Muslims globally are becoming increasingly uncertain of Islam’s place in the modern world. With the multitude of social and spiritual contentions in our communities, compounded with a crisis of knowledge, Muslims have been left disillusioned and are finding themselves wandering aimlessly against a backdrop of confusion, angst and fear. Although the importance of seeking knowledge often frequents Muslim gatherings, it would be wise to consider a renewed approach in light of our contemporary context.
Discussions surrounding the topic of seeking knowledge almost always, and rightfully so, begin with the Divinely revealed verses of Surah Al-’Alaq:
“Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.” (Al-’Alaq 96:1-5)
These verses were the first of many commands revealed to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw). It was from the depths of cave Hira that Divine guidance and prophetic light began to dispel the darkness ravaging the hearts of mankind. Though the meanings and spiritual lessons that can be derived from these verses are numerous, the nobility and distinction of seeking knowledge is made clear to us. Knowledge is the most integral part of our human condition, such that it penetrates the very core of our temporal existence. It is the characterizing trait of mankind that distinguishes us from all of Allah’s ﷻ other creations, compelling us to understand our respective places and purpose in the cosmos.
The phrase “seeking knowledge” is often used in reference to seeking theological knowledge. Muslims tend to, albeit unknowingly, navigate the path of seeking knowledge through a rigid dichotomy between empirical and theological sciences. In other words, in our pursuit of non-theological knowledge has ushered Islam to the periphery of our intellectual endeavours, having little to no influence in informing how we perceive reality. Consequently, the very place of Islam in the lives of Muslims, and in particular in our pursuit of modern education, has become rather obscure. It is important to note that the approach Muslims take towards understanding the role of Islam in our pursuit of knowledge today has been strongly influenced by frameworks that narrate a Western-centric worldview born out of colonial history.
In an attempt to delineate its role in the lives of Muslims, conceptual frameworks venturing to define Islam have emerged. One can be certain that there is no deficit in the number of works written about Islam. However, this begs another question: why is it that much of these conceptualizations of Islam are not congruent with how Islam defines itself? Time and time again, Islam has been defined as a “religion” or an “ideology” by those who peer into the Muslim world from the outside. As impartial as these conceptualizations may appear, the roots of these narratives are far from innocent. These ideas came to fruition through a belief system born out of the Enlightenment period. Rather than being defined on the merits of its own rich intellectual heritage, Islam is simply defined in contrast to the Western world’s supposed universality and intellectual superiority over an inferior East.
In his book “Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam” the American Historian Franz Rosenthal states that civilizations revolve around abstract concepts which in turn makes them distinct in their character. As for Islam, he concludes that the Islamic civilization was characterized by the pursuit of knowledge. Seeking knowledge was elevated to such a degree that no aspect of Muslim society had remained untouched by what Rosenthal describes as an “all-pervasive attitude towards knowledge as something of supreme value…” (1). For centuries, the point of departure in a Muslim’s path to knowledge was established upon the centrality of Allahﷻ in the order of all that exists. For this reason, the concept of knowledge has always been a subject of great concern to the ummah.
The purpose of seeking knowledge in Islam is primarily concerned with the individual in a spiritual sense. In Islam, the end goal of seeking knowledge is not to produce good workers, but good people. Individuals who strive to inculcate goodness and justice within themselves and strive to realize those virtues within their communities. Accordingly, true belief in the centrality and oneness of Allahﷻ is inextricable from seeking knowledge. The denial of this leads to the deification of man such that “the world becomes man’s sole preoccupation…” (2). The unfortunate consequence of this is “an insatiable desire to seek and to embark on a perpetual journey of discoveries…because doubt ever prevails.” (3). In other words, the denial of Revelation as sources of true knowledge and grounded objectivity leads one down a path of perpetual doubt and dissatisfaction. Consequently, the heart is divested of spiritual sagacity, aggravated by the fundamental questions of our existence remaining unanswered. In fact, this approach to knowledge has left much of humanity with “no single Reality to fix its vision on; no single, valid Scripture to confirm and affirm in life; no single human Guide whose words and deeds and actions and entire mode of life can serve as a model to emulate in life, as the Universal Man.” (4) It comes to no surprise then that the West’s conceptualization of knowledge is primarily concerned with the utility of an individual to the state and to a capitalist world order rather than fulfilling the metaphysical purpose of human existence.
At this juncture of the conversation, many Muslims will cite Islam’s influence upon Western civilization and its contributions to its rational and scientific discourse. Although an undeniable fact, far too often is this petitioned as a desperate plea for acceptance. We have become so incredibly insecure in our Tradition that we are constantly trying to prove Islam’s legitimacy within the world of science and technology. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that much of our anxiety regarding Islam and the modern world is the result of our engagement with a discourse that, in describing Islam, uses highly secularized language and makes no effort in hiding its disenchantment with religion. Islam has thus been placed within this paradigm and Muslims are, albeit unknowingly, reinterpreting Islam through orientalist underpinnings.
The imposition of a eurocentric narrative has attempted to thrust the Muslim world upon the same intellectual trajectory as the west in hopes of narrating a future on behalf of the ummah. Consequently, many of the institutions in which we study and seek knowledge are by-products of western intellectual hegemony and the knowledge that is systematically disseminated around the world is “not necessarily true knowledge but that which is imbued with the character and personality of western culture and civilization.” (5). True knowledge is that which conforms with our innate disposition (fitrah) (6) and a return to such knowledge requires us to think critically about the frameworks we are engaging with. For this reason, the second of this two-part essay will delve further into understanding how these frameworks have emerged and imbued our conception of an Islamic approach to knowledge and its influence on how Muslims perceive Islam and modernity.
- Rosenthal, Franz. (1978), Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, pp. 2.
- Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. (1995), Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, pp. 85.
- Ibid., 87.
- Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. (1978), Islam and Secularism, pp.156.
- Ibid., 137.
- Ibid., 163.