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Aug 29, 2019

Knowledge in Its Right Place

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H.A. Hellyer

Royal United Services Institute

H.A. Hellyer, a noted scholar of politics, international affairs, and Islamic studies in the West and the Muslim world, is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

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Knowledge in Its Right Place

Muslims and the Challenge of Modernity

A book on astronomy and mathematics from the tenth century

Muslims and others have argued and debated the “problem of modernity” for decades, and the topic does not appear to have run out of proverbial steam. Philosophers from a variety of standpoints argue about what challenges modernity poses. They argue that there was a time when nature was viewed as having purpose, the sacred was recognized as being intimately involved in the world, and the polity of that world was arranged around organic communities. But modernity challenged acceptance of that premodern cosmological order, instead favoring secularizing forces, which led to an unbalanced type of individualism and to a nation-state structure that was at once bureaucratic and dehumanizing. There is much to discuss in terms of the particularities of this frame, which we do not propose to do here. But, indeed, for Muslims, there is something unresolved about our tradition’s engagement with the modern epoch, particularly in the Muslim religious establishment’s stultified response to the rapid changes ushered in by modernity.

Several twentieth-century European writers—René Guénon (¢Abd al-Wāĥid Yaĥyā) and Mihai Vâlsan (Muśţafā ¢Abd al-¢Azīz) among them—sought to diagnose the cosmological effects of this modern period. As Western converts, they saw great utility in the intellectual heritage of assessing the philosophical flaws of modernity. Both saw wisdom also in other faith traditions (such as Taoism), but despite certain misconceptions about their separate legacies following their deaths, both lived and died as Muslims and were called to Islam. Nevertheless, they had little success in reversing Muslim ossification, or even in slowing it down. Today, we can see perhaps three main and interrelated root factors in the Muslim community’s lack of effectiveness in negotiating change.

The first factor is that the speed and pace of change in modernity is unlike anything Muslims experienced before. We can say without hyperbole that the amount of change across five years in the twenty-first century possibly equals or even surpasses that across one hundred years before the eighteenth century. Latter modernity has ushered in categorical transformations across the entire gambit of human interactions with the world, as we have witnessed the industrialization of societies, the development of the modern financial system, the formation of the Westphalian nation-state model, the development of different philosophical ideas and frames of worldviews, and more.

A second factor relates to the loss of power by Muslims over their own territories, via invasion, collaboration, and colonialism. This is less about power as purely political and more about how the loss of political power weakens ideational power and the independence of religious academic institutions, further reducing the lack of mastery over the Islamic tradition. Noting quite how power is relevant here is direly important to distinguish because it is clear that the postcolonial era has been at least as damaging to these knowledge-producing institutions as was the colonial era. In this period, muftis arose without the same depth of knowledge in uśūl al-fiqh their predecessors had; theologians emerged without the same awareness of the breadth of ¢ilm al-kalām those who came before them had. A mastery of nonreligious knowledge, such as the natural sciences, became even rarer, though it continued nevertheless.

It has been reported that the qualifications for imam of the Grand Mosque of Istanbul in the sixteenth century included, among others, mastery of Arabic, Latin, Turkish, and Persian; familiarity with the Bible and the Torah; and competency in mathematics and physics. There may be some exaggeration here; even so, the level of wide-ranging knowledge expected of such a religious figure is staggering, especially compared with what is expected of holders of such posts throughout the Muslim world today.

A third and final factor relates to ideational challenges within Muslim communities. The rise of purist Salafism (derived from interpretations of Muĥammad b. ¢Abd al-Wahhāb’s legacy) presented a significant confrontation to mainstream Sunnism, much of which it described as shirk or bid¢ah. Later, modernist Salafism (beginning with Muĥammad ¢Abduh, and continuing through Rashīd Riđā and his intellectual progenies) gave rise to different reformist political movements. The ideational trend behind those movements was, indeed, deeply modernistic and sought to redesign existing Muslim institutions of learning, thereby affecting the Muslim religious establishment. The Muslim religious establishment was often resistant to this trend, seeing it as diverting from normative Sunnism in different ways.

Each of these phenomena—the quickening of change, the colonial-postcolonial enterprises, and the internal ideational agitations—would be enough individually to severely disrupt the development of the religious establishment and the continued advancement of the tradition. But coming together as they did, they became a significant obstacle to the traditional structures with respect to preparing and producing scholars capable of bringing the proper weight of the tradition to bear on contemporary issues. Instead, more often than we would wish, beleaguered Muslim scholars understand their tradition as they would a typewriter, when today’s challenges require it be understood as a supercomputer. There remain some who can do the latter, but, indeed, they are rare.

Historical Muslim Engagement with Change

Some scholars, such as Imam Ĥārith al-Muĥāsibī1 and Imam Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī, have recognized the integral tools within the Islamic tradition to respond to change. We might term their recognition the Muĥāsibian, or Ghazālian, impulse. We saw this impulse in theology and its related philosophical sciences within the Islamic canon (¢ilm al-kalām and falsafah). When it came to issues surrounding the sacred law (sharī¢ah), we saw the same impulse: past jurists developed a deeply sophisticated legal heritage and set of methodologies for responding to changing circumstances. We know of figures such as al-Ghazālī and al-Muĥāsibī precisely because they were trailblazers. Indeed, such figures often had rather harsh words for many in the scholarly communities of their times. They often directed their criticisms at what they perceived as weaknesses in responding to change, although they held other critiques as well.

