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Faith, Knowledge and Social Engagement in Islam

Allah says in the Qur’an:

“O you who have believed, when you are told, ‘Space yourselves’ in assemblies, then make space; Allah will make space for you. And when you are told, ‘Arise,’ then arise; Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do” (58,11).

The following are four takes on this verse.

Finding the Right Balance

Islam is a religion as much of personal devotion and uplifting as of social engagement and participation. A delicate balance is to be struck between the two domains. Neither is to be attended to at the expense of the other.

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Islam disapproves of a lifestyle that promotes a form of complete withdrawal and solitude. As a willing or unwilling member of society a person is to be turned into society’s asset. To be a liability is at once unwanted and intolerable. It is a sin.

In the mentioned verse, Allah addresses all believers who constitute a single body whose parts are not only interrelated, but also draw on each other’s strength. As such, Allah lays out some fundamental social etiquette rules which are bound to affect all and from which all are set to benefit.

Allah speaks about public meetings and assemblies as a mandatory phenomenon, hence their purposes and objectives have to be optimized. They are to be turned into opportunities that encourage productivity, rather than mischances and inconveniences that incite nothing but discord and squabbles. Public gatherings – institutionalized or otherwise – are to be synonymous with quality time, instead of waste of time and bootless errands.

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People are instructed to be dutiful, friendly and co-operative. They are not only to take, but also give. Selfishness and greed are the vices that tear a person from the inside, and contribute to the creation of difficulties that assail society from all sides.

People cannot be myopic, seeing but themselves and their own interests. Instead, they ought to be – ought to work on becoming – farsighted, see further and go beyond. They should operate at a higher level of meaning and experience, understanding that the dogmas of “taking” and “appropriating” are barren, yet destructive.

Whereas the doctrines of “giving”, “empathy” and “sharing” are most prolific. Such is their yield that it encompasses at once their executors and others, as well as this world and the Hereafter, and for them Almighty Allah guarantees correspondingly abundant rewards.

The verse is concluded with yet another emphasis on the same code:

“And Allah is Acquainted with what you do”.

Which means that in the arduous and concurrent processes of personality and community-building there should be no end to enthusiasm, commitment, perseverance, elation and hope. Allah is there and He cares. He cares for people most when they care for themselves. People are made to forget themselves only when they forget Allah.

Role of Leaders

In those meetings and assemblies, the roles of leaders, managers and organizers are clearly implied. It is them who are at the helm running the show. They call the shots. Accordingly, they have to be as faithful, sincere and committed as anybody else.

They have been entrusted with enormous responsibilities, and so long as they keep discharging those responsibilities unfailingly – that is, in the name of and for the sake of Allah and His Islamic cause – they must be respected and obeyed. They are ulu-l-amri minkum (“those in authority among you”, al-Nisa’, 59) and obeying them, positively, means obeying Almighty Allah and His Messenger.

People need to understand that social contract, as well as social involvement, are not about particular individuals. Rather, they are about institutions, traditions, common social interests, benefits, identity and, ultimately, destiny. People come and go, and can resign or be replaced, but the latter persist.

It is not a few individuals on whom the fortune and fate of a society hinge, but on that society’s existential vision and mission. While the potential roles of the former should by no means be undervalued, they nonetheless will always play second fiddle to the latter. Indeed, doomed is a society – and a civilization – that banks on individuals and their time-space-bound policies and programs, in lieu of holistic, together with “timeless”, ideas, visions, directions and ingenuity.

This is in line with the principles that all persons should be respected and dealt with courteously, but nobody should be idolised or worshipped; and that loyalty to nation and ideology (in the case of Muslims, to the notion of ummah and the teachings and values of Islam) is a must, but loyalty to officials should only be when they deserve it.

All this also means that Islam is against excessive asceticism, monasticism and all the other aberrant forms of mysticism, which tend to divest a person of his social stature, rights and responsibilities.

In passing, the case of authentic Sufism (tasawwuf) is not included here, for true Sufism is almost an alternative word for Islam and its way of life. The problem lies in the infinite manifestations of pseudo-Sufism, which often and perhaps with intent take centre stage at the expense of the former. In any case, authentic Sufism is not to be identified with any of the mysticism, self-denial and self-mortification concepts as can be found in other faiths and philosophies.

