From Southeast Asia comes a voice of reason hard to ignore. His name is Haji Abdul Malik bin Abdul Karim Amrullah, better known as Hamka (d. 1981). He wrote, talked and worked for Muslim reform within the Archipelago. His life has been etched by a number of biographies. The most recent from Khairudin Aljunied is titled: Hamka and Islam: Cosmopolitan Reform in the Malay World. ‘Hamka built upon the reformist legacy of making apparent the crisis of thought in Muslim minds,’ observes Aljunied, 

but rather than dealing with symptoms as exhibited in the practice of taqlid among Southeast Asian Muslims, Hamka directed his attention to the root of the problem: ‘the stagnant mind’ (akal yang beku). By ‘the stagnant mind,’ he meant a type of mind that was not able to think critically, logically, or rationally to address issues pertaining to life and faith. Muslims with stagnant minds came from all walks of life, from the scholarly class to the laity. They accepted everything that had been taught to them by their teachers, and were unable to think creatively or to interrogate their inherited beliefs and traditions. Their inactive minds brought about sloppiness and unoriginality in their writings, their speeches, and their conversations. ‘And when stagnancy (pembekuan) happens, the understanding of religion becomes rigid and the light that shines from it becomes dim.’ …Hamka went further to argue that Muslims with stagnant minds can be categorised into two main groups: those characterised by simple ignorance (jahil basit) and those characterised by compound ignorance (jahil murakab). Jahil basit persons are ignorant because of their lack of experience and socialisation. This group could be enlightened through teaching and reminding, since they are usually open to knowledge, learning, and reasoning. Jahil murakab are ignorant yet too proud to learn anything from anyone. Hamka was convinced that members of the second group were dangerous because their lack of knowledge coupled with their arrogance would lead them astray along with others who followed their path. He wrote that the ignorance of the second group ‘may be likened to walls that would always hinder man from reaching their objectives, especially in thinking about pertinent issues’.

There is a long legacy of attention to ignorance, both simple and compound, in Islamic intellectual history. Franz Rosenthal, a noted philologist and intrepid translator, evokes ‘compound ignorance’ from several sources as follows:

We often hear scholars castigate the ‘compound ignorance’ defined as 
a person’s not knowing that he does not know. Human failure with regard 
to the possession of comprehensive knowledge was most commonly and 
universally acknowledged by the constant repetition of the command to 
admit one’s ignorance, if such was the case. ‘Saying, “I do not know”,
constitutes one half of knowledge’ is both a Prophetical tradition and 
a saying found in Graeco-Arabic wisdom literature. The phrase most 
widely recommended for use was to add ‘I do not know’. Aristotle was 
described as saying that he was so fond of using it that he used it also 
in cases where he possessed the required knowledge. No educational 
device is omitted to hallow its constant employment. A somewhat 
less explicit admission of doubt and ignorance is the use of the phrase 
Allah a’lam, ‘God knows better (best)’. The hadith commands: ‘It 
constitutes part of knowledge to say, if one has no knowledge, Allah 

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.


Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: