From Knowledge to Nihilism: Redeeming Humility

“Read in the name of thy Lord Who created.” This first verse of the Qur’an, revealed some 1,400 years ago, announced the advent of Islam. The birth of Islam was a proclamation on continuation of the Abrahamic tradition. By the end of the Revelation that lasted for over two decades, the Qur’an came to contain nearly 800 instances of words and nuances associated with the archetype, knowledge (al-‘ilm).

Whether civilizations appear as a pursuit of profit or as an act of luxury is debatable in the face of Islamic civilization that once reflected the pinnacle of creativity: it was known as the Civilization of the Book. Out of the Arabian heartland, there emerged a culture that flourished from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to the Pacific Rim in the East. From the majestic minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul through the winding bazaar of Timbuktu in Mali to the emerald-studded marble faéade of Taj Mahal in India, there still is a sublime echo of a civilizational grandeur.

The early Muslim civilization, heir to a rich and diverse intellectual stock  Roman, Greek, Indian, and Persian – accomplished the unique synthesis of ideas in all branches of knowledge. From the 8th to the 13th century there were more religious, philosophical, medical, astronomical, historical, and geographical works written in Arabic than in any other human language of the period.

The Enlightenment, which coincided with the Muslim fall, struck a heavy blow to the Muslim intellect that was later enslaved by the spread of colonialism. Modernity and then postmodernity has done little to rescue the intellectual landscape in the Muslim world. Globalization now is forcing a daunting challenge.

Today, the Muslim world faces the most critical period of its history: a civilization standing at the crossroads, seemingly unable to carve a niche in the community of nations.

We are passing through a crisis of identity and, consequently, a crisis of contextualization. In the absence of the spirit of free inquiry and free enterprise, slowly but surely we are heading towards greater social disharmony. Though it would be erroneous to characterize the Muslim world as a monolith, yet it is fair to argue that not a single Muslim country is there today that meets the criteria for modern political and social governance, religious liberty, economic evolution, gender equality, cultural prosperity and human dignity. Muslims continue to live under dictators, autocrats, kings and authoritarian rulers in grossly oppressive conditions.

The colossal tragedy that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, has once again put the House of Islam at the forefront in world affairs. It can be decisively argued that a strategy for change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour. Any impartial observer of Muslim affairs will testify that the creeping decay of the Muslim societies did not beg the mercy of criminal terrorists to set the former on a path to salvation. They may have been an effect rather than a cause.

For instance, a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, written by Arab scholars and researchers, makes a scathing but pragmatic assessment of human condition in the Arab world: The Arab economies are stagnant, political freedom is absent and, with widespread illiteracy, women are denied any opportunity in economic and political life. Barriers to change are many and varied. Even the traditional Muslim charities (awqaf) have lost their social and economic relevance. The Arab report, in essence, is an indicting commentary on the state of the entire Muslim world.

In his address to a conference attended by ministers from some 35 Muslim countries, Pakistan’s self-appointed President, General Pervez Musharraf, berated the global Muslim society in these words: “Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy (sic), the most un-enlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race.”

As Muslims we do not have theologically sound understanding of our faith. Even the early discourse on speculative theology (kalam) is absent from our circles. We are engulfed in seemingly endless wars of rhetoric and anger among ourselves and against the West. Orthodoxy has won over reason. Rationalism, skepticism and individualism have been mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of a totalitarian puritanism. We are suffocating due to the loss of pluralism and progressive thought so distinctive a trait of the Muslim past. How long is the global Muslim community (ummah) going to suffer after the foreclosure of the gates of reasoned argument (ijtihad) a millennium ago? Another millennium?

The dilemma of modernity is nowhere more pronounced than in the Muslim perception and assimilation of modern science and technology. While the self-absorbed theocracy deems it fit to exploit the instruments of modernity in the furtherance of its own agenda, at the same time it does not consider it unethical to condemn the sources of modernity in the most virulent terms. On the other hand, Muslim intellectual response toward a constructive engagement of religion and science remains largely an uncharted and undefined territory.

The state of debate on religion and science in the Muslim world is that of a blurred intellectual vision. It is largely an articulation of a viewpoint that betrays the paucity of knowledge and thought about the modern scientific ethos. Together, it perpetuates an ossified style of theological reasoning. Others take it from an extreme apologetic perspective to the point of turning the Qur’an into a book of pure astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics or physics. Much of it is promoted as Islamic education, with a ring of authority where critical thinking is made to be a forbidden tree.

Similarly, the effervescent epistemological revisionism in the garb of “Islamization of knowledge” has fallen into the trap of an allegedly value-free science. They thought it sufficient to add an adjective to some disciplinary categories and that summed up the Islamization endeavor.

Then there is the poorly articulated and epistemologically weak idea of “Islamic science” that randomly makes use of a few common Islamic concepts and values in a rhetoric borrowed from the Western social radicalism – without ever reaching an analytical depth.

