Our Approach to Muslim Humanities

The humanities since the nineteenth century have generally been defined as the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind. Expressions of the human mind include language, music, art, literature, theology, and poetry.

Art and architecture remind us about the enduring nature of the human spirit over time.

The Muslim Humanities research area within the Contending Modernities initiative at the University of Notre Dame charts multiple itineraries through the rich intellectual traditions of societies where Muslims have a presence, as majorities or minorities in the past and present.

Muslim Humanities as a field embraces the diversity of shared human intellectual heritage. This body of knowledge carries weight beyond the study of Islam; it has the potential to contribute normatively and constructively across contemporary disciplines. How do pre-modern Muslim discursivities weave into contemporary conversations in the global humanities? The project brings to the fore possible tensions between the particular qualifier “Muslim” and the universalist aspirations of “humanities”—tensions that are perhaps evident in the diverse genealogies of humanities.

What other questions and tensions do Muslim humanities bring to the debate surrounding the humanities writ large? What are the overlapping hallmarks that emerge from a comparison between Islamic and Western traditions in the humanities, and which aspects emerge as unique, if any? How do we make the discussion more robust and diverse with reference to the manifold Muslim cultural and historical experiences? The issues that emerge from these kinds of questions form threads that guide us in our exploration of Muslim Humanities.

Constituent Projects

“Advancing Scientific and Theological Literacy in Madrasa Discourses” in India and Pakistan, a three-year educational project supported by the John Templeton Foundation, is Muslim Humanities’ inaugural effort. [Read more]

Learn more about Muslim Humanities

There are many ways to describe what Muslims do through a spectrum of disciplines ranging from the natural to the social sciences. Often absent and unaccounted are the humanities in Islamicate societies produced by people of different faith backgrounds in the past—Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, and others—under the banner of Islamic civilization. The importance of integrating and normalizing Muslim humanities cannot be overstated today, at a time when both Muslims and even the entire religion of Islam are under suspicion due to geopolitical conflicts and social instability that prevails in much of the Muslim world.

Rens Bod, in his recently published New History of the Humanities, provides a synthetic survey of the simultaneously unique and overlapping contributions to the humanities, interweaving contributions provided by Islamicate civilization into his historical narrative (2014). Along with fields that are normally associated with the humanities, such as historiography, philology, linguistics, musicology, art history, literary studies and the performing arts, he includes mathematics, considering it as “an expression of the human mind.” In many parts of the world, philosophy, politics, theology and law too form part of the humanities in contradistinction to the natural sciences, which is also true in Islamicate societies. An investigation into the contributions of exemplars in these areas, proposed through the prism of our research project, will bring to life aspects of human experience that can be fruitfully integrated into our collective understanding of what it means to be human.

Just take one exemplar of Muslim humanities from a millennium ago, the centarian Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (945-1048 C.E.). When you encounter Tawḥīdī, you enjoy the company of a literary figure with the mind of a philosopher and an ethicist. He thrived in the Abbāsid era, during Būyid rule. He lived in Baghdad and spent his final years in what is today the city of Shiraz, in Western Iran. Tawḥīdī is a paragon of speech and commentary. But his words are steeped in reflections of the world, of people, and of the divine, and also in theological or literary disputes and philosophical contestations. Literature, history, philosophy and theology all interweave in his work, forming a seamless stream. The verbal richness in Tawḥīdī’s writings is immense. He comments on literary styles and approaches. In his mind, commentary is literature. What is the literary “work” (ergon) and what is textually offside and “outside that work” (parergon) remains an enigma. Any kind of thinking when it pursues this mode of distinction creates provisional boundaries that will necessarily be transgressed.

When you read Rūmī, Ibn ʿArabī, Ghazālī, Maṭṭā ibn Yūnus, Maimonides and many others, you get a sense of how these individuals expressed curiosity about their own selves. Of course, they all labored under existential conditions that threatened their livelihood at times and yet they never failed in giving posterity brilliant productions containing the expressions of the mind. We read across literatures with an eye to understand, to give nuance and to de-center troubling dominant understandings of Muslim pasts. We ask how Muslim thinkers from across this vast history and geography conceived of what is a human being. What has been lost in present narratives by and about Muslims? Can and should narratives that were marginalized and sidelined be regained? On the other hand, what has been gained through evolving human experience in “expressions of the mind” that emanate from Muslim contexts today, in all its agony, turmoil, joy, and ecstasy?

The inquiries lead us back to the tension between Muslim and muslim: What questions and issues do Muslim humanities bring to the debate surrounding the humanities writ large? What are the overlapping hallmarks that emerge from a comparison between Islamic and Western traditions in the humanities, and which aspects emerge as unique, if any? How do we make the discussion more robust and diverse with reference to the manifold Muslim cultural and historical experiences? It is precisely this muḥādatha, the Arabic word for “mutual conversation and discourse” that is a keystroke of humanities in Islamicate culture. Why was the normally pious and deeply conscientious Umayyad caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (r. 717-720 C.E.) prepared to give away huge sums of money from the treasury in order to host a good conversation? The returns on the investment in mutual discourse, in his view, were infinitely more profitable to humans than anything else. Conversation cross-pollinates the mind, relaxes the heart, eases the burdens and refines one’s etiquette.

The poet Ibn al-Rūmī (836-896 C.E.) wrote on the merits of muḥādatha:

I became despondent about my ends

As if the best of it, were rotten

With the exception of speech, for it

Like its names indicates, is forever fresh

Recall that the word muḥādatha consist of the letters ḥ-d-th which can also form the basis for speech as well as that which is new or fresh. Speech is called ḥadīth and something new is also called ḥadīth. Every speech says something new, and every new thing speaks to us. A self is formed in discourse, the inter-personal self, which is constituted with the other: the formation of mind and body, relaxation and refinement. In muḥādatha a certain love and loyalty is created. There is a desire and a care for the jalīs, the guest and talking partner: a sense of self forms at the edge of desire. For the need of friendship is similar to the pleasure and comfort the human body needs.

If friendship and solidarity is one pillar of the humanities, then fostering and cultivating the imagination is another. Drawing on the past in order to imagine the future; the past gives meaning to the present. In that sense, the humanities foster the renewal of the human spirit and refresh those everlasting values that make us human.


By Mahan Mirza, Sam Kigar, and Ebrahim Moosa