We have the power to present new knowledge and information if we study texts with an objective critical mind and learn modern sciences according to an in-depth critical approach, then work on cumulatively adding to it.
Written by: Dr. Muayad Hattab
Various factors spread across the stages of Arab and Islamic rule that have been devoted to the consolidation of the mind and the rigidity of knowledge without epistemological critical thought. In this paper, I try to search, through critical analysis, for the most important reasons that contributed to this, and how the means of thought and methods of knowledge changed in the Arab world until stagnation was reached.
The use of critical thought in the first era of Islam allowed the development of knowledge and the dynamic movement of religious texts to become compatible with societal and political needs and in harmony with the current data and the necessity of development. Then the historical events opened the door for the Islamic state to intervene and impose its political interests on religious and humanitarian schools of jurisprudence, and then support and advocate certain religious and philosophical focuses at the expense of others. This led to the arrival of a specific color to centers of power and exclusivity until those schools took on imposing their traditional approach and extended their legacies to the general public. Their owners did not stop at the limits of restricting philosophical knowledge, rather, their method of indoctrination increased until it reached the limiting of religious narratives and traditions, where they only presented narratives to others that are in accordance with their ideas and political and social interests. The collective mind of Muslims was subjected to their exclusive circle of understanding and their own schools of thought.
Accordingly, the legitimacy of the state was linked to religious texts, and the caliph was depicted as the shadow of God on earth, and the perpetual authority of the caliph was justified by what was stated by Othman bin Affan. They granted the caliphate the right to kill those who are against them by portraying the position of Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq in his war against the tribes as a war of ideology and not a political war to protect the state. Therefore, this fueled intellectual racism and sectarianism through the reverence of some historical figures and narratives and made allegiance, obedience, and supplication to the ruler sacred acts that precede the importance of fighting corruption. Moreover, the concept of the guardian was restricted to the ruler and not the state’s law and constitution. This is how the critical mind was curtailed in the collective consciousness of Arabs and Muslims throughout the stages of Islamic history until the present day.
Although the Arabs were shocked by colonialism, where their lands were occupied and their capabilities were controlled, their critical minds were not destroyed and their cognitive need to reconsider their intellectual legacies was not shaken; rather, the rigidity of knowledge dominated their minds. Instead of developing their knowledge or forming new scientific and intellectual approaches in understanding and reading texts, those who acquired traditional religious thoughts began to demand that the people and the state return to history and abide by its footsteps. They claimed that it is the best way to solve the problems of this age, citing some exceptional evidence and many fictional myths about past glories and the heroics of that golden age. For this, they promoted slogans and theories without a substantial scientific or research basis, relying only on people’s religious sentiments and their cultural narcissism. Then, they presented sermons and speeches deluding people that religion alone can lead them towards international supremacy and that Islam is inclusive of all means of scientific and cultural progress. If only I could go back to the previous era, then we would have been able to win over the present and future. For example, they informed the people that the Zakat system, an Islamic finance term referring to the obligation that an individual has to donate a certain proportion of wealth each year to charitable causes, can, on its own, eliminate poverty and that justice has prevailed amongst the state’s citizens regardless of their ideological convictions or ethnic origins. Thus, they would buy people’s emotions and cite examples that did not occur in Islamic history. They did not want people to know more than a specific and narrow aspect of the reality of Islamic history, in exchange for marketing their unrealistic thinking that is inconsistent with the modern age or the eras that will follow it. Consequently, they are found neglecting 98% of Muslim history, concealing from the people the injustice that occurred to the violator and ignoring the revolutions, coups and divisions that occurred throughout all ages of Islamic history.
Moreover, the premise of collecting Zakat is unsuitable with the needs of the modern state and its modern economic systems. Even if Zakat is collected, assuming that all the rich will be obligated to pay what they owe, the state will still need hundreds of times as much Zakat money to cover the state’s budget and its financial needs, not to mention meeting the needs of the poor. There are economic systems and administrative sciences that modern countries must adopt in order to keep pace with covering their needs, and then provide solidarity or social care to their citizens. Sustainable social and economic justice systems cannot be achieved according to historical assumptions, but rather through modern systems, including the art of using the state’s natural wealth, its various industrial resources and modern production methods. The most important of all is the existence of real administrative and legal systems in accounting, preventing corruption and observing transparency.
