In Conversation with Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul

Dr. Koshul completed his bachelors in Political Science from Rutgers University (1989). He did his first Masters from William Peterson College in Social Sciences (1994) and his second Masters in Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations (1999) from Hartford Seminary.  His first PhD, from Drew University, was in Religion and Society specializing in the Sociology of Religion (2003) and his second PhD was from University of Virginia in Religious Studies specializing in Theology, Ethics and Culture (2011). He joined LUMS in 2006 as Assistant Professor after teaching at Concordia College in Minnesota, USA for four years. Currently, he is an Associate Professor at LUMS.

Q1: – After completing a graduate program, academics usually aspire to kickstart their careers by joining at university/college on a tenure track position. Your academic credentials reflect a sense of perseverance and commitment. What inspired this sense of commitment which ultimately made you pursue and successfully bring home these qualifications?

Ans: As I was completing my first PhD, I faced two different and conflicting feelings. On the one hand there was the feeling of wonder and amazement at the utility of the analytical skills and tools I had learned during my studies. These tools and skills allowed me see certain parts of empirical reality that I was either ignorant of before (or worse) had taken just for granted. But alongside this appreciation of what my University education had given me, I had a deep, unsettling feeling that this education had also blinded me other aspects of empirical reality—and that this blinding was not entirely unintentional. From the days of my undergraduate studies, implicitly in every course and explicitly in many courses, it was claimed that we were studying a given subject matter from a “neutral,” “objective,” and “disinterested” viewpoint. Towards the end of my first PhD my intuitive sense that this was a Noble Lie was too strong for me to ignore. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with religion can easily recognize that there is nothing “neutral,” “objective,” or “disinterested” in the way that religion is taught and studied in the modern university—whether it is form the perspective of sociology, psychology, anthropology or philosophy (to say nothing of the more “exact” sciences). Consequently, I decided to pursue the second PhD to explore that part of empirical reality which (I came to see) was the most important for me as a teacher/scholar—the hidden presuppositions, assumptions and value-ideas that are the “substructure” of the way that the University studies and teaches a particular subject (in this case religion). During my first two masters and first doctorate, this “substructure” remained off-limits as a subject of inquiry—I sought to make up the deficiency during my second doctorate.

Q2: – A significant portion of your academic pursuits encompass Sociology. How did you decide on Sociology, a social science that is arguably the least respected of all social sciences?

Ans: – This view of Sociology is to some extent true. However, my aspiration to follow Sociology was rather academic. I had studied Political Science. Sociology was quite close to Political Science and Social Sciences. It explored the some of the key methodological questions in these disciplines in a greater depth. Honing my “sociological imagination” allowed me to integrate some of the key insights of the different disciplines I had studied earlier. Even though it was a long and lengthy process, I would like to think that it has paid significant dividends for me as a teacher. Almost all of the courses that I teach are cross-listed courses—my courses at LUMS have been cross-listed with Philosophy (PHIL), Sociology (SOC), Law (LAW) and Religion (REL). This semester I am co-teaching an SOC/LAW course with Justice Jawwad Khwaja and an SS course with Dr. Ahmad Bilal Awan (which we will work to cross-list as REL-SALT in the future). At the same time, in addition to publishing in the areas of Sociology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, I have co-authored articles with colleagues from SDSB and SBASSE in peer reviewed journals in the area of Management Studies, Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science.

Q3: – Talking from the perspective of a science or business student, why should one study subjects like Philosophy or Sociology, for instance? A business school or SSE student can very well choose to avoid such subjects and smoothly enter the job market.

Ans: – In the simplest of terms, I believe that it depends on one’s own definition of college education. If, for a person, the purpose of university education is to get a job and acquire social prestige, then indeed the person need not to go outside one’s subject area. In this case, taking courses in sociology and philosophy would indeed be a waste of time. However, if one’s definition of college education is to “learn”, then one should go outside of one’s area so that the person might be at least literate in some other field. More specifically, Philosophy and Sociology ask certain questions which other disciplines don’t ask. They uncover and investigate parts of empirical reality that is hidden from and can never be known by Physics, Biology and Chemistry on the one hand and Accounting, Finance and Marketing on the other. If a student wants to learn about this part of reality then she/he should take courses in Philosophy and Sociology (and History, Literature, Psychology, etc.). It works the other way also. I strongly encourage HSS majors to take science and business courses. In an ideal world, I would like to see every HSS major also minor in one of the non-HSS areas.

