Reflection & Knowledge

When we want to speak about reflection and how it serves man in his intellectual Islamic life on his journey to seek a close proximity to Allah s.w.t, we find that it is heavily emphasized within the Holy Qur’an’s teachings.

Let us ponder over this verse one moment:

الَّذِينَ يَذْكُرُونَ اللّهَ قِيَامًا وَقُعُودًا وَعَلَىَ جُنُوبِهِمْ وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَذا بَاطِلاً سُبْحَانَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ

“Those whom are [in a state of] remembering Allah s.w [while] standing up, sitting down or on their sides, reflecting over the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying] Oh our Lord, you did not create all this in vain, Glory be to you! Grant us salvation from the Fire.” Al-Imran [3:191]

Reflection can be defined as a calm state of careful and intended consideration of something where one is not unconscious towards the respective subject of reflection, but conscious of its presence and pondering over its very essence to discover more about it.

Spirituality in the parameters of Islamic teachings is not a state of unconsciousness similar to that of toxicity of sleep based on imagination and fantasy, on the contrary a Muslim is one whose vision is sharp and looks to pierce the reality of things even further.

It is the mind that Allah s.w.t has given us as a means and a tool to drawing closer to Him, as it is the mind of man that has made him distinguished from the rest of Allah s.w.t creation with its ability to pierce the internals of things and understand their inner workings, and not only the apparent surface of things. It is through man’s mind he can unveil the hidden secrets of existence without being restricted by time and space, breaking all material boundaries. It is also through man’s mind Allah s.w.t is known and worshipped.

So thinking is the key to this…

الإمامُ عليٌّ (عَلَيهِ الّسَلامُ): مَن أكثَرَ الفِكرَ فيما تَعَلَّمَ أتقَنَ عِلمَهُ، وفَهِمَ ما لم يَكُن يَفهَمُ.

Imam Ali (AS) said, ‘Whoever increases his thinking in whatever he learns, his knowledge will become proficient, and he will come to understand whatever he did not understand before.’ [Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 8917]

The Holy Qur’an has been revealed to man to define the methods for a believers thinking and reflection so that faith may not be blind.

It nurtures the human mind to be bestowed a faith, based on the grounds of reflection and convictive conclusions that are based on open mindedness and sound thought, nurturing it to be the most robust it can be.

In Islam, man does not need to look into the books of philosophy, but rather look into the book of the universe (The Holy Qur’an) and reflect over it in our existence to witness that there is an all-encompassing intelligence that is governing the whole universe and that He is grand in his countenance and presence.

The Holy Qur’an was also revealed for the purpose of nurturing man’s thought to rise to the level of opening up to Allah s.w.t and to be able to gain what it may understand of Him. Man is not able to understand the essence of Allah s.w.t as His essence is not in the realms of sensory experience or experimentation, but man can understand Him regarding what he has revealed about Himself and by reflecting over his actions in creation.

سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ

“We shall certainly show them our signs in the [vast] horizons and in their souls until it becomes unveiled that He is the [ultimate] Truth, is it not enough that your Lord is a [all encompassing] witness over all things?”[Fussilat [41:53]]

The method of Islam, gave man the freedom of thought which was not granted to the rest of man’s limbs, for they were instructed to move within their prescribed limits, such as what man sees, what he hears or the way he uses his hands and feet or any of the bodies instruments is limited, except the mind, that was given utter freedom in what it may think and reflect over.

The mind of man was not created with tight restrictions like the external faculties which are restricted physically where they may go, for when we read the Holy Qur’an the mind travels the whole universe without any restriction what so ever…

Allah s.w.t told the mind to be free in what it thinks, think of Allah s.w.t, think of what the others may say and what they don’t say, but you are accountable to what you may think in the sense that what you think about must be on the path of that what is going to give you conclusive outcomes that make you reach the Truth, for in the hereafter man’s mind will be put to account before his limbs.

وَلاَ تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْمٌ إِنَّ السَّمْعَ وَالْبَصَرَ وَالْفُؤَادَ كُلُّ أُولـئِكَ كَانَ عَنْهُ مَسْؤُولاً

“And never concern thyself with anything of which you have no knowledge of: verily, [thy] hearing and sight and heart – all of them – will be called to account for it [on Judgment Day]!” [al-Isra’17:36]

الإمام الحسن المجتبى(عليه السلام): عجبت لمن يتفكر في مأكوله، كيف لا يتفكر في معقوله، فيجنب بطنه ما يؤذيه، ويودع صدره ما يرديه

Imam Hassan (a) said:”I wonder those who think about their body’s food, but do not think about their soul’s food. They keep away disturbing food from their belly, but fill up their heart with destructive subjects.” [Safeenatul Bihar Ch.2 page 84]

Passiveness has no place in Islam, as Islam is rigid in its composition and infinite in the vastness of its discoveries. One must be attentive as indicated by this hadith :

إمام علي ع قال: ألا لا خير في علم ليس فيه تفهّم .. ألا لا خير في قراءة ليس فيها تدبّر .. ألا لا خير في عبادة ليس فيها تفقّه.

