Against this background, it is only natural for the Muslims to desire and make an effort to explain themselves and their faith with respect to the Zeitgeist. The underlying objective is to ascertain that Islam is not a spent force but rather a valid and pragmatic alternative to western civilisation1, that is in waiting. Many of these attempts focus on explicating certain myths which have marred the face of Islam in the west, while others have tried, more courageously, to reinterpret the various aspects of Islam in the light of new developments in the fields of science, psychology, anthropology, sociology and history.
Attempts to marry reason with faith and reconstruct religious thought, either under the spell of Greek philosophy or European Movement of Enlightenment, are not a new phenomenon by any means. Conflicts between the Mutazilites (Mu'tazilah) and the Asharites (Ash'ariyyah) which started as early as the 9th century or the intellectual debate between Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126-1198) in the 12th century substantiate this assertion. The rationalist school of Mu'tazilah movement has never disappeared since it started in the 8th century. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), his disciple Rashid Rida (1865-1935) and Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) have continued to follow the rationalist approach by attempting to explain the tenets of Islam in line with the European rationalism.
In the 20th century, among Muslims, converts to Islam from other religions have made disproportionate contributions to make Islam more approachable and comprehensible to western readers. They have produced, and continue to produce, Islamic literature that has played a significant part in casting aside many centuries-old myths and fears of Islam in the west.2 For example, no other Islamic scholar in the 20th century has contributed more to the explanation and propagation of Islam in the west than the Austrian Muhammad Asad (aka Leopold Weiss).3
According to a recent report, every one in four persons in this world is a Muslim. The 20th century witnessed a significant increase in the rate of conversion to Islam, especially in the west. Western obsession with materialism and the ideology that underpins complete rationalisation of human mind into the causal philosophy have resulted in a spiritual crisis. A large number of people feel uncomfortable about systematisation of human life to the sole advantage of corporate culture that governs the consumerist society. They are irresistibly attracted by the powerful emotional symbolism of a religion. They discover that Islam is 'the' alternative that has the ability to transform their lives. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many great scholars, writers, artists and scientists have converted to Islam following their study of Islamic literature. Committed as they were to the vision and way of life propounded by their newly adopted faith, they subsequently attempted to contribute to the literature on Islam, bringing fresh thinking into the otherwise static edifice of literature on Islam. This group of Muslim converts has contributed profoundly to Islamic literature in the second half of the 20th century and their intellectual achievements have subsequently helped propagate Islam even farther.
Some of these distinguished Muslim converts of the 20th century include:
- Lord Stanley of Alderley (1827-1903), a historian and Bertrand Russell's uncle
- Muhammad Asad (aka Leopold Weiss) (1900-1992), a writer, diplomat, and translator of the Qur'an
- Lord Headley El-Farooq (aka Shaikh Saifurrahman Rehmatullah El-Farooq) (1855-1935), a member of the House of Lords, a writer and an activist
- Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (1876-1936), a novelist and translator of the Qur'an
- Martin Lings (aka Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din) (1909-2005), an English Sufi Muslim and writer
- Charles Le Gai Eaton (aka Hassan Abdul Hakeem) (b. 1921), a writer and diplomat
- René Guénon (aka Abd al-Wahid Yahya) (1886-1951), an eminent metaphysicist and Sufi Muslim
- Vincent Mansour Monteil (1913-2005), an orientalist, linguist, anthropologist and humanist
- Murad Wilfried Hofmann (b.1931), a diplomat, German Ambassador to Algeria and Morocco and writer
- Baron Omar Rolf von Ehrenfels (1901-1980), an Austrian anthropologist and orientalist
- Abdul Karim Germanus (1884-1979), a Hungarian university professor and orientalist
- Frithjof Schuon (aka Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad) (1907-1998), a great philosopher
- Ivan Aguéli (aka Sheikh Abd al-Hadi Aqili) (1869-1917), a Swiss Sufi, painter and writer
- Thomas Irving (aka Ta'lim Ali Abu Nasr) (1914-2002), an Islamic scholar and translator of the Qur'an
- Margaret Marcus (aka Maryam Jameelah) (b. 1934), a writer
- Cyril Glassé (b.1944), author of The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam and other Islamic works
- Jeffrey Lang (b.1954), a mathematician and writer on Islam
- Michael Wolfe (b.1945), a poet, novelist and writer of travel books
- Tim Winter (aka Abdal Hakim Murad) (b.1960), a British Muslim scholar and teacher
- Aisha Bewley (b.1948), a writer and translator of the Qur'an
The next post will briefly review important literary contributions these Muslim converts have made in various areas. Please note the references will be provided in the concluding post.