You should be involved in Islamic learning, argues Shaykh Shuaib Ally. A large reason for that involves a trait that, when lacking, cripples a person’s ability to develop their knowledge base: intellectual humility.
A lack of intellectual humility manifests itself, in discussions related to the Islamic sciences, in various forms. A common expression is for me to arrive at a certain opinion, say, related to a legal matter. I then imagine that I alone understand what the ruling ought to be, and that none others hold a correct view.
However, it is unlikely that my opinion finds no precedent whatsoever in an academic history that spans over 1400 odd years and large swathes of the globe. Such a belief instead derives from my misguided belief in the unique and special nature of my own outlook.
It would be bad enough if this were the lone result of this form of intellectual arrogance. Worse is the nefarious corollary of such a belief, my belief that the fact this unique understanding is not being currently championed must be due to one of two reasons.
One is that the vast majority of scholars are being academically dishonest and are hiding what is the correct opinion for their own ends. The other is that it really is the fact that the understanding I have arrived at has no precedent whatsoever in the inherited tradition. I then take this to be demonstrative of the fact that established scholarship has nothing serious to offer.
This is, of course, wrongheaded.
It is unlikely that there is some sort of conspiracy to cover up aspects of scholarship in Islamic history; in fact, scholarly works are quite good at recording non-mainstream opinions, if for no other reason than academic curiosity. It is simply more likely that scholars have chosen another opinion for other reasons, and that is the one that people are most familiar with.
Moreover, my being unaware of a certain opinion within a body of scholarship hardly indicates that the community of scholarship itself is somehow compromised. More often than not, it simply reflects a gap in my own knowledge base. That is, it says more about me than about the discipline I am considering defective.
In this regard, the late 3rd C Shāfiʿī jurist poet, Mansūr b. Ismāʿīl al-Tamīmī, recited:
Those of diminished intellect critique the study of law
Yet their blame does not affect it in the least
The morning sun rising in the horizon remains unharmed
By those without sight remaining oblivious to its light
Let me give you an example. Imagine I believe that astronomical calculations should be used in lieu of naked eye sightings to determine the beginning and end of months in the lunar calendar. I could have very good reasons for arguing this. Classical scholars, I might argue, worked in a medieval period in which the sciences were not as developed, and therefore did not consider astronomical calculations as possible. I might go on to argue that in the modern age, we have precise methods of measurement, and that this should allow for the formulation of new rulings.
This would be an example of intellectual arrogance because classical works do consider astronomical calculations being used for this purpose; these discussions are alluded to in even fairly elementary works of law. When I make such a claim, I am arrogantly making claims about the absence of a discussion in a certain literature, betraying my lack of knowledge of preceding discussion.
My viewing scholars at large with suspicion, and believing them to be unwilling to entertain this discussion, would likewise be intellectually arrogant. This is because they are skirting an issue; they have simply chosen another opinion for other reasons.
The intellectual arrogance here is born out of a misguided sense of my own academic breadth. This arrogance is criticized famously by Abu Nuwas, the 2nd C Abbasid poet famous for the licentious content of his work, who recited:
Say to one who claims a special understanding:
You have gathered a little bit, but even more escapes you!
This lack of knowledge is therefore exacerbated by my lack of intellectual humility. Had I bothered to engage in the disciplines that purport to deal with the subject matter under consideration, I might have found at the very least a suitable starting point for their research.
However, rejecting at the outset anything a scholarly class busies itself with as having little intellectual worth has necessarily restricted me from benefiting from it. Due diligence demands being thorough in researching my claims prior to making them, but my preconceived notions about the undeveloped nature of the Islamic disciplines have led me to bypass that.
These preconceived notions are often coupled by an actual inability to access scholarly discussions on a given subject. That is, intellectual arrogance has blocked me from acquiring the requisite knowledge of the Islamic disciplines, primary or supporting, such that I can actually engage the textual tradition on the issues I purports to have special knowledge of. Indeed, there is often a correlation between lack of learning and intellectual arrogance.
A lack of intellectual humility can also express itself in my conception of others and their practice. Part of intellectual humility is understanding that while I believe and act in a certain manner, others may have good reason for doing or believing something that is at odds with this. Intellectual humility demands coming to terms with this, even if I do not understand the reason for others choosing another course, or even if I have never come across the rationale underlying their chosen course.
When I am intellectually arrogant, however, I am unable to do this. Instead, I presumptuously think that knowledge begins and ends only with what I myself has come across and understand.This allows me to pompously insist on my own position at all costs, assuming it to be the only correct position. It also allows me to judge others, believing their positions to be inadequate without having actually assessed their merit, and rejecting from the outset anything they could have to say in response as having intellectual worth.
Rejecting something simply because it is unfamiliar is, however, behaviour the Qurʾan criticizes as unbecoming. Imam al- Qurtubī, the famous 7th C Andalusian exegete, mentions that al-Husayn b. al-Fadl, a 3rd C Nishapuri exegete, was asked, Does the Qur’an contain the idea that whoever is ignorant of something opposes it? He said: Yes, in two places: They disbelieve in anything their own knowledge does not encompass (10:39); and If they have not been guided to something, they say, this is an ancient lie (46:11).
