The most important kind of knowledge is that which teaches us how to achieve the potential for excellence which exists within each human being. This knowledge provides us with a deep and meaningful purpose for our lives. Having a grand purpose makes it possible to act meaningfully, in ways designed to achieve the purpose. If someone does not know what the purpose of life is, than his life would be wasted in doing meaningless activities which do not succeed in achieving the purpose. Western education is designed to teach you how to be useful in producing wealth for others, how to be a cog in the capitalist machine, but it is not designed to teach you to develop your unique potentials as an individual — these would make you unfit for use as an exchangeable part in a machine. The first part of this article described my educational experiences at MIT, while the second part describes the Islamic approach to knowledge.
Bait-and-Switch is a well known dirty trick for generating sales of inferior goods. You advertise that you are selling a high-quality product, which is in very high demand, at an amazingly low price (but quantities are limited, so hurry). When the customers arrive, you say that “sorry, we have run out, BUT we have something just as good as what you wanted, at an even better price”. You have an inferior good, an old model which is obsolete and not supported, but you talk it up as being the next best thing, and the customer often ends up buying this defective product.
My MIT experience: My arrival at MIT at the tender age of 16 was an exciting experience. In the dormitory halls, we met the brightest students from all over the world, and discussed all kinds of topics. We were all eager to learn, and would use our new found liberty from home rules to stay up all night discussing everything under the sun. One of these nights, we addressed the mother of all questions, the meaning of life. Once a meaning/purpose of life is clear, then all our actions could be focused on achieving this purpose. On the other hand, if we have no clarity on meaning, then we would just act at random on whims, and lead meaningless lives. At the end of a long night’s discussion, we were all agreed that this was a question of central importance, and also none of us had a clue as to the answer. Since we were in one of the great institutions of learning, we decided that we should ask one of our teachers. Casting around for a suitable choice, we agreed to go to our history teacher — he was the only one who ever talked about the bigger issues of life. All other teachers dealt with purely technical matters and subjects having no relation to our living experience. So, with great expectations, a group of three students went to meet him, to ask him about the meaning of life. He gave us an answer which satisfied us at the time; it was only much later that I realized that it was a classic bait-and-switch.
The Tactical Answer: Our history professor told us that we have learned that in order to be able to answer the big questions, we must first learn to answer the small questions that you are being taught. This seemed very sensible to us at the time. We can’t learn to run before learning to walk. It was, however a DEADLY half-truth. Half-truths are much more deadly than blatant lies, because they are much easier to believe. It is certainly true that we need knowledge and experience to learn the deeper truths of life. However, what our professor did NOT tell us was that they did not have ANY answers to the big questions anywhere in the entire curriculum for any of the degrees that anyone could get. The good that we were all looking for was not in their shops, but if he had told us the truth, we might have lost interest in our studies. So we continued to study, in the hope that all this knowledge would eventually lead us to wisdom about life itself. It was only much later that I came to the realization that our professor had deceived us: by learning mathematics, chemistry, physics, economics, and history, we CANNOT learn how live a good life, how to find meaning and purpose, discover the potential capabilities within us and nurture and enhance them. These are the valuable treasures which the message of the Quran contains, which cannot be found in the books of the West.
The Islamic concept of KNOWLEDGE
is radically different from the Western concept of knowledge. Whereas West teaches us about the outside world, Islam deals with the inside world of human experience — which is what our lives are all about. One of important books in the Islamic Heritage is the one by Imam Al-Nawawi listed below. I was honored to be asked to write a forward to this classic of Islamic literature. The first few paragraphs of the forward are given below, and the whole forward can be read or downloaded via the link provided. This issue — understanding the difference between what Islam calls knowledge, and what the West calls knowledge, is of central importance for the Muslims today. Several of my earlier posts deal with it:
EXCERPT FROM THE FORWARD,
with LINKs to the full article Forward to Translation of Imam Al Nawawi: Ādāb al-ăĀlim waĂl-Mutaăallim wa Ādāb al-Muftī waĂl-Mustaftī The Etiquettes Of The Scholar And The Learner, And The Muftī And The Questioner
All praise and glory belongs to Allāh taʿālā alone, Creator of the Heavens and Earth and all in between, and much more that we do not know anything about.
