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Breathing new life into Islamic philosophy
By Usama Khalidi

Inspired by the noted Muslim philosopher, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, a group of young Muslim scholars have set out to breathe new life into Islamic philosophy. Several of these young thinkers, all PhD scholars at leading universities in the Washington, DC, area, are Indian Americans. They conduct seminars where they present research papers based on Islamic categories of thought growing out of the Quran and Sunnah.

Some of the assumptions shared by these thinkers and their supporters are, firstly, that a dynamic and deeper understanding of Quran and Sunnah can only take place in an environment permitting open and honest debate, free from any fear of punishment for expressing ideas; secondly, that contemporary Muslim philosophy has been limited to the writing and rewriting of the history of medieval Islamic philosophy, without doing any philosophy; thirdly, that the departments of philosophy at universities in Pakistan, Egypt and Syria have been monopolized by third-rate Kantians, Hegelians and Nietzscheans, or teachers who spread the colonialist ideas of orientalists about the works of such Islamic philosophers as Al-Kindi, Farabi, Ibn Rushd and Abu Ali Sina.

Dr. Nasr, 66, who is the moving spirit behind the young philosophers’ efforts, is a professor of Islamic studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and the author of 20 books, including such works as Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, and Islam and the Plight of Modern Man. Dr. Nasr disputes the view widely held in the West that the Muslim thinkers of the early medieval times were mere translators of Greek thought, and that there was a complete break in philosophical pursuits after the powerful critique of philosophy by Al-Ghazzali. He believes that the early Muslim thinkers transcended the Aristotelian view of reality, and that the Greek influence on them was limited to the development of its expression. After Al-Ghazzali, Islamic philosophy branched out into doctrinal Sufism and philosophical Ilm al-Kalam. The centers of philosophical discussions shifted to Iran and India, where philosophical traditions remained unbroken and produced such thinkers such as Mulla Sadra, Suharwardy and Shah Walliullah. However, in modern times, Muslims have viewed their own intellectual traditions through the eyes of Orientalists (Guizot and Renan) and their Muslim students. This view was further distorted by westernized Christian founders of Arab nationalism who sought to redefine Islamic philosophy as a product of Arab culture.

One of the organizers of the Muslim philosophers’ seminars is MA Muqtedar Khan, who teaches political science at a college in Maryland and is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University in Washington. ‘We believe that Islamic philosophers should play the role of social critics and public intellectuals, and assist in thinking of old ideas in new terms and new ideas in old terms . . . Our seminars are designed to attract the attention of Islamic thinkers toward the need for an empowering and transformative epistemology for contemporary Muslims,’ he says.

Khan hails from Hyderabad, India, where he obtained his undergraduate degree in engineering. He went on to do a master’s degree in business management and worked for four years in Bombay’s advertising industry before going to the United States for further education in business administration. Before the end of his first year at an American university, he realized that he was in the wrong field, so he applied and won a scholarship for his doctoral studies at Georgetown University in 1995. He devotes a good deal of his time these days to publishing scholarly articles on the Internet ( and engaging in debates with friends and foes on Internet’s various forums. 

Ejaz Akram, who grew up in Sargodha, Pakistan, is another organizer of the philosophers group and a doctoral student at Catholic University in Washington, DC. He is also the editor of an Internet magazine/forum called Islam-Online (, which is a multi-million-dollar operation funded by the University of Qatar.

Other active members of the group are Ibrahim Kalin (Georgetown University) whose hometown is Diyarbakir, Turkey, and Ahmad Iftikhar Hussain, who was enrolled in a medical school when he took a course with Professor Nasr in Islamic studies and decided to become an Islamic scholar rather than a doctor. Hussain, born in the United States of parents who were immigrants from India, is a graduate student at the School of Islamic Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia.

The philosophers’ group has the enthusiastic support of Georgetown professor of Islamic studies, John Esposito, who is regarded as one of the influential voices in shaping American policy toward Islam and American Muslims. Dr Esposito serves on the advisory board of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and on the American Muslim Council, a lobbying organization.

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