A Wasatiyah Approach to Seeking Knowledge: Inclusivity and Open-mindedness (Wasat, No. 21/June 2018)


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(This article is a translated and improved version of original Malay article in Muhammad Haniff Hassan, “Bersikap terbuka demi menimba ilmu”, Berita Harian, 14 September 2012)

By Ustaz Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Close-mindedness challenged

Islam gives premium value to knowledge because it recognises knowledge as key to progress – a value that is also important in today’s globalised economy, where survival, progress and competitiveness for survival is dependent on mastery of knowledge.

However, a Muslim’s mastery of knowledge may be impeded by one’s misplaced attitude towards where knowledge is derived sought or derived from. One  such attitude, that exists among some Muslims, is over-suspicion  towards what is originated from beyond  Muslim community and traditions. To them, such suspicion is justified in light  of verses in the Qur’an that seemingly call upon Muslims to be wary towards all that come from non-Muslims;

“For, never will the Jews be pleased with thee. nor yet the Christians, unless thou follow their own creeds. Say: “Behold, God’s guidance is the only true guidance.” And, indeed, if thou shouldst follow their errant views after all the knowledge that has come unto thee. thou wouldst have none to protect thee from God, and none to bring thee succour.” (The Holy Qur’an, 2:120)

“O you who have attained to faith! If you pay heed to those who are bent on denying the truth, they will cause you to turn back on your heels, and you will be the losers.” (The Holy Qur’an, 3:149)

Some of the hadiths that are popularly cited, in this respect, are;

“You will certainly follow the ways of those who came before you hand span by hand span, cubit by cubit, to the extent that if they entered the hole of a lizard, you will enter it too.” We said: “O Messenger of Allaah, (do you mean) the Jews and the Christians?” He said: “Who else?” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

“Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud and Ahmad)

hikmah 2From the above scriptural evidences, some  Muslims deduce that Muslims are to stay away from anything that originates from non-Muslim sources because it may lead them astray from the straight path of Islam and since Islam is a perfect religion and the truth, there is no need for Muslims to seek knowledge from non-Muslim sources. As a result, these Muslims develop exclusivist tendency that tend to reject what comes from other than their co-religionists. This would surely have tremendous effect on how Muslims progress in contemporary time because lots of scientific contemporary knowledge are needed if Muslims are to progress from its current backwardness. This, inevitably, must include those that come from non-Muslim sources because, practically, they are the dominant force in today’s fields of knowledge.

Wisdom is not exclusive to Muslims

A deep, careful and holistic look at verses of the Qur’an, Prophet’s hadiths and history of Islamic intellectual tradition, would  conclude that the above perspective is not the only available interpretation and, in fact, one could offer a strong challenge to it.

Some of the Qur’anic verses that would give balance to the understanding of the abovementioned scriptural evidences are, “…give, then, this glad tiding to [those of] My servants, who listen [closely] to all that is said, and follow the best of it: [for] it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are [truly] endowed with insight!” (The Holy Qur’an, 37:17-8).

The verses implore upon Muslims to always seek for the best opinion on any issues. This  means that Muslim are enjoined to be open to various ideas and opinion because only through such attitude can they  find as many ideas as possible to choose the best from. The verses also do not limit  the sources to  within those from the Muslim fraternity only because the Qur’an in other verse informs that God bestows “hikmah” (wisdom and knowledge) to “whom He wishes”[1], which indicate anyone and not limited to Muslims only.

In fact, the Qur’an itself is full of examples of “hikmah” that  originated from previous nations.[2]  Prophet Sulaiman in the Qur’an is a  good example of one being open to knowledge, even if it comes from a hoopoe bird[3] or jinn.[4]

God, in the Qur’an, commands the Prophet to refer to holy books in the hands of the of Jews and Christians to validate truth that he received from divine revelation, which informs Muslim that “hikmah” could still be found from those books.[5] Of course, it should be done in accordance with the right methodology that have been developed by Musllim scholars over time.

