4: Two sources of knowledge

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Q. 4: In your writings, you stress that there are two sources of knowledge: the Qur'an, and human history – that a man who ignores human history cannot think properly. So how would you place human history in relation to the Qur'an? And how can world history be so indispensable in approaching the Qur'an?

Interview with "Current Islamic Issues"
1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
3: The main features Jawdat's project
4: Two sources of knowledge
5: Are you advocating the discarding of jihad
6: The basic tenets of Iqbal's project
7: The challenge of globalization
8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility
9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?
10: The present Arabic cultural scene
11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude
12: Interpretation of the holy texts
*Download the full Interview


A. 4: Well, I may say again, Abdul-Jabbar, you have quite succeeded in touching on those ideas which are most intimate to me. Yes, it is fair what you require. I need to be quite clear and open. I need to provide abundant examples and illustrations. We read in the Bible how Jesus Christ used to speak in parables, and never to speak but with parables. We also read in the Qur'an: "And such are the parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge;" (29:43)

It is true that a person who does not know history does not only lack knowledge – he also is not reliable as a thinker. Knowledge and the intellect are history; they are experience. Without history, there will be no knowledge and no intellect. To have sound thinking is to relate causes and effects; the mind is not a system of thinking, but a system of relating causes with effects, and how that may be translated into a reality. When a human being is born, he is endowed with the potential capacity to read; however, he may live all his life illiterate; therefore that potential he had for learning how to read and write remains idle, and the ability is not transformed into a reality. Likewise, the word ' 'akl, mind' is not used in the Qur'an as a noun, but as a verb. The Qur'an does not say that people 'do not have a mind,' (because they were endowed with the ability), bur rather that they 'do not understand,' that is they do not relate causes to effects.

It is history that testifies to the truthfulness of the Qur'an. Allah himself, as we find in His Scripture, directs us to go to history to make sure that the Qur'an is authentic: "Soon will We show them Our signs in the furthest regions of the earth, and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things?" (41:54) It is so because no one can meddle with the outcomes of history. Many make a mistake here when they confound what people state, what they think about events, with the outcomes of people's thoughts. The history of communism is not what people, those supporting communism or those opposing it, have written about it: The history os communism is its outcome. This is not a condemning the objective of fair distribution of resources, but a condemnation of a particular way adopted for fulfilling that objective. The objective itself was not wrong, but the way adopted for fulfilling that objective was. For if we were to condemn the objective, we would have to concede that Islam also failed. But things are not like this.

Let me deviate a little to put in something that will be seen to be relevant by and by. It is fruitful to compare physical health and mental health. There was a time when people knew almost nothing about the causes of diseases; epidemics invaded large areas and reaped many thousands or even millions. But there are really other diseases, diseases of wrong thinking, regional or universal, that also kill abundant numbers. Like the epidemics, wars are the result of diseases, though they are intellectual, conceptual diseases. Before the germs that killed human beings were discovered, people used to kiss somebody that they loved, killing the beloved one unintentionally – and they cried over the dear victim of their own ignorance. That is something that we understand, but do not we transmit fatal ideas to people, being quite careful in conveying those ideas most honestly? And then, when those ideas result in fighting and hostility, and when people are the victims of the hostility among them, we fail to see how this stems from our poor understanding of human problems. The Qur'an asserts that it is left to us to purify our souls or corrupt them (91:9-10). And so we need to work hard on these topics, to get over our illusions and fancies.

One way to do so is to think about the relation between a text and the real things in the world, like trees, or living things, which are handled by the text. I once wrote about that relation. between the text and a concrete object, like the tree, or a living thing, or even an inanimate thing. Now, no matter how well and how extensively scientists or others write about a living or an inanimate object, their writings will not do justice to that thing, until we go to the thing itself and examine it directly. That is the actual reference when any disagreement rises. Even if God describes something in words, that created thing, the concrete thing itself, shows its reality more evidently than any words. Let it be noted that when God reveals a Book, He uses human words (this is indicated in the Qur'an in the following verse: "We sent not an apostle except to teach in the language of his own people;" 14:4,) but when He creates something, He does not use human elements. Let it be remembered, too, that God did not send down a Book until men had learned to read and write; and reading and writing are human things, with all human shortcomings. The Divine creation, on the other hand, has all the absoluteness of God, although creation goes on developing and progressing.

