theology, University of Oslo