At the outskirt of Riyadh, en route to the airport, there lies a huge complex of fortress-like structures. This is the famous Imam University known for higher education in Islamics. The Imam University is not the only seat of learning specialising in Islamic education, or the Uloom Sharei as they call it. There is an equally famous university in Medina as also the famed Al-Azher Shareef in Cairo and a host of such institutions throughout the Muslim world devoted to Islamic learning. The other end of the Saudi capital houses yet another university, the King Saud, which specialises in modern secular education alone. Situated on the two sides of the same city though, the two universities help shape entirely different worldviews. This is no exaggeration to say that people on the two campuses live in entirely different worlds. At the Jamia Imam the sum total of knowledge is Ilm Sharei, the religious sciences. Here the secular knowledge holds no legitimacy whatsoever. On the other hand the scholars at the King Saud believe that they have nothing to do with the religious sciences. This misconception about the very nature of knowledge or its classification into Islamic and un-Islamic has created split personalities among Muslims. Those belonging to the secular stream of education have this awful feeling that their efforts might not be beneficial to them in the hereafter. While on the other hand, scholars in the religious seminaries live under the illusion that they, being religious scholars, are heirs to the Prophet and that they alone are in the possession of true knowledge.
The idea of a full-fledged university for imparting ‘Islamic’ education though now quite an established tradition, does not conform to the holistic concept of knowledge in Islam. Even before the colonial period our traditional Ulema did not believe in such a narrow definition of Ilm Sharei. As long as Muslim empires survived in any form our religious seminaries made it a point to include most contemporary subjects in their syllabus so as to produce competent men for the system. In the famous dars nizami (the Nizamia syllabus of the sub-continent that traces its origin in the 18th century) the inclusion of existing books on Logic, Mathematics, Physics etc is indicative of the fact that the very syllabus that appears to be so irrelevant today wore a modern outlook in its own time. But once the Ulema came to believe that after the fall of the Muslim empires the only role left for them was to preserve Islamic heritage and pass on Islamic understanding to the subsequent generations, a psychology of resistance gripped them. This did not happen in one day. The genesis of this misconception about the nature of knowledge can be traced back to the second century Hijra when the ever-widening scope of the newly developed uloom naqaliyya – the sciences of collection and critical appraisal of traditions – had attained undue prominence, a point I shall later return to.
The proponents of Uloom Sharei argue that the Muslim society after all needs Moazzins and Imams, scribes and preachers and those experts in Islamic fiqh who can teach young boys and girls Islamic etiquette and methods to attain hygienic purity. But to achieve this target do we really need full length courses spanning from ten to fifteen years? However, if our religious seminaries intend to produce such people who can provide able leadership and guidance for the modern world, this certainly cannot be achieved by institutions where a medieval feel is very much part of the syllabus.
What is knowledge? What is the Qur’anic definition of a true scholar (al-rasikhoon fil Ilm)? Such questions need to be addressed afresh. The one who knows and the one who does not are by no standard on the same footing (Qur’an, 39:9). In the Qur’anic weltanschuaang revelation and reason are the two basic sources of knowledge. While revelation serves as the guiding light, reason works as the basic tool of analysis. The one complements the other. Those endowed with a pure heart and a sound mind take heed from various signs of God. They reflect on the coming down of rain from the sky, the varieties of colourful produce from the same soil and the colour scheme at work amongst men and animals. The more they reflect and ponder on the universe the more they are astounded by the awe of God. Truly, they are the men of knowledge among His servants, we are told in the Qur’an (35:28).
In the Qur’an the Prophet is the ultimate teacher who recites to the people the verses of divine origin to purify them and to educate them in the Book and wisdom (Qur’an, 2: 129 & 151). The very mention of hikmah or wisdom as a natural corollary to the Book of God is indicative of the fact that a rational outlook is the key to proper understanding of the Book. What is hikmah (wisdom) and why it is so that the Qur’an mentions it alongside the Book and in the same breath? Some of the traditional commentators of the Qur’an have mistaken it as yet another word for Sunnah. However, a close reading of all such verses where the word hikmah occurs tells us an altogether different story. Unlike Sunnah, hikmah is not a phenomenon that achieved its perfection and came to an end with the death of the Prophet. Rather, it is an ongoing process of mental alertness. There are numerous verses in the Qur’an that testify to this meaning. For example, relating to the story of David we are told that he was endowed with political power and wisdom (Qur’an, 2:251). And Allah grants hikmah to whom He pleases (Qur’an, 2:269). That hikmah is not be confused with the Prophet’s sunnah can also be deduced from the Qur’anic assertion that earlier nations, the nation of Abraham for instance, were also recipients of hikmah (Qur’an, 4:54). In yet another context, Muslims are enjoined to employ hikmah and politeness in inviting people to God. In short, in the Qur’anic weltanschuaang hikmah is a rational attitude nurtured in the individual right under the guidance of revelation. Where pure reason fails, it comes to our rescue. Luqman is such a great seer, a perfect blend of the two who finds special mention in the Qur’an. Revelation and reason together thus make a balanced personality, ‘a sound heart’, as the Qur’an puts it (26:89).