From hadith, Muslims could also find evidence of open-mindedness and inclusivity from the Prophet’s saying, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi and Ibn Majah) and from his conduct as reported in his sirah (history). Some examples are his decision to utilize the expertise of the pagan guide, Abdullah bin Uraiqit in the momentous hijrah (migration) to Madinah, the adoption of the moat/trench for the defence of Medina which was suggested by his companion Salman Al-Faris who learned it from the Persian army, the use of formal seal for his letters to kings which was the standard protocol of the time and the use of catapults, a technology popularly used by non-Muslim armies, during the siege of Taif.

The Prophet also recognised good Arab traditions such as the practice of mudharabah[6] and diyah[7] before his prophethood and, by such recognitions, made them part of the shari`ah.

Similar open-mindedness and inclusivity in seeking knowledge can be found amongst the Companions who were directly guided the Prophet. The first four righteously-guided Caliphs adopted Roman and Persian administrative systems such as the dawawin system, postal networks and official calendar for efficient administration that would benefit people under Islamic caliphate. hikmah

Muslim scholars  famously reported the saying, “Seek knowledge even if you have to travel as far as China” in their scholarly works which epitomises their open and inclusive spirit of learning. The saying was so widely circulated and well-liked by classical scholars that some mistakenly regarded it as the Prophet’s hadith. The saying highlights the classical scholars’ recognition of non-Muslim Chinese civilisational achievements and their aspirations to achieve the same by encouraging Muslims to learn from them even if they have to travel that far.

Guiding principles

Although the points mentioned in the above section highlights that an exclusivist and close-minded attitude towards knowledge from non-Muslim sources do not represent the accurate reading of Islam’s scriptural evidences and intellectual tradition, it must be noted also that unguided openness could have detrimental effects on the Muslim ummah because, in reality, not all knowledge or ideas are neutral and value-free. This is especially so in the areas of humanities and social sciences where ideas are often shaped by scholars’ worldview and life philosophy.

Thus, the open and inclusive spirit must be guided by the following principles.

Firstly, the spirit 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, the duty to acquire knowledge and perform duties regarded as fardhu ain for Muslims such as knowledge pertaining to the Six Pillars of Faith and the Five Pillars of Islam and duties contained in them. Adventure to deep oceans of knowledge from various sources should not cause Muslims to neglect basic religious knowledge and duties in Islam.

Secondly, Muslim, when seeking knowledge, should not be quick to dismiss totally ideas that he perceives to have contradicted his religious principles. The right approach is to strive to make necessary adjustments to them by reconciling the seemingly contradicting ideas, discard only what is regarded to be against established principles in the Qur’an and hadiths and retain what is not. With this, the ideas can remain beneficial to Muslims and its potential harm can be contained.

Thirdly, a Muslim, when striving for the progress of the Muslim ummah via learning from other people, should not fall into the mistake of total abandonment of his own roots and traditions on the pretext that they are outdated or absolete or the reason for their backwardness. It must be noted that the West does not throw away its past intellectual utlub ilm fi sintraditions in the name of progress and modernity. Cultural and traditional practices of Muslim communities must be preserved and continued as long as they do not contradict established principles of Islam and contemporary context. Just as Muslims should not accept everything from others wholesale, he should not also discard his tradition and culture totally for the sake of progress.

Fourthly, building on the third point, what is needed for Muslims is a critical mind when interacting with knowledge from non-Muslim sources, not a wholesale disregard. In fact being critical is a virtue that must be upheld in seeking knowledge regardless if it originates from Muslims or others because it is what the Qur’an teaches Muslim as exemplified by Angels and Prophets when receiving commands from God. They would ask, question, seek explanation and negotiate before the commandments become final.[8]

Fifthly, it is important to have a deep understanding of the context behind an idea/theory/proposition or the person who producing it before or when accepting it. This includes understanding differences between the original context and the context where they are applied, wether they are similar or totally different. Contextual understanding would help decide the suitability of an  idea/theory’proposition in a given context.  Equally important also is to decide on whether to continue with particular ideas in view of the changing context. This is because what is perceived to be good may not necessarily remain good forever.

Sixthly, when seeking beneficial knowledge from others, Muslim must give attention to the hierarchy of priorities concerning what is deemed to be benficial because not all that are beneficial to Muslim are of equal importance vis-à-vis the context and the problem faced.

