“This moderation and reasonableness (in the Quran) extends itself to all aspects of Islam — the ruling for fasting, the rite of washing, a husband’s duty to a wife, provision for one’s children, prohibited items of food.” Badawi Abdel Latif Awad, President of Al-Azhar University (1969-1974)
Acquiring knowledge is a commandment upon every Muslim. One does not need to look further than the first verse sent down by Allah s.w.t. upon our Prophet s.a.w. — ‘Read!’ Added to this is a Hadith from our Prophet s.a.w. — ‘Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.’
The parable of knowledge is like a lamp, benefitting the user and also those around him. However, it is also possible that such a noble act might be corrupted, turning into something damaging to oneself and those around him. History is filled with those who have misused knowledge.
Thus, it is important that we tap into Islam’s moral, intellectual and spiritual guidance to show the right way to acquire knowledge. As aforementioned, the saying by Badawi Abdel Latif shows that wasatiyyah is a guiding principle that extends itself to all aspects of Islam, and for an act as important as acquiring knowledge, we should seek out a way to apply such a noble principle.
Wasatiyyah has been defined by scholars as just and moderation, among other interpretations. More specifically, Hamka said that moderation is a position in between excessiveness and laxity. Here, this meaning can be applied in the act of acquiring knowledge. By being just, it means to be fair and objective in evaluating the knowledge that are before us, thus exercising fairness. By being moderate, it means to be balanced in our acquiring of knowledge, thus enabling ourselves to benefit from the many sources of knowledge in this world.
To my mind, applying the spirit of wasatiyyah in acquiring knowledge means that we hold a position between two extremes; 1) holding obstinately to a specific source of knowledge, blinded towards other sources that are just as beneficial, 2) groundless and unprincipled in acquiring knowledge, with varying sources that lead to conflicts and confusions and contradictions.
This is applicable to instances such as culture, time and ideological differences. For example, one might stubbornly hold onto the knowledge by Middle Eastern scholars and reject Southeast Asian scholars or perhaps there are those who hold onto the knowledge of contemporary scholars and push aside the great scholars of the past or some might hold onto the knowledge of a certain sect or ideology or school of thought, not seeking out or even rejecting other sources of knowledge that are also beneficial and relevant.
All knowledge is from Allah
One of the ways to apply this principle is to understand that all knowledge is from Allah ta`ala, regardless of the source. In past and present, there have been some who hold the view that only religious knowledge is important, or that only knowledge from an Islamic source is valid. Such thoughts are unfounded in Islamic teachings. Here, we should reflect upon the verses in the Qur’an which inform us that wisdom and knowledge can be found in other sources.
“He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding.” (The Qur’an, 2:269)
This verse is supported by the several instances of the Prophet s.a.w. and companions who have acquired knowledge and benefited from non-Islamic sources. Such actions are built due to their understanding that all knowledge is from Allah.
However, while it is important to advocate that we should exercise open-mindedness and inclusivity when acquiring knowledge, it is also equally important to emphasise that without firm and sound principles rooted in Islamic tradition, it is possible to be led astray. Ustaz Muhammad Haniff Hassan writes an important point about this, “The spirit (of open-mindedness and inclusivity) should not lead to the neglect of what has been clearly established as al-haq (truth) and al-batil (falsehood) in the Qur’an and the hadiths.”
Be critical and objective
One manifestation of wasatiyyah is fairness and objectivity in acquiring knowledge as exemplified by our past scholars. For example, Jamaluddin Al-Afghani (1838-1897), advocated the studying of Western knowledge and criticised the scholars of his time for ignoring it. Here is an example of a scholar who wrote on Al-Afghani,
“He (Al-Afghani) touched on the mentality of a section of the scholars because at the time they had never been interested in knowing the causes of electricity, the steamboat and the train. They studied numerous religious books from evening until morning under the kerosene lamp but they had never wanted to know why there was smoke when the chimney was removed and no smoke when the chimney was replaced.”
From this excerpt, it can be said that Al-Afghani is advocating the principle of wasatiyyah in acquiring knowledge, which is to be objective and balanced between religious knowledge and the academic sciences. But another point in which he is emphasising is not only balance between differing sets of knowledge, but also a thinking and philosophical mind, which he believes is an essence that has to be instilled in every Muslim.
Appreciating local and regional intellectual tradition
To practise wasatiyyah is to give appropriate attention to the works and knowledge of our Nusantara scholars too. In today’s context, works from our Nusantara scholars are under-appreciated, for examples are the works of Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi, Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (Hamka), Mohamed Sanusi Mahmood, Syed Abdillah Al-Jufri, Syed Ahmad Semait, Ahmad Sonhadji Mohammad, to name a few. Their works are not widely read by the public and also not widely used in studying and teaching, nor have they been translated into an English for today’s generation.
