Some academics of Islam fail to realize that they are minor intellectuals in a tradition of ultimate commitment—call it the Modern Project. They are not the mujtahids of modernity, but commentators doing clerical work about the apex thinkers of another tradition, Islam. Within the Project their views about ultimate questions are totally irrelevant, yet they are assigned to define and deconstruct our entire tradition, and expect us to “engage” with them and apologize when we do theology in our “academic” work. Not all academics of Islam do this, and many understand quite well where they stand in the intellectual economy, but too many have other pretensions.
They do theology in their own way, writing minor commentaries in light of their Project’s metaphysical commitments about those interesting Muslim specimens—like pharmacists writing about herbs. If you told them what they were doing—how their metaphysical presuppositions bear on what they do—they probably would not understand the words.
Imagine a Muslim expecting a Buddhist or a Hindu to engage, not with a theologian like Ghazali, but a natural philosopher like Biruni or with Ibn Khaldun in an exchange about their ultimate commitments—not about chemistry or sociology, but about the truth and the good. I don’t think it would occur to us Muslims to send out a scientist or historian to another tradition to do that. But the Project doesn’t see it that way. Their top level thinkers, without exception, cannot be bothered to actually know anything about Islam. They almost seem to take pride in it. Can you think of a major scientist, philosopher, or artist of any authority in the Project who understands Islam well?
So why should we care what these intellectual service workers have to say about our tradition? They take our tax dollars and then treat us Muslims as guests in their universities and tut-tut about us doing “theology” or being “faith-based” in our work. Those are our universities. No major research institution can exist without the federal funding. Not Harvard, not Princeton, not Yale—none of them, never mind the public universities which obviously could not.
I am not taking aim at honest scholars who are motivated by genuine intellectual curiosity and love for knowledge, who often do wonderful work. Those folks never sneer at Muslims of commitment doing intellectual work. This is not an insider/outsider question. But I am talking about the hard edge of the so-called “anthropology of Islam”, people who are doing speculative philosophy about human nature under the guise of “ethnography”. I am talking about people who think that their pathetic continental “Theory” is somehow equipped to understand the Islamic intellectual tradition. I am talking about historians whose views about the truth, knowledge, and morality count for nothing in the broader intellectual culture but who flippantly prance around the Islamic tradition with historical dogmas masquerading as discoveries. They have no skin in the game, and we should say so.