We might note how al-Ghazālī engaged with Avicennian-Aristotelian science and compare his engagement to contemporary Muslim responses to Darwinian theories of creation. Al-Ghazālī predicted humiliating consequences for the entire community if unprepared religious scholars attempted to refute theologically suspect aspects of science, writing, “The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it improperly is greater than the harm caused by those who attack it properly.”2 In his view, a scientist would only mock half-baked responses by a theologian; at the very minimum, then, he expected the religious critic to painstakingly separate objective science and empirical fact from subjective results and interpretative inferences. Al-Ghazālī demonstrated such a model of critique by carefully analyzing and categorizing each premise of Avicennian-Aristotelian science.3

Importantly, scholars such as al-Ghazālī recognized their own limitations, a characteristic common in the past but less common today.4 For example, whereas most premodern experts in law were unwilling to judge when a legal issue overlapped with scientific principles (in recognition of their own area of expertise and their lack of training in other disciplines), some present-day scholars, such as experts in the field of prophetic traditions, the muĥaddithīn, feel empowered to go beyond their field of expertise, without having the requisite training or perspective in other fields.

A case in point from our legal history is the great al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), who deferred the question of defining the physical extent of the local sighting zone of the new crescent to astronomers. He plainly acknowledged that astronomy was not one of his areas of expertise and deferred (i.e., made taqlīd) on this particular argument to the proper specialists, even though the judgment would affect a central chapter of ¢ibādah (i.e., the bāb of fasting). On referring each problem to its rightful subject area, al-Nawawī was following the advice first dispensed by al-Ghazālī more than a century earlier.

In sharp contrast, many contemporary Muslim religious leaders active in the public sphere pontificate about modernity, postmodernity, and other ideological and ideational constructs without having gone through the requisite training. In the absence of that training, engaging different modern philosophical paradigms may take place—but often from populist, identity-driven standpoints. As a result, the intellectual universes that give rise to such issues in the first place are not particularly well examined nor especially well understood. Often this results in alignments with figures on the conservative (and anti-Muslim) right wing of Western political discourse, under the mistaken assumption such figures are allies against these paradigms. With proper training, however, such interlocutors would be proficient, educationally speaking, at advanced levels, about those constructs. Although without requisite training, critics of ideas and ideologies often engage in emotionally driven exercises that lack the rigor exemplified by the likes of al-Ghazālī or al-Muĥāsibī.

The Way Forward

Just as there are premodern problems, there are premodern solutions we are advised to learn from. For example, al-Ghazālī himself was clear that to address the problems of his own age, one had to hold to a normative orthodoxy that remained aware of the need for specialist expertise. More broadly, without a fundamental deconstruction of the issues first, no genuine reconstruction project (what S.M. Naquib al-Attas referred to as “Islamisation” earlier in the twentieth century) was possible. Needless to say, al-Attas’s concept of Islamisation differed quite tremendously from that found in popular parlance later on.

Any deconstruction, as al-Ghazālī showed, first requires deep acquaintance and knowledge of the issue at hand. To give but one example of this: discussions about “Islamic governance” and the idealistic “Islamic state” rarely deconstruct contemporary nation-state dynamics at all—let alone identify how the modern state is rooted in Westphalian ideas of governance. Rather, much if not most of the existing nation-state frames of governance are kept intact while (unsuccessfully) “Islamicized.” Such attempts at pseudo-Islamisation uphold the structure (or grammar) of modern ideas or forms but simply present them in an Islamic vocabulary.

Ironically, an academic who is not Muslim—Columbia University’s Wael Hallaq—identified this kind of failing in much of modern Muslim discourse, which he did succinctly in The Impossible State and also in Rethinking Orientalism. The reasons for this vary but are fundamentally rooted in the failure of postcolonial nation states in Muslim majority countries to reconstruct educational systems that are genuinely critical of some aspects of their own classical heritage but also of intellectual frames imported from Western paradigms. A genuine Islamisation project must deconstruct the “common wisdom” that recognizes modernity as the rightful hegemonic choice and also must critically appraise the Islamic tradition in order to establish rooted, but beautiful, cognitive frames, to borrow a reading from American scholar Umar Faruq Abd-Allah.

When considering alternative approaches, the Malaysian scholar Wan Daud refers to the aforementioned contemporary polymath scholar, al-Attas. In his estimation, al-Attas is more concerned “about challenging the Westernized version of modernity itself without any apology, than about not merely adopting Western sciences, or adapting the Islamic doctrines to the requirements of modernity.”5 We can refer to such endeavors as the continuation of the Muĥāsibian and Ghazālian approaches.

