FROM THE THIRD CHAPTER: KNOWLEDGE

Within a hundred years of the establishment of the community in Medina, the Muslims had control of an empire that stretched from Spain to India and the borders of China, and contained within it the richest provinces of the Byzantine Empire and the entire Persian Empire. As it encountered a world of many ancient cultures and civilisations in various stages of decay, a remarkable process of synthesis took place. The West mistook these early centuries, when the knowledge of the world was being sifted and sorted, for the ‘Golden Age of Islam’. It was, in fact, the formative stage, and what was remarkable was the universal civilisation that would later emerge.

At this point, it is important to understand the difference between the Islamic and modern understanding of what constitutes verifiable knowledge. For the modern mindset that traces its origins to the revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, verifiable knowledge has been reduced to what can be discovered through the scientific method and is limited to the material realm. Everything else belongs to the imagination and is entirely subjective. In Islam, verifiable knowledge is understood to exist in all three realms of the unseen, human and material, and can be attained through the Revelation and correct reasoning. This is where Islam differed fundamentally from Christianity. In Christianity, certain doctrines have come to require the setting aside of reason, whereas in Islam, it is an obligation that the Revelation be affirmed through reason.

The Qur’an and the life of the Prophet are the foundations on which Islamic civilisation was built. During his life, every action of the Prophet was recorded by his companions, and a science was developed to ensure that the proper transmission of this knowledge from generation to generation took place. Muslim scholars expended much effort in preserving, transmitting and interpreting the Revelation. The twenty-three years of prophecy and revelation are traditionally known as ʿasr al-saʿāda, which can be translated as the ‘age of bliss’. When this blessed period came to an end and the scholars, both men and women, were left to fend for themselves, an immense intellectual ferment took place. 

This was the time when the mereological principle that ‘the whole can contain the part, but the part cannot contain the whole’ was tested. Among the restrictive positions taken during this formative period were those of the Muʿtazilites, who claimed for reason the ultimate authority, the Hashwiyya, who insisted on the literal interpretation of the text, and the Bātinists who sought only to understand the inner or symbolic meaning of the Qur’an. However, the parts claiming the whole were gradually drawn into the upward trajectory, and the mereological principle realised. In time, philosophers and theologians were to discover the synthesis in which the four fundamental sources of knowledge: revelation (naql), mystical cognition (dhawq), reason (ʿaql) and sensation (ihsās), were brought into a state of mīzān, and the unity at the heart of Islam was unveiled. . .

. . . The machine world we inhabit, which has come out of the imagination of the reasoning mind, could be described as a cult, if we define a cult as a world that only makes sense according to its own criteria and does not connect into reality. The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson observed that modern man was cut off from heaven and from the earth. Like spacemen, we exist in our own artificial creation. The modern cult is a death cult, forming its world out of the annihilation of all previous cultures and the destruction of the natural world. But for the modern cult to come to fruition there had to be a marriage between the modern scientist and the newly-liberated merchant, which I shall address in the following chapter. . .


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