Posted by: Dawud Israel | December 15, 2009

Dreaming of a Muslim Syntopticon

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, wa salat wa salam ala Rasulullah

I recall speaking to one of my teachers about all the books we’d read. He mentioned many of the classic books he’d read many of which were philosophical works. I mentioned some of the books I was reading and he was surprised I was reading. Our discussion turned to where we were getting our books from.

Most of the books from Western literature are not too difficult to get a hold of. But when we discussed the works by Muslims, you would think we are searching for long lost manuscripts! I made the point I hesitate to read too much of Western canon simply because I want to know my own tradition- that is, what comprises Muslim tradition, Eastern tradition and indigenous thought from the minds of Muslims- past and present. This is not to say, I don’t read Western canon- on the contrary I probably read more than I read of Muslim/Eastern works. But in our society one can’t help it.

Yet, it irks me how well versed the likes of Shaykh Hamza or Imam Zaid are in Western canon, and how poorly versed Muslims who come from Pakistan or the Middle East are in their own traditions. Comparatively speaking, its totally unbalanced.

Prof. Mortimer Adler compiling the Syntopticon. He was also a teacher of Shaykh Hama Yusuf at one time.

This is why I dream one day to compile a Muslim Syntopticon. The Syntopticon is a work compiled over a period of 15 years by Prof. Mortimer J. Adler, and in it are included all the great books of Western canon. Its a big piece of work, but at the beginning of it is a 2 volume index of all the great ideas in Western literature. I imagine a Muslim Syntopticon to be similar, including works of Western canon, but not so much, since Muslims are so spread out throughout the world, our intellectual spirit is connected with many different parts of the world. We have literature that is our own, religious literature, even heretical or questionable literature- but the main point is: it stress our experience of the world. A syntopticon would mean the culmination of all Muslim learning and knowledge with all the meaningful changes it has given to humanity. But I hope our career in this vein isn’t at an end.

I think we forget and are in real danger of permanently losing the defining features of what it means to be Muslim. There is much ambiguity on the Muslim experience- we have images of what it means to be Indian, or Arabian or African…but where is the unique thread of Islam that is absent from our consciousness and it seems we don’t quite know anymore what is expected of us, or what standards we are at or how to overcome them.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Sounds like a great idea!! Definitely needed.

  2. It could really revive an intellectual presence in our culture.

    Go for it!!!

  3. I was watching this:

    and I couldn’t help but think that something like a syntopticon would help “get muslims into the context of where they are”.

    If you watch the video – making this syntopticon would be similar in concept to the Hungarian convert who made the first Islamic printing press.

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