By Alan Godlas
Why do we often hear about Muslim scholars who make hideous fatwas and judgments, like the fatwa against chess in Saudi Arabia (a couple of years ago) or judgments of blasphemy against other Muslim scholars? When numerous educated people make such mistaken fatwas, this should signal that there is something wrong with the educational system that spawned them. The problem, however, is not simply Islam (as the Islamophobes claim) or Wahhabi educational philosophy, which, to be sure, is defective. Even so-called Ahl us-Sunna wa-l-Jama’a Sufi scholars issue sick statements (like recent charges of blasphemy against the relatively new Study Qur’an, ed. by S.H. Nasr et. al., which far outshines any previous Qur’an translation and commentary in English).
It seems to me that the source of the problem goes back to very early in Islamic history (not to mention in Western intellectual history as well), when intelligence and intellection (the process of using one’s intellect) became reduced to and equated with logical reasoning. In spite of the virtues of logical reasoning, by reducing and equating ‘aql with logical reasoning, Muslim scholars (except some, but by no means all, Sufis) unintentionally disabled, handicapped, impaired, and diminished the capacity of their own intelligence. What was lost or severely reduced was the emotional or heart-felt aspect of intelligence, or what today science calls emotional intelligence. Factored out of the early Muslim understanding of intelligence was the heart and emotions.
In contrast, we know from the Qur’an that it is the heart where the process of intellection occurs, as Allah (swt) states, “Have they not traveled about the earth so that they would have hearts that utilize intelligence? (al-Hajj 22:46). Here the consequence of not utilizing the emotionally heart-felt data gained by the life experience acquired in “travelling about the earth” is that one’s heart (and hence one’s ability to utilize the heart’s intelligence or faculty of intellection) becomes blinded (as the previous aya continues) “[Their] eyes are not blind! Rather, [their] hearts within [their] chests are blind.”
For this loss and blindness to have gone relatively unnoticed in history, something must have been gained by reducing ‘aql to logical reasoning. And indeed, what was gained by reducing ‘aql to logical reasoning is that logical reasoning could be trained much more easily than heart-based intelligence.
Paralleling this reduction of ‘aql to logical reasoning, another reduction occurred, the reduction of the concept of “knowledge” and knowing (‘ilm) to textual information. What was marginalized (if not lost) here was knowledge understood as the process of knowing and awareness, self-knowledge and self-awareness (ma’rifat al-nafs), and knowledge gained through experience, i.e., experiential knowledge of God (ma’rifat Allah) and of life.
On the one hand, the superiority of knowledge as textual information was contested to varying degrees of success by non-Hanbali scholars among the ahl al-Sunna and by scholars of the “intellectual disciplines” (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliya) and usulis (i.e., those who emphasized “principles of law,” rather than the akhbari textualists) among the Shi’a. On the other hand, the Sufi advocates of experiential knowing and knowledge (of self, God, and life) also contested the reduction of knowledge to information and fared relatively well until the modern period. Nevertheless, where we now stand is that among Muslims experiential knowledge has definitely taken a back seat to knowledge as textual information.
So to sum up, what was gained by this dual reduction of reducing intellect to logical reasoning and, in addition, reducing knowledge and knowing to textual information was that both logical reasoning and textual information can be relatively easily taught on a large scale (although textual information is even more easily taught, since it can simply be memorized). So even though much was lost, this dual reduction resulted in a rabbinification of Islam and the proliferation of educational institutions (madrasas), where at best, students were trained in logic, in memorizing textual information, and in using textual criteria to evaluate textual information (such as evaluating the legitimacy of a hadith on the basis of textual information about its narrators or evaluating a legal judgment based on the legitimacy of a hadith). In spite of the value of such disciplines (which I personally think are very important), education needs to go way beyond them.
At worst, it is completely understandable (though not commendable) why such scholars– without any educational enhancement whatsoever in both emotional intelligence and the processes of experiential knowing and self-awareness–as a consequence, make the grotesque judgments and fatwas that we see all too frequently in the news.
(Slightly edited from the original article posted in January of 2016)