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Reviving Muslim Intellectual Position in the World

By MANSOOR ALAM

According to the Quran a nation cannot hope to recover from its abyss unless it changes its inner self (called Nafs) by the Quran). Stopgap measures or doing patch-up job only to treat the symptoms (as many Muslim leaders seem to advocate) would only prolong suffering and would not cure the disease. A nation needs a fundamental change in its outlook, in its psychology, and in its attitude if it truly wants to change its destiny. The Quran says:

 

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? (13:11) – Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they change their inner selves. This is Allah’s law of change (8:53).

This change is required because a people going through a period of downfall suffer from slavish mentality: “They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (7:179)[Yusuf Ali]
A nation suffering from the mental maladies mentioned in the above verse cannot hope to recover its power of original thinking without changing its inner self. And without the power of original thinking, a nation that is down and being pushed around, as we are, cannot acquire power over its own world let alone acquiring power over the forces of the outer world.

Our individual scientific achievements, although worthy of appreciation, are without a central cohesive organization and really do not count much as far as recapturing the Muslim nation’s lost glory is concerned. These individual Muslim achievements are part of the grand scheme of whatever organization (for example, NASA) they may happen to be working for. For Muslim scientific achievements to be effective (like producing their own space shuttle), there needs to be an organizational structure that is organically related to the body of the Muslim Ummah, which possesses unique life of its own and not dependent on others.

One way to achieve glory in science is through the philosophy of secularism being practiced by the West. The West achieved its scientific prowess only after giving God and Caesar their separate dues, and by assigning them two separate arenas of human thought: one for scientific thinking – done by people of science, and the other for religious thinking – done by people of religion. One was not allowed to interfere with the other. Religious people took charge of the Church and its hierarchy, and the science people took charge of Science and its hierarchy – resulting in polarized society.

Therefore, if we are serious about changing our condition then we need to analyze our current situation. No matter how many Islamic conferences and workshops we organize and attend—and proclaim Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great!); no matter how many Hajj pilgrimages we perform and chant AllahummaLabbaik (O Allah! Here I am); no matter how much we pray and fast and recite the holy Quran; no matter how much we praise our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions; no matter how much we ask Allah to improve our condition; things will not improve for the Muslim Ummah— although all of the above are important—if we continue to tread the same path we have been on for the past thousand years, ever since we lost our preeminent position in the world of knowledge.

Our actions speak louder than our words. Our past actions have brought misery and consequent collapse of our knowledge base. If all we do is try to preserve our status quo, then how can we expect to recapture the glory of our historic achievements? How can simply repeating words (even if they are Quranic words) and performing religious rituals (even if done with sincerity) uplift us intellectually in this world? Intellectual advancement of any community requires hard work, dedication, conviction, commitment, organization, discipline, perseverance, creativity, innovation, and, above of all, unity of purpose and harmony in efforts.

Are we as a Muslim Ummah doing these things or simply claiming to be ‘practicing’ Muslims by performing the five pillars as a ritual while all the time trying—individually—to move up the economic or political or professional ladder? Why would Allah change our condition when we treat Islam as a ritual and are mostly interested in personal advancement? This is simply not the way of Allah. As noted above we need to make some fundamental changes in our outlook and psychology if we are serious about reclaiming our lost knowledge base (13:11).

But what is knowledge? This question is not as obvious as it seems. The Prophet (PBUH) used to constantly pray: “O Allah! Advance me in knowledge (20:114).” This means that knowledge is something special and sacred in its own right; and that advancing in knowledge is a challenge in which even our Prophet (PBUH) sought Allah’s help.

It is the duty of every Muslim therefore to acquire knowledge throughout life—so much so that on the Day of Judgment we will be held accountable for it. “And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be inquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).”
The words hearing and seeing refer to human senses and the Arabic word ??????? (heart) refers to our mind. Hearsay is not knowledge because our senses and mind are not involved in arriving at the conclusion. Plato said that knowledge gained through the senses is not reliable, whereas the Quran says that anything not verified by the senses and mind cannot be regarded as knowledge. This shows how valuable sense perception is in Islam.

The Quran puts extraordinary emphasis on objective knowledge. The revelation of the Quran may be

The importance of inductive reasoning is so great in the eyes of the Quran that at numerous places it calls those who do not use it as animals—and even worse than animals: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb, those who understand not.” (8:22) “Many are the Jinns and men we have made for Hell: They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (7:179) “Or thinkest thou that most of them listen or understand? They are only like cattle; nay, they are worse astray in Path” (25:44). “Ah! Ye are those who fell to disputing (Even) in matters of which ye had some knowledge! But why dispute ye in matters of which ye have no knowledge?” (3:66) [Yusuf Ali]
A beautiful hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) may also shed important light on this issue. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said: “O Allah! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!” [“Allahummaarinahaaqa’iq al-ashyakamaa hiya.”] Are we, as followers of the Prophet (PBUH), practicing this hadith in our daily lives? Are we trying to acquire the knowledge of the ultimate nature of things and then teaching its importance in Islam to our youth? Who are the real Ulema in Islam: the religious scholars, or those who have knowledge of the ultimate nature of things?

The Quran says: “Seest thou not that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of color, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colors. Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, [Ulema] who have knowledge: for Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.” (35: 27-28) [Yusuf Ali]

In fact, the current bifurcation of knowledge into Islamic and non-Islamic is alien to Islam itself. When the Prophet (PBUH) exhorted his followers to acquire knowledge—even if they had to travel to China—he did not distinguish between Islamic knowledge (represented by religious scholars) and non-Islamic knowledge (represented by scientists). This division of knowledge is rather a later creation in Islam. Striving for knowledge without creating any contradistinction between outer and inner worlds is an Islamic duty of all Muslims. In the ultimate nature of things these two worlds reside in perfect harmony. When the Prophet (PBUH) said that those who travel to seek knowledge get ten rewards for every step, he meant that seeking knowledge is a divine act in itself. We should therefore teach our children that when they learn any subject in school or college they are, first and foremost, engaged in a divine act and prayer. All other career benefits that eventually accrue from learning should be considered side-benefits.

We need to go back to the way of the Prophet (PBUH) and use this integrated or holistic approach to knowledge which, apart from giving us power over the natural world, also deepens our faith in the non-physical world. The Quran emphasizes that signs of Allah in the Universe are meant to strengthen the faith of believers: “Verily in the heavens and the earth, are Signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and the fact that animals are scattered (through the earth), are Signs for those of assured Faith.” (45: 3-4) [Yusuf Ali]

Our ancestors read these verses and laid the foundations of science, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, geography, sociology, anthropology and science of history among other things. Every sign of Allah in the Universe inspired them to deliberate and ponder, which deepened their faith in Allah. We, on the other hand, read these same verses and move on. At most we think that we have earned the mercy of Allah in the other World by reciting these verses while simultaneously living in this World at the mercy of others. Our ancestors dedicated their lives to discover the signs of Allah (i.e., forces of nature) and proved to humanity the Truthfulness of the message contained in these verses (according to verse 41:53). As a result, they became leaders and torchbearers of knowledge in the World. We, on other hand, abandoned that tradition and consequently are groping in darkness – and trying, if at all, to illuminate our way with borrowed light.