Oktober 07, 2009

The Culture of Knowledge

"Budaya Ilmu" or "The Culture of Knowledge" was one of the very first books I have read in epistemology. Written by Prof Dr Wan Mohd Nor, whom I consider as second in authority when it comes to the ideas of Prof Al-Attas, I find it a very interesting read and I'd encourage all those who love epistemological discourses to acquire it. The book can be found in the National Library.

Among the things that I think is interesting is Prof Wan's interpretation of the Prophetic sayings, "Seek knowledge even to the land of China." Although some Muhaddithin reject this hadith and say that it is maudhu' or a fabrication, I urge people to suspend their judgment and at least consider it as a wise saying that has some truth in it, even if there is a possibility that it might not come from the Prophet himself. As mentioned in my earlier articles, the epistemic framework of the Sunni school of thought is not only judged by a single criterion. The sciences of jar wa ta'dil or the sanad sciences alone do not determine whether something is true or false. As mentioned by an atsar from the sahabah Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, "Take something that is true, no matter where it originated from."

Returning back to our discussion regarding this saying, Prof Wan comments:

"It is said that China is far off and a big country before the coming of Islam. The Prophet has said to his companions to garner knowledge even in China. At that time this is not an easy task because one has to learn the language, travel great distances; it is riddled with risks of being robbed and one may never return home. However the Prophet did not stress that religious knowledge was in China at that time. On the other hand, it means to go to China to learn knowledge pertaining to the administration of the world; about paper, gun powder and civilizations, for example, that exist in China at that time. Currently, China is proving to be a world power that is gaining more ground. This proves the relevancy of the Prophet's teaching from before till today."

Therefore it is incumbent for us to understand that the the Islamic epistemic framework does not reject knowledge from other civilizations in totality. In fact, people are encouraged to acquire knowledge regardless of their sources.

However, it is equally important to also realize the hierarchy of importance of different types of knowledge. As Al-Ghazali and Al-Attas have clarified, knowledge is classified as either farhu ain or fardhu kifayah. Fardhu ain refers to branches of knowledge that is incumbent for the individual to acquire; this encompasses things that relate to aqidah, tasawwuf and basic fiqh and everything else that would assist the individual from spiritual danger. Fardhu kifayah knowledge, on the other hand, is a shared responsibility. This means that every community must produce an individual who is learned in that specific branch of knowledge, for the well-being of the community. For instance, the community is responsible to produce enough doctors. Different people have different fardhu ain, depending on the level of intellect and spiritual station. Different communities have different fardhu kifayah, depending on the needs of the community at the point of time.

In these modern times, in the readings of Prof Al-Attas, we live in an era of confusion because of our failure to realize the importance of these 2 things. On one hand we have people rejecting everything that is Western. On the other hand we have people emphasizing fardhu kifayah knowledge, at the expense of fardhu ain. This, in turn, produces imbalanced individuals, separated from their tradition, their worldview. This particular problem is then exacerbated by the fact that these imbalanced individuals then become the representatives and leaders of the Muslim world! In addition, communities produce too many experts in certain fields and neglect other fields of knowledge. Hence, we don't get much response from the Muslims in certain fields despite the challenges posed. As mentioned by Al-Ghazali in his magnum opus, the Ihya Ulumuddin, it is incumbent for the community to produce an expert even in fields that are harmful and not beneficial such as sorcery and witchcraft, so that the expert can guide the community away from these things.

Prof Al-Attas suggests "Islamization of Knowledge" as the solution to this confusion state. This Islamization project is aimed at establishing a proper understanding of the worldview of Islam, which would then solve the three problems stated above. Not only will it equip the individual with the worldview necessary to interpret knowledge from other civilizations and re-cast them into our own worldview, it will also produce experts that will be able to engage in proper civilizational dialogue that will be beneficial to mankind as a whole. This is a field that is often neglected, as the community busies itself in sectarianism and details, refusing to engage in discourses beyond the sphere of rituals and devotion.

As mentioned by Prof Al-Attas, both fardhu ain and fardhu kifayah knowledge are dynamic entities. Fardhu ain must grow in tandem with the fardhu kifayah knowledge acquired. As the Muslim learns new things, he must also equip himself with religious knowledge that will assist him should these new things be harmful to his faith and to the faiths of other Muslims.

The problem with most people is that their fardhu ain stops at a secondary school level. This treats fardhu ain knowledge as a static entity as opposed to a dynamic entity. On the other hand, there are some who are in the view that all people should study Islamic jurisprudence at the highest level possible. This view is also incorrect, because this does injustice to the concept of fardhu kifayah. We don't need so many interpreters of the law, do we? But the problem with our madrasah system is that it tends to churn out interpreters of the syariah, or rather, tape-recorders of the syariah, with the exception of a certain gifted few. Other relevant branches of knowledge are neglected, as if we don't need ulema in this fields. Do we have ulema who can interpret scientific phenomenon discoveries and re-cast them into our worldview?

What we mean when we say that people should study Islam at the highest level possible, is to obtain ma'rifah, or the knowledge of God. As mentioned by Al-Ghazali in many of his works in epistemological discourses, the knowledge of God is the highest and most noble knowledge of all, because it deals with the purpose of life itself and the very objective of religion. The Sufi Saint, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al-Jailani, in his book the Sirrul Asrar, interpreted "submission" as "gnosis." To return to the state of fitrah or natural state would of course include the knowledge of God as Himself, and the knowledge of ourselves as His Servants. Therefore,the act of knowing in Islam is not just via cognitive means. There is an experiential dimension, and this is part of fardhu ain as well! This is why when we say Islamic Worldview in Arabic, it is not Tasawwur Islam or "Concept of Islam." This would imply that the Islamic Worldview is a mere concept that is purely cognitive. We say the Islamic Worldview as Ru'yatul Islam Lil Wujud or "The Vision of Islam With Regards To Existence." Because a vision is not merely cognitive, it is experiential as well.

This is the meaning of the culture of knowledge.

So what is your fardhu ain and fardhu kifayah?

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