Nature of the Islamization Process

Nature of the Islamization Process

On the Nature and Scope of the Islamization Process :

Towards Conceptual Clarification


Ibrahim A. Ragab

Professor, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology

Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge & Human Sciences

Rajab, 1416 - January, 1996

[Al-Faruki – Islamization of Knowledge – Ibrahim Ragab – Methodology – Definition] 

On the Nature and Scope of the Islamization Process :

Towards Conceptual Clarification

Introduction :

Since Ismael Al-Faruki and his colleagues coined the term “Islamization” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s , the term has come to be widely used, but in a number of different ways . It seems to have since acquired a distinct life of its own. Although his original work seemed to present a rather clear and well-defined description of the nature of this “process”, others started using the term in ways that reflect different perceptions as to its basic nature. And although his focus was on Islamization “of Knowledge”, scholars joining the growing movement started applying the term to broader and broader arenas. It seams only appropriate, at this juncture in time , to have a closer look at the different ways in which this term has come to be used by different people. Conceptual clarity is a sine qua non for efficient communication and better collaboration among those interested in contributing to the Islamization effort.

In what follows, we will first attempt a brief survey of the different conceptions of the nature of the Islamization process. We will try to identify the basic ways in which this process is being understood today. This will be coupled with my own humble assessment of the situation. Then, we will move to tackle the issue of how the scope of Islamization is defined in current usage . Again I will try to state my own position (or my bias) in this regard. The purpose of the whole exercise is only to provide a platform from which serious discussion may start, with participants in the discourse as clear as possible as to where each other stands . It would be self-defeating to attempt prematurely to achieve a consensus around any one particular view at this point in the history of the Islamization movement. But it is indispensable for all engaged in that effort to bring to the fore the basic assumptions underlying their thinking in an explicit fashion. This is the only way that allows others to examine them and to engage that thinking in a clear and constructive fashion, which is, in turn, a prerequisite for achieving any real progress .

Nature of the Islamization Process 

Anyone who closely examines the literature on Islamization, or keenly follows conference discussions on the subject, cannot but detect two distinct approaches to understanding the nature of this process. [To focus this part of our discussion, let us limit ourselves to the Islamization of “the social sciences” rather than Islamization of Knowledge ]. Those two approaches basically differ in terms of the place each assigns to modern social science scholarship vis-a-vis Islamic insights. The first approach conceives of a rather “important” role to be played by “modern” social science scholarship in the Islamization effort. The second approach hardly sees any significant role to be played by “modern” social science theory or research, especially in the early stages of the process. 

It is difficult to put name-tags on these approaches, because they do not seem to represent two clear-cut , discrete entities . They rather look like the two extreme ends of a continuum, with all different shades in between. Both, however, certainly subscribe to the view that Islamization entails some sort of “integration” of knowledge based in Islamic sources, and knowledge generated by “modern” social science methods. Beyond that, those adhering to the two points of view drastically differ in terms of the extent to which they see that modern social science theories and methods could be utilized. It may be tempting to call those adhering to the first point of view the “modernists”, while calling the second group “the traditionalists”. However, these may be misnomers. The use of such terms in this respect would be confusing rather than illuminating, given the way they are used beyond our context. Because the main difference between the two approaches lies with their perception of the role to be played by modern social science, it would seem more appropriate to use terms directly related to that issue. It may be pertinent, then, to differentiate here between those who call for “engagement” of modern social science scholarship on its own terms (and beyond), and those who call for “disengagement” therefrom.

Let us move to a brief description of each of these positions. We are not as much concerned, however, with reference to particular authors or particular works. What we intend here is to discuss the general thrust of the two currents of thinking and their underlying logic.

1- The Engagement Approach:

Those who espouse this side of the argument believe that modern social science has a “very important” role to play in the Islamization process. They would ask, what are we Islamizing, if not the body of knowledge and methods which constitute contemporary “social sciences”, taught and learned and practiced all over the world. The argument goes on in lines like the following. 

We are social scientists, attempting to Islamize a body of existing knowledge called “the social sciences”. We cannot just pretend that this body of knowledge does not exist. We cannot afford to let our legitimate suspicion of its underlying basic assumptions lead us to write it off completely and to start all over again. The appropriate strategy should be to “engage” this body of knowledge in a confident and constructive way. Basically, this “engagement” of modern social science scholarship would consist of the following:

a) mastering modern social science scholarship (theories, methodologies, empirical findings).

b) serious examination of its explicit or implicit underlying ontological, axiological, and epistemological assumptions.

c) rigorous criticism of all of the above from the Islamic perspective.

d) integration of whatever measures up to the above, with pertinent insights generated from Islamic sources.

e) examination of the validity of this integrated knowledge with reference to the real world.

