It comes as no surprise that sociologists, political scientists and terrorism experts produce reams of research on Islam, Muslims, identity, immigration, Islamism, radicalization, violence and terrorism. Much of their work is funded or commissioned by government agencies or major corporations. Today, like yesterday, non-academic criteria propel and justify research.
But this carefully orchestrated infatuation with Islamic studies reduces several centuries of Islam's legal heritage, philosophy, mystical thought, and social and political vitality to a subsidiary position. Beyond the concern generated by the conflict in Iraq, the richness of the Sunni and Shia traditions and their millennia-long relationship earns only lip service. Rationalist philosophers such as Averroes are cited as examples of "reasonableness," while the thought of Islam's many eminent theologians and thinkers is ignored.
The time has come for universities in the West to reconcile themselves with an approach to other civilizations and cultures — particularly that of Islam — driven neither by ideological agendas nor collective fears.
The "global war" against "radicalization and terrorism," that would make contemporary Islamic studies a discipline besieged by dangerously utilitarian political considerations must give way to a holistic vision.
If we are serious about respecting the diversity of civilizations, about the need for dialogue, about promoting common values, we must urgently rethink the content of our curricula. The courses of study offered in our universities must embrace the study of religion, of theology and theological scholarship, of the teaching of Islamic law and jurisprudence.
It is generally accepted that practising Jews, Christians, Hindus or Buddhists can perform their academic duties objectively. Muslim faculty members, however, face serious obstacles. Practising Muslims may see their objectivity questioned and be expected to espouse "pro-Western" views.
The commonplaces of violence and terrorism and the insistence that "Islamic authorities" denounce these abuses conceal from us a world caught up in intellectual ferment. From Morocco to Indonesia, from the United States to Australia by way of Europe and Turkey, a body of fresh and audacious Islamic thought is emerging. It is not only the work of thinkers known to and recognized by the West.
Today, an evolutionary process is sweeping through every Islamic society. Any Islamic studies curriculum must turn serious attention to this intellectual effervescence, which in turn implies mastery of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and other languages...
How else to explain why certain violent groups are lent an interpretative authority based on little more than either willful negligence … or ignorance? Perhaps the outstanding example of this treatment is Ibn Taymiyya, the 13th-century scholar who some consider the quintessential extremist thinker. The speech and actions of today's violent Islamists become windows through which the Islamic heritage, and Islamic scholars themselves, are interpreted and judged.
Contemporary Islamic studies face another major challenge: that of reconciling students drawn to the field with this complex, multilayered and multidimensional world. Knowledge of languages, cultures, memories and histories, of social dynamics and evolution are the essential parameters if we are to study the other as he actually is, and not as a demographic, cultural or political threat.