The Blog

The Deen Institute & Islam's Intellectual Revival

For the first time in centuries, there may be an Islamic intellectual renaissance on the horizon. This is partly due to demands by various Muslims, many of whom feel disaffected with the faith and its pre-modern teachings.

"The greatest challenge facing Islam in the west is intellectual," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, late last year, at Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Canada. "We have to revive our intellectual tradition," he urged the crowd. "But the Salafi movement is against [it]." Nasr, one of Islam's most renowned modern-day philosophers, is not a sole voice, others share his concerns, too.

For the first time in centuries, there may be an Islamic intellectual renaissance on the horizon. This is partly due to demands by various Muslims, many of whom feel disaffected with the faith and its pre-modern teachings. But also due to a natural evolution of the religion in the face of modernity. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, one of the west's most influential Muslim scholars, wrote in a blog recently that for the first time since embracing Islam 35 years ago, he is increasingly receiving pleas from parents asking him to help their children who are leaving - or having a crisis with - Islam.

Whether it is the theory of evolution, homosexuality, gender issues or Islam's other pre-modern teachings. Many Muslims are finding it hard to reconcile their faith with the modern world.

However, these cries are being heard and redressed. The Deen Institute, a British Muslim organisation which was formed in 2012, want to train the Islamic community in philosophy and critical thinking. Its aim is to fuse Islam with intellectuality.

The organisation is not alone: The Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies, also founded in 2012, aims to combine "the western intellectual tradition with contemporary Muslim scholarship...and [become] a leading voice of the Muslim intelligentsia."

In the US, Zaytuna College, founded by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, this year became the first accredited Muslim school of liberal arts in the country. Zaytuna aims to educate "morally committed, intellectual, spiritual leaders".

In January 2013, The Deen Institute held its first conference called "'Have Muslims misunderstood evolution'?, in London, which was attended by 850 people and received national attention. It was the first time the topic has been discussed by prominent Muslim scientists and theologians in the UK and appears to be representative of broader winds of change within the Muslim community.

The Deen Institute has also just announced its next event: 'Can Muslims Escape Misogyny'? which will feature prominent Muslims thinkers such as: Professor Tariq Ramadan, Dr Ingrid Mattson, among others.

"We are far removed from our rich intellectual past," says Adam Deen, the institute's founder. "We must regain our intellectual grounding so that Islam becomes relevant in the 21st century and to the problems we face today." Indeed, Islam has a rich intellectual history. Sufi thinkers such as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyiddin ibn Arabi had a profound impact on Islamic thought, especially philosophy, metaphysics and ontology.

Deen, an international speaker on Muslim apologetics, believes that Muslims who do not feel the need to question the status quo show a lack of confidence in their faith.

Since 9/11 there have been many calls for an Islamic reformation and the need to reinterpret the Quran. This is something not only gay but also feminist Muslims have been calling for.

Others, however, believe traditional Islamic orthodoxy still has a stronghold over Muslim minds. "I could point to a number of lone figures or organisations doing ground-breaking work, but sadly I'm not sure it has reached a critical mass yet. Many people are still very sceptical about new ways of thinking in Islam and conservatism remains the order of the day," says one Muslim feminist, who preferred to stay anonymous.

Usama Hasan, a part-time Imam and a senior researcher at the counter extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, says: "The danger we face is the narrow, puritan idea which tries to ban art, music and culture and promote a very literalist and fundamentalist idea of Islam.

"That brand of Islam is well intentioned and is trying to hold on to the purity of the prophetic model but does not understand the modern world. It ends up creating far more damage than good by trying to block all avenues of thinking and free expression inspired by Islam," he says.

"But I think we're seeing right across the Muslim world a real flowering of debate and discussion about Islam," he adds.

This is a unique time for Muslims. The dissemination of Islam, through books and social media, is unparalleled with anytime in its history. Young Muslims, especially in the west, have more access to Islamic resources than previous generations and therefore have the tools to find out what their faith really is. The neo-Salafi movement might start losing support.