Imam Ali (a) says: “Surely there is no goodness in learning if there is no understanding, surely there is no good in reading without there being any reflection, surely there is no good in worship if there is no depth of its laws”[Jawahir al Bihar Ch. 49]

Also Allah s.w.t mentions in the Holy Quran:

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ أَطِيعُواْ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلاَ تَوَلَّوْاْ عَنْهُ وَأَنتُمْ تَسْمَعُونَ* وَلاَ تَكُونُواْ كَالَّذِينَ قَالُواْ سَمِعْنَا وَهُمْ لاَ يَسْمَعُونَ* إِنَّ شَرَّ الدَّوَابِّ عِندَ اللَّهِ الصُّمُّ الْبُكْمُ الَّذِينَ لاَ يَعْقِلُونَ* وَلَوْ عَلِمَ اللَّهُ فِيهِمْ خَيْرًا لأَسْمَعَهُمْ وَلَوْ أَسْمَعَهُمْ لَتَوَلَّواْ وَّهُم مُّعْرِضُونَ

“O you who have attained to faith, pay heed unto God and His Apostle, and do not turn away from Him now that you hear [His message]; * and be not like those who say, “We have heard”, the while they do not hear. * Verily, the vilest of all creatures in the sight of God are those deaf, those dumb ones who do not use their reason. * For, if God had seen any good in them, He would certainly have made them hear: but [as it is,] even if He had made them hear, they would surely have turned away in their stubbornness. “ [Al-Anfal 23-20]

We will certainly be punished for not reflected and using our abilities to discover the truth:

وَلَقَدْ ذَرَأْنَا لِجَهَنَّمَ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الْجِنِّ وَالإِنسِ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ لاَّ يَفْقَهُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ أَعْيُنٌ لاَّ يُبْصِرُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ آذَانٌ لاَّ يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا أُوْلَـئِكَ كَالأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ أُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْغَافِلُونَ

“And most certainly have We destined for hell many of the invisible beings and men who have hearts with which they fail to grasp the truth, and eyes with which they fail to see, and ears with which they fail to hear. They are like cattle -nay, they are even less conscious of the right way: it is they, they who are the [truly] heedless!”[al-A’raf 7:179]

The higher levels:

It is only through reflecting over knowledge of Allah s.w.t, that is manifested in everything, that we can reach the higher worlds that are invisible to the human eye, but are visible to the eye of the heart and mind.

The invisible is what manifests itself into the visible, for example our souls are manifested into our bodies and the souls of other creatures into the material body.

Knowledge itself is invisible but is manifest and acting all around us.

This draws the conclusion that the invisible is more profound that the visible and material, for it is the invisible that animates the material.

This can also be applied to the relationship between the creation and Allah s.w.t, which is the hidden secret to all that is manifest, but has made Himself known to us through it.

If one ponders deep into his soul and discover it, then after look into its kernel, then into the kernel of the kernel, will witness the countenance of His grand Lord at work…

The mind and heart of man are tools for traversing the vast horizons of Allah s.w.t through reflection and thought.

Is it a wonder that it has been made an obligation upon us to gain it?

رسولُ اللهِ (صَلَّيَ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَ آلِهِ): طَلَبُ العِلمِ فَريضَةٌ عَلى كُلِّ مُسلِمٍ

The Prophet (SAWA) said, ‘The quest for knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim [Amali al-Tusi, p. 488, no. 1069]

And there is no strength except In Allah and peace be upon those whom follow the guidance…

ولا قوّة إلا بالله والسلام على من اتبع الهدى

The Tweeting Ayatullah

As any medical student will tell you, becoming a doctor is an incredibly tough process. Six years of medical school, years of being overworked as a junior doctor, sitting exams well your 40’s…the list of challenges goes on. Society rightly expects high standards from doctors: when it comes to protecting the fragile human anatomy, we are justified in expecting those responsible to be highly qualified and able.

The same goes for lawyers, dentists, accountants etc. Whenever we depend on another’s expertise, we want to make sure the person we depend on is qualified for the task. So why do we not apply the same rigour in religious affairs?

An Islamic scholar can be termed a ‘spiritual doctor’. He is a role model to a Muslim community; he preaches a way of life and holds an influence over the lives of followers that few other professions can claim. In the YouTube generation, the mere words of a scholar can literally mean life or death for millions of people. It should stand to reason that the field of Islamic scholarship would be limited to just that – scholars.

