Comment: How Philosophical Work Can Change The World

Contemporary Islamic scholars and academic philosophers often face similar questions, criticisms, and challenges. Daily Nous‘ closing comments on an interview with Noam Chomsky mention several examples:

…there is the question of whether we should want philosophers to have a significant social and political influence. And also whether, if one wants to influence politics and society, one should become a philosopher.

There’s Joseph Heath’s worry that “philosophers have simply written themselves out of any and all policy discussions, by abstracting away so many features of the real world” (though note that idealization has been a hot topic in political philosophy for nearly 20 years now).  And there are concerns like those of Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, who both study philosophy’s impact, that academic philosophy training doesn’t prepare philosophers for engagement with the policy world.

It’s also worth noting that the call for philosophers to engage in efforts for political and social change is not one that all philosophers should feel compelled to answer.

The role of Islamic scholarship and Muslim scholars in public life and politics is contentious. And this isn’t limited to secular societies. Rather it is also contentious in societies that claim Islam as an essential part of their national identity or Islamic law as an ultimate legal foundation.

Islamic sciences – especially fiqh – are often accused of being too abstract and removed from reality to be of any practical value or influence. Although mufti training programs do teach students how to apply fiqh to the context of daily lives, there is a major jump between applying it to individuals and applying it to groups or society. Furthermore, the latter falls within the field of religious policy (al-siyāsah al-sharʿyyah), and – to the best of my knowledge – there aren’t any programs that train students in this sort of thing. Likewise, I am not aware of any Islamic course or program that prepares Muslims to engage in activism.

Also, not every student of Sacred Knowledge should feel compelled to comment on or engage in political or social affairs. Indeed, stay out of such things is one way to ensure that one remains upright and qualified to transmit knowledge.

(I wrote earlier about another parallel in If we stop teaching how fiqh is done and ignore hypothetical issues. I expanded on this in my Public Understanding of Islamic Scholarship in Society piece for Tabah Foundation.)