And When Knowledge is Replaced with Ignorance...

The crises occurring within the Muslim world glares into the face of a tradition twisted by a century and a half of neglect and hubris.  The vacuum triggered by the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate ushered in what has become an era of unprecedented degradation to a system of law rooted in 1400 years of scholarship and consensus.  The magisterium class in Islam, despite its often nonlinear approach, upheld the established methods of evaluation and ruling, has been largely replaced by haphazard individuals who openly disdain the legitimacy of the recognized schools of legal thought.  Interestingly, those largely responsible for the destruction of the caliphate were, and in many quarters continue to be, in collaboration with those forces generally hostile to Islam, while simultaneously, deriving legal opinions from fringe elements that exist within Western ideologies.  This has resulted in a climate of anti-intellectualism and contempt for those striving to maintain the classical institution of teaching and learning established by contemporaries of the Prophet (عليه السلام), ultimately culminating in a loss of direction for those seeking his path and the continued decay of the ummah itself.       

The events transpiring with the dawning of the Arab Spring have prompted many Western observers to both caution and hopefulness.  It would seem that conservatives within the political establishment believe the only acceptable means of overthrowing a dictator are those of which they themselves are the architects―guided, rather than self-determination, despite the violence exhibited by their forefathers of their own revolution.  Hiding in a shroud of democracy are those who hope to shape the changing of the guards according to their own vision of a secular state.  Even when the people issue a mandate for a change in leadership based on their own criteria, the West ultimately determines what constitutes legitimacy.[1]  The concept of a return to the Shari’a is all but absent from the discussion, with the exception of the propagandists of talk radio who lack an elementary understanding of the term.  The crisis is not the toppling of tyrannical rule, but the conditions that enabled these regimes to take power. 

The century following the death of the Prophet (عليه السلام), the whole of North Africa, into Sicily witnessed the astonishing advancement of Islam, eventually enveloping the Iberian Peninsula.  Among the most remarkable feats of enlightenment arose in Timbuktu, which would become a center of scholarship, housing a madrasah system with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts of Islamic discourse, and enrolling more than 25,000 students of knowledge.  In al Andalus, the Caliphate of Qurtuba established the most sophisticated society known in Europe up to that point.  Some of the most important religious scholars within the monotheistic tradition either emerged from or were influenced by intellectual cultivation of this era from such masters as Imam Abu 'Abdullah Al-Qurtubi, Ibn Rushd (aka, Averroes), and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides,[2] author of the Mishnah Torah;[3] Saint Thomas Aquinas draws heavily on the works of Ibn Rushd and Maimonides in several of his works, demonstrating the contribution of such thinkers.  This period continues to influence the theological scholarly tradition, which also gave birth to the likes of Ibn Khaldun and Hamid al Ghazali of Persia.  Despite the contributions of these thinkers, their contribution to classical scholarship is often sidelined by contemporary commentators, largely lacking any substantive training, who tend to be particularly critical of those who uphold the tradition of classical learning, often distorting their work.[4]

The sphere of influence that the Muslims maintained over Andalusia came to an end in 1492 with the fall of the Emirate of Granada and the subsequent expulsion of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.  At the invitation of Bayezid-i Veli,  many Jews relocated to Istanbul.[5]  As the Ottoman Empire continued  to flourish into the sixteenth century, scholarship reached a paramount.  To be considered for the position of imam at the Sultanahmet Camii, (the Grand Mosque of Istanbul) was a significant milestone; one was expected to be a faqih, a hafiz of Qur’an, in addition to having mastered the Torah and the Gospels.  Although the average scholar did not qualify, it wasn’t unheard of to come across those who would. Nowadays, imams are appointed to lead their congregants based simply on the pleasant sound of their voice.  Often, little care is taken where it relates to one’s basic knowledge concerning the ahkam of the prayerwhich is really the point, that is, an imam should possess formal training in skills which facilitate the advancement of those in his charge.  Although, our tradition was tempered with firm admiration for learning, rogue elements have made considerable progress in chipping away at its foundation.

