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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 stands for fahima, 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 ein 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 to China.
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 Tabeyeen, the Tabe-Tabeeyen, 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, the ein, 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.


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