In his contribution to the anthology Progressive Muslims, the perceptive Ebrahim Moosa suggests that we need to ask some ‘uncomfortable questions’ about Islam. ‘If we do not, then the responsibility of learning and faith has gone unanswered.’ Moosa’s essay, entitled ‘The debts and burdens of critical Islam’, begins by outlining the recurring struggle for contemporary reformist Muslims – how to combine respect for traditionalist interpretations of Islam with modernist ambitions to bring about a longed-for revival of Islam. The risks, according to him, are that modernists and traditionalists might fall into two common traps. The first, ‘textual fundamentalism’, results in the quest for picayune doctrinal precedents to justify ‘proper’ Islamic responses to contemporary problems. The second, the strategy of ‘purposive interpretations’, runs the danger of emptying Islam’s sacred texts of historical context in the zeal to craft novel solutions to modern problems, distorting their content in the process.
How might we take up Moosa’s call for Muslims to ask ‘uncomfortable questions’ about Islam as a ‘responsibility of learning and faith’? How might Muslims respond to knowledge that challenges or contradicts dominant understandings of Islam? At first glance, this concern might appear moot, given the primacy that Islamic thought has always given to ilm – a term that synthesises what English speakers would understand as knowledge, wisdom, ethics, and action. Does ilm not already integrate the need for Muslims to ask ‘uncomfortable questions’ as a religious obligation?
In reality, these noble ideals of ilm are not always borne out in practice. Many Muslims have found injurious ways of betraying the ideals of ilm – not merely through passive ignorance, but by perpetuating systemic denial about some of the core issues confronting Muslim societies. Ignorance is, of course, a phenomenon that is present in all populations and societies, not just Muslim contexts. But each community has its own collective habits of thinking that produce specific modes of ignorance. Inspired by Moosa, I’d like to pursue some uncomfortable questions about the relationship between ilm and ignorance from a Muslim perspective by focusing on one big challenge facing humanity – the crisis of climate change. Ilm needs to be reimagined and reimagined ilm can help us cope with the climate crisis. But contemporary understandings of ilm are deeply intertwined with ignorance and must be liberated.
The motifs around ilm have been discussed by many past and present Muslim thinkers. But what possibilities do these conceptions of ilm open for tackling ignorance?