Rethinking the meaning of Muslim, part six

A person without understanding of the reality around him is easily cowed by the darkness of what he does not know. He is easily manipulated and unable to chart his own course through the world.

In this series of articles over the summer, we have been treating the three elements that comprise a new way of looking at the identity of the Muslim. We spoke of the Muslim as "stranger-in-the-world", being in the world yet not "of" the world; how he or she is not bound by affiliations or attachments, but instead, a moral-ethical agent. We spoke of the Muslim as a healer, mending broken relationships and restoring balance to the systems and ecologies that make up our world and society.

The third element that rounds out the calling of the Muslim in the world is the Muslim as educator or teacher. Knowledge and its people are praised throughout the Sacred Text. After the infamous Battle of Badr, prisoners of war were told by the Prophet Mohammed that they could earn their freedom by teaching 10 Muslims to read. Such is the emphasis on learning and teaching in Islam. Ignorance is a barrier to freedom. A person without understanding of the reality around him is easily cowed by the darkness of what he does not know. He is easily manipulated and unable to chart his own course through the world.

The mission of the Prophet is over and over again described with the motif of bringing people from darkness to light. Ignorance and misinformation, in the way it curtails people's options and possibilities is akin to the dark. Knowing, on the other hand, is daylight, unobstructed sight. But there is more to it. Knowledge has become a commodity in our pragmatic utilitarian world. Education has become a business. For the consumer, it is often only a vehicle represented by the certificate or degree denoting that the right configuration of hoops were jumped. It has been reduced to a means toward more valuable, usually material ends.

The commoditisation of knowledge in the Muslim world is one of the factors that aids and abets extremism. Without an intellectual culture, the human being becomes a machine, devoid of meaning. Knowledge, the source of meaning, becomes no more or less important than its pragmatic utility. In the Islamic conception, knowledge is an end in itself. The state of knowing and active contemplation of reality is a form of worship. The contemplative adoration of the divine presence is one of the highest forms of devotion. It is the state of the Muslim in prayer and is what Muslims are engaged in when they stand at night in the tarawih prayers of Ramadan. Of course people vary in their degrees of access to these vistas of meditation and beholding. It remains a factor of learning, teaching, and discipline.

Knowing, the active form of knowledge, is a fulfilment and completion of being human. The intellect and soul are what distinguish us from animals or inanimate objects. Many are the vegetables walking through life in a heedless daze. Without knowing we are incomplete. Facilitating knowledge is the vocation and calling of the Muslim in the world. So much of what divides human beings and causes conflict between them is ignorance and misunderstanding. Ignorance is a source of discord in the world and knowledge is a source of healing. Of course, knowledge as healing presupposes the knowledge of the correct uses of what is known.

Abuse, and the abuse of knowledge, is a factor of correct or incorrect teaching and the organic or inorganic nature of the learning process. The emphasis that traditional Islam places on the relationship between the teacher and the student cannot be over-emphasised. The Prophet famously said: "This material world is forsaken, and everything in it is forsaken; except the contemplation of the Divine Reality, and the teacher and the student."

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi