By Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Ilm (knowledge) is a frequently recurring word in the Quran, which shows its significance in the Islamic scheme of things. Its variants are also abundantly found in the holy Book. That knowledge is an absolute value in Islam is clear from the very first Quranic revelation being about it.
The Prophet of Islam (PBUH), being unlettered, told Archangel Gabriel, when asked to read, that he was unlettered and thus could not read. Following a tight embrace by Gabriel (so tight that the Prophet [PBUH] thought his ribs would be crushed), the Prophet (PBUH) began to recite the revelation after the Archangel.
Knowledge is so valuable in Islam that the Prophet (PBUH) ordered the Ummah: “Knowledge is the lost treasure of Muslims. Get it wherever you find it.” Going a step beyond it, the Prophet (PBUH) declared: “Acquisition of knowledge is mandatory on every Muslim and Muslimah,” that is, every Muslim man and woman.
Such clear-cut guidance on the acquisition of knowledge from Allah and his prophet (PBUH) was bound to have a spectacular effect on the lives of the community of believers. Desert Arabs, most of whom were not even literate, became great scholars within a few generations. By the time the Abbasid rule began in the middle of the 8th century CE, Arabs were widely known for their learning, finding a place of honour among scholarly nations like the Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Egyptians. Soon they surpassed all of them and became the best repositories of Greek, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and other knowledge. Along with that they produced an impressive body of knowledge of their own.
An entire paper of the size of the one I am reading will not be sufficient for writing one percent of the names of great Arab and Muslims scientists, philosophers, doctors, jurists and social scientists of early centuries. This paper is grossly insufficient to describe their knowledge systems, branches of knowledge, methodologies and epistemologies.
In passing, I must mention that their entire impetus for the acquisition and spread of knowledge came from the Quranic revelation and the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH). This point has to be kept in mind throughout this discourse.
After such a grand start where did we begin to fall behind? At the beginning of the third millennium CE (in the year 2000 CE, to be precise) the US News & World Report published a remarkable article showing the decline of Muslims over the last few centuries.
The article began in 1000 CE, and showed that virtually every captain of ships criss-crossing the world’s waterways, every great military leader, doctor, scientist, philosopher and man of letters was a Muslim. The Muslim dominance of the world stage was total, unquestioned.
However, over the last 1000 years, in 2000 CE, the Muslims had vanished from the scene. Barely a Muslim was present among the best generals, doctors, scientists, philosophers and men (and women) of learning. Where did they go? What happened to the great Muslim mind? What went wrong? Where did they go after ushering in the European Renaissance? These are vital questions in the history of not only Muslim knowledge, but human knowledge as well.
There are voluminous researches on this phenomenal decline. The final point of departure, as seen by Prof. Bernard Lewis, is the last decade of the 16th century. That is the point when Europe is seen racing past the Muslim world, beginning to create a dominant position for itself. There are fascinating details of this, but in a short paper it is not advisable to go into detail even if they are vital to our understanding of the Muslim decline.
Suffice it to say that we had, at that point, fallen behind Europeans in pursuit of knowledge. By then they had developed a better understanding of social and natural sciences, organised their society and state more fruitfully, developed better ways of sea-faring and ship building and built more effective and powerful weapons than Muslims did. The result is there for all of us to see. It has been there for the last 400 years and the power and influence gap between the two blocs–Muslim world and the West — is constantly growing. In a single sentence, we fell because we forgot the first lesson of the Quran, Iqra. This amnesia also signifies our distance from our Islamic roots, its faith and practice.
Over the centuries our great men of learning and piety have diagnosed the malaise. Every calamity befell us because we forgot the pursuit of knowledge. And to quote one of the Islamic philosophers of our time, Dr Abdul Hamid A. Abusulayman, the Muslim mind has not only become bereft of knowledge, but is afflicted with a far more malignant condition: false consciousness.
This eminent educationist and social reformer has a well-argued, properly structured theory on it, which he calls “a crisis in the Muslim mind,” which sounds like a pretty grim diagnosis. But the malaise, with its lethal seriousness, does deserve the use of such strong expression.
Dr Abusulayman says either the Muslims have not worked hard enough on the acquisition of knowledge, or acquired it in an unthinking, slavish manner, taking every Western bit of knowledge uncritically and slavishly.
The Muslim intellectual elite that has been leading the movement for Islamisation of knowledge has been of the firm conviction that the Muslim generations brought up solely on Western knowledge systems cannot be ideals of the Muslim society. A body of knowledge that is only empirical and has no relationship with the revealed knowledge (wahy) is deficient and shorn of real advantage. Islam’s standard of knowledge is ilme nafey (useful knowledge). Knowledge that does not take into account revealed knowledge is not the ideal.
