“Knowledge and Islamic Creed in the Context of Contemporary Challenges”
by Fahroni Hamdan (RZS-CASIS PhD Candidate)
[This entry is at once a reflection of the writer as well as a selected summary of the CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 8th August 2020.]
“Epochs or times (sing. zamān) are described according to their predominant characteristics, for no times are ever entirely without good and evil coexisting. When at a given time virtue, goodness, loyalty and righteous behaviour are manifest and predominate, and corruption, error, and their people are subdued and inconspicuous, that time is said to be good and virtuous (zamān ṣāliḥ). On the other hand, when the time and its people are predominantly evil and corrupt, when good is scarce and the virtuous is few and hidden, such times are attributed to evil and temptations and said to be vicious and wicked, hence it is characterised as times of temptations and afflictions (zamān fitnah wa balā’).”
This principial wisdom discerned by a saintly figure of 17th/18th century, Imām ‘Abdallāh ibn ‘Alawī al-Ḥaddād (d. 1132 H), is a general ontological understanding that set the background of his very terse comment about the characteristics of his time, in which he says, “Our current time and those immediately before them are predominantly corrupt, evil, and villainous. Good and virtue are rare, and superior and virtuous people are few, inconspicuous, subdued and vanquished.” Imām al-Ḥaddād, as we can learn here, has highlighted the causal relation between characteristic of an epoch and moral dynamism of its people, which generally comprise of righteous or virtuous individuals (ahl-ṣalāḥ) and corrupt or vicious individuals (ahl-fasād). The effective agency for this characterisation in history obviously being man himself and Imām al-Ḥaddād in stating this, like Imām al-Ghazali whom he follows as well as other higher Ṣūfīs before him, does not merely meant only the ethico-moral aspect of man without also pointing to the knowledge aspect. In fact, they all have done their due duties in reigniting the virtuous spirit of their time through various knowledge-centered reforming efforts. And their scholarly contributions and legacy in religion remain as the guiding stars for Muslims of succeeding generations to benefit from.
In contemporary time, as Professor Wan Mohd Nor has highlighted in his first lecture of this series, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas is among the few Muslim scholars who possess the insight and the intellectual ability to identify our epochal challenges, and to deal with its problems as effectively as the earlier scholars. In his analysis of the Muslim dilemma, which also reflects the deep understanding of the causal relation mentioned above, Prof. al-Attas has identified that our epochal challenges come from two directions; external and internal. The external being the challenge posed by modern knowledge with the background of relatively permanent historical confrontation between Islam and Western civilization, in which the birth and development of Christianity is its integral part and from which the born-out sweeping influence of secularization as a philosophical agenda gains momentum. While the internal, being the loss of adab, that has compounded the confusion and error in knowledge among Muslims through the levelling and marginalisation of true authority, making rampant in turn the emergence of false leaders as axis of reference in every field of Muslim life. Prof. Wan in that first lecture has again, together with many other points, deliberated this matter.
Commenting on his introduction of chapter 2: On Knowledge and Knowing, he has presented a vivid historical survey of the declining pattern of Muslim civilizations since 17th century, in particular the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire and the Malay sultanate. This is then followed by making aware of our inferiority to the illusion of neutrality of modern knowledge, which in reality infused with the worldview, the religious and cultural elements as well as experiences of Western civilization. He also touched, approaching the end, on the manner to disintegrate the erection of the above mentioned internal crisis—that has crystallised into vicious cycles in the Muslim community—through ta’dīb, a process expounded by Prof. al-Attas for restoring and inculcating adab, which is none other than the authentic understanding of education in Islam.