Against the backdrop of these feeble intellectual currents lurks the traditionalist discourse that altogether consigns modern science to oblivion and attempts to prop up a fatal mix of mystical and alchemical knowledge. That too in the name of Islamic science! Much of the historical discourse on the subject remains panegyric in nature, to the extent of self-delusion. The so-called jihadi agenda though adhered to by only a minority partially thrives on this nostalgic thread.

This vast intellectual, and to some extent doctrinal, confusion about the theory and practice of science, as well as the attending theological ramifications, calls for a radical change in both attitudes and practices towards both religion and science. In our understanding, this change in attitudes and practices must occur at two levels: i) epistemic – pedagogy in science following a free inquiry model rather than regurgitating the received text or being a mindless imitator, and ii) cultural – the innovative mind is encouraged to develop positive interfaces between science and religion toward a greater harmony in knowledge.

We are neither interested in a scientific apology for the Qur’an nor in the relegation of science to a Quranic literalism because both tend to obfuscate the advance of knowledge in the respective domains. Contrarily, we need a dynamic invocation that may play a pivotal role in breaking the impasse that continues to grip Muslim mind and culture. A political neutral, the concept of humility appears to offer a ground for the indispensable engagement of religion and science in the Muslim context.  It may act as a catalyst for a liberating view of knowing the self and what surrounds us.

The Qur’an explicitly speaks of humility in relation to one’s faith and how it can enhance one’s spiritual awareness and commitment to God: “Has not the time arrived for the believers that their hearts in all humility should engage in the remembrance of God and of the Truth, which has been revealed to them?” al-Hadid 57:16 Commentary: “Humility and the remembrance of God and His Message are never more necessary than in the hour of victory and prosperity.”

“Say whether ye believe in it or not, it is true that those who were given knowledge beforehand, when it is recited to them, fall down on their faces in humble prostration and they say: Glory to our Lord! Truly has the promise of our Lord been fulfilled! They fall down on their faces in tears, and it increases their earnest humility.” al-Isra 17:107-109 Commentary: “A feeling of earnest humility comes to the man who realizes how, in spite of his own unworthiness, he is brought, by God’s mercy, into touch with the most sublime truths. Such a man is touched with the deepest emotion which finds its outlet in tears.”

“Those who are near to thy Lord disdain not to do Him worship: They celebrate His praises, and bow down before Him.” al-Airaf 7:206 Commentary: “The higher you are in spiritual attainment the more is your desire and opportunity to serve and worship your Lord and Cherisher and the Lord and Cherisher of all worlds; and the greater is your pride in that service and that worship.”

The Quranic term for humility is khushu’. It is narrated that even the Prophet was exhorted and he labored to lace his prayers with utmost humility, and tears. He, in turn, reminded the believers to follow his example in prayers. The opposite of humility is arrogance (kibr in the Quranic terminology). Of Satan (iblis), the Qur’an speaks as the arrogant one who refused to obey God’s command to show humility towards His creature. In other words, one may consider absence of humility tantamount to arrogance that is not an Angelic but a satanic attribute. Arrogance defines its own boundaries, foreclosing new possibilities of knowing. Further, in the Quranic phrase arrogance leads to tyranny (zulm).

At this point, we are reminded of Dr. Muhammad Abdus Salam of Pakistan, the first Muslim Nobel Laureate. In his writings, he often referred to the role of humility in the understanding of Nature. However, he was unable to articulate his thoughts on the subject in a manner that would transform that abstract notion of humility into reality. Moreover, the celebrated Pakistani poet and Lenin Prize Laureate, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in spite of his secular credentials, was forced to admit the organic necessity for humility. His poetry, often reflective of the bewilderment felt at the cosmic splendor, carries an implicit ode to humility inherent in man.

The example of a religious physicist and a secular poet tells that there runs a common thread of humility in the human mind. Its outer manifestation may not be a uniform phenomenon or man may attempt to deny it under the guise of secular objectivity. But, as Sir John Templeton articulates humility as a universal concept, the strength of the epistemic humility lies in reawakening a force in human thinking without upsetting the theological/intellectual balance and creating a unique interface between religion and science in a rigorous fashion. This we believe is one of its outstanding characteristics.

The recognition of boundless opportunities for spiritual and cognitive information only stands to spur human endeavor for excellence in both spheres. Acting in a complementary fashion, the humble approach in religion and science opens new vistas of knowledge and understanding. While immersing the man deeper into spiritual experience, this approach, as contrasted with the positivist heroic approach in science opens new bold opportunities for learning.

Again, in the Muslim context, as well as in other religions, humility could be regarded at once as an agent of both spiritual and cognitive evolution. The five daily prayers in Islam, for example, could be understood as a symbol of humility of man towards his Creator. Will the obscurantist theocracy and incarcerated intellect in the Muslim world rise to the clarion call of humility towards fulfillment of their duties toward their Creator?

Dr. Munawar Anees, a Pakistani-American writer and a social critic, is a Special Consultant to the John Templeton Foundation, Philadelphia. In February 2002, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).