Need to liberate Islam from traditional seats of learning

By Dr Wasim Ahmad,

Our real challenge lies in thinking differently. Thinking, however, is the most difficult job on earth. The notions that we have grown with are not easy to part with. The prejudices that have shaped our thinking will not be left behind easily. Are we ready to bear the pain? I am sure it is worth it. We need to liberate Islam and Qur’an from the traditional seats of learning. Unless we do that the spiritual democracy which is the ultimate purpose of Islam (tamaam tar zindagee ko roohaaniyat se bhar denaa) will never be accomplished. This is strange that those who were expected to be the bearers of Islam are the greatest barriers in its path. Again this democracy is for the benefit of the human beings and not for Islam.

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Abolish duality of knowledge

As regards the ‘revealed’ and ‘acquired’ knowledge, it is far better than our current division of knowledge into deeni and dunyaawee. I am ready to adopt this description. There is, however, one slight doubt about which I would seek clarification from anyone who chooses to enlighten. The ‘revealed’ continuously and emphatically asks us to acquire the ‘acquired’. On the other hand what we have acquired under the ‘acquired’ is corroborated by the ‘revealed’. Hence, I am prompted to think that the two are inseparably interconnected to the extent that the same knowledge seems to be ‘revealed’ from one angle and ‘acquired’ from another.

Also, let us not forget that there can be no discrepancy between the ‘work’ of the Creator and His ‘words’. As it is evinced by Qur’an: “Will they not then ponder [yatadabbaroon] on the Qur’an? If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much discrepancy.” (an-Nisaa’, 4: 82) From the ‘revealed’ we get an injunction (al-Baqarah, 2: 31) which explains how Adam (a.s.) was given the ‘knowledge of things’ and he was able to ‘name them’. Naming the things, Iqbal explains, is in fact the ability of VISUALIZING them. Being able to visualize something implies the capability to CONTROL those things for our own purposes. ‘Knowledge is power’, therefore, isn’t a Western concept. It is borrowed from Qur’an. To understand this, we just need to look around and see who has given name to the things in the surroundings and who is using them.

A Madrasa in Mewat, Haryana

The ‘revealed’ says : “Do you not see that Allah has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and the earth, and has made His bounties flow to you in exceeding measure, (both) seen and unseen? Yet there are among men those who dispute about Allah, without knowledge and without guidance, and without a Book to enlighten them.” (Luqmaan, 31: 20) This subjection (taskheer) is essentially just an indication of huge potentialities of the discovery and utilization of the hidden natural laws. Research and experimentation (‘acquiring’) is all about it. Some of them we already discovered since the inception of the humanity and many of them have not been discovered as yet. “And you have been granted but little knowledge.” (al-Israa’, 17: 85) The subjection (taskheer), therefore, is more an expression of a potentiality than actuality.

The initiative does not have to be taken by Aligarh Muslim University. I will not insist upon it. I, however, suggest so because of the VISION of the Aligarh Movement:

“The students coming out of our Universities should have Qur’an in the right hand, most modern scientific and technological advancements in the left hand and the crown of Laa Ilaah on the forehead. So that the Muslims regain the same glorious status of founders and promoters of science and technology as they did during the ascendance of their civilization.”

One of the tasks of that Movement was to remove the duality of knowledge by holding Qur’an in the Right Hand and most advanced scientific and technological advancements in the Left Hand – both at the same time. This initiative does not have to happen on a specific ground as it needs to be ‘grounded’ in the human minds first.

Any attempts, however, to perpetuate both the systems separately under one justification or another will amount to maintaining the dichotomy. Looking at our civilizational goals and the greater needs of humanity (mainly the spiritual emancipation of individual and the spiritual interpretation of the Universe – as suggested by Iqbal) we cannot afford to perpetuate the existing system. Perpetuating both the systems will amount to separating the soul from the body and spirit from the matter. These are inseparable. Hence, let us not separate what is inseparable. If we do that (as we did) it will (as it did) have negative impact. We have already suffered a lot on this count.