Q4: – What are some of the two or three main advices that you would like to give to a modern university student?

Ans: – I prefer to keep my exchange with students to issues of academic counseling/advice. As a teacher in the classroom, it is exceedingly important for me not to confuse the lecture rostrum with the pulpit. There is a razor thin line and a hauntingly deep abyss that separates a teacher from a preacher. This is something that a university professor must always be conscious of so as to not cross the line or fall into the abyss. This is one of the key points that Max Weber makes in his famous essay “Science as a Vocation”—and I embrace this point wholeheartedly. As a LUMS faculty member I am (and must always be) a teacher. I see every single student as a grown adult—I absolutely hate it when my colleagues and students refer to students as “bachchay”—this is a patently false label whether we look at it from the perspective of biology, civil law or religious law. Having said that, a teacher is also a human being and if another human being is in need of help and if I am in a position to help, I am obligated to help my fellow human being.

Q5: – How would you compare the Humanities and Social Science dept. at LUMS with those in universities of US?

Ans: – LUMS is a quite young university with only a history of about 40 years. If we compare LUMS with US universities (with a comparable history), we can state with confidence that LUMS need not take a back seat. Admittedly, as the name suggests, LUMS initially did not provide an environment in which the Humanities and Social Sciences had any significant presence. However, the fact that an HSS Department did eventually emerge and has grown to become among the largest departments in the University speaks to the openness of LUMS. It is not an exaggeration to say that LUMS has become a trendsetter at the national level in terms of HSS subjects. The department has grown due to the expertise and dedication of the faculty and the interests on the part of the student body. When I first arrived (in 2006) there was only a generic HSS Major. But as we attracted more and more faculty in different areas we were able to start offering majors in specific areas. Experience has shown that as soon as the number of faculty in a particular area reaches critical mass, there is no shortage of student interest in that area. The first area to reach critical mass in terms of faculty was Anthropology/Sociology—and now this is probably the largest major in HSS. The most recent example of this is the recently introduced minor in the Study of Religion—this minor was introduced only this academic year. Because we have enough faculty to offer the requisite courses, the response from the student body has been really encouraging. In short, the HSS Department has come a long way in a very short period of time. Given the disregard (bordering on hostility) towards HSS subjects in the South Asian/Global South setting, the establishing and subsequent flourishing of the HSS Department at LUMS is no mean feat.

Q5: – How would you compare the student body of LUMS with that in universities of US?

Ans: – We have a long (and expanding list) of LUMS students who have gained admission to the PhD programs of elite universities in the US, UK and Europe. There is now a growing list of former LUMS students who have completed their studies from the elite universities overseas and returned to Pakistan to teach at LUMS, IBA, NUST just to name a few. This is in itself an indication of the brilliance of the student body.

Also, many of the visiting faculty/lecturers from abroad who come to LUMS have had very good opinions about the students. They were really impressed by the caliber and character of LUMS students.

As someone who studied in the US and also taught there, I can honestly say that the LUMS students are outstanding. In my personal assessment, I would not have become as good of a teacher as I am (to the degree that I am “good”) if I had spent the last ten years in a classroom in the US or UK. In other words, the LUMS student body is one of the most important factors that has helped me to become a better teacher. That much having been said, the typical LUMS students (like students at all other elite universities in the world) are saddled with some debilitating misconceptions about themselves and their place in society. I dedicate the first two, three lectures in each of my courses to clearing up these misconceptions—using the subject matter of the particular course as the point of departure. In the beginning, the students find this exercise quite unsettling (and some of them either can’t deal with it or find the line of argument faulty). But most of the students find the argument to be at least plausible, if not altogether valid—including some of the ones who were most skeptical in the beginning.

Q6: – Philosophy is generally conceived as a dangerous discipline. A part of the fear is founded in its tendency to ask questions about topics which are sensitive in nature. Also, practically, for many it is not a marketable major. What do you think contributes to this fear and what can be done about it?

