How many times have you seen praises heaped on ancient priests, crediting them with an enormous contribution to the development of Islam. There are thousands of books written over centuries that, according to the misguided, constitute the corpus of Islamic knowledge. Books on law, books on Prophetic sayings and books on Quranic exegesis are all claimed to be representing the essence of Islam, in addition to the Holy Quran. The Salafists in fact describe themselves as the followers of the pious predecessors.
The reality is that man did not develop Islam. Islam is the gift from God. Islam is the social and personal manifestation of virtue. Islam is the gift of the Creator to every child, at the very moment that they are born, before they ever meet any scholar or priest. The Holy Quran says, in the second chapter: “This is the book, in which there is no doubt; A guide to those that are pious / conscientious”. How do we explain that the Quran, as a precondition, assumes the presence of piety or conscientiousness in its reader? Does that not mean that our natural instincts, with which we are born, are already wholesome and pure? After all, it would be unjust for the Creator to promise guidance to every person evenly, if we do not accept the premise that we are all born with piety / conscientiousness (Taqwa). How can God hold people to account if they were not given this piety or good nature to begin with? Would it not then be a suitable defense on judgment day to claim that one was deprived of piety and conscientiousness?
The fact is that we are all born with a core set of positive and noble traits. Telling the truth, having compassion for one’s fellow human, respecting the other’s property and person are all traits that we are all born with. In our early living years, provided that we have not been mis-educated or corrupted by an evil parent, we do not need to be taught these. Even a child, who takes a toy away from his little sister does so, knowing innately that it’s wrong. That’s why they will rather do it while their mom looks away!
The problem is that, as we go through our lives, we find our good nature compromised by various factors. When we experience hardship materially, we start entertaining thoughts of unjustly taking what is not due to us. When we experience abundance, we start entertaining the idea not to be compassionate or sharing. When we face danger, we start entertaining the thought of telling a lie, or even disrespecting another person’s property or his person.
As we grow older and start the process of social conformity, we compromise further. We then adopt the erroneous practices of our society for the sake of fitting in. The idolatrous society will seek to cultivate and perpetuate idolatry. Similarly, the society that is based on plunder and theft will cultivate plunder and theft. It takes much courage and possible isolation to attempt to abandon the corrupt practices of your society.
We are all born pure, and then start the process of contamination almost immediately; contamination caused by our own weaknesses and failures as well as contamination caused by our society. The mission of the scholar is not a mission of building something new, but rather a mission of undoing contamination. Our mission as agents for Truth is not to convolute or to complicate it, but rather to UNcomplicate it and to extract it . We need to undo the mesh that covers the truth for our society. The process of knowledge construction is actually a process of revealing truth and exposing error. The true act of devotion to God is the act of exposing first and then abandoning falsehood.
Let me use the metaphor of gold mining. Gold is not produced. It is pre-existent. The job of the gold miner is to identify it, crystallize it, purify it and then polish it to make it as radiant as possible. That, my dear reader, is the role of the scholar. The true scholar is a Truth activist. Scholars have the mission of seeking the truth from where-ever it is buried from sight, and to uncover, purify and illuminate it. The true scholar also has the mission of debunking falsehood, and then to bravely raise caution against it.
Now, let us apply this to the tradition of scholarship presently and over the centuries. Before I can do so, I have to add a further important aspect on the process of truth seeking and knowledge generation.
There exists a category of human knowledge that deals with the unique and idiosyncratic aspects of specific individuals and communities. Let me illustrate this type of knowledge via a practical example. It is Truth (capital T) to refrain from consuming certain harmful categories of food. Food becomes lawful if it is not usurped, not filthy, not poisonous or not harmful in any other way. To state that “Food should be clean, lawfully earned, non-toxic and beneficial” is a statement of absolute Truth that is universally valid. That is the Truth we are referring to as the pre-existent axiomatic Truth. Axiomatic Truths are objectively valid across time and space. It represents a standard by which all people should subscribe, in their own best interest. What is relative, subjective knowledge then when it comes to food?