Another form of intellectual arrogance can manifest itself when I have acquired some knowledge, and suddenly consider myself intellectually superior to all others, even those who are far above me in their level of scholarship, including my own teachers. Al-Jāhiz, the 3rd C Abbasid polymath, recited these famous lines from the perspective of a teacher complaining of such a situation:
How curious, the one I reared from childhood; I would feed with the tips of my fingers
I taught him to shoot; when his arms became strong, he fired at me
How often I trained him in verse; when he began to recite, he attacked me
I taught him manliness, daily; when his mustache began to grow, he abandoned me
When I act in such a manner, I become the instantiation of the warning that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as it has contributed to my inflated sense of worth, instead of increasing my humility.
The good news is that the cure to intellectual arrogance is fairly straightforward. It is to actually engage in sincere learning. This is why I think you should engage in Islamic learning.
The bad news is that doing so isn’t particularly easy, in that it is much easier to simply be pompous. Acquiring real knowledge takes work.
There is an indication of this difficulty in that the Prophet Muhammad – peace and blessings of God be upon him – said that whoever embarks upon a path of knowledge, God facilitates for them a path to Paradise.
He does this, scholars say, in two ways. One is worldly, in that he makes it easy for them to do good, and difficult for them to do otherwise. The second is a reference to the afterlife, in that he facilitates for them their crossing of the bridge to Paradise, a task otherwise fraught with difficulty.
There is a general principle when it comes to how reward and punishment is meted out for a specific action; it tends to be commensurate, or similar in kind, to a person’s action, good or bad. This is encapsulated in the maxim: actions are rewarded in kind.
In the case of our knowledge seeker, he has undertaken what is actually an onerous task – knowledge seeking can require, beyond cost, countless hours of attending classes, listening to lectures, recording and reviewing notes, and putting up with teachers with different personalities and teaching methodologies that may not accord with his own.
All of this is near impossible for the intellectually arrogant, as he cannot see why he needs to humiliate himself before knowledge in this manner. But for one who does take it upon himself to traverse this difficult path, they are rewarded in kind, in that God facilitates for them what would have otherwise been an intractable journey.
It has been said that whoever has not tasted the humility of learning for a short time, tastes the bitterness of ignorance for a lifetime. That is, humbling oneself to a sincere knowledge quest can serve to quell many of the pitfalls that come with being intellectually arrogant.
One who does so sincerely will become aware of the kinds of discussions that scholars are engaged in, their range and extent, and the methods they employ to reach their conclusions. A large part of this is because engaging sincerely will provide one with the tools to properly participate in scholarly discussions.
Being apprised of this intellectual heritage protects one from thinking that an entire tradition is undeveloped in that it has little to offer. This awareness also prevents one from viewing the scholarly community with disdain or suspicion, even if one disagrees with their conclusions.
The knowledge that one gains will allow one to develop their intellectual humility in other ways too. At the personal level, it allows one to realize the contours of their own knowledge base; that is, an awareness of what they know and how that roughly fits into the available body of knowledge. For the vast majority of people, this is a humbling experience, as one realizes the limited nature of their grasp, even after years of study.
At a larger level, this humility forces a certain level of tolerance for others’ beliefs and practice, as one no longer pompously believes themselves to have an exclusive grasp of truth in the Islamic tradition. Such a person no longer has the internal urge to object to what others are doing or saying, as he knows that there can be schools of thought or credible scholarship that holds as such. This is why many scholars say: the more one’s knowledge grows, the more his objections diminish.
This is – to finally get to the point – why I think you should be involved in Islamic learning. Aside from the normal reasons for pursuing what is generally considered ‘religious’ knowledge – which are themselves good enough – doing so will allow one to pursue this special knowledge related virtue, that of cultivating intellectual humility.
A community that demonstrates knowledge related virtues, premier among them being a healthy dose of intellectual humility, is the kind of knowledge community we want to build. This is the kind of community that, aside from simply being engaged with knowledge, can build a native tradition of scholarship.
This is because its collective intellectual humility and academic integrity has allowed for the raising of intellectual discourse across the community, beyond the clamor of theories divorced from preceding scholarship and the vague insinuations that often pose as informed comment in popular discourse today.
I want you to be part of this building process, even if in a small way.
It is difficult to approach a knowledge quest sincerely. Yet I encourage you to approach it as sincerely as you can, and pray that your sincerity, even if somehow currently compromised, is perfected over time. Some past scholars used to say, musing on their intentions becoming corrected over time: we started out seeking knowledge for reasons other than God, yet it refused in the end to be for any cause other than God.
The method for participating in this process is up to you; it can and should involve a number of different options. These include attending classes on the ground with those who do embody intellectual humility; taking online courses (such as those offered through Seekershub), listening to lectures, and reading widely.
We don’t lack for resources in learning. We do lack for commitment to learning, a problem that derives largely from arrogance of the intellect.
This is why, in a roundabout way, I think you should involve yourself in sincere Islamic learning.