All these are then, at the outset, the contexts within which the detailing discussion on knowledge will be carried out. Particularly in this second lecture, Prof. Wan elaborates on the second section of his chapter 2 namely Knowledge and Islamic Creed. His point of departure towards the consideration of Islamic creed (‘aqīdah) is very interesting. He began by highlighting that Prof. al-Attas’ emphasis on the importance of knowledge, although without denying its pragmatic advantage in socio-economic sphere, is rather aiming towards fulfilling man’s spiritual quest. That is to say knowledge as the means for the attainment of man’s happiness. This is fundamentally important because in the final analysis, one might ask, what then the value of knowledge or belief and faith, and education for that matter, if it does not help us to discover and arrive at the significance of life? Then, what else does life in its totality signify or what else are we living and struggling for if not along the line of pursuing happiness? This is so even by those who understand the term happiness vaguely. Therefore, as in the purpose of human life everyone is naturally and ultimately aiming at attaining happiness, it is necessary to commence by understanding the uniquely Islamic link between the idea of knowledge and certainty in its relation to happiness. Happiness (sa‘ādah), he continued, according to Prof. al-Attas’ definition, as derived from the Qur’ān and Ḥadīth, and as formulated also by prominent Muslim scholars of the past, refers to the spiritual state of the soul that is certain (yaqīn) of the nature of realities, and it involves a life in conformity with that certainty.
Now knowledge, strictly speaking, must convey the value of truth otherwise it cannot be called knowledge. When knowledge is attained by the human soul, it is identical to certainty. From the perspective of one’s soul as the knower, certainty refers to the firm assent of the soul to a truth without the fear of any positive deformity or disagreement between one’s thought and the known object. It also refers to the firm assent of the soul without the fear of affirming what should not be affirmed or denying what should not be denied, or mixing the two in one’s judgement. It is only to such a stable unitive experience of the soul, attaining a truth of a known object, i.e. having certitude, that we say it has attained the knowledge of something. Therefore, it is not the state of the soul wavering between two opposites without one preponderating over the other (shakk). It is also not the state of the soul that inclines more toward the one and not toward the other, while yet not rejecting that other (ẓann). Certainty is when the soul affirms the one and rejects the other on a clear ground.
As for the nature of realities that one is certain of, it refers to the true metaphysical and spiritual realities. Since these realities are considered to be in the domain of the unseen (‘ālam al-ghayb), then that epistemically conditions us to believe in them by means of trusting the true reports conveyed by peoples whom our mind cannot conceive to have agreed upon plotting a lie. These reports are successively transmitted (mutawātir) reaching finally to the Prophet, whom we can certainly accept of receiving divine communication in terms of Revelation. Even in the case of single report like the Prophet, our reason can still deemed its occurrence to be possible. In addition, our analogous introspective experience also intuitively permits such a higher communicative instance. Likewise historico-ethical verification also can give us no reason to doubt that there has indeed been such a reception. Positively, this believing and trusting are not merely the forcing of the will to accept, rather it is founded upon knowledge and is itself knowledge in the sense that it encloses cognitive contents that will gradually unfolding within the self of the true believer, thus elevating his or her certainty to higher degrees. Following this, Prof. Wan then emphasised that such understanding of happiness can be attained in this world by means of having a life in conformity with the certainty as described above. It is a life of knowing submission and willing obedience to the teachings of God and His Holy Prophet. Accordingly, it must involve both internal and external actions which are caused by a virtuous character. A character that is aligned to the excellency of intellect and that abides by religion. All virtues in Islam presuppose prior knowledge, which underlines the role of knowledge as the fundamental element in the creed of Islam. The possibility of attaining knowledge, its objectivity and causes, to be sure, constitute among the major statements of Islamic creed.
