بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
All praise is due to Allah, The All-Knowing, All-Wise. May the best benedictions and peace be upon His Messenger, Muhammad, who was sent as a guide to all peoples in all times. To proceed:
This essay intends to look at “The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The American Scholar” was an oration given at Cambridge on August 31, 1837 in which Emerson encouraged the listeners to be men of deep thought and not just those who mimic the thoughts of others. This essay will look at portions from the essay and then offer an Islamic insight for the American Indigenous Muslim. This text is entitled:
The Role of Scholarship
In the Indigenous Community
Wm. Halim Breiannis
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? But the old oracle said, ‘All things have two handles: beware of the wrong one.’ In Life, too often, the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege. …
“…The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it a new arrangement of his own mind and uttered it again. It came to into him, life; it went out from him truth….Love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue, instantly, the book becomes noxious; the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry if it is disparaged….Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. …
“…Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use?…They are for nothing but to inspire….It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same reads. …
“Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit….Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth….Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not. …
“…I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake….When thoughts are no longer apprehended , and books are weariness, – he has always the resource to live. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. …
“…The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances….These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry….Free should be the scholar, – Free and Brave. The world is his who can see through its pretension….See it to be a lie and you have already dealt it it’s mortal blow….Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. …
“…If there be one lesson more than another which should pierce his ear, it is, the world is nothing…We walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds….A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”
These great words serve, themselves, as a starting point for our own contemplations, bringing home the point not to rely upon them as they are but read them, ponder them, and then give them life through your own understanding and implementation. Still, it is these words we will look at in the context of our living Islam in our own lands.
From what can be taken from this is the role of books in our time, and by books we can include any medium by which knowledge is recorded and transmitted. The books of knowledge serve to offer up a foundation from which an individual’s personal understandings and perspectives develop before becoming manifest in action. When books become the aim, when the knowledge within a book is understood as sought for its own sake, an error has been made and the disease of ignorance will be born from stagnation. The only possible exception to this is the Qur’an itself, yet still, Allah says about it,
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ قَدْ جَاءَتْكُم مَّوْعِظَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ
وَشِفَاءٌ لِّمَا فِي الصُّدُورِ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ
“O mankind! There has come to you a good advice from your Lord
and a healing for that in your breasts, – a guidance and a mercy for the believers.”
The Qur’an is a book of guidance, to be internalized and acted upon. A book by which we mold our world view and perspectives according to the revealed word of our Lord. The books of the sunnah too are books of guidance, to be read, understood and applied, as Allah informed us,
لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا
“Indeed in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example to follow
for him who hopes in Allah and the Last Day
and remembers Allah much.”
The purpose of the books is to transmit knowledge. The purpose of that knowledge is to transform individuals. The books of our traditional scholars, amongst the Salaf (the earliest generations) and the Khalaf (the later generations), the lectures and articles from our contemporary scholars – all of it – is to be used to build a foundation from which to become. Allah, the Mighty and Majestic, has honored some from His servants, such as Imam Ghazali, Imam An-Nawaawi, Ibn Taymiyya, ibn Katheer, Imam Suyuti, and Al-Hafidh Ibn Hajjar Al-Asqalani, amongst others…not only blessing them to write prolifically on a wide array of aspects of Islam, not only preserving those writings through time, but also causing those efforts to be widely accepted by the Ummah. It would be foolish to state, as Emerson mentioned in relation to Cicero, Locke and Bacon, that they were but men as we are men but it is far from foolish to think that we stop at these men or their works. The aim the “Ihya Uloomu-D-Deen” or “Riyadhu-S-Saliheen” is not simply to be read, studied and re-read but rather to be applied so as to transform the life of the reader. The aim of “Nukhbatu-l-Fikar” is not only to be studied and understood but to be applied as one enters into the living sunnah as found in Hadith literature. The point is not to stop at what is contained within a book or a lecture but to gain an understanding so as to utilize that foundation of knowledge when we negotiate our way through life.
Ultimately, that is the point – that the knowledge one attains is understood well, internalized and acted upon. And this is regardless of how much or how little one attains. This is as the British Philosopher, Herbert Spencer, said, “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” There is a rich history of this sentiment in Islam. In the Quran we find Allah criticizing the rabbis, comparing them to donkeys which carry tomes but do not benefit from them (62:5). Khateeb Al-Baghdadi compiled an entire book of reports dedicated to this entitled, “Knowledge Mandates Action”. The point of reading, listening, memorizing and learning is only that one acts upon what they receive.
After this, a beautiful point is brought to bear. All of the superficial trappings mean nothing if one does not live accordingly. If one’s words, deeds and character do not display truth then what good is the certificates from the best universities, ijaaza from the most prominent scholars, fame and positions hoisted upon one’s shoulders? To have a good character with little knowledge is of more benefit than to have much knowledge with bad character. The highest of course is to join the two as the point of learning is to become refined as one journeys nearer and nearer to their Lord. What kind of man, let alone a scholar, does not act uprightly according to what they know? How can one claim to truly know that which they have yet to manifest in their lives? This is as Imam Ash-Sha’abi said, “the true person of understanding is the one who, when he learns, he acts.”
Emerson then mentioned, in so many words, that the role of the scholar is to be a living example of the lessons. People will benefit much more from a display of the lessons than hours of lectures. But in order to fulfill this role as an exemplar of truth, the person of knowledge must be brave and free. This is of the utmost importance in this age, here in our lands. One must not be a puppet manipulated at the purse strings nor should they be so cowardly as to follow the latest politically correct tripe. We find Imams and scholars condoning the celebration of the holidays of disbelievers, Imams and scholars instituting “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies in their masajid, Imams and scholars who can not make political statements or speak out against clear evils because of the risk to their tax exempt status’. After spending years in Islamic universities, sacrificing time, energy and wealth to learn the deen, we then find Imams and scholars acting directly contrary to what they have learned…even getting interest bearing loans to establish masajid. A person of knowledge is not one who has spent years at the feet of scholars only to disobey Allah, rather, it is the person who has learned even one thing but strives to give it life.
This world is worthless. It is a transient stage every human passes through on his journey to eternity. If one clings to it, yearning for it, how can they not go astray? On the other hand, one who remembers that they will be judged according to the choices they make, their actions, how can they not take every advantage to store up good for their accounting? The souls of every human has been inspired by the Divine, as He said,
فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا
“…Then He inspired it (the soul) as to that which would corrupt it
And that which will serve to protect it”
Our duty, as the indigenous community, the community looked upon as an example of what we profess to be The Truth (Capital T), is to learn and then embody this Truth in order to serve as a transformative force in our communities. It is not enough that one simply reads or listens, each must strive to understand well and then boldly live accordingly; brave due to confidence in our certainty that what we have is the Truth from our Lord; fearless as we hope from our Lord, realizing this life and it’s beguilements hold nothing for us but opportunities to please Him. And so we must take up this struggle, put forth the effort and work diligently according to what we know, allowing the Truth to transform us so that we can in turn transform our families, our friends, our communities and the societies we have been borne from. This is our duty, and this is why I have chosen this essay with which to begin…it is not enough to learn, we must act.