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CHALLENGES

Islam:

Knowledge & Culture

I Bruce Watson


Francis Bacon, an early advocate of progressive scientific empiricism, wrote: 'Knowledge itself is power'. It is a different sort of power to the merely material, and while it exists in the minds of people it always remains a counter to the oppressions of the physically powerful. Naturally enough, it is not sensible to use a pen to defend yourself against a Kalashnikov, but the ideas and the passions which inform the pursuit of knowledge will range much farther afield and eventually will have much greater influence. Knowledge is the province of everybody capable and passionate enough to search for it. Alvin Toffler insisted that knowledge is revolutionary in that it can be 'grasped by the poor and weak' as well as by the strong and rich. Of course, there are qualifications, but in general the view is sound. Attempting to control knowledge, and access to knowledge, remains a central mechanism of all authoritarian organisations. The sorts of things we know, the sorts of education we receive, the freedom we are given to think for ourselves, and the liberty to utilise our knowledge are all vitally important to all of us, whether we reflect on the issues or not.

The initial success of Islam was very much a product of its vitality and the radical nature of its message. People who had been oppressed by their circumstances and the customary relations of tribal society were given a different paradigm with which to reorganise their understanding of, and place in, the world around them. The old gods were overthrown by the assertive power and the attractive principles of the one and only God and His people. Authority over other people was only possible within the strict injunctions of God's word. Women were given new status and importance. Truth existed in divine revelation. The successful spread of Islam brought about its major problems. What was appropriate in governing small communities was not appropriate for an extended empire containing all manner of different cultures, languages, religions. Islam's leaders assimilated whatever they considered necessary from the different communities wherever there was no conflict with the tenets of Islam. These tenets came under question as rulers sought to shore up their dynasties and eliminate pretenders to power.

In the process of trying to legitimise political power by suppressing freedom to question that power, knowledge and its pursuit in Islamic communities became a victim. By the thirteenth century people who believed utterly that Islam is the perfect religion had come to accept 'the deadly syllogism: "We are Muslims, therefore we are perfect"'. If we are perfect, then we do not need to seek perfection; we cease to modify the conditions of our lives; we stop questioning. The moral paralysis results in intellectual paralysis; we stop reasoning because reasoning itself has no longer a social object. Orthodoxy reigns supreme and social energy is channelled into suppressing heresies: to purge the community and to give it a sense of its difference and superiority.

Religious sciences and the law gained supremacy in Islamic priorities. The early interest in knowledge of the world was essentially centred on medicine and astronomy, bound together with philosophy. The last was suspect: it was difficult to reconcile much of current philosophy with the immutable truth of the Quran. Pious scholars and orthodox viewpoints undermined the epistemology of rationalist philosophy. The temporal authorities used their power to destroy the dissident voices and shore up their own positions. Orthodox views were a path to favour and preferment, both in the immediate present and the hereafter. It is no surprise, then, that there developed a wide distinction between religious sciences and the more secular empirical observations of how the world worked. The rational sciences were not totally rejected, but they were discounted 'as not conducive to one's spiritual welfare'. This central problem continues to bedevil growth and development in Muslim societies all round the world. The more orthodox is the dominant view, the more the pursuit of knowledge is seen in hieratic ways which are inimical to the secular view of 'progress' pre-eminent in Western societies.

Over the generations of Muslim experiences, throughout the world, the substantive body of Muslim education has developed into a decidedly conservative and traditional institution to maintain the status quo. Men have graduated from primary education based on rote-learning of the Quran and the traditions. They have moved on to higher studies in Arabic language, grammar, philology and rhetoric; to Islamic theology, hadith studies and sharia studies. The encompassing framework has been the constraints of theological orthodoxy, rather than critical exegesis of the traditions and a further development of the great generations of Muslim scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. Ibn Khaldun would not recognise the bases of education in the Muslim world today. God's great gift to human beings: the enquiring mind and its necessity to make a free decision to worship and venerate God on the way to the the Day of Judgement, has been forced into the dead-end of taqlid and acceptance, of human authority, however idiotic that may be.

Education, like faith in the all-powerful hand of God in all things, is a growing experience in which knowledge is achieved through questioning; through recognising doubt for what it is ­ the spur to greater ijtihad and a greater awareness of God's purposes for us all. God made each and every one of us different. We have different talents and capacities which God expects us to develop and refine as we live. Our vice-regency on Earth is to glorify God in every way through every day. This we cannot do if we accept that at some time in the past, however distant or recent, the need was taken away from us by other men. There are, of course, many men and women of great knowledge and their insights can guide us in our individual search for God's favour. In the end we will be judged by our own efforts to glorify God, however strange or inadequate they might seem to other humans, and not by our acceptance of some man-made orthodoxy.

If the general goals of education in Islamic societies is to produce 'ideal Muslims' according to literal interpretations of the Quran, sunna, hadith and sharia, then the acquisition of new skills essential for economic and social change are going to be difficult to achieve. The present circumstances, where tradition is in a constant tension with modernity, will come under increasing attack, especially if the more extremist elements in Islam gain the upper hand. It is noteworthy that Pakistan's Jamaat-i-Islami, despite being politically and socially active since the early 1940s, has not only not provided any educational institutions of its own, its activities have been positively harmful to the growth of progressive Islamic education in the private sector. Education is valued highly throughout the umma, but the basic epistemologies are as yet unresolved for most people. Elementary education is largely conducted through schools which emphasise the Quran and the rituals of being a good Muslim child. They do not inculcate the inquiring mind which is so prominent an aim in Western pedagogy. The madrasas tend to continue the process. State systems work on programs which include the disciplines more familiar in the West while they do not come into conflict with the tenets of Islamic traditions. The wealthy escape the bind by sending their children to schools mostly conducted along the same lines as similar Western schools.

