Islam’s knowledge project: The next stage by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam (September 30, 2016)


Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam

At an international seminar on Islamic higher education last month in the idyllic Maldives I made certain observations that were received with acclaim. The organisers asked me to chair the next session where I had the opportunity to elaborate on some of the ideas.

At no stage in the 1400-year history of Islam has its project of knowledge stopped, though we agree that over the last four centuries it has slowed down considerably. A the moment the slow down settled in, Islam was already a thousand-year old, which makes many wonder whether it was some kind of a civilisational fatigue that has been marked in other dynamic civilisations also after a few centuries of their climb to peak.

These are larger questions fit for men like Arnold Toynbee, Edward Gibbon and Ibn-e-Khaldun to answer. A relatively short piece like this may not be an appropriate format for this. However, suffice to say that the Muslim intellectual elite that specialises in such areas is keenly aware of this obvious trend and wants to arrest this decline.

Institutions like the Washington-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies (IOS), which I happen to head, are seized of this fact, along with other like-minded organisations of the world.

They are keenly aware that not only no, or little, knowledge is being produced by the Muslim world, but its huge body of existing knowledge is gradually getting lost in the rising dust of time. It needs both preservation, updating and to be made compatible with contemporary standards.

There are issues of promotion of knowledge in Islamic perspective throughout societies, in schools, colleges, universities, in curricula-setting and canon formation. This is a huge task, and already we are working on these.

However, what I propose here is less about this aspect and more about the restoration of knowledge of the Muslim world. The processes of restoration also involve expansion of knowledge. When we restore knowledge it comes to the notice of more and more people, leading to its expansion.

An example of this comes from an earlier Muslim experience. In the Middle Ages, when Islam was thriving, the West was in serious decline for centuries. The ancient Greek knowledge was virtually lost and almost extinct. Then Muslims turned their attention to restoring and propagating it by translating it into Arabic from Greek and teaching it at their universities.

Europeans who had studied at Muslim universities gradually retranslated it into their languages, along side the knowledge produced by Muslims and stored in Arabic. This new body of knowledge was instrumental in ushering in the European Renaissance.

This was not the first time that translation and aggregation of knowledge had worked wonders for civilisational advance. Several centuries before the advent of the European Renaissance Muslims had established Dar-ul-Hikmah (literally, wisdom house) in Baghdad where scholars translated many of the best works in other great languages into Arabic. This provided a great boost to Muslim advancement.

Yet another similarly dramatic impact of translation was witnessed in the middle of the 19th century and later. This knowledge revolution was led by Sir Syed, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University in the form of the rather modest Scientific Society. The society was established for the creation of scientific temper among Muslims through translations of influential works in English language into Urdu. This effort had a salutary effect on Muslims in India.

Translation not only extends the accessibility of knowledge to the receiving language group, but increases the reach, impact and durability of the knowledge contained in the original language. The project under discussion intends to translate the seminal, most influential books in Arabic (to begin with) into several Indian languages.

This is going to be part of a global effort involving dozens of languages. What is discussed here is largely concerned with India and the subcontinent. A committee of experts from different disciplines and languages has to be set up under a chairman. It has to begin with the identification and selection of canonical and classical texts to be assigned to good translators who are well-versed in the subjects as well as in the original language and the language of translation.

We have also to include certain influential texts of later vintage, even some contemporary great works, for translation. The language of translation has to be easy to read, interesting and stylistically perfect to facilitate a wide readership in the recipient languages.

People coming from translation studies have to be accommodated in the project to provide insights and guidance to the effort. Establishment of permanent bureaus of translation, complete with an administrative structure, would be desirable.

Last, but not he least, adequate infrastructure and fund support will be required on a sustained basis to this huge effort. Hopefully, we should be able to create a substantial body of knowledge available in multiple languages.


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