The Constriction Of ‘Alim and ‘Ilm?


By Mamnun Khan

When someone says the word ‘alim/‘alima our mind conjures up the idea of someone who’s completed an ‘alimiyyah degree at a specialised institution of learning (college/madrasah/Darul ‘ulum etc.), or someone who’s earned licence (ijazah) to teach to a requisite level by his/her teacher(s). Similarly, the word ‘ilm takes the meaning of ‘knowledge of Islam.’ But, a long line of discussions I’ve had on this, most recently with a Professor of Physics, led me to the think that we’ve constricted their definitions. To the extent that it’s become, I think, a sad reflection of the so-called ‘crisis of intellect’ current in Muslim discourses today.

In the well-known example of an ‘alimiyyah course – the dars-i-nizami, students are put through studies in the traditional Islamic sciences (Arabic, Qira’a, Qur’an, Poetry, Tafsir, Shari’ah, Sirah, Logic, Hadith, Usul, Fiqh, Aqidah and so on). Syllabuses have evolved to include subjects like critical thinking and history, and vary between institutions in their teaching methods and texts studied. On the face of it, it’s not too dissimilar to a Classics or Theology course at university; common to both is the study of, in essence, literary texts, law and theology. Though of course, the content and emphasis in their application to the modern world differs greatly. As well, one presumes, the intention and learning the ‘stuff’ of growing close to God, and helping ordinary Muslims—though teaching of sacred knowledge—fulfil their responsibility of stewardship (khulafah al-ard). In the UK, the ‘alimiyyah course is taught alongside the national curriculum, too.

At the end of their studies, if one passes their exams they gain the ‘alimiyyah certification, attaining the title Moulana or Sheikh to distinguish them as ‘learned in the religion’ or ‘alim. Fortunately, we have many institutions that offer the ‘alimiyyah, supplying communities up and down the country with a steady stream of men and women well-acquainted with the traditional Islamic sciences.

That said, the traditional ‘alimiyyah has its fair share of critics. Some argue that most ‘alimiyyah courses have become too institutionalised into the sectarian and school-based praxis. The texts, too, are not critically studied it is argued, and hence fail to be integrated and contextualised to the modern world. There are also those who argue that the so-called ‘Islamic universities’ are ‘not really Islamic universities because they teach the Shari’ah, Arabic and Islamic History but the other subjects are not integrated.’

Keeping these discussions aside, for me there is a more basic question of who can we call ‘alim which is more relevant. I say this because it seems a little odd that in the English language we don’t constrain the world ‘scholar’ to someone who’s completed the ‘alimiyyah degree. Instead, we use ‘scholar’ in a broader sense, to describe anyone who’s spent some time studying pretty much any field and reaching a level of technical and practical knowledge. If we want to be specific, we use the term ‘Islamic scholar’ in English to mean an ‘Islamic ‘alim.’ You’d think that it’s possible, then, to interchangeably use ‘alim with ‘scholar’ to say ‘Physics ‘alim’ or ‘Geography ‘alim.’ After all, ‘alim in Arabic, linguistically, is someone who has knowledge about a particular matter which need not be confined to ‘alimiyyah courses. But this linguistic definition usually remains unexplored.

In earlier Muslim societies ‘the learned’ were people who did not just learn the religious sciences, they were also well-acquainted with a broad range of subjects, like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography, philosophy, chemistry etc. What existed was a dynamic knowledge culture or ethic, which, arguably, grew out of sacred texts commanding Muslims to contemplate creation, and to place a culture of inquiry and learning at the heart of Muslim civilization.

