Islam's relationship with knowledge yesterday and today

CERMOM is pleased to invite you to the conference "Islam's relationship with knowledge yesterday and today" on Tuesday June 11, 2024.
Les cahiers de l'islam
Les cahiers de l'islam © Muhammad al-Hilâlî, al-'Unf wa al-huriyya fî l-islâm, Rabat, Nawâfidh, 2016, p.1.‎

Summary of the lecture

One of the striking criticisms in the autobiography of Muḥammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), one of the initiators of Muslim reformist thought, concerns the methods of traditional religious teaching, particularly at al-Azhar. At least two points crystallize the criticisms of this Egyptian theologian: (1) teaching that favors rote learning over historical understanding of ideas and doctrines; (2) the hermetic aspect of this teaching to new methods and the evolution of human knowledge. This is where 'Abduh clearly raises the question of Islam's relationship to knowledge and its evolution. A fundamental question at the end of the XIXe century, as witnessed by these words from Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897), a key figure in this reformist thought and long-time companion of 'Abduh:

"Isn't it surprising that our scholars [...] boast of being ''wise'' when they are nothing but incompetents, unable to distinguish right from left? Isn't it surprising that these gentlemen never ask themselves the following questions: "Who are we?", "What is needed?" and "What is right for us? Electricity, steamships and railroads in stations leave them indifferent. [...] They stay up all night, crouching in front of a kerosene lamp, studying [...] but never once does it occur to them to ask: ''Why does this lamp smoke when it's covered?'' Woe to such a wise man; woe to such wisdom".

For these two figures of modern Islamic thought, there was an urgent need to rethink the relationship to knowledge and its transmission in Islam. In the wake of these critical ideas, Muslim thinkers are constantly questioning this relationship. From the Pakistani Muḥammad Iqbāl (1877-1905), who proposed making ijtihād[1] the principle of movement in Islam ; to the Egyptian 'Ā'isha 'Abd al-Raḥmān (1913-1998), who, in her work al-Shakhṣiyya al-islāmiyya (The Muslim Personality), castigated conservatism (al-muḥāfaẓa) and called for the revival (al-tadīd) of religious thought ; via the Iranian Abdelkarim Soroush (b. 1945), who even today calls for a clear distinction between the founding text of Islam, i.

The speakers

  • Tareq Oubrou, born in Morocco, imam and rector of the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, has for several decades been producing theological and legal thought that goes beyond the epistemological framework of traditional Islamic sciences. Drawing ostensibly on the human and social sciences, he raises new questions about the production of knowledge in Islam, Muslim law, the methods of Qur'anic exegesis and more. He is the author of several books, including (with Leïla Babès) Loi d'Allah, loi des hommes. Freedom, Equality and Women in Islam (2002); The Koran for Dummies (2019).

  • Olfa Youssef A Tunisian academic whose writings focus on the Koranic text, in particular its polyphonic and polysemous aspect. A critical voice of radical Islam, today she contributes to thinking about the relationship to otherness in an Islamic context and to opening up new perspectives on reading the Koran (particularly through psychoanalysis). Her works include Le Coran au risque de la psychanalyse (2007); Celles qui sont dépourvues de raison et de religion (Nāqiṣāt 'aql wa dīn; 2003[1]); Le garçon n'est pas semblable à la fille (2021; in reference to Qur'an 3, 36).

[1] In reference to a tradition attributed to the prophet of Islam.

  • Abdennour Bidar, Associate of Philosophy, Doctor of Philosophy, Normalien of the ENS de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud - Senior civil servant (State Administrator, General Inspectorate of National Education) - Associate researcher at the GSRL (Groupe sociétés, religions, laïcité) of the École pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) - Member of the Comité consultatif national d'éthique (CCNE), appointed by the President of the Republic - Chevalier of the Ordre national du mérite - Chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes académiques. His books include Les cinq piliers de l'islam et leur sens initiatique(2023); Histoire de l'humanisme en Occident (2014).

  • Kahina Bahloul, has a degree in Islamology (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études), specializing in Muslim mysticism, with a particular focus on the thought of Ibn 'Arabi. She is interested in the universality of the Islamic message, religious diversity, Akbarian cosmology and the evolution of religious thought in Islam. She is also committed to the question of women's religious ministry and the role of women in places of worship in Islam. She is the author of Mon islam, ma liberté (2021).


