By Spahic Omer
Islam as a total system of thought and way of life consists of iman (faith or belief), Islam (submission) and Ihsan (comprehensive excellence). This triad is indivisible. Lacking any of the three components seriously undermines one’s association with the religion of Islam.
The soul of the edifice of Islam is the appropriate knowledge. The word “appropriate” is emphasized because, especially nowadays, many things that unfold in the name of knowledge are mere delusions and falsehoods.
Knowledge has been bartered for ignorance, certainty for doubt, and truth for deceit.
If beauty is the splendour of the truth – as said by Plato – then knowledge is its epitome and garland. It is yet its criterion. But authentic knowledge can only be the one that brings a person closer to his Creator and to himself. It is the beacon that illuminates the path towards self-fulfilment. Attaining mankind’s honourable mission on earth is on the line; only the proper knowledge can do the trick. In short, knowledge is sacred and is aimed to make people better men and women and to make this earth a better place. It follows that desacralizing and relativizing knowledge is a crime both against heaven (God) and reason (the humanness of man).
Knowledge should precede each one of Iman, Islam and Ihsan. Under favourable circumstances, the three are expected to grow together towards spiritual perfection, taking inspiration from each other’s distinctiveness and drawing on each other’s conceptual and operational strengths.
No Islam without knowledge
There is no Islam without knowledge, just as there cannot exist true and virtuous knowledge without Islam. Muslims’ belief system is not predicated on inconclusive and unproved premises; nor are their submission of wills, thoughts and lives to their only Creator and Lord on account of some forms of ritualism, irrational ancestral traditions, or simply due to their fear of the unknown (xenophobia); nor are Muslims’ ethical standards the result of some narrow-minded and prejudiced socio-cultural norms (ethical relativism) that are on a collision course with common sense.
Instead, true Muslims believe and have faith (iman) because they know. They are fully aware, know of, and are particular about Almighty Allah and all the other components of His unseen creation segments. They are in that state owing to the integration of the revealed knowledge – which is in the form of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah – and the conventional knowledge. The two poles of the knowledge realm are unified so that the former presides over and leads the latter.
The revealed knowledge signifies the beginning (motivation and guidance) and end (validation) of all the other epistemological pursuits. There is so much in between for the two types of knowledge to converge upon and cooperate for the common good. In passing, it is expected that the paths of the revealed and conventional forms of knowledge diverge in several instances, however, such can be the case only at the operational, as opposed to the philosophical, plane. They both share the same worldview (Weltanschauung) and the corporate transcendent identity. They are like two branches originating from the same roots and trunk.
The Qur’an thus instructs, for example:
There are several verses in the Qur’an where knowledge comes before deeds, wherefrom the status and role of knowledge in Islam become apparent. In those verses, knowledge is often interpreted as a means of enhancement and firmness insofar as the quality of performances is concerned. Sometimes knowledge becomes a requisite and at other times an aggrandizer.
Moreover, Muslims submit themselves to Allah because, given that Almighty Allah is the ultimate truth and reality, they, like the rest of the physical and metaphysical existential ecosystem, ought to be pragmatic and build relationships contingent on integrity, good sense and reciprocity. Muslims worship Allah because He is faithful and real, and as part of their Creator-vs-creation and Master-vs-servants relationships with Him, they owe it to Him. That is also the way Muslims communicate with Allah and can sustain themselves and their drive towards self-realization in this world and towards Paradise in the Hereafter.
Realism, coupled with all-around awareness, comprehension and appreciation, is the key. Needless to say that Islam abhors as much outright non-belief as ignorance, doubt, forgery and apathy. The two feed on each other’s wretchedness, seeing it as fodder for further degeneration. Illusions and elements of escapism and fantasizing are not welcome either. Man must be real and must be himself at all times.
That was the reason why the first revealed words of wisdom and guidance to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) were the words to read (recite and proclaim) in the name of his Lord who has created all that exists (al-‘Alaq, 1). As brief as they are, these few words set the stage for the entire existence and its purpose. First, Allah is the ultimate Creator, Sustainer, Truth and Reality. Second, existence is the evidence of the Creator’s presence, and a theatre of His will and of man’s – as well as other beings’ – purpose, together with function. And third, by virtue of addressing the final prophet to mankind – and by extension mankind itself – the intrinsic significance of human existence has been implied, and doing so by way of the imperative “read!” indicates the quintessence of the entire ontological compendium. That said the remainder of the ‘Alaq chapter stands for an elaborate commentary of its first verse.
Following the highest heavenly standards of behaviour
Finally, Muslims are bidden to subscribe to the highest heavenly standards of behaviour because they know who is who in the existential hierarchy. They know the life benchmarks and the values of its modules. Hence, they accord everybody and everything their dues in a subtle interplay of relations and dealings. Admittedly, things sometimes may prove beyond the reach of human intelligence, however, governed by the revelation authority, true Muslims can hardly lose their way and develop discordant communication and behavioural patterns while interacting with others and with the rest of the members of the web of creation.
As a result, Islamic meta-ethics, prescriptive and applied ethics became the hallmark of the Islamic message, perennially modelling individuals and societies with a civilizational predisposition like no other. Islamic civilization was always ethics-centric. Therefore, if it is said that knowledge without deeds is like a tree without fruit, it likewise can be said that knowledge without morals is like a weed that is not only barren but also highly unwanted, incongruous and even harmful to its surroundings.
For this reason, are, the notions of ignorance, the lack of understanding and intellectual blindness, on the one hand, and the notions of non-belief, paganism and wickedness, on the other, often bracketed together in the Qur’anic discourses. It is as though they are equal. Irrespective of which one is more qualified to be the cause and which one the effect in their dynamic mutual relationships of theirs, they all, in equal measure, debilitate and ravage, exactly as their antitheses with regard to the worship of Almighty Allah liberate and empower.
