Islamic Perspectives

Ulama - a strategy for change - i

Theology and scientific knowledge are not antagonistic or mutually exclusive in Islam, Instead, one leads to the other and strengthens the other.
By Yawar Baig

In my view, the single most critical thing that distinguishes Islam from all other religions and ideologies is its focus and emphasis on knowledge. The only thing that Allah taught His Messenger to ask for increase in, is knowledge. It is for this reason that the scholars of Islam have a very special place in Muslim society. For various historical reasons, this place has been lost for many decades.

Historical Perspective - Europe and Christianity: In Medieval Europe a combination of the pressure of kings to act at will and the self-serving politics of the Church resulted in a formal division between the Church and the State. What added to this, especially when scientific education became popular (ironically as a result of the contribution of Muslim scientists) was the alienation of the common people from Biblical knowledge due to the fact that the Bible had been changed by its guardians and no longer made sense to a scientific mind. They found that what their religion said was so divorced from reality that they had only two choices left to them. Either to discard all religion (which is what Darwinism, Marxism and the various atheistic theories actually did) or to hold religion as something ceremonial to respect but not as something that can actually be used in real life. Most people made the second choice. So they went to Church on Sundays and listened to sermons but during the week they continued to live their lives in accordance with their own personal desires. They found nothing contradictory or ridiculous to sit in the same pew with their live-in boy or girl friend and listening to a sermon about faithfulness in marriage and against extra-marital sex.

The State allowed the Church to operate freely in the area of theology, narrowly defined as the study of the Bible, rituals of worship (baptism, marriage and funerals etc.) and preaching. All these were acknowledged as the responsibility of the priests and the State and common people would not ‘interfere’ in them except to provide funding at their will. Priests were given the right to raise funds for their work (building churches, running Sunday schools, seminaries and monasteries, publishing religious literature and missionary work of preaching). All considered to be ‘good work’ which it was the role of the church and priests to do. So also it was their role to be pure and celibate (extreme form of ‘purity’) and for the women among them to be modest and covered from head to toe (nuns) and to be engaged with only charity and such matters and leave the world and worldly matters alone.

The unspoken condition was that the Church and its priests refrained from ‘interfering’ (criticizing, correcting) in the lives of the kings and common people. As long as the Church toed this line, it got State sponsorship. When it refused (as in the case of Henry VIII - who founded the Anglican Church as a breakaway from Catholicism which refused to allow him to marry again and again), people simply went ahead and either found some ‘cooperative’ priests who were willing to legitimize their wrong doing. Or they went ahead and did what they wanted to anyway. This only served to enhance the divide between the Church and the common people and gradually the role of the Church was reduced merely to the symbolic.

Historical Perspective - The Muslim World: Interestingly the same kind of division happened in the Muslim World. Some reasons were the same, i.e., the recalcitrant attitude of kings and common people about following the precepts of the faith in areas where these were in conflict with their own desires. Ulama who disagreed with Muslim kings and Khulafa were brutally persecuted, even murdered. Ulama who were cooperative and allowed things which they had no right to allow, simply to please their masters were praised, supported and enriched. Common people went fatwa shopping and praised those Ulama who legitimized their wrong doing or at least did not openly criticize it. This unfortunate trend continues to this day.

In the face of severe persecution, Ulama retreated away from the limelight and took refuge in their Khanqaahs and restricted themselves to protecting and teaching the scriptures. They deliberately stayed away from matters of a worldly nature and perhaps unconsciously or in times of intense persecution even consciously, agreed to separate their activity from the real world and retreated into their Madrasahs and Khanqaahs. They confined themselves to the study and teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith, rituals of worship and its related aspects (births, marriages and deaths) and some specific issues of fiqh (like the so-called Muslim Personal Law in India). They became and created super specialists in the religious texts with no attempt to look at their application to fast changing external realities of society. And they also started preparing ‘priests’; students whose role was seen as being confined to Imaamat (leading prayers) in masjids and teaching in Madrasas. Interestingly, they even called the Jaami’a Islamia, a ‘seminary’, and its Nazim or Muhtamim, ‘The Rector’. It is tragic to note that no attempt was made at least to be distinct from Christian Religious institutions in nomenclature.

All scientific and current knowledge was shunned and considered as being beneath the dignity of Ulama to study. Therefore, Ulama and students became less and less knowledgeable about science and technology and appeared as being ‘ignorant’ in society. Since they did not (and still do not) understand science, technology and current knowledge, most of them have no idea how to use it to benefit Islam or Muslims.

Students went to a particular ‘Aalim to learn a particular branch of theology. When they finished there, they went to someone else to learn another branch. When formal Madrasahs were established, they simply brought several Ulama, each an expert in his branch of theology, together in one place. The curriculum simply followed the earlier method of learning where each ‘Aalim taught in his expert area with no reference to what another ‘Aalim would teach the students in the next period.

For example, if students of a class are doing the Tafseer of the Ayaat of Sura Al-Baqara relating to interest-based financing and the writing of contracts in their Qur’anic Tafseer class, they do not necessarily study the Kitaab al-Buyu’ in their Hadith class. Nor do they study the rules of Fiqh to do with business, contractual dealings, financing and its current forms in the world. Therefore, to connect one branch of theological knowledge with another and then to interpret it in the context of current social realities is something that is simply left to the student’s ability with predictable results. Not surprisingly this has created a disconnect for ordinary Muslims between what Islam teaches and the questions they face in their daily lives.  

Ignorance as always breeds fear and so also in this case where there is a universal phobia (though not always acknowledged) among the Ulama about science and technology. Ulama forgot that the Qur’an itself encourages the person to research in the creation and recognize the signs (Aayaat) of Allah.

The Qur’an teaches the way in which this is to be done; the sequence of guidance without which one sees the signs of the Creator yet fails to recognize Him in those signs. It was the responsibility of the Ulama and to show the world the right way to research scientific knowledge, but they did not shoulder this responsibility. Instead they discarded scientific knowledge and called it a source of misguidance, without recognizing that the danger lay in the method of teaching by the secularists, not in the knowledge itself. This increased the alienation even more. The liberal atmosphere in universities became another cause to criticize and fear them and so Muslim students were discouraged from going to modern universities. Strangely there was no attempt to actually go to a modern university and change the atmosphere to one that is more oriented towards learning. There was a strange lack of confidence in our own theology and our ability to persuade or influence anyone about the Islamic way of life. That is why there was the unspoken fear that if our students went to universities they would get ‘corrupted’ while the fact that they could conceivably have influenced others, was neither acknowledged or even considered possible. Sadly this attitude exists even today in many quarters.

The Qur’an on the other hand actually encourages scientific research and education and also teaches the way in which this must be done. It teaches the sequence that must be followed in order that scientific education actually becomes a source of guidance and strengthening of Imaan. It draws attention to the fact that if this sequence is not followed, then there is danger of the student going astray.

Allah describes those people who He calls People of Understanding (Ulul Albaab). It is important to understand this description and see if we fit it or not as we consider ourselves to be intelligent: “Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed Signs for People of Understanding. They are those who celebrate the praises of Allah standing, sitting and lying down on their sides and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): Our Lord! Not for nothing have you created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire.” (A’al Imraan:190-91)

Theology and scientific knowledge are not antagonistic or mutually exclusive in Islam, Instead, one leads to the other and strengthens the other. The Qur’an teaches the methodology to do this so that the student sees the signs of Allah in the world by means of this knowledge. But somewhere we lost this connection and lost our position as leaders in science and technology. We lost this because we did not follow the Qur’an. Not because we lost the scientists in wars.

Continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2010 on page no. 28

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