Sabria S. Jawhar
PROBABLY the first conflict I faced as a graduate student at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom was how to deal with the philosophy course, which is required for my Ph.D.
Conflict? What conflict? Westerners would be puzzled over my dilemma, but it is a real issue for Saudis in particular and Muslims in general. Philosophy is not taught in Saudi schools and I do not know why. However, it seems to me that the rule that philosophers believe that there is the possibility of truth from any one source and we should follow the argument wherever it leads might be the reason.
Further, studying philosophy means the study of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, which opens a whole new can of worms for Muslims.I brought my concerns to my professor and mentor, Tim Kelsall, who asked me one question: Do I want to be recognized as a Saudi expert in my chosen field or as an international authority? The answer was obvious and the issue ended there.
To limit my field of study meant limiting my horizons. It meant limiting the goals and career opportunities I have set for myself. What university or future employer would take me seriously if I rejected taking internationally recognized studies because I was too timid to reach beyond my comfort zone.
I learned quickly enough that I had my understanding of philosophy to simplistic Freud and Marxist theories and not much wrongly boiled down else. I discovered (and this may be obvious to Western students but not to me) that philosophy concerns itself with the nature of knowledge and reality, human nature, man’s place in the world among other living creatures, and of course, the love of wisdom.
As I studied further, I discovered that there were many early Muslim philosophers who embraced this love of wisdom. Actually, I came to know that there is a whole field of Islamic philosophy.
This was brought home to me while attending this week an intensive journalism summer school program at Lund University in Helsingborg, Sweden. I am among the 100 or so students from Belarus, Slovenia, India, Pakistan, the Ukraine and other countries. Most students are from Eastern Europe, and I appear to be the only female Muslim among the group. What my fellow students take for granted, this course for me opens new doors.
The program identifies itself as focusing on journalism, but it really covers a wide range of topics, most notably social epistemology, feminism, political theory, intelligent design versus evolution, and even Swedish modernity and municipal planning. It’s a hodge-podge of subjects, but I guess you have to be there for it to make sense.
Social epistemology is an intriguing subject taught by Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University in the United Kingdom, in which he fuses philosophy and sociology in science studies. Fuller is well known for his argument that religion and science go hand in hand. Religion, he says, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism or Islam, pushes people to study science. Simply, religion is the root of science.
His lectures on early 20th century journalists and academics promoting various schools of thought on science and philosophy are excellent.Joni Seager, a professor of feminist environmentalism and geography at Hunter College in New York City, and Jeremy Shearmur, who teaches political theory at the Australian National University, are other prominent academics serving as guest lecturers at Lund University.
We can sit around and talk about Freud’s theory of origins of sexual behavior among adults or Marx’s examinations of the social classes, but at the end of the day it doesn’t shake my faith or the beliefs I grew up with.
What Fuller, Seager, Shearmur and the other professors are doing is teaching me that wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge are limitless. And it’s not necessary, or even desirable, to give up one’s core beliefs to understand and appreciate different philosophical arguments.
Last week I wrote about my brief experiences in the United States and my impressions of how compassion and aid to people in distress are institutionalized through policy and laws, and how we in Saudi Arabia seem to lack these basic concepts when it comes to emergency medical care.
Predictably, I received mails from some Saudis who suggested that if I love the West so much then I should stay there. Or maybe I should be a good Saudi girl and come home to avoid further Western corruption.
But what does that say about us? Should we remain in a protective shell and wrap our arms around our wrong beliefs about the world as if they were precious stones? Or do we pursue knowledge and engage in intellectual exercises to examine the differences between evolution and intelligent design, or even man’s place in nature and the environment.
Some day as a teacher I will be questioned by curious students about these very issues. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of some of my teachers, who told me to just shut up and listen. I want to provide answers, or at least an opinion. It won’t make me any less a Saudi or a Muslim. It will just make me a good teacher.