Reflections on the
Day of Arafat
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Arafat means recognition.
It is recognition of the brotherhood of man. The word Arafa has three letters,
ein, ray and fe. Imam Tirmidhi, the great Hakim of the ninth century, saw in
each of these letters an ocean of knowledge. The ein, he said, stands for ilm,
knowledge. The ray stands for ru’ya, that is, to witness, to be aware, to see,
like in the Shahada, la ilaha
illa Allah, Muhammadur Rasoolullah.
And the fe
to comprehend, to grasp, to know, to understand. I will use the insights of Imam
Tirmidhi as a point of departure to focus on just one letter, the
of Arafa, as it
applies to the world of Islam today.
Knowledge is an
inexhaustible ocean. There is knowledge that is hidden and knowledge that is
manifest. There is knowledge of the mind and knowledge of the heart. There is
empirical knowledge, intuitive, extensional and infusive knowledge.
No matter how you look
at it, there is a growing knowledge deficit in the Islamic world today.
Recently, a leading American magazine conducted a survey of the top 300
educational institutions of the world. Not one of these 300 was an Islamic
institution or located in Muslim lands. At a time when mankind has conquered
space and the only limits to knowledge are the speed of light and the human
capacity to absorb change, illiteracy is rampant in the Islamic world. Seventy
percent of the women in Kashmir, for instance, are illiterate. That means they
cannot even sign their name on a piece of paper and use a thumb print instead.
The education gap and
knowledge deficit is increasing not only between the west and the Islamic world
but also between the Islamic world and the emerging economies of Asia such as
China and India. Political turmoil, official neglect and private apathy have all
taken their toll. We are moving from a commodities-based world to a
knowledge-based world. If the current trends continue, the Islamic world is
destined to be relegated, along with Africa, to the backwaters of history in the
twenty first-century, an intellectual wasteland fit only to be exploited for its
oil and oil pipelines.
Islam extols the
virtues of knowledge. The first commandment from Allah was “Iqra,
be isme rabbik….Read
in the name of thy Lord”. In Surah after Surah, Ayat after Ayat, the Quran
invites humankind to witness the signs in nature as well as in their own souls,
to ponder, reflect, learn and believe. These signs are to be found in as small a
creature as the bee or as large a subject as the rotation of galaxies.
Mathematics and celestial mechanics reflect the laws of Allah. History is a
tapestry of the rise and fall of civilizations as they obeyed and disobeyed the
commandments of Allah. The Prophet said: Seek knowledge even if you have to go
There was a time in
history when Muslims led the world in learning. No subject was beyond their
mastery, and no horizon beyond their reach. They established the Baitul Hikmah
in Baghdad, founded the first universities at Kairaoun, Toledo, Cairo, Tabriz
and Neshapur, built the first observatories in Malaga and Samarqand, conducted
the first experiments in chemistry, invented algebra, established the scientific
disciplines of sociology and history, made advances in surgery and medicine,
catalogued plants and animals, solved third degree polynomials, conceptualized
an expanding universe and gave the world the concept of infinity. Confident of
their own faith and culture, they were not hesitant to learn from the East or
the West. They learned the art of paper making from China, administration and
book keeping from Persia, the numerals from India and logic from the Greeks.
Each discipline they adopted as their own, transforming it within the Islamic
crucible and bequeathed to the world the foundations of modern science.
Nor were their pursuits
limited to the fields of science, geography and history. While intellectual
giants such as Razi and Ibn Sina acted as trail blazers in medicine and
mathematics, it was in the spiritual arena that the knowledge and insights of
Muslims suffused the world of man. The Prophet himself was the personification
of spirituality. This spirituality was transmitted through the Suhaba, the
and then in a continuous and unbroken chain of transmission through the
Mashayqeen and the Ulamaye Deen. Which system of learning can simulate the
brilliance of a single halqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq, graced as it was by the
participation of luminaries like Imam Abu Haneefa? Has the world ever matched
the Baraka of Shaikh Abdul Qader Jeelani of Persia, Shaikh Shadhuli of Cairo,
Shaikh al Jazuli of North Africa, Shah Naqshband of Samarqand, Baba Fareeduddin
of Lahore or Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi? Who can match the spiritual effulgence
of Mevlana Rumi who captured in the rapturous melodies of the Mathnavi the
innermost stirrings of the human heart even against the cacophony of Mongol
devastations? Which religious tradition has built a Taj Mahal as a monument to
love and a treasure for humankind?
Meter and rhyme do not
produce a Mathnavi nor can a committee of Project Managers build the Taj Mahal.
These works reflect an outpouring of the innate spirituality of man which was
molded in the Islamic crucible.
You and I live in the
blessed land of America which God has endowed with plenty. There are
opportunities galore, individually and collectively, for us to contribute to the
acquisition, preservation, transmission and enhancement of knowledge. Let us on
this day of Idd resolve to excel in the acquisition of knowledge, the
cultivation of ilm
as in the ain
of Arafat. Let us join hands together to preserve what we have inherited from
our forefathers. There are manuscripts galore in cities as far away as Timbuktu
in Africa, Patna in India, Bokhara in Uzbekistan, which are gathering mold and
are being eaten by bookworms even as I speak. A modest gift of a computer with
large memory, a scanner and CD drives with backups would be an invaluable gift
to the madrassahs and universities in Africa, Central Asia, India and Pakistan
so that the decaying manuscripts can be scanned and the wisdom of the sages
contained therein preserved for generations to come.
If we do not preserve
our intellectual legacy, we will lose it. If we discard our own heritage, others
will inherit it. If we do not narrate our history, others will tell our story.
Let us transmit what we
know to our children. Let our youth know that Ilm is not on television or in
football games, or pool tables. Ilm is to be found with the scholars, that dying
breed of Shaikhs and independent ulema. Is it not sad that Mevlani Rumi is read
at Buddhist, Christian and Jewish weddings but Muslim children have not even
heard of him?
So, even as we
celebrate this day of Arafat, let us reflect on just one letter of that word,
as in ilm
as expounded by Imam Tirmidhi. Let us dedicate ourselves to learn, to preserve,
to transmit and enhance knowledge. Let us reach out and make a difference,
however small that may be. History is not created with a big bang. It is not
only the powerful and mighty, those who grab the headlines, who are the
architects of history. A single smile, a kind word, a chance encounter, a
helping hand can transform a heart and set in motion a chain of events which
years later manifests itself as an avalanche in human affairs. As the Quran
teaches us, Allah hears the movement of an ant on a solid rock in the dead of
night. Establish a distance learning center, educate a village if Allah has
given you the strength to do so. If not, adopt a school. If even that is too
much, at least adopt a student. Give him an opportunity to learn and save him
from the oblivion of a mushrooming knowledge gap.
Noah’s ark saved him
from the great flood. Let knowledge be our ark of survival in the turbulent
storms of the twenty first century.