Let us replace ‘deeni rahnumaa’ee” with zindagi ki rahnumaa’ee. Zindagi (life) in its ALL aspects – without compartmentalizing it. Otherwise, the life will compartmentalize us. And then we will hold America and the rest of the world as well as all the communal forces responsible for our problems. All such excuses may not be entertained on the Day of Reckoning. The signs we have already seen.

Islamization of knowledge

When I hear about Islamization of knowledge I wonder why we need to Islamize what is already Islamic. Having lost a sense of direction – not having a VISION – we don’t know what to do. None of our acts are aligned. And we are not moving in any (or one) direction. We can move in a direction only if we have a direction. If we still move, it will be a miracle.

We do not need to Islamize the knowledge. We just need to acquire it to the best of our capacities. We only need to Islamize our outlook. Our intention. It will serve the purpose which nothing else will. What we require is not the Islamization of knowledge. We only need the Islamization of ‘Muslims’. We only need the spiritualization of the ‘secular sciences’. We only need de-conditioning of the human mind. We only need to liberate Islam and Qur’an from the exclusivist environments.

How could we Islamize Biology which has already submitted to the laws of nature? How can we Islamize Chemistry which has surrendered to the same laws, as only two examples? We only need to Islamize those who have not surrendered to any of these laws and are in fact fighting with them on a daily basis. If we don’t believe in it we just need to look at their (our) periodicals.

‘Islamization of knowledge’ reinforces my feeling that we always think that the problem lies somewhere else while it actually lies within us. When we say that we need to Islamize knowledge we denote that the problem is in the knowledge which is not Islamic. The problem is not with the knowledge. The problem is with the Muslims who do not have even the right concept of knowledge. We mostly believe that “knowing the known” is what is required. We forget that the real concept of knowledge is “developing a coherent body of ideas and creatively reaching out to the unknown”.

‘Islamization of knowledge’ denotes our quest for short-cuts. The long way was to create knowledge. We chose a shorter way i.e. only Islamizing it. In other words we mean to say: “Let others create. Why should we waste our time in creating knowledge. Once, however, others have created knowledge we may come forward and just Islamize it”. That it will never give us genuine respect in the comity of nations doesn’t matter to us. There is a parallel here, though. I sometimes hear that the Muslims should only use the available tools (say discoveries) without wasting our time in producing or inventing things. I find it a serious violation of the law of nature. We do not do so at the level of a family and respect that member the most who contributes towards the family the most.

The same applies to an organization. The functionary who ‘produces’ the most gets more respect and benefits. Shouldn’t we, by the same logic, contribute more towards the nation and the world? As a people, however, we ignore this law of nature and then complain about less respect and more discrimination – all over the world including primarily the homeland. Hence, we keep lamenting on the (absolutely unbiased and impartial) functioning of a natural law without trying our best to turn it in our favor by becoming producers – as different from mere consumers. Again, we are fighting with a law of nature.

I fully agree with the observation that “Time was when Muslim scholars began with learning the Qur’an and the Hadeeth and went on to become mathematicians, geographers, historians, physicians and physicists and became intellectual leaders of the world. The cities of the Islamic world became centers of learning for the whole world. If proper avenues are provided, our children can develop as well rounded persons with knowledge of the Holy Qur’an, the Hadeeth, and the Fiqh on the one hand, and physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology on the other with the choice of specialization and super-specialization in the post secondary stages”. This holistic and integrated approach we have to adopt.

Sometimes I think that the traditional institutions (madrasaas) – precisely for the reason that they teach Qur’an and Islam – should have absorbed Universities in them. They should have that cosmic view of Islam and knowledge which is not expected from others. And because of this cosmic view they should be in the forefront of abolishing the duality of knowledge. They are the ones perpetuating it!

The component of recall ability of students and its proportion is a debatable point. There could be a difference of opinion about it. It is, however, worth reflecting here on the Qur’anic methodology of teaching. This is a topic of thorough research, though. How much is the emphasis of Qur’an on memorization and how much on critical thinking is worth pondering upon. How much did the Prophet (pbuh) stress upon memorization and how much on thinking is still to be figured out. What made Abu Bark and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (r.a.) what they became will give an insight into this if we relate it.

