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Syllabus of Islamic Studies, In Its Current Form Needs Dynamic Changes: Response to Maroof Shah''s Column on Seyyed Hossein Nasr

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

Jul 26 2018

This is a modest rejoinder and response to Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah’s recent GK column “Reading Seyyed Hossein Nasr” (dated 19th July, p. 9). His write-up can be divided into three major sections: (i) lamenting on the grim situation of Islamic studies subject, globally as well as in Kashmir context; (ii) providing a gist, very comprehensive and clearly, of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s thought and contribution; and (iii) acknowledging and applauding the efforts of ‘International Centre for Spiritual Studies’ (ICSS) and ‘Department of Islamic Studies’ (DoIS) at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora. I fully agree with his presentation of Prof. Nasr’s thought and contribution; and I don’t have even an iota of doubt regarding what he says about, and what he understands from the thought of, Nasr. However, I have strong reservations with him on his projection of Islamic Studies in Kashmir.

Therefore, let me initiate by saying that I have decades-long association with this Subject from 2003: as a UG student at Amar Singh College; as a PG student at SHIIS, University of Kashmir; as a PhD researcher at Aligarh Muslim University; as a Post-Doc fellow at IRD, International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI, Pakistan); and (from 2016) as an Assistant Professor, in Higher Education Department, J&K.

I have some reservations about three statements of Dr Maroof: (i) He begins his column by branding Islamic Studies students and teachers, throughout the Muslim world, being unaware of the scope/ nature of their subject. He says: “Islamic Studies as a discipline and Islam as a Tradition in the integral sense of the term that includes proper engagement with the whole legacy of Islam—aesthetics, metaphysics, ontology, art and architecture, esoterism, a host of traditional sciences and much more—are absent in much of the Muslim world and its institutions”.

Secondly, he goes many steps further, just in the next lines, and laments on the situation of Islamic Studies vis-à-vis Kashmir, and brands it as “shocking” on the grounds that “Students trained in the institutions dealing with Islam may be informed about anything in the world but not Islam as it has been classically understood and bequeathed to us. One may have done a PG or even PhD in Islamic studies … and still can’t speak a few words about many important dimensions of Islamic cultures, say art, architecture, aesthetics, recent developments in philosophy, theology and studies on transcendent theosophy”.

And third, in the end of his write-up, after highlighting the thought of Nasr, and his position/ place in Islamic Studies, he goes on applauding the efforts of applauding efforts of IUST, for having been “able to attract the support of Nasr for its International Centre for Spiritual Studies and International Journal of Spirituality”, for which he credits the “efforts by its current Head, Dr S Iqbal Quraishi”. He also acknowledges and applauds IUST’s Department of Islamic Studies (for which he recognizes the efforts of Dr Afroz Ahmad Bisati, Head, DoIS, IUST, and his team, especially Mr. Mairaj-ud-Din) for “the 10 day International Summer School” which had “attracted some international figures” and thus “began a new chapter in the history of Islamic studies in Kashmir”.

On point one, my answer is that he should first of all look for an academic definition of Islamic Studies; and here it suffices to provide this definition of this subject by the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany: Islamic Studies is the subject which means “the study of Islamic religion and culture. It investigates the way in which the religion and culture of Islam influence specific societies. It investigates the way Islam is reflected in philosophy, law, literature, art and architecture. It investigates the way Islam affects the social, economic, and political relations”. Or the definition provided by the Divinity School, University of Chicago, USA: “Islamic Studies engages in the study of Islam as a textual tradition inscribed in history and particular cultural contexts. ... It offers opportunities to specialize in fields that include Qur’anic studies, Sufi literature, Islamic philosophy, and Islamic law and theology”.

Here what becomes evident is that Dr Maroof is either misinformed about the subject or has not seen the complete syllabus of Islamic Studies, taught at various Colleges and Universities, globally. His claim that “Islamic Studies as a discipline and Islam as a Tradition” which includes “proper engagement with the whole legacy of Islam” is “absent in much of the Muslim world and its institutions” is not genuine.

