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Muslim Scholars And Their Voyage(s) To The West – Analysis

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Traveling 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 civilizations.

The 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.

Tahtawi in 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 to power. 

Years 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. 

In Muslim 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.

Years after 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. 

Just like 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. 

Even the 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, Mawlana Mawdudi also travelled to the United States of America. In fact, Mawdudi died in 1979 in Buffalo. 

Independent 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 impact. 

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan

Rehan 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.

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