We, however, focus more on tests. This is where the recall ability – more than the understanding of concepts – becomes more important. It often occurs to me that if I want an answer exactly as it is found in the textbook then I should buy another copy of the same book or make as many photocopies of that as I wish. Why should I entrust this task to a human being. There is a difference between a book and a human being. There is no element of curiosity and looking towards the future with some anticipation in our teaching. We want our students to be like ourselves. Because our teachers wanted the same. We are not looking at their future prospects with excitement because we have no element of excitement within ourselves.

If we still have to “vomit out information crammed before the exams” then there is a problem with the exams, with the teachers, and with the entire education system. Our questions should be designed in such a manner that even if the textbooks are given to the students during the tests they will still be required to think and apply and don’t find the book of much help. This is because when the life begins then, in the words of Dr Zakir Hussain, they will not have access to the “Laal Kitaab”. But if they are taught how to use their minds then they will be having it on their shoulders always. This is why when I hear that someone was caught cheating, I feel that the problem is not with the one who was caught. The problem is with teaching and with the entire education system. To me the student was not caught cheating. The entire education system was caught cheating.

The Islamic knowledge was not written down so that the Muslims memorize the entire material. It was written down so that the Muslims are able to relate and apply it in all given situations of life till the Last Day. Relating and applying is difficult. Memorizing is far easier. So we took to the easier path or the short-cut. As we always do. Ignoring the fact that the ‘longest’ (understanding, relating and applying) is actually the shortest.

Anything could be used and misused. Like the sailing ships (ar-Rahmaan, 55: 24) which Allah considers among His signs could be used for drug and human trafficking. It could be used for transporting contraband materials. It is a law of nature that fire burns. Utilizing this law of nature we can cook the choicest food. And with the same fire a house could be put on fire. Risk is a part of our career on earth because of the freedom given to us which is the greatest trust. And we do not have the freedom to run away from our freedom. Accountability will always be ours. But ‘the greatest risk is the riskless living’.

The possibilities of the misuse of knowledge make it obligatory for the Muslims to master all the sciences and provide leadership in all the walks of life. The initiator of a new tool, for instance, also sets the trend of its ways of utilization. There is a reason why some of us have looked at the television and Internet with suspicion. None of us should have looked at them the way we did because there is nothing wrong in the medium. We take a long time to realize it, though. But at the same time, the prevalent use of these tools was not for very healthy purposes. The reason behind it is that the ones who produced such tools did not have those lofty ideals as Islam does and the Muslims should have. The true following of those healthy ideals should have obligated the Muslims to be in the forefront so that not only they produce but they also set a trend of the better utilization of these tools.

Many a times I come across a contention that all the noble ideas and ideals could be implemented only if there was an Islamic state. This precondition requires rethinking. State is not among the biggest concerns of Islam. For many good things we put a precondition of an Islamic state – as we perceive it. This to me sounds like a very convenient excuse. Because if an Islamic state as per our perception does not exist and it is a precondition then many projects have to rightfully stop. Why should they begin when the first condition is not met? The non-existence of this prerequisite saves the individuals from a lot of trouble. This is among the luxuries that we have been living with.

I believe that an Islamic state does not have to be inorganically and artificially created. Why? Because the entire world is already an Islamic state. Do we think that in this world it is not the Will of Allah but of anyone else which is running? If we believe so then we are gravely mistaken. It is only the Will of Allah that is ruling the world. The Will of Allah is the laws of nature which He has put in place. The Will of Allah is the Constitution of causes and effects (asbaab and musabbabaat) which He has promulgated and ordained. And the good or bad news is that He is not going to suspend these laws of nature.

Now those who realize these laws of nature and discover many more of them can turn them into their favour – if they consciously work for it. Alternatively, they may wait for an Islamic state to emerge and lose the precious time in doing so. At the personal levels we do not only pray and do not only wait for an Islamic state. For the collective good we pray without acting and wait for “a realistic modern Islamic welfare state”.

(The writer is Department Head of Islamic Studies, Preston University Ajman. He can be contacted at Mob: +971505363235 Email: [email protected])