The Constriction Of ‘Alim and ‘Ilm?

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When some­one says the word ‘alim/‘ali­ma our mind con­jures up the idea of some­one who’s com­plet­ed an ‘alimiyyah degree at a spe­cialised insti­tu­tion of learn­ing (college/madrasah/Darul ‘Ulum etc.), or some­one who’s earned licence (ijazah) to teach to a req­ui­site lev­el by his/her teacher(s). Sim­i­lar­ly, the word ‘ilm takes the mean­ing of ‘knowl­edge of Islam.’ But, a long line of dis­cus­sions I’ve had on this, most recent­ly with a Pro­fes­sor of Physics, led me to the think that we’ve con­strict­ed their def­i­n­i­tions. To the extent that it’s become, I think, a sad reflec­tion of the so-called ‘cri­sis of intel­lect’ cur­rent in Mus­lim dis­cours­es today.

In the well-known exam­ple of an ‘alimiyyah course – the dars-i-niza­mi, stu­dents are put through stud­ies in the tra­di­tion­al Islam­ic sci­ences (Ara­bic, Qira’a, Qur’an, Poet­ry, Tafsir, Shari’ah, Sir­ah, Log­ic, Hadith, Usul, Fiqh, Aqi­dah and so on). Syl­labus­es have evolved to include sub­jects like crit­i­cal think­ing and his­to­ry, and vary between insti­tu­tions in their teach­ing meth­ods and texts stud­ied. On the face of it, it’s not too dis­sim­i­lar to a Clas­sics or The­ol­o­gy course at uni­ver­si­ty; com­mon to both is the study of, in essence, lit­er­ary texts, law and the­ol­o­gy. Though of course, the con­tent and empha­sis in their appli­ca­tion to the mod­ern world dif­fers great­ly. As well, one pre­sumes, the inten­tion and learn­ing the ‘stuff’ of grow­ing close to God, and help­ing ordi­nary Muslims—though teach­ing of sacred knowledge—fulfil their respon­si­bil­i­ty of stew­ard­ship (khu­lafah al-ard). In the UK, the ‘alimiyyah course is taught along­side the nation­al cur­ricu­lum, too.

At the end of their stud­ies, if one pass­es their exams they gain the ‘alimiyyah cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, attain­ing the title Moulana or Sheikh to dis­tin­guish them as ‘learned in the reli­gion’ or ‘alim. For­tu­nate­ly, we have many insti­tu­tions that offer the ‘alimiyyah, sup­ply­ing com­mu­ni­ties up and down the coun­try with a steady stream of men and women well-acquaint­ed with the tra­di­tion­al Islam­ic sciences.

That said, the tra­di­tion­al ‘alimiyyah has its fair share of crit­ics. Some argue that most ‘alimiyyah cours­es have become too insti­tu­tion­alised into the sec­tar­i­an and school-based prax­is. The texts, too, are not crit­i­cal­ly stud­ied it is argued, and hence fail to be inte­grat­ed and con­tex­tu­alised to the mod­ern world. There are also those who argue that the so-called ‘Islam­ic uni­ver­si­ties’ are ‘not real­ly Islam­ic uni­ver­si­ties because they teach the Shari’ah, Ara­bic and Islam­ic His­to­ry but the oth­er sub­jects are not integrated.’

Keep­ing these dis­cus­sions aside, for me there is a more basic ques­tion of who can we call ‘alim which is more rel­e­vant. I say this because it seems a lit­tle odd that in the Eng­lish lan­guage we don’t con­strain the world ‘schol­ar’ to some­one who’s com­plet­ed the ‘alimiyyah degree. Instead, we use ‘schol­ar’ in a broad­er sense, to describe any­one who’s spent some time study­ing pret­ty much any field and reach­ing a lev­el of tech­ni­cal and prac­ti­cal knowl­edge. If we want to be spe­cif­ic, we use the term ‘Islam­ic schol­ar’ in Eng­lish to mean an ‘Islam­ic ‘alim.’ You’d think that it’s pos­si­ble, then, to inter­change­ably use ‘alim with ‘schol­ar’ to say ‘Physics ‘alim’ or ‘Geog­ra­phy ‘alim.’ After all, ‘alim in Ara­bic, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, is some­one who has knowl­edge about a par­tic­u­lar mat­ter which need not be con­fined to ‘alimiyyah cours­es. But this lin­guis­tic def­i­n­i­tion usu­al­ly remains unexplored.

In ear­li­er Mus­lim soci­eties ‘the learned’ were peo­ple who did not just learn the reli­gious sci­ences, they were also well-acquaint­ed with a broad range of sub­jects, like math­e­mat­ics, astron­o­my, med­i­cine, geog­ra­phy, phi­los­o­phy, chem­istry etc. What exist­ed was a dynam­ic knowl­edge cul­ture or eth­ic, which, arguably, grew out of sacred texts com­mand­ing Mus­lims to con­tem­plate cre­ation, and to place a cul­ture of inquiry and learn­ing at the heart of Mus­lim civilization.

