Re-Learning Islam

This post is a summary the first part of a talk with the title: “The Nature of Knowledge As a Guide to Action” — a Keynote Address by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE, at the International Entrepreneurship Educators Symposium (IEES) 11 Aug 2018 – venue: IBA Center for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), Karachi. I will post a summary of the second part later. A You-Tube Video of the full 55min talk  in English is also linked below.  I also gave roughly the same talk in URDU to PIDE students, available from YouTube Video on “The First Question: Meaning and Purpose of Life” – this video is discussed in a post on The First Lesson.


The main message of this talk is as follows. Today, the world as a whole is mired in the same Jahilliyya – ignorance and darkness – as it was 1450 years ago, when the Sun of Islam rose and enlightened the world. The radical and revolutionary message of Islam has the same power today as it did 1450 years ago to turn the tides of history. Unfortunately, the greatest obstacle in the path of this revolution are the Muslims themselves. Muslims no longer trust the Message as being the complete and sufficient guide that it claims to be, and think that it must be corrected and adapted for modern conditions, and it must be supplemented and updated to include the knowledge acquired by the West in the past few centuries. As prophesied, Islam came as a stranger, and has become a stranger, even to the Muslims themselves. Only the names, the writings and rituals remain with us but the spirit behind the forms of Islam is no longer present in the lives of the Muslims. The reason for this ignorance of our own heritage is the Western education we receive, which indoctrinates us to believe in Eurocentric ideas about knowledge, history, and the purpose of life. To combat this, we must confront the materialistc message of the Western with the spiritual anti-thesis revealed to the Muslim fourteen centuries ago. This talk provides some guidelines on how to proceed in this direction. The 54m talk is linked below. A 1250 word summary of the first part of the lecture is also provided below.

  1. The Central Importance of KNOWLEDGE in Islam

The coming of Islam 1450 years ago created a revolution in World History of a magnitude which has never been seen before or after. Inspired by the message of Islam, ignorant and backwards Arabs rose to become leaders of the world, and launched a civilization which enlightened and inspired all of humanity for a thousand years. We want to think about HOW and WHY this revolution took place?

The key to the revolution was the KNOWLEDGE that was given to the Muslims. It is easy to see that Knowledge is Central to Islam. See “Islamic Knowledge: Still Revolutionary After 1450 years

The message starts with “Read, in the name of Thy Lord” and goes on to say that Allah “taught man that which he did not know”. Throughout Quran and Hadeeth, Knowledge and Seekers of Knowledge are highly prized. We cite a few sayings – complete collections of such sayings and their interpretations fill books and libraries.

  • The ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of martyrs.
  • Seek knowledge from cradle to grave.
  • Angels spread their wings for the seekers of knowledge
  • The merit of the ‘alim (the learned) over the ‘abid (the devout) is like the merit of the moon over the stars on a full-moon night.

What is of great importance is the fact that Islam characterizes knowledge in a way that is radically different from how the West defines knowledge. This is the central reason why people in general, and Muslims in particular, are unable to understand the tremendous value of Islamic knowledge — they judge the value by the Western criterion of how much money it can make, or how the knowledge can be used to change the external world. Islam provides us with knowledge of how to transform and purify the hearts of men, a goal which is not even conceptualized in a Western education — see “Countering European Myths About Knowledge” for more details.

  1. Islam launched a revolution in history

The book by Syed Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi: What the World Lost Due to the Decline of Islam is of tremendous importance.  The author paints picture of the world in Jahilliya, the age of ignorance. Evil, Brutality, Ignorance, spread all over the globe. As the book shows, the Coming of Islam Enlightened the World, and saved it from the brink of disaster — currently, the world stands on the brink of another disaster, and the teachings of Islam are desperately needed.

Contrary to the Eurocentric story that the Dark Ages of Europe ended spontaneously, the European Enlightenment was actually caused by transmission of knowledge from the Islamic civilization. Hundreds of Thousands of books in libraries of Andalus were acquired via the re-conquest of Spain. However, this fact is suppressed in European History.

Copernicus was just a translator of Arabic texts, but he is counted as a Revolutionary in European history. The giants on whose shoulders Newton stood were Muslim scholars like Ibn-ul-Haytham whose Optics he translated.  Suppression of the sources of European discovery of science creates the widespread misconception that rational thinking, mathematics, technology, medicine and the modern sciences all originated in the European Civilization. See “Enlightenment: Myths and Truths” for more details.

  1. Critical Question: Does Message of Islam have SAME power today?

Today, the darkness of Jahilliya is spread throughout the world, including among Muslims, who appear just as backwards and ignorant as they were in the olden times. Can the message of Islam lead us, and the whole world, out of the current days of darkness?

By words and actions – Muslims say NO!

