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The Intercultural Deterritorialisation of Knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the Enunciation of the Educator’s Rihla

 by Wisam Abdul-Jabbar

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This study appropriates the notion of deterritorialisation, a process that determines the nature of an assemblage introduced by Deleuze and Guattari, to refer to Al-Ghazali’s conceptualisation of scholarship and methodology as the antithesis of the pursuit of a fixed area of research. The article focuses on the eleventh-century teacher, philosopher, and Persian theologian Al-Ghazali. It explores his pedagogical response to the dominant controversy of his age, the question of true knowledge and authority in an Islamic landscape that was brilliantly diverse but intellectually confusing. The article examines intercultural practices that challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge. In what sense can rihla be an educational practice to challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge? How can Al-Ghazali’s response to scepticism, knowledge, and authority inform practices in higher education today? Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, it equally seeks cultural and intellectual reconciliation, which is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic, and entrapped in ethnocentric academic practices.

The aim of the paper is twofold. Firstly, the article employs the concept of rihla, as an intercultural practice that negates the notion of research as stasis and recovers its semantic origin of movement and process. Secondly, in my attempt to provide a theoretical framework for Al-Ghazali’s concept of rihla, which registers his response to skepticism, I draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialisation. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are French thinkers known for their collaborative works such as The Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). The concept of deterritorialisation refers to the disruption of a continuance, a movement or a process that determines the nature and the quality of an assemblage. In other words, deterritorialisation occurs when a rupture disrupts a cultural, religious or a sociopolitical assemblage.

Al-Ghazali’s methodological response to scepticism is marked by an understanding of academic scholarship as a moving interdisciplinary trajectory, always in flight, which ultimately enunciates rihla. Scholarship, therefore, materialises as an interdisciplinary zone whose trajectory deterritorialises the rigid lines of one discipline-based dissemination of knowledge. This article, thus, explores how Al-Ghazali negotiated epistemological notions such as “expertise” and “authority” within a thriving medieval interfaith and intercultural ambience marked by the convergence between knowledge and the public domain. Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, but it also challenges present-day divisive debates by extending the dialogical rhetoric beyond the Western landscape. To achieve that objective, this article first revisits two prominent events that sparked interest in how to generate and disseminate knowledge: the demise of prophecy and the encounter with foreignness as an intellectual entity. These two moments illustrate how a rupture in the Islamic epistemological assemblage initiated a profound intercultural encounter with foreignness and the resulting deterritorialisation that necessitated new educational practices. Accordingly, revisiting this encounter with the Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic traditions and examining how Islam and its ulama struggled but equally sought cultural and intellectual reconciliation is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic and entrapped in ethnocentric pedagogical practices.

Al-Ghazali’s autobiography, travel experience and interdisciplinary training demonstrate his methodology. Hence, the significance of using Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual framework is essential in the sense that they conceptualise knowledge to be an assemblage of multiliteracies that provokes the deterritorialisation of academic disciplines that would otherwise degenerate into metanarratives. An actualisation of rihla qualifies the traveler to participate in this intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue rather than being merely a distant, detached, and observer mentally trapped in an already-framed, meta-narrative academic discourse. A sabbatical leave, for example, is an opportunity to enact rihla as an alternative approach to common domesticated institutional comfort. To challenge the unadventurous, almost tourist-like stay, and become a more involved observer who is engaged in the transformative holistic experience of venturing outside one’s comfort zone becomes essential. It is an attempt to unpack the uncanny, nonconformist ways towards the acquisition of knowledge and reconcile our worldviews to what seemingly appears antithetical. I refer here to the culture of complacency that has crept into academia in which interdisciplinary academic rigour is mistakenly considered the antithesis of focused studies, which diminishes exposure to different theoretical lenses and pedagogical practices.

Such a culture runs the risk of having experts on postcolonialism who have never been to postcolonial countries except for short tourist-like visits, or tenured professors in international education who have never taught or studied abroad. It must be maintained here that for both Deleuze and Al-Ghazali, altthough the interdisciplinary dissemination of knowledge is fundamental, it is the absence of the diversification of knowledge that becomes an overiding concern. The Deleuzian notion of deterritorialisation can encourage institutions to look outside canonical methods of knowledge production and embed curriculum approaches that support the decentralisation of higher education. Similarly, Al-Ghazali, in his resilience and determination to abandon his post at Nizamiyya madrassa, was perhaps defying the notion of institutionalised knowledge. However, in the pre-modern Islamic world, the division between non-traditional learning experiences, such as rihla, and the institutionalised acquisition of knowledge, as represented by the madrassa, was not entirely unconnected and independent.

Al-Ghazali was troubled by how complacency in education amounts to sheer argumentation and malpresentation of knowledge. He pursued a line of flight that seeks intercultural connectivity. Rihla offers an opportunity to cross boundaries and relinquish regimented research. The medieval scholarly fascination with interdisciplinary rigour and multidimensional perspectives negates contemporary reluctance, often disavowed, to abandon disciplinary focus and figuratively sail perilously close to other academic shores. Moreover, unlike contemporary practices, Al-Ghazali’s understanding of interdisciplinary training is unfettered by academic departmentalisation. The initial stages of rigorous interdisciplinary training can be university-driven. However, it is detrimental once it becomes terminal. Al-Ghazali internalised that well-informed dissemination of knowledge is profoundly existential, intercultural and experimental. He is, arguably, one of the earliest proponents of the notion of lived curriculum.

Wisam Abdul-Jabbar is an adjunct academic colleague at the University of Alberta. His primary research interest is in intercultural education, curriculum theory, and multiculturalism. His previous articles have appeared in journals by Cambridge University Press, Duke University Press, California University Press and Routledge.

You can find Wisam’s full article (“The intercultural deterritorialization of knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the enunciation of the educator’s Rihla”) here: