0709-Towards an Islamic Epistemology

Presented at a seminar on Epistemology held in Dhakka on 1st September 2007 by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule MB ChB (MUK), MPH (Harvard), DrPH (Harvard) Professor of Epidemiology and Islamic Medicine at the University of Brunei Darussalam and Visiting Professor of Epidemiology at Universiti Malaya.



Islamization of knowledge has become a very popular term and has taken on an identity of its own such that the semantics are debated without dealing with the underlying concepts. Islamization is a process of recasting the corpus of human knowledge to conform with the basic tenets of aqidat al tauhid.



When we talk about Islamic or Islamized knowledge we should be careful not to imply that there is knowledge that is not Islamic. All true knowledge whatever its kind and source is Islamic. Islamic knowledge has no time or space constraints because Islam is universal being suitable for every place and time.



Islamized knowledge is for the benefit of all humanity and not monopolized by Muslims. The main benefit of the Islamization process will be identifying biases in the application of research methodologies and in the resulting corpus of knowledge. This will be the first step towards development of universal objective knowledge.



The process of Islamization does not call for re-invention of the wheel of knowledge but calls for reform, correction, and re-orientation. Islamization is an evolutionary and not revolutionary movement. Islamization is a corrective reformative movement.



Islamization of knowledge is necessary for islamization and reform of the education system. Islamization of education lays the ground for the Islamization and reform of society.




The concept of Islamization of knowledge is not new in Islam. The 2-3rd centuries H witnessed a process of Islamising Greek knowledge with much enthusiasm. The process was not without its pitfalls that have been recorded in history. Modern scholars working on Islamization of their disciplines will benefit from the previous experience to avoid repeating many of the past mistakes.


The early Islamisation process started with astronomical, physical, biological, and mathematical sciences. The process led to the development of the disciplines of theology, kalaam, and Islamic philosophy, falsafat, as counterparts to Greek concepts.


The early Muslim scientists like us today felt the problem of dichotomy of knowledge keenly and tried to bridge the gap with varying success. They not only tried to Islamize foreign knowledge but also embarked on developing new knowledge through research. However these efforts could not be continued in the latter part of the abassid era due to general decline of the state.


Greek scientific knowledge was transferred along with Greek philosophy and ideas. These were eventually to cause decline of Muslim scientific creativity because many did not agree with basic tenets held by Muslims. Greek science was not very experimental and depended more often on deduction rather than induction. It thus discouraged the scientific tarbiyat of the Qur’an which emphasized observation of nature as a basis for conclusions. Thus in the initial period there was scientific growth due to transfer of knowledge. The momentum of scientific advance could however not be maintained because Greek ideas and philosophy created much confusion in the ummat and could not encourage more rapid growth of empirical knowledge.



The recent Islamization movement had its earliest beginnings towards the close of the 14th century H when several Muslim thinkers wrote about the cultural and intellectual invasion of the ummat promoted by an imposed and foreign education system. The responses to this invasion varied. Some just rejected the European education system and European sciences altogether. Some Accepted them whole-heartedly. Some others accepted them with reservations their argument being that they could be de-Europeanised. The main thrust of the Islamization movement has been to de-europeanize education systems.



The First World Conference on Islamic Education held in Makka in 1397 H/1977 N was a major event in the Islamization movement. The Conference succeeded in defining the problem of dichotomy or duality of knowledge and recommended several general approaches to its solution. Follow-up conferences that elaborated practical approaches to solve the problem were held at Islamabad in 1400 H/1980 N, Dhakka in 1401 H/1981 N, Jakarta in 1402 H/1982 N, and Cairo in 1985 N. The movement thereafter appeared to lose momentum and a sense of direction until a 6th one in Capetown in September 1996. The 6th conference was radically different from the previous ones. It had no government representatives and had a limited agenda: to produce a curriculum for Islamic Schools in South Africa that would serve as a model for other countries.