The assumption here is that modern social science knowledge, be it as imperfect as it can be, still has a valuable role to play in the Islamization process. That body of knowledge was the result of over a century of diligent research effort done by thousands of (partially misguided) scientists around the world. During that same era, and in fact three centuries earlier, the Muslim world was caught in the firm grip of stagnation and even deterioration. Ignoring what others have found during our absence may lead us to try to reinvent the proverbial wheel - in some respects at least . A gross loss of energy and talent indeed! Or this is the way that advocates of this approach would argue.

2-The Disengagement Approach:

The proponents of this approach would argue that the flaws in the basic logic and structure of modern social science renders it useless, if not outright dangerous, for the Islamization effort. They would convincingly argue that modern social science is the product of the “modern” era of the predominant Western Civilization, an era that is basically materialist, secular, and anti-religion. They would point out that modern social science shares the same Western worldview. As a case in point, it would be pointed out that sociology was introduced by its modern founder Auguste Compte as a substitute for religious guidance - a scientific one. He even went as far as to see sociology as “..basis of a revolutionary new religion , with Compte as its first and principal prophet”( Olsen, 1968: 16), where Man would be the object of worship instead of God. Its priests would be the scientists ! .The argument goes on to ask : how on earth are we going to reconcile this with the basics of the Islamic worldview?

The correct approach, for them, is to start with “full disengagement” from this flawed modern scholarship. We have to disabuse ourselves completely of its conceptualizations and its mental categories for us to be free to “genuinely” start from the Islamic categories generated from the Noble Quran and valid Hadith. It is dangerous to start from “modern” preconceptions, because of the natural tendency to superimpose them upon our understanding even of the Islamic sources. We have to be wary of the power of ready-made models, for they tend to - wittingly or unwittingly - shape our perceptions. A sentiment oddly enough, shared with the post-modernists, with a big difference of course (i.e. instead of the abyss of relativistic nihilism, Muslims have their own valid roadmap and compass).

An Assessment :

It should be clear by now that each of the contending positions have a valid point indeed. However, the advocates of each tend to stretch their valid point to extremes. There can hardly be any serious doubt that modern social science has a lot to offer. Consider for example the research methods, the analytical tools, theory building mechanics, and the explorations of general social processes which were developed by modern social scientists. Even social science theories, suspect as they may be in terms of their valuational stance and hypothetical substance, still have a lot to offer. In fact we can identify their basic shortcomings in terms of a number of errors of omission and errors of commission. The flagrant omissions in these theories relate to the complete absence of the spiritual factors, which are not considered to be legitimate subjects for “scientific” inquiry. A related omission is that of discarding even true “revelation” as a source of any valid scientific knowledge, exclusively focusing on sense perceptions. Consequently, the basic commissions relate to embracing materialist values which are concerned solely with this life rather than anything beyond. A related error of commission is that of advocating a relativistic stance which divines humans as the only source of all valuation.

The important question here becomes, is there - despite the errors of omission or commission mentioned above - anything of value in these modern social sciences to be redeemed? My own bias is to answer that question in the affirmative . How? Based on the above analysis, it would be clear that the situation could be remedied in two ways : complementing and substituting. Whenever we detect an omission, the strategy would be one of “complementing” our analysis by providing for the missing components, e.g. injecting the spiritual factors in the analysis; utilizing insights gained from “revelation” ... etc. Whenever we detect an error of commission, the strategy would be one of “substitution”, that is, discarding incongruent components and replacing them with Islamically-correct ones, e.g. substituting secularized valuations with balanced, Islamic valuations.

It should be emphasized at this point that Islamization is not a simple-minded addition and subtraction process. It is beyond that, a creative and sophisticated process of genuine synthesis or reintegration at a higher plane. It is within this context that, one can understand the concern of those who feel very offended as they watch attempts at superficially supporting questionable social science theories with some verses from the Noble Quran or Sunnah on the basis of apparent but hardly valid similarities. This can never be accepted as authentic Islamization efforts, under any circumstances of course.

On the other hand, there can hardly be any serious doubt about the overarching power of dominant paradigms in shaping - or even enslaving - minds even of practicing scientists. Complacency may result in uncritical acceptance of preconceived ideas and mental category-systems that apparently sound benign while being implicitly steeped into completely different frames of reference. A certain degree of disengagement from the prevailing paradigm is a must for genuine development of categories based into the Islamic worldview.