Ans: – The second part of the question is a completely legitimate question. Taking up a major which will allow the student to earn an honest and respectable living is not a minor issue. Having said this, the question emerges: Is this the only question we should ask and should the answer to this question be the sole determinant of what we should or shouldn’t study? On the surface it appears that Philosophy (and HSS subjects more generally) don’t have much to offer in terms of both job prospects and in terms of tackling “hard” or “real” problems. But as we know from our own life experiences, surface appearances can sometimes be very deceiving. I take Charles Peirce’s definition of Philosophy quite literally and seriously. For Peirce, Philosophy is an exact science whose subject matter is the hidden presuppositions and assumptions that other sciences take for granted but do not have the ability to investigate and examine. It is the task of Philosophy to lay bare these hidden assumptions, bring them to light and to determine/test how much confidence we can have in them.  If these presuppositions are not examined, then open and self-critical inquiry are simply not possible. Being aware and examining the hidden presuppositions of our knowledge claims is a pre-requisite for critical self-consciousness and countering dogmatism. In light of Peirce’s definition of Philosophy, isn’t this subject worthy of study?

During the course of my second PhD (focusing on Max Weber’s method of the social sciences examined in light of Charles Peirce’s philosophical pragmatism) it became quite obvious that all the claims of “neutral,” “objective” and “disinterested” inquiry made by the modern university are based on an entire constellation of unexamined, dogmatically asserted and blindly embraced presuppositions. The study of Philosophy (as defined by Peirce) is a pre-requisite for countering dogmatism, slopsism and cocky self-assuredness. If one finds these to be a problem in culture at large then Philosophy becomes the most important and relevant of all the subjects for (and in) the intellectual life of the University.

Q7: – What has LUMS given to you? If given a chance to move to the US now, would you take that opportunity?

Ans: – If given the opportunity to move—quite frankly, no. And that is because of a couple of reasons. Firstly, the students at LUMS. They are as intelligent and as inquisitive as the best students in the US. But this is only a part of the picture (and the less important part). What sets them apart from the students in the US is the fact that even in this hypermodern age, the student body at LUMS (however marginally or tenuously) is attached to their cultural values and traditions. Even the most burgher of the burghers who have consciously decided to cut themselves off from this tradition still retain memories of it. This characteristic/fact that makes it possible to raise certain questions and pursue certain lines of inquiry that one simply cannot raise or pursue in the advanced, industrial societies in the US, UK or Europe.

Secondly, the amount of space that LUMS in general and the HSS Department in particular allows me (and my colleagues) in terms of course design and content is practically unheard of in the US. I have used this liberty to the utmost—designing, redesigning and continuously revising my courses. This has allowed me to not only become a better teacher but also a better scholar. That is not to say that there is no oversight—because there is. But it is not the overweening type of oversight—just a check by colleagues to ensure that University and Department standards are being upheld. As a result, I have been able to experiment with integrating non-western sources and thinkers in the curriculum. I am not sure if I would have been able to design courses like “Foundations of the Liberal Arts” and “Logic and Rhetoric in the Qur’an” in a Western setting—I certainly would not have gotten the kind of response from the student body that I have gotten at LUMS. Similarly, I had to go through a few iterations before settling on the final form of the course on “Muhammad Iqbal and Charles Peirce.” The way that departments are structured in the US and the way that teaching loads are assigned to the faculty, it would have been practically impossible for me to go through the same process of experimentation and modification.

If university professors and aspiring intellectuals in the Global South want to rise above the status of a coolie in the caravan transporting the “white man’s burden” (in Rudyard Kipling’s inimitable words) they will have to start asking questions and pursue lines of inquiry that are not being asked or pursued in the Global West. The starting point for this is to create space for pre-modern, non-Western sources of knowledge in our curriculum—and study them using methods and analytical tools that the non-modern, non-Western subject has at least partially shaped. The freedom and space given by the University and Department along with a student body that is open and equipped to examine the unexamined and ask the unasked, are the basic pre-requisites for this. This mix of factors is present at LUMS. To the best of my knowledge, this mixture of openness, freedom and sensitivity/capability is hard to come by in Western universities. Given the fact that this place contains what I need, why would I leave it for a place that probably does not?

Q8: – If someone is interested in Philosophy as a subject but have no prior knowledge, what would be that one book you would recommend?

Ans: – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. That is an excellent introduction, explained in the simplest of the ways, to some of the greatest philosophers of all time. After they have read this book they should read A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Gaarder’s book is a look at the modern world in which we live through modern eyes. Nasr’s book is look at the same part of empirical reality from a different lens—it is when these two perspectives (or any two seemingly inimical perspectives) come into relationship that we have the beginnings of open inquiry.

Thank you for your time sir!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.