Calling for a Paradigm Shift
By Rashid Shaz
The misconception about the very nature of knowledge or its classification into
Islamic and un-Islamic has created split personalities among Muslims.
At the outskirts of Riyadh, en route to the airport, there lies a huge complex
of fortress-like structures. This is the famous Imam University known for higher
education in Islamics. The Imam University is not the only seat of learning
specialising in Islamic education, or the Uloom Sharei as they call it. There is
an equally famous university in Madinah as also the famed Al-Azher Shareef in
Cairo and a host of such institutions throughout the Muslim world devoted to
Islamic learning. The other end of the Saudi capital houses yet another
university, the King Saud, which specialises in modern secular education alone.
Situated on the two sides of the same city though, the two universities help
shape entirely different worldviews. This is no exaggeration to say that people
on the two campuses live in entirely different worlds. At the Jamia Imam, the
sum total of knowledge is Ilm Sharei, the religious sciences. Here the secular
knowledge holds no legitimacy whatsoever. On the other hand, the scholars at the
King Saud believe that they have nothing to do with the religious sciences. This
misconception about the very nature of knowledge or its classification into
Islamic and un-Islamic has created split personalities among Muslims. Those
belonging to the secular stream of education have this awful feeling that their
efforts might not be beneficial to them in the hereafter. While on the other
hand, scholars in the religious seminaries live under the illusion that they,
being religious scholars, are heirs to the Prophet (Pbuh) and that they alone
are in the possession of true knowledge.
The idea of a full-fledged university for imparting ‘Islamic’ education though
now quite an established tradition, does not conform to the holistic concept of
knowledge in Islam. Even before the colonial period, our traditional Ulema did
not believe in such a narrow definition of Ilm Sharei. As long as Muslim empires
survived in any form, our religious seminaries made it a point to include most
contemporary subjects in their syllabus so as to produce competent men for the
system. In the famous dars nizami (the Nizamia syllabus of the sub-continent
that traces its origin in the 18th century) the inclusion of existing books on
Logic, Mathematics, Physics etc is indicative of the fact that the very syllabus
that appears to be so irrelevant today wore a modern outlook in its own time.
But once the Ulema came to believe that after the fall of the Muslim empires the
only role left for them was to preserve Islamic heritage and pass on Islamic
understanding to the subsequent generations, a psychology of resistance gripped
them. This did not happen in one day. The genesis of this misconception about
the nature of knowledge can be traced back to the second century Hijra when the
ever-widening scope of the newly developed uloom naqaliyya – the sciences of
collection and critical appraisal of traditions had attained undue prominence.
The proponents of Uloom Sharei argue that the Muslim society after all needs
Moazzins and Imams, scribes and preachers and those experts in Islamic fiqh who
can teach young boys and girls Islamic etiquette and methods to attain hygienic
purity. But to achieve this target do we really need full length courses
spanning from 10 to 15 years?
What is knowledge? What is the Qur’anic definition of a true scholar (al-rasikhoon
fil Ilm)? Such questions need to be addressed afresh. The one who knows and the
one who does not are by no standard on the same footing (Quran:39:9).
In the Quran, the Prophet is the ultimate teacher who recites to the people the
verses of divine origin to purify them and to educate them in the Book and
wisdom (Qur’an, 2: 129 and 151). The very mention of hikmah or wisdom as a
natural corollary to the Book of God is indicative of the fact that a rational
outlook is the key to proper understanding of the Book. What is hikmah (wisdom)
and why it is so that the Qur’an mentions it alongside the Book and in the same
breath? Some of the traditional commentators of the Qur’an have mistaken it as
yet another word for Sunnah. However, a close reading of all such verses where
the word hikmah occurs tells us an altogether different story. Unlike Sunnah,
hikmah is not a phenomenon that achieved its perfection and came to an end with
the death of the Prophet. Rather, it is an ongoing process of mental alertness.
There are numerous verses in the Qur’an that testify to this meaning. For
example, relating to the story of David we are told that he was endowed with
political power and wisdom (Qur’an, 2:251). And Allah grants hikmah to whom He
pleases (Qur’an, 2:269). That hikmah is not be confused with the Prophet’s
sunnah can also be deduced from the Qur’anic assertion that earlier nations, the
nation of Abraham for instance, were also recipients of hikmah (Qur’an, 4:54).
In yet another context, Muslims are enjoined to employ hikmah and politeness in
inviting people to God.
It was this balanced rational outlook that once placed the Ummah on the high
pedestal of world leadership. Muslims became instrumental in creating a whole
new world founded on rational thinking. In the hey days of Islam, it never
occurred to us that as Muslims we were to limit ourselves to the so called uloom
sharei alone. On the contrary, the first generation Muslims were not even aware
of the term ‘Ilm Sharei’, which has gained common currency among scholars of our
time. In early Islam it was unthinkable that any group of people would claim to
be an authority in religious sciences. The ulema, as we know them today with a
distinct identity and a dress-code were not known to us at least till the end of
the first century Hijra. Qazi Abu Yusuf is said to be the first aalim to help
invent a special dress for himself and for the other ulema in the Abbasid
courts. Gradually, this special dress with some modifications became the
hallmark of our ulema. The same age also witnessed the emergence of great fuqaha
and muhaddithoon. And it was during this period that the muhaddithoon attained
social and intellectual prominence. As collectors of Prophetic traditions, a
fast vanishing discipline, they even commanded more respect than the scholars of
the Qur’an. Later, this misconception about the nature of scholarship paved way
for the division of Ilm (knowledge) into uloom naqaliyyah (transmitted
knowledge) and uloom aqaliyyiah (rational knowledge), the former being the Ilm
sharei having its origin in the divine words and where reason had no role to
The delusion that Muslims have been living under for quite a long time about the
nature of knowledge and that has created havoc in the Muslim mind was until very
recently a popular notion among the Jews.
Muslim intellectuals in the past were partially aware of the intellectual crises
fomented by our delusion about and division of knowledge. Abu Hamid Ghazali
encouraged Muslims to learn Engineering and Medicine so as not to be dependent
on non-Muslims. But the idea that true knowledge is holistic, a composite whole
of scientific and revelatory knowledge, is yet to gain ground among Muslims. It
calls for no half-hearted efforts or patch-up work, rather it demands nothing
less than a paradigm shift.