Practical steps to Islamize knowledge were undertaken in this period. Many Islamic elementary and secondary schools were established with the aim of making their curricula reflect the teachings of Islam. Islamic universities under the aegis of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) were also established in Malaysia, Niger, Uganda, and Islamabad. More private Islamic universities were established in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Muslim countries. These were essentially modern universities modeled on the European model within an Islamic context. They were a step towards solving the problem of dichotomy in the education system. They however could not address the task fully because the theoretical work needed to define and implement an Islamic epistemology had not been done.



Specialized institutions were set up to spear-head the Islamization process: The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Virginia, USA; the Islamic Academy in Cambridge, UK; the Muslim Education Trust of Nigeria; The Muslim Education Trust in UK; and the Iqra International Education Foundation in Chicago, USA.


IIIT was registered in the US in 1981. It has held many conferences and published many books to publicize the concept of Islamization. The experience of IIIT illustrates the difficulties and challenges of Islamization. From its inception, IIIT set itself the task of producing textbooks for the various disciplines of knowledge that would present the Islamic perspective. The process required mastery of both the European disciplines of knowledge and the traditional Islamic sciences. This would be followed by a critical analysis of both. The results of the analysis would be applied to the practical realities in the ummat in order to produce a new synthesis that would be in text-books used in schools and universities. It was expected that the student who would use the new text-books would develop a new mind-frame in an intellectual-cultural context that would facilitate solving the ummat’s outstanding problems and to contribute to growth of human knowledge. This simplified schemata could not be executed easily because there was a lot of preparatory work that needed to be done. IIIT therefore started by producing books on background material needed to prepare the ground for the Islamisation project. It held seminars and colloquia to discuss specific issues. A major problem encountered was lack of intellectual manpower capable of contributing to the project. There are few scholars in the ummat who have enough grasp of both the classical Islamic and modern European disciplines to be able to make an original contribution. The few who are available are so busy in day-to-day political and social problems of their countries that they have little time or energy for scholarly work. The few scholars available for the work do not have direct and day to day contact with the grass-roots in universities and schools; if they had such contact they would be absorbed in their work that no time would be left for academic research. The summary of the IIIT’s experience over the period 1981-2000 is that the process of Islamization is larger and more complicated than had been anticipated.




Discipline reform is the most important item on the agenda of the contemporary Islamization movement. Islamization will have to start at the level of disciplines. This is because knowledge has become so specialized that no effort at general islamization can succeed. Each discipline has developed its own unique epistemology, methodology, and corpus of knowledge.


The effort of Islamization must start with existing disciplines of knowledge. The alternative of starting from a tabula rasa is not practical and will make the process of Islamization both long and expensive. Such an approach will relegate the present corpus of human knowledge to the dust-bin of history, an unrealistic alternative. If such an approach were taken, the Muslims will be busy reconstructing knowledge from its foundations while others are going ahead using available knowledge with its defects. Muslims would then become victims of a time lag that will be greatly accentuated by the rapid IT development.



Successful reform must have the following characteristics: pro-active intellectual effort, academically and methodologically rigorous, objective, and has practical consequences. A pro-active strategy is not reaction to time or place-bound problems. It has its own vision and agenda and takes the initiative to achieve them. It has a grand vision and a mission seen in the long-term perspective. An intellectual approach based on rational grounds is needed and not emotional excitement that does not long. Intellectual rigor is needed in the analysis of problems and formulation of solutions using a clear and consistent methodology. The Islamization effort will fail rapidly if it becomes an ivory-tower exercise with no grass-roots support. It must stay in touch and close to the actual educational problems of the ummat.



The long-term vision is accelerated growth of objective, universal knowledge that is beneficial to all humanity and allows a harmonious interaction of humans with their physical, social, and spiritual environment. The practical mission is conceptual transformation of the paradigms, methodologies, and uses of disciplines of knowledge to conform to tauhid. The immediate goals are: (a) De-Europeanizing basic paradigms of existing disciplines and thus changing them from being parochial to being objective and universal. (b) Reconstructing paradigms of disciplines using Islamic universal guidelines. (c) Re-classifying the various disciplines of knowledge to reflect universal values and the tauhidi perspective. (d) Reforming the methodology of research to become objective, purposeful, and comprehensive, (e) Encouraging growth of knowledge through research, and (f) inculcating morally correct application of knowledge



Discipline reform will be initially undertaken in the following three main areas: classification of disciplines, tasniif al ‘uluum; epistemology, nadhariyat al ma’arifat; and methodology, mahajiyat al ma’arifat.


