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By Sohaib Baig
Posted: 14 Rabi ul thani 1434, 24 February 2013
For many of us, history is simply a series of events, facts, names, and information that belongs to the past. In other words, everything in history originates in the past, and it dies there. It can do no more than provide interesting information, satisfy idle curiosities, or at best help document and archive the various tales of humankind.
Unfortunately, this is a very limited understanding of history. It would be like getting married just to cross it out on your list of goals for life instead of marrying out of the desire to produce a family or any kind of real change in your present life. It’d be like buying food just to stock it up in your kitchen instead of actually consuming and benefiting from it. In reality, the most powerful and nutritious use of history is to go ahead and take that bite, to make it part of you and your present.
Interestingly, all of us already take bites out of history in varying degrees. For example, when we say we believe in the Prophets and in following their examples, we take a big bite out of the past, and we make it a part of us. We do not let the stories rot away as interesting information, but we give them the very real power to illumine and shape our life in the present.
The complications, however, arise in the ways we allow it to affect us in the present. For example: sometimes people think that only western societies have given science its “true” right. This makes them loftier than other civilizations, including Muslim civilizations, because science is supposed to be a noble and necessary pursuit that all humans should aspire towards. For many of us, this is a serious concern that affects how we act and what we believe. The way most Muslims these days would react is to show how science used to flourish centuries ago in Muslim civilizations. By doing this, they would be reassuring themselves that nothing is wrong with Islam, and that Muslims certainly do have the potential to go ahead and develop new scientific innovations. Others may try to point out (with some truth) that modern science isn’t all that angelic and that it is directly responsible for many of the problems in today’s world. Thus, Muslims need not feel that they are missing out.
Although both of these approaches utilize history, they would still be very limited in responding to and in capitalizing on the criticism. And this is one of the key problems we have in dealing with the past.
What would be a more useful way of responding to the criticism that modern science doesn’t mesh well with Muslims and Muslim civilizations?
Well, we could begin by attempting to contextualize the critique itself. Since when did modern science become a standard by which to judge a religion and its contributions to mankind? This is a historical question, trying to draw attention to the historical emergence of this critique itself. Indeed, this “standard” has not existed forever. The Qur’an doesn’t tell us that we need to believe because belief will lead to scientific development and technological innovation. Rather, it calls itself “The Furqan”, which means “The Criterion”: the ultimate arbiter of truth and falsehood – a position that is falsely claimed by modern science, and accepted even by many who assert belief in the Qur’anic claim as well.
When we ask “since when,” we effectively have a completely different perspective of the question itself. That’s when we can see that this emphasis on modern science that is implicit in the question is a very modern development indeed– it simply revolves around a newfound belief in science that is particular to a European modernity. It is not timeless or transcending, even if it may appear to be so to us now (people a few centuries ago didn’t grapple with this question as the ultimate life mystery). Ultimately, it’s connected to a certain worldview that was brought about by its particular circumstances and forces.
After showing how recent and particular the critique itself is, we could further use history to address another concern implicit in the original critique: is a life lived according to the dictates of modern science even the best way to live life? Now, relax: this isn’t to doubt the usefulness of modern science. This is just to ask whether modern science is the most important thing in the world that humanity has always been striving for.
The answer isn’t exactly an emphatic yes when we turn to history. In fact, modern science begins to look surprisingly insignificant in the larger scheme of history. Billions of human beings lived without modern science before the modern age. Obviously, each life differs, but you could argue that the people historically did not see themselves as suffering from a lack of modern science. They lived complete lives. Of course, it’s hard to miss something you never knew existed – however, that in of itself shows that despite popular conceptions today, modern science isn’t the absolutely necessary and ultimate goal that humankind has always been striving and aching for since the descent of Adam alayhis salam onto this earth.
In the previous flawed attempts to answer the original critique (that Muslims were great scientists too!), we can also come across a delicate distortion of history. Even if Muslims had been developing science for centuries, their science could not have been exactly classified as modern: their practice was fused with a spiritual and religious understanding of the world, of man’s position as the vicegerent of God on earth. They didn’t share in the later European conceptions of nature as a raw force to be conquered and endlessly exploited to serve man’s needs. Besides, Muslim scientists historically didn’t occupy the same position in society as their modern counterparts do today. They weren’t connected to the giant networks of multinational corporations, drug companies, insurance agencies, marketing departments, political lobbying groups, banks and finance companies, public education, and so on.
Thus, by looking back at history in a proper manner, we can learn many things. We learn how recent and modern the critique is, and how it is not a fundamental mystery of life. We also learn about the plurality of ways of living, of how modern science isn’t absolutely a fair way of judging the quality of life in the world, throughout history. And finally, it also points us to the plurality of ways of doing what we call science – through history, for example, we can learn how Muslims themselves approached their own version of scientific enterprises, of how these were intrinsically connected to their deeply God-conscious worldview.
