Posted by: Dawud Israel | April 16, 2010

The Epistemicide of Islam

Epistemicide: a war on knowledge, destruction of existing knowledge, and thereby aborting the possibility of new knowledge coming about from the exercise of the intellect on existing knowledge.

A growing concern of mine has been the decline in religious knowledge. A while back, I recall Yasir Qadhi said there is a revival of Islam and at the time I agreed with him. There has been a resurgence in Islamic faith and religiosity. However, does this mean we are becoming more knowledgeable about our religion as much as we should?

With the recent parade of silly fatwas coming out of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I find this troubling. Why do these fatwas get more coverage than the other hundreds of fatwas? The silly fatwas themselves are an epistemicide but when a spectacle is made out of Islamic knowledge, you can very easily see how this will lead to more derision of Islam and a decline in Islamic knowledge’s respectability and credibility.

Disrespect of the Traditional Scholar

One of the big factors is the decline of the credibility of the scholar, especially in secularity, which restrict religion considerably. Islamic knowledge is seen as something for the weak-minded, or for the lower class. I find this interesting because the priest-scholar/alim and the medical doctor/practitioner are very similar to each other, yet medicine has more credibility. If we look into the past, we can see doctors were treated with much suspicion, and seen as more or less, guessing- a credibility comparable to our ulema/shuyukh now. But as their body of knowledge expanded, most notably when they began to study patients at their homes, that is when their credibility increased. Foucault talked about how the gaze of the doctor now was radically different, able to see how lifestyle affect health, and I think perhaps one of the solutions for Muslim scholarship is to expand their gaze- for the scholars to look into the homes, the workplaces, the social interactions, to get more insight and uncover new knowledge into the life of Muslims, and to find the courage to do so and not just advise. At the same time, I am not calling for scholars forcing people- but like physiological health, a person’s spiritual health is the responsibility of every Muslim, and the scholar to help as much as he can.

We are not a Post-Islam Ummah- Empower Islam, don’t try to merely protect it

Living in the West, I often find talk about Islam through the lens of the West but never quite Islam for Islam (a whole, not a fragment). Islam is talked about attached to certain discourse, limited by the past or dictated or largely influenced by the news media- but little to no discussion of real change. There is a sadness in this discussion similar to what Walter Benjamin called, ‘left melancholy’ where it is the “analysis of the problematic” that is the great love of the Muslim and in this way there is a distancing from the living, changing, dynamic tradition of Islam- we are not in a post-Islam ummah. Nowadays, its always Islam being discussed in the language of feminism or sexuality or violence or the “Other”- generally on the terms of the West, even though, Islam can’t be neatly fitted into that discourse. I find this really insulting due to its a reductionism- no matter how noble the intentions are, it seems academia is only about looking down the microscope lens and has nothing to do with the effort of organic evolution of the Muslim soul. In other words, Islam is being turned into something similar to a museum- its assumed to be like a dead artifact. This is one end of things in regards to Muslim intellectuals or even non-Muslim scholars of Islam.

Simplicitious/Duplicitous Islamic Formalism

The other end is what I call the mindset of the simple Muslim pietists, whose simple understanding of Islam pushes them to make for themselves a priority to be a ‘religious vanguard’ for other’s religiosity, thereby presupposing they are in the best positions of knowledge to do this. This isn’t necessarily out of pride, but out of sincere concern for guidance of others, but in the process they forget to consider maybe others are more capable then they. All too often I find myself in this position, being led by newbies, and it makes me happy to see this because its a sign of spiritual progress but also worry it will turn into pride and be used to put down and silence those who are more knowledgeable, or make the knowledgeable silent out of humility.