The term creed, as generally understood, refers to a doctrinal formula that is accepted by a religious group as binding. This doctrinal formula is none other than a set of brief yet authoritative statements of religious beliefs, or shall we say articles of faith, that needs to be confessed and necessarily communicated as identification of a religion. As far as Islam is concerned, ‘aqīdah generally denotes the binding belief of a Muslim in the fundamentals of religion such as the nature of God, viz. Allah, the prophethood of the Prophet Muḥammad, the Day of Resurrection and Judgement and other related matters. From the preceding exposition of conceptual relations by Prof. Wan, one should now be made aware of the relevant attention brought by Prof. al-Attas to the fact that knowledge too is part and parcel of religious fundamentals in Islam. Additionally, Prof. Wan also made a clarification that by ‘major statements of Islamic creed’ mentioned above, what he is referring to are those particularly coming from the Ash‘arite-Māturīdite tradition, because the majority of Muslims are comprised of this dominant group. One can see from most major works in this tradition, it begins with the importance of knowledge as a setting stage upon which other credal elements stand. As specified by Prof. Wan, this is indeed uniquely Islamic but nonetheless has been set to the background by paradigmatic misleading studies of some prominent Orientalists, and unfortunately their incorrect interpretation has also influenced some Muslim scholars. Prof. al-Attas, he said, has been consistently rejecting the allegations of those Orientalists particularly on their interest in creating parallelism between the development of Christian theology or Western thought and practices with those of Islam. This attitude, according to Prof. al-Attas, has become the natural inclination for Western man because they regard their own experiences and consciousness as those representative of the most ‘evolved’ of the species, and all others will only eventually realize what they have already experienced. Now, as far as religion is concerned, Judaism and Christianity have been very elemental in the historical experiences of Western man. Although in his book Prof. Wan has accounted for Prof. al-Attas’ critical comments on the works of some Orientalists like W. Montgomery Watt and A.J. Wensink, here in this lecture he highlighted how the creed of the two aforementioned religions have developed in history. For Judaism and Christianity, he affirmed, the issue of creed is a developmental thing, that is to say, it underwent some kind of historically-conditioned development.
Commenting further on Christianity, in the beginning, he said, the Christians do not really know who they were. Even their name as Christians were given by other people as they were not sure of their identities as religion. With regard to their creed, it is not so difficult to notice that in their history they had convened several councils. Before, in Jerusalem, there was no certain public standard creeds which set out the main lines of Christian belief, and to keep the complex history in brevity, it was not until the first council in Nicaea, for example, that the very foundational issues such as divinity and the nature of Jesus was to be sorted out. That was already around 325 AD, which means it took them 325 years after the Prophet ‘Isā in order to decide on his status. Even then, that Council of Nicaea was called upon by a pagan emperor namely Constantine. This emperor was not even a Christian yet at that time, and he was trying to solve the tension and controversy involving Arianism, an early unitarian sect in Christianity, not due to religious leitmotiv but rather in order to stabilise the state. Of course this council was only the first one, and later on in history there were several other councils convened in order to settle similar or some more essential credal issues. Following this, Prof. Wan also conveyed what Emil Brunner has mentioned in his book entitled I Believe in the Living God. There, Brunner states that the Apostle’s Creed, which has been used as their criterion for faith, did not actually stem from the Apostles themselves, but it was composed during the first centuries of Christian era. Further, Brunner also said pertaining that creed, “Nothing is truly accomplished by regarding all that is said in the Bible and in the creed as true. True Christian faith is not ‘to believe something’ but to trust and obey the One who speaks to us in the Bible and through the creed, with our whole heart.” On this statement, Prof. Wan also commented that already one can discern the dichotomy between trust, belief and truth in their understanding, which one would not see in the case of Islamic creed. In short, he concluded, it is suffice to say that for the Christians, creed is something that evolves based on the interpretation of the authoritative groups of the time. Although later they gradually became established in what they believe, which was around the year 700 AD, but it took them 700 years before such essential matter become officially recognised.
