Book 1: On Knowledge

Inspiration as Revelation

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


The most popular purchase from the Travelling Light Series is Sheikh Hamza’s exposition of Book 1 of the Ihya. Perhaps this is because it is Sheikh Hamza, or maybe it is due to better publicity. Or most likely, is that the concept of the book strikes at the heart of the theological crisis that afflicts most Muslims in secular societies. At one point in a believer’s life, he/she will ask Why do I believe what I am meant to believe?

The question is not an easy one to answer, and so it is common to find Muslims pondering upon the truth claims of their religion. Their burden is not to have been with the Prophet in order to assess his character, or to understand Qurayshi Arabic and its linguistic style. They can only assess the truth by the literature and the characters of those who profess to live their lives according to the Sunnah.

What compounds the problem of justifying belief is the Western mind’s inherent push towards skepticism unless empirical or sensual. There is an aversion towards unjustified postulations, and that seeps into the way one approaches religion. While there are a growing number of people who submit themselves to a religion, the greater strides are being made by secularists.

So for the believer wishing to justify his belief in the absence of a Prophet, a weakness in their linguistic appreciation of the Arabic language, an anachronistic society, and the championing of secularism, he/she is confronted with a spiritual dissonance.

Ghazali’s conclusion to his own spiritual dissonance was not particularly intellectual. In his munqidh he concludes that after studying the thinking and methods of the sufis ” It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.”

In other words, Ghazali found that in practice and meditation, one could have a true insight into the divine. But this too is not satisfactory for those who have committed their lives to the exploration of the Divine. The question for them is do I keep questioning my religion, or just practice as my religion has commanded.

The answer is both…and a third element. Ghazali’s Ihya is a voluminous tome that synthesises knowledge with practice. Yet, he was aware that the third element to the understanding the Divine mysteries was inspiration from Allah – something that is bestowed from up on high and at His will.

Once again, this too is not satisfactory for the questioning mind. However, he/she ignores their own self-constituency and personality. God has created man differently and our abilities in intellect, emotions, and strength are varied. Our will guides us accordingly,  and we can refine and improve our abilities; however, some people will be naturally smarter, more emotional, stronger. Our natures vary considerably, and this nature (the fitra) was implanted by God.

Equally, it is understood that God places iman into the hearts of man, but the point at which He places iman into the hearts is not entirely clear. On the one hand, God expects that man should proclaim belief. The Quran speaks confidently about its own truth claims; yet on the other Ibrahim (AS), the people of Musa (AS) and the Disciples of Isa (AS) have requested evidence from God.

The story of the Disciples is instructive. The Quran states

” And when I inspired (Allah) to the Disciples, “Believe in Me and in My messenger Jesus.” They said, “We have believed, so bear witness that indeed we are Muslims. When the disciples said, “O Isa, Son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven? [Isa] said,” Fear Allah, if you should be believers.They said, “We wish to eat from it and let our hearts be reassured and know that you have been truthful to us and be among its witnesses.” (5:111 – 113)

These verses encapsulates the problem of belief. The Quran asserts that Allah “inspired” (Awhatu) belief in the Disciples. And yet they still questioned in order for their hearts to be reassured.  What occurred within the Disciples was a process which started with Isa’s ministry, followed by inspiration, and concluding with affirmation.

In the absence of a Prophet, affirmation in the way the Disciples requested will be difficult. However, the Quran is book of universal principles. The above verses highlight the importance of gaining knowledge of God’s commands and waiting for inspiration. For affirmation, it might not be  something tangible like a table spread. Reassurance for the heart may come from something else.

The process is evident in Ghazali. He had knowledge, he was inspired to believe, but the affirmation and reassurance came from his Sufi practice.

Today, Muslims are trying to find a pure belief without the accretions of culture. They study, and they gain knowledge, and that strengthens or weakens their belief.  However, to truly believe in God requires God to inspire that belief in a person. It then requires solidification, and that comes from practice. Knowledge is the starting point, inspiration is the middle point, and practice affirms.



The Vanishing of Spiritual Knowledge

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

The Prophet said, “Near the establishment of the Hour there will be days during which  ignorance will spread, knowledge will be taken away (vanish) and there will be much Al-Harj, and Al-Harj means killing”

There is a worry among the spiritually minded that mankind is approaching its end. Such worry is hardly new; naysayers have been predicting the end of the world since the demise of the Prophet (pbuh). But increasingly the various signs of the hour mentioned by the Prophet (pbuh) appear to be coming true such as bare-footed Bedouins competing in constructing tall buildings, people traversing great distances in short periods of time and the increase in fornication and associated diseases.

The decrease of knowledge is one of the marks of the end of time. Scholars typically interpret it to mean religious knowledge, which is surprising in that due to the internet, speed of travel, growth in literacy rates, and availability, religious knowledge is burgeoning across the world.

Other forms of knowledge have grown tremendously and has allowed mankind to develop, construct and progress. What is more is that Western society stresses the importance of knowledge, broadly guaranteeing primary and secondary education. Secular knowledge is constantly increasing, not decreasing.

There is a third type of knowledge, one that Ghazali addresses, and that is spiritual knowledge. In his time, the Persian polymath was critical of the ulama  largely based on what he saw as the secularization of religious knowledge. It was not the quantity and quality of intellectual production that bothered him as much as it was the gradual distancing of scholars from upholding the purpose of Islam itself, and that was seeking proximity to the Divine.

