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Wrong answers to brilliant Questions; Our intellectual crisis and possible solutions

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By Amir Suhail Wani

Equipped with science as a major epistemological dispensation and unaware of the contours, specifications and implications of scientific hermeneutics on one hand and the wholesale subscription of constricted and constrained existential ontology on the other hand seems to have left our generation between the sea and the devil. Science seems no more analytic and philosophy seems no more integrating. About faith, that once claimed to define existentially man’s position within the cosmos and to smoothen his relationship with the horizontal and vertical dimensions of existence, seems to be losing its own battle and being victim of its own uncritical assumptions. The quest for reinterpretation, revaluation and re-examination of hitherto infallible and unanimous institutions of social sanctity among the youth and the simultaneous impasse imposed by orthodoxy on any fresh thinking has not only left the minds stifled, but at times inspired them to turn rebellious, apostate and heretic.


People of book in general and people from Islamic creed in particular are not only facing challenges on various fronts from outside, but the magnitude and multitude of challenges lying at the very foundations of Islamic discourse has made the contemporary generation to oscillate on the spectrum of ideological impermanence. Faced with challenges emerging from scientific and philosophical trends, Muslim youth, like their fellows from parallel faiths have time and again tried to rush to the doctors of faith – – – mostly to return dismayed. They don’t get satisfactory and satiating answers from scholars, instead they end up as being branded as traitors and heretics within the faith. This is not merely an instance of wrong answers to brilliant questions but seen in its broader perspective this is very much the problem of epistemic mismatch. A student under the spell of Existentialism,postmodernism,positivism, feminism, Scientism etc., (as most of our youth are) looking for answers from traditional seminaries is accountable for his error of steering the wheel eastward with the intention of going west. Those of our scholars brought up in seminaries of traditional learning are, by virtue of their syllabi and structure, left in total eclipse with regards to the dynamics of contemporary literary, scientific and philosophical landscape. This brings about an unavoidable collision between youth, with their ever expanding horizons and traditional scholars, with their specific approach to textual interpretation and religious understanding. The burden of mismatch can be placed neither on youth, for their right to question shall be placed only next to their right to live. Nor can the scholars of traditional learning be accused of their oblivion of contemporary academic landscape. We owe many things to these scholars of traditional learning and the seminaries they belong to, for they have not only preserved our traditional sciences but also embodied the methodology of dealing with hermeneutics of traditional sciences. Therefore problem here is of mismatch and the ways of addressing this grave quandary and not of rebuking one another.

Universally the fact remains that men can be deprived of anything but not of their questioning spirit. Quran, recognising this spirit of free enquiry in men not only endorsed it but fostered it by virtue of divine injunctions. The Quran commands contemplation within and without and no authority shall deprive any thinking men or women to give up this act of contemplation and the consequent questioning spirit. To surrender questioning and to distance oneself from legitimate rational enquiry is unbecoming of a sapient creature. Among the companions of prophet we come across a daring questioning spirit and rarely do we come across an instant when the companions were bashed or their questioning spirit was discouraged. The disapproval came only at certain instances when questions were more of metaphysical character. Despite that the books of Ahadith are filled with questions of companions and the answers of the Prophet. At times God intervened and responded to the questions coming to prophet either in terms of explicit revelation or in terms of Hadith Qudsi. The point to be emphasised is that to question is not to sin but a virtue instead. Ali, the door of learning is reported to have said in pulpit “ask me, whatever you want, before you find me no more among you”. The Islamic history with isolated intellectual skirmishes is otherwise resplendent with a healthy atmosphere of questioning and rational enquiry. The existence of philosophers like Farrabi, Razi, Ghazali, the theological schools Asharites, Muatazillites, Maturidis and mystics like Suharwardi, Ibn I Arabi, and others was possible only because of the spirit of free enquiry. Unfortunately and tragically a narrative is and has been floated for long that to question in matters of faith amounts not only to sin but to apostasy and heresy. This has made the problem doubly impenetrable. On the one side we have youth with their heads boiling with questions and spirit of enquiry and on the other hand we are facing an intellectual impasse and the position of status quoism.

As far as the nature of questions is concerned our contemporary generation is least interested in issues concerning jurisprudence or traditional fiqh. By this, I don’t, in any sense tend to undermine the significance of fiqh in Islamic creed. But the flood of skepticism and unexamined rationalism that has brought with a host of specific questions are of primary concern for Islamic youth. The responsibility therefore for scholars is to primarily understand these questions and the nature of answers youth expects from them. This bilateral exchange in which students come up with their specific questions and the nature of answers they expect can be, for the sake of brevity summed as :-

  1. Confronted with plethora of religious and secular ideologies our youth is in utter delusion with regards to the uniqueness, universality and peculiarity of Islam. The arguments floating from other shores are at times more concrete than what our scholars usually tend to offer. So the first responsibility of our learned scholars is to understand Islam not only in its traditional idiom but with its all emergent versions and in all possible frames so as to assert the ideological and pragmatic vitality of Islam. Any failure in this regard shall amount to an intellectual revolt within the tradition – – – A revolt that’s overtly operational all over the Muslim lands.
  2. Youth aren’t satisfied, by virtue of their specific academic upbringing by the quotations from traditional sources. Despite the fact that they aren’t entirely correct in their approach, but they tend to seek scientific and rational answers to their questions. They seem to be least interested in metaphysical gymnastics and grammarian dissection of a text. The very nature of their questions makes traditional answering pattern quite redundant.
  3. Their acquaintance with Western sciences unnecessarily makes them to revolve under the spell of self-constructed intellectual superiority – – – – Mistakenly so.

