ONE of the most urgent issues that ought to be resolved in the minds of present-day Muslim youths is to free themselves from the mistaken assumption that there is a dichotomy between knowledge and action.
Once this is gradually resolved, accompanied by a spiritual awakening, emerging thought leaders and professionals will be able to collaborate creatively and innovatively towards addressing systemic problems in the modern world.
Some educated Muslims argue that the main problem of Muslims today is the inability to turn knowledge into action, which assumes that we do have a great deal of knowledge today but not enough action.
This fundamental assumption needs to be re-examined, especially since the majority of educated Muslims today are unconsciously thinking in ambiguous and dualistic terms arising from the influential force of secularisation, taken as a philosophical programme.
Many are not able to tell the subtle differences between what is understood as theory, information, knowledge and wisdom in the worldview of Islam. Many Muslim youths today deem the great ideas propagated by authoritative Muslim thinkers as either impractical or too “academic”.
A “theory” is a learned conjecture, and is not of the same level as knowledge in Islam (‘ilm).
Information becomes knowledge only when facts are interpreted correctly, leading to the right conclusion in agreement with the general truths revealed by God.
Thus, for instance, the science of management in the Islamic intellectual tradition was intimately linked with the vision and reality of truth in Islam as demonstrated in Al-Ghazali’s Nasihat al-Mulk (Council for Kings) or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Akhlak-I Nasiri (Nasirean Ethics).
This realisation can only be achieved with certainty through the “arrival of meaning in the soul and the soul’s arrival at meaning”, as Tan Sri Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas wrote.
Knowledge is therefore an attribute of the soul.
This meaning (ma’na) refers to an understanding of a “place” of a thing in the order of creation (maratib), and can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the learned Muslims throughout the ages, through contemplation (tafakkur), practical devotion (ibadah) and ultimately, God’s grace.
Not everything that one learns in school or university becomes knowledge: it may simply be an accumulation of facts.
This, in turn, is based on the understanding that God has created everything in its proper place or in Western philosophical terms, the “cosmos”.
It is man, out of his ignorance of the proper place of things in the order of creation or the universe (‘alam), who causes “chaos” at the individual and collective level.
Hikmah (wisdom), on the other hand, is defined by Al-Attas as “the recognition of the proper place of things in the order of creation, such that it leads to the proper place of God in the order of being”.
This is not merely theoretical knowledge as understood in the root word of philosophy (sophia), which does not include the element of action as understood by the foremost philosophers and thinkers in Western civilisation.
For this reason, the Prophet Muhammad – who was given the book (kitab) and wisdom by God – is regarded as “mercy for all the worlds”, as he is the recipient of the final revelation that reveals the places of everything in the order of creation.
With such knowledge, the Prophet was able to demonstrate either in speech, silent confirmation and/or action what is the most praiseworthy way of living which is in agreement with the proper places of things created by God.
By implication, genuine Muslim scholars throughout the ages do not merely theorise or philosophise, but articulate their understanding within the enclosure of certainty (yaqin) so that we can live in harmony with the universe and truly serve our purpose of existence.
This was the underlying framework of Muslim polymaths in the past such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Haytham, Al-Biruni, Al-Ghazali, and in the present day such as Al-Attas.
Therefore, any accusation that Muslim scholars and thinkers are merely academics or theoreticians is careless and dangerous. For this reason, the great saints, sages and scholars of Islam – the inheritors of the Prophet – speak of the tremendous importance of adab when seeking knowledge.
By adab, the great luminaries of Islam meant “action in conformity with the proper place of things”. At the basic level, adab towards knowledge includes purifying one’s intention, and examining one’s sincerity, before embarking on seeking knowledge.
At a higher level, adab includes recognising the merits of legitimate intellectual and spiritual authorities of the past and present.
For instance, the knowing Muslim community in the past acknowledged al-Ghazali as the Hujjatul Islam (Proof of Islam) and a Mujaddid (renewer of the religion) of his age.
It is a loss of adab if scholars of lesser intellectual worth are raised to a level higher than that of the truly authoritative masters such as al-Ghazali, who has been erroneously accused by orientalists and modernists as the perpetrator of Muslim decline and intellectual stagnancy.
The biggest challenge, therefore, is not simply to put knowledge into practice, but to cultivate the proper attitude (adab) to receive His light in the form of right meaning, for God knows who is worthy of His knowledge.
And this will naturally lead to – by God’s grace – right action.
Muhammad Syafiq Borhannuddin is Senior Research Officer with Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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