Their is a hadith that the majority of the people of jannah are simple folk (not ulema, intellectuals or scholars and there is a place for simplicity and pure faith, free of detailed, pretentious cognition as those scholars who reach their deathbed will agree with. But this is not the be-all and end-all, this simple, illiterate faith then is selfish and therefore, cannot spread and carries with it seeds of its destruction. It is important for Islam to extend beyond the realm of fear and hope. The simple should not use fear tactics to prevent the intellectuals from thinking, because it is not really a fear of Allah, because Allah has all knowledge, but rather the fear of complexity, the great “unknown” secular knowledges, and the fear of Shaytan is what may fuel this. There is a need for approaching doubts with trust in Allah’s Awareness, that can allow for risk-taking, with the spirit of courage. In short, those who are afraid, should not prevent those who are able and ready to wage intellectual jihads. The story of Shabbir Akhtar, a Muslim philosopher and his experiences in teaching at Muslim universities is symptomatic of this, and highlights the lack of tawakul in the hearts of Muslims whose faith seems to collapse at the sight of a few questions and a little science. Did not the scholars of the past have intellectual courage and isn’t that what made them great?

Now, the problem is thus: Muslims will prevent other Muslims from learning about some non-religious knowledge, out of disdain or intimidation, but they themselves will willy-nilly read the works of non-Muslims speaking about all sorts of matters! The hand of the Muslim stops the Muslim from learning, because he feels he has the power and right (or duty) to do so, but not the courage, nor the right to put a prohibition on a non-Muslim. This leads to a scenario where it is as if you are living in another person’s house. What is the dunya where you, as a Muslim, can’t create and beautify because of prohibitions other Muslims place on you, and yet the same Muslims will remain silent to those who spread filth?

Man yuridullaha bihi khayran yufaquhud-din

He whom God wishes well, he grants him understanding of the religion.


And understanding, able to see through others eyes, and different perspectives is where knowledge is born- not everything is believed at first glance but contemplated and chewed over endlessly. The situation is difficult in which those who struggle with accepting Allah struggle in accepting those who only seek Allah to accept them- they, who can’t help but think! The hadith mention before Qiyamah a time will come when liars will be believed and the truthful will be rejected- I think we are nearing that time, where people believe propaganda, and discount facts, where a scholar is believed because his usage of certain hadith or certain ideological or jihadist verbal pyrotechnics, or his usage of “some spice” in his talks, somehow give him more credibility than the scholar who gives a real substantial explanation based on authentic bonafide Islamic tradition? It seems in a sense we favor and prefer, a mindless, feel good, ossified Islam of mullahs, not the everyday experience with God, where you learn something new about your relationship with Allah. This is what you call formalism which is a static, ossified, tradition, which you either are or are not inside this form- the strict adherence or observance of the deen, but in a way that ends up destroying the spirit of Islam. This is stereotypical difference, where if you are not a saint, you are somehow shaytan- there is little joy in this, but plenty of guilt. There is no need for improvement here because you are doomed. This formalism, differs starkly from the organic nature of the Sunnah, which is about always developing, always coming closer to Allah, always learning, always improving, and therefore, never seeing yourself as pious or knowledgeable because it is an infinite journey.

I’m going to briefly quote Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad’s discussion on the problems of Formalism, my impromptu commentary is in brackets where I felt it necessary:

Tradition: the signs of tawakkul are an authorisation. Formalism: the signs of anger are an authorisation.

Formalism is an excuse. (An excuse from thinking, questioning, delving into real ilm,

Formalism: to esteem his fingers over his soul. (Putting your fingers in your ears so as to ignore everything, as opposed to, simply listening to your soul)

Formalism is just another variety of materialism. (The immediate perfunctory rituals have more virtue because they are material, they can be seen as substantial, and easy to show, “This is what Islam looks like!” where as education and tazkiya are in solitude)

The formalist pulls the flowers upwards; the Sufi waters them.

Formalists prefer the political to the spiritual because their political failures are less extreme.

The formalist is the corpse of an angel.

