It is no doubt that in a post-caliphate world, our ummah is living through unprecedented times. Many of the contemporary challenges we face today sprouted its roots during the geopolitical turmoil that entrenched the Muslim world in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The abolishment of core institutions of Muslim societies was the agonizing result of the imposition of a colonial agenda whose aim was to bring an age-old civilization to bend its knee. Although detailing said events is beyond the scope of this paper, it is of utmost importance to realize the critical significance of this period on our conception of pursuing knowledge and its influence on the lense by which Muslims interpret Islam and modernity.
As the overpowering colonial tide took hold of much of the Muslim domains, the ummah fell prey to political turmoil, despotism, poverty, and sectarianism. The results were devastating, to say the least. To the ummah’s dismay, the West’s colonial agenda was not limited to geopolitical and economic dominance. Rather, its ambitions were far more sinister. To achieve the cultural and intellectual subordination of Muslims, removing the centrality of Allahﷻ within the social and political structures that governed the domestic and international affairs of the Muslim world was the ultimate goal. Indeed, the dismantling of a centralized Islamic government was the catalyst that thrusted the ummah into a new era of uncertainty. Bearing the weight of defeat on our shoulders, the Muslim world transitioned from a people with name and common history to a problematic question that the West needs to address.
Dr. Salman Sayyid, professor of social theory and decolonial thought at the University of Leeds, expounds upon the events of the late twentieth century in his noteworthy book “Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order”. In an earnest tone, Dr. Sayyid criticizes the colonial project and the subsequent events that not only led to the dissipation of Islam’s political and intellectual influence but also the emergence of a Eurocentric narrative that drew the lines between the superior, modernize West and a nameless, primitive East. In the first chapter of his book, Dr. Sayyid draws upon the vital importance of language, in particular, Islam as a name:
“The act of naming is also the act of becoming. The act of naming is an exercise in history-making: only those with names can write their own history; only those with names can give themselves a destiny. Thus, the division of the world between the named West and nameless non-West becomes a division between people who have their own history and those who do not. The name of Islam has brought Muslims into history and, in circumstances when the name cannot be evoked, Muslims become a ‘people without history’, thus ceasing even to be a people.” (1)
I submit to the readers to carefully ponder upon the language employed by Dr. Sayyid. The act of naming is akin to a state of being. As nuanced as this differentiation may seem, this salient point reveals the source of much of our confusion. We need to recognize that our identities were established before our earthly existence. In the primordial world, Allahﷻ asked the souls of the children of Adam “Am I not your Lord?” (Qur’an 7:172). “ Yes, we bear witness” was our collective response. Through affirming the Oneness of Allahﷻ, we can confirm the answer to who we are: servants of our Noble Creator. Accordingly, by severing ourselves from the central Reality upon which we can affirm our existence, we are left unable to evoke that which gave us a name in the first place.
Today we find Islam operating predominantly as two conceptualizations: an ideology in which political identities are derived; or quite simply a religion in the secularized sense of the word. Both conceptualizations are premised upon ideas born out of a western narrative. Allah (ﷻ) describes Islam in the Qur’an as Ad-dīn. However, many of us may be inclined to translate the word dīn as “religion” in a secular sense. This is not a question of etymology, rather a question of being. What does it mean for religion to exist in society? Is there a need to define a “proper” place for religion? Are there institutions within society in which religion should be included in or excluded from?
