by Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu in Soul on 26th January, 2023
If you are a Muslim reading this, you are one of the last vessels of truth in the world today. In a society that has erased the fitrah (innate inclination of humankind) and ideas of the Divine from its books and institutions, the Muslim believer intrinsically posesses a profound knowledge that physicists, philosophers and psychologists have been grappling for, for time immemorial: Who are we? What are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going?
Learning to ask ‘why’ rather than ‘how’
In the Holy Qur’an, Surah al-Noor is known for the description of Allah’s light:
“Allāh is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp; the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allāh guides to His light whom He wills. And Allāh presents examples for the people, and Allāh is Knowing of all things”. [Qur’an 24:35].
According to the Tafsir (exegesis) given by Ibn Abbas and explained by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi (1), ‘light upon light’ is in reference to the believer’s faith and the heart of the Muslim bursting like a ‘radiant star’ (2) with ‘light upon light’– a reflection of the light of Allah’s brilliance / magnificence lighting up the East to West.
Against this backdrop, I am brought to reflect on a beautiful poem by Irish writer W.B Yeats which follows,
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
In this poem, W.B Yeats makes reference to his poverty and his inability to afford the tapestry of the heavens woven from light / the most extravagant material gift he can conjure for his love interest. I mention this because it is the believer who does not suffer the real poverty of the human condition: being without light. The believer is without fetters, circumventing a truth and a reality that most are blind to, soaring at least five times a day to the unseen and traversing daily between the two worlds we inhabit. The believer is a traveller, migrating to the origin, depositing light as she walks in a world that is behind her and running away from her. Despite the illumination of the believer, secularism and the agenda to strip God from knowledge production presents a crisis in education that we are not immune to.
When the great martyr Malcolm X (May Allah have mercy on him) after greeting the crowd ‘Assalam alaikum’ on the 21st February 1965 in New York at the Audubon Ballroom was gunned down, it was very clear to those who witnessed this murder in the ensuing moments, that something – his powerful aura, his fiercely animated speech, his spirit – was no more in this realm. The essence of the man who made a rock flow with water, made his prison his university, was no longer with us. Despite the clear reality of the body housing something deeper than we know, when speaking about the deceased in the human sciences, there is a widespread aversion to the notion of the soul beyond ideas of human consciousness that is widely held to only exist in the mind.
This abandonment of the soul is a crisis of knowledge. This crisis also encompasses the loss of true scholarship and independent thought across global secular education institutions today as well as the removal of the centrality of God from global curricula. It is rampant, destructive and the seed for much doubt amongst Muslims and confusion within society at large. It was George Orwell who wrote in his seminal work 1984, “power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing”. This crisis means we as Muslim are confronted and stretched across opposing tensions and untruths, sustained on escaped light only during the times we remember to connect with the Divine.
It means that in contemporary systems of learning, as a shaykh has mentioned, we are collectively – Muslim or non, trained and coerced to ask ‘how?’ instead of ‘why?’. Asking ‘how’, means we know how space expands, how stars implode, how the body sustains and heals itself. It means we know how things succumb to gravity and fall earthward, we know how birds coast, how seeds germinate and how the Big Bang began. However we do not collectively ask why. We don’t know why the universe expands, or why planets orbit, why we are born and why we die. We do not know the darkness we came from before the womb or the darkness we are heading towards inside the earth. As a society, we don’t collectively understand why we are here though we may understand how. Farid al-Din Attar writes in‘The Conference of the Birds’, “The secrets of the sun are yours, but you content yourself with motes trapped in its beams.” Indeed, we as Muslims have access to the why of things but we have contented ourselves with following the people that ask only ‘how’.
There is nothing more spectacular and dangerous than the mind. The erasure of real knowledge threatens the prowess the ummah is capable of reaching if we only tapped into our own history. Indeed our minds, once the fertile plain for accessing the true reality of things, are besieged by a way of thinking that does not come from the Islamic tradition – our tradition here meaning the independence of thought and soul-searching crystallised in the first injunction from Allah through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺand humanity at large, “Read” (recite) [Qur’an 96:1].
