“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?”: The Democratized Utopia of Scriptural Understanding

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“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

Being a graduate student of the study of Religion, every day is an eye-opener for me – a stark reality check – about how much there is to learn and how negligible a proportion of it I have managed to know so far. Clearly, a two-year long degree programme was not going to make me an expert on the intricate matters of faith and, most certainly, I will not pretend that it has. However, perhaps not everybody shares my degree of self-doubt. Recently, I heard one of my class-fellows voice his opinion in the class to this effect: “We need to take the legal tradition of Islam from the scholars who have monopolized it and give it to the ordinary people.” This got me to ruminate the entire day on how problematic I find this opinion to be. This article is precisely a cathartic outlet to that very rumination.

I would like to believe that the speaker’s opinion came from a well-meaning place, but I wonder who is this ‘we’ who’s bent upon snatching the tradition away from the scholars? Is it not an alarming case of intellectual hubris when individuals in their 20s, with barely two to three semesters of training in a religious studies degree based in a Western institution not only deem themselves fully qualified to take the Islamic tradition away from the scholars but also believe that scholarly contributions to the tradition can be bypassed in favor of individual efforts and interpretations. Presumably, the aim of this endeavor is the democratization of knowledge. It is needless to say that this is not a novel suggestion. The Protestant idea of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, and the modernist emphasis on breaking the chains of centuries worth of scholarly tradition in order to eradicate the intellectual stasis is echoed on the other end of the spectrum of modern madness when enraged accountants and engineers convince groups to go on killing sprees based on their ‘interpretations’ of the book. The increasing radicalization in the Muslim world in the past century is the very fruit of unqualified individuals interpreting scripture on their own, without the requisite tools, bending it to all sorts of devious and heinous ends.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concede that that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not a monopoly of the select few but a collective inheritance of the believers. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that that there has to be a systematic ethic with which this inheritance is to be viewed. Quran and hadith comprise not only of unequivocal general ethical exhortations but they also contain specific, legal, and deeply perplexing content, to comment on which scholars traditionally received training for decades within multiple religious sciences before they considered themselves qualified. And since everyone does not have the temperament, ability, or desire to possess these requisite tools, it is encouraged that when seeking clarity on crucial matters one asks those who do.

Certainly universal ethical principles can be consumed individually, but Quran and hadith are not entirely composed of ethical principles. How do ‘common people’ derive clear doctrinal precepts from scripture? Have they historically done so without utilizing the heritage of the scholars? Commenting on the verse 16:44 wherein the Prophet is reminded that Quran is sent down to him so that he may ‘explain it to the people,’ Taqi Usmani writes that “Had the interpretation of even this type of subjects (doctrinal issues) been open to everybody irrespective of the volume of his learning, the Holy Quran would not have entrusted the Holy Prophet with the functions of ‘teaching’ and ‘explaining’ the book.”

Even after the Prophet, Quran clearly encourages one to ask those who know and explicitly reminds that not everyone ‘knows’; undoubtedly, everyone is not at the same station of knowledge.

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

“Question the people of the Remembrance, if it should be that you do not know..” (Q 16:43)

“And these similitudes We mention before the people. And nobody understands them except the learned.” (Q 29:43)

“Rather, the Qur’an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. ” (Q 29:44)

The classical intellectual heritage of Islam owes its existence to the works of committed scholars. In my modest opinion, a handful of self-styled modern religious ‘scholars’ who use and abuse religion for political ends must not lead one to discredit an entire tradition standing on the efforts, commitment, and wisdom of those authentic scholars – classical, post-formative, and present – the ‘heirs of the Prophet’ according to the famous hadith – who worked sincerely and relentlessly to preserve the integrity of this extremely rich and beautiful tradition.

Not only is Quran a difficult book, the hadith and sunnah are even harder: Ibn Wahb (d. 813), an Egyptian jurist who travelled to Medina to study with Malik ibn Anas, noted that he learnt so many hadiths that they began to confuse him, and if it weren’t for Malik through which God rescued him, he would have destroyed himself. Malik used to guide him to study some hadiths and leave some.

