An Unhealthy Obsession With Knowledge

al-Hamdu lillah, this summer marks my 15th year as a Muslim. Where does the time go? I look back fondly now at my early days as a Muslim when ever encounter with another Muslim was filled with the excitement for something “new, fresh and unseen before”. Back then, the spirit seems a bit different than it does today. Many of us were simply after a system of morality and piety that we could feel good about. But as Bob Dylan put it, “The times they is ‘a changin'” – or in my case, changed.

Living in West Philadelphia, in Philadelphia at large, which last year, who’s murder rate topped four hundred, leading the nation, grounds one in reality. And that reality spells out to me that the majority of perpetrators and victims of those aforementioned crimes were of Black descent. So for me, the question begs the perennial answer, “when are the Muslims [and here I am talking to Blackamerican Muslims] going to address the situations that they live in and begin to use or at least steer Islam towards a direction where it can be used as a means of addressing these issues. In frank terms, what’s the point in having morality if it has no impact on your daily existence, if it in no way combats the evils that plague your environment? Fifteen years in to this enterprise and I’m still waiting for an answer.

I no way should this critique be taken as high-handed. As I stated, I live and work in this environment – I have a vested interest in its success. And in my opinion, I see great potential for Islam to not only have a positive impact on the lives of the Blackamerican Muslims who live here but in the greater non-Muslim populace as well. For those who initially might think such an exerted influence might be some sort of Utopian daydreaming, one need only look around at Black Culture in Philadelphia and see the lasting and continuing influence that Islam has on the Black conscious here – albeit mostly in fashion and perhaps a sort of protestant, protest attitude. The question is – why is this influence limited to such things as fashion? Is this the best thing that Islam has to offer [Dickies, ‘Tims, long beards, head scarves and the like?]?

I have written before that simply taking shahadah in no way connotes leaving one’s demographics. If you live in environment were violence is king; where drug trafficking and addiction is king; where homelessness is a concern; where teen pregnancy is a concern; where education [or lack there of] and economic prospects [or lack there of] is an issue, then recognizing Allah as your Lord and Master will not “magic wand” any of the above crises away. But instead of addressing any of these issues, I see an almost OCD-like condition amongst Muslims in their “pursuit of knowledge”. I cannot count the number of fliers and emails I have received inviting members of the community to come and “master the sciences of Hadith” or “mastering usul al-fiqh“. Make no mistake, these areas of knowledge are important and they have their place. But I find it hard to justify this type of “educational system” in light of a severe lack of real-life, secular education. Are the mastering of these sciences in anyway crucial to the survival of these communities? If one does not possess an education or a job [often the two go hand-in-hand] then in what way is mastering the science of Hadith going to serve your worldly purpose? There seems to be two factors at work here: [1] the misplaced emphasis cum desire on such knowledge and [2] the misplaced emphasis cum propagation of such studies. There needs to a be greater awareness on the part of the community to look critically at itself and deal with what’s most important. Likewise, the religious leaders also need to reassess what it is they’re teaching – is it of immediate, pertinent value? Unless the vast majority of people who plan to attend such classes and seminars are planning an academic career in Islamic Studies [which being that many have not gone beyond a high school education if that] then again, how is this justified? Instead, could we have a simple return to morality and piety?

This past fifteen years of “research” has shown me that the vast amounts of knowledge soaked up by these communities have done little to nothing at alleviating the above mentioned maladies. Rather, knowledge is used either as a blunt weapon, wielded against other “lesser informed” members of the community, to bludgeon people into submissiveness and conformity. Issues such as rape, domestic violence, or even just simple social responsibility [i.e., getting and maintaining a job and providing for one’s family] go conveniently unaddressed. Knowledge, as it is currently perceived, cannot be seen “‘fore the trees”. It amazes me how Muslims seem to both neglect and miss the simple yet profound piety of the Prophet Muhammad. “Sunnah” becomes a stun gun word, meant to shock and threaten the unaware that they might be rejecting the way of the Prophet. The Prophet’s example of manhood is also carelessly overlooked. Instead, such popular examples of ‘Umar ibn al Khattab are used. For in modern, hyper-masculine Black culture, the “imagined” ‘Umar, who told the leaders of Quraysh, “O Quraysh, if any of you wants his mother to lose a son, his wife to become a widow, and his children to become orphans, then let him meet me tomorrow after Fajr prayers behind this valley because I am migrating!” has captured the imagination of many Muslim men. This type of “John Wayne” persona finds a greater appeal in current times [curious, that other aspects of ‘Umar’s character, such as caring for the poor during his rule as Khalifa are systematically ignored] and yet, the Prophet Muhammad, who was neither overly aggressive nor large and imposing, like ‘Umar, was never seen by his enemies as a coward or, in modern parlance, a “chump”. So why is it that the Prophet is not looked to as an example for manhood? There is a great deal in all this psychology that warrants further examination and adjustment.