The place of religion in society was of great concern to the Enlightenment thinkers. The assertion of individual liberty with regards to faith, an idea that originally sprung out of the Protestant movement, was established in opposition to a centralized authority (i.e. the Church). (2) As such, religion became limited to individual conviction and personal ritual practice. Aspects of human society that did not immediately concern individual convictions or rituals were understood to be matters of the secular realm. Education, political affairs and governance, economics, finance, and civil law became institutions where God no longer had a place. Islam, on the other hand, is a comprehensive worldview in which all matters of Islamic civilization —cultural, political and most importantly spiritual— were predicated on. For this reason, the concept of Ad-dīn cannot be limited in such a manner. As illustrated by Dr. Al ‘Attas, the word Ad-dīn — from its root dana which signifies indebtedness —we can also derive dayn (under obligation), baynunah (judgement), and idanah (conviction). All of these meanings can only exist in an organized madinah (city) with a judge, ruler, or governor- a dayyan. Remarkably, from these derivatives alone, the word Ad-dīn illustrates before us “a picture of civilized life; of societal life of law and order and justice and authority”. It reflects how, in its most basic form, the concept of Ad-dīn profoundly translates into every aspect of our human experience. (3)
The Westernization of educational systems in the Muslim world witnessed the forceful implementation of epistemological frameworks that were inconsistent with the values of the ummah for the sake of cultural and political domination (4). We now find our conceptualization of education, which is predicated on the recognition of the existence of a Creator, at odds with that of the West. A society that fundamentally believes that the advancement of civilization is predicated on the erasure of God from human consciousness will have no real purpose in seeking knowledge other than for the sake of merely possessing it. Dr. Al ‘Attas further expounds on this idea. The West has conceived an image of truth not based on revealed knowledge, rather upon the basis of human rationality alone. By forsaking the true purpose of seeking knowledge, the inquiring spirit of the West, through its misguided love of the world and secular life, has led to the unjust production of knowledge. Consequently, humanity has witnessed the prevalence of injustice as the devastating result of the corruption of the true purpose of seeking knowledge.
It is therefore crucial for us to assess and deconstruct the frameworks and languages we engage with, in order for us as an ummah to generate real solutions in line with how Islam is conceptualized. Although far from easy, we are tasked to deconstruct and thoroughly analyze the ingrained secularized language and foreign paradigms that are responsible for the distortion of our Islamic worldview. Instead of asking ourselves what of Islam can we conveniently fit into our paths of seeking knowledge, we should be asking what aspects of modern education is reconcilable with Islam’s conception of knowledge, such that its pursuit translates into spiritual elevation and better suited for service to humanity?
The most critical step each of us are capable of taking is to humble ourselves in recognizing the centrality of Allah ﷻ in the order of being and existence. Our objective in seeking knowledge is not to produce good workers, but to simply nurture good people. Renewing our approach to seeking knowledge must begin with a renewal of our intentions such that it is aligned with the objective of seeking true knowledge of Allahﷻ and Islam. Seeking true knowledge of our Lord, which leads to true knowledge of who we are, results in the elevation of goodness and justice within ourselves, and by extension within mankind.
Secondly, in order to liberate the Muslim mind from these internalized frameworks, we cannot afford to dismiss the study of language as trivial. As delineated above, much of the knowledge dispersed in the world by western institutions of learning remains unquestioned and is accepted as gospel truth. The task at hand isn’t to simply drape said knowledge with the cloak of Islam. Dr. Al-Attas, in his remarkable book “Islam and Secularism”, argues that just as the human body rejects organ transplantation so long as the body is ravaged by disease, the process of “Islamizing” knowledge cannot be achieved by merely inserting Islamic principles into the study of knowledge without first identifying and addressing the foreign principles that have pervaded our understanding of seeking knowledge(5). Thus, it is imperative to free our conception of knowledge from false interpretations prior to immersing it with Islamic perspectives.
By neglecting to evaluate what frameworks are informing our way of thinking and how we seeking knowledge, we find ourselves operating within narratives built for Islam, but not by Islam. The meaning of words carry far more weight than we often perceive. Meanings form ideas. Ideas create worldviews. Worldviews yield power. The act of naming, as previously defined, is exercised by those in power. In other words, so long as the ummah remains incapable of constructing a name for Islam, which begins with the pursuit of true knowledge, we are powerless in narrating a future for ourselves. Dr. Al-Attas aptly summarizes:
“We must not forget that Islam is not a religion meant for fools, and this means that we must constantly refresh our knowledge of Islam and the Islamic worldview and be vigilant against false interpretations; that we must always rise to the level of that correct knowledge of Islam and the Islamic worldview so that whatever else of knowledge of the sciences that we might seek will always be set in proper balance with the former in such wise as to maintain a just order of knowledge in ourselves. “ (6)
- Sayyid, Salman. (2014) Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, pp.2
- Bristow, William, “Enlightenment”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/enlightenment/>.
- Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. (1995), Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, pp. 42-44
- Sabrin, Mohammed. (2012), Crafting an Islamic Pedagogy for the 21st Century, pp. 17
- Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. (1978), Islam and Secularism, pp.162-163.
- Ibid., 109.