The Ottoman Intellectual Heritage and Modern Challenges Recep Sentürk

Dr. Recep Sentürk is a sociologist, traditionally trained scholar, and Founder and Director of the Istanbul Foundation for Education and Research (ISAR), a charitable endowment (waqf) that seeks to breathe new life into the curriculum of the traditional Ottoman madrasa by reviving its teaching, integrating it with the modern social sciences, and placing it within its traditional context of Sufism. He's currently dean of the Ibn Haldun University (Istanbul). Hamza Karamali talks to him about kalam, modernity, tradition, and Sufism.

Hamza: Dr Recep Sentürk, we are delighted to be interviewing you for the first issue of the Kalam Journal. Given your expertise on both the traditional religious sciences and modern thought, how would you describe the differences between the Islamic sciences and the modern sciences? 

How are the Islamic sciences different from the modern sciences?
Dr. Sentürk: This is a very important question facing Muslim scholars since the last two centuries, who, before that point, lived under the Islamic civilization, and their interaction with the outside world was limited. Of course, Islam was from the very beginning an open civilization, in the sense that Muslim scholars were open to learning from other civilizations, like the Greeks, Hindus, Iranians, and Egyptians. They translated the major works of these civilizations into Arabic and benefited greatly from them. However, they were very careful to preserve the Islamic worldview, which constitutes the foundation of Islamic disciplines and sciences. This worldview is represented by an Islamic ontology, an epistemology, and a methodology. Islamic ontology is a multiplex ontology, meaning it accepts multiple layers of existence; namely, the worlds of mulk, malakut, and lahut. In turn, mulk and malakut may further be divided into other levels. 

So how would you translate mulk and malakut? 
Mulk is the physical world, the observable physical world, and malakut is the unseen world, the special world of alam al-ghayb, and then there is the lahut. The lahut is the divine world, or the level of existence in which Allah Most High exists, wherein there is only Him. The Sufis say, “There is no existent save Allah (la mawjud illa Llah),”—at the level of divine existence, for denying the existence of other levels is unbelief (kufr), as Allah Most High states that He created the mulk and the malakut. To deny them therefore is not acceptable, but at the level of divine existence, there is Ottomannone but Allah. From the very beginning, Muslim scholars upheld this multiplex ontology even when they interacted with other civilizations. They did not take this ontology from the Greeks. 

The same thing is at play today when one compares the Islamic sciences with the modern Western sciences. This comparison has to start at the level of ontology. How different is the view of existence of the modern Western sciences from that of the Islamic sciences? Modern western sciences are mostly materialistic and reductionist. They try to reduce everything to the material level, whereas in the social sciences they are idealist. The materialism versus idealism debate is a very old one that goes back to Aristotle and Plato, but continues even today. For Muslims, the Islamic sciences are not reductionist, in the sense that they see the material level as only one level of existence. They don’t deny this level, nor do they say that it is everything. The same applies to the ideal level of existence. This level is accepted but not everything is reduced to it. 

Moreover, the Islamic sciences accept divine existence. In the Islamic sciences, then, parallel to a multiplex ontology, there is a multiplex epistemology. For each level of existence, one needs a different type of epistemology that allows one to study and understand any given level. One cannot use the same epistemology to study both stones and the angels because these are different levels of existence, so one has to have a different kind of epistemology for the study of different levels of existence. That is why, in the Islamic tradition, one has a multiplex epistemology, termed maratib al-ulum (degrees or levels of knowledge). Knowledge has multiple levels: rational knowledge is accepted, empirical knowledge is accepted, and revealed knowledge is accepted; as is experiential knowledge, such as kashf (unveiling), ilham (inspiration), ru’ya (dream vision), and hads (intuition). All these are acceptable sources of knowledge. Of course, this is ordered in a hierarchy, and nothing can contradict reason. Furthermore, the subjective sources, such as kashf, ilham and ru’ya, cannot contradict the objective sources of knowledge such as revealed knowledge, empirical knowledge, and the rational knowledge. In this multiplex system, the relationship that ties these different knowledges is also defined so that they work in harmony with each other. And as a result of this multiplex epistemology, there is a multiplex methodology, such that there is a methodology for each epistemology. For empirical knowledge, one has a different methodology; for rational knowledge, another type of methodology; and for revealed knowledge, yet another; just as kashf, ilham, and ru’ya each have a different methodology. This is maratib al-usul (the levels of first principles) used in the Islamic tradition by the Islamic sciences. 

Now, when one looks at Western sciences, one notices that they adopt one methodology. They want to solve all the problems of these sciences with this methodology. So if they are empiricists, they only use empirical methods; if they are rationalists, they just use rational methods; and if they are religious people, they just rely on traditional religious knowledge and reject rational and empirical knowledge. On the other hand, if they are of a mystical bent, like the Buddhists and the Hindus, they soley rely on mystic knowledge and reject all other types of knowledge. By contrast, Islamic epistemology and methodology accommodate all different types of knowledge and methodologies without exclusion. The same thing may be said regarding hermeneutics. Islamic hermeneutics accepts maratib al-maani (levels of meanings)

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