The Requirements of an Authentic Intellectual Revival
Dr. Abdullah bin Hamīd Ali
A speech delivered at the 1st Annual House of Wisdom Conference in Memphis, TN July 29-30, 2023
(Throughout this speech, I will be using the words ‘he’ and ‘man’ as gender inclusive terms.
My hope is that this will not distract from the substance of my message.)
When Western scholars seek to highlight the history of the most influential ideas, they point to what they have termed “The Great Conversation.” The Great Conversation is a multi-centenary timeline which magnifies human history’s most important thinkers. It begins with a discussion of the myths of Homer and Hesiod followed by the pre-Socratic thinkers and, typically, ends with post-modernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Daniel Dennett, the latter who was born in 1942. The Great Conversation covers close to three millennia of intellectual heritage but, strangely, contains a 400-year gap on its timeline. This noticeable gap happens between 600 CE and 1000 CE, a period which includes what European scholars call “The Dark Ages.” Of interest is that the Dark Ages were the centuries of Islam’s birth, heyday, and the foundation of the historic House of Wisdom whose efforts led to the European Renaissance.
Now, the Western and Christian bias against Muslim civilization is nothing new. In fairness, however, certain developments in US history show an attempt on the part of some its founding fathers and later statesmen to acknowledge Islam’s significant contribution to this conversation: The US Library of Congress showcases a mural of the key civilizations that contributed to Western progress. Interestingly, the Islamic contribution it underscores is physics of all things. And in 1935 the US Supreme Court honored the Prophet Muhammad—upon him God’s peace and blessing—in its chamber with a moralized depiction as one of the world’s great lawgivers.
When the ancients spoke of wisdom, they spoke of it in two ways: The first was wisdom as an intellectual virtue. According to this understanding, wisdom constitutes a given individual’s grasp and recollection of the cultural, moral, and technological artifacts, which have had a significant influence on human advancement. It is in this sense that the statement, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer” is taken. And while this prophetic tradition is of disputed authenticity, this assumption guided Muslim attitudes about the novel ideas and inventions emerging from civilizations elsewhere. The Abbasid khalifah Al-Ma’mun (786- 833 CE) would, reportedly, demand that tribute paid to him include any rare books the conquered peoples held in their possession. As a consequence, Islamic civilization for most of its history syncretized variant cultural artifacts, showing no aversion to intercultural exchange.
The second way the ancients spoke of wisdom was as a moral virtue, something which emerges from conscious action. We call that virtue practical wisdom or prudence, which is one of the four cardinal virtues alongside courage, temperance, and justice. The possessor of practical wisdom knows how to balance conflicting aims and principles. He knows when gentleness is required, when harshness is needed, and in what particular measure. It is in this sense that Allah sent a messenger, “…who teaches them the Book and the Wisdom.” It is also what He means when He orders the Messenger to, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom…” (Q 16:125).
The House of Wisdom started as a library, became a translation house, then a research and publication center, and, finally, a certificate offering educational institution. An observatory was later added, and the institution served as the model for all future great Muslim institutions. It was an ecumenical project commissioned, sponsored by, and primarily managed by Muslims. It included contributions from Arabs, Persians, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans. And while a large focus of the institution was the translation and publication of important works in theology, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy, its unifying discipline was philosophy or “the love of wisdom.”
To claim love of wisdom is to claim love of truth. And to love truth is to love what is real, to love reality as it truly is, be that biological reality or otherwise. The Bible quotes Jesus Son of Mary—upon him be peace—as saying to his disciples, “If you abide by my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). According to the philosopher Norman Melchert,
“Philosophy, literally “love of wisdom,” begins when certain individuals start to ask, “Why should we believe these stories?” “How do we know they are true?”—and when they attempt to supply answers that have more going for them than antiquity and plausibility that comes from common acceptance.”
We find a similar attitude in the Qur’an and among Muslim scholars who consider ijtihad (scholarly autonomy) to be laudable and taqlid (uncritical imitation) worthy of condemnation.
Being that the House of Wisdom flourished during Islam’s heyday, nostalgia has demanded a return. Clearly, the organizers of this conference have an expressed desire for such a return. So, the most immediate question is how might Muslims revive the intellectual legacy of the House of Wisdom? And what are the requirements for an authentic intellectual revival?
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the intellectual and moral go hand in hand. That man is distinguished by complex rationality corroborates this understanding. Man possesses the rationality of the angels and the passions of animals but is differentiated by the virtue of temperance (al-sabr). Angels have no passions to restrain, and non-human animals indulge their passions by instinct. It is only man who decides to choose frugality or overindulgence often after reflecting upon the consequences of his actions. But why is this so? Why has God created man in this way? What function does this virtue serve? And how is it connected to the purpose of man’s creation?
According to the great Persian scholar Rāghib al-Asfahānī, man was created for three things: 1) to worship God; 2) to cultivate the earth; and 3) to serve as God’s designee and steward of this realm. Islam’s theological and moral teachings help us to understand our position in God’s greater scheme, as well as His expectations. Reason helps us measure the coherence of the thoughts and ideas which may eventually materialize in the physical world. Both are intended to help make man and society healthy and whole. So, God not only created man for a purpose. He has ensured man has all the tools at his disposal which help him to realize his telos. The tool of man’s success is knowledge, knowledge resulting from both reason and revelation.