To sum up, it seems reasonable to assume that modern social science scholarship can definitely play a significant role in rebuilding the social sciences from an Islamic perspective. However, it is equally true that one can never be too cautious in utilizing paradigms developed within the context of other cultures with divergent worldviews. Modern social science can only be utilized to the extent to which it is congruent with the Islamic perspective, without undue reverence or undue contempt.

Scope of Islamization 

Although, initially, the term “Islamization” was used in connection with knowledge,(i.e., “Islamization of knowledge”), the term came to be gradually extended to cover areas much higher and much lower in terms of their level of abstraction. On the one hand discussion became more specialized and more specific. It was applied to general categories of sciences, as in the case of Islamization of the social sciences, or the Islamization of single disciplines within the social sciences as in Islamization of sociology or psychology, or even Islamization of curricula of such individual disciplines. On the other hand, discussion, moved up one or more rungs on the ladder of abstraction, to talk about “Islamization” of whole societies. This is, to be sure, another sign of the validity and vitality and the dynamic nature of the Islamization paradigm. However, this usage extension of the term calls for a conscious effort at conceptual clarification, particularly in terms of looking at the links between the Islamization effort at the different levels of abstraction.

1- Islamization of disciplines and Islamization of curricula :

In the academic circles, especially in Islamic universities, a lot of interest is - naturally- focused on what is increasingly coming to be known as “Islamization of the curriculum”. As a matter of fact, concern about university courses curricular content and textbooks used loomed large among the areas identified for Islamization action even in Al-Faruki’s seminal work on Islamization (1982). The need for careful reviewing of course contents to rid them of any material incongruent with or antagonistic to the Islamic perspective was long recognized. The recommendation was always that new pertinent subject matter areas should be included. Reference material should be sifted out to exclude the inappropriate and to include the relevant. In all cases, there was the expectation that instructors would use utmost discretion when they present standard theories, which are naturally incongruent with the Islamic perspective particularly within the realm of the social sciences. They are expected to couple their presentation with a hard-nosed critique from the Islamic viewpoint. Last, but not least, every effort would be made to scour the literature in search for those nuggets of already Islamized concepts to include them in the subject matter and the bibliography. Where none of the above is identified, the expectation again was for the instructor to do his own best in attempting to do his own research to be able to present to his students a rudiment of an “Islamized view” of a particular area of content ... that is to participate in the “ Islamization of the discipline” he is teaching ... or is it? 

As a matter of fact, this particular connection seems to confuse the so-called Islamization of curricula with the Islamization of the concerned discipline. Islamization of the discipline, e.g. Islamization of sociology or Islamization of social work is basically “a program of systematic research, which applies rigorous Islamization methodologies to the study of specific research problems”. ( The methodology of Islamization was dealt with elsewhere. See e.g. Ragab, 1993). It is not a stopgap, one-shot effort, to give an Islamic face to a presentation of some course material. That research activity (Islamization of the concerned discipline) should never be confused with what is basically a “curriculum development”, or educational administrative concern. As a matter of fact, one can safely say that Islamization of the disciplines is a separate activity that should be carried out in its own right, even if no Islamization of curriculum was being done for the moment. The important thing to be born in mind here is that - strictly speaking - Islamization of the disciplines is what gives Islamization of the curricula any significant meaning. For without it, the latter would be nothing more than an act of rubble-removal or some sort of a cosmetic facelift. It may be advisable, under the circumstances, to discard the term Islamization of the curricula altogether, and to use some less ostentatious term such as “curriculum reform” from the Islamic perspective. This may help remove the confusion. But the important thing is that it may also help direct precious staff time and effort to the real effort of “doing” Islamization research on particular aspects of their respective disciplines - the real Islamization . Once this is done, curricula would be automatically Islamized! The reverse is not true.

2- Islamization of knowledge and Islamization of total societies :