Thankfully, the Muslim world has never been devoid of the wealth of knowledge, not even in times when the entire Muslim world (barring today’s Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey) was under Western military boots. The above four countries were also only nominally free and were being remotely controlled by Western powers. At that time (in the 19th century) also the world of Islam still had its thriving centres of knowledge and culture all over, from India, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Egypt to Hejaz and Yethrib (in today’s Saudi Arabia).
Much before the European Renaissance, Muslim knowledge was acclaimed. Christian priests who studied at the Muslim universities of Cordoba and Toledo in Andalusia (Arab Spain) went home after completing their education and built Cambridge and Oxford universities in England about eight centuries ago. The university of al-Azhar has been there for the last over 1,000 years. Seats of learning in Khartoum and other places in Africa have been serving knowledge for centuries.
For decades a futile debate has plagued the lives of Muslims worldwide: which system of knowledge is meant to be ilm in Islam? Most traditional people till the 19th century had been of the opinion that in Islam ilm meant deeni ilm and any education outside deeni madaris was invalid and even un-Islamic.
I am happy to say that a lot of original thinking has been done in this field in my part of the world, the Indian subcontinent, over the last nearly 330 years. Ulama and scholars in this part of the world came to the clear conclusion that knowledge is indivisible, integral and governed by the principle of wahdat. Whether it is the knowledge of deen or some useful knowledge of worldly phenomena, it is part of the wahdat of ilm and thus it is the ilm that Islam mandates.
One way or the other the idea of wahdat of ilm has worked behind the Alia University, Kolkata, established in 1780 as Alia Madrasah and turned into Alia University in 2008; Zakir Husain Delhi College, founded as Delhi College in 1692 and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), established in 1875 as MAO College and turned into a university in 1920. There are several other universities in India. All these institutions, along with other Muslim universities as well as universities established by Muslims, have tried to teach modern subjects keeping in mind the religio-cultural needs of Muslims.
What they teach cannot by any means be called “Islamisation of knowledge”, but to a certain degree they try to be sensitive to the religio-cultural aspirations of Muslims. The less ambitious (but more practical) approach, “knowledge in Islamic perspective” is, in the long term, easier to attain in such institutions.
Both the internationally recognised Darul Uloom Deoband (a primarily deeni university teaching the Quran, its exegesis, Hadith, Arabic language Hanafi fiqh, and other secondary subjects) and Aligarh Muslim University, currently the third best government funded university out of hundreds were created in the wake of the fall of Muslim power in India and the beginning of complete sway of the British in 1857.
The founders of both the universities, founded within two decades of the end of Muslim rule in India – Maulana Qasim Nanautawi (Darul Uloom) and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (AMU) – were contemporaries and disciples of the same set of teachers in Delhi. However, the diagnosis of Indian Muslims’ malaise that each made was diametrically different from each other. Maulana Nanautawi thought that the Muslims had fallen because they had left the study and practice of Islam while Sir Syed attributed the decline of Muslims to the Muslim lack of knowledge of modern sciences, technologies and the social sciences.
Thus Maulana Nanautawi’s Darul Uloom was particularly a deeni institution. However, what is of utmost importance to people like us in the second decade of the 21st century is the farsightedness of these two great visionaries of the 19th century. If you look at the curriculum of the first few years of Darul Uloom you will be amazed at the depth and breadth of the subjects being taught. As the founder of this institution, Maulana Nanautawi was a warrior who had fought the British with arms and had gone back to live a civilian life after the fall of the last Mughal king, the British were wary of him and his group.
Once the Darul Uloom started working properly the British government sent the director of education of Delhi, an Englishman, to Deoband to watch as unobtrusively as possible what the mullahs were teaching. After coming to Delhi, he reported that what the simple, poor teachers at the Darul Uloom were teaching could be favourably compared to everything that was being taught in the best of European universities.
Then he went on to describe a class being conducted under a tree. A simple-looking maulvi in white kurta-pyjama and cap was teaching geometry. Looking at the teacher, he wrote in the report, the Englishman thought the soul of Euclides (the father of geometry, a Greek) had entered the body of the maulvi teaching the students. Perhaps no greater tribute to the teaching quality at Deoband is possible than the honest report of the Englishman.
In the first annual report of Darul Uloom in 1867 Maulana Nanautawi wrote that people may ask why along with deeni subjects the Darul Uloom was teaching subjects taught in European universities. He explained by teaching those subjects he was opening the eyes of students and building their reason. “With these subjects, we are teaching not Islam, but aql”, he wrote.
The choice of subjects at Darul Uloom in those years should help today’s Muslim intellectual elite striving to create knowledge in Islamic perspective. Islam had never left the subcontinent’s Muslims, nor had they given up pursuit of knowledge at any moment. Sadly over the decades the Darul Uloom shed all the modern subjects one by one, and it is purely deeni university now. Its twin, the Mazahirul Uloom in Saharanpur (Deoband also falls in the same district of Uttar Pradesh, a couple of hours drive from Delhi), established within the decade by the same set of ulama who built Darul Uloom, taught the same subjects with similar excellence. However, this institution, too, dropped the subjects over the decades, shunning the vision of the founders.
