On Knowledge, Chapter 18, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The supplication “And say, Lord increase my knowledge” (20:114) pervades every corner of this Conference. In every Conference, and throughout the ages, it has ignited the search and the discourse. God poses the rhetorical question: “Are those who know and those who do not know equal?” (39:9). In the symbolic universe of Islam, ignorance is kufr, and a dead intellect is equated with the darkness of a dead soul.


It is reported that the Prophet said, “He who issues forth in a search for knowledge is in a state of struggle in the cause of God until he returns.” Countless hours in countless Conferences have been spent in this struggle. The signs of God are manifest in every creature and creation, and the struggle to discover is but a supplication in the name of the Creator.


Our traditions are replete with exhortations of knowledge and warnings against ignorance. It is reported that the Prophet declared scholars to be the inheritors of the prophets and the pursuit of knowledge as the way to paradise. Islamic history and culture responded in a concrete and tangible way: Hundreds of endowments (waqfs) were created throughout Islamic history to support universities, scholars, and scholarship. As Muslims searched for God, they discovered the diversity of God’s creatures and creation in all its richness and magnificence. They uncovered and enriched the heritage of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Israelites, and Arabs. Thousands of Conferences sprouted all over Muslim lands as Islam reintroduced the world to the Civilization of the text. For a few hundred years, most of the roads to knowledge went through Islam.


Yet another distressing visit to the bookstore. I compare the size of the Islam section to the Christian and Jewish sections, and the Islam section pales in comparison. The titles of books in the Islam section are the same week after week. Once again, I complain to the managers and, once again, they cite the lack of sales in the Islam section. “There is movement in the Christianity and Judaism sections, but not Islam,” I am told. I know from experience that Muslims hardly read—not even the Qur’an for that matter. If Muslims do pick up a book from one Conference or another, they search for a book that affirms what they already know.


Muslim roads to knowledge are blocked by dogma, apologetics, laziness, and simple idiocy. But most of all, Muslim roads are blocked by a near total disregard for the value of the intellect and the role it plays in the pursuit of knowledge. Muslims today prefer to construct buildings rather than minds.


While the world discourses on Islam, Muslims exalt Islam and pretend that the world does not exist. All too often, discourses on Islam engage Muslims as subjects and not participants. In the United States and the West, academic presses such as Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, or Westview publish on Islam and Muslims all the time. The authors of these works are most often not Muslim. Universities and government institutions fund and support research and teach courses. Popular presses, whether in book or journal form, report on Islam and Muslims everyday. Politicians, journalists, legislators, educators, and others base their impressions of Islam on these mainstream discourses. Muslims do not impact the mainstream discourses in any significant sense.


The Muslim response is to build Islamic Centers, organize camps and conferences, and pretend that the mainstream does not exist. Although Islamic Centers are necessary for generating a basic sense of community and identity, they are rarely a serious avenue for knowledge or discourse on Islam. As to the camps, conventions, and conferences, all too often they are no more than pep rallies or cheerleading events.


In the contemporary age, whoever controls the flow of information controls the discourse. Muslims do not shape or control the discourse on Islam; Muslims are discoursed about but do not discourse back. The flow of information about Islam rarely originates, or even passes through, Muslim avenues.


Attempts have been made to fund Muslim educational institutions and alternative presses. However, these attempts have been marred by two distinct problems. First, the quality, in terms of content and form, is often so substandard to what is produced by the mainstream that it is often ignored. Second, often, such efforts have been supported by Gulf money, which usually promotes a particularly dogmatic and anti-critical view of knowledge.


It is reported that the Prophet said, “A Muslim will not tire of knowledge until he reaches Heaven.” The problem occurs when one does not tire of knowledge but tires of the dogma, slogans, and clichéd rhetoric encountered in Islamic centers and conferences all over the United States—where does one go after that? Or when those who wish to pursue knowledge must either live in poverty or accept easy money from those who offer easy solutions. The problem is when every wealthy Muslim prefers to build a building than support a mind, and when Muslims forget the value of a book despite the fact that their religion was founded on a book and is all about the role of books.