Again, but on the other side or level of abstraction, the term Islamization is being recently used in confusing ways . As was previosly said , Islamization of knowledge is basically an epistemological and methodological concern. Even when discussions of the subject explore its deeper ontological and axiological prerequisites, such discussion is only brought to the fore at the service of the epistemological and even more specifically the methodological concerns. Islamization is - at its essence - a research and theory-building effort meant to restore the scientific enterprise in general and the social sciences in particular to the correct path of integration of revelation and reality. Even when some tend to extend the use of the term to the so-called “Sharia Sciences”, “Revealed knowledge” or “Islamic Sciences”, it invites confusion. It becomes like a contradiction in terms, or at least a redundancy. How would one Islamize the “Islamic Sciences”?!. To be sure, Islamization of knowledge has significant implications for the directions in which the traditional “Islamic Sciences” should be moving. These sciences, through their historical development, have acquired certain characteristics which leave a lot to be desired. Many areas under these sciences , which were left in a rather underdeveloped state over the years, need to be developed to better serve the needs of the “Ummah”. A case in point is that of the theory of “Maqasid” which is so vital for the development of Islamic social sciences. Certain previous efforts at interpretation of the Noble Quran and at explanation of valid Hadith - though commendable for what they used to offer - can still use fresh ways in dealing with scripture - according to some renowned Usulis (see, e.g. Al-Alwani & Khalil :1991, also Al-Alwani: 1996). But, once again confusion resulting from the use of the Islamization rubric in that context may warrant discarding it altogether , in favor of a more general term such as “Reform of Islamic studies” or its equivalent.

But at a more serious level, the use of the Islamization rubric in connection with reforming a whole society may even be more confusing. Again, we have to remember that Islamization of knowledge, in its genuine form, is a methodological and an epistemological issue. To stretch the concept to cover activist endeavors made to infuse societal institutions with an Islamic character is potentially problematic. Again, we have to reiterate that Islamization of knowledge or of particular disciplines is a separate activity which is justified in its own right, and should be carried out - with or without any broader efforts at Islamic reform in any society at all. Making the connection between the two levels unnecessarily links the fate of both. Emotional considerations aside, Islamization of knowledge is a dispatssionate , hard-nosed, rigorous, scientific enterprise, which should never be confused with broader political or economic types of human endeavor. It represents a much-needed paradigm shift of concern to those within the knowledge-building, scientific and professional communities, rather than to political parties or political movements seeking reform of whole societies.


In an attempt at conceptual clarification, we discussed in this brief paper a number of issues related to “the nature” and scope of Islamization. In the first part, our treatment of the subject was limited to the nature of Islamization of the social sciences, so as to focus the discussion. We described the two ways in which the role of “modern” social science scholarship is conceived. We differentiated between those who call for confident and constructive “engagement” of this body of knowledge and those who call for conscious “disengagement” from it. An attempt was made to find the truth in each one of these positions, and to try to chart a genuine way through the thicket. The importance of dealing with that issue can hardly be overemphasized. It is time the Islamization of the social sciences moved from preoccupation with general issues such as these to be immersed in the business of “doing” actual research which applies the “Islamization of social science” methodologies. It is only when we embark on this task of doing such research that we can meet concrete manifestations of these issues face-to-face, enabling us to resolve them on a factual, practical bases, rather than on the basis of conjecture or intellectual-hypothetical activity.

The second part of the paper dealt with a broader issue pertaining to the uses and misuses or near-misuses of the term Islamization. In this respect, we first attempted to clarify the difference between the two neighbor concepts of Islamization of curricula and Islamization of the disciplines. We suggested the substitution of the term Islamization of curricula with that of “curricular reform”, from the Islamic perspective, of course. We next moved to clarify the relationship between Islamization of knowledge and so-called Islamization of societies - as some people in the media are coming to identify efforts at Islamic reform of certain societies. Our recommendation was for disconnecting the two spheres. The knowledge-building, scientific nature of the Islamization effort has to be emphasized, regardless of broader efforts at social change. 

The discussion was at some points intentionally blunt and categorical, in the hope of generating broader discussion. Such discussion is what we need today so as to move forward with the real job of practicing “Islamization” in a systematic, and methodologically sound fashion. I should hasten to say at the end that this paper is basically intended as more a formulation of questions that need to be answered than to provide full-fledged answers. The suggestions I made at some points are only made tentatively, albeit at times provocatively, with the above aim of generating discussion in mind. May Allah guide our hearts and minds, and accept our exertions in His Way . Amen!


Al-Alwani, Taha Jabir(1996) Missing Dimensions in the Theory and Practices of Contemporary Islamic Movements (International Institute of Islamic Thought).

Al-Alwani, Taha Jabir and Khalil, Imad al Din(1991) The Quran and the Sunnah: The Time-Space Factor ( Herndon, Virginia : International Institute of Islamic Thought).

Al-Faruqi, Ismael Raji(1982) Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Workplan ( International Institute of Islamic Thought).

Olsen, Marvin E. (1968) The Process of Social Organization (New York : Holt , Rinehart & Winston)

Ragab, Ibrahim (1993), “Islamic Perspectives on Theory Building in the Social sciences”, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol. 10, No. 1, p.p. 1-22.