Seeking Knowledge

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)

There are three types of believer. Each one believes in God and the theological tenets of Islam, but have a different approach to its practice and epistemology:

  1. The Satisfied Antinomian – He does not grant much importance to following the law, but identifies himself as a Muslim.
  2. The Contented Follower – She practices the law, some are conservative, others are liberal, and accepts the Islamic theological and legal framework of a particular school. She deeply respects the scholars, classical and contemporary, and seeks knowledge as a means of knowing the law believing it is from God. They question by asking “What is…” or “How to” (e.g. What is Sheikh X’s opinion on abortion? How to distribute inheritance?)
  3. The Frustrated Seeker – They wrestle with Islamic beliefs, history and laws. Some will interpret the law in order to suit their own needs and therefore resemble the Satisfied Antinomian whereas others practice the law in order to gain proximity to God, and resemble the Contented Follower. Unlike the Contented Follower they are not sure they reach any proximity to God and feel frustrated. They seek knowledge by asking the question “Why”.

The delineations between the three are not exact, and there are overlaps as well as a spectrum within each group. But what is important to consider is that the categorisations provide an insight into how different types of believer approach seeking knowledge.

Seeking knowledge is important in Islam. Franz Rosenthal in his review of the importance of knowledge in the Islamic civilisation, Knowledge Triumphant, writes:

“There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remained untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward “knowledge” as something of supreme value for Muslim being. Ilm is Islam”.

Religious scholars exhort their congregation to search for knowledge “even from as far China” as the Prophet allegedly said. They stress the importance of gaining religious knowledge, something Ghazali classes as the highest form.

Seeking knowledge can be divided into two types. The first is to gather knowledge as established. In other words, to learn what has already been produced. For instance, Muslims are expected to learn the tenets of faith such as aqidah tahwiyyah, and follow a legal school. The second, and interdependent with the first, is to create new forms of knowledge through ones reasoning.

When it comes the second,  the first five centuries of Islam is important because scholars were creating knowledge through developing methodologies to find knowledge, pedagogies to disseminate knowledge and systems to secure knowledge.  For the Contented Follower, it is enough to follow the system.

For the Frustrated Seeker, it is not. Islamic educational systems are suffering atrophy and have been for over two centuries. Scholars emerging today are finding it difficult to uphold tradition in the face of legal monism and secularism, which impacts the Frustrated Seeker. In reaction, they will delve into the past for answers, but will not be content with the responses.

Instead they will question why and challenge tradition. Contemporary Islamic legal opinions are often too brief or too slavish. Scholars have a tendency of saying the Hanafis say this, or there is a hadith in Bukhari that says this, and hence Muslims should follow it. For contemporary questions in the Western world, they are either simplified opinions or are issued by Arab or sub-continental scholars that do not live in region. The reasoning process is sacrificed for simplicity.

The Frustrated Seeker wants to go deeper into why things are: theologically, legally, spiritually. They want to understand processes, purposes and consequences. They are not satisfied with simple obedience or absolute statements. In many respects they undertake the enterprise of the early scholars that forged the Islamic framework Muslims follow today.

Ghazali praised the early scholars. He identifies five qualities that they had: acquaintance with jurisprudence, worship, asceticism, knowledge pertaining to the next abode, and sincerity . Jurisprudence was only sufficient for this world; the latter four qualities were more important in securing the next abode.

Scholars stress that Muslims should focus on these four qualities and avoiding questioning too much. Indeed, it is reported that al-Juwayni lamented on his death bed that he wished he had the faith of the women of Nishapur, the village he was from. It was to suggest that the intellectual speculative work he had done was in vain, and really all that mattered was practice. Al Juwayni is mistaken.  For those bestowed  with a questioning disposition, their desire to explore the discomforting areas of uncertainty or challenge the certainties of scholarly opinion is not only to strengthen their own faith but to help others resolve their questions; to help them turn from the Frustrated Seeker to the Contented Follower.

For the Frustrated Seeker, seeking knowledge is a journey, a long arduous journey, the destination of which is not certain. But they persevere, hoping, like Ghazali, that they reach a state of contentment.

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