The concept of knowledge in Islam (3)

The concept of knowledge in Islam (3)

The all-round development of various branches of knowledge pertaining to physical and social phenomena, as well as the process of logical argumentation for justification of Islamic doctrine and deduction of Islamic laws (ahkam) with reference to Qur’anic injunctions and the Prophetic tradition, is indebted to Islam’s notion of ‘ilm. Scientific knowledge, comprising natural and physical sciences, was sought and developed by Muslim scientists and mathematicians vigorously from the beginning of the last decades of the first century of Hijrah. The scientific endeavour found its flowering period with the establishment of the Bayt al-Hikmah in the reign of al-Ma’mun.

Undoubtedly the major contributions in philosophy and sciences were made by Iranians, but the myth created by the orientalists that the fundamental sources of Islam, viz. the Qur’an and Sunnah, did not contain scientific and philosophical ideas is totally false. As said earlier, not only the Qur’an and hadith encouraged Muslims or rather made it obligatory for them to pursue truth freely from all possible sources, but also contained certain guiding principles that could provide a secure foundation for the development of religious and secular sciences. Some Prophetic traditions even give priority to learning over performing supererogatory rites of worship.

There are several traditions that indicate that a scholar’s sleep is more valuable than an ignorant believer’s journey for pilgrimage (hajj) and participation in holy war, and that the drops of a scholar’s ink are more sacred than the blood of a martyr. Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali (‘a) said that the reward for piety in the other world would be bestowed upon a believer in proportion to the degree of his intellectual development and his knowledge.

Islam never maintained that only theology was useful and the empirical sciences useless or harmful. This concept was made common by semi-literate clerics or by the time servers among them who wanted to keep common Muslims in the darkness of ignorance and blind faith so that they would not be able to oppose unjust rulers and resist clerics attached to the courts of tyrants. This attitude resulted in the condemnation of not only empirical science but also ‘ilm al-kalam and metaphysics, which resulted in the decline of Muslims in politics and economy.

Even today large segments of Muslim society, both the common man and many clerics suffer from this malady. This unhealthy and anti-knowledge attitude gave birth to some movements which considered elementary books of theology as sufficient for a Muslim, and discouraged the assimilation or dissemination of empirical knowledge as leading to the weakening of faith.

Apart from Shaykh al-Mufid and other Shi’i scholars, a number of classical Sunni fuqaha and ‘ulama,’ even those considered to be conservative, like Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim alJawziyyah, regarded emulation or imitation (taqlid) as religiously unauthorized and harmful. Jalal al-Din alSuyuti held that taqlid was forbidden by both the salaf and the khalaf (early and later generations of scholars).

He cited al-Shafi’i’s opposition to taqlid. Ibn Hazm followed the same line. These and many other fuqaha’ and theologians emphasized the exercise of ‘aql and ijtihad as obligatory for the believers. Imam ‘Ali (‘a) gave a place of pride to reason even in the matters of religion. Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri believed that there was no imam except reason. Thus it is obvious that the Shi’ah and Sunnis, not withstanding their differences on several issues, agreed on the role of reason and the necessity of ijtihad.

It is unfortunate that some recent movements of Islamic resurgence in the Sunni world, e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan etc., are opposed to reason and preach emulation, distorting the role of ijtihad and disregarding even major Salafi theologians. This attitude, they do not realize, is self-contradictory and self defeating for their own cause. It is a good sign that apart from the rejection of ‘aql in recent times by some Sunni quarters, attempts have been made and are still being made to revive the practice of ijtihad and combining social, scientific and secular knowledge with the teaching of theology, fiqh, usul al-fiqh, hadith, ‘ilm al-rijal, kalam and tafsir, whose acquisition is essential for ijtihad in the matters pertaining to the faith and its practice.

Another myth propagated by the orientalists, that the Arab mind was not akin to philosophizing and that it was the Aryan mind, i.e. of the Iranians, which introduced philosophy in the Muslim world, is equally unfounded and a conspiracy against the history of Muslim philosophy and its significant contribution to the development of sciences which not only benefited Muslim world but also contributed to the enrichment of human learning, culture and civilization. Ironically, despite the claim that the Aryan mind introduced philosophical and scientific thinking and research, Muslim philosophy is called ‘Arab philosophy’ by the orientalists, implying a contradiction inherent in their prejudice against the Semites. In Islam-of course, after the Qur’an and the Prophet’s hadith-‘Ali’s sermons and letters, later collected under the title of Nahj al-halaghah, contained the seeds of philosophical and scientific inquiry, and he was an Arab. Similarly, the Mu’tazilah, known as the first rationalists among Muslims, consisted of Arabs. Even the officially recognized first Muslim philosopher, al-Kindi, was an Arab.

After the decline of philosophical and scientific inquiry in the Muslim east, philosophy and sciences flourished in the Muslim west due to endeavours of the thinkers of Arab origin like Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Bajah, and Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology and philosophy of history. Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history and society is the flowering of early work by Muslim thinkers in the spheres of ethics and political science such as those of Miskawayh, al-Dawwani, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. The credit for giving serious attention to sociopolitical philosophy goes to al-Farabi, who wrote books on these issues under the titles of Madinat al-fadilah, Ara’ ahl al-madinat al-fadilah, al-Millah al-fadilah, Fusul al-madang, Sirah Fadilah, K. al-Siyasah al-madaniyyah, etc.

Muslims never ignored socio-political economic and other problems pertaining to the physical as well as social reality. They contributed richly to human civilization and thought by their bold and free inquiry in various areas of knowledge even at the risk of being condemned as heretics or rather unbelievers. True and firm believers in Islamic creed, like al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Bajah, al-Haytham, Ibn ‘Arabi and Mulla Sadra, and in recent times Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Iqbal and al-Mawdudi were not spared fatwas of kufr by the partisans of blind imitation who were hostile to the principle of ijtihad, research and critical thought.

Along with the Muslim astronomers, mathematicians, natural scientists and physicians like Ibn Sina, Zakariyya alRazi, and others who were instrumental in the development of human knowledge and civilization, it would be unjust not to mention the significant contribution of Ikhwan alSafa a group of Shi’i-Ismaili scholars and thinkers who wrote original treatises on various philosophical and scientific subjects, an effort which signifies the first attempt to compile an encyclopedia in the civilized world.

In brief, it may be justifiably claimed that the Islamic theory of knowledge was responsible for blossoming of a culture of free inquiry and rational scientific thinking that also encompassed the spheres of both theory and practice.

Dr. Sayyid Wahid Akhtar