Only those who dislike formalism can bear it. (The devout who do not let formalism limit them, understand the rationale of those who entrench themselves in it, as if to go away from the world. The other aspect is there is a gasping, drowning, desperate behavior to formalists in their Islam- they want more to Islam than mere formalism, but they don’t see how or are too afraid and hence stick with that formalist attitude)

The simple formalistic believers are those who seek categories, but if you have even some knowledge about your deen, you cannot bring yourself to categorize yourself or others, without feeling you are betraying Islam, or a part of it in the act of reductionism. Imam Ghazali concluded all the madhahib and schools of aqidah were valid, because Islam is too immense to be encompassed by one group alone.

Money limiting Religious Knowledge

Another growing concern is that as Islamic knowledge has become tied to money with seminars and programs, there is a trend that knowledge becomes limited to by that money. This is not to question money and Islam- since there are many opinions, but to explore, what then happens after wards? One rationalizes they have spent enough on this program and therefore no more knowledge is needed. When you measure knowledge in terms of dollars, this slackens the mind. Muslims will be contented with less and there is only so many programs that can be done through money, there has to be other areas of seeking knowledge. This is not to say charging money is a problem, or un-Islamic (there are many opinions on this) but to say, don’t let money set the goal.

Confidence in Islam

I’ve also noticed we feel almost obliged to “justify” scientific discoveries or insights made by non-Muslims, with Islamic sources, (i.e. let’s face it: mindless copy-pasting hadith), but that has the indirect side effect of people saying, “Oh see, Islam has this stuff already!” and then they go and ignore the more detail, nuanced discussions mentioned in both the Islamic sources and the non-religious sources. Instead of bettering us, it can “justify” what we are already doing, since we’ve heard those Islamic sources already, so we think we know it all and lose the benefit and the chance of possibly improving. I have found this pattern happening to me in the past, and saw it hampering my learning. Haqq justifies itself, we need not worry about legitimize Islam with that which is outside Islam, or in justifying science with Islam.

Knowledge based on Simplicity

The other cause of epistemicide is the flood of information we deal with in the West. Instead we are stuck asking silly fiqh questions about situations we can easily avoid- as if there is no escape. Very often, religious questions ‘indulge’ on getting answers to the luxuries we live in, but Islam asks us to sacrifice and live on little. Islam is designed for a simple lifestyle. And yet scholars answer questions, not noticing the context. It is similar to how society questions giving free health care to the morbidly obese, or to smokers who refuse to quit their smoking.

Az-Zuhri said: “I heard about Zaid ibn Tha’bit used to say, if asked about something, ‘Did it happen?’ If they say: ‘Yes;’ he would, then, answer according what he knew. But, if they say, ‘No, it did not happen;’ he would, then, say: ‘Leave it till it happens.’ (Adh-Dhahabi, Siyar a’laam an-Nubalaa, 2/438)

I don’t know is half of knowledge

“Respecting people is half of wisdom, knowing how to ask the question is half of knowledge, and spending sensibly relieves one from half of the livelihood.” – Maimoon ibn Mehran

False Teachers

One name that has been given to this phenomenon is the difference between a false teacher and a real teacher. A false teacher is one who wants people to depend on them and to rely on them alone perpetually. They don’t want people to think seriously or they prefer people adhere dogmatically to his ideas. I saw this in my MSA and that is why I left. But a real teacher wants their students to outgrow them, they want to see their students do better than themselves. A good example of this is Imam ash-Shafi’i (rahimullah) outgrowing his teacher Imam Malik (rahimullah)- he still gave great respect to Imam Malik, but he began his own school because Imam Malik had done his job in making him independent and teaching him to think critically.

Does the sociology of Muslim societies damage creative thought?

The following excerpts from M. Shahid Alam’s article reveals something intriguing about Pakistani society. I will admit I have thought long and hard on what he has said, and yet I cannot seem to find clear answers.

During my first few weeks at the University, and in meetings with friends and relatives, I was at first quite charmed by their eagerness to engage in what appeared to be serious discussions on politics and religion. All conversations eventually turned to the momentous issues of the day in Pakistan and around the world. To my relief, they evinced a curiosity about the world which I had missed during my years in the United States and Canada.