In the late seventeenth century, as the Ottomans made strides into the heart of Europe to the west and Persia to the south, the ability to maintain order was becoming ever more strenuous.  In the meantime, economies of the colonial powers were making it increasingly difficult to compete against, primarily due to the exploits being had in the America and further enriched with the rise in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  To the east, the Europeans took turns ravishing the treasures of the Indian subcontinent and the Indonesian archipelago.   The Ottoman’s ability to maintain their sphere of influence began slipping from their grasp.  Threats posed by the Russian Empire forced them to forge alliances with Britain, France, and the Kingdom of Sardinia.  Funding madrasahs had long been supplanted with aspirations of unsustainable expansion.    Nevertheless, the institution of Shari’a eroded as interdependence with the West became more prevalent. 

Despite cordial diplomatic relations with the Ottomans, by the nineteenth century, the British had quietly usurped control over Algeria and Egypt and nationalist fervor within Najd[6] was reaching flashpoint.  In Arabia, the alliance between the so-called "Wahhabi" movement and the al-Sa’ud family, dating back to 1744, had made numerous attempts to overthrow the Ottoman Sultanate and establish themselves―and their ideology―over the Hijaz.[7]  The Sa'udis understood that if they sack Makka al Mukarramah and Madinah al Munawarah, they could assert their claim as the legitimate ruling authority over the symbolic heart of Islam.  To achieve their objective, they invited the British to the table, who aspired being granted open access to oil exploration in exchange for arms.  Unbeknownst to them, the British also had secured secret alliances with competing factions with the goal of expelling the last remnants of Ottoman control.  It so happened, the trinity of the House of Sa'ud, backed by its Wahhabi fighters, the Ikhwan, equipped with British armaments proved a lethal arrangement.[8]    

With the opening of World War I, and the colonial powers of Europe declaring war against the Ottoman Caliphate, a union arose between Arab nationalists, led by the Emir of Makka, Sherif Hussein, in cooperation with British agent T.E. Lawrence (aka, Lawrence of Arabia).  Having been weakened by the Young Turks Rebellion that ended in 1908, the Ottomans began to collapse on all fronts.  In gross violation of the Shari’a, the Arabs waged a guerilla assault against the last Caliphate.  In what would become known as the Arab Revolt, Lawrence, arm-in-arm with Faisal Hussein, son of the Emir, led a successful campaign against the Ottomans.  At the conclusion, Sharif named himself “King of the Arabs” and appointed his sons Abdullah and Faisal to rule over Transjordan and Syria respectively (although Emir Faisal would soon be removed by the French and reassigned to rule over Iraq).  Inspired by the Balfour Declaration, in 1919, King Faisal partnered with Dr. Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization, to drafted the Feisal-Weizmann Agreement with the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland in British occupied Palestine.[9] [10]  Despite making inroads with the British, however, King Faisal soon fell out of favor by his refusal to become a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. 

In 1924, with the British no longer willing to finance the reign of King Feisal, the so-called “King of the Arabs” soon met his end.  Having lost the Hijaz to the Arab Revolt, two years earlier the Grand National Assembly of Turkey dissolved the Sultanate, thus the road was paved for Abd al Aziz al Sa'ud's (aka, Ibn Sa'ud) forces to take power.  In the years leading up to this moment, the Ikhwan had become experts in the field of massacring their rivals―or anyone they deemed heretical for disagreeing with the ideology of Abd al Wahhab.[11] Armed to the teeth, Ibn Sa'ud’s army marched on Hijaz, laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.  The stage was set for a new chapter in Muslim history, built upon ruthless treachery and secret alliances with colonial power.  The Sa'udis perpetuated the lie they would re-establish the din in a land corrupted by reprehensible innovation, as illustrated by founding a state after their own namesake.[12]  In reality, they instituted an exclusivist branding of Islam, disavowing classical juristic precedents inclining toward a literalism unfettered by the confusion of scholarly qualifiers.  