If we look deeper into this issue, we will see that the root of the problem is a lack of awareness on the intellectual heritage of our own scholars. We are unfortunately unaware of their works as compared to scholars from other regions. It would be an injustice to not seek out the knowledge made available to us by our Nusantara scholars after their sacrifice, especially when their insights and ideas are still beneficial and relevant in today’s context.
This is not to say it is wrong to learn the works of other scholars, but as aforementioned, it is important for us to be balanced in acquiring knowledge. If we read the trove of knowledge they left behind, we could see they too had written about what it means to be moderate. A good example would be an excerpt from Sheikh Ahmad Semait,
“This book (titled Kuliah Subuh) contains matters of ikhtilaf that are still being debated. The debate centres on old and new interpretations. I prefer to take the middle path where the opinion is neither too traditional nor too modernist because I believe that it is the role of Islamic shar`iyyah.”
I opine that a wasatiyyah acquiring of knowledge transcends culture, time period, ideological differences, and so on. In doing so, we will ultimately achieve a balance that will allow us to benefit fully from the knowledge available to us. A good example would be the teachings of Indonesian scholar Hamka, who successfully managed to synthesise the differences in teachings that transcend time and culture and school of thoughts.
“To him (Hamka), every school of thought in Islam had particular strengths from which modern Muslims could benefit. The rapid changes in the modern world required Muslims to be pluralistic and open to other ways of thinking about Islam… He encouraged his coreligionists to be abreast of new developments in philosophy, in the sciences, and in other branches of modern knowledge.”
Hamka utilised scholars of differing races and cultures and religions, and also from classical, medieval and contemporary time periods, thus showing us that it is permissible and possible to benefit from varied sources, as long as you possess a principled approach that will not divert you from the true path — a term which he deemed as ‘guided reasoning’.
In his writings, he unconventionally utilised the teachings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, an approach that some scholars of his time disagreed. The benefits from his approach are clear in his works that are still relevant and appealing to those from different backgrounds till today.
When wasatiyyah is neglected
There are two consequences if wasatiyyah in acquiring knowledge is neglected.
Firstly is the emergence of toxic ideologies i.e. sectarianism and extremism.
Without practising wasatiyyah, a person risks developing exclusivist tendencies. Despite being highly learned, if not exposed to the wisdom and benefits from other strands of knowledge, he can form toxic ideologies such as sectarianism and absolutism — an understanding which advocates that only their opinions are true and correct, while others are wrong and deviant.
To avoid this, a person should possess a spirit of musyawarah – to engage and discuss with others in the hope of finding common ground, and not to resort to baseless accusations or jump to wrong conclusions.
Efforts should be made to try and understand others. Although disagreements and differences are part of human nature, they should be approached with the spirit of ukhuwwah Islamiyyah, which is to remind ourselves that we are all connected by one creed. It should not be done to prove ourselves correct and better than others. One should also practise gentleness and humility, as this is in accordance with the sunnah of our Prophet Muhammd s.a.w.
Secondly is “captive minds”
Despite being learned, acquiring knowledge without wasatiyyah can result in biases and narrow-mindedness. This is highlighted in the writing of Syed Hussein Alattas, who wrote extensively on the term he coined — “captive minds”.
A captive mind, in the context of his writings, was referring to the mindset of scholars who uncritically accept Western scholarly literature without being discerning or selective in their reading. A captive mind would succumb to stereotypes and biases, and would also be unable to raise original ideas and propose relevant solutions.
It is important to note that Alattas is not advocating a complete rejection of the West, but rather to adopt a selective and constructive approach. Such an approach should be held when approaching any source or field of knowledge. While such a specific problem written by Alattas might be not be prevalent or relevant in certain contexts today, the essence of the problem remains — a lack of criticality and constructiveness in acquiring knowledge, which hereby affects its implementation.
It is critical that we reflect upon ourselves and ponder on our process of acquiring knowledge, while also reminding ourselves of the objective as emphasised in our Islamic teachings. In Islam, the objective of acquiring knowledge is to be of benefit towards our community, society and mankind as a whole. Therefore, the process should be one that is rooted in the principles of wasatiyyah — just and fair, moderate and balanced, critical and objective.
We should bear in mind that our acquired knowledge should be a catalyst for unity and not division, enlightenment and not ignorance, benefit and not detriment. It is important for us to remember that Islam is sent as a light for mankind — to unfetter minds and allow our intellect to flourish, though with guided principles based on the Qur’an and Sunnah.
 Badawi Abdel Latif Awad (1963), “The Moderation of Islam”, Islamic Quarterly, 7.