In a time when so many suffer from ills that could be combated with simple acts of piety and morality, it continues to baffle and disappoint. Not unlike those who long for knowledge, I too thirst for the ‘ilm – just I’m tired of being wait listed for Islam 201.

And God knows best.

13 Replies to “An Unhealthy Obsession With Knowledge”

  1. Wa ‘alaykum salaam,

    The thing is, I don’t even think much knowledge is being propogated. With all respect due, I just don’t think that usul al fiqh or hadith are being mastered in Philly.

    Ha!, well, yes, that is true and I suppose I was trying to be too kind and tried to illustrate that in a more subtle way, but that is one of the side points I did want to make. That in addition to studying things that will have little to no positive benefit [in the immediate] I too, highly doubt that any such knowledge is really changing hands. But I guess I wanted to stress what was being sought versus any qualitative analysis of whether or not they are truly learning those sciences.

    And to further push my point through, even if they were really learning usul al-fiqh, I still would ask, “is this what they ought to be studying given their present condition?” I fail to see how usul al-fiqh will eradicate poverty, raise AIDS awareness, create economic and educational opportunities and so forth.

    Thanks for the comments – it helped me to look at my own argument more critically.


  2. Salaam ‘Alaikum

    The thing is, I don’t even think much knowledge is being propogated. With all respect due, I just don’t think that usul al fiqh or hadith are being mastered in Philly. I don’t think they’re being mastered in most other places in the US either. If the knowledge was being taught and learned through authentic, reliable methods, then I think you would see a difference, because you can’t help but turn to the world around you when you’ve learned from a true master.

    But having been to these types of events before, what you’re often getting is less than substandard, and like everything else, it’s all about a rule book and adhering to this rule book. It’s Islam As the Bare Minimum, communities where people believe the way to live a marriage is to demand of each other their basic rights and give their basic responsibilities and expect no less and give no more. Lowest Common Denominator Islam.

    So people might be obsessed with it, but my personal view is that at the end of the day, they’re not even getting that much out of it, b/c if they were, they’d be acting on it. That’s real knowledge, imnsho.

  3. I am of two minds about the usefulness of what seems like a mediocre Islamic education… sometimes mediocrity can at least keep people off the streets which is a start. But then we have to move beyond that. We can’t change people’s expectations and esteem of themselves. Someone who accepts Islam does not lose the baggage of their upbringing and socialization. So who’s responsibility then is it to change a society? I don’t think we could convince half of the people out there that having a job or an education is part of piety unless they believe that they can actually hold a job or are smart enough to get a higher education. To change an outome you need to change expectations and aspirations. Learning about piety and humility can in many cases just make people almost embrace their poverty and lack of education as being more “Muslim”. I know this first hand.
    So again, who’s responsibility is it to change this? How do you change the psychology of a people? Eternal,infernal questions from a psychology junkie to a sociology junkie.
    Let me know when Islam 201 begins.

  4. Wa ‘alaykum salaam,

    Thanks for dropping in. I appreciate the link. I will check out your online venture in a few moments.


    – M

  5. Pingback: On sacred knowledge versus practical knowledge at Ijtema
  6. Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah
    I pray that you are in the best of health & imaan.
    This is a short message to notify you that this entry has been selected for publishing on I J T E M A; a venture to highlight the best of the Muslim blogosphere.
    To find out more about I J T E M A, and how you can further contribute, please click here.
    May Allah bless you for your noble efforts.

  7. Salam Alaikum,

    Umm Zaid
    Perhaps the sciences are not being mastered, but it is a bit of a jump to write off the teaching of those sciences as not “…being taught and learned through authentic, reliable methods…” as if some how that would magically change the peoples situation even if they were.
    Perhaps because we see our situations as superior (and they must be because then we would’nt be in them) we tend to denounce other situations as unauthentic. We can go on with the tug-o-war of shaykhs and methodologies, but that i think may be the point of the post; its a waste of time.
    “The hearts are receptacles” as Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) said. The thing is we are trying to pour oil in the water container and then wondering why they don’t mix.

    Which brings me to what Marc said:

    I agree, there is an emphasis on somewhat esoteric topics being important for community development more than there is for pracitical pragmatic solutions.
    Matn-of-the-Month in whatever science is not getting me a job, paying rent, or raising my iman. I’m not against traditional teaching, but it is not for everyone, which may be why Jumu’ah is obligatory only once a week, because most people can’t handle too much information. Many people in the time of the Prophet and thereafter were inculcated with the basics of iman and adab, and then left to build productive lives, and at times of trouble referred to the scholars or their local judge.
    There is a strange idea amongst Muslims that we will only be a strong community when we have a masjid full of Tullab al-‘Ilm. It’s kind of like when people claim Native American ancestry; everyones grandmama was a cherokee princess, but I wonder who gathered berries and hunted deer? It is a Quranic reality that we will have different levels of people, and that is part of what make life work.
    Most of it (regardless of ideological background)lies in escapism and a utopic vision of life. The only utopia we will have is in Jannah; trial and tribulation are a fact of life.