Yet a quick glance over social networks will reveal this is patently not the case. Theology is a field in which every believer thinks him or herself equipped to offer an opinion, often based on flaky and inconsistent knowledge of the subject. The famous phrase holds true: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In some ways this is a good thing. It provides evidence that religion is as alive as ever in the hearts of followers and demonstrates believers’ passions and devotion to their faith. But on a practical level, it is not only foolish but dangerous. Not long ago a university Islamic society had their prayer room confiscated because their Friday sermons (given by a layman president) appeared to endorse jihadist attacks.

When a layman quotes a verse of the Qur’an, he has little knowledge of the context of the verse or its interpretation. When he (or, to be gender neutral, or she) narrates a saying of a holy figure, he has even less knowledge of the source, chain of narrators, or of scholarly debates on the subject that have spanned for over a thousand years.

That’s not to say laymen aren’t entitled to an opinion or a comment – on the contrary, the involvement of ordinary people when making theological verdicts is crucial. But Muslims need to be careful about to whom they give a platform to represent their faith. They also need to be careful about the sources of their theology: is Twitter really the appropriate forum to be discussing the efficacy of chest beating, or public cursing, or forms of marriage? After all, a discussion is only as fruitful as those partaking in it are qualified to do so. That doesn’t mean such discussions shouldn’t take place – just that they shouldn’t have any influence on the way society functions.

Neither am I suggesting that all those who claim the title of Islamic scholarship deserve that title (that’s a different issue entirely). Nor am I denying that current society lacks an effective barometer for distinguishing who or what a scholar is (But that’s a different issue too). I’m just saying that your religion is too important for you to allow it to become a free-for-all. If you wouldn’t take a layman’s opinion on whether Parliament is constitutionally sovereign seriously, why should you take a layman’s opinion of the permissibility of chest-beating seriously? Both issues require a high level of expertise to provide an effective answer.

As such, it’s probably a good idea that laymen (so far as it is possible to do so) avoid giving religious sermons, or offering firm opinions on complex theological issues without qualifying their answers as being of little academic worth. Muslims need a balance between allowing non-scholars to feel engaged with their faith without allowing them too much influence over theological issues. Concomitant with the rise of social networking has been the emergence of self-styled Ayatullahs that actually spend most of their day as (for example) bus drivers. That, quite, patently, is not right.

Intellectual Freedom, Censorship and the Spirit of Islam

The idea that ‘Islam’ is a set of idealism-defining principles with which Muslims often fail to conform, almost seems a clichéd notion. Amongst these lofty principles is allowing the intellect freedom to manoeuvre, to challenge and to break faulty ideas in order to replace them with more accurate ones. Thus we find the inevitable contraposition to this ethic found within many Muslim societies, whereby barriers of censorship are erected in order to shield the masses from intellectual opinions that challenge the presiding point of view, be it ideological in nature or otherwise.

Ironic then, that the birth, and subsequent growth, of Islam was only made possible by the demolishing of such barriers; and that intellectual censorship was a tool upon which the opponents of Islam depended. The Quraysh’s prohibition to Al-Ṭufayl ibn ‘Umar from listening to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), out of fear that he may convert, was by no means an isolated instance[1].

It may well have been the case that the censorship imposed in Mecca, 1400 years ago, was decreed in order to protect prestigious financial and social positions of the Qurayshi elite; it may also be the case that intellectual censorship in today’s Muslim societies does not always spring from such sinister self-serving motives. Nevertheless, the frantic want to silence opinions that challenge the status quo, is the bitter fruit of insecurity; either fearing that the ideas we have adhered to for so long may crumble in the face of a more indubitable argument, or that we lack the scholarly prowess to intellectually defend the beliefs we hold, regardless of how correct they may be.

Islamic philosophy, jurisprudence and even ideological convictions have all evolved over time due to the willingness of scholars, with critical minds, to entertain novel ideas in Popperian spirit[2].

The early history of Islam is riddled with examples of how the progeny of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) debated, discussed and intellectually defeated ideological and jurisprudential conjectures put forth by those less learned. Shying away from debate or attempting to repress contending opinions would have been unbefitting of them.

It is regrettable to see, therefore, that it is now deemed acceptable for religious figures in authoritative positions, to censor and silence academic opinions that are not in harmony with what is considered ‘mainstream’ – regardless of whether or not they are correct.

This unfortunate trend results in the numbing of the collective intellect of the Muslim community by shielding them from controversial views, patronisingly keeping them aloof from mental exercise in a religious context.

However, the refusal to engage and entertain differing views, and blocking them from the community by building a rampart of censorship, could lead to an even more potentially perilous possibility – what if they’re right?!

[1] Majlisi, M. B. (1988). Biḥār al-Anwār. Beirut: Dar al-Fiqh. V. 17 P. 81

[2] Karl Popper (d. 1994): “I speak of the growth of scientific knowledge, the repeated overthrow of scientific theories and its replacement by better or more satisfactory ones”. [Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge Publications. P. 215]