An ignorant, disoriented and confused person in connection with the fundamental dimensions of life and self is not in a position to possess the wherewithal to be strong, successful and content in the truest senses of the words. He cannot help himself, how then can he help others? The majority of the “greatest” and most “creative” minds in the history of man were bohemians, eccentrics and loners, who often lived wretched and morally decadent lifestyles and even died by their own hands. One wonders what qualified such persons for all those ostensibly honourable titles when their overall legacies are attestations to something else. To put the thing into perspective, one can compare such legacies with the legacies of the companions of the Prophet and the legacies of all those who followed in their footsteps throughout history and will see the difference.
Rationalizing the truth and falsehood
In order to establish a sense of balance, if the truth must be rationalized and based on the foundation of knowledge, similarly the proponents of falsehood will be invited to try to do the same with regard to their alien paradigms. This will happen on the Day of Judgement. People will be unable to do so for the obvious reason that falsehood and knowledge-cum-reasonableness are incompatible. People then will be admonished as to how they could not perceive that veracity while in this world, what made them trade the obvious truth of Islam for the equally obvious falseness of something else, and what made them overlook the light of true knowledge in favour of the opacity and unintelligibility of something else.
To this end are Allah’s words to such people on the Day of Judgement:
In other words, people will be reproached, first, for denying Allah’s signs (guidance) not on the strength of knowledge, but on the strength of obstinacy, mere denial and ignorance; second, people will be brought to task over pursuing inadequate knowledge, which did not produce sought-after results, and instead of drawing people closer to the Creator it drew them away from Him; and third, people will be rebuked for mistreating and abusing – hence incapacitating – some of the greatest gifts of the Creator to man, His vicegerent on earth, which are intelligence and common sense, as a result of which many people rushed the things and without any pangs of conscience ended up either ignoring or repudiating that which they did not and could not know (did not fit their own knowledge moulds). However, if used correctly, neither intelligence nor common sense will allow a person to deny the existence of the Creator at the same time as only a tiny portion of His magnificent creation is discovered and rendered known to man. This state of affairs, unquestionably, is supposed to humble man and to teach him a lesson, rather than to blind him and make him additionally arrogant.
Likewise, after discovering their fate on the Day of Judgement, the Hell-bound persons will reproach themselves, saying:
The message of this verse is that the only way to salvation is to listen to the Prophet and the revelation sent to him; that is to say, to use and follow the revealed knowledge as the fountainhead of all guidance and all conceptual as well as behavioural wisdom. Other valid alternatives come second and their roles are subserviently complementary. Even if people did not follow the revelation at first, the power and purity of their intelligence, if used aright, were able to direct them to the worth and function of the revelation.
Nonetheless, one should not be hoodwinked into a deception. Intelligence on its own cannot guide a person completely. What it can do, though, is to lead to the right source. Almighty is nothing and nobody other than Allah, the source of the revealed guidance and wisdom. Intelligence, on the contrary, is powerful, but not the most powerful; it is mighty, but not almighty. Of its own accord, intelligence cannot guide to the truth; it can lead only as far as its threshold.
Questions in the grave and apostasy
All this can be further corroborated by two points. First, as soon as they die, people will be questioned in their graves, according to a number of authentic traditions of the Prophet. The questions will be few and will revolve around the most critical aspects of life, religion and human terrestrial mission. People will be asked about their Lord, their religion and their prophet (this man who had been sent among you). Believers will duly answer that their Lord was Allah, their religion was Islam, and their Prophet was Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
Afterwards they will be asked how they knew, or what made them know, all that, to which believers will reply that they have read the Book of Allah (the Holy Qur’an as the revealed knowledge and guidance), believed in it and confirmed it (theoretically and in practice). (Sunan Abi Dawud)
This also calls attention to the importance of proper and holistic knowledge and the inevitable results it produces. Were it not for the Qur’an, the above responses would be different and so, incorrect. In contrast, non-believers will not be able to answer the questions and pass the exam. That will be for obvious reasons, which will revolve around non-believers being strangers to the content and objectives of the Qur’an. In the world of ultimate realities, subsequent to one’s death, no alternatives that belied such realities will avail a person anything at all. In the Hereafter everyone will reap what he sows in this world.
And the second corroborating point is that once the truth is embraced on the basis of profound understanding issuing from appropriate knowledge, there is no turning back. One’s affiliation with the truth is set to grow from strength to strength after that. Such is the nature of the truth that once a person tastes it legitimately, he can never have enough of it. The more he enjoys it the more he wants it, for indeed a truly religious person has an insatiable desire to control insofar as the wholesomeness of the truth is involved.
In a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and Abu Sufyan bin Harb – who was yet to accept Islam – the former asked, among other things: “Does anybody amongst those who embrace his (Prophet Muhammad’s) religion become displeased and renounce the religion afterwards?” Abu Sufyan replied in the negative, prompting Heraclius to remark: “In fact this is (the sign of) true faith, when its delight enters the hearts and mixes with them completely.” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
In consequence, what is called apostasy can be related only to those poor souls who initially either “accepted” Islam for some ulterior motives and hidden agendas, or did so superficially and by the use of inappropriate methods and channels, such as those that pertain to the meaning and roles of learning, matter-of-factness and civilization-building.
No true Muslim will ever become an apostate, in that such runs counter to the fundamental laws of spirituality and reason. So-called apostates are only those who either manage to misconstrue, or are made to misconstrue, the genuine message of Islam as a religion that judiciously integrates the requirements of the body and soul, this world and the afterlife, spirituality and everyday life, and of crudeness and civilization. Those apostates were never Muslims. They knew neither Islam nor life. ***
(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences.)