  8. I think there is this desire to achieve a sound Islamic education for some because they like the status that is attached to it. They only acquire knowledge to beat those less informed down, not to educate them or to perhaps dispart this knowledge in a healthy and useful manner. The ego really lets these type of people down.

    Now not everyone can master hadith sciences or fiqh; its not possible. I agree with Hood that you need people who work at different levels in order to make life and the world work.

  9. @Marc – Great blog post and it’s good to get people talking on this subject. I ventured over after seeing the post referenced on Hood’s blog. BTW, I think to deal with usul ul fiqh with such a light brush over is not giving it justice. While not for everyone, usul is foundational to understanding the basis of our deen. For example, you know the people you speak about, the ones that hold knowledge like it’s a gun and will shoot anyone with it if he/she steps up and contradicts his way/minhaj/group (you get the point). Well, I’ve seen many people start out in the manner you described in the post but after learning usul from well qualified people and benefitting from their company have turned into much more compassionate muslims because they’ve learned where and why we disagree and those that disagree aren’t going to hell like they thought just because of an acceptable disagreement. This is very important and as you know as an african american, some of us have used Islam as this escapist set trip. Where I grew up there were bloods and crips, in Chi town Mos, Bros, and Forks, and now that we have Islam we have this unacceptable obsession with Minhaj and use it like a set. At any rate, if more of us learned usul even at a rudimentary level, we would understand there are acceptable differences to be had and appreciated.

    @Hood and Umm Zaid – I’m a student of the “traditionalist” movement and well, I think the scholars and (active) students of knowledge should be traditionalists. That being said, after taking at least two classes at the Sunnipath academy (and being a Teachers Assistant) which for the most part were fairly good, there was nothing “traditional” about them although their presentation was fairly good. My point is that only in a traditional setting can one really excel using a traditional approach. For those of us that are non-traditional students whom typically have families, traditionalism isn’t really going to cut it. I’m not sure how many jobs Imam Nawawi was working when he was studying and he obviously wasn’t married so that cuts out most of us as traditional students since we can be referred to as Abu or Umm. One can only try to apply the wisdom of the tradition in a method that students can get the most out of it while still living with their families and making other non-studying contributions to their communities. A point to note and add as well is that like Hood said, I’m not sure how many mutoon that the sahaba went through but my guess is none, however, they still learned their fard al ayn proficiently and worshipped Allah with great vigor and humility. May Allah be pleased with them and allow us to derive more benefit and barakah like them, ameen.

  10. as-salamu alaikum br. marc,

    your article was intellectually stimulating, jazak Allahu khairan, and a good reminder as well. it made me think quite deeply about how we spend our time and where we put our energies… following are just a few thoughts:

    1 – we fail to prioritize, and don’t know the difference between immediate and important concerns: what i mean by that is while we have important issues (such as learning usul al fiqh) we also have immediate concerns, like working on the social ills you mention. the case is analagous to a man with a large gash on his leg being treated for light bleeding on the arms – first the immediate concern has to be taken care of, and then the other important matters are more easily addressed.

    2 – we have problems with application. Umm Zaid mentioned that were we to learn from proper sources, and were our methodology sound, we would necessarily see a change in our communities. Now, everyone seems to have taken that to mean she thinks that just by sitting on the floor and learning from someone who learned from someone in the deserts of wherever we’re going to solve our problems – i don’t think she meant that at all. more fundamental to the essence of traditionalism than sitting on the floor is 1) balance and 2) implimentation. if we’re sincere in learning, we’re going to act, and the more we act, the more learned we will become. Ill mention balance a bit more below.

    3 – we are very impatient: we have pressing needs, and we forget that such problems take a while to fix. Things are built up with difficulty, destroyed with ease, and rebuilt with more difficulty. we want our problems to go away right away, but we need to apply consistent effort for, perhaps, generations. this brings me to my last point –

    4 – we need to balance: proper action cannot come without knowledge. one cannot go about cleaning up society if they are themselves filthy. thus, they have to have a certain level of spiritual purity, which comes with learning and practicing. similarly, one cannot deal with the problems of society if they don’t have the requisite knowledge. in arabic they say an hour of planning is better than an age of (unplanned) work. Furthermore, each of us is responsible for carrying this deen to the next generation: we have to study if we are to persist in learning if Islam is to live on through us; at the same time we need to act if those around us, including our own children, will perceive Islam as relevant enough to learn from us.

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