The renewal of Islamic intellectual thought and heritage

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 It would be needless to say that the Islamic cultural identity is the inexhaustible source whence springs Islamic intellectual heritage with its various forms, both tangible and intangible. These tangible and intangible aspects of Islamic cultural heritage contain such scientific, intellectual and civilizational wealth that they occupy an apparent and distinct place on the world heritage map, given the vast Islamic cultural capital they encompass.

This heritage, in fact, lies on opened bases and universal humanistic principles, which foster interaction between peoples, arts, cultures, civilizations and local environments, while benefiting from one another and contributing, altogether, to the human civilization as a whole through their experiences and their different intellectual, cultural, artistic and architectural expressions and manifestations.

The constant evolution of the human thought is but the fruit of a multitude of selective heritages taken from the different experiences of peoples and cultures. The contribution of the Islamic cultural heritage has been characterized, in this vast universal crucible, by conciliation between “specificity” which describes cultural diversity, and at the same time, remains attached to the unity of Islamic identity, and “universality” which expresses the belonging to a global world with its vast horizons and prospects. In fact, it is this very dichotomy which made it possible for the Islamic cultural heritage to survive over the centuries and allowed it to extend its presence and exert influence on the dynamics of history.

Considerable importance is granted by Muslim scholars to the issues of renewal and ijtihad, particularly the renewal of Islamic intellectual heritage. This renewal is the constructive process which continues the action of ancestors and benefits from the ijtihad of contemporary scholars in rebuilding cultural identity and entrenching its principles and lofty references as well as the divine revelation which guides man onto the straight path. This revelation is the referential framework and knowledge regulator in the Islamic civilization’s view of all concepts and matters. It is the factor most likely to propel it towards shedding the manifestations of backwardness which emerged during past historical phases, spread the culture of ijtihad which promotes complementarities and the unity that defies conflict, and repositions the Islamic Ummah on the scene of cultural action and human contribution.


At this age of globalization where challenges are growing in size and number, revitalizing Islamic intellectual heritage, renewing it and shedding light on the riches that contributed to the march of human civilisation seem to be of utmost importance if we are to counter the standardization and alienation attempts and centralist cultural tendencies that negate the multiplicity of historical courses in shaping human civilization. Islamic thought needs new blood and a reformist boost to be given by the Ummah’s scholars in a wise approach free from the logic of exclusive bipolarity, where the sources of knowledge are integrated. Thus can be edified the civilization of the Ummah of the middle way, known in Arabic culture as wasatiyya, which stands witness to all mankind and carries the universal message of Islam.


Therefore, the Ummah will have to dedicate a series of new projects, programs and activities aiming to promote the Islamic cultural heritage in all its tangible, natural and intangible expressions, and protect it from plundering and looting. Attention will also have to be given to publicizing the achievements of this heritage throughout the intellectual and cultural evolution of the human civilization, such as the cognitive methods and forms it invented, the ethical systems and values it established, the religious and material human concepts and rules it devised, and the bases of political and civil institutions it set up throughout the centuries. Indeed, these elements have become reference frames for the human thought and, by extension, for the human society, in the sense that they reaffirm the importance of the human being as a free entity and personality, equal in creation, faculties, capacities and dignity as well as in accountability, rights and obligations.


Being conscious of the importance of keeping up with international changes,  the Ummah is already anticipating globalization’s repercussions in this field, motivated by certain uniform and standardized visions conveyed by this phenomenon as well as by the power of sophisticated technologies, put at the disposal of globalization to infiltrate the cultural specificities of peoples and nations, in addition to interfering with legislations, laws and systems which enable it to replace values, standards and concepts, so that they concord with its narrow perception of a single and unique culture. In this regard, it will address these consequences from a positive angle, take benefit from everything positive this world phenomenon can offer for the Islamic cultural heritage, and make use of it in such a way as to become a catalyst for the human thought and civilization in the future. These consequences or repercussions will be dealt with from a distinct cultural position, based on an original cultural specificity and a unique civilizational identity that belongs to a single and same human origin, and lives in a wide world with multiple cultures, civilizations and religions, as affirmed in the Islamic Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the Tripoli Commitments on Renewing Cultural Policies in the Islamic World, adopted by the 5th Islamic Conference of Culture Ministers (Tripoli, November 2007).


Very serious efforts will be dedicated to encouraging research aimed at exploring the means and ways to benefit from the Islamic intellectual heritage and study the methodical approaches to the required renewal-geared reading of religious and secular knowledge. There is a need to explore the opportunities made possible by globalization and the technological revolution and how they can be used to present the Islamic heritage and its contribution to enriching universal heritage. They would serve to demonstrate its ability, once improved and renewed, to play a part in building a universal Islamic thought that embodies the characteristics of the Islamic message, lays the intellectual foundations for a civilizational edifice, and presents an Islamic vision of the universe, man and life that can provide a civilizational alternative to rescue humanity and halt the unbridled progress of materialism.


Inequality in the consumption of cultural products and inequality in creativity are an intolerable injustice. For individuals and companies, exercising cultural rights is often hampered by inequality in economic development between individuals and states. However, amid serious globalisation challenges threatening to undermine the principles of plurality and sustainable development, each individual and each community must be able to contribute to the building of the present and the making of the future. For this reason, at the international level, the action of Islamic peoples ought to be in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the principles of the International Convention on Cultural Diversity. Such international instruments provide a common framework for alleviating world poverty and reducing disparities with regard to cultural rights, towards achieving sustainable development.