It is, of course, unfair to look at the problems in Islamic societies and criticise the lack of universal, free and secular education. In the West such developments, including the education of women, are comparatively recent. Educating the masses is not a simple achievement. Progress is not simply a matter of putting in so much money and reaping so much reward. If the number of schools is multiplied without changing the emphasis of the curricula; if all you do is put chairs and desks into the madrasas and leave the traditional pedagogy intact, all you are doing is wasting your resources. Under Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation policies, Pakistan's state schools concentrated on prayers, reading the Quran, memorising the Quran, and the revision of conventional subjects to emphasise the Islamic nature of knowledge. Teachers were selected on religious criteria rather than their general educational qualifications and their skill as teachers.

Nevertheless, the values and attitudes are changing. The numbers of Muslims able to undertake their elementary education in private schools and go on to universities both in their own countries and overseas, is increasing. The educational standards of the countries is being raised and the old gap with Western-educated people is decreasing. At present the improvements are confined to the physical sciences and technologies such as computer science where the basic principles are comparatively free of moral values. Somewhere along the line, all Muslim societies are going to be forced to confront the fact that change will have to be qualitative as well as quantitative. Secular public education in Western societies has clearly failed to reconcile the moral dilemma while increasing the capacity of those societies to engage in activities which demand a moral understanding. This much was abundantly clear in the recent conference on world population in Cairo. Modern education, science technology, medicine, mass-media, and so on, are not necessarily public benefits, they also contain public harm - especially when they are left to develop without critical examination.

Conservative ulama have a real basis for concern, because education is empowering: it establishes different paradigms to construct a different world-view. In this way sharia comes under attack, as does acceptance of traditional forms of authority and hierarchy. The education of women ­ so crucial to maintain Islamic values in young children ­ also creates a critical awareness of gender relations within the family and outside it in the wider world of employment opportunities, and increasing questioning of patriarchal privileges. In the process much of Muslim culture will come under attack.

Instead of worrying overmuch about the possible harmful effects on women of a critical education, perhaps greater emphasis should be placed on educating men to accept the expansion of females roles in society. A positive attitude might well maximise both economic development and the maintenance of the moral core of Islam. Muslim women empowered by education will not lead the umma inexorably to moral decline. To think this is to denigrate God's purposes in creating men and women as He did. God did not give women minds so that men could oppress them. The Prophet's sunna clearly demonstrated his acceptance of, and support for, female advice and help.

Changing attitudes to the size of families throughout the Muslim world will affect not only the fecundity of women (the numbers of children they will bear in their reproductive years). More critically, the move towards fewer children will leave easily two-thirds of a woman's life free for wider fulfilment beyond the family. Muslim societies need to find ways of harnessing this great pool of creativity in ways which expand and improve Muslim experiences today. A greatly improved and extended formal system of critical and wide-ranging education will be essential.

The problem ­ as with all the important human problems ­ is not open to simple solutions. The leaders of Islamic societies are aware of the incompatibility between traditions interpreted literally and modernisation. One approach is to imitate the West, with all its attendant problems, and eliminate the religious in favour of the secular. Others prefer to maintain the separation, thus creating two nations in one, with neither having much sympathy for the other. The most common strategy is to try to mix traditional education and modernisation; but the proportions selected will always entail the prominence of one group against the other. In none of these approaches can leaders in Muslim societies escape the moral issues. None of these choices will be free from conflict. All of these choices will cause pain and suffering to one group of people or another. Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad's speech to the tenth anniversary of the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur recognised a number of the problems. He also emphasised that Muslims 'must pursue all knowledge and imbue their activity with Islamic values, and keeping in mind the goal of strengthening Islam. All knowledge is Islamic.

The search for an equilibrium within the central dichotomy in modern Islamic societies can be seen also in the ways technology is being utilised. The same mass communications that lead towards the Coca Cola culture purveyed by the United States have also been used to disseminate the messages of Islamic revival. The most spectacular example of this usage was to spread Ayatollah Khomeini's writings and sermons across borders that were otherwise closed to him. Such success breeds its own reactions. Modern governments are intensely aware of the dangers to their authority of more appealing messages being beamed into homes in their countries. 'Arabsat' which was conceived to provide 'emancipated and emancipating' television for the Arab world, failed because Arab leaders suddenly recognised the reality of the dangers it posed to their authority. Western technological superiority is evident, and it both seduces while it repels Islamic societies. Its mechanical applications can be seen as positive and beneficial. At the same time, such applications introduce new epistemologies, new images of living, new attitudes to life, new moral dilemmas. Radio, television, video cassettes, all have the ability to inform and entertain in positive ways; they also have a greater propensity for corrupting customary ideas and standards. The licence of art is evident in popular culture as the corrupt offspring of the artistic licence so beloved of the people claiming higher humanistic visions: such people, indeed, as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. However, only a creative education system will give people the abilities to discriminate between this corruption and the way to God.



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