Published On:25 May 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Bridging the knowledge gap

By Denise Marray

London: The communications revolution has greatly enhanced sharing of information. In the world of academic research, for example, there is a wealth of scholarly learning available in print and on-line.

But if you examine the source of the information, a problem becomes apparent. Where is the input from countries which, for historical or economic reasons, are under-represented in the international market place of knowledge?

It is fair to say that at this point in history the knowledge market is dominated by universities in Europe and North America. Languages such as English, French and German predominate in academia and publications in these languages are widely disseminated and accessible to researchers. 

So the perspectives of scholars in developing economies in Africa or Asia, or those writing in Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Persian or Arabic might go un-noticed outside of their immediate circle. As a consequence, a prevailing world view on a particular issue might emerge that is inaccurate, misleading or misjudged, not through ill intent but through lack of information.

The Aga Khan University, with its international reach, is keenly aware of this knowledge imbalance. So it has undertaken an ambitious project to collect knowledge from scholars throughout the Muslim world and make it available world-wide.

Dr Aptin Khanbaghi has the formidable task of leading the Muslim Civilisations Abstracts (MCA) project at the university’s London-based Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations.
Born and raised in Iran, fluent in six languages, and with an impressive CV from leading universities in Canada, the UK and the US, he is aware of the scale of the task facing his team. But he is clear about the goal. “We want to promote the work of scholars based in the Muslim world who cannot make their voices heard due to financial restrictions or linguistic barriers,” he said.

 “The aim is purely academic; we don’t have any political affiliations. The aim is not financial or political – the aim is honourable, in the sense that we are trying to help people who otherwise would not be able to make their voices heard.”

Publications to date, (published through Edinburgh University Press), include Encyclopaedias about Muslim Civilisations and Interpretations of Law and Ethics in Muslim Contexts. The latter work features 200 abstracts with bibliographical details published in English, Arabic and Turkish. Abstracts for the series are accepted in eight languages.

The series will go on-line at the end of this year, or early 2013. Creating a search tool capable of handling so many diverse languages and solving transliteration issues has posed a technical challenge. This has been overcome with assistance through colleagues in Pakistan working with experts from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

With regard to Law and Ethics in the Muslim world, Dr Khanbaghi noted: “Islamic Law is not monolithic; every country has its own specific law. In most Muslim countries the legal systems applied are actually based on European laws – they are not based on Sharia or Islamic Law as such.” 

He pointed out that Sharia Law is applied, with respective variations, in relatively few Muslim countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Sudan and Afghanistan.

In some regions, aspects of the law have been influenced by ancient laws, for example, Roman law.

Some countries, such as Turkey, are secular with strong traditional and religious influences. In Indonesia, a federal country, different laws are applied within the country. So, for example, Sharia Law might be applied in Aceh but not in Jakarta.

This complexity and diversity is not always reflected in debates around legal and ethical issues.
“If a culture or movement is explained in the wrong way to people who have power, they may be prompted to intervene in countries; that has very big implications. It is very important to hear how people interpret their own culture, what expectations they have of their rulers, how they see their daily lives, explain their social behaviour, see their future,” observed Dr Khanbaghi.

Another hindrance to the even dissemination of knowledge noted by Dr  Khanbaghi, is the lack of interest among the younger generation in learning non-European languages, and studying the civilisations of their neighbouring countries.

“In effect, it is difficult to obtain an Arab view of Iran or an Iranian view of Turkey. Cultural exchange between Muslim countries is scarcely encouraged at all by governments and academic institutions, and tense relations greatly inhibit communications between academics in the region,” he said.

“In Arab countries the study of Persian, Turkish or Urdu is neglected in favour of English, even by scholars undertaking research on Central Asia, Turkey or the Indian subcontinent,” he noted.
“This lack of scholarly exchange has led to a deficiency in the Muslim world, where Muslim cultures and societies do not benefit from the insights of their own perspectives. This linguistic barrier has to be circumvented, as communication and mutual exchange of knowledge is vital for establishing cordial relations between countries,” he added.

The Muslim Civilisations Abstracts team is reaching out to scholars around the globe. “We want to prompt people to co-operate with us. It’s a very collaborative work – we need the help of all scholars around the world. We still need to engage with people from many more countries, including China, Africa and Arab countries which have not contributed yet,” Dr Khanbaghi said.

(Courtesy: Gulf Times)

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