For this reason, the ancients declared the higher arts to be a triad: 1) theology, for the health of the mind and spirit; 2) medicine, for the health of the body; and 3) law, for the health of society. But before studying the higher sciences, a rigorous grounding in the liberal arts was required.
The liberal i.e. ‘liberating’ arts are divided into the 3 qualitative and 4 quantitative disciplines. They are grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. Naturally, because of the more conservative leanings of Muslim scholars, tajwīd (Qur’anic orthoepy) took the place of music although some employed it in the healing process for certain maladies. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are “the arts of the mind.” Geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music are “the arts of matter.” It is from this hierarchal interplay between the disciplines we get the expression “mind over matter.”
But let us not delude ourselves. The compartmentalization of the disciplines we imagine today has not always been shared by people. The ancient theologians resisted the embrace of such convenient demarcations between the so-called ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ sciences. Rather, all knowledge comes from an All-Knowing God. “We know only what You have taught us”, the angels said (Q 2:32). And while specialization is real, all sciences foundational to discerning reality were viewed as interdependent. Consequently, knowledge can truly only be of two kinds: beneficial and harmful. And since everyone was required to pursue knowledge, it was unsurprising to find a proliferation of polymaths and polyglots. That’s not to mention that the acceptance of a category of knowledge called ‘secular knowledge’ was and should remain a preposterous assertion, especially since the word “secular” means ‘the world’ as opposed to ‘the church’, which suggests a place where God’s influence is absent.
Because neither the Qur’an nor Sunnah provide us with an exhaustive set of questions and answers to every human concern, Allah has left much room for speculation, research, and the limited authority of reason. This is where empirical standards gain their greatest value. Whatever knowledge revelation does not provide, reason and empirical methods may disclose. But such disclosures are only possible through the use of the proper tools, understanding how those tools work and to what degree of absolute reality they are capable of discerning.
The ancients saw a universe comprised of space, time, matter, sound, and number. Matter and space were the purview of geometry and astronomy. Number and time were the realm of arithmetic and music. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were to guide the human being in making proper discernments, asking the appropriate questions, formulating the best hypotheses, articulating and organizing one’s findings, and in the act of persuading others of their factualness.
All of this leads us to our first conclusion: The first requirement of an authentic intellectual revival is knowledge of the purpose for our creation. This knowledge covers an acknowledgment that God has made everything within and around us signs pointing to His unicity, uniqueness, beauty, and greatness. It also entails a realization that without guidance from God, we are lost and incapable of fulfilling the tasks we have been given, that the creator has intellectual and moral standards for us, and that an increase in beneficial knowledge, applied correctly, means an increase in our humanity.
The second requirement for an authentic intellectual revival is the conscious and sincere pursuit of truth. This is achieved when one’s conclusions are based upon reliable sources. Some sources are intrinsic to the human being. Others are external to what we are. The intrinsic sources are the 5 senses and reason. The extrinsic sources are the claims made by others and the results of applying the empirical method. In our tradition, we call these sources ‘judgments’ or ‘ahkam.’ And these ahkam are either sensate (hissiyyah), rational (‘aqliyyah), empirical (‘adiyyah), and scriptural (shar’iyyah).
The reliability of an external human source rests upon expertise and moral integrity. For without expertise, the blind is left leading the blind. And without moral integrity, one has no confidence that the source will not resort to falsehood and fraud in order to manipulate his audience. This also means that there can be no true revival unless we entertain all theories, hypotheses, and even the conspiratorial. This is not because the conspiratorial has inherent value. It is because the conspiratorial dares to ask questions often disregarded when science is under the regulatory capture of unsavory power brokers. Truth is not determined by the expert nor the public authority. Nor is it an inherent characteristic of the one who speaks it unless that speaker is either Allah or His messenger—upon him Allah’s blessing and peace. It is this very understanding communicated in the famous tradition attributed to Imam Ali b. Abi Talib,
لا تعرف الحق بالرجال، بل اعرف الحق تعرف أهله
“Do not know the truth by men. Rather, know the truth. You’ll know those who possess it.”
Some express the ideas of expertise and moral integrity through the Arabic terms al-quwwah wa al-amānah. Hadith scholars use the terms al-‘adālah wa al-dabt. Expertise and moral integrity are essential for all important offices: the ijtihad of a mujtahid is not binding upon the non-mujtahid when the mujtahid is impious or a heretic. These characteristics are also standard for the caliph, his ministers, and appointees. The authority of witness testimony comes not only from experiencing the incident firsthand but also one’s credibility measured by honesty and piety.
In other words, the source of a truth claim should ideally be unassailable, and research should lead us to facts which are demonstrably true. If unable to establish a claim with complete certainty, sources that produce near certainty or probabilistic outcomes suffice as long as we acknowledge that our conclusions rely upon disputable information.