In addition to this, Prof. Wan also made short comparative comments about the Jews and the Eastern tradition in particular Confucianism. As for the Jews, he said, until now they are not sure whether there is a creed or not, meaning whether it is important at all or even necessary to confess a single set of belief that is accepted by all in order for them to be regarded as Jewish. What is important it seems, for many of the Jews, is that in order for them to be Jewish they must practice a particular moral-ethical doctrine. The belief aspect appears to be not a central issue for them. In fact the first accepted creed which became popular among the Jews was the one promulgated by Maimonedes in the 12th century, which is very late considering that Judaism has existed much earlier than Christianity. Here Prof. Wan was referring to what is called the 13 principles of Jewish creed and despite many commentaries made upon these principles they are still not something widespreadly accepted by every Jews. As for Confucianism, despite their longstanding existence said Prof. Wan, it is difficult to say that there is something like a creed because in their essential teachings, like what in the Analects and the Great Learning for example, they are more about the way of acting, and not so much about something to believe in. In demonstrating this point, Prof. Wan also has quoted, during the lecture, a few statements from the Great Learning about the eight stages. This so-called eight stages he said reflects a double movement from the states to the individuals that is to the heart, and from the heart of the individuals back again in stages to the states. But all these are mainly ethical and practical, that is to say only about what to do and they deprived much of something doctrinal. Unlike in the Islamic case, although actions are important, as what have been stated earlier, but it must be based on the right doctrines in order for it to be considered as right actions.
Photos credit to @yahya almahdaly from @arcography
Consequently, Prof. Wan then concluded, when the Orientalists in particular studied the Muslim’s ‘aqīdah, they were looking for the same pattern of changes in history. In so doing, they have attempted to claim that some of the major statements of Islamic creed cannot be found in the Qur’ān and Ḥadīth. They even tried to claim that the Qur’ān itself is unhistorical. This is so by means of pointing to some apparent contradiction between the events described in the Qur’ān vis-à-vis historical evidence, and therefore for them even the Qur’ān is in dire need of revision. If there exists the position of some small minority of Muslims in the modern time, who misunderstood what has been deliberated from the Qur’ān and Ḥadīth pertaining its relation to reason, that position is rather very much unhistorical when compared especially to the fact of undeniably stable Ash‘arite-Maturidite position in Islamic intellectual history.
Following this, Prof. Wan once again affirmed that it is important for us as Muslims to be sure of this fact. The fact that in our ‘aqīdah, particularly through the aforesaid tradition, knowledge has been stated very early in the creed. In delineating this, he began with one of the earliest statements of ‘aqīdah, that of Imām Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 150 AH) in his work al-Fiqh al-Akbar. In the first statement of al-Fiqh al-Akbar, the Imām mentioned about how in confessing our belief we must state, as in “yajibu an yaqūla”, which means “it is obligatory [for a person] to state…”, and then only comes “Āmantu bil-’Lāh” that is to say “I believe in Allah” and so on and so forth. This phrase to state here, Prof. Wan further explained, means to declare with knowledge and certainty, as well as understanding in the sense of verification (taṣdīq). To state here involves iqrār, which is verbal confession due to knowledge and understanding, not just the will to believe. Of course, Prof. Wan also commented, that this is actually derived from the Qur’ān because in the Qur’ān there is a verse, “fa’lam annahu lā ilāha illā Allāh”. And Fa’lam means “therefore know”, not just belief like in the other creeds. This reflects the unity of knowledge and belief in Islam as opposed to what has been mentioned before by Brunner when he tries to make distinction between trust, belief and truth. Subsequently then came Imām al-Ash‘arī (d. 320 AH) who has provided the rational arguments against the Mu’tazilite, and his explanation of the ‘aqīdah was again reformulated by later Ash‘arite like Imām ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 429 AH). In his book entitled al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, in one of the chapters, Imām al-Baghdādī has outlined 15 principles of the ‘aqīdah of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā‘ah. In there he also has stated as the first principle the necessity of accepting the certainty of knowledge, which again highlights the importance for all Sunni Muslims to accept that knowledge is possible. Then, in the 12th century came a Māturīdite scholar namely Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar al-Nasafī (d. 537 AH) whose work is a condensed summary of our ‘aqīdah, which later became known as al-‘Aqā’id al-Nasafī. Again, among the very early principles is the same like the one stated by al-Baghdādī regarding the possibility of knowledge. In Article III of al-‘Aqā’id al-Nasafī, it is stated that, “the realities of things are established in their existence, and the knowledge of them is certain in contradiction to the Sophists.” In relation to this also, here in the Malay world, as discovered by Prof. al Attas as the oldest known Malay Manuscript which dated 1590 AD, it was indeed the translation of this al-‘Aqā’id al-Nasafī by Shaykh al-Rānīrī that was in circulation. Meaning, the same creed was taught here in the Malay world during the 16/17th century.