When, in search of guidance, our Prophet Muḥammad—ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wassalam—retired to the cave of Hirāʾ, Allāh taʿālā sent him the angel Jibrāʾīl with the words of the first Waḥy, “Read, in the name of thy Lord who created.” Here Allāh subḥānahu wa taʿālā is introducing Himself to the best of the best among His Creations. And how did He choose to introduce Himself? His qualities and characteristics are such that the oceans turned to ink would not suffice to describe them. Among all of these infinite qualities, Allāh taʿālā chose to introduce Himself as the Creator of Man, the One who gave Man knowledge of that which he did not know. The Waḥy itself begins with the command to Read, and shows the extreme importance of knowledge, and of the transmission of knowledge by the means of writing and by the heart to heart transmission which took place between the angel Jibrāʾīl and our prophet Muḥammad—ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wassalam.
What was the impact of this knowledge which was given to the Muḥammad—ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wassalam—and imparted by him to his followers, the Companions? This knowledge brought them out from the darkness of Jāhiliyyah into the Nūr of Īmān. There was a dramatic transformation, an internal revolution, within the lives of the Companions. From the savagery of the Jāhilliyah they changed to those who were praised by Allāh because they fed others while being themselves hungry. This internal revolution was accompanied by an external revolution. The Muslims spread over the world with a burning message from God, which charged them to become the best of the communities, and to spread good, and to prohibit evil. This was the first time in the history of mankind that swords were used to free mankind from oppression, on behalf of the masses, and not for conquest, looting and luxury.
The dramatic transformation created by the teachings of Islām in the lives of the Muslims changed the tides of history. For a powerful description, see the book, Mā Dhā Khasir al-ʿĀlam bi Inḥiṭāṭ al-Muslimīn by Syed Abuʾl-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Nadwī. Not only did oppression, darkness, and injustice of all kinds dominate the pre-Islamic world, but these were considered natural and socially acceptable. The radical message of Islām brought concepts which were unknown to the world at the time. The revolutionary effect of the teachings of Islām was foreshadowed in a prophecy which is still contained in the Bible: “I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of Truth (Prophet Muḥammad) comes, He will guide you into all truth.” Among the many truths which the world could not bear to hear, central to Islam, is the equality of all human beings before God, of the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak, and of the rightful share of the poor in the excess wealth of the rich.
Our Prophet who was sent as a Mercy towards all the Worlds was the founder of a civilization built around the core values of concern, compassion and service for all of the creation of God. “All creatures are (like) a family of God, and He loves the most those who are kindest to His family.” The Islamic civilization was based on the ideals of generosity, cooperation, good will towards all human beings, kindness towards animals, and care for the environment as a gift of God to humankind. In contrast with dominant ideas about religion at the time, excellence in conduct was declared to be the highest form of worship: “He who cares for widows and the poor is like those who fight in the way of Allāh or those who spend their days fasting and their nights praying.” The motivation for good deeds was not to be fame, glory, popularity or wealth, but an internalized love of Allāh: “And they feed, for the love of Allāh, the poor, the orphan, and the captive …” The prophet Muḥammad—ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wassalam—was comforted in the Holy Qurʾān and told “not to kill himself with sorrow” because of his concern and compassion for all mankind. This excellence in conduct is to be emulated by all Muslims: “The believer loves and is loved by others.”
The dramatic achievements of the Islamic civilization over more than a thousand years cannot be encapsulated in several libraries, let alone a brief forward. Unique features of this civilization remain unreplicated and are ideals sorely and urgently needed by the world today. As just one example, brotherhood and equality are vigorously asserted in both Ḥadīth and Qurʾān; for example, in the last Sermon, our Prophet declared that:
All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.
The transmission of these radical ideas from the advanced civilization of Andalus, Islamic Spain, to the primitive Europe of the time transformed their Dark Ages into the European Enlightenment. Among many recent writings, the books, The Enlightenment Qurʾān, Is Science Western in Origin? and The Theft of History, document both the transmission and the concealment of the Islamic origins, of the revolutionary body of knowledge from the Muslims to Europe. The slogans of Rousseau “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” which inspired the French Revolution and ushered in the modern age are directly borrowed from the teachings of Islam, and are strongly in conflict with the previous history of Europe based on aristocracy. Because these Islamic teachings are powerfully aligned with human nature (fiṭrah), they have carved out a place in Western thought. Recent resurgence and rising popularity of racism, the “Black Lives Matter” movement in USA, and anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, show that these ideas have not yet been fully assimilated.
Today, after a long and complex historical process which cannot be detailed here, darkness has again fallen upon the world, and the spirit of the pre-Islamic Jāhilliyah dominates. === [[ end of excerpt from forward. Essay goes on to explain how Islamic knowledge is just as revolutionary today as it was 1400 years ago. Complete forward is available for reading and download below]] [[Link to central listing in my publications: Forward to Al-Nawawi]]