Why Should Students of Humanities and Social Sciences Study the Classical Disciplines?

Abdullah Enes Tüzgen – Coordinator of the Honours Program Refresh the Page

    Commenting on the nature of knowledge, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) remarks that one way to classify the sciences is to separate them into the two categories of universal sciences and particular sciences that are restricted to a certain civilization. In this framework, universal sciences comprise knowledge that is produced by various societies living in various parts of the world in order to make sense of man, nature, and society. Fields like medicine, mathematics, and physics do not belong to a single civilization; rather, they are the outcome of a common accumulation of knowledge produced by humanity as a whole. The second category of sciences are particular to each civilization, and they reflect the worldview, needs, and perspectives of the people who belong to the civilization in question.

    At this point, sciences that are particular to a certain civilization emerge as an important category that deserves special consideration for the case of Islam. Classical Islamic disciplines, cultivated by the intellectuals and great minds of each century for the last 1400 years as a depository of knowledge that reflects how members of the Islamic world have understood man, nature, and the world at large, have been neglected in recent times, especially in the past century. Considered in this respect, classical Islamic disciplines, though vastly underappreciated in the last century, stand before us as an invaluable treasure.

    Students of humanities or social sciences who study the classical Islamic disciplines will have acquired three important qualities. Firstly, during their classical Islamic education, they will encounter a different type and system of knowledge. Thus, they will have the kind of academic depth that students usually try to obtain from double degree programs. Since each academic discipline has its own particular set of questions, theories, and methods, double-major students will have acquainted themselves not only with the questions, theories, and methods of two different disciplines, but also with the academic perspective of the period. Thus, in their own scholarly journey the students will have the chance to determine their own academic approach and perspective, exploring the different aspects of scholarly research and production.

    The second quality obtained by students of humanities or social sciences who delve into the classical Islamic disciplines is the opportunity of comparison. Studying the classical Islamic disciplines gives students a different perspective in the way they view the world. Students of knowledge can thus compare the academic sensibilities of the day with the scholarly tendencies of their own civilization, developing the ability to approach problems with a comparative method as they try to address the questions in their minds. For example, an economist can approach the question of value and labor from a comparative perspective, enriching his analysis. The same holds true for a political scientist and the question of legitimacy and authority; or for a sociologist and the questions of the emergence of societies and the proper way to manage class differences; or for a jurist and the questions of rights and the definition of individual rights as opposed to civil rights. A comparative approach in all these cases allows the scholar not only to form a more robust perspective, but also to come up with new analyses regarding the contemporary.

    The third quality that students of social sciences and humanities can hope to gain from a classical Islamic education is a certain awareness that the economic, political, and social structures of the world we live in today, despite seeming normal, standard, and natural to us, are in fact not absolute and unconditional. Students studying the classical Islamic disciplines have a greater likelihood of developing a sense that an alternative world is indeed possible. Thanks to this awareness, students can find themselves in a position to systematically develop deep analyses and possible solutions regarding the current state of the world.