For exam­ple, ref­er­ences to Cres­cent Moons (ahilla) in the Qur’an as ‘signs to mark fixed peri­ods of time for mankind and for the pil­grim­age,’ had strong impli­ca­tions for Mus­lims to under­stand the knowl­edge of Moon phas­es. Sim­i­lar­ly, ‘Read in the name of the Lord … Who taught man through the use of the pen what he did not know’ accord­ed, ‘a high place to read­ing and writ­ing in order to learn what one did not know.’ These indi­ca­tions (and there are many oth­ers), and the oppor­tu­ni­ties that they opened up, led ear­ly Mus­lims to estab­lish mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary research acad­e­mies like the ‘House of Wis­dom’ (Bait al-Hikmah) by Harun al-Rashid (763/6–809), for research and edu­ca­tion in fields such as agri­cul­ture, astron­o­my, chem­istry, math­e­mat­ics, med­i­cine etc. Over time, knowl­edge in these fields led to sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment – for instance, in the build­ing of hos­pi­tals, pub­lic baths, guest hous­es, roads, water sup­ply sys­tems, bridges, nav­i­ga­tion tools, mosques with mul­ti-dome com­plex­es and so on. The pur­pose was, ‘con­cerned on the one hand with dis­cern­ing the ‘signs of Allah’ in nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na, and on the oth­er with observ­ing the forces and laws of nature … [to bet­ter] co-oper­ate with them, so that the human fam­i­ly might be more com­fort­ably fit­ted into its God giv­en environment.’

Inci­den­tal­ly, despite this explo­sion of dis­cov­er­ies and think­ing, ear­li­er Mus­lims did not Islam­i­cise sub­jects, as many do today in labels such as ‘Islam­ic astron­o­my’ or ‘Islam­ic chem­istry’ (and many oth­ers). There is a sub­tle and hum­bling real­i­sa­tion in this for us today. That, whilst Islam­ic texts might have in some way point­ed Mus­lims, or trig­gered their inter­est, in a spe­cif­ic direc­tion of curios­i­ty, it was still up to human inge­nu­ity to dis­cov­er and to seek out truth. And this inge­nu­ity is a qual­i­ty inher­ent to human beings them­selves. The role of Islam­ic texts is to remind Mus­lims of that.

There were clear rea­sons for this, which relates to how ear­li­er soci­eties under­stood the term ‘ilm, which, much like the term ‘alim, I think we’ve nar­rowed far too much. Min­ing the Qur’an, it becomes appar­ent that the var­i­ous terms used to describe ‘those who know’ or ‘those who use their intel­lect’ does not lim­it it to the study of Islam­ic texts per se. Instead, it focus­es on con­tem­plat­ing and inves­ti­gat­ing cre­ation as a path to glo­ri­fy­ing our Lord – which is of course com­mand­ed for any­one read­ing the Qur’an.

Ear­li­er Mus­lims had a broad under­stand­ing of ‘ilm (knowl­edge). It was immense­ly pow­er­ful, fur­nish­ing a pos­i­tivis­tic out­look that did much to main­tain an inti­mate con­tact between people’s mate­r­i­al needs, the unseen world and the spir­i­tu­al cul­ture of Islam. Their under­stand­ings were sophis­ti­cat­ed and var­ied. There were broad­ly two cat­e­gories of ‘ilm – ben­e­fi­cial and non-ben­e­fi­cial. Non-Ben­e­fi­cial knowl­edge, which comes under the cat­e­go­ry for­bid­den (ḥaram) or dis­liked (makruh), is knowl­edge that when applied results in uneth­i­cal, immoral or cor­rupt out­comes or means. Ben­e­fi­cial knowl­edge on the oth­er hand brings well-being and ease to life, and which can be fur­ther clas­si­fied into: that which is oblig­a­tory for every indi­vid­ual (farḍh al-‘ayn) or oblig­a­tory com­mu­nal­ly (farḍh al-kifayah), desir­able (mus­ta­hab), or per­mis­si­ble (mubah)). Each indi­vid­ual is oblig­at­ed to learn the basic knowl­edge of wor­ship (fara’ida) and good char­ac­ter (adab). And knowl­edge oblig­a­tory com­mu­nal­ly ensures that every local­i­ty has learned peo­ple in both oblig­a­tory reli­gious knowl­edge, such as the Islam­ic sci­ences – the ‘alimiyyah type, as well as knowl­edge nec­es­sary for human well-being – med­i­cine, sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, geog­ra­phy, eco­nom­ics, soci­ol­o­gy and so on.

To me these cat­e­gories of knowl­edge sit in piti­ful con­trast to cat­e­gories of ‘sec­u­lar sub­jects’ and ‘deeni sub­jects’ which many use today. It’s incred­i­bly dubi­ous that the study of the nat­ur­al world, lan­guages and peo­ple could be passed off as ‘sec­u­lar sub­jects’ when the Qur’an spoke of them in a pos­i­tive light. Such views are premised by the fear that so-called ‘sec­u­lar sub­jects’ might teach val­ues con­trary to Islam. But, to me this is a smoke­screen of a lack of intel­lec­tu­al ground­ing in people’s own faith assump­tions, as part of the ‘crises in intel­lect.’ You only have to ask your­self, then, why did ear­li­er schol­ars go to such great effort, verg­ing on obses­sion – per­haps, to cat­e­gories dif­fer­ent types of knowl­edge, if ‘ilm only meant reli­gious knowl­edge? There are deep wis­doms in this which are worth pon­der­ing over.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, today, the ten­den­cy to reduce terms like ‘alim and ‘ilm is unhelp­ful. It does some­times feel that far too many of us want to min­imise pos­si­bil­i­ties of mean­ings to pro­duce tight-fist­ed, no-non­sense answers, as if this is what is need­ed for ordi­nary peo­ple to under­stand and as a nec­es­sary response to the wishy-washy rel­a­tivism of moder­ni­ty. But in doing so, we also score many own goals. We rein­force the idea of the ‘reli­gious man’ as dis­tinct to the ‘think­ing man,’ and our most learned in reli­gion appear not as peo­ple who think, pon­der and ask ques­tions, but exact­ly the opposite.

These are not new prob­lems. But the big dif­fer­ence in our times is that we don’t have fig­ures like al-Ghaz­za­li, Ibn Rushd, al-Shi­razi, al-Biruni etc. to help us. What we do have though is the choice to gain a more nuanced under­stand­ing of these basic terms.