Secondly, he claims that students (PG or PhD) of Islamic Studies in Kashmir “can’t speak a few words about many important dimensions of Islamic cultures”. Here, what is ignores is that having a look at the Syllabus of UG and PG levels KU and PG level at IUST. Islamic Studies students, both at KU & IUST, do study specific courses on ‘Ilm al-Kalam and Philosophy, Sufism/ Tassawwuf, and Art and Architecture. Suffice to refer to the some of the contents of the courses on Philosophy, Sufism, and ‘Muslim Art and Architecture’.

In Philosophy, students are taught about the ‘Origin and Development of Ilm al-Kalam’ and its important schools, like Jabariyah, Qadariyah, Mu’tazilah, Ashariyah; followed by the ‘Contribution of the following Philosophers’: Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Imam Ghazzali, Ibn-i Rushd, Ibn-i Taimiyah, and ‘Contemporary Muslim Scholastic Thought’.

Similarly, in ‘Tasawwuf’ students are taught about the meaning, origin, and development of Tasawwuf; some Early Sufis (like Hassan Basri, Junaid al-Baghdadi, Rabia Basri) Sufis of Later Period (like Abdul Qadir Jilani, Muin al-Din Chisti, Shihab al-Din Suharwardi) and Sufi Orders like Qadiriyah, Chistiyah, Suharwardiyah, Naqashbandiyah, etc. The course also includes topics on ‘Tasawwuf & its Contemporary Relevance’, ‘Philosophical Trends (like that of Ibn Arabi and Maulana Rumi), and ‘Modern Western Appreciation of Tasawwuf: R. Nicolson, Annemerie Schimmel, W. Chitick’.

Also, it is pertinent to mention that the courses on Islamic History do include topics on culture, aesthetics, and on art and architecture. Besides this, there is one special course on ‘Muslim Art and Architecture’ taught in the DoIS, IUST. Some of the important contents/ topics of this course are: Elements of Islamic Architecture; Muslim Understanding of the Art; Muslim Contribution to Art and Architecture during the eras of the Umayyad and Abbasid Period (661-1258 C.E), followed by the Persian and Ottoman Architecture (15th to 19th CE), Indo Islamic Architecture (12th to 19th CE), and Islamic Architecture in Kashmir. This course also includes ‘Art/ Architecture and Design’ like Mosques Minars, Domes, Arches, Calligraphy and Painting, Gardens and Forts, Houses and Public Places. It also includes topics of contemporary relevance under the heading ‘Islamic Art and Architecture in Contemporary World’ which includes, among others, ‘Modern trend and Design in Architecture’ and ‘Legal Debates on Art and Architecture’. So Dr Maroof’s claim is unreasonable, and/ or is not fact-based.

Also, it is contradictory to see Dr Maroof questioning the status/ position/ scope of Islamic Studies at KU and IUST and at the same time praising/ applauding IUST’s International Centre for Spiritual Studies and Department of Islamic Studies. When he can see or praise this ‘10 days’ program at IUST, why he has failed to take note of the courses like ‘Muslim Art and Architecture’, if not other courses? Here it seems it seems, at least to me, that he is praising IUST because he was one of the significant ‘Resource Persons’ for this Summer School; if that is not the case then it is either his ‘ignorance or arrogance’ or he is ‘misinformed’ and thus has Misunderstandings about Islamic Studies in Kashmir scenario.

I do believe, and do accept that the syllabus of Islamic Studies, in its current form (at KU, IUST, etc.), needs some dynamic changes, but to say that the students don’t know even basics of Islam, and its varied aspects, is not true also.

Change is but natural; and keeping in view the trends and developments taking place in the academic circles of Islamic Studies, globally, we need to reorganize, restructure, and reframe the syllabus not only at PG level, but at 10+2 level, and at College (UG) levels as well.

Like other serious students of Islamic Studies, I do believe that Islamic Studies is a subject which has been, and is represented by Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Fazlur Rahman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr—the three pioneering figures of ‘Islamics’ in the West/ USA—and many other academicians (Muslims and non-Muslims), who are part of Islamic studies fraternity across the globe—be it USA or UK, Australia or Germany, Netherlands or Canada, China or Japan, Holland or New Zealand—like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Edinburgh, SOAS, Georgetown, McGill, Leiden, Berlin, Melbourne, Sorbonne, etc. It is taught in Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, from Pakistan to Palestine, and from Malaysia to Africa.

Related Article:

Exploring Contributions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr to Islamic Studies

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is presently working as Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, GDC (Boys) Pulwama.