For example, references to Crescent Moons (ahilla) in the Qur’an as ‘signs to mark fixed periods of time for mankind and for the pilgrimage,’ had strong implications for Muslims to understand the knowledge of Moon phases. Similarly, ‘Read in the name of the Lord … Who taught man through the use of the pen what he did not know’ accorded, ‘a high place to reading and writing in order to learn what one did not know.’ These indications (and there are many others), and the opportunities that they opened up, led early Muslims to establish multidisciplinary research academies like the ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bait al-Hikmah) by Harun al-Rashid (763/6-809), for research and education in fields such as agriculture, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, medicine etc. Over time, knowledge in these fields led to scientific and technical development – for instance, in the building of hospitals, public baths, guest houses, roads, water supply systems, bridges, navigation tools, mosques with multi-dome complexes and so on. The purpose was, ‘concerned on the one hand with discerning the ‘signs of Allah’ in natural phenomena, and on the other with observing the forces and laws of nature … [to better] co-operate with them, so that the human family might be more comfortably fitted into its God given environment.’

Incidentally, despite this explosion of discoveries and thinking, earlier Muslims did not Islamicise subjects, as many do today in labels such as ‘Islamic astronomy’ or ‘Islamic chemistry’ (and many others). There is a subtle and humbling realisation in this for us today. That, whilst Islamic texts might have in some way pointed Muslims, or triggered their interest, in a specific direction of curiosity, it was still up to human ingenuity to discover and to seek out truth. And this ingenuity is a quality inherent to human beings themselves. The role of Islamic texts is to remind Muslims of that.

There were clear reasons for this, which relates to how earlier societies understood the term ‘ilm, which, much like the term ‘alim, I think we’ve narrowed far too much. Mining the Qur’an, it becomes apparent that the various terms used to describe ‘those who know’ or ‘those who use their intellect’ does not limit it to the study of Islamic texts per se. Instead, it focuses on contemplating and investigating creation as a path to glorifying our Lord – which is of course commanded for anyone reading the Qur’an.

Earlier Muslims had a broad understanding of ‘ilm (knowledge). It was immensely powerful, furnishing a positivistic outlook that did much to maintain an intimate contact between people’s material needs, the unseen world and the spiritual culture of Islam. Their understandings were sophisticated and varied. There were broadly two categories of ‘ilm – beneficial and non-beneficial. Non-Beneficial knowledge, which comes under the category forbidden (ḥaram) or disliked (makruh), is knowledge that when applied results in unethical, immoral or corrupt outcomes or means. Beneficial knowledge on the other hand brings well-being and ease to life, and which can be further classified into: that which is obligatory for every individual (farḍh al-‘ayn) or obligatory communally (farḍh al-kifayah), desirable (mustahab), or permissible (mubah). Each individual is obligated to learn the basic knowledge of worship (fara’ida) and good character (adab). And knowledge obligatory communally ensures that every locality has learned people in both obligatory religious knowledge, such as the Islamic sciences – the ‘alimiyyah type, as well as knowledge necessary for human well-being – medicine, science, mathematics, geography, economics, sociology and so on.

To me these categories of knowledge sit in pitiful contrast to categories of ‘secular subjects’ and ‘deeni subjects’ which many use today. It’s incredibly dubious that the study of the natural world, languages and people could be passed off as ‘secular subjects’ when the Qur’an spoke of them in a positive light. Such views are premised by the fear that so-called ‘secular subjects’ might teach values contrary to Islam. But, to me this is a smokescreen of a lack of intellectual grounding in people’s own faith assumptions, as part of the ‘crises in intellect.’ You only have to ask yourself, then, why did earlier scholars go to such great effort, verging on obsession – perhaps, to categories different types of knowledge, if ‘ilm only meant religious knowledge? There are deep wisdoms in this which are worth pondering over.

Unfortunately, today, the tendency to reduce terms like ‘alim and ‘ilm is unhelpful. It does sometimes feel that far too many of us want to minimise possibilities of meanings to produce tight-fisted, no-nonsense answers, as if this is what is needed for ordinary people to understand and as a necessary response to the wishy-washy relativism of modernity. But in doing so, we also score many own goals. We reinforce the idea of the ‘religious man’ as distinct to the ‘thinking man,’ and our most learned in religion appear not as people who think, ponder and ask questions, but exactly the opposite.

These are not new problems. But the big difference in our times is that we don’t have figures like al-Ghazzali, Ibn Rushd, al-Shirazi, al-Biruni etc. to help us. What we do have though is the choice to gain a more nuanced understanding of these basic terms.

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