Self Knowledge & Knowledge of Others

In the name of our Creator Allah, the Merciful, the Beneficent


1  Preface


1.1     Self-knowledge and knowledge of others


Q2:269  and whoever is granted wisdom has indeed been granted wealth abundant.


The treasure of knowledge gathered by our ancestors, which is the collective heritage of mankind, is vast. It represents the cumulative effort of generations over centuries. No human can hope to acquire more than a small fragment of this treasure. No human can subject more than a very small percentage of this heritage to critical examination. This means that a vast proportion of what I know and what you know is received knowledge which we have accepted without questioning. The knowledge that we have is strongly conditioned by the streams of history in which we live, but we are largely unaware of this. This creates a dilemma: we have no choice but to trust the cumulative body of received knowledge, yet there is always the possibility of systematic and widespread errors in this body of knowledge. If nearly everybody around us believes that the earth is flat, or that white races are superior to others, it is very hard for us to avoid such errors. There are two strategies which are effective in liberating us from the strands of the history that bind us. One is the study of the history of thought: studying how an idea emerged and how it was fashioned by the forces of history and vice-versa leads to substantial clarity and insight.  A second strategy is to study the worldviews of those who have lived in a different stream of history and therefore come to a different way of understanding the world. Just as a mirror allows us to see our own face, so an alternative coherent worldview illuminates and clarifies our own worldview. ‘Seeing ourselves as others see us’ permits insights which are not possible from purely internal dialogues and discussions.


Divergent historical events have led to great differences between ways of viewing the world in European thought and in the Islamic world. These differences lead to misunderstandings and hostility, which are currently the source of conflicts and misery for large numbers of human beings in the Islamic world and outside of it. One major goal of this survey is to present Islamic views on how to arrange economic affairs in a society to a Western audience. I will focus on the contrasts between Islamic and Western views and show that there are coherent alternatives to prevalent and dominant Western views on the subject. This is subordinate to the larger goal of creating better understanding and sympathy across the cultural divide, in the hope that this will improve the conditions of human beings living on this planet. I also hope that understanding Islamic views, which closely match pre-modern Western views, will provide deeper insights into some essential but largely forgotten aspects of the Western heritage, as well as a better understanding of the roots of the numerous attempts to construct alternatives to modernity currently under way in the West.


Some methods and style of discourse utilized below are adapted to these goals, which are different from those of a typical academic paper. Excessive attention to detail would distract from the goal of providing a panoramic description of a coherent and integrated alternative worldview. From among a complex and diverse set of Islamic views, I have often picked one or two for the sake of maintaining consistency across a broad spectrum of issues to be discussed. I have similarly chosen certain ‘Enlightenment’ perspectives to represent Western views, as these views offer the maximum contrast with the Islamic views. This approach is subject to the well-known weaknesses of the technique of ‘binary opposition’, but it serves my purpose here of sketching a coherent Islamic view on economic affairs with a minimum of brush strokes. I apologise in advance to both Eastern and Western readers with heterodox views who feel misrepresented by the sketchy characterizations offered of both poles of a binary opposition. Points of view offered as ‘Islamic’ below are supported by Islamic source texts and held by substantial numbers of Muslims, but are not necessarily majority or dominant views. A similar warning should be kept in mind for views labelled ‘Western’, by which I usually mean views emerging out of the Enlightenment project of rejecting religion and tradition, and relying on observations and logic as the sole source of trustworthy knowledge.


A peculiar aspect of knowledge is that one who does not have it does not know what he or she does not have. A non-mathematician will not be thrilled by the elegance of the Law of the Iterated Logarithms, will not be able to differentiate between trivial and deep results, appreciate subtleties, or evaluate the relative skill of experts and separate them from charlatans. Even more, that person will not be able to assess the difference that possession of such knowledge will make to his or her own life.  Views like those of Macaulay’s that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”, cannot easily be refuted. The effort required to acquire alien types of knowledge will not be made by those who do not appreciate the value of this type of knowledge. Without investment of substantial time and effort, appreciation of a complex and sophisticated alien structure of knowledge cannot be acquired. Once acquired, it cannot be easily conveyed to others, especially to those disdainful about the value of such knowledge. The Arabic word for `student’ translates to ‘seeker of knowledge’ and an attitude of humility, as well as the desire or passion to acquire knowledge and to value it above all things, are essential characteristics for a student in the Islamic tradition.