Considering all these, it is outstanding to see how, as hitherto demonstrated by Prof. Wan, the dissemination of this worldview with its uncompromising emphasis on knowledge has reached throughout a wide range of geographical areas, from Samarkand and Baghdad to Spain and the Malay world, and has been preserved over many generations, from the 8th to 12th to 17th centuries and even until now. Not only that, this dissemination has also penetrated many layers of Muslim communities from different schools of thought and legal orientation such as in this case the Ash‘arite-Shāfi‘ite and the Māturīdite-Ḥanafite. And it would not be so hard to also dig on other examples from the other combinations of schools of thought and legal orientation. Just to add another case to this, Prof. Wan also has given the example from that of the Ṣūfīs notably in the case of ‘Alī ibn ‘Uthmān al-Hujwīrī, who passed away in 469 AH in Lahore. In his work Kashf al-Maḥjūb, which is the first Persian treatise on taṣawwūf, again from the first chapter, he elaborates quite at length on the subject of knowledge, on its importance as opposed to the Sophists and on its manifold categorizations. Moreover, also in Kashf al-Maḥjūb, the first station or unveiling that al-Hujwīrī discussed pertaining to the journey of the wayfarer towards God is regarding ma‘rifah, that is the knowledge of God. So even the Ṣūfīs, Prof. Wan emphasized, who are true to the Islamic doctrines, they have been explaining and practicing taṣawwūf based on knowledge and not mere imagination. From all these examples, which is more than adequate to impress upon us, what Prof. Wan was trying to convey in gist is the fact that Muslims from various corners of the world have all been sharing the same ‘aqīdah all these while, and in our ‘aqīdah it declares without any reservation that knowledge is important.
To recapitulate as conclusion, apart from the inseparable position of knowledge in the fabric of Islamic creed, another main lesson that we can gather from the foregoing elaborations is that the Islamic creed does not really undergo historically-conditioned development like many other major religions, and on top of that, our ‘aqīdah is really based on the Qur’ān because we can see throughout many areas and across different times, political and social factors does not have positive determination on our ‘aqīdah. For what seems to be a development in the Islamic creed is rather a refinement in terms of detailing the explanation. And unlike Christianity, Islam is aware of itself from the very beginning. To be sure, Islam is the only Revealed religion, which is not the same as a religion that only based on revelation. As pointed out by Prof. al-Attas, “all the essentials of the religion: the name, the faith and practice, the rituals, the creed and system of belief were given by Revelation, and interpreted and demonstrated by the Prophet in his words and model actions, not from cultural tradition which necessarily flow in the stream of historicism.” Having said all these also implies that on our part, as Muslims, we are already standing on a firm footing to begin with. Therefore, what else should hold us back excusing ourselves from dawning the true light of our identity and destiny as Muslims? Why do we need to be grudging in carrying the trust and responsibilities of our religion? It is time that we should now be certain, that we have the choice for the better in order to be one of the ahl-ṣalāḥ or insan adabi, and in turn to characterize the time that we are living in; that is to incur proper changes and maintain it as what Imam al-Ḥaddād termed as zamān ṣāliḥ. One must realize that this hopeful call has been a while now since Prof. al-Attas put it in many of his writings, and a glimpse summary of it perhaps could be obtained from this Malay verse:
Jika demikian mustahil pantang
Giliran Islam pula mendatang;
Lakonan lama indah gemilang,
Di layar dunia semula terbentang.
So also the urgency of this hopeful call still remains forceful now, as we can witness ourselves that the momentum of our current challenges are continuously gaining weight. To end this, perhaps what is echoed by Prof. Wan in concluding his Acceptance Speech might once again alarm us up because: If we do not close our ranks, optimise our best resources, and change the course of our history, who will? And if not now, when?