This is the power of history – by raising powerful historical questions like “since when,” about our most dearly held views and taken for granted “facts”, our perceptions of the world and our ideals can be turned completely upside down. It is thus inextricably intertwined with our beliefs regarding ourselves, our faith, and other ideas, whether we perceive it or not. It is our non-contemporaneous present. That is why, at the end of the day, venturing in history requires an immense amount of soul-searching, immense reevaluations of the ideas we may currently worship. It forces us to view the latest man-made fads that may be touted as the “best ideas or accomplishments in the world” as they actually are. It broadens our horizons and reveals the limitations of our delusions of success and ownership. It shows, ultimately, that God truly is the Greatest Being and Force.
We can benefit deeply from nurturing a deep and proper relationship with the past.Through history, we can begin to discover the world, and our souls, for ourselves.
Dr. Ali Muhammad al-Sallabi
Posted: 26 Jamad ul awwal 1434, 06 April 2013
Dr. Ali Muhammad As-Sallabi, in his “Ad-Dawla az Zankiyya,” a historical account of the Zangi era wrote about women’s education in the rule of Nur ud-Deen Zangi. Noor ul-Deen ruled in Syria from 541 AH to 569 AH (1146 – 1174 CE). He was a just and righteous leader and was well-loved by those under him. He was succeeded by Salahuddin Ayyubi, who followed in his footsteps.
The following is a translation of the chapter on women’s education:
The devotion of Muslim women to Islamic studies reached high levels. Their purpose was to gain knowledge of the correct teachings of the religion and thereby bring them into practice. The subject that received the most regard was the study of hadith, in which many women attained high qualification. They competed with great Hadith scholars and memorizers of hadith therein and became profound examples of trustworthiness and uprightness.
Many biographical accounts allude to the substantial intellectual activities of women in this era. Sources have mentioned names of numerous female Qaris, hadith scholars, fiqh scholars, writers, grammarians, as well as scholars of other fundamental sciences. Many of these women would travel from region to region with their maharim to seek knowledge from great scholars and Muhaddithin and they received ijazas (certificates) from them. A testimony to the undertakings of women in this field is the fact that the biographers of Ibn Asakir (d. 571 AH / 1176) agree that more than eighty of his teachers were women. This demonstrates the large numbers of women who were busy in this field, such that a single scholar from the scholars of that era studied from more than eighty women. This is in addition to the large number of women whose biographies he has included in his book. (Ibn Asakir collected biographical accounts of 196 women scholars in his tareekh).
It becomes apparent from what Ibn Asakir alludes to in his Tarikh al-Kabir that the home was the first school for these women. The women who received much acclaim for their knowledge were the ones who grew up in the houses of scholars and studied from their fathers or other knowledgeable relatives. These women would also benefit from the various classes that would take place in their homes, as they would listen on to what was being discussed. This is what is listed as “Teaching in the homes of the scholars” in historical accounts. Thus, when Ibn Asakir wrote about his wife, Aisha bint Ali (d. 564 AH / 1168), he mentioned that she studied hadith from Fatima bint Ali Al-Asfraini, known as the Young Scholar, who in turn had studied with her father Abul Farj.
Similarly, the doors of the masjid would be open for women who wanted to study. These women would frequent the study circles that took place in the masjid. These study circles had a specific space appropriated for them, a space which was totally separated from that of the men which eliminated the possibility of mingling of the genders.
Women did not just take part in studying, but rather they played a role in spreading and teaching knowledge as well. Although they did not have teaching positions in specialized schools in the manner we see now, they did have other avenues of teaching. Ibn Asakir indicates this as he writes about his wife’s teacher Fatima bint Ali Al-Asfraini that she used to give sermons to women in the masjid.
One of the most notable women in the field of teaching was the alima Fatima al-Faqiha. She taught in Halab and authored many works of fiqh and hadith. Further, Nur-ud Din, the ruler of the era, would consult with her in his affairs and ask her for fatawa in fiqhi issues. He supported her and helped her in her educational pursuits.
An event that transpired between Fatima al-Faqiha and Nur-ud Din highlights the commitment of the Muslim women to the Islamic requirement of hijab and how the female scholars would only communicate with men through a woman assigned to act as a middle-person. The event, as Al-Qurashi writes, is that ‘Ala ad-Deen al-Kasani, the husband of the scholar Fatima al-Faqiha, decided to move from Halab to his own country at the request of his wife. Nur ud Deen summoned Imam Ala ad-Deen and requested him to stay in Halab. Imam Ala ud-Deen explained to him the reason for his move and told him that he could not oppose his wife’s wish who was also the daughter of his shaikh. Nur ud-Deen then sent a servant to Fatima to speak to her on his behalf. When the servant arrived at her house, she did not allow him to enter. Then she sent someone to her husband (who was with the king at that time) with the message, “With your experience and knowledge of fiqh, don’t you know that it’s not permissible for this servant to see me? What’s the difference between him and other men?” The servant returned and recounted what had taken place to her husband in the presence of the ruler. They then sent a woman to her with the king’s request. Fatima then accepted the request and stayed in Halab until she passed away. Her husband al-Kasani passed away after her in 587 AH / 1191 and was buried next to her in Halab.