The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology in the Modern Islamic World

Joseph E.B. Lumbard

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Throughout the twentieth century, Muslim scholars called for a revival of the Islamic intellectual tradition in order to address the moral and spiritual malaise which has too long afflicted Muslim peoples the world over. Both Sunnis and Shiites, from the heartland of medieval Islamic civilization such as Syria, Egypt, and Iran, to its later lands such as Malaysia and West Africa, to its most recent penetrations into Europe and America, have long decried the intellectual decrepitude of modern Islamic civilization. To many scholars of Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim, the rise of violence, punctuated by the events of September 11, 2001, are the latest symptoms of an underlying illness, a cancer which has been eating at the collective moral and intellectual body of the international Islamic community. In retrospect, such events were not a surprise but a painful indication of how deep this crisis has become.

In adopting foreign theories and analytical models without fully evaluating them, both modernist and puritanical reformist (to avoid the amoeba-word 'fundamentalist') Muslims have abandoned the guidance of their own intellectual heritage. But in order to be effectively assimilated into the Islamic world, such modes of thought must first be evaluated. Then what is found to be of value can be incorporated organically through a genuine intellectual and civilizational discourse, as happened in the encounter between Islam and Greek thought in the ninth and tenth centuries. When, however, one intellectual tradition is abandoned outright, there is no basis for the evaluation of another intellectual tradition and none of the fertile ground that is necessary for effective assimilation. Recovering the Islamic intellectual tradition is thus an essential, if not the essential, step to ameliorating the malaise which Muslims and non-Muslims alike have long bemoaned and decried. When this has occurred, Muslim peoples will be better prepared to engage Western civilization without surrendering to it altogether or opposing it outwardly while capitulating inwardly.

Here we will focus on one dimension of the Islamic intellectual heritage whose true nature has been abandoned, rejected, and forgotten for much of the modern period. In this essay it is referred to as the 'ihsani intellectual tradition.'

Ihsan is an Arabic word which comes from the root hasana, meaning to be beautiful, good, fine, or lovely. The word ihsan is the noun form of the verb ahsana, which means to make beautiful, good, fine, or lovely. Ihsan thus means making beautiful or good, or doing what is beautiful or good. The ihsani intellectual tradition begins with the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, who told his companions that 'God has ordained ihsan for everything.' In perhaps his most famous teaching on the subject he said: 'Ihsan is to worship God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, He nonetheless sees you.' The central manifestation of the practice of ihsan took form in what is traditionally known as Sufism (Islamic mysticism), where the emphasis is on making one's heart and soul beautiful so that beauty will arise naturally from within. But the ihsani tradition has taken on many forms, under many names, throughout Islamic history. Wherever there has been a vibrant Islamic civilization, be it Sunni or Shii, the ihsani intellectual tradition has been present in one form or another. Though it is not absent from the modern world, its political, social, and intellectual influence has decreased dramatically.

Like the philosophy of Plotinus, Meister Eckhart or Shankaracharya, the ihsani intellectual tradition comprises a science of Ultimate Reality in which metaphysics, cosmology, epistemology, psychology, and ethics are elaborated in terms of the attachment of all things to their one true origin, which is also their ultimate end. From this perspective, philosophy is not simply ratiocinative deduction and speculation; rather, it is the science of the Real. But to truly see the Real without the obfuscations of passional predilections and mental constructs, one must first perfect the organ of thought and perception – i.e., the intellect, which according to most traditional Islamic thinkers, resides in the heart.

As Mulla Sadra, a preeminent representative of this tradition, writes: 'Know that philosophy is the perfection of the human soul to the extent of human possibility through perception of the realities of existent things as they are in themselves and judgment of their existence verified through demonstrations, not derived from opinion and tradition.' From the perspective of the ihsani intellectual tradition, perception and understanding are not merely a way of knowing, they are moreover a way of being, and any form of perception or understanding which is not informed by the awareness of God's omnipotence and omnipresence is not in keeping with the ultimate purpose of being human. Not all the solutions to the malaise of Islamdom lie within this dimension of the Islamic tradition. Nonetheless, its absence from contemporary discourse is among the most severe of the symptoms indicating the illness of the whole.