Classification of disciplines in most universities reflects the European world-view and epistemological assumptions. Some form of re-classification will be needed to reflect tauhidi assumptions.


An Islamic epistemological thought must be developed from the Qur’an, the sunnat, and the ummatic intellectual experience over the past 14 centuries. This can incorporate experiences of other communities even if non-Muslim.


The methodology of research must be reformed to remove all sources of bias in the selection of fields of investigation, hypothesis formulation, data management and analysis, and reporting of scientific findings.


Islamization will succeed in an ambiance that emphasizes revival of ijtihad and research, motivates researchers and scientists to excel in knowledge, and inculcates correct attitudes to the use of knowledge especially science and technology.



The Qur’an is very central to the discipline reform process but must be used correctly. The Qur’an is not a text-book of any discipline although it has data and facts on various disciplines. The Qur’an gives general principles that establish objectivity and protect against biased research methodology. The Qur’an creates a world-view that encourages research to extend the frontiers of knowledge and its use for the benefit of the whole universe.Scientists are encouraged to work within these Qur’anic parameters to expand the frontiers of knowledge through research, basic and applied.




The first step is obtaining a good grounding in Islamic methodological sciences of of usul al fiqh,  ulum al Qur’an, ulum al hadith, and 'uluum al llughat, This is then followed by reading the Qur’an and sunnat with understanding of the changing time-space dimensions while at the same time knowing limitations of literal reading and interpretations. This is then followed by clarification of basic epistemological issues and relations: wahy and aql, ghaib and shahada, ‘ilm and iman. The classical disciplines provide an authentic Islamic methodology that can be developed and applied to various disciplines of knowledge. Mastery of the disciplines does not necessary require that a scientist consencrate a life-time of specialized study of classical disciplines. What is required is a short, concentrated course of study of the methodological aspects of the classical disciplines and not the details. Such a course can last 6-12 months depending on the initial level of preparation of the scholar.



Due to limited manpower and material resources, the reform process cannot be undertaken for all disciplines at the same time. Some form of prioritization will be necessary. Prioritization does not mean marginalization of some disciplines. It is a rational allocation of manpower and material resources for optimal and rapid results. Disciplines that are more methodological will have to take first priority followed by disciplines that are closely related to social reform and societal change. The order of priority for discipline reform: basic natural sciences, applied sciences and technology,  social sciences, humanities, and Islamic sciences. Natural sciences are trend setters both in the field of methodology and social change. Social sciences will be easier to reform because they have now largely adopted the empirical methodology of the natural sciences. Humanities need to be recast using the Qur’anic methodology of analyzing the growth and decline of human civilizations and societies. Islamic sciences became fossilized over the centuries when ijthad was limited; they need  a major revival. They will have to be purged of Hellenic, Judeo-Christian, and other influences and will have to be rebuilt directly on the basis of the Qur’an and authentic sunnat. These important sciences will have to be approached taking the time-space dimension into consideration. Since they represent eternally valid revelation, they must have relevance for each period and each place.



Islamic critique of basic paradigms of various disciplines involves a critical review of the basic assumptions and concepts in the methodology of each discipline using criteria of Islamic methodology and Islamic epistemology. The critique should be balanced pointing out the strengths and weaknesses. It should address the core conceptual issues and avoid being trapped into detailed and sometimes peripheral issues. A good critique should set out with Islamic paradigms as a bench-mark and then work systematically to analyse the discipline. The critique should not be undertaken in a cultural or civilizational vacuum. It should be appreciated that modern disciplines developed in a Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman European environment which is the source of many background unstated assumptions in each discipline.