Food preparation represents a mundane category of knowledge that is subjective instead of objective. To say “We prefer spicy food” may be true in one context, but false in another. Producing rice may be the right way to proceed in a water-rich place, while it may be a wrong to try to cultivate in a water-poor environment. The entire realm of gastronomy and the culinary arts fall within the realm of subjective and relative knowledge. The flavour and type of food that is consumed is unique to a person or a people, based on their preferences, their environment and their physiological needs amongst other factors.
It is useful to note at this point that eternal objective Truths in the realm of voluntary decisions of humans are few, while subjective relativist “truths” or knowledge is wide-ranging and numerous.
Eternal Truths are the pegs and the poles that provide integrity to the grand structure of human society, while the visible everyday practices of human society are the canvas. We are free to choose the fabric, the colour and the shape of the canvas cover. We cannot however have a meaningful structure without set of firm pegs and supports. This essay is not denying the existence of a category of knowledge that is subjective, pluralistic, relative and socially situated. It is a very necessary category of knowledge. It may in fact represent what is sometimes the most exciting and interesting part of everyday life.
The scholars of Islam and of Modernity have sadly confused these two categories of knowledge completely.
Muslim scholars have incorporated vast categories of relativist, subjective knowledge and practices under the category of absolute subjective Truth. Let me take some examples. Muslim priests have written endless treatises in which they split hairs about the mode of institutional worship (Salaah). This even though the core Truth proclaimed in the Holy Quran around institutional worship is very simple. The Quran merely call for worship to become institutionalized daily, done with sincerity, done in a social fashion and done in a state of cleanliness. The exact details are left as subjective details to be operationalised as and how it matches our particular needs. When we try to universalize subjective practices, we end up in trouble. How, for example does a person implement prayer at sunset, when the sun will not set for several months, as is the case in some countries. That is why the Holy Quran calls for a prayer cycle relative to “the two ends of the day.” The “two ends of the day” is a concept that resonates at any place on earth. We all start a daily cycle and end it. Now we simply have to structure institutional worship around that cycle.
Another example: Breaking the fast with dates is a subjective truth, relevant to places where dates are the staple food. Calling for people to eat dates, as a universally sanctified truth, in a place where maze is the staple food is stupid. Dress code is another example. The Holy Quran calls for a dress code that promotes modesty and public decency. The colour, shape and texture of clothing could be highly flexible, as long as it complies with modesty and decency. Yet, even here we find the silly call by scholars to universalize the colour and the shape of people’s clothing, and claiming Divine sanction for their imposition.
This act of inventing an extended realm of Universal Truth represents the corruption of pure Islam. It represents the act of usurping the authority of God, and imposing a parallel human authority along His Divine authority, claiming that they all represent His divine will. You then get the case where a particular practice becomes divinely ordained by one group while its opposite is also divinely ordained by another group. There are countless examples of this, if you consult the books of laws invented by the scholars. Some say a woman’s face should be covered, while others say its not necessary. Some say shell fish is forbidden by God, others say God has sanctioned its consumption. I can list hundreds of these examples from their books.
The role of a true scholar of Islam should be to rediscover unadulterated core divine Truth, and to expose relativist, subjective truths that are paraded as the Divine will. These are the practices that are meant to be formulated by people as and how their circumstances demand.
Where has the West gone wrong on the other hand? Modern western sociology has taken the opposite extreme of declaring all knowledge as subjective and relative, thereby denying the existence of eternal universal Truths. Its impact on society has been devastating. Post-positivists (as they are known) reject any notion of an objective truth. The result is a fractured society which lacks a transcendent set of values and principles. The neo-liberal global economy is the Frankenstein monster of post-positivism and post-modernism. It abandons universal values such as respect for property, compassion and justice. The end result is a world left to its own mercy. A world where the strong thrive and the weak are abandoned to misery and neglect.