” What is enlightenment?-An Islamic Perspective” ( Isalm is What Muslims Do)

” What is Enlightenment? An Islamic Perspective” is a powerful article by M.A. Muqedar Khan, University Of Delware. Dr. Khan is one of the new generation of Islamic Scholars who not only forcefully argues for reasoning and independent thinking in Islam but also argues against hiding behind the argument that what Muslims do is separate from what Islam stands for. Muslims should take the ownership of what Muslims do because Islam is not confined to sacred un-implemented texts. (F. Sheikh)

Shared by Muhammad Wahid.


This essay draws on Immanuel Kant’s concept of enlightenment as an escape from self- imposed ignorance and argues that a similar concept of enlightenment can be understood  within the Muslim context as escape from self-imposed  jahiliyyah , which is understood as fear to exercise reason publicly. The article advocates for ijtihad , is critical of Taqlid , and invokes Islamic sources to invest confidence in contemporary use of reason for interpreting Islam.

Return of Jahiliyyah

An Enlightenment has come to you from your Lord (Quran 6:104).

For nearly a millennium and a half, Muslims have understood Islam as a human condition that is antithetical to jahiliyyah  (ignorance). Most historical and religious accounts of Islam begin with a discussion of the state of ignorance in Arabia and often use it as a benchmark to underscore the civilizing influence of Islam on the barbaric Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia. The great Islamic civilization that was produced with the explosion of knowledge in the fields of philosophy, science, sociology, medicine, and mathematics still remains a central influence on Islamic identity and an example of the indubitable truth of Islam and its transformative potential. In the same vein, the rationality of Islamic beliefs and Islamic socio-political order remains a major theme in the discourses of Islamic intellectuals, scholars, and preachers. The point I seek to make is simple: Muslims have always understood Islam as enlightenment, the path that rescued humanity from ignorance,irrationality, and superstitions and catapulted human society towards the apex of civilization, towards the realization of a perfect community based on divine principles.  The present Ummah can hardly be described as a perfect community or as one that is organized around divine principles. It clearly lacks enlightenment. This is not to deny the presence of many enlightened individuals and even movements, but the overall condition of the global Muslim community can hardly be described as worthy of emulation (see Abu Sulayman). Indeed, modern revivalist thinkers of Islam are conceptualizing the present age as an age of  jahiliyyah 

. Here ignorance is defined as the absence of Islam as the central fountain from which society derives its organizational principles (see Khan 2001a, 2001b). In order to understand the fundamental causes behind this state of decay, we need to understand what enlightenment  is and how it relates to the vigor of societies. We need to learn to recognize the conditions that indicate the presence or absence of enlightenment in society and to elaborate, for popular consumption, why Islamization is enlightenment.

Kant’s Conception of Enlightenment In order to elucidate the meaning of the term “enlightenment,” I wish to turn to a famous essay by Immanuel Kant, originally published in Berlinische Monatsschrift in December 1784, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” In this essay Kant, one of the great philosophers of European enlightenment, defines enlightenment as “Man’s emergence form a self-imposed immaturity.” An enlightened man for Kant was “one who had the courage to use his own understanding.” In Islamic terms, this means one is competent to do one’s own  ijtihad  (independent thinking). Kant was seeking to liberate human reason from the shackles of stagnant religious traditions that had deprived humanity of the freedom to use reason. He lamented the fact that, due to indolence and cowardice, a great proportion of humanity remained in a state of immaturity and subcontracted their thinking and faculties of judgment to others. For Kant, immaturity was the inability of an individual to rely on one’s own understanding. Kant argued further that society could come out of such a state only if “people had the courage and freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.”  The significance of Kant’s analysis and prescriptions for modern Muslims is enormous.  The present Ummah exists in a state of unparalleled immaturity. Not only has the capacity to think independently and freely nearly disappeared, it has become illegitimate. Attempts to institutionalize and democratize the spirit of ijtihad  inspire fear among the masses and incite anger, resentment, and opposition from the Ulema, by generating discourses that have instilled a fear of reason and independent thought, have rendered the Islamic Ummah incapable of relying on its own judgment. The Ummah seems to know only one way – Taqlid (imitation).

The present Muslim world attempts to either ape the West or ape the past (a glorified and nebulous golden age). Sadly, we fail to realize that even to be good at imitation requires creativity and initiative. The condition of immaturity or  jahiliyyah  has become so  widespread that the Ulema too, have become immature, have ceased to rely on their own rational faculties, and have surrendered the cardinal function of “judgment/reasoning” to the scholarship and religious judgement of a canonized and sacralized privileged elite from the second and third centuries of Islam. True religious scholarship has been reduced to memorization and recycling of medieval opinions and methodologies. New scholars are appreciated as long as they are seen as revivers of the past, and those who seek to reform or institute new practices are immediately viewed with suspicion. We remain a civilization that is petrified to think, following those who refuse to think. In the absence of new, invigorating thought, widespread immaturity prevails (see Ahmed; Nyazee; Khan 1999b; Fadl).

Near the end of article Dr. Khan argues;

“Muslim scholars and intellectuals need to change the psyche of the masses by focusing attention not on what Islam is but on what Muslims do. The artifact of separating Islam from Muslims allows Muslims to have the best religion with the worst followers. The only way to escape this is to deconstruct the myth of the essential Islam and argue that Islam is what Muslims do and shift the burden of manifesting Islam on to human actions and away from sacred, un-implemented texts. We have to realize that Islamic civilization, in its totality, inclusive of its best and its worst, is also a  tafseer  (exegesis) of the Quran. Therefore it is not enough to glorify ideas confined to text. They are meaningless until they are realized in this duniya  (world).

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