This leads us to our third requirement for an authentic intellectual revival: the acknowledgment that God no longer directly communicates to anyone on the planet and that all opinions are potentially right or wrong. It was due to this understanding that Al-Shafi’i made his famous declaration,
رأيي صواب يحتمل الخطأ ورأي غيري خطأ يحتمل الصواب
“My opinion is correct with the possibility of being incorrect, while the opinion of others is incorrect with the possibility of being correct.”
It doesn’t matter if the topic is theology, law, medicine, politics, or any other. While we may passionately embrace our own views while believing them to accord with the divine wisdom, only when we meet God will we know that for a surety.
With this in mind, the fourth requirement for an authentic intellectual revival, then, is respect for legitimate difference of opinion. An opinion is legitimate when the sources allow for such a reading, and it issues from one who is an authority in his field of expertise. Disagreeing with another expert does not give reason or justification for one to label, slander, or excommunicate him from the field simply because he differs with another or even if he dissents from the majority of the experts. This is especially important in science inasmuch that scientific fact is not determined by the democratic process. When something is true, it can objectively be proven and demonstrated. We don’t believe fire burns or that water quenches thirst simply because scientists unanimously agree upon this fact. Rather, we believe it because it can be objectively proven. Short of that demonstration, claiming that the majority of scientists hold this or that opinion does not void the opinion of those in dissent. It was because of this understanding of the equal authority of experts and sources that the wisdom of our predecessors dictated that one Sahabi is not a proof against another. Others extended this principle beyond their generation, applying it anytime contemporaries differ.
The fifth requirement for an authentic intellectual revival is the exercise of professional humility. Non-experts may not have an authoritative opinion, but this does not mean they have no role to play in determining which view they should choose to follow. For that is the non-expert’s sole prerogative, especially when experts differ with one another. This is also why Muslims who are not legal scholars who understand how to determine the qiblah, the times of prayer, have experience in moonsighting, or know how to ritually slaughter are under no obligation to defer to the supposed majoritarian consensus or expertise of Muslim jurists. Not every issue requires an answer from an expert in a certain field. Despite this fact, the non-expert may choose to democratize his knowledge and follow what the majority of experts around him say, but others may choose to examine more closely what each expert is saying and decide to follow what makes more sense to him. Accordingly, to highlight the lack of expertise of laymen makes little sense when non-experts choose the guidance of experts on the so-called “fringe.” The non-expert may not be following your expert opinion, but that does not mean that he is not following the opinion of an expert.
So let there be no more cries of, “We are the experts! So, just shut up and listen!” A fact, be it one of science or fiqh, is not determined by democratic process nor majoritarian consensus. Nor is it determined by the official edicts of political institutions and the administrative state. I do not need to be a climate scientist to know that there is no consensus that carbon is increasing the earth’s temperature. Nor is there a consensus that climate change is an existential threat to our existence. Nor is there a consensus that there is a climate emergency.
I also do not need to be a doctor, virologist nor an epidemiologist to know that there is disagreement about the origins of COVID-19, that thousands of scientists and doctors worldwide doubt the existence of viruses and their ability to cause illness. And I do not need to be an expert to know that consensus has no meaning in research, and that questions are not put to rest simply because a majority of scientists say something. Theory isn’t the same as fact. Theory may take certain facts into consideration to make a larger claim, but that larger claim does not become fact simply because peripheral information support it.
It was an error for Greek philosophers to belittle the servile/mechanical arts while ignoring that they are the foundations of communal subsistence. Where would we be without farmers and truckers? How safe would our homes, bridges, and roads be without engineers? How far would we able to travel without the fuel extracted from the earth by miners? How much more difficult would it be to access water and electricity without the piping and electric grids constructed and maintained by blue collar workers? By contrast, we should also not allow our current aggrandizement of the STEM and medical fields to overlook how use of the liberal arts protects us from manipulation and brainwashing.
Our approach to matters must become less ideological and more philosophical. The success of the House of Wisdom had much to do with the fact that its scholars gave a metaphysical understanding to man’s role in the universe and emphasized the importance of self-mastery in all important decisions. Neither anger nor fear nor passion should play a part in decisions that affect the public good and serve the public interest. Nor should these human traits allow us to undermine and strip away individual freedom which happens to be essential for human accountability in this world and the next.
In conclusion, while not an exhaustive list, these requirements, if taken to heart, could lead to an authentic intellectual revival. God comes first, and everything we do must be traced back to Him and connected with the purpose of our creation. What we don’t know from scripture can be discerned with the proper methods even if we lack the certainty that our conclusions conform to the way things really are. A commitment to truth can only be guaranteed when we master the emotions and passions which distort our sincerity. We must also endeavor to identify and remove all external obstacles to our attempts to uncover absolute truth. That will include a look into technology’s effects on our minds as well as the interplay between technology and politics, culture, ethics, the academy, Hollywood, and the media. The final answer to questions not answered by God can only be answered by God. That alone should serve as sufficient reason to tolerate, and, perhaps, even respect legitimate difference of opinion. I have every right to disagree with you—and you with me. My disagreement with you should not be viewed as disparagement nor disrespect. Let us learn from the wisdom of our predecessors. Let us grow and revive our intellectual legacy. Let us master our appetites and passions. Let us do all of that, together.