Before the onslaught of the crisis, it is this independence of thought that led to the Islamic Golden Age across the Middle East, Central Asia and Southern Europe from the 8th to the 14th centuries and across West Africa in the 14th to the 16th centuries – an example being Timbuktu becoming the knowledge centre of the world and boasting 25,000 students at the University at Sankore Mosque (3). Our tradition is one that does not mean abandoning cultural dress for a perceived superior ‘traditional’ dress or abandoning the way we speak. Rather it means to return to the core message of that first injunction, to be a believer who is concerned with accessing the truth of things and to be advocates of the truth of the Qur’an whether through our individual moral values, interactions with people, or when advancing society through our own efforts. In returning to independent thought we cannot afford to be cowered and intimidated by what the general consensus has told us is factual and legitimate, and it is imperative that we are the harbingers of liberated thought in every capacity of our lives from the articles and academic papers we write to the values we conduct ourselves with and raise our children upon.
In talking about the problem, we must mention the root. Much of what we know in academia today stems from the enlightenment. The enlightenment, a period in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, saw a shift to ideas of individualism, liberty, scientific advancement and the importance of empiricism (knowledge drawn from empirical evidence) in classifying, measuring and understanding the world / the human condition. As a result, the separation between church and state became a logical step towards progress and scientific breakthrough.
The problem with this is that the soul which is intangible, immeasurable, and unobservable became unscientific and the separation between church and state was cut, pasted and superimposed onto all faiths including Islam, despite the golden age of Islam being synonymous with scientific, philosophical and literary innovation and excellence. This was primarily achieved through the Western imperial mission, through the erasure of subaltern history and other ways of knowing such as oral histories and post the moment of decolonisation in the mid 20th century – through the onset of neocolonial domination.
The result has been that the Muslim who is reflecting ‘light upon light’ has been cast to the sidelines and relegated to the unscientific pile in the context of a world that has rusted over and is unable to recognise it.
The question remains: how do we navigate a truthful vessel in a world that is too dark to find it?
The answer is in returning to our roots.
True Islam offers a challenge to secularism. True Islam means having the audacity to challenge the general consensus of what is and what isn’t truthful, legitimate and objectively factual in all disciplines. True Islam means to return to the fitrah and audaciously return God to the centre of knowledge production in our home countries across the non-Western world and eventually advocate for the legitimacy of this way of knowing in secular society. Finally, and most importantly, true Islam is the return to accountability of the self, changing one’s spiritual condition and seeking knowledge for self-reformation and eventually as a guide for our communities as well as an ongoing legacy for the time we spent on earth.
Given that our mainstream universities even in our home countries would not be deemed legitimate if we were to reintroduce the Divine back into the curriculum, we must be the change in countering the trajectory of miseducation and Eurocentricity in order to return to the golden age of true knowledge. Timbuktu, Fatima al-Fihri and al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, the scrolls of Baghdad, Ibn Sina, Ibn Khaldoun, Princess Nana Asma’u – our heritage and genealogy is one of excellence. From Islamic psychology to the validity of oral histories and our system of narration (isnad), we are resting on a goldmine of the highest calibre, the kind that could liberate a soul. We must reclaim our history and collectively introduce the Divine back into our curriculums, our books, and all our ways of knowing. Doing so is imperative for the fate of our children and of the world.
Ultimately we are narrative in motion. Our stories were written in al-Lawh al-Mahfuz, 50,000 years before our creation, denoting the peaks and troughs of our lives, our civilizations, our failures and victories, loves and longings. To return to our golden age is to return to the fitrah and take ownership of the pen that is writing our endings, to reclaim the treasure chest of knowledge and to distribute generously amongst humanity. Most importantly it is to reclaim the self, our most pressing responsibility and rescue it from the hollow ravages of the darkest forms of ignorance.
Becoming a moon
In a hadith, Abu Darda reported, The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “…The virtue of the scholar over the worshipper is like the superiority of the moon over the stars. Verily, the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets. The Prophets do not leave behind gold or silver coins, but rather they only leave behind knowledge. Whoever takes it has taken hold of an abundant fortune.” (al-Tirmidhī 2682)
Who is the moon really? The moon does not choose to guide us and has taken on the orbit – a lifetime’s work without the option for disobedience. The scholar, on the other hand, burns brighter because she has been accorded the free will to choose to reflect Divinity. Thus, the scholar in many ways is exponentially superior to the moon guiding all manner of stars – imploded, dying and new.