However, these impressions did not last very long. Soon the discussions I heard began to stale. They conveyed less and less in-formation and even fewer fresh ideas. There was little evidence that my interlocutors were reading anything beyond newspapers. After a while, it appeared that everyone was talking about the same things, saying more or less the same things. An irritating monotony crept into the questions asked and solutions proffered. More discouraging, the discussions never led up to anything. No plans on which work might begin here and now.

It was as if the problems of the world demanded endless vocalization. We had to talk about them obsessively. It was as if everyone had to describe his or her encounter with this or that problem, as a way of coming to terms with, making his or her accommodation with what could only be endured but not overcome. It was as if everyone was engaged in a collective ritual, participating in some cathartic act, exorcising their problems, making them vanish by talking about them. This train of thought led me to conclude that these endless conversations were the incantations of an oral society. The art of mending the world by talking about it.

I can think of a ‘literate’ society where oral discourse is used more sparingly, where problems are more commonly sorted out in written discourse. The important difference between oral and literate societies does not consist in the proportion of those who can read and write. It hangs the attitude of those who can read and write to the written word, and on the relationship of the written word to society. A literate society uses the written word to understand and change the world. Talk is ephemeral, and more often than not shallow. The written word gives it power and permanence. The ability to reach out to minds across space and time. The ability to change it across space and time.

Oral and literate societies are manifestations of nearly opposite states of mind. In one the word is cultivated as incantation, a few simple texts rehearsed endlessly to come to peace with a world one cannot change, the better to endure its ‘whips and scorn.’ It represents a social abnegation, a refusal to belong to the world, to take responsibility for it. It reflects a defeated will that feels no joy in engaging, acting upon or changing the world for the better.

It is the opposite in a literate society. Here the world challenges the will to action. Here the understanding engages the world in order to change it. Those who labor with the pen are exercising their will to change it. Scriptures, treatises, tracts, manifestoes, essays: in all its incarnations, the word is a declaration of intent to change the world. Here the will to change society first manifests itself in the will to write about it.

Oral societies have no use for books. They do not read, collect, lend, borrow, hand down, treasure books. Overwhelmingly, educated Pakistanis experience their final and definitive encounter with books when they appear for their last college examinations. The only books you are likely to find in their homes are what their children use at school. There are very few bookstores that sell anything other than textbooks and news or fashion magazines. There are even fewer libraries, whether maintained at public expense or operated for profit. Book clubs are unheard of.

There are fewer new books published in Pakistan today than in eighteenth century Japan. Most are collections of love poetry or short stories. There are few serious novels. Books on history, sociology, politics or economics are almost unknown. Even the political parties have little use for the written word. They communicate their programs through speeches, slogans and jingles. Political pamphleteering is rare. The official biography of Pakistan’s founding father was written by Hector Bolitho, an Englishman. More recently, Benazir Bhutto commissioned Stanley Wolpert, an American scholar, to write the biography of her father and Pakistan’s slain populist leader.

All this is oddly paradoxical for a society that was conceived more than any other around a book. More than Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism, Islam is a religion of the Book. The central miracles of Christianity are the death and resurrection of Christ. The essence of Judaism is the history of a ‘unique’ people, whose seminal events are recreated every year in a procession of rituals. Hinduism is defined by its social hierarchy, by the social order, rituals and etiquettes appropriate to its caste and sub-castes. In Islam alone God talks to mankind through the written word. And yet that Book and others are peripheral to Pakistan’s society. A curious reversal brought about during the past two hundred years of Western domination over Islamic lands – converting Islam’s long and rich tradition of literacy to the present-day fossil of an oral society.


And here, I think here we can for sure say there is a real problem in Muslim thought today. How do Muslims think? What is it exactly that is so unbearably difficult for us? I am surprised and wonder what is really at the heart of problem? I don’t think it is religion, but rather the baggage, or the cognitive dissonance, associated with religion- those notions get attached to the Islam of a Muslim, without any justification for them being there. This is something heavy to think about, and perhaps in the future I will come to more clearly and fully exactly what is going on here.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.

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