The culmination of outside assaults on the traditional centers of institutions of Islamic learning―from Baghdad by the Mongols to Grenada by the Spanish, followed by corruption within expansionist Ottoman rule―ultimately resulted in seventy percent of Muslims lands falling to colonization and the razing of orthodoxy in the Hijaz.  As with the Young Turks, often the threat against the Caliphate grew from within the ummah itself.  The fall of the Ottomans, mean the demise of Islamic influence on what today comprises thirty-nine countries.  In the midst of European imperial rule taking root from Morocco to the Philippines, the independence of the Islamic state was lost.  Arabic was replaced with Spanish, Italian, French, and English and madrasahs with colonial schools.  In British-occupied India, the policy of denigrating the ulema was instituted wherein servants were issued jubbahs and turbans―the remnant of which continues to stigmatize the outwardly expression of Muslims.  In the Maghreb, the Shari’a state was replaced by the secularism of the imperialists which has until very recently been the mainstay of political governance.  Even dictators such as Zine el Abidine and Muammar Qadafi were ultimately extensions of the status quo and at times maintained by the West.

The recent eruption of the Arab Spring phenomenon shined a light on the failures of secularism in the former protectorates of North Africa and the Middle East.  Still, fears related to Western energy shortages hinge on the demise of friendly regimes.  The rise of a new Libya has prompted the West to declare, “the Libyans are on the path to democracy.”  If history is any indicator, democracy will bring with it an Islamic state―so long as the interim leadership remains independent of outside influence.  Recall the response to the Islamic party’s victory in the 1992 elections in neighboring Algeria.  Backed by their French overlords, the government declared a state of emergency and cancelled the next scheduled phase of voting, plunging the country into a decade of civil war.  In 2005, when Hamas won the popular vote in Palestine, Fatah launched a military attack, overtook the West Bank against the will of the electorate and were declared the legitimate governing authority by Western observers.  Announcements of the Ennahda Islamic party win in Tunisia were quickly followed up with diatribes of democracy gone awry; initial BBC reports accused Ennahda of misrepresenting themselves to the international community, preaching a moderate message to the world while adopting a hardliner platform within its base during the campaign, as though the election was held to appease the West.  The new leadership, however, has pledged itself to keep the alcohol flowing and the nightclubs bumping―essential elements in the development of any civilized society.

Allah spells out in the Qur’an, that He ‘does not change what is in a people until they change what is in themselves.’[13]  The late Mufti Shafi Usmani (rA) elaborates in his tafsir, “Allah Ta'ala does not change the state of peace and security enjoyed by a people into a state of distress and instability until such time that those people themselves change their deeds and ways into evil and disorder.”[14]  Imam Zaid Shakir further expounds the meaning of the ayah by proposing the opposite is also true, that is, Allah will improve the condition of the person who undergoes a positive spiritual transformation.  The Muslim world has seen the results of the former and many are hoping recent events will reverse this trend.  It has yet to be seen how the West will respond to what is unfolding, especially with the favor paid to Libya in the removal of the Qadafi regime.  Critical to the success of any Islamic governance is a return of a magisterium class, designated to wield authority in all state matters, particularly in education.

The flawed Islamic movements of the past have been due to the emphasis on politics as the primary objective.  Time and again, political ideology has been driven by unsavory motives.  The Songhai Kingdom of the sixteenth century nurtured some of the most impressive Islamic institutions and libraries ever seen outside Baghdad, yet for reasons of state, the Moroccans expanded their territory into Timbuktu, ultimately leading to the destruction of madrasah system which dispensed learned persons throughout all of West Africa and beyond.  A priority shift from disseminating dawa to the expansion of boarders led to diminishing the position of the ulema of the Ottomans, marking a change from Caliphate to what may be more accurately described as a Sultanate.  Although the Ottomans held much of North Africa in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in reality, the British ruled by proxy.  So long as the Ottomans maintained nominal control over Makka, however, they were able to maintain a degree of legitimacy.  Subsequent attacks from  the Najdis eventually destroyed it all together. 