In light of the crisis of knowledge, I would like to point to a second crisis, this time within the Muslim community, namely the lack of female voices in Islamic scholarship. We need female scholars to address the problem of male centricity in Islamic knowledge production. We need more women to choose to be the moon – a silver orb illuminating the path for tired wayfarers to follow.
We must as Muslimahs, let the moon travel through us. Part of the solution in creating this condition is for the men of our ummah to collectively be comfortable in looking to us for light. How, as women, can we thrive intellectually when the life pathways set out for us discourage the pursuit of the same knowledge we are cyclically condemned for not following at least outwardly? The revolution in Islamic scholarship will come when women have equal footing on the pathway to becoming a light. Many women who are already doing the work are sadly not acknowledged, but instead intellectually infantilised and not held with the same collective reverence as male scholars.
Despite this climate of gendered resistance within our ummah, an example of light is female scholar, Ustadha Maryam Amir and her Qariah app at the forefront of contemporary revival of female Qur’an recitation hosting the recitations of 60 Qariah’s across the world.
In an interview with Haute Hijab, Maryam Amir says:
“After one event, an elder woman asked me if she could sit with me, and she shared, ‘I drove four hours to come here tonight. You spoke in my city a few days ago, and a friend of mine attended. I wasn’t really interested, and I didn’t go. She called me and said, “You missed out on something I’ve never heard before in my life.” So I drove today so that I could hear you. And it is the first time in my life – I’m in my fifties – that I have ever heard a woman reciting the Quran. And after hearing you, I just want to know- how can I memorize the Quran, too? How can I recite the Quran like this, too?’”
This sentiment is striking and rings true for many Muslim women, as witnessing female scholars and qariahs in action are rare and beautiful events. Dr. Sh. Haifaa Younis of Jannah Institute, Sh. Fatima Barkatullah and Dr Amra Bone are all examples of scholars who are blazing the trail for Muslim women to look up to. Against a backdrop of debate concerning what is and what is not considered awrah of a woman, whether women can speak in front of and address a mixed congregation as well as deeply entrenched misogynistic ideas about where a woman’s place is, I want to end with the encouragement to think independently.
Seeking knowledge should not be an exercise of war – war with community expectations, cultural beliefs or misogynist notions of what a woman’s place in the world is. As with my earlier thoughts, seeking knowledge should also not be pandering to hegemonic knowledge production without challenging deeply entrenched assumptions and ideas regardless of how legitimate or widely accepted they are. Seeking knowledge is first and foremost an individual exercise and obedience to the Divine injunction to “Read”. Following this injunction whether religiously or in our worldly affairs hands us the agency necessary to live independent, thoughtful and meaningful lives.
Becoming a moon is a lifelong enterprise and the ways we can begin the journey can range from reading voraciously outside of the enlightenment industrial complex, enrolling on a part time weekend Alimiyyah course to writing or speaking – ultimately introducing new knowledge in a world that is heaving with ideas that simply don’t make sense from our paradigm of truth seeking. Additional important ways include raising truth seeking children and educating our dependents to be independent forces in the world.
Despite cultural expectations and male centricity in the Islamic sciences, female scholars shed a different kind of light from a new angle in fiqh, tafsir and teaching the seerah. Even if we are not largely encouraged to pursue Islamic scholarship, there are voices such as Sheikh Akram Nadwi who has compiled an exhaustive study of past female scholars in the book ‘Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam’, that are willing us to take the baton and the light the way for our daughters and Muslimahs of the future.
If you are reading this and you recognise yourself as one of the last vessels of truth left on the planet, ask yourself why not you?… What is stopping you from becoming a moon?
“So the sun, to which for all its light
The moon is obliged, is still by it
~Qasmuna Bint Ismail, (Unknown Century)
Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a student, SOAS graduate, writer and author of a debut poetry collection published with Lote Tree Press. She is involved in black activism and also runs an online magazine exploring adventure, culture and spirituality (www.mzab.co.uk). Soukeyna has also recently founded a women’s dawah initiative Farasha (www.far-asha.co.uk) to help Muslim women transform and reform themselves as well as to assist women who may be disillusioned with Islam/ the Muslim community for differening reasons. You can follow Soukeyna’s writing on Instagram @soukeynaoseibonsu and Farasha on @farasha_co_uk