Muslim intellectual history is rich and complex. It started as a simple effort to continue to live according to the legacy of Prophet Muhammad (s) – Sunnah – in the aftermath of his death, became refined over time, and also branched into new directions even as it remained grounded in core revelatory concepts. Yet, too often, students of Islam in general and Islamic studies programs in particular learn the core disciplines of Qur’an, hadith (reports of prophetic words, actions, and habits), and fiqh (jurisprudence) along with secondary subjects such as mysticism, theology, and philosophy as discrete blocks of knowledge.
While these are fundamental to any curriculum devoted to introducing students to Islamic sciences, their gains in learning can be ahistorical and devoid of context. Frequently, such programs rely on the previous knowledge of students to make important connections that may or may not be possible due to the diversity in student population and their uneven prior exposure to Islam. Furthermore, they do not enable students to truly understand the evolution of inherited knowledge and the interdisciplinary exchanges that took place historically, thereby making it difficult to see their relevance in today’s day and age.
In fact, these disciplines actually developed in tandem and impacted one another in lasting ways. Furthermore, the ‘ulama (religious scholars) continued to be affected by internal debates as shaped by external factors. While most of these ideas were at first considered strange and deviating from the norm, eventually many were absorbed into mainstream Islamic thought. Scholars, teachers, and imams sometimes allude to these phenomena but these connections are often glossed over due to limitations of time or the need to focus on the subject at hand.
To fill this gap, I wrote a survey of Muslim intellectual history with the purpose of illuminating these interactions and the outcomes they produced so that students of Islamic studies and those interested in Islamic thought are able to grasp the historical debates and shifts that have resulted in our present received knowledge as well as the salient narratives today. The survey is organized both chronologically and thematically. In narrating the events as a story, it begins with the death of the Prophet (s) and ends in contemporary times, highlighting and elucidating the various developments as they took place during the intervening 14 centuries. At the same time, when dealing with a thematic topic, related scholars are mentioned in groups spanning several centuries.
The article follows the same pattern as an Islamic Studies program, with more time devoted to core disciplines than the various strains in Islamic thought such as theology, philosophy, and mysticism. The survey is accompanied with a map of cities and a visual timeline which may be helpful in locating contemporaneous scholars across disciplines and appreciating the plurality of Islamic thought historically at any given time; the timeline also provides some dynastic and political context. All the dates, unless otherwise noted, signify the years of death. Lastly, the intellectual history presented in this article focuses on Sunni scholarship in the central Islamic lands.
In the end, a crucial question to ask is: What is the relevance and utility of inherited tradition in today’s time and space? In a world where the complexity, richness, and diversity of Islamic thought is often reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes and simplistic depictions of an obsession with the past, it is vital to educate ourselves of the full scope of our scholarly heritage in order to engage our intellectual history with both measured reverence and constructive criticism. Moreover, as Muslims struggle to find their place in the contemporary world, it may be comforting to know that striking the right balance between Qur’an and Sunnah is not just a core concern for us but has been a salient inspiration among scholars for centuries.
It is my hope that having a sense of the larger picture will enable us to inch closer to the ultimate goal as encountered by every generation in these 1400 years: how best to lead our lives in accordance with the will of God and the example of the Prophet Muhammad(s).
The full-length article, map, and timeline have been published in open-access format by the American Journal of Islam and Society (AJIS), vol. 39, issue no. 3-4.
Saulat Pervez is a writer, researcher, and educator. She has worked at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in various capacities since 2015. Along with studying the Islamic tradition and scholarship, her research interest is in the field of education in the Global South. She is examining obstacles to the formation of reading, writing, and thinking cultures in postcolonial educational systems due to social class and language disparities. She can be reached at email@example.comfirstname.lastname@example.org.