Islamic reviews of existing text-books and teaching materials is undertaken to identify deviations from the tauhidi episteme and the Islamic methodology. This will guide the process of reform by focusing only on areas in the discipline that are not in conformity with the Islamic paradigms. The review is useful in assessing the scale of the task ahead. Many enthusiasts of reform were discouraged as soon as they saw that textbooks and other teaching materials were so many and so voluminous that the task of educational reform can not be achieved in a short time.



Purpose of the introduction to the discipline:

The first and logical step in the Islamization of a discipline is to write an Islamic introduction to it. This should establish basic Islamic principles and paradigms that determine and regulate the methodology, content, and teaching of a particular discipline. The introduction should set out the major epistemological and methodological issues of the discipline to guide research, teaching, and practical application. Students of the discipline will study the introduction first before embarking on studying the discipline. The student will in this way have an Islamic orientation to the discipline that will enable him or her to deal with the discipline in a critical way. He will be able to recognise aspects of the discipline that agree with the Islamic frame-work and separate them from those that do not. This sets him on the road to new creative thinking that helps him make original contributions to the discipline from the Islamic perspective. The Introduction to the discipline can therefore be looked at as a tool to transform a student from an uncritical consumer of knowledge to one who is critically selective.


Ibn Khuldun’s muqaddimat: A parallel can be drawn with the Ibn Khaldun’s Introduction to History, muqaddimat, which was the first book of his universal History, kitaab al ‘Ibar. Ibn Khaldun’s work is rightfully called the philosophy of History because it presents generalizing and methodological concepts that make sense out of the narration of historical events. We can, in other words, say that the muqaddimat enables a student to understand the study of History. Ibn Khaldun presented a rational/logical, analytical, and encyclopaedic approach to History. He was original in his thinking and developed new terminology to convey his ideas. He explained how the physical environment affects the growth of human society from the most primitive to the most sophisticated urban centers. He explained the determinants of leadership and the political system. He explained the relation between group feeling, ‘asabiyyat, on one hand and the rise and fall of political dynasties on the other. He explained the rise and fall of civilizations and the factors that regulate economic and social conditions. The conclusions presented in the muqaddimat was based on Ibn Khaldun’s wide experience in practical politics as well as his extensive travels in the then known Muslim world. Ibn Khaldun was a Muslim scholar and many of his ideas were influenced by Islamic precepts. The debate is however still open whether the muqaddimat can be considered an Islamic Introduction to History or is just an introduction.



Discipline reform is not an administrative effort. It is academic and will progress well if there is cumulation of published research. The research will generate more interest and will engage academicians and educators in serious debate about the issues of Islamization. Research can be undertaken on the process of Islamization in its historical form since the 2/3rd centuries of hegira or its current form to assess the strengths, weaknesses, threats, opportunities, achievements and failures. Some research can be conceptual trying to relate Qur’anic concepts of knowledge to actual problems that educators confront on a daily basis. Some research could take the form of experimental intervention in which selected modules written according to the Islamic methodology and epistemology are used in class-rooms and an assessment is made of their impact and relative effectiveness. Establishment of specialized research institutions will be necessary for continued support of the reform process.



Publication and testing of new text-books and other teaching materials is a necessary step towards reform by putting into the hands of teachers and students reformed material. The process of reform will not achieve its ultimate goal of social reform and societal change unless it becomes part of the curricula at schools and universities. There are several Muslim education institutions struggling to provide an Islamically-based education. They all complain of the major handicap of not finding enough material to use in the class-room. Any material produced will find a ready audience. It is not necessary to wait until such material is perfected. What is available can be used and can be improved based on feed-back from field experience. Graduates of schools and universities who have used the teaching material will be a different product from those who went through other curricula and will be the true pioneers of Islamization when they in turn start researching and teaching.



Developing applied knowledge in science and technology from basic knowledge will be the last stage of the reform process. This is because in the end it is science and technology that actually lead to changes in society.

ŠProfessor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. September 2007