Questions, Curiosity and the Scientific Culture
By and large, the government of Malaysia has been concerned with inculcating strong and resilient scientific spirit and culture in the Malaysian society.
However, for such a culture to not only grow but also endure, there should always be a high level of curiosity among a sufficient number of the country’s population.
It is this strong desire in a person to know and learn that drives him or her to explore, discover, invent and innovate despite circumstances which may not always be in favour of one’s scientific interest and quest.
Since Muslims are in the majority in Malaysia, and in order that the aforementioned concern is properly addressed, they too need to embrace that culture.
Yet, it has been a commonplace in this so-called modern age of ours to find science being contrasted with religion, the former being depicted as rigorously objective, empirical and rational while the latter, mostly subjective, traditional and dogmatic.
As such, what is generally referred to as “the religious education in Islam” has unfortunately been perceived and projected as not only lacking the rational inquiring spirit but also opposed to scientific rigour.
It is primarily through that prism that we find pervasive, when referring to the aforesaid education, such misconceptions as students should not ask their teachers too much, nor should they always apply their reason, hence rendering more deeply ingrained the negative image that the products of the very much touted “Islamic educational system” are generally shy, passive, and so much geared to spoon feeding and rote-learning.
All that despite there being the saying of ‛Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, and his son, ‛Abdullah, to the effect that “whoever is shy in seeking knowledge obtains little knowledge.”
In fact, there is in al-Bukhari’s Sahih—the one regarded by Sunnite Muslims as the most authentic collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions—a reminder by Mujahid, an early prominent scholar of Islam: “Neither a timid nor an arrogant one will learn knowledge.”
Furthermore, Sayyidatina ‛A’isha, one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives, has been reported by many famous scholars of Hadiths to have declared admiringly: “The best women are the women of the Ansar (i.e. the local Arab community of Madinah during the Prophet’s lifetime); [for] modesty does not prevent them from seeking understanding in religion.”
It was also related by Abu Nu‛aym in his famous Hilyat al-Awliya’ (The Ornaments of the Saints) from ‛Ali (the fourth caliph of Islam) that the Prophet once said: “Knowledge is [like] Treasure House the key to which is question. So, do ask question so that Allah has mercy on you; for, in so doing, four parties shall be rewarded: the one who asks, the teacher [who answers], the one listening, and the one who likes them all.”
Nevertheless, a strong desire to know and learn alone will not guarantee the development of a scientific culture.
It has to be coupled with a disciplined mind so that what we have at the end is disciplined curiosity, a factor that is crucial for the development of such a culture.
That the above is so lies in the fact that what actually arouses such desire in oneself is QUESTION(S).
It is questions as well as its immediate and powerful relative, PROBLEMS, which give rise to and constitute one’s curiosity.
The connection between all these may not appear telling unless one also sees the conceptual and scientific system developed and expressed by the Arabic language, consequent to the revelation of the Qur’an.
A “question” in Arabic is captured by the term su’al from which the Malay words, soal and soalan, in fact originate, whereas the term “problem” or “issue” is encapsulated by the term mas’alah from which another Malay word, masalah, derives.
According to the conceptual system of the Arabic language, since both words spring from the same root word, s-’a-l, they are intimately related, morphologically as well as semantically.
For, as far as one’s mental constitution is concerned, a problem (mas’alah)—be it actual or hypothetical—is where a question (su’al) lies and, as such, acts as its seat.
As one is always searching for the true answer or correct solution to a problem, the very presence of a problem as well as the manner it is addressed provides one’s quest or pursuit (matlab; plural matalib) with both the focus and the direction.
It is in this light that, as related by ibn ‛Abd al-Barr (d. 463H) in his Jami‛ Bayan al-‛Ilm wa Fadlihi, both Wahb b. Munabbih and Sulayman b. Yasar declared: “Right problem (i.e. seat of question) is half of knowledge” (husn al-mas’alah nisf al-‛ilm).
Nonetheless, we also know from our experience that in general a question does not arise out of the blue.
More often than not, a question arises in our minds together with a set, or a series, of other related questions.
There is in fact a logical system inherent in any set or series of questions, involving a certain pattern of logical priority and posteriority.
A really scientific manner of dealing with questions and problems demands that one pay due attention to such a system and order.
As a matter of fact, this is one of the subject-matters extensively discussed by past Muslim logicians, scientists and scholars in their logico-scientific works, especially in those sections or chapters dealing with questions and problems being the major constituent of a scientific quest.
And this is basically what Professor Nicholas Rescher, a leading historian of logic and science, once highlighted in his study of the major works of ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin), a great Muslim polymath of the late 10th and early 11th century C.E..
Logic as a science is meant to discipline one’s mind and thinking so that one does not commit erroneous reasoning.
This necessarily and naturally includes the disciplining of one’s mind in dealing with questions and problems.
Some questions should not be raised unless and until other more fundamental questions have been satisfactorily dealt with first.
Or such questions may not even arise in the first place if such more basic questions were answered properly.
Some questions, or problems, although justifiable, should not have been tackled in a particular science or field of study, but rather should have been the proper subject-matter of other disciplines, whether more fundamental to that science or secondary to it.
This is what, among others, Muslims should be taught if we are ever serious in nurturing a scientific culture.
In other words, we ought to be fully aware of the logic of questions if we are to deal with problems scientifically.
Otherwise, simply given mere curiosity, devoid of mental discipline, we may end up giving rise to ideologies, superstitions, myths and mythologies, or worst still, prying and scandal-mongering as a number of Malaysians appear to be fond of, unfortunately.