Today, the Muslim inability to put the Islamic text into contemporary context emanates from this. The movement for the Islamisation of Knowledge (or, more precisely, of putting knowledge in Islamic perspective) seeks to do that exactly.
Interestingly, the AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Jamia Hamdard and Osmania University (built by the nawab of Hyderabad) all seek to somehow contextualise modern knowledge in the Islamic perspective by running departments of theology and Islamic Studies. However, that is not enough.
There is scope for more Muslim universities in India and IOS has done basic work on establishing one, including acquisition of land, preparation of project, identification of academic leaders and political patrons.
Dr Abusulayman writes in Occasional Papers 12 of the International Institute of Islamic Thought:
Thus, an examination of the prevailing conditions of education and learning in the Muslim world reveals a high concentration of what is termed as “urban and technological,” going too far in imitating all the latest fads of developed countries. The interest of these reform efforts is the importation of new machines, equipment, and systems.
The cure for the Muslims malaise is integration of knowledge as evident at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) where students at graduate level opt for two majors, one a social science subject and the other a subject from the Islamic Studies. To get such an education students have got to be good at both English and Arabic. Dr. Abu Sulayman writes further:
For example, students who want to study any of the disciplines of Islamic Law at MA or Ph.D. level have the chance to do so after completing the requirements of that discipline. These include mastering Arabic and completing the required number of basic courses in Islamic Studies. On the other hand, if the applicants are graduates of a department of Islamic Studies, they have to meet the basic requirements of a Social Studies subject and English, in addition to Arabic, which they are supposed to have already mastered.
This is a model of integration of knowledge, also known as putting knowledge in Islamic perspective. The general understanding so far is that those early steps in this direction include, basically, the integration of social sciences with Islamic subjects, not natural sciences.
India and beyond
In India, considerable work has been done in this area. Still this is a work in progress. A seminar and interaction spread over several days was organised in Delhi in the recent past that brought together ulama from the best Islamic seminaries and academics from three Muslim universities (AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamia Hamdard).
The institution I head is the founder of Indian Association of Social Scientists, which has 400 members. Most of the work produced by these academics qualifies for integration of knowledge at a higher level. My institution also brings ulama and Muslim social scientists often on a single platform to generate knowledge and seek Islamic solutions to real-life economic, and social issues.
Over the last 30 years, my institution, the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS) has produced hundreds of books and as many seminars, conferences and symposia, all of them at the interface of modern and Islamic knowledge. We are also facilitating transition of deeni madaris graduates into proper modern university graduates. Soon we are to hold a programme of interaction and mutual enrichment between university law graduates and experts of Shariah from deeni madaris. Muslim universities in India like AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamia Hamdard have provisions for allowing students from deeni madaris into mainstream humanities at the university. AMU has a bridge course for this. IOS has been interacting with several universities and institutions of higher learning all over India for the same purpose.
IOS is launching a project of publishing higher study textbooks of social sciences in Islamic perspective. Two on sociology are already printed: Introduction to Sociology: An Islamic Perspective and Sociology in Islamic Perspective: Selected Readings by Prof. A. R. Momin.
With that, when we look at the Muslim education scenario we find that we are still to catch up with the latest trends in world’s best universities. In terms of methodology, orientation and style of functioning we lag behind. Because of these factors our graduates’ (outside medicine, engineering and MBA) employability is much lower than some others. World’s best universities, including a couple of Indian ones, invariably inculcate in their students of liberal streams the capability to think independently. Our institutions have still to catch up on this.
Globally, Muslim societies as a whole are not knowledge societies, nor are our economies knowledge economies, driven by knowledge, not natural resources. Reflecting this, a World Bank Annual Report towards the end of the 20th century described the economic conditions of major Mid-East countries as “prosperity without development.” Greater emphasis on liberal, scientific and technological education of the Muslim world is a priority.
New literature has to be produced at a much larger scale all over the Muslim world and classical works have to be translated into different languages used by Muslims. We already have an impressive programme of translation of IIIT books, but this has to be extended to include books from other sources also.
Training and orientation of a large number of scholars in Islamic perspective is required in different regions of the world, which would require funding support. Also, an experience of the Indian educational system has to be kept in mind: here there are quite a few good institutions of higher learning, but there are not enough secondary and high schools of high quality. Minus these feeder institutions, quality of education will suffer. Muslims also must pay attention to it.
Writer is Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi
• This article was presented in a Research Symposium on Thought and Knowledge organised by the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Islamic University of Maldives during August 18-21 in Maldives.