Just as Ibn Sa’ud had close ties with the British, many of individuals who would rise to ranks of religious leadership were groomed by the crown.  In British-occupied India, also known as the British Raj, the highly educated Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan argued for an end of using the ijma of accepted schools of jurisprudence in rendering legal opinions.[15]  As an employee of the British East India Company, Khan was a fervent loyalist.  He called for the practical abandonment of the Islamic intellectual traditional in favor secular humanism, going so far as to ascribe wahy to human reasoning.  His ideas were among the most influential to the rising modernist movement.   In Egypt, the once anti-British rebel, turned imperial stooge, Muhammad ‘Abduh, was appointed chief mufti of al-Azhar University in 1889.[16]  Once exiled for his anti-British activities, he returned with a weighty clerical title and as minion to Lord Cromer as the Masonic Grand Master of the United Lodge of Egypt.  It was the policies of ‘Abduh that would determine the application and study of the Shari’a going forward, most notably his fatwa legalizing “moderate interest” on behalf of his royal masters.  ‘Abduh was succeeded by his disciple Rashid Rida, as leader of the reform movement and would become a powerful influence on the growing religious ideology being spread by the House of Sa’ud which discounted the classical schools of jurisprudence and the contributions of Muslim thinkers from the Golden Age. 

In common between the push toward modernity and the establishment of imperialist powers in the Muslim world was distain for traditional teaching and learning.  European powers were keenly aware that if the schools of Islamic scholarship could be destroyed so would the common bond of isnad between student and teacher.  Without the isnad of scholars stretching back to the Prophet himself  ( عليه السلام), a reformation could occur thus opening the gates of ijtihad to anyone with access to the written sources.  The ulema could be marginalized as unnecessary relics of the past.  The loss of a magisterium translated into a triumph for Western secularism and in some cases, the absolute abuse of authority in the name of Islam.  No longer would the study of the sciences of fiqh and of the heart be a mainstay in the Muslim intelligentsia.  The tradition could now be seen in a new light−one where the unskilled and credulous can read and interpret the meaning of the Qur’an and the prophetic narratives according to a “what it means to me” approach.                    

It seems inconceivable that more than one thousand years of peer reviewed scholarship to advance the religious practice of submission to the will of Allah could be tossed aside by learned scholars on one end calling for modernization of the din while on the other side by those who failed to complete their studies of the Shari’a.  These decisions have ushered in a warped understanding of din based on selected opinions of individuals who either lacked credibility and/or were at odds with ijma, who have combined their own haphazard interpretations.  This has yielded in generations of Muslims who lack basic knowledge of salaat and much of that upon which it is predicated, i.e., issues related to time, environment, leadership, etc.  People continue to memorize the Qur’an, a high honor and critical service to the din, yet fall short of understanding the act of ritual purification; a rite that if inadequately performed makes problematic a person’s recitation and can potentially nullify their prayer.  Rarely found among the ummah are those who have a clear understanding ‘Aqeedah, a fundamental element to the understanding of one's faith in Islam (or most, if not all, other faiths people belong to).

The consequence of these problems has plunged the Muslim ummah into its current state of distraught, where self-proclaimed mujahidin, lacking any understanding of the fiqh of jihad, have introduced the tactics originally designed by anarchists and communists while declaring they are fighting in the path of Allah.[17]  In recent years we have witnessed numerous cases of foiled plots that, if successful, would have resulted in hundreds, if not thousands of innocent deaths, from the so-called "underwear bomber," to the failed bombing of Time Square in New York or more recently, the atrocities being carried out by the Harakat al Shabaab movement in Somalia.[18]  Meanwhile, secularists argue that a division between public and private practice of Shari’a should be the norm and that to do otherwise stands in the way of progress for Muslims living in the West and assisting in the wholesale prosecution of Muslims via congressional witch hunts.  Where each side has failed miserably is in their basic understanding of what Shari’a is and the priority it is meant to occupy in the life of all Muslims.  The answer to the problem is neither to distance one’s self from it nor taking the tradition into one’s own hands to fight against perceived iniquities; rather it is by seeking a knowledgeable teacher with a recognized degree of understanding who has earned ijazah in his or her particular scope of study.  Whereas currently the puritans misapply the Shari’a, the secularists practically ignore it all together, driving us deeper into delirium. 

The paradox between those calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and the failure of a great number of these same persons to exhibit even basic decorum in the masjid is striking.  The revival of the Caliphate will not occur while the majority of Muslims fail to observe the haqq that salaat al Subh has over them, nor so long as the pursuit of sacred knowledge is trumped by endeavors of the secular sciences.  This is not to deny the importance of secular studies nor argue that everyone must rise to the position of faqih; indeed, not everyone is meant to do so.  Imam al-Ghazali observes in Ihya' ‘Ulum al-Din the need for people to engage in secular studies for the benefit of society, noting it as falling into the category of fard kifayah.  The problem in twelfth century Baghdad of course was not a shortage of scholars but the opposite.[19]  Shaykh Hamza Yusuf writes, “in Damascus, Ibn Jubayr recounted that the sound of Qur’an recitation was akin to the buzzing of bees in their hives due to the vast numbers of people reciting. Circles of knowledge covered the mosque, and he was surprised to find that even the ordinary folk were listening to high levels of discourse.”[20]  Nowadays its more likely to hear the sounds of idle chatter emanating from within the walls of the masjid.

To return the tradition to its rightful position will require the efforts of the individual as well as the community.  The arrogance of the ignorant must be replaced with the humility of the seekers; we can no longer afford to take lessons from our Protestant predecessors who disposed of cannon law long ago only to the spawn countless sects, each with its own, often unqualified, take on scripture.[21]  As laypersons, we must come to the realization that our capacity to understand the intricacies of our faith is no greater than that of an undergraduate having a comprehensive understanding of constitutional law.  As a surgeon is required to spend years studying and completing residencies before performing surgery, we, as surveyors of the prophetic tradition, must not assume the ability to interpret scripture without proper training.  It is imperative that we demand the same from those in position of authority.  The absurdity of refusing to adhere to a particular school of legal thought founded on a thousand years of scholarship and consensus while eagerly willing to swallow opinions from those who have never so much as stepped foot inside a madrasah is nauseating.  The key to unlocking the potential of this ummah lies in its understanding and applying the historical success of the past, both in individual character and communal strength based upon the blueprint established by the Prophet (ليه السلام), dispensed by the Khulafa e’Rashideen, and solidified by the classical schools of jurisprudence.  As the last century and a half has clearly demonstrated, abandonment of these essentials only serves to perpetuate decline of our very existence.

And Allah knows best.      


[1] Hamas is a case-in-point.  Although freely elected, they remain unrecognized as the governing authority of Palestine, rather the media line continues to describe their assent as their having “taken control.”   
[2] Maimonides would later relocate to Egypt to serve as the court physician of Salah ad Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.
[3] This brilliant work continues to be among the most authoritative commentaries on the sources of rabbinic law.
[4] A common distortion applied to classical scholars is their practice of tasawwuf.  This is most often the case with Imam al Ghazali who it is said, abandoned Sufism in his later years, in direct contradiction to his own late writings, and Ibn Taymiyyah, who belonged to the Qadiriyya tariqa as illustrated in his Sharh Futuh al Ghayb, available from Al-Baz Publishing, 2010.
[5] Ironically, it was through the pillaging of the Muslim coffers that Ferdinand and Isabella largely financed the expeditions of Columbus who had stumbled upon various maps and nautical instruments in the La Rábida Monastery, formally a Masjid, which served as his living quarters during the planning of his exhibition across the Pacific. 
[6] Narrated Ibn Omar “Allah be Please with both” narrated: The Prophet said: "O Allah! Bless our Sham and our Yemen.”People said: "Our Najd as well." The Prophet “Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him” again said: "O Allah! Bless our Sham and Yemen." They again said: "Our Najd as well." On that the Prophet “Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him” said, "There will appear earthquakes and afflictions, and from there will come out the side of the head of Satan." Mohammad Ben Ismail Al’Bukhari, Al’Bukhari’s Sahih: the correct traditions of al’Bukhari, vol. 1, Book 15, Hadith 1037, trans. Mohammad Mahdi Al’Sharif, (Beirut: Dar Al-Kotob Al-ilmiyah, 2003), 245.
[7] For further reading on the Sa’udis rise to power, see Khalid Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005) 26-113.
[8] For further reading, see Efram Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1999).
[9] Feisal-Weizmann Agreement (03 January 1919), art 4, London.
[10] This Jewish-Muslim partnership came after a long history of mutual cooperation and respect.  Until 1948, Jews were considered close allies with the Islamic State, in fact, it was the Sultanate Mehmet II who invited the Jews, who were facing the pogroms of the Inquisition, to relocate to the Ottoman Caliphate.  Similar instances occurred throughout history, including during the crusader onslaughts and in World War II.  
[11] They, too, were eventually disposed of after their atrocities against British protectorates became a diplomatic problem for Ibn Sa’ud. 
[12] Although Ibn Sa’ud is often praised for his unwavering stance against bid’ah and condemnation of the tariqas, three years after establishing the kingdom, he was knighted into the British Order of the Bath.  See Hamid Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (Oneoya, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002), 39.  See also the recent translation of Sawa’iq al-Ilahiyya fi al-radd `ala al-Wahhabiyya, (Divine Lightnings in Refuting the Wahhabis), originally composed by  the brother of Muhammad ibn Abd'al-Wahhab, Sulayman Abd'al-Wahhab (Canada: Spire Publications, 2011, trans. al-Hajj Abu Ja`far Al-Hanbali), available from the Hanbali Text Society.
[13] Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi’,  Ma’ariful-Qur’an, vol. 5,  trans. Dr. Muhammad Hasan Askari and Dr. Muhammad Shamim, (Karachi: Darul Uloom, 1995), 200.
[14] Ibid.
[15] For further reading, see Jonathan A.C. Brown, Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (London: Oneworld Publications, 2009), 251-256.
[16] Ibid.
[17]  For further reading, see Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (New York: Harvard University Press, 2007). 
[18] As predicted, the Bush administration’s vicious attack against the Islamic Courts, a legitimate movement that brought brief stability to Somalia through implementation of Shari’a, plunged the country back into chaos and civil war thus giving rise to al Shabaab vigilantes who have committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of Islam.  See Somalia: Unnecessary Tragedy.
[19] It should be noted that despite the top heavy position of the ulema that al-Ghazali describes, the Muslims during this period made considerable strides in science and engineering, perhaps illustrating the extent of decline overtaking Islamic Civilization.
[20] Yusuf, Shaykh Humza, 21 June 2011, “Where are the ‘No Smoking’ Signs in Medina? Since they are no longer in our hearts, at least put them on the walls.” Sandala Blog, 09 November 2011, http://sandala.org/blog/2011/06/21/where-are-the-no-smoking-signs-in-medina    
[21] Among other schisms with the Christian church is whether Jesus (عليه السلام‎) is the “son” or God incarnate.  This presents a significant issue between Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian denominations, to the extent that these and other differences have one side believing the other will face eternal damnation.  Unfortunately, Muslims, ignorant of their tradition, have fallen victim to the same fitna when it comes to understanding madhabs.  

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