Faith and Knowledge

The above-mentioned verse likewise contains the essence of the integration of knowledge idea. The verse demonstrates that knowledge is sacred, all-inclusive and inseparable from faith (iman). Knowledge without faith is fallacious, vain and dangerous, while faith without knowledge is incomplete, hampered and anticlimactic.

Faith is to be boosted and expanded by knowledge, and knowledge authenticated and further stimulated by faith. Faith and knowledge are twins, complementing each other and in unison fashioning a formidable whole. Islam is a compendium of those two universes, and so must be everything else that carries the adjective “Islamic”. Needless to say that the soul – and final output – of both faith and knowledge is good character and good deeds.

The verse starts with an address to all believers, notwithstanding the strength of their faith: “O you who have believed”. With this, a framework for the subject matter of the verse is presented. Whatever follows afterwards is to be viewed against the backdrop of this framework.

Allah then reveals that He raises two categories of believers by additional degrees: “those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge.”

The first category are those believers who, discontented with the average levels of faith (the levels of commoners), rise through the ranks of spirituality. The centre of gravity of their exertions is sheer faith. And just as they rise (do everything in their power to do so) Allah raises them proportionally to their intentions and efforts. They rise on earth and in this world, so Allah raises them on earth and in Heaven, in this world and in the afterlife.

The second category are those believers who, just like the previous group, discontented with the ordinary levels of faith, decide to rise and move up the ladder of virtue. However, the main focus of their pursuit is knowledge, with faith functioning as inspiration, point of reference and the end of other ends. And because they rise, Allah raises them. They elevate the reputation and name of the truth of Islam, thus Allah elevates their own reputation and name.

This way, both categories of believers are extraordinary. Their respective cases are indivisible. They operate under the aegis of the truth (that is, within the framework of faith) and serve the same set of objectives. Their work is one and the same, albeit with different strategies and means. At the conceptual base they are united by their affiliation with the faith framework, and at the summit level with their serving of the identical ontological purpose and ends. In-between, however, there may be some points of convergence, but that is intermittent and unpredictable, and is not even necessary.

It goes without saying that such is the Islamic comprehension of faith that a profoundly believing person must be adequately knowledgeable as well, and such is the comprehension of knowledge in Islam that an intensely knowledgeable person must be sufficiently grounded in faith as well. As a consequence, faith and knowledge are the two ways to serve, be right and rise. One wonders if there is a third one. The answer – it would seem – is in the negative.

We Have no Knowledge Except What You Have Taught Us

Finally, both faith and knowledge are the properties of Allah alone. He is the sole object of faith and the only source of knowledge. Furthermore, He is the only One Knowing; human beings are called so but metaphorically.

No faith can materialize unless approved by Allah, nor can any amount or type of knowledge be acquired unless sanctioned by Him. The only thing a person can do is to search and strive as much for faith as for knowledge. Thereby he paves the way for authorization and conferment, and sets – as it were – fate in motion. A person activates a heavenly decree thus, in which case his life journey and divine providence start moving towards one another.

That is why angels declared to Allah:

“Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You (only) who is the Knowing, the Wise” (2:32).

That is why, moreover, in the above-quoted verse Allah describes the knowledgeable ones as “those who were given knowledge”.

As for the case of faith, Allah sheds additional light on the matter in surah (chapter) al-Rum, verse 56, where He explicitly affirms that both knowledge and faith are His gifts to mankind, given to those who really want and deserve them: “But those who were given knowledge and faith will say…” (al-Rum, 56).

Without a doubt, neither true faith nor genuine knowledge can be secured through channels other than Allah’s. The authenticity of social engagement (contract), at the same time, is predicated on the legitimacy of such faith and knowledge. People have to be on guard lest their actions are rendered worthless on the Day of Judgement.

It would indeed be tragic if someone’s efforts are eventually wasted or lost in this life, while he thought that he was on course and was doing well in work (18:104).

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].