Islamic tradition has been and will remain, if any meaningful understanding of it has to be acquired, a tradition learnt under the guidance of teachers – under the shadows of the scholars. One of the modern sages who’s been my constant source of inspiration quoted these Arabic verses recently which I find most germane to this issue under discussion:

العلم انتقل من الصدور الئ السطور / ولكن بقي الرجال مفاتيح لتلك السطور

(at some point) the knowledge was transferred from the breasts to lines (of books) / but humans still remain keys to those books

And Allah knows best.

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The Great Creed of Inaction: The Use of Uselessness

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Oscar Wilde wrote the following incredibly powerful words in an essay titled ‘A Chinese Sage’ published in Speaker on 8 February 1890:

“There is also this to be remembered — that the prizes of the world degrade a man as much as the world’s punishments. The age is rotten with its worship of success. As for education, true wisdom can neither be learnt nor taught. It is a spiritual state, to which he who lives in harmony with nature attains. Knowledge is shallow if we compare it with the extent of the unknown, and only the unknowable is of value. Society produces rogues, and education makes one rogue cleverer than another. That is the only result of School Boards. Besides, of what philosophic importance can education be, when it simply serves to make each man differ from his neighbour? We arrive ultimately at a chaos of opinions, doubt everything, and fall into the vulgar habit of arguing; and it is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.”

This essay was a review, as well as an eloquent encapsulation, of the text by the great Chinese philosopher who lived around 3rd or 4th century BCE named Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi. When I encountered this text, I was fascinated by the beauty and elegance of its ideas, but the idea I found most fascinating in the text is ‘the use of uselessness’ in that how conventional notions of utility are a negation of the intrinsic value of the world and there is something deeply valuable about uselessness itself, an idea that would appear radically counterintuitive in the excessively ambitious character of the modern world; which is why it does not come as a surprise that Wilde describes Zhuangzi’s text as “the most caustic criticism of modern life.” Young adults surrounded by society’s implicit expectations and family’s relentless exhortations “So, what are you accomplishing next?” would find Zhuangzi’s cheerful acceptance of passivity and resignation to be like much-needed and extremely liberating fresh air.

 

‘In the World of Men’ narrates the story of an old, gnarled tree which was deemed useless because its chopped wood would serve no purpose at all and so it was left alone by the carpenter. Later, the tree appeared in his dream to unravel that “a long time to be of no use … is of great use to me.” Profitable trees are chopped and maimed to derive benefits out of them, and “their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them.” The carpenter suggests that the old tree’s uselessness is its protective asset and that it must not be deemed lowly because of it: “it protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off.” For instance, by modern standards of material success, we may deem somebody as unsuccessful while it may be that they are in a state of spiritual contentment. Conversely, many humans find themselves miserable, deeply dissatisfied, and compromise their true potentialities by finding themselves stuck in an endless rat race. The carpenter implied that there is a value in that tree merely resting which can be taken to mean that repose entails a state of harmony with nature. So, a perfect man for Zhuangzi is “passive and accepts the laws of life” in Wilde’s words. In the same vein, uselessness also guarantees a life free of pain and grief: ‘Free and Easy Wandering’ depicts a yak that only “knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you… relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life and nothing can harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”

I found Wilde’s review article to be extremely powerful as well as helpful in viewing Zhuangzi’s philosophy in contradistinction to modern human condition, for the modern “age is rotten with its worship of success” while Zhuangzi “has nothing to do with modern sympathy with failures.” He is “preaching the great creed of inaction” and is marked by an evident “contempt for utilitarian systems.” However, since Zhuangzi was writing around 4th century BCE, no one can accuse him of critiquing modernity, but we can conjecture that he was expressing his critique of the prevalent ideas of his age he found himself amidst. For instance, Confucian thought placed an overwhelming emphasis on structures and hierarchies and the need for humans to develop pro-active efforts directed towards changing self, communities, and governments. Zhuangzi’s philosophy opposes all these prescriptions for he seems to not only not endorse the role of governments, but he also seeks to keep the world original and simple, where humans are marked by attitudes of letting go, effortlessness, and equanimity.