Integrating Knowledge: A Tawhidic Imperative
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi (India)
Tawhid is the central organising principle of Islam. In its primary meaning, it is about the absolute Oneness of God. In its extended meaning, it is about the oneness of the entire humanity, as the Quran beautifully expresses it: all humans being the children of a single set of parents - Adam and Eve - are essentially one. Further all knowledge, coming from God alone as it does, has a unity (wahdat) at its core. Thus, there is no reason why Muslims should not try to bring their main organising principle - Tawhid - to bear down on the entire body of human knowledge.
Whether it is the knowledge of the Quran and Hadith, social sciences or natural sciences, arts or technologies, medicine or engineering, astronomy or oceanography, botany or zoology - all knowledge comes from God. As there is a clear unity of its source - Allah - all of them are one, different facets of a single Reality.
Some people have tried to dispel the apparent distance and duality between theology (particularly the Quran) and natural sciences like botany, zoology, geology and astrophysics by saying, with great wisdom and insight, that studying the Quran is the study of Word of Allah, while the study of natural sciences is the study of Work of Allah. So, where is the dichotomy? Where is the innate contradiction? The case being what it is, the emphasis on the integration of knowledge makes immense sense.
The case for integration of knowledge has its foundations in the Quran, and is backed as strongly by the actions and advice of the Prophet (PBUH), who took not only the study of the Quran as elevating and ennobling, but the knowledge of other areas, as well as sports and military skills, as highly desirable. He did not see contradiction between them at any stage.
FIRST SIGNS OF DIVISION OF KNOWLEDGE
The earliest attempt at a significant division of knowledge came with Imam Abu Hamid ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali. This great jurist, theologian and philosopher, who later became a sufi, is highly regarded as a neo-Aristotelian in Europe categorized some subjects as Uloome deen (religious sciences) and the others as uloome duniya (worldly sciences). He also categorised certain subjects being taught in madrasahs even today as uloome duniya.
He was among the first scholars ever to work on comparative religion and reconciled the Shariah to sufism. Regarded as one of the revivers (mujaddidin) of Islam in a new century (12th century CE), he left behind at least 50 highly authentic and influential books that had a great impact on Europe and the Islamic world. There are nearly 400 books attributed to him, but scholars have not vouched for them.
Ironically, historians of philosophy mark the beginning of Muslim decline from that era. They have pointed out that Muslims turned inwards (towards sufi ideas), leaving gradually the world of action to others. This point came in Islamâ€™s journey after 400 years.
Islam is a pro-active religion: it engages with the world, to change it for the better. To make it more just, fair, equitable. And, finally, more humane. From the beginning it has frowned upon withdrawing from the world in search of a quiet life of meditation and prayer. The Prophet (PBUH) prayed more than anyone else. The Rashidun, too. But, none of them withdrew from the world of constant struggle.
Despite that, great minds were produced by Islam even in later centuries. One example is the legendry Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century CE. A man of an encyclopedic sweep of mind, Ibn Khaldun is still held in awe in the Western academia.
Ibn Khaldunâ€™s integrated knowledge is evident from his remarks about the Great plague (also known as Black Death) that virtually desimated much of Europe. In his Muqaddamah the eight-volume preface to his 20-volume Kitab al-Ibar, he firmly rejected the European view.
Europe had declared that it was a scourge of God (azzab-e-Ilahi). Ibn Khaldun said that because European cities were overcrowded and unclean, the disease was spreading. It was a disease, not a scourge of God. Even today medical science says that overcrowding and unhygienic conditions facilitate the growth and spread of pandemics.
RISE OF THE SPHYNX
Over the centuries, Muslim world was not only left behind in knowledge, but its meagre knowledge was no longer integrated. In the second half of the 19th century movements for the regeneration of the old habits of pursuit of knowledge began worldwide.
At such a moment the Darul Uloom Deoband was established in 1866 in Western Uttar Pradesh, almost three hours drive from Delhi. In the first annual report of Darul Uloom in 1867 Maulana Nanautawi wrote that people may ask why along with deeni subjects the Darul Uloom was teaching subjects taught in European universities. He explained by teaching those subjects he was opening the eyes of students and building their reason. â€œWith these subjects, we are teaching not Islam, but aqlâ€, he wrote. Aql in Arabic is wisdom.
The choice of subjects at Darul Uloom in those years should help todayâ€™s Muslim intellectual elite striving to create knowledge in Islamic perspective, integrated knowledge in short. Islam had never left the subcontinentâ€™s Muslims, nor had they given up pursuit of knowledge at any moment. Sadly over the decades the Darul Uloom shed all the modern subjects one by one, and it is purely deeni university now. Its twin, the Mazahirul Uloom in Saharanpur (Deoband also falls in the same district of Uttar Pradesh, about three hours drive from Delhi), established within the decade by the same set of ulama who built Darul Uloom, taught the same subjects with similar excellence. However, this institution, too, dropped the subjects over the decades, shunning the vision of the founders.
Today, the Muslim inability to put the Islamic text into contemporary context emanates from this. The movement for the integration of knowledge (or, more precisely, of putting knowledge in Islamic perspective) seeks to do that exactly.
Interestingly, the AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Jamia Hamdard and Osmania University (built by the nawab of Hyderabad) all seek to somehow contextualise modern knowledge in the Islamic perspective by running departments of theology and Islamic Studies. However, that is not enough.
There is scope for more Muslim universities in India and IOS has done basic work on establishing one, including acquisition of land, preparation of project, identification of academic leaders and political patrons. With all this the search for excellence, the hallmark of early Muslim scholars, has begun.
Dr Abdul Hamid Abusulayman writes in Occasional Papers 12 of the International Institute of Islamic Thought about the lack of integration of our knowledge:
Thus, an examination of the prevailing conditions of education and learning in the Muslim world reveals a high concentration of what is termed as â€œurban and technological,â€ going too far in imitating all the latest fads of developed countries. The interest of these efforts is the importation of new machines, equipment, and systems.
The institution I head is the founder of Indian Association of Social Scientists, which has 400 members. Most of the work produced by these academics qualifies for integration of knowledge at a higher level. My institution also brings ulama and Muslim social scientists often on a single platform to generate knowledge and seek Islamic solutions to real-life economic, and social issues.
Over the last 30 years, my institution, the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS), has produced hundreds of books and as many seminars, conferences and symposia, all of them at the interface of modern and Islamic knowledge. We are also facilitating transition of deeni madaris graduates into proper modern university graduates. Soon we are to hold a programme of interaction and mutual enrichment between university law graduates and experts of Shariah from deeni madaris. Muslim universities in India like AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamia Hamdard have provisions for allowing students from deeni madaris into mainstream humanities at the university. AMU has a bridge course for this. IOS has been interacting with several universities and institutions of higher learning all over India for the same purpose in a bid to integrate and expand our knowledge. And support our search for excellence.
(The above is a paper written by Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam to be presented at a seminar on "Integration of Knowledge" organised by IIIT East Asia on April 23, 2019 in Malaysia)