For years scholars and laymen, both Western and Muslim, have been guilty of assuming that the divisions and juxtapositions which modern man employs to analyze the world are reflections of age-old dichotomies. On the one hand, it is assumed that Islam is a rigid, desert religion of the sword whose most native expression is found in rigid reformist movements (what many like to call 'Islamic fundamentalism'). On the other hand, Sufism is seen as a free, even supra-Islamic, expression of individual spirituality. In the early nineteenth century, many scholars looked for its origins in Hinduism and some in Christianity.

Developments in recent scholarship have provided many corrections to these errors, but such notions persist. Like any group, the Sufis were sometimes loved and sometimes hated, at times supported and at times persecuted; but they were part and parcel of the early intellectual tradition, and thus an important component of the overall pedagogical effort to establish a society based upon the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, a society based upon submission, faith, and 'doing beautiful' – islam, iman, and ihsan. The efforts of figures such as Seyyed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Abduh, the Wahhabis, and some factions among the Muslim Brotherhood to curtail their influence, if not abolish them altogether, is thus an indication of how far Muslims have strayed from their own traditions.

This rejection of Sufi teachings and their later intellectual elaborations is among the most significant losses endured by the Islamic world. It is indeed an essential part of what makes much of the current Islamic world 'modern.' For in order to be lived in its fullness, every aspect of the Islamic tradition must be present. As C. S. Lewis has observed: once you have rejected a part of a religious tradition, you have ipso facto rejected the entire tradition. Not every individual will be fully inclined to each aspect of a particular religious tradition, but every aspect must be present for people of different predilections to work together in weaving a social fabric that allows for the expression and actualization of the full tradition.

Law and creed, which could be said to correspond to islam and iman respectively, are an integral component of any Islamic society, but without the vivifying presence of a full-fledged ihsani tradition, they become opaque and are soon bereft of that light by which God guides. It is for this reason that Sarraj referred to ihsan as the reality (haqiqa) of the religion. The rejection of intellectual Sufism as a major component of the modern intellectual discourse has thus contributed to a catastrophic myopia.

Stringent reformists, such as the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the Jamasat-i Islami (Society of Islam) in Pakistan, and the more militant elements among the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, propose strict adherence to the Quran and the sunna, but in doing so arrogantly discard thirteen centuries of Islamic intellectual history, claiming that there is no need for help from the great thinkers of the past in order to understand and interpret the texts which they themselves preserved and transmitted. They then seek refuge in religious fervor, while closing the door to analysis and deliberation regarding the problems which confront the Islamic world. This approach stirs deep passions in the hearts of people who yearn to live a pious Islamic life, but denies many of the forms of guidance by which such passions were traditionally channeled towards the Divine. In the absence of such guidance a narrow ideological interpretation of the faith comes to predominate. Those who fail to adopt this interpretation are then seen as unbelievers, or at best as misguided

Through the sciences which developed in the ihsani intellectual tradition, an objective critique of the modern world which is based upon the verities contained in the Islamic revelation can be developed. Nothing that is objectively true can be rejected through the methodologies of this tradition, for it is in the nature of Islam that it accepts all that bears witness to the Divine – every truth cannot but bear witness to the one Truth. But such sciences must be implemented on all levels, for man is not only a mental being, but a spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical being as well. In short, the preservation of the transmitted sciences which has continued to the present day must be combined with a rediscovery of the intellectual sciences and a revitalization of the training of the soul and the methods of cultivating inner discernment.

But such a path is not achieved by focusing upon reform of the world, of Islam, or of one's nation. It is first and foremost a reform of one's self.

From Dr Joseph E. B. Lumbard (ed.), Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition (World Wisdom Books, 2004 – see

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