Is there a difference between Muslim history and Islamic history? I found myself asking this question while seated in a university course titled, ‘History of Islam till 1258,’ with an emphasis on political and economic issues. Our professor, a non-Muslim, had been dealing with Muslim students’ complaints about the way Prophet Muhammad was portrayed during the course. Many of us wanted to know why the impression that most Muslims had of their prophet was not being privileged in the lectures.

Meanwhile, in another course, a professor of mine is having a hard time  was trying to find evidence to support the theory that Muslims had perpetuated criminal activities during the battle of Badar. Hearing the professor’s academic argument, I couldn’t help but point out that this reading of events was contrary to my Muslim heritage and could be perceived as offensive. In response, the professor claimed that my view was idealistic and that, as a historian, she was compelled to view the prophet as just another human being. When pressed, she also explained the problem of working on Islamic history using the minimal, non-Muslim textual evidence that is available – some historians feel Muslim accounts lack credibility because they are necessarily biased. Of course, her argument implied that the non-Muslim accounts were unbiased, which is not necessarily the case.

As an increasing number of Muslims – from Pakistan as well as other countries – head to the West to attend colleges and universities, it is probably worth considering the dynamic that exists when Muslim students study Islam and its history at secular institutions.

Many of us are quick to exalt the virtues of secularism as it promotes a neutral value system that is projected as the most suitable for educational purposes. Few articulate the fact that secular education, too, emerges from a particular bias and promotes a belief system that leaves the spiritual aspects of religion outside the classroom door. It comes as little surprise that some that some academics who undertake studies at such institutions equate religion with myth. As a result, Muslim students are forced to reconcile the ‘Muslim’ history they were exposed to in their home countries with the ‘Islamic’ history that is presented in esteemed lecture halls. For students who have a weak grounding in their own religious history and values, the process of reconciling divergent ‘facts’ is even more difficult.

This is not to say that studying Islam from non-Muslims is an exercise in futility. The question here is, how can western, secular institutions approach Islam in a way that accommodates for the fact that some students are practicing Muslims holding a different perception of the essence of Islam?

Individuals such as Ahmad Abdul Ghani, an American national and graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, prefer to focus on the positive aspects of western-based Islamic education. Having mastered five languages, he recently graduated from Darul Uloom and now feels ready to make the most of studying Islam in the West. Ghani drew inspiration from one of his professors at LUMS, Asif Iftikhar, who, after completing an MA in Islamic studies from Canada’s McGill University, claims:

I think it is important to have a solid academic affiliation with Muslim scholars whose basic purpose is not just knowledge for its own sake but knowledge for the purpose of knowing God’s wish to enable them to do His command. With one’s knowledge base firmly grounded in this manner, I see no harm in studying in Western universities especially with the purpose of lending a helping hand to Muslim scholars in responding to the intellectual onslaught against Islam.
Iftikhar’s perspective gets at the heart of the difference between western and eastern Islamic education: the former is concerned with an academic pursuit divorced of sentiment and practice, whereas the latter deem sentiment and practice to be essential. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with questioning Islam and its injunctions bereft of personal bias. Yet, there is a thin line between conducting an academic exercise and imposing a secular reading – even if it contradicts the teachings of a faith – on Islam (or any other religion for that matter). In my opinion, then, while western academia undoubtedly has the potential to help Islamic research progress, it is in itself insufficient for developing genuine Islamic thought.

talha80x80
Toronto-based Talha Zaheer blogs about diaspora-related issues for Dawn.com. He is also the Toronto FC correspondent for Goal.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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