God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light: God doth set forth Parables for men: and God doth know all things.
The conversation with Shaykh Qays Arthur will continue with an exploration of the meaning of faith and guidance in Islam. This will be covered in a few blogs as there are many angles to this issue that I would like to explore. This blog will deal with the angle of the importance of acknowledging our ignorance and that what we do not know is tremendously greater than what we do know about ourselves, others and the universe we live in.
Wazwaz: Shaykh Qays, my journey to faith was different than yours. I had to learn my faith through understanding the voices and pains of people who are mentally ill, socially ill, emotionally disturbed and all the permutations. I used to spend hours each night thinking how one helps such people and listening to lectures mainly by social and mental counselors. Overtime, you saw patterns in their voices and one such pattern was a call for help. A feeling of being trapped by one's own behavior and seeking guidance. I mentioned one such voice in the blog here, In times of Anger.
Here is a unique pattern that I saw amongst some these cases...
"I don't know who to ask for help or where to go..."
While reading the Qur'an, I was mainly seeking guidance on how one tries to help such people. In the beginning, I felt - I had all the answers, but through the journey of time I discovered all my solutions were failures and that there was a higher reality that I needed to grasp. My eyes fell on the verse by Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace. I recall turning to God with that prayer every time since that moment. I felt my journey changed course. People came into my path and overtime helped me see things that before I could not see and was not ready to see. Prophet Abraham's prayer is important to understand the meaning of faith and guidance:
He said: "unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among those who go astray."
Shaykh Qays, according to Islamic teachings, unless a person comes to this junction and embraces that reality that we do not know – their understanding of faith in God or God is distorted or misguided. Do you agree?
Shaykh Qays: Well, it depends. We know from revelation that ignorance and faith are diametrically opposed to each other. The period in Arabian history before Islam came was referred to by the Prophet (peace be upon him) as the "days of ignorance". While it is true that there are certain things that we know from revelation are not knowable to us, like the exalted reality of God's essence, when we acknowledge our incapacity in that regard that is knowledge itself! In reality true faith cannot obtain without knowledge. So what the Quran calls to is not so much that we embrace the reality that we don't know as much as it is embracing the reality that only God knows and we have no knowledge save through Him. For there are many who embrace the fact that they don't know and then either remain ignorant or go on to learn and then become arrogant. So when we don't know we say "Allahu a'lam" (God knows best). It is acknowledging God that makes the difference.
The truth is that life has a purpose which is absolute submission and surrender to the Living God. Knowing that purpose and living in accordance with it is what brings internal, lasting peace, come what may in the world and that knowledge like all else only comes from God. That is what we must come to realize. The brother Abdul-Lateef Abdullah, whom you mentioned in your question, said it well when he said, "We exist for Him, not the other way around." Realizing that simple truth makes all the difference. Acknowledging our limitations including our ignorance is part of that process of realization but it is not the substance of it. I say this because, in reality, refusing to accept our human frailties and limitations like ignorance is the result of being deluded, rather than guided by whatever little ability and knowledge we do have.
And that delusion comes about when our ability is put to arbitrary use without sound knowledge of where our ability comes from and what purpose it is really for. So in the Quran faith in God is based on knowledge and conviction, not birth nor affiliation. It is based on what we do know and can infer from His signs and His revelation. In chapter 47, verse 19 we find a Divine imperative "Have knowledge that there is no deity but God and seek forgiveness for your sins...". We are commanded to know. And that is only because we were given the capacity to know in order that our purpose be fulfilled. So the believer never meets a dead end. Whether he is confronted by his incapacity or by the triumph of success, whether he is halted in his tracks by his own ignorance or swimming in the euphoria of discovery he only meets his Lord, Most High, the Creator of all being.
So embracing the reality that we do not know only increases faith and understanding when we accept what we must know from revelation- that God is our sole purpose and that everything including whatever abilities we may possess comes from and through Him. So Imam Razi mentions in his exegesis of chapter 6 verse 77 where Abraham says, "...and were it not for my Lord's guiding me I would certainly be of the wrong-doing folk..." that, it indicates that "guidance does not obtain except from Allah".
Wazwaz: Habib Umar bin Hafiz (may Allah preserve him) had a lecture on the importance of knowing our own ignorance. Even for scholars and teachers - it is important to acknowledge one's own ignorance. His argument for this was:
“How much fiqh(Islamic jurisprudence) has he studied? A quarter of it, half of it, all of it? How much hadith has he studied? A quarter of it, a fifth of it a tenth of it? ...The more someone increases in knowledge the more he increases in knowledge of his own ignorance. Allah said to the most knowledgeable person in His creation of Him, His secrets and His attributes: Say: “O my Lord increase me in knowledge!”
Further in this lesson, Habib Umar gave the following examples to clarify the importance of that junction. Can you clarify some insight into these verses of the Qur'an or sayings of Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings.
He[God] also said to the Angels: “Inform Me of the names of these if you are truthful.”
They replied: “Transcendent are You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Truly, You are the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.”2.31-32
The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “The one who thinks he has knowledge is ignorant.”
Shaykh Qays: Note the context of acknowledging ignorance is in the seeking of knowledge itself which is an imperative of the Religion! And the result is to seek knowledge through God, "O my Lord increase me in knowledge!" This dimension of acknowledging our ignorance is important because it prevents our learning from deluding us and making us forget the over-arching truth encapsulated in the invocation taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him) that "There is no movement nor strength, save through God, the High, the Mighty." or the statement in Chapter 11 verse 88 by the Prophet Shu'aib that "...my success is not save through God...".
Wazwaz: Habib Umar also said that
"The role of knowledge is to teach us our own ignorance. The more we increase in knowledge which is sound and beneficial the more we increase in knowledge of our own ignorance. Over all endued with knowledge is the All-Knowing. The knowledge of all the creation comes under: 'You have only been given a small amount of knowledge.'
If you add to your knowledge the knowledge of the scholars of your time and those that came before you and those that will come after you it is still a small amount of knowledge. That which we are in ignorance of is greater than that which we know. So what knowledge do you really possess?"
Hence, in Islam, science, reason and logic are gifts from God, but they have limitations. For example, logic is allowed on a set of axioms that are known to be true and a worldview that is known to be true and a discipline and methodology that is embedded in humility. Due to our understanding that what we know is a small amount of reality, logic on a world of unknowns will bring us to misguidance or logical falsehoods and distortions. Do you agree or disagree?
Shaykh Qays: Yes I would agree with that point on logic as revelation is the highest source of knowledge we have and it is what grounds our worldview and informs our application of all other types of knowledge. All the verses and ahadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad, upon be peace and blessings) quoted, along with the explanation of al-Habib Umar are clear. The point behind acknowledging our ignorance is keeping our feet firmly on the ground and rooted in reality even as we set out to learn so that we don't become arrogant and lose sight of the truth which is that it is all from God. Al-Habib Umar quoted the angels in chapter two of the Quran saying that Knowledge is God's and creatures don't have any share save what He grants them. In the verse of the Throne, verse 255 of the same chapter we find that the statement "and they (creation) don't encompass anything of His knowledge save by His leave...". Yet it is important to remember that this entire discourse is not at all to discourage the seeking of knowledge or scholastic inquiry as somehow incompatible with faith, rather it is the arrogance that tends to accompany attainment that is incompatible with faith.
And we ask Allah for guidance.