  • 10am-11.15am : Interrogating the unthought

Olfa Youssef will give a general introduction to the problem of relating the Qur'an in the light of modern knowledge. She will then answer the following questions:

What do these words by the Tunisian Mohamed Talbi (d. 2017) inspire in you? "Reading, interpreting and meditating on the Quran with the light of the sciences available here and now is a permanent tradition within Islam, a tradition that has always had its supporters and its opponents, a tradition that, too, has always oscillated between measure and excess."

According to the Egyptian 'Ā'isha 'Abd al-Raḥmān (d. 1998): "The doctrine of Islam does not recognize for any human, including the best of the envoys, that he has encircled everything by [his] science. This is reserved exclusively for God"[1], what about the facts: aren't there monopolies (especially on religious knowledge) being exercised within Islam and in the name of Islam?

Wondering about the relationship with the heritage of the first generations of Islam, the Tunisian Abdelmajid Charfi raises this question: "Does the Muslim have the right to disregard the dogmas and interpretations produced by previous generations in a historical and cultural context that no longer has much to do with today's context?". Faced with the weight of this intellectual heritage (turāth), how can a Muslim epistemology be refounded or renewed in the light of contemporary challenges?

[1] "لا تعترف عقيدة الإسلام لأي بشر، ولو كان من الصفوة الرسل، بأنه قد ''أحاط بكل شيء علما ''فذلك لله وحده ."

  • 11:30am-12:45pm: Theological and normative approach

Tareq Oubrou will give a general introduction on: what place does Muslim theology give to knowledge and its evolution (a necessity?)? He will then answer the following questions:

What is the situation in Muslim law?

Isn't the elevation of fiqh to the supreme science in Islamic history at the root of the marginalization of other fields of human knowledge among scholars?

The Italian orientalist Giorgio Levi della Vida (d. 1967) spoke of an "unfortunate split between religious and worldly science" in Islam, what is it really like?

Tareq Oubrou will be invited to comment on this verse and hadith:

  1. If everything is in the Qur'an, why set out in search of knowledge?

"We have sent down the Book upon thee, as a clarification of all things" (Qur'an 16, 89).

  1. The relationship with time (knowledge?) and history: regression and decay?

"The best of my community are those of my century. Below them will be those of the next century, and, below them, those of the century that will come after" (hadith, al-Bukhārī).

Isn't there, in Islam, a negative view of knowledge and its evolution over time?

  • Lunch break

  • 14h-15h15: How to renew Islamic knowledge?

Abdennour Bidar will give a general introduction on the philosophy of reform and that of movement in Islam. He will then answer the following questions:

"We must not be ashamed to admire truth and welcome it from wherever it comes, even if it comes to us from previous generations and foreign peoples, for there is nothing more important for the seeker of truth, and truth is never vile; it never diminishes who speaks it or who receives it. No one is debased by the truth; on the contrary, one is ennobled by it" (al-Kindī, died 873).

What do you think of the controversies in the Islamic context over the necessary opening up to the human and social sciences in religious training?

Isn't the (sometimes indistinct) condemnation of all innovation (bid'a) in Muslim sources a brake on the renewal of knowledge?

How do you understand this saying attributed to the Prophet of Islam: "All innovation is misguidance" (kull bid'a ḍalāla)?

A comment on these words by M. Iqbāl: "Do not imprison yourself in the chains of destiny; there is always a way under the heavens. If you doubt it, then stand up and see that as soon as you set out, a whole world opens up before you."

  • 15h30-16h45: The ijtihād in the feminine

Kahina Bahloul will give a general introduction on the participation of women in intellectual life within Islam, past and present. She will then answer the following questions:

What do you think of these words of 'Ā'isha 'Abd al-Raḥmān: "It cannot be said of any human knowledge that it is definitive and that there would be nothing new to examine and discover in it"[1].

How far has the question of ijtihād in Islam come since those lines written by M. 'Abduh: "My voice was raised to [...] free thought from the yokes of imitation (taqlīd), to understand religion as the early Muslims understood it, before dissensions (khilāf) had arisen between them; to go back to its earliest sources [...]"?

According to al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388) the five purposes of Revelation are the preservation: of religion, of life, of intellect ('aql), of offspring and finally of property. What is the place of knowledge in these purposes? Is preserving the intellect/reason promoting knowledge (plural)?

[1] "وما من عِلْمٍ بشري، يمكن أن يقال فيه إنه نَضِجَ واكتمل، وأُغْلِق بابُ البحث فيه فما عاد ينتظر جديدا "


  • Youssouf Sangaré, Inalco, CERMOM