Corruption of Knowledge Halts Progress
It is incumbent for the educated and those in positions of power among the present-day Muslims to have greater clarity on what constitutes the fundamental challenge facing them so that we can better strategize and prioritize the solutions at both the individual and collective level.
Does the fundamental challenge of man today merely lie in their collective ignorance, or in their lack of scientific and technological prowess? Could it simply be attributed to inequality, disunity, or corrupt leadership?
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s ‘OIC-2025 Programme of Action’, which is supposed to represent the collective views of the Muslim nations, does not express any clarity with regards to this question.
Deeper contemplation will reveal, that whatever seems to occupy nations the most are actually symptoms of a deeper problem: our inner state—there is a problem in the way we think as a whole i.e. our worldview, and the way we govern our individual selves.
This was the key message advocated by some prominent Muslim thinkers in the 20th century such as Said Nursî (d. 1960), the Ottoman-Turkish theologian, and Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (born 1931), the Malay theologian, as demonstrated in their life and works.
There seems to be a consensus in the inaugural World Conference on Muslim Education (Jeddah, 1977) organized by the OIC, that the root problem of the Muslim World’s predicament lie in the problem of knowledge and education. But it was reported there was confusion among the 313 scholars who attended the conference even on what is meant by knowledge (‘ilm).
Throughout its 1400 years history, knowledge (as implied by the term ‘ilm) has always been understood by Muslim scholars (represented by the mutakkalimun (theologians), fuqaha (jurists), ahl tasawwuf (metaphysicians)) as something internal in man. It is as the famous saying attributed to al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), the founder of the Shafi’i school of law from Palestine, goes, “Knowledge is in the hearts of men, not in the lines of books.”
Only in the modern age do we find ourselves confused between knowledge (‘ilm), information (ma’lumat), conjecture, theories, and speculation (zann). True knowledge (al-‘Ilm) should provide more clarity and certainty (al-yakin) on one’s role in the momentary sojourn in this world.
Thus there is a strong reason to believe that the ‘corruption of knowledge’ is a phenomenon of the greatest magnitude experienced by present-day Muslims—a term coined by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas to explain the nature of predicament that many Muslims are currently in (see for instance his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, ISTAC, 1995).
Corruption of knowledge happens in the mind when key ideas (such as on ‘God’, ‘revelation’, ‘religion’, ‘man’, ‘happiness’, ‘justice’, etc.) which projects a certain outlook and understanding towards existence—known as the metaphysical worldview—are either changed or restricted in meaning, thus rendering them meaningless.
It was for this reason that Islamic languages in the past (Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Malay) shared a basic vocabulary derived from Revelation: dīn, ‘ilm, insan, ‘alam, ‘adl, etc., which ensured the intellectual and spiritual unity of the Muslim community worldwide.
It was due to the metaphysical worldview of Islam that the Muslims in the past were able to express a distinct character in the way they lead their lives, the way they organize their economy, the way they design their cities, the way they carve their woods, and build their technologies.
This metaphysical worldview and the key ideas contained therein, have never changed in meaning in the consciousness of genuine believers throughout the ages—until now. For instance, “man” as “al-insan” has been changed to mean homosapiens, “knowledge” as “al-ilm” has been changed to mean facts and information, “happiness” has been changed to mean bodily pleasures, and so on.
The consequence of corruption of knowledge is that there will be contradictory fusion between truth and falsehood and between the illusory and the real—hence the term ‘confusion’.
Such corruption of knowledge ultimately causes man’s forgetfulness of his primordial covenant (al-mithaq) with God, his duties as a Muslim, as well as the inability to realize a harmonious condition in the self, with others, and the environment.
It prevents the progress of Muslims because the very understanding of progress and development according to Islam is contingent on how one understand these permanent and timeless great ideas.
Progress for Muslims would mean a definite direction (sirat al-mustaqim) that is aligned to a final purpose (al-akhirah) that is meant to be achieved in worldly life which includes remaining true to their covenant with God and its realization in one’s life.
It is natural though that many educated Muslims today are unable to perceive correctly the true challenge of the Muslims for that is the nature (sifah) of knowledge (‘ilm). One has to strive to seek it from those whom God has endowed deeper perception on the realities of things, as per the famous dictum attributed to Mālik ibn Anas (d. 795), the founder of the Maliki school of law from Medina: “Knowledge is to be sought, not to be brought.”
We are not saying that Muslims should reject all foreign or Western ideas. For the Prophet Muhammad called on the Muslims to take hold of wisdom (hikmah) wherever one finds. Rather, Muslims should be discerning to accept a particular idea so long as it does not contradict or corrupt the metaphysical worldview of Islam.
Ideally, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) could play a more prominent role in addressing the problem of corruption of knowledge of the Muslims since it is the root cause of Muslim disunity and disorder in various spheres of life.
This was the reason the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC)—the now defunct postgraduate university in Kuala Lumpur—was conceived by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas which has succeeded in educating a group of Muslim thought leaders and scholars of various fields now actively playing their role globally.
The Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), being a think tank, alongside like-minded scholars and intellectuals, are committed in the mission to address the problem of ‘corruption of knowledge’ and to assist Muslim leaders and the Community in general to better understand the worldview of Islam through various means.