It was this balanced rational outlook that once placed the Ummah on the high pedestal of world leadership. Muslims became instrumental in creating a whole new world founded on rational thinking. In the hey days of Islam, it never occurred to us that as Muslims we were to limit ourselves to the so called uloom sharei alone. On the contrary, the first generation Muslims were not even aware of the term ‘Ilm Sharei’, which has gained common currency among scholars of our time. In early Islam it was unthinkable that any group of people would claim to be an authority in religious sciences. The ulema, as we know them today with a distinct identity and a dress-code were not known to us at least till the end of the first century Hijra. Qazi Abu Yusuf is said to be the first aalim to help invent a special dress for himself and for the other ulema in the Abbasid courts. Gradually, this special dress with some modifications became the hallmark of our ulema. The same age also witnessed the emergence of great fuqaha and muhaddithoon. And it was during this period that the muhaddithoon attained social and intellectual prominence. As collectors of Prophetic traditions, a fast vanishing discipline, they even commanded more respect than the scholars of the Qur’an. It was during this period that those who engaged themselves in gathering, preserving and transmitting historical reportage of import came to be known as scholars. Later, this misconception about the nature of scholarship paved way for the division of Ilm (knowledge) into uloom naqaliyyah (transmitted knowledge) and uloom aqaliyyiah (rational knowledge), the former being the Ilm sharei having its origin in the divine words and where reason had no role to play. As compared to the transmitted knowledge, the rational knowledge was to be looked down upon as an inferior branch of knowledge and hence all those involved in scientific discoveries were made to carry with them an onus of guilt. Considering the ‘transmitted knowledge’ (also read Uloom Sharei) as the sum total of knowledge placed the Ulema at the helm of affairs, nonetheless, it virtually resulted in the closing of the Muslim mind.
The delusion that Muslims have been living under for quite a long time about the nature of knowledge and that has created havoc in the Muslim mind was until very recently a popular notion among the Jews. For almost two thousand years, long before the sack of the second temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish Rabbis have been preaching that the main purpose of life on this planet is to devote to the Torah studies. Even a trade or a commercial activity is allowed only on the pretext that the money thus earned will be spent on those engaged in religious studies. As for reading a secular book, the Jewish Rabbis considered it a blatant violation of faith. For almost two thousand years the Jewish nation in Diaspora lived under this delusion. However, in the 18th century Eastern Europe, a revolutionary, ground breaking question was put forward by an inquisitive Jew. There are some moments in human living, thus asked the questioner, when it is simply not possible to recite from the Torah or read a religious book, especially when we are in the toilet. Can such odd moments be utilised to read secular literature? The enquirer was trying to find a way out and he got the Rabbi’s approval. This was a ground-breaking responsa. Soon we find many European Jews complaining of constipation, spending long hours in toilets. In the Jewish quarters where religious elders set the norms of living, toilets became the only safe haven where one could lay hands on books of science and philosophy. And once the taboo was broken it was no longer possible to control the Jewish imagination. In the 19th and 20th centuries we witness a flood of social thinkers, philosophers, scientists and men of letters from among the Jewish nation. In fact, the 20th century owes some of the best Jewish minds for its intellectual build.
The Jewish nation is not a recent phenomenon. They have lived on this planet for centuries. As long as they lived in isolation believing that they can excel in hair-splitting fiqhi debates alone, the world did not hear of them. It was not that during the last two thousand years great minds were not born among them. The best among them wasted their energy in debating such ‘religious issues’ whether it is lawful to flush the toilet on Shabbot or if wearing a wig of natural hair constitutes a breach of faith. But once they had the opportunity to lay their hands on secular knowledge, the same nation produced wonders. The Jewish experience, it so appears, mirrors our own predicament.
Muslim intellectuals in the past were partially aware of the intellectual crises fomented by our delusion about and division of knowledge. Abu Hamid Ghazali, the famous Hujjatul Islam, in his monumental work Ahiya al Uloom encouraged Muslims to learn Engineering and Medicine so as not to be dependent on non-Muslims. But the idea that true knowledge is holistic, a composite whole of scientific and revelatory knowledge, is yet to gain ground among Muslims. It calls for no half-hearted efforts or patch-up work, rather it demands nothing less than a paradigm shift.
01 September 2005