The Mission of the School
“Islam and the West” is a simple expression, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the cause célèbre of our age. The extraordinary interest in the subject of “Islam and the West” actually hides a reality that is at the root of much of the fascination on this topic. This is because on one side of the expression is the name of a religion, while on the other side is a term which seems to suggest a direction, a geographical area, a political order, or at most, a civilisation. Hence, it would appear that it is the strange case of comparing apples with oranges. But if we prod under the surface and attempt to go deeper by understanding the terms in a more realistic way, we will begin to appreciate the nature of this comparison.
Islam is not just any religion. It is the last great Abrahamic tradition. Islam is growing faster than any other religion. At least one in every four people on the earth is a Muslim. But beyond the level of quantity, in the realm of quality, Islam has the most adherents who truly believe in their religion and strive to live it—both in their personal lives and, more visibly, in their social lives. It is this ability within Islam to have its adherents not just acknowledge the truth of its doctrines, but continue in turning that knowledge into action that gives it a special vitality and vigor.
The West is not just a civilisation. It is the embodiment of the most recent and greatest humanistic ideology. The West is encroaching on traditional civilisations and is gaining dominance in all parts of the world at an extraordinary rate. Vast numbers of people, regardless of their formal association with a religious tradition, are becoming infatuated with the West and its productions, which promise greater ease, pleasure and empowerment. It is the ability of the West to get people to believe in the idea of progress and to drastically change their personal lives in line with it which allows the West to spread in the phenomenal and aggressive manner that it does.
When a religion that is alive meets an ideology that is insidious and aggressive, there will naturally be antagonism and opposition. This is abundantly clear with even a quick glance at contemporary history. Hence, while the main problem of our times may appear to be a political standoff and opposition between Islamic movements and Western powers (and their proxies), it is actually something more profound. The real problem has to do with the ability to understand or not understand the nature of truth and the consequent nature of action. As all actions, whether individual or social, are based on knowledge or understanding, when the basis of knowledge changes, knowledge itself changes along with the accompanying actions. Islam, being the last religion for this cycle of humanity, has best preserved the traditional understanding of knowledge with its basis on a Single Absolute Truth. The West, representing the unusual break from tradition that was ushered in by the Renaissance, has a modern and now post-modern understanding of the “truth” that has led it to promoting various types of relativism and subjectivism. How can these two, Islam on one side and the West on the other, understand one another given their differing bases of knowledge? Beyond the fundamental issue of knowledge and understanding, on the practical level how should Muslims respond to the West and its ideology?
The above questions are some of the major and underlying ones that need to be addressed to make religion relevant in the modern world. In particular, the interaction between Islam as a weaker sub-culture and the West as the dominant mainstream culture is what needs to be addressed. While this immediately applies to the case of Muslims living in Western nations, it can also be generalized to the situation of the Muslims in the world at large insofar as Western culture has penetrated to different corners of the globe. In a nutshell, the problem is: How can Islam in the West be true to itself and the Truth?
Various attempts have been made to study the topic of ‘Islam and the West.’ Most works on the subject of ‘Muslims in the West’ are modern sociological or anthropological studies that are filled with biases, prejudices, and presumptions that generally afflict academia in the modern world. For them, religion is a purely subjective or human reality that is nothing more than a mental construct having no scientific basis. The problems of Muslims who find themselves in post-Renaissance secular liberal states within Europe and the Americas and who struggle to live and realise their religion in such atmospheres are consequently seen to be psychological problems that will be overcome once the ‘delusional’ Muslims become rational and assimilate to the so-called ‘universal’ ‘truths’ and ‘values’ of secular liberalism. Such studies are of no help to believing and practising Muslims.
There are some writings by Muslims themselves which attempt to solve the problem of how Islam in the West can still remain true to itself while becoming Westernised or Americanised which are also of no help because the knowledge of these individuals regarding the principles of Islam or religion on the one hand, and their knowledge of the phenomenon of the West on the other hand, is usually lacking in both breadth and depth. Some of these writers take a simplistic and/or literalist approach that leads them to positions that are quite extreme. Others among them take a sentimentalist and/or rationalistic approach that leads them to offering “solutions” such as assimilation.
A balanced and realistic approach is what is required to resolve the problem of Islam and the West. This must be taken up by believing Muslims who are immersed in the principles of Islamic orthodoxy and who are aware of the nature of the West and modernity. They must be the ones to offer a practical solution and roadmap for what the Muslims in the West should do to become the Muslims of the West and play the role that Allah has assigned for them to play in the latter days.
The School of Islamic and Occidental Studies (SIOS) is the first educational institute that takes this third and realistic approach as its theoretical point of departure and which aspires to provide practical guidelines based on the textual and intellectual authority of the Islamic tradition. It does so by first introducing the tradition of knowledge in Islam to those who are seriously in search of it and are willing to make it their life-long vocation. Hence the main content of the School consists of the traditional program of the Hawzah, while its teachers, who themselves have been and continue to be students of the Hawzah—in particular the intellectual sciences—make the material taught relevant and, by their presence, initiate the students into the fuller and more substantial aspects of the luminous and living tradition of Islamic knowledge and wisdom.