We can now connect the last two paragraphs to history and say that Allah directs us to refer to His creation itself to learn the wisdom of the creation. We find the following in the Qur'an:

- 'Travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected truth,' (3:137)

- 'Then see what was the end of those who were admonished, but heeded not,' (37:73)

- 'So see what was the end of those who made mischief,' (7:103)

- 'Then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime' (7:84)

- 'But see what was the end of those who did wrong,' (10:39).

That about the wrong-doers; about the upright, we also have another set of verses:

- 'The end is best for the righteous,' (7:128)

- ' .. who gets home in the end,' (13:42)

- '.. Soon will ye know who it is whose end will be best,' (6:135).

It is also relevant to recall how Iqbal finds the best criterion of the quality of a civilization or culture, to observe the type of man it has produced. These points are not difficult; people often notice similar facts spontaneously; so we need to ponder over them. Have you not noticed how people spontaneously find the surest proof of a certain event to be the outcome that it gives rise to? The Qur'an supports this, when in so many locations it directs us to observe the ends and outcomes, both in favorable and adverse situations. Likewise, the Messenger, peace be upon him, says: "Many peoples that preceded you brought about their perdition when they forgave a thief if he happened to be a person of high status; but punished a thief if he had no status." We have to think of the above tradition not as a sacred text, but as a historical law: It empirically directs us to observe how a certain line of behavior led to a certain outcome; we do not expect a more rigorous rule than to measure the correctness of a certain behavior against the outcome that it leads to. That is the gist of historical laws, and in this way history would be our lab for examining human behavior. Is not this the way people conduct their experiments and do their observations in the labs of scientific investigation? Our observation of human behavior must always be given priority in our scientific investigation.

Take now the Qur'anic verse, "Let there be no compulsion in religion;" (2:256). Here we have the words of God, but still we may make wrong deductions in analyzing the verse. Muslims have indeed blundered a lot when they failed to let people choose their beliefs without compulsion. They assumed that should we act on the above verse, allowing people to choose to be believers or unbelievers, great numbers of Muslims would abandon the faith. This delusion has led to tragic situations. Why do not those who doubt the truth of this verse notice how the former Soviet Union collapsed under our very noses, when it was the state that practiced compulsion in beliefs. It collapsed, and it was such a resounding collapse! And it will be followed by all those who try to coerce people to accept doctrines that they do not want to accept. It is the law that those who use compulsion will perish, and God says that in another location of the Qur'an: "Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with 'Ad people, of the city of Iram, with lofty pillars, the like of which were not produced in all the land? And with the Thamud people, who cut out huge rocks in the valley? And with Pharaoh, lord of stakes? All these transgressed beyond bounds in the lands, and heaped therein mischief on mischief. Therefore did thy Lord pour on them a scourge of diverse penalties. For thy Lord is as a Guardian on a watch-tower." (89:6-14) The Qur'an mentions both the conduct of people, and their ends or outcomes; it also affirms that the law will be applied again every time similar conduct is done: "If ye revert, We shall revert to Our punishments;" (17:8) "Never do We give such requital except to such as are ungrateful rejecters." (34:17)

Is it not right that, in the light of the above verses and rules, we say: Have you not seen what your Lord has done to the Soviet Union? And to the Shah of Iran? Let it be noticed that the events which took place after the revelation of the Qur'an were more momentous and numerous than the events which took place before it. Therefore we say: Where is the Soviet Union, with all its war heads and missiles? It was definitely greater than Pharaoh and Thamud. We may also, with reference to history, predict that the United States will not be what it is now. It may stay as a great power, but its present arrogance and high-handed ways will definitely vanish. At present, it does not deal with people even-handedly: It rates some as above the law, and rates others as helpless and so it assaults them. When God condemns those who deal with people with double measures (83:1), what about a great power that has no measure at all? Pharaoh was destroyed for he, 'elated himself in the land and broke up its people into sections, depressing a small group among them;" (28:4)