These and many other issues coupled together makes the problem of addressing youth and their questions highly tedious and demanding. They don’t come to you and ask if the hands are to be raised or not during prayers. They come with their questions revolving around epistemology, theodicy, eschatology, textual interpretation in light of literary criticism and literary theories, modern philosophy, fresh approaches to Seerah, new dimensions of hermeneutics and alike. Before exploring the theme further, the youth and particularly those who raise genuine questions are to be held accountable on few things. Primarily they tend to be over informed in matters of secular sciences and totally naive or in different towards sacred or religious sciences and tragically they aren’t ready to accept this lacuna on their part. Secondarily as a matter of first-hand experience there are people who keep selectively gathering the questions and spend their entire lives with the notion that these questions can have no possible answers. This is not only a sign of regression but a conspicuous symbol of intellectual bankruptcy. The Quran has thankfully instructed us to “ask the people of knowledge in case we don’t know” and has simultaneously blessed us with the glad tiding that “Those who strive for us – we will surely guide them to our ways”. Both these verses read together are a sustainable and perennial source of learning and inspiration for a traveller. Philo said that “I have never risked in matters of faith”. But our generation under the influence of various compulsions and influences goes on not only experimenting but repeatedly risking on matters of faith.

What ought to be done in this era of crisis. In an age where people tend to know more and more about less and less until they sarcastically end up knowing everything about nothing. The challenge at hand is a herculean one and so the society, the intellectuals and those who share a common concern to this end need to reboot themselves to tackle the issues of atheism and consequent moral relativism. The response needs indeed to be a one rooted in intellect and not mere rhetoric or emotional wordplay. The steps that I think can be perused as a short term measures and that I believe will benefit the youth at large are as follows:

  1. An active, continuous and positive exchange of ideas and individuals needs to be started between traditional madrasas and modern day universities. A professor from University may be called upon for a lecture at a traditional seminary to aware the students to the impulses and requirements of modern times. Likewise a muhaddith, a mufasir, a Faqih may be made to interact with students of secular institutions of learning so as to give them an outline of what traditional sciences look like, how they are to be approached and how they are to be appropriated in the wake of contemporary challenges.
  2. The department of Islamic studies as it exists in various universities across the state may be calibrated as per the intellectual requirements of society. These departments ought to be aware of the fact that their purpose is not to prepare men of pulpit or the men of Jurisprudence but they ought to prepare minds who can counter, by virtue of their intellectual capacity the intellectual crisis that we are going through on the front of faith. At this point it becomes important to emphasise that the role of teachers here is not to indoctrinate students to their specific ideology, but to instil in them the spirit and sense of independent critical evaluation within the pattern specific to religion itself.
  3. Both inside and outside academia authors like Allama Iqbal, Khalifa Abdul Hakeem, Ameer Ali, Frithjof Schoun, Burhan Ahmad Farooqi, Schimmel, Gulen, Maulana Maudoodi, Javed Ghamdi and their likes need to be read, understood and appreciated on a wider scale. The list indeed reflects my personal reflections, but in any case the point of emphasis is to open up our minds to those authors who have understood and consequently approached Islam, keeping in mind the modern sensitivities. The readers may come up with an equally well weighed parallel list of authors for their own benefit at their respective places.
  4. Orientalists have appeared like an unavoidable externality and unnecessary evil vis a vis the Islamic discourse over a past century and so. They have dominated the Islamic narrative both outside Islam and within Islamic intellect. Thus it becomes incumbent upon scholars both from traditional and modern school of thought to keep themselves well informed about “oriental poison” and offer it a rebuttal in most appropriate scholarly idiom.
  5. Our learned scholars need to understand that the very nature modern times has left little scope for condemning each other. Their mutual condemnations and war within the house has to be given up in case we are sincerely interested in addressing the challenges that threaten our faith and institutions of faith at large. There is no wisdom in being polemical, but only in accepting and tolerating the different opinions thriving within the religion and to accord to each view its due share of intellectual and moral respect. We need to bear in mind the words of Allama Iqbal that “Don’t fight the interpretations of the truth when truth itself is in danger”.

These are the least and minimum number of steps we expect scholars from all schools of thought to take in unison so as to avert the impending clouds of disbelief and religious unrest among youth. There are no doubt institutions and individuals operating in different capacities and in different magnitudes in different forms and formats. But all these individuals and institutions need to wake up to the magnitude of challenge and realise that it deserves a consolidated response and not a fragmented one. The scholars who specialise in specific academic disciplines need to pool in their knowledge and understanding together both for their mutual benefit and for the mitigation of incoming challenges. This may call upon the formation of some body, official or unofficial, with name or without name, with office or without office. But a dedicated body is needed to work devotionally to this end not only to save this generation but to pave a model for generations following this one. We shall not shy away or be scared of rising to the occasion of inter religious dialogue starting from intra religious understanding in case the need arises for the same.

Any failure on part of our scholars to understand and address the burning issues of contemporary religious episteme is bound to cost us all both terrestrially as well as in terms of cosmic balance. The responsibility of scholars is to come up with “Baraheen” within their respective domains of understanding. Their job, thereafter, is neither to condemn youth (public) on the basis of their questioning spirit nor is it a binding upon them to drag people to the path of God, for guidance and salvation, is in the end, a divine prerogative.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: [email protected])