Seventhly, enthuasism in seeking knowledge is a virtue but it should not make Muslims  become a mere consumer and receiver which translates into a Muslim who is engrossed and busied in seeking knowledge only and not in generating new ones. Equal efforts must be made to generate new knowledge or enhance it after years of learning. This equal emphasis would guarantee that today’s Muslims would also be contributing towards the generation of knowledge similar to what past Muslim scholars had achieved in history.house of wisdom

Finally, no efforts in this venture would be free from disagreements on what constitutes terms such as beneficial, right, wrong, best, wisdom etc. because, in most instances, they are a result of human intellectual endeavour that would produce diverse and differing views. Often it is always possible to have many rights, wrongs and wisdoms in academic endeavours, especially in the field of humanities and social sciences, Thus expecting consensus in such endeavour is unrealistic. As such the only opinion that is correct and the shiniest representation of the truth is one which is open and inclusive, respectful, able to “live and let live” with those who disagree and avoiding “absolutist” tendencies.




[1]See, “And so, [O man,] if thou art in doubt about [the truth of] what We have [now] bestowed upon thee from on high, ask those who read the divine writ [revealed] before thy time: [and thou wilt find that,] surely, the truth has now come unto thee from thy Sustainer. Be not, then, among the doubters.” (The Holy Qur’an, 10:94).

[2]See for examples;

  • “[Joseph] replied: “You shall sow for seven years as usual; but let all [the grain] that you harvest remain [untouched] in its ear, excepting only a little, whereof you may eat.” (The Holy Qur’an, 12:47).
  • “Said she: “Verily, whenever kings enter a country they corrupt it, and turn the noblest of its people into the most abject. And this is the way they [always] behave? Hence, behold, I am going to send a gift to those [people], and await whatever
    the envoys bring back.” (The Holy Qur’an, 27:34-5).
  • “Said one of the two [daughters]: “O my father! Hire him: for, behold, the best [man] that thou couldst hire is one who is [as] strong and worthy of trust [as he]!”” (The Holy Qur’an, 28:26).

[3]See, “But [the hoopoe] tarried but a short while; and [when it came] it said: “I have encompassed [with my knowledge] something that thou hast never yet encompassed [with thine] – for I have come to thee from Sheba with a tiding sure!” (The Holy Qur’an, 27:22).

[4]See, “Said a bold one of the invisible beings [subject to Solomon]: “I shall bring it to thee ere thou rise from thy council-seat – for, behold, I am powerful enough to do it, [and] worthy of trust!” (The Holy Qur’an, 27:39).

[5]See, “And so, [O man,] if thou art in doubt about [the truth of] what We have [now] bestowed upon thee from on high, ask those who read the divine writ [revealed] before thy time: [and thou wilt find that,] surely, the truth has now come unto thee from thy Sustainer. Be not, then, among the doubters.” (The Holy Qur’an, 10:94).

[6]“A form of business contract in which one party brings capital and the other personal effort. The proportionate share in profit is determined by mutual agreement. But the loss, if any, is borne only by the owner of the capital, in which case the entrepreneur gets nothing for his labour.”, in Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance, Mudharabah in Syariah Ruling, at http://www.islamic-banking.com/mudarabah_sh_ruling.aspx (8 May 2018).

[7]“The traditional compensation due for the shedding of blood.” in Encyclopedia of Britanica, Diyah, at https://www.britannica.com/topic/diyah (8 May 2018).

[8]See for examples;

  • “And lo! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: “Behold, I am about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it.” They said: “Wilt Thou place on it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed blood -whereas it is we who extol Thy limitless glory, and praise Thee, and hallow Thy name?” [God] answered: “Verily, I know that which you do not know.” (The Holy Qur’an, 2:30).
  • “And, lo, Abraham said: “O my Sustainer! Show me how Thou givest life unto the dead!” Said He: “Hast thou, then, no faith?” (Abraham) answered: “Yea, but [let me see it] so that my heart may be set fully at rest.” Said He: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee. then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee. And know that God is almighty, wise.” (The Holy Qur’an, 2:260).
  • “And when the fear had left Abraham, and the glad tiding had been conveyed to him, he began to plead with Us for Lot’s people.” (The Holy Qur’an, 11:74).







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