It is an undeniable truth that a proper education is a key to the Islamization and revival of the present culture and civilization of Muslims. A comprehensive educational vision and plan, coupled with concrete policies and laws and their avid and wise enforcements, account for the most powerful force that can lead to making the idea of a contemporary Islamic civilization a reality. A clever synthesis of knowledge and authority is the best way for taking the idea of a modern-day Islamic civilization from the world of abstract ideas to the real world of corporeal challenges and realities.
Indeed, knowledge without its systematic actualization and application is absurd and worthless, whereas authority, or power, with no support of an adequate and appropriate knowledge and its protagonists is a hollow and dangerous thing. It is a sham, and a farce. For knowledge to fully play its projected roles of enlightenment, enrichment, guidance, transformation, and progress in society, it needs the unreserved help and support of genuine and honest authority, or power, and its protagonists. In the same vein, for authority and power to play their own projected roles of guidance, administration, protection and development in society, they need the constant help, advice and direction of knowledge and its own protagonists. Knowledge and authority need each other for their bare survival. The existence of either one of them in the absence of the other is rather illusory. Such an existence is artificial and ineffective in the extreme.
Certainly, it is because of this that in Islam one of the chief characteristics of a ruler is that he is pious and knowledgeable. He must hold in high esteem the people of knowledge and wisdom regularly consulting and listening to them. Mutual consultation the Holy Qur’an highlights as a foremost feature of the Muslim community (42:38). Even Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to consult his companions in a number of worldly matters. The Qur’an explicitly instructed him to do so (3:159).
At the same time, and due to the same reasons, knowledge without its practical application and dimension is strongly repudiated and condemned in Islam, just as is the case with the sheer faith without deeds to supplement and support it. It is thus rightly said that knowledge without deeds, or a theory without practice, is like a tree without fruits. Due to this, furthermore, the Qur’an declares that it is the learned believing men and women who fear Allah most, i.e., they make up the best category of believers as they exemplify and combine knowledge, faith and practice.
Echoing the importance of harmoniously combining true knowledge and its people with genuine and honest authority, or power, and its own people, and that the well-being of society depends on them, on the appropriateness of their respective services to society and how sound and solid the relationships between them are. Abdullah b. Mubarak, a leading Muslim scholar from the second Hijrah century, is reported to have said: “There are two types of people, when they are good and righteous the whole community becomes good and righteous, but when they are bad and morally corrupt the whole community becomes bad and morally corrupt, those two types of people are scholars and rulers.”
Thus, it is not the rulers alone who rule and are in charge of society. Rather, it is both rulers and scholars that are responsible for administering and leading society. The role of the public is not to be excluded in the process either, because it is nobody else but them who are the target, as well as the strength, of virtually all laws and policies. Public participation in every aspect of rule, in whatever regulated forms and capacities, is both crucial and reasonable.
Nor is it that scholars alone are to be the depositories and owners of the most precious commodity, knowledge, thus devaluing and misusing it. They must apply and share it with others so that everyone else can benefit from it. If there could be an autocracy and tyranny in relation to authority and power, likewise there could be an intellectual autocracy and tyranny in relation to knowledge as well, if it became a personal and concealed, or a manipulated and abused matter.
Truly, knowledge and authority stand for the two greatest responsibilities, or trusts (amanah), that a person can take up. They are for a common, and not for a personal, good or gain. They are more about giving than receiving. The rewards for fulfilling them are immense, and the penalty for neglecting and betraying them are proportionately immense too. Thus, if a person is not qualified for, or serious towards, them, there is then nothing special in coveting them. They then simply can destroy their pursuers. They can be the main cause of their downfall in both worlds.
By the way, in Islam nobody reigns over anybody, because the whole authority and power belongs to Allah alone (2:107). Likewise, nobody is to selfishly claim any credit for an amount of knowledge he or she might acquire, because all knowledge belongs to Allah alone and we are bestowed but with a tiny portion of it (17:85).
People are all servants of Allah. They all are Allah’s vicegerents on earth. They all are equal. They all are important for the fulfillment of the spiritual purpose on earth. They all must contribute to their mutual good, something which cannot be done except if people are allowed to freely, honorably and responsibly operate in their diverse capacities and in their diverse societal positions. No capacity or position in society, it stands to reason, is to be viewed as superior, or inferior, to others, for the interests of society depends on the performances and productivity of each and every member. If a segment of society malfunctions or breaks down, the whole of society can be brought to a standstill. Capacities and positions in society are relative. Absolute is only a person’s commitment to the cause, regardless of his or her societal rank or position. Hence, it is an Islamic tenet that the best among people are those who are most Allah-conscious (49:13), as well as that Allah does not look at people’s outward appearances, backgrounds and skin colors, but looks into their hearts and deeds. Rulers and scholars, it follows, are no more than the care-takers (ra’in) of society, and are thus the most responsible groups in it. Just like everyone else, they too in their respective capacities serve society and its people. No position in society is a privileged one. It is all about myriad levels and modes of serving within the intricate matrix of social responsibilities and duties.
This viewpoint is further supported by the following words of Allah in the Qur’an: “Say: “O my Lord! Let my entry be by the Gate of Truth and Honor, and likewise my exit by the Gate of Truth and Honor; and grant me from Your Presence an authority, or a power, (sultan) to aid (me).” (17:80)
The Prophet (pbuh) also said: “Indeed, Allah curbs with (earthly) authority, or power, (sultan) what cannot be curbed by the Qur’an alone.”
The scholars of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sunnah unanimously agree that the message of the above mentioned Qur’anic verse and the Prophet’s tradition is that in some circumstances the power and influence of the guidance, normative teachings, glad tidings and admonitions of the Qur’an — the ultimate and primary source of knowledge — alone is not sufficient for some people to take note of and adhere to them, notwithstanding the aptness of systems, methods, resources, commitment and zeal that might be in place. Due to the lack of an enforcing authority or power (sultan), achieving the ultimate goals and aspirations of knowledge — which must be espoused by, and mirrored in, the vision and mission of society and its leadership — is bound to be seriously affected. Thus, the impetus of a genuine power and authority is badly needed. This is especially so if the objectives of knowledge appear to be at odds with the objectives and aspirations of some other active and powerful forces in society. In this case, it is not only the duty of the highest societal authority to champion the knowledge calling and its noble purpose and goals, but also to deal with the negative trends and currents in society which could undermine the interests of knowledge and with it the interests and wellbeing of society as a whole. The Qur’an, as a symbol of knowledge and a spiritual power, and the sultan, as a symbol of worldly power and authority, support and complement each other in man’s attainment of his honorable earthly khilafah (vicegerency) mission. They are both Allah’s gifts to man which must be handled benevolently, gratefully and responsibly. They are both to be given their respective established dues. Neither one is to operate at the expense of, or in isolation from, the other. The Qur’an and the sultan constitute a unified whole that cannot be separated. Islam is both religion and state.
The following Qur’anic verse should also be seen in the same light of amalgamating knowledge — as symbolized by Prophets and revelations sent to them — and authority — as symbolized by the idea of “iron” and its many worldly benefits — as a path to comprehensive success and happiness on earth: “We sent aforetime our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the balance (of right and wrong), that men may stand forth in justice; and We sent down iron, in which is (material for) mighty war, as well as many benefits for mankind, that Allah may test who it is that will help, unseen, Him and His messengers: For Allah is full of strength, exalted in might (and able to enforce His will).” (57:25)
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.