Quran claims to be COMPLETE and PERFECT guidance: This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed my favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion. Qur’an, 5:3

Quran tells us that what we have been given is far better than anything that they can gather: “In the Bounty of Allah, and in His Mercy (i.e. Islam and the Quran) let them (the Muslims) rejoice.” That is better than all that they (the non-Muslims) gather. (Quran 10:58)

Unfortunately, Most Muslims believe – at least by their actions, if not words — that Quran no longer provides us with complete and perfect guidance. Instead, they believe that today, some aspects of the message need to be updated to match the requirements of modern times, and the message needs to be supplemented by the knowledge acquired by the West over the past few centuries.

This belief illustrates the Hadeeth that:  Islam came as a stranger, and will become a stranger.

In all dimensions of life, we are following the ways of non-Muslims. Our politics is Parliamentary not Khilafa, our Laws are copies of Western Laws ( which were copied from the Muslims), Our Economic systems, Social Systems, Educational Systems are all borrowed from the West, and have no resemblance to Islamic systems. Even our purely religious institutions like Masjid, Madrassa, Salat, Hajj, Sacrifice, have become empty forms without the original spirit which lay behind them. The true teachings of Islam create a way of life which is no longer visible as a living model, which is why it appears strange. Within the context of the modern life devoted to pursuit of comfort and money, the teachings of Islam do not make sense, and seem strange and awkward, because they are out of context. As Iqbal has said: Rah Gaiee Rasme Azan, Roohe Bilali na rahi (The ritual of the Azaan remains, but the spirit of Bilal is gone).

  1. My Personal Experiences

I came to these insights via a very long route – I did not start out with these ideas, which I am trying to express here in this lecture. I started out with the same thoughts that everyone picks up, because they are in all of the media, books, novels, movies – everything we see, hear, think. These are that the West is incredibly advanced, and we Muslims are incredibly backwards. It follows immediately from this observation that the teachings of Islam have failed us – these teachings could not protect us from this state of degeneration that we find among the Muslims today. It follows that today, the path to progress lies in a Western Education. Equipped with these thoughts in my youth, I followed the trajectory that ambitious Muslim youth of today set as their goals for academic achievement.

Pursuing the finest education that West has to offer, I got three degrees in a short span of time BS Math MIT 1974, MS Stats Stanford 1976, Ph.D. Econ Stanford 1978, completing my education at the age of 22. In my first year in the Stanford Ph.D. program, I took three sets of Ph.D. core courses –  Econ, Math, Stat – all were required for a really deep understanding of econometric theory – my chosen field. As a result of this deep training in multiple fields, I came to the view (standard among Muslims) that: Western knowledge is deep, complex, would require many lifetimes to learn, and no one person can master it. As Newton said, after writing books which advanced the state of the entire human knowledge: I have just picked up some shiny pebbles on the beach by the huge ocean.  It took me a long time to UNLEARN these lessons, as I now explain in greater detail.  … (continued in: Myth of the White Man’s Burden) …

See: Reaching beyond the Stars — for a talk on how we need to unlearn the Western idea is that life is about the pursuit of comforts, luxuries, pleasure, and wealth, to understand the message of Islam.

This entry was posted in Islamic Knowledge by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

21 thoughts on “Re-Learning Islam

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  6. I don’t agree with your statement citing western education makes you feel that muslims are backwards or Islam is failing…..i myself got higher education, including PhD in nuclear medicine from Germany and have worked not only in Germany, but also, in USA at various hospitals including NYU Langone, and currently working in canadian national nuclear physics / particle accelerator center,….The feeling that Islam is an enlightened religion did not come from the fact that I am a born muslim but from my life experiences which I have been through all my life…Even during my higher education abroad, I never got this feeling….i never needed to attend tableeghi sessions to learn this…You have Quran which tells you about your everyday happenings and your future too…every verse you read everyday, tells you something for that day….Allah gives you clues… has to focus only….
    I think it depends on the way you perceive things……….so, it varies form person to person …we cannot generalize it

    • Working in educational institutes is quite a different experience than working in other institutes/departments. When you are teaching, you get a chance to communicate with students for months or even for years. You have a chance to know about their thought/feeling in much detail. So what our sir (Dr Asad Zaman) is saying is actually the experience especially about Pakistani students. Here in Pakistan, it is a common thought that western knowledge only can solve our problems. A subject like Economics teaches in the most strange way that to be selfish is required to get the maximum of the individual as well as social welfare.

      • Dear Naoman,
        Nobody is forcing you to go in Tableeghi sessions. No doubt Quran is providing us full code of life and also easiest but with Emaan. The most important point is that Quran revealed in Dynamic state of nature, Quran is not easy for those people, who are are living in Static mind set or nature. The practical book requires state of practical. So, need to change our hearts and mind with some effort.

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