Reforming Self and Other by Abdulkader Tayob

The Other occupies a dominant place in modern Islamic educational reform. Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi in the nineteenth-century urged Muslim educators to look at European developments, and questioned if the current approach followed in Muslim societies was beneficial. Muhammad ‘Abduh, in the twentieth century, identified one of the chief causes of decline in the influences exerted by ‘the beliefs and opinions introduced into Islam by different groups like the Sufis and others’. Deobandi madrasa in the Indian subcontinent pictured themselves as the forts of Islam (islam ke qile) protecting Muslims from the corrupting influence of Westernisation. In the last  quarter of the twentieth century, Isma‘i‘ al-Faruqi framed the theory and plan of Islamisation in relation to Western social sciences, aiming to replace them with authentic, indigenous ones. It is clear that modern educational reformers have thought about reform in relation to a significant other. The West has often occupied a dominant place, but it is not the only partner through which reforms are conceptualised, planned and executed.

Reformers have justified their attention to the Other as a quest to break free from dependency and alienation. They have been distressed about a deep and persistent tendency among modern Muslims to value and emulate the West. They have criticised Muslims for believing that the best solutions, the most creative applications, and the best products come from the West. Reformists have identified a crisis of dependency that debilitates the self to produce, to create and to make history. There are often other objectives in educational reform, but Muslim educational projects in the modern world are first and foremost a desire for freedom, and a pursuit of authenticity.

In their search for authenticity, indeterminate Muslim educational reformist projects rely on a particular conception of identity; and construct self and other as deeply divided. They are conceptualised as utterly separated and alienated from each other. They cannot share goals, aspirations and futures. In this view, the self and other can only relate to each other on the basis of difference – at best respect when they meet and engage, at worse conflict and war. Such ideas of self and other presuppose a natural state of difference, incommunicability and alienation between peoples, individuals and societies.

However, Muslim educational projects could pursue a vision of self and other that is not founded on difference and incommensurability, but on unity and non-identity. There is an alternative framework of self and other in the work of the great mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) whose vision is rooted in unity and sameness. It is a vision that sees the other as a mirror of the self, and as a path to self-discovery. It is a vision that would enrich Muslim educational reforms in the modern world – characterised by globalisation, multicultural societies and communities, and intense interaction.

Read more…