Another thing about inequality and arrogance is the Veto Right; it is the worst form of polytheism in the world; and the worst thing about it is that no one is pressing for its elimination. On the contrary, those who do not have this right crave it and cry out that they should be granted this right. One is reminded of Qarun, the extremely wealthy man of Moses's people, who, when he went forth among his people in the full pride of his worldly glitter, those whose aim was the life of this world said: 'Oh! That we had the like of what Qarun has got!' (the Qur'an, 28:79) Exactly as many now envy those who have the Veto Right! It is true that anyone who recites the Qur'an is familiar with Qarun's story, but we still have events in the real world to be observed and analyzed.

One people, the people of Jonah, are singled out in the Qur'an, as having succeeded in learning the lesson, and making the right change: "Why was there not a single township among those We warned, which believed, so its faith should have profited it – except the people of Jonah? When they believed, We removed from them the penalty of ignominy, in the life of the present, and permitted them to enjoy their life for a while;" (10:98). People do have some sense of the benefits of observing the signs of history. Iqbal had this in mind when he suggested in the fifth chapter of his book, Reconstruction of the Religious Thought in Islam, that one criterion for judging the mission and message of a prophet is to observe the kind of human being he produced, the kind of culture that emerged as a result of his message. He particularly stresses one great idea of Islam, which is putting an end to prophethood. He also says: "Man is naturally controlled by his emotion and instinct; it is only the conductive mind which enables man to have control over his environment. When we succeed in rising to having this faculty, we have to lay it more firmly and solidly, by suppressing any ways of knowledge that do not employ this method.

"Now having the above in mind," adds Iqbal, "we find that the Prophet of Islam, appeared at the juncture between the ancient world and the modern world. As far as chronology is concerned, his message belonged to the ancient world, but as far as the spirit of that message is concerned, he belongs to the modern world. In his message, new sources of knowledge are introduced, that more fit the modern life with the advent of Islam, and in this way Islam announces the birth of the conductive mind.

"Now prophethood, as it is perceived in Islam, reaches it perfection, by realizing the need for its termination. And that perception indicates the deep realization of the impossibility of having man led for ever with a harness. By abolishing monasticism and hereditary monarchy, by the Qur'an's exhortation everywhere to resort to the intellect and experimentation, by its insistence on exploring the universe, and getting acquainted with the lives of the preceding peoples, by pointing out all the above as sources of human knowledge, the Qur'an is stressing the idea of putting an end to prophethood… The Qur'an announces the existence of two more sources of knowledge in existence: nature and history. The spirit of Islam is demonstrated more manifestly in opening up a way to research through these two sources. In the signs of the sun and the moon, in observing the extension of the shade, and the succession of the day and the light, and the diversity of colors and tongues, and the moving around of fortunes among peoples, we may not pass by all that without taking note of them."

To get at things like the above needs a great effort. Even a man as great as al-Ghazali said that the mind's function was to lead you to Allah and his Prophet, and then you do not need it any more. That was the way they saw things. One wonders now how things seemed like this to them when the Qur'an warns us not to be of "those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works;" (18:104) or the other verse: "Is he, then, to whom the evil of his conduct is made alluring, so that he looks upon it as good, equal to one who is rightly guided?" (35:8) But history is always there, no matter how people ignore its lessons: it is there to teach us its lessons. It is indeed a patient instructor; its laws and ways are firm and solid; it will never desist, it is always waiting for us to change our ability to comprehend. I am quite contented that God will enable those who come after us to appreciate the importance of these issues, and understand them in ways that we are quite unable to imagine.