Knowledge is Strength المعرفة قوّة، العلمُ قوّة
Islam is a faith that advocates and demands intellectual rigor. The Quran instructs its followers to observe, reflect and employ rational thinking and analysis towards the understanding of both secular knowledge, the world that we live in and our place within it.
As I quote the Quran: ” The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of martyrs.”
I am really fascinated by the Islam Renaissance era, between the 7th and 14th century. Some call it the Golden Age of Islam where Islamic civilization was at its intellectual zenith
The success of Islamic empires then, namely dynasties like Umayyads and Abbasids spread its influence all the way to the east in China and the west to Europe. Its influence stem not from violent conquests, but by its scholars and intellects, who by exploring and discovering, attracted interest from all over the world. The knowledge gained by this scholars transformed the Muslim world in being a custodian of knowledge, from literary works of Rome, Egyptian architecture, all recorded and translated into Arabic for all of its people to learn and be learned. Moreover, Muslim and non Muslim scholars were given the opportunity and freedom to come together, collaborate and communicate their ideas, in what became a centre of intellectual stimulus. Muslim scholars like Ibn Battuta were pivotal in developing and contributing in the fields of philosophy, physics, chemistry, mathematics, law, medicine, economics, just to name a few. They leached upon knowledge from other parts of the world, preserving them and adding innovative inventions and ideas of their own. Think, algebra, geometry, alternative energy, surgery,capitalism, astrology…. The world certainly owns a great deal of knowledge to this era.
What was the catalyst to the success of the era was the religious freedom granted to Muslims and non Muslims. This attracted the Christians and Jewsish intellectuals to engage with the Musilm scholars. Almost everything basically was up for debate, except of course for religious sensitivities. The Muslim population as a whole saw religion not only as a faith, but a reason to life. Reason and faith were both very much connected and mutually inclusive. Learning was universal and not confined to religion only. I totally embrace this mindset.
Unfortunately, like any golden empire, there was a downfall. The Islamic Renaissance period ended due to a sequence of events that unfolded. War and conquest from other civilization threatened the existence of the Muslim world. This led the people to become inward looking. This defensive mode of Islam sacrificed intellectual dynamism for religious survival.
Fast forward to today, Islamic traditionalist thinking is very much prevalent. In fact events like 9/11 and other terrorists related activities prompted the world to cast a doubtful eye on us. Another disheartening fact is if we look at the Human Development Index which measure socio-economic indicators like life expectancy, standard of living, education, GDP, no Muslim state comes closed to a industrialized nation. If we talk about poverty, 10% – 20% of the population in Muslim countries like Pakistan or Indonesia live on US$1 per day. Sad isn’t it? It seems that we have taken 2 steps backwards. It’s a shame that nothing from the golden age is being replicated. Don’t even get me started on the conflicts internally between the Sunnis and the Shiites.
Today, the Muslim world have 2 wars to fight. First, eradicating fundamentalist, who stand against modernist thinking. Second,a new breed of Muslim intellectuals must stand up and lead the way into a globalized world. The religion must be truly understood and analyzed to be applied to today’s issues. An example would be democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. Culture and human deviation must NOT be confused with religion. I emphasize NOT as I read about and experience such confusions during my travels. Some very common misunderstandings are 1) The term Arabs/Malays and Muslims are synonymous (Yes, I am flabbergasted by how some Singaporeans among us still cannot differentiate between race and religion) , 2) women should not pursue education and have limited rights, 3) laws that condemn infidel women but not men , 4) polygamy for lust, and most importantly in current context, 5) conservatism and intolerance to other religions which promotes extremist ideologies.
I truly believe that traditionalist thinking in Islam is a result of being defensive, and lacking understanding. Having said all that, with the question marks raised of the current conventional banking system, and with Islam being in the limelight because of the news generated by extremists, there is no better time to strive for improvement today. Islamic banking for example can be introduced more aggressively to the world and be a cornerstone in transforming the image and understanding of Islam once again.
As a reflection, I might not be a good practicing Muslim, but one thing I am certain is that character is paramount when it comes to my priorities. I believed that being a born Muslim, it is easier to take it for granted. However, I am taking the reverse route. Solidifying my character, strengthening my knowledge, and using the religion as a reason to build my faith.