Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Islamic Humanities Scholar Speaks

What does Islam have to say to the humanities in America?

“Jones” is a Muslim-American reader of this blog who is studying the humanities at the graduate level. He offered a great response on the earlier “Fragments in the Ruins” post about the incoherence of humanities study in our universities. He said:

As someone who is studying a humanities subject at a the graduate level at a top university, I couldn’t agree more. There is no shared understanding of the purpose of the discipline. And all efforts to find it must fail, when they cannot connect with a broader social consensus about what the purpose of the social order itself is. In a sense, all humanists are now haunted by the background understanding that, when it comes to moral knowledge, they have nothing to teach. Even if we all have our individual understandings—I certainly do/did, and that’s why I got into the whole business—as a discipline, as a profession, nothing is holding us all together, except the mere form of a career. This is what people mean when they point to careerism or professionalization as the cause of the decline.

In any discipline that abuts on normative inquiry, the lack of any background agreement about ultimate goals means there is no central aim. At best, there is a hollow liberalism – but that’s not a substantive ethical view. That is why you see wild, strange forms of moralism erupting; people are deducing as much ethical content as they can from the bare norms of liberalism—freedom, equality. They are using these concepts as substitutes for a substantive ethical vision that they can never really replace.

I asked him to elaborate on what he would do to fix the problem if he had a magic wand. His answer to that is here, and it is well worth your attention (short answer: the problem is perhaps unfixable, because it’s endemic to postmodern society). And I asked him how his Muslim faith informs his perspective on this issue. His answer to that is here:

There are a lot of different ways of answering this question. Islam might have everything, or nothing, to do with why I got into the humanities. The fact that I was actually raised to take a religion seriously-and that upbringing actually took-meant that I could read along with the intellectual history of the West and identify with it, feel that something was actually at stake for me personally in that story: the story of how Westerners gradually replaced religious modes of thought with secular ones. That was roughly what I was going through, as I questioned (and lost faith in) Islam. That’s an experience that anyone with a truly religious upbringing can have; though it’s possible that an average American Christian cannot have the same kind of understanding of religious civilization as a totally alien kind of civilization. For me, there was nothing to smooth over the radical break. There was no possible ground for the illusion that the religious worldview and the worldview of those around me had anything meaningful in common. But for Christians there might be things like that, such as superficial similarities and a less autonomous culture, and the idea that America is in some sense a “Christian nation.” But you cannot take Western intellectual history seriously unless you take religion seriously, as only someone who has truly, earnestly believed can.

But the other really important reason that Islam drove me into the humanities was the constant sense of moral alienation I felt, just being in the culture. Some people dive in headlong (assimilation), some clamp down on their own upbringing (isolation), but for me there was no choice but to think things through: to understand the civilization around me, to try to consciously develop all the beliefs and attitudes the people around me took for granted. And then I found, on reflection, that in a choice between the Western norm and the Islamic norm, the Western norm did not always win.

Today the relationship for me is more confusing and unsettled. For a long time, I realize, I’ve been searching for something in secular thought that it can never give. That is what drove me back into the arms of Islam. I’ll readily admit that the most important thing about Islam for me was that it was mine. To the extent that I seek an integrated whole, those strands lead deep into Islam. Probably, a lot of it has to do with love for my parents, and a desire to hold onto their way of life and their view of the world. I was sick of a dessicated life without love, faith, and community. Reason alone is not enough. I felt a sense of relief at no longer searching for things in the wrong places. Ironically I am hoping this is going to be useful to my academic career because it will free me up to be more careerist; not to give in to false aspirations of transcendence. For me academia will be the best it can be, a coldly rational form of egoistic striving. Humanistic culture is something different, and higher: it will live on with or without academia. And I hope to be a participant in it, with or without academia.

In sum, I don’t think Islam has a lot to do to inform the humanities. It could be that what you meant to ask in your question was, how did I, as a Muslim, end up caring so much about the humanities? And that’s the question I ended up answering. Frankly I would even say that I have a kind of moral commitment to the humanities that is independent from my commitment to Islam, and equally strong. I would never throw one overboard for the other. I think one explanation for that might be that much of the value of the humanistic tradition (for me) is aesthetic, although this is inevitably tied up with the other values. Bach, Chopin; Nabokov, Proust; Bernini, etc. Howe could you truly appreciate these without understanding history and philosophy?

Reflections like these from readers are a big part of why I find writing and participating in this blog so rewarding. Thank you.

I’m going to have to think more about this response. It makes me wonder, though, if the best place to study the humanistic tradition of the West will in the near future (or now) be within colleges and universities that retain a strong commitment to the Christian faith, out of which the humanities developed. This, for the sake of coherence and purpose, of a telos.