Perhaps people’s eagerness to escape from the stigma of failure, their yearning to achieve justice and equality and their need to satisfy the vanity of self-esteem may lead to turning the papers of history in search of any novel or myth that brings them the euphoria of a sense of victory or pride. They must relax their nerves and consciences from the possibility of experiencing failure to provide serious and objective solutions to address the economic, political and social slack in their country. If they do not find in the papers of history what cures the vanity of their narcissism, you will find them fleeing to novels of future fiction. Hence, some propagandists, driven by religious sentiments or polarizing political motives offer historical solutions, propositions and/or fictional theories that maintain stagnation and do not push us towards practical progress or even critical scientific thinking. Whenever a situation that shook the world occurred, they relate to today’s event to their ancestors. The declaration of human rights and the emancipation of slavery, which are the best human achievements throughout history was alluded to by the righteous predecessors or referred to by Muslim jurists in their archaeological books! There is no doubt that surrendering to the myth that Islam came with all that modern science has reached, and what others have achieved in terms of advanced state systems, democracy and the guarantee of human rights, feeds narcissism in the collective Arab collective consciousness that we do not need to make any addition to human civilization. This is conveyed in their claim that the progress of the best civilizations has been stolen from our historical legacies or our religious texts. This myth continues to be repeated and causes them to confuse what is scientific, based on the accumulation of human knowledge, with what is religious, based on revelation and a correct understanding of what God means. It is important to differentiate between revelation and what is based on human cognitive accumulation because, on the one hand, it makes us realistically and logically deal with religious texts, and on the other hand, it pushes us to continue research until we present a new addition to what has been added by others.
The use of critical reason in dealing with religious or historical texts allows us to investigate the accuracy of what we have received of knowledge or information, and makes us more in line with ourselves and our history, as it enables us to understand reality and provide objective solutions to its problems. This mechanism makes us understand and admit, for example, that Islam was not the first to introduce humanity to the system of social solidarity, rather it was the Romans who were the first to know about this system. Then, its forms continued to develop until it reached Muslims, where they contributed to it, and then it reached the West and they added to it. We can take their addition and then develop it. Thus, knowledge is cumulative and continuous. The systems of governments, methods of hygiene, means of quarantine, the mechanism for dealing with enemies, building schools and hospitals, and other worldly affairs and human knowledge are all measured like this. All of this was prompted by previous civilizations, most of which reached the Arabs, then Islam prevailed and the Messenger worked to make the best of what he had received from the knowledge of the former and the later, where he used the best tools of his time in dealing with the requirements of society and the state, such as health, hygiene and appearance issues, and the application of administrative and environmental systems and so on. Consequently, the Messenger of God would use and urge the best of human knowledge that he received, not in the sense that it is a revealed religion, but rather as a worldly science and accumulative knowledge.
If we interpret the biography and hadiths with that of philosophy, then we can then comprehend any trace or saying about the Messenger that came in agreement with modern science and was urged by the Messenger or developed by Muslims after him as an extension or accumulation of human knowledge. On the other hand, every narration that is inconsistent with modern science is interpreted as being human sayings and knowledge that were the best that a person had reached in a particular era, and then later, individuals were able to reach what is better. With this mechanism, we isolate religion from competing with science, which may be wrong, and we move away from insinuating religion in everything that can scientifically prove its opposite. Accordingly, the sayings about the role of camels in treatment, or preventing poison by eating a few dates fall under the door of human knowledge that is subject to modification, development and improvement. In addition, the Prophet wanted to lay down a general rule for us that worldly matters, including agriculture, medicine, politics, economics, etc., are all related to the cumulative worldly experience that we today know more about, of which the descendants will be more aware on more than us. Thus, the circle of knowledge does not end at a time, nation, or place. This is the modern scientific method based on the theory of knowledge, which grows through our continuous critical examination. Therefore, there is not a final limit to knowledge.
What is required, then, is to stop holding onto history in humankind’s battle with scientific or human knowledge or the state’s administrative and political systems. We must understand that what we have received from the sayings and what our ancestors have acquired, in terms of knowledge, was not based on a specific historical pattern or a specific religious commitment; but rather it was based on what they had received of previous knowledge, then added on to it. We have the power to present new knowledge and information if we study texts with an objective critical mind and learn modern sciences according to an in-depth critical approach, then work on cumulatively adding to it. In order for this to happen, we must develop our intellectual philosophy and the system of education and knowledge research.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Association or donor.