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Introduction

Muslim Activist Intellectuals and Their Place in History

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

Socrates challenged the thinking of Athenians in the classical age and Confucius attempted to bring a new vision of society to the “Warring States” of China. Luther's concepts and visions altered Western Christendom, and Lenin's combination of intellectualism and activism transformed world history in the twentieth century. Throughout history, people of ideas who have become involved in the civic and political affairs of their day, as activist intellectuals, have attempted to play roles in the transformation of their societies. In the late twentieth century, a number of intellectuals in Muslim societies have played similar roles. They criticize existing institutions and mentalities and work to provide some alternative.

From the United States to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, these Muslim activist intellectuals serve in important ways as the makers of contemporary Islam. Their ideas provide the foundations for many of the programs of Islamic movements throughout the world. Even for those who disagree with them and dispute their claims, these activist thinkers have shaped the conceptual world and set the terms of most debates in the Muslim world. These people, their organizations, and their modes of thinking have been part of the heart of what has come to be called the Islamic resurgence of the end of the twentieth century.

Intellectuals play crucial roles in the contemporary Islamic resurgence. They are both its primary formulators and its most articulate opponents. This situation reflects the complexity of the impact of intellectuals in Muslim societies in the modern world. The actions and influence of Muslim intellectuals in the modern era are similar to the experiences of intellectuals throughout the world. At the same time, they represent a distinctive example of how intellectuals work within the context of their broader cultural heritages to respond to the challenges of the modern world experience.

Although many people have noted the activities of intellectuals throughout history, remarkably little has been written about the role of intellectuals, as intellectuals, in the movements of Islamic resurgence in the final decades of the twentieth century. Intellectuals committed to the cause of active renewal and reform in contemporary Muslim societies represent an interesting combination of the older role of the religious scholar in Muslim societies and the role of “Intellectual” as understood in more secular, modern societies, a work that is not simply an eclectic bringing-together of a number of different activities. This synthesis is characteristic of a type of intellectual that is different from the other types of intellectuals active within Muslim societies. It may also provide an important example of the activist, politically involved intellectual who may be seen in many different societies in the contemporary world.

Intellectuals have been described and analyzed in many different and often contradictory ways. There is, despite this diversity, some vague sense of agreement on the important elements that define intellectuals and their roles in societies. Two important aspects of this broader understanding are a sense that “Intellectuals” are somehow a distinctive grouping of people within a society, set apart from the majority, while at the same time they are a crucial element in society, defining and articulating the communal agreements that provide a sense of legitimacy and basic principles for societal operation and survival. These two dimensions' separation and involvement have been both complementary and contradictory as intellectuals have interacted with their societies throughout history.

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