Could it be that a return to the past might provide a new way for the Islamic world to view and shape the future?
There has been much written and discussed about the contrast between contemporary, insular Muslim societies and the treasure of high intellectual and cultural achievement of Islam's ancient past.
The question that both Muslims and the broader world should be asking constantly is whether such a vision of Islamic civilization can be revived. And, if so, how?
A starting place is Justin Marozzi's new book, Islamic Empires: The Cities That Shaped Civilization, which tells a "very different story" about Islam "from what which is so prevalent today." Marozzi contrasts the backward-looking cultures of too much of contemporary Islamic society with older versions, "powerhouses of forward-looking thinking" in almost every field.
As Marozzi makes clear, tradition-proud Muslim cultures have become too selective in their appeal to the Islamic past.
But that does not account for a critical awakening that we can witness right here in the U.S.
For Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, whom The New Yorker magazine has called "perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world," broadening and deepening the appreciation of the Muslim past is a peculiar calling.
Yusuf, who labeled the atrocities of 9/11 "acts of mass murder, pure and simple," appears regularly alongside Christians and Jews as a proponent of religious liberty.
More important, he has taken a crucial step to realize what Marozzi is calling for — a reawakening of the great traditions of Islamic thought.
Yusuf is the co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. Located in Berkeley, Calif., its mission affirms "the ultimate aim of education" to be "the love of beauty, truth, and goodness." Zaytuna's curriculum focuses on the traditional liberal arts, the mastery of Arabic, and the probing of the great philosophical questions as these are articulated and debated in the texts of Islamic thinkers of the Middle Ages — a period before faith and reason went their separate ways in fundamentalist Muslim societies.
Given the common Western impression of the Muslim religion as entailing a fundamentalist recoiling from reason, the Zaytuna vision might seem surprising. It boldly proclaims: "The greatest, truest, and only permanent good bestowed upon humanity is that of true knowledge," from which "all other goods flow, even faith."
This would have a familiar ring at my Catholic university, where we are deeply devoted to the liberal tradition and where our motto is "Love Ye Truth and Justice."
In 2018, we hosted Yusuf on our campus for a panel on "Liberal Education Among the Abrahamic Religions." He stood alongside a Catholic and a Jewish member of our faculty and spoke in defense of the liberal tradition of learning.
It was a moment that might have recalled a more ancient gathering of intellectuals.
Before medieval Western Christians encountered the full scope of ancient pagan learning and long before the Renaissance, Islamic thinkers devoted themselves to such learning, to the mastery of the liberal arts and the meticulous readings of ancient texts. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the remarkable flourishing of philosophy in the high Middle Ages, fueled by the writings of 13th century Catholic thinkers, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, without the work of Islamic (as well as Jewish) scholars.
These Muslim, Jewish and Christian thinkers, who eagerly read works from one another's traditions, inherited from classical pagan philosophers a conception of intellectual inquiry as aiming at the discovery of truth through the testing of varied opinions — ranging from common beliefs of ordinary people to the technically refined positions of philosophers. Such a model of inquiry requires patience, diligence, courage and humility.
These virtues are often as absent from contemporary secular society as they are from fundamentalist religious communities.
Zaytuna's educational philosophy insists on the indispensable role of moral virtue in the pursuit of truth, chief among which is humility. Consider this remarkable precept: "education must inculcate fallibilism, the idea that I believe that I am right but I could be wrong." Grounded in such humility, students are encouraged to treat "strangers with respect and dignity and enemies with the possibility they may one day become friends." The last sentiment calls to mind Martin Luther King Jr.'s insistence that one goal of conflict is to convert enemies into friends.
While many have argued that Islam needs a reformation, Zaytuna is committed to revival and renewal. The title of its chief academic journal, which publishes a host of non-Muslim scholars, is Renovatio. Zaytuna is thus grounded in a conception of tradition as living and as open to encounter with those outside its parameters.
Such a conception of religion, education and tradition may well provide a salutary counter not only to much of contemporary Islamic thought and practice; it is also an alternative to tribalistic trends in advanced Western culture.