Al-Attas attempts to subject the philosophy of Western modernity to the eternal principles of what he terms as the “Islamic worldview.” Unlike many of his peers, who derided certain aspects of the modern world but not the philosophy of modernization itself, al-Attas goes further. It is important to note that in al-Attas’s scheme, the Islamic worldview is underpinned by a sense of adab. While adab refers to manners, to be sure, al-Attas’s description of adab is more elaborate, particularly when it comes to knowledge:

Adab is the discipline of body, mind and soul; the discipline that assures the recognition and acknowledgement of one’s proper place in relation to one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potentials; the recognition and acknowledgement of the reality that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically according to their various levels (marātib) and degrees (darajāt). Since adab refers to recognition and acknowledgement of the right and proper place, station, and condition in life, and to self-discipline in positive and willing participation in enacting one’s role in accordance with that recognition and acknowledgement, its actualization in one and in society as a whole reflects the condition of justice (¢adl). Justice itself is a reflection of wisdom (ĥikmah), which we have already defined as that God-given knowledge which enables the recipient to discover the right and proper place for a thing or a being to be. The condition of being in the proper place is what we have called justice; and adab is the method of knowing by which we actualize the condition of being in the proper place. So adab, in the sense I am defining here, is also a reflection of wisdom; and with respect to society adab is the just order within it. Adab, concisely defined, is the spectacle (mashhad) of justice as it is reflected by wisdom.6

The centrality of the notion of the “right place,” properly defined, and how it then relates to knowledge, is profoundly relevant. For, indeed, how can the correct place of different types of knowledge contained in the Islamic tradition be justly and appropriately identified if one has not explored and learned the tradition sufficiently—and also if one has failed to deconstruct our existing cognitive frames? To use the example of governance: Have we put the Islamic tradition in its right place if we simply apply pre–nation-state rulings relating to Muslim governance? An “adab-centered” approach would surely deconstruct and then reconstruct according to the principles located in the tradition.

Al-Attas applies his framework of an Islamic worldview to how he forms the basis of an Islamic philosophy of science.7 Notably, al-Attas does not take as his starting point existing frameworks within other worldviews. Rather, he begins with premodern ontologies rooted in the works of normative Muslim figures, such as al-Ghazālī and Ibn ¢Arabī. His approach thus integrates traditional Islamic notions of knowledge classification as well as a philosophical tradition that interrogates the nature of absolute reality, considers intuitive direct visions of that reality, and defines the difference between reality and the contingent world. Al-Attas resists the temptation to simply engage with modern conceptions of the “philosophy of science”—rather, he identifies key questions that must be answered first in terms of his Islamic worldview framework, answers them in reference to classical philosophical authorities in the Muslim canon, and then discusses how these answers might be applied.

Moreover, beyond the issue of conceptualizing an Islamic philosophy of science, al-Attas draws on esoteric works such as the Ma¢ārij al-quds by al-Ghazālī and Ibn ¢Arabī’s Fuśūś al-ĥikam to develop a cogent framework for an Islamic psychology and epistemology in his The Nature of Man and the Psychology of the Human Soul. He carries out a similar task in The Intuition of Existence, where he contrasts an intellectual and deeply metaphysical basis of the Islamic worldview with that of most twentieth-century philosophy—again, using classical exponents of Muslim thought, such as al-Junayd (d. 297/910), Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037), al-Jīlī (d. 832/1428), Ibn ¢Arabī (d. 638/1240), and many others. In his On Quiddity and Essence, al-Attas uses the writings of classical metaphysicians, such as al-Taftāzānī (d. 793/1390), to express, in a contemporary idiom relating to contemporary notions of metaphysics, an Islamic worldview.

Practical Consequences

Any efforts addressing these challenges are structurally difficult if not impossible to pursue in environments that stifle inquiry and academic independence. The denial of the existence of such surroundings does nothing to further the cause of engaging more fruitfully with the trials of modernity. Indeed, it will only contribute to an environment of increased stifling of further creativity for Muslims to engage in these issues and risk the distancing of future generations from the tradition. In contrast, addressing power structures with foresight and wisdom, which I have elsewhere described as the Ĥasanī and Ĥusaynī models, will encourage Muslim engagement with the wider tradition.8

For the age-old tools of the turāth to be put to appropriate use, the corruption of Islamic knowledge by “not putting things in their right category” cannot continue. The question of engagement with change is neither a luxury nor an optional extra—rather, it is a necessity for all institutions of Islamic learning to occupy themselves with. The question cannot be treated as one of why or if, but rather of how. Al-Attas has been mentioned as an example of a modern day al-Ghazālī or al-Muĥāsibī; future generations require future pioneers as well and must build upon all resources. To encourage the emergence of such new pioneers, we must reinvigorate our discussions about modernity within the context of an Islamic philosophical worldview.

With this approach, we can not only withstand the confrontations with aspects of modernity but also take advantage of the new globalized reality that Muslims find around them. If previously the ¢ālim was frequently the contemporary philosopher as well, today the ¢ālim is rarely so. But in the present world, the ¢ālim can easily be in touch with philosophers, and vice versa, if—and this is the key matter—the will for such contact is there. Indeed, the task at hand is not an optional one for the community writ large but is more appropriately described as a communal obligation (farđ al-kifāyah).