By Zafar Aziz Chaudhry
APRIL 22, 2019
In the early part of this month, during my
sojourn to the Holy Land, the question which perplexed me most was whether
there was a real connection between enlightenment and faith, and whether in
their genesis these two are all-embracing or mutually exclusive. My deep
reflections on various texts of the Holy Quran, and some references gathered
from history did reaffirm my belief that they are mutually inclusive and do not
conflict with each other. In fact for the future survival of Muslim nations
with grace and dignity in competition with the rest of the world, it should be
clearly understood that there is no schism between these two concepts. Rather
an enlightened world-view is likely to rub off the accumulated centuries-old rust
on the other-wise pristine fabric of Islam.
The European intellectual movement of the
late 17th and 18th centuries emphasized reason and individualism rather than
tradition. It was heavily influenced by philosophers such as Descartes, Locke,
and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire,
Rousseau, and Adam Smith. It was a revolt against Man’s self-imposed tendency
not to use his own understanding and only to follow tradition. It stressed
reason, logic, criticism, and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith, and
superstition. In a broader sense, Enlightenment applied scientific reasoning to
politics, science, and religion. Its followers were typically humanists who
supported equality and human dignity, and it is wrong to suppose that
enlightenment is in any manner opposed to religion. On the other hand, it acts
as a bulwark against superstition, intolerance, and bigotry which have brought
bad name to religions.
Despite their different approaches, science
and religion are also complementary. It is said that science can help you
diagnose and treat your cancer, but it cannot touch the despair and dismay and
terror you feel when you get the diagnosis, nor can it help you to die well.
For that people turn to religion, which answers the deeper questions of our
The survival of religion in the 21st
century, according to Karen Armstrong, largely depends on its capacity to
create compassion for the fellow human beings which is the ultimate object of
But unfortunately religion is mostly
misunderstood in our time due to our inability to take historical perspective
of the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional settings that shaped
people’s lives and actions in the past. Such an understanding which is often termed
as “historical empathy” helps us to understand the vast differences between us
in the present and those in the past. Compassion also teaches us to transcend
our limited world-view and place ourselves in the cultural and social
environments of the past.
The Holy Prophet by his conduct and
precepts has been admittedly one of the greatest and most influential
personages in history and we Muslims believe that the Holy Quran, his revealed
message to humanity, is a marvel of wisdom for the mankind. But the fate of
Muslims everywhere is most pathetic, the responsibility for which can be traced
in Islamic history.
The first shock after the death of the Holy
Prophet on the question of his succession resulted in the tragic split between
the Sunnies and Shias which also in due course divided the Islamic countries
into two blocks.. The next significant setback which reversed the Islamic clock
occurred during the Abbasid period when philosophers like al-Ghazali (1058-1111
AD) fiercely opposed the Mu’tazilites practice of subjecting Islamic theology
to rationalism which led the Abbasids to ban the Mu’tazilites. Islam’s vitality
and appeal was gravely affected by the resurgence of literalist interpretations
of Sharia ( that treats man-made laws as divine) and the worsening of sectarian
cleavages within Islam which has set in motion a perpetual cycle of violence
that directly endangers the lives of ordinary Muslims everywhere.
Within a century of Holy Prophet’s death
his followers had built an empire that stretched from Spanish Europe to Central
Asia. The Rashidin caliphate can be credited for military expansion, but It was
not until the Umayyad Dynasty-from 661 to 750-that Islamic and Arabic culture
began to truly spread. The Abbasid Dynasty-from 750 to 1258-intensified and
solidified these cultural changes.
The Golden period of knowledge in Islam
began during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) when
he invited scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural
backgrounds and mandated them to gather and translate all of the world’s
classical knowledge into the Arabic language. This resulted into an astonishing
growth of philosophers and scientists such as Ibne Rushd (translated Aristotle,
and wrote books on Islamic jurisprudence) Al-Kindi (discovered rules of
astronomy and optics) Khwarizmi (Father of Algebra and mathematics) Ibne Sina
(Father of Medicine, astronomy and Logic) who ushered in a golden era of
Ironically the dark age of Europe coincided
with golden age of Islam. But it was the most tragic turn in the history of
Islam that the fruits of hard labours of these philosophers and scientists
could not reach the Islamic society because of the opposition to rational
thought by the jurists and clergymen of the day and lack of wisdom and vision
of their rulers who opposed a rational underpinning of Islam – analogous to St.
Thomas Aquinas who lent rationality to Christianity in the Middle Ages. The
theologians like Al-Ghazali and Ibne Taimiyya refused to accept scientific change
and discoveries and forced the Khalifa to ban Mu’tazilites who were advocates
of rational thought. It was contrary to the teachings of the Quran and precepts
of the Holy Prophet who had made no such restrictions on the acquisition of
knowledge. According to the saying of the Prophet, Muslims were to seek
knowledge even if they had to go to China.
The Islamic state also failed to patronize
these polymaths by refusing them enough funds for their research etc under fear
of reaction from the reactionary forces. But most importantly, contrary to the
injunctions of the Holy Quran, the local jurists divided the concept of
knowledge into two broad and disjunctive categories as “Ilm Ad-Din” (=
religious knowledge) and “Ilm Ad-Dunya” (= worldly knowledge). Neither
in the Quran nor in the authentic books of Hadith was there any such division
allowed in the acquisition of knowledge. Islamic sources declare knowledge as
an indivisible whole.
The Golden period of spread of knowledge
ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate due to Mongol invasions and
the Siege of Baghdad in 1258 AD.
Even during the Ottoman Empire, nothing was
done for promotion and development of science and technology, perhaps because
the Emperors thought that it would be a threat to the opulence of the monarchs.
On the other hand, a blunder was done through a wretched Fatwa, which banned
the printing press in the Empire which remained in force for over 200 years.
This left Islamic world in the dark when West sailed away with renaissance and enlightenment.
Thus there are enough grounds to believe
that for the survival of Islamic civilization, faith and enlightenment should
go hand in hand.
Zafar Aziz Chaudhry is a former member of the Provincial Civil Service,
and an author of Moments in Silence