Attaining this spiritual knowledge is not confined to the bookish; it is in the grasps of all mankind. Knowledge of the Divine is a special kind of knowledge, one refined by worship and spiritual purification, and, for some, intellectualism. Pursuing such a course is rewarding provided the seeker believes that to be so.

In contemporary society, knowledge of the world is increasing. What is decreasing is our sense of the Divine. Spiritual knowledge is falling at such a rapid rate that today we are no longer in awe by that which should cause awe. We no longer look at the signs of God as indicators of the existence of God. Our conceptualization of the world is materialistic, seeing the world as explicable and exploitable.

In that perception, the sacredness of the world diminishes, damaging the way we behave with it. Recent protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota pipeline encapsulates the conflict between sacredness and materialism. Whereas one party sees only rocks and resources to power industry, another group saw holiness and eternity. The latter was bound to lose.

The Native American tribes have a strong a sense of the sacred in the world. Indeed, all traditional societies had a sense of the transcendent in the world, and not something that was beyond it. From the Native American to the Aborigine, God was infused in the way Man once perceived the world.

Today, we regard these ancient societies as harboring irrational beliefs. We argue that the Enlightenment woke mankind up to reason with science explaining or trying to explain the inexplicable. God was removed from the equation.

Atheists with loudspeakers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Sam Harris, and others pose rational counterarguments to religion. Their approach is persuasive for many in that they rest upon what our senses can sense. The senses are elemental to the atheist worldview.

For the believer, God is beyond the senses, residing in the area of gray that no scientist can ever hope of entering. The retort will be that man seeks to explain the unknown by interpolating God, which is true. But that is not an irrational move. It is merely another sense within us, neither rational nor concupiscent, granted to us by God.

That knowledge is what is being taken away, and we do not know the consequences of such a phenomena. Modern capitalist enlightened society is 300 years old. In that period it has witnessed the boundless potential of human ingenuity in both good and evil. We cannot note achievements such as the industrial revolution without mentioning two destructive world wars. We cannot speak of globalization without acknowledging colonialization; and we cannot praise the computerization of society without considering global warming.

No society is perfect, religious or non-religious. Each type of society has its challenges because men have egos. No law can satisfy society entirely because law is material. However, the less we see God in the world, the more our desires can be unleashed, which will entail more laws in order to control. Eventually, we will reach a tipping point where the world cannot give what we desire. Perhaps this is a dim view of the world, but the Prophet (pbuh) did not predict particularly heartwarming events to signify the end.





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.

Book 1 : On Knowledge – The Arrogance of Extremism

(For explanation of Imam Ghazali’s Book 1: On Knowledge by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, please click here)

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Uncertainty in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

All religions suffer an epistemological paradox. How can man follow the commands of God when God does not directly speak to them? Legal scholars such as Ghazali’s teacher, al-Juwayni, believed transmitted knowledge of God’s commands is probablistic. For any given situation, we can only have a reasoned estimation of what God would have wanted.

That uncertainty can provoke three reactions among those who promulgate Islamic law:

1) Believe ones interpretation is ineluctably correct.

2) Regard the whole enterprise as inherently unstable, and ignore the whole interpretative process.

3) View uncertainty as part of one’s journey to the Divine and be humble as to one’s determination of law.

The beginning of Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge is a biting critique of legal scholars, who he regards as being” trapped in their arrogance” issuing rules for the sake of other considerations. Unfortunately, they ignore the key reason for God’s intervention in Human history, and that is to inform Man of life after death (the akhira). Man’s key concern should be in preparing for this eventuality.

Hence, only point 3 is the appropriate reaction to uncertainty.

When an Islamic scholar issues a ruling, he has to navigate the uncertainty inherent in expressing God’s will. How can he be sure he is correct? More importantly, he is burdened by the uncertainty as to whether the ruling pushes a person, and others indirectly affected by his ruling, away from contemplating the akhira.

The recent attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad have the hallmarks of ISIS and Al Qaeda: wanton violence to illicit fear. The problem with their mission, however, is that they are concerned with political and legal dominance. Spreading the message about the akhira is largely ignored. They symbolise point 1.

Arrogance is therefore their mark. When followers can casually brutalise individuals who were non-Muslim or could not read the Quran properly, they have set themselves up as God. If God wished to destroy nations, he would have done so himself. What is worse, and indeed quite peculiar, is that behind the smiles of their own belief in their martyrdom, is that in killing and then being killed, they resemble the people the Angels worried about when God created man “Will You place therein those who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we glorify You” (Quran 2:30)

Instead of fearing the consequences with God of unlawful murder against innocents, they butchered gleefully.

The Muslim’s role is to convey the message of the akhira, not to force obedience. All humans are in a state of uncertainty, only arrogance contemplates otherwise. To convey the message effectively takes time and patience. Indeed, Prophets in the Quran were granted time to convey.

People are scared of ISIS and their nihilistic proclivities, so the consequence of these attacks is fear of humans, and not fear of God.   For Ghazali, it is fear of God  that should direct one’s journey to the Divine. This represents the true foundation of knowledge and a guide to ones actions and interactions. Only from it can the immanence of the akhira be truly conveyed.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit