The Importance Of Civilisational ‘Rihlah’
“Seek knowledge even in China.”
Rihlah, or travel, is an important element in the intellectual tradition of Islam. Through it one sees the vastness of the world created by God and gains much knowledge. As Islam’s luminary Imam al-Shafi‘i says in his Diwan: “The intelligent cultured man would not, in a place, settle; So, leave home and travel!”
Quite recently, the author was given the opportunity to attend the “World Youth Summit on Civilization: China–Malaysia Exchange on Confucian and Islamic Cultures” as IKIM’s representative cum academic rapporteur.
Held in Shandong, China, on 11-17 August, the summit was jointly organized and supported by the alumni associations of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and Peking University, Confucian Chinese Society, Zen Tao Business School, Sino Youth Entrepreneur Association, Shenzhen Zhi Chong Culture Broadcast Co., Ltd., the Perak State Government, The Federation of Malay Students Union (GPMS), the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), and Zailan & Associates.
The Malaysian delegation, comprising students, professionals, and academics, was invited to partake in a cultural and scholarly exchange between Islam and Confucianism. Later, we were brought on a tour to interesting places including Peking University, the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, and the great philosopher’s birthplace in the provincial city of Qufu.
Our sojourn also took us to Peking University, an important institution where we glimpsed Chinese people’s strong love for the sciences and soon realized that Muslims too must rediscover theirs. “Of all God’s creatures, the Chinese are the most efficient at engraving, manufacturing, and in every craft making. Indeed, none of the other people matches them in this respect,” says 10th century Muslim traveler Abu Zayd al-Sirafi in his book Akhbar al-Sind wa’l-Hind (Accounts of China and India).
The current geopolitical situation calls for a civilizational dialogue opportunity such as this – rather, even greater discourse – as well as understanding of the interaction (ta‘amul) between the world’s great powers.
It also calls for the returning role of the Muslim sovereign states as a stabilizing force as Muslim kingdoms, including those of the Malay world, had done in the past. As the divine vicegerency of Man requires him to subject his animal impulses under his God-given rational faculty of the soul, so too the Muslim conduct of state seeks to overcome military strategies that follow animalistic logic as well as those that reduce politics to a Hobbesian mad scramble for land, power, and resources.
The Muslim legal theorist Imam al-Sarakhsi, commenting on his teacher’s work on Muslim conduct of state Kitab al-Siyar, underlines the prime importance of a Muslim country to develop the strength necessary for maintaining regional peace and stability.
In fact, Malaysia’s continual demonstration of that strength, with its memberships such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the United Nations Security Council as well as various involvements in UN peacekeeping operations, is presentable as proof of concept.
However, “Unless one is intimately aware of this Chinese historical experience,” cautions former Stratfor geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan in his book Asia’s Cauldron, “one cannot comprehend what motivates China today in the South China Sea.”
Therefore, let us find strength in history’s lessons. Where geopolitics fails to assuage the world’s anxiety, Islam’s civilizational language as well as historical knowledge can redress old wounds, make peace (sulh) between nations, and bring the discourse to a higher level.
We should remember China’s history as well as Islam’s have been intertwined ever since Caliph Uthman ibn Affan dispatched the Companion of the Holy Prophet, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, on diplomatic missions there. Later, Caliph al-Mansur would send a contingent of 4,000 soldiers to help the Chinese emperor suppress the An Lushan Rebellion.
As al-Sirafi and many other Muslim scholars have recorded, the heyday of the glorious Tang dynasty had seen numerous exchanges between Muslim world and the Chinese civilization.
“Never the twain shall meet,” declared Rudyard Kipling in The Ballad of East and West. Yet, as an older, more mature, and culturally richer civilization, China shares not the propensity to destroy other civilizations. Its past friendly gestures invite us to hope for more, unless this too would change come, as the prominent thinker S.M.N. al-Attas puts it, “the pestilential winds of secularization.”
The penetrating intellectual gaze of Muslim scholars mentioned above very much demonstrates the strength of Islamic scholarship as well as its ability to remain relevant across the ages.
Such testament of true knowledge should make us realize that Islamic scholarship is in itself an institution of prime importance as much as institutions and exchanges are the pillars of a civilization.