To ensure a better implementation of this process, Muslim thinkers will have to accentuate their efforts to ensure access to culture for all, with particular attention paid to special needs groups (children, young people, women, disabled people, exiled, refugees, prisoners, etc.,) who often are on the sidelines of the cultural action. In addition, there could not be any acceptable, harmonious, and equitable sustainable development unless the cultural dimension is integrated in the process, and unless it is taken into consideration in the political, economic and social plans and programmes. Therefore, more focus should be given to the field of culture so that it will be able to attain the place it deserves as a decoder and interpreter of sustainable development. Thanks to culture, sustainable development will be perceived as a new societal project, and as the engine of a new phase for the organisation of human activities.


In this regard, previous actions undertaken by Muslim thinkers underlined the importance of including the cultural dimension in every sustainable development approach, especially the protection of cultural diversity -which is the equivalent of nature’s biodiversity-, as well as the reassertion of the value of artistic and cultural practices and, generally, the intangible heritage which is the basis of indigenous knowledge and cultures. This is about addressing the problem of sustainable development with its cultural dimension, especially the environment, health and genetic resources. By having “culture” and “sustainable development” articulated around a common challenge, thinkers will pursue its efforts for consolidating the place of culture in the relations of the human being with his immediate surroundings. Its action will highlight the cultural dimension that is necessary to be integrated in the management of the environment and health, in order to better adapt them to the expectations of populations. The safeguard of genetic resources, which are essential elements for the preservation of knowledge and traditional expertise, will undergo a similar action.


Therefore, sustainable development requires a deep change in the means for understanding the world. It cannot be conceived in isolation from the relations that exist between man and nature. It is inherent to the acceptance of the values of cultural diversity which themselves are intrinsic in the culture of peace. In fact, accepting differences means that other cultures are seen as a source of enrichment, and as a driving force for development. It also means ensuring harmonious relations between them. Accordingly, thinkers will continue their action for the dissemination of the values of cultural diversity within the different components of the society.


Linking sustainable development to indigenous cultures reflects understanding of the importance of traditional knowledge and know-how in the wellbeing of society, of putting a halt to the increased poverty rates among women and of empowering them economically, socially and culturally. Action ought to be continued to reach the goals laid out in this field on the role of women in sustainable development. The objective is to overcome the obstacles hindering women’s development within society by fighting all forms of economic and social discrimination and highlighting the Islamic perspective on this issue.


With regard to indigenous cultures, delays in the adoption of a universal convention on the protection of popular arts, traditional know-how and genetic resources confirm the economic and cultural challenges inherent to this issue. With this in mind, emphasis must be laid in this sensitization process on the role of traditional know-how in sustainable development. Indeed, it is not enough to guarantee the right of linguistic minorities to cultural expression but also their right to monitor the exploitation of their intellectual heritage. Furthermore, and considering the major role the civil society plays in this regard as the link between national policies and the strategies of sustainable development international organisations, the scope of partnerships with civil society organisations and institutions will be broadened to achieve the desired objectives.


Today it is axiomatic that the development of education, science, culture and communication hinges on security and peace, within or between countries both at the regional and international levels. No development will be conceivable under a climate filled with ethnic, sectarian and religious tensions. The same is true for the lack of justice and mutual respect, which are key elements for creating international relations that could promote prosperity and human development. Also, it is internationally recognized that the alliance of civilizations represents the sole means that can restore balance to the world and establish peace, respect for diversity and the acknowledgment of the legitimate cultural rights and cultural specificities of the different peoples and nations.

The cultural strategy of the Islamic World must underline that no one culture can survive on its own, and that cultural diversity and interaction between civilizations, cultures and peoples are realities that cannot be circumvented. This approach will contribute to promoting the level of dialogue, both inside and outside the Muslim world, and extend the scope of participation and consultation necessary for its implementation, as well as combating all forms of fanaticism and withdrawn attitudes.

Muslim countries will have to focus their action on programmes and activities aimed at entrenching the culture of dialogue and the respect of cultural specificities and cultural diversity in consolidating human rights, understanding and concord between cultures; encouraging governments to ratify and publicise the International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; disseminating its contents as widely as possible, especially among young generations and civil society organisations; and working towards ensuring democratic governance and respect for cultural rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities.

These actions must also seek to enhance the sense of citizenship and active participation of foreign nationals and immigrants, as well as educating them on the values of tolerance and the rejection of all forms of discrimination, racism and hatred. Similarly, these actions will strive to reactivate the concept of international cultural Takaful in order to firmly establish the culture of human rights and the rights of peoples; consolidate cultural relations and cultural exchange; facilitate cultural mobility and the freedom of movement of people and ideas by encouraging South-South and North-South programmes for student exchange visits. Furthermore, this approach is aimed at setting up consultation mechanisms on labour and immigration to ensure the respect of human dignity of immigrants and foreign nationals; devising tourism’s development policies within the respect of cultural and cultural identities; ensuring social harmony and combating poverty, violence, marginalization and social vulnerability.

The renewal of Islamic intellectual thought and heritage

Mohamed Chtatou*



* Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Saudi and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East and Islam and teaching Community Based Learning and Amazigh ...