Seeking Knowledge Society

Towards a Relevant and Empowering Understanding of Islam

513886821_7f1e9b0833_o On June 28, 2010 readers were encouraged to comment on how to apply the advice of the following translated piece from the writings of Jamaal al-Din al-Afghani:

“He, The Most High, showed us through His clear verses that nations He has honored do not perish or fall from greatness. Their names are also not erased from the tablet of existence, except by their deviation from the ways Allah established on the foundation of extensive wisdom. Allah does not change a condition of a people to honor, authority, luxury, living, safety and comfort, until those people change what is in themselves – through illumination of the mind, soundness of thought, and depth of vision; from taking lessons from the actions of Allah with previous nations, and reflecting on the situation of those who joined forces against the path of Allah – for they were destroyed – and those who neglected the practice of justice, and left the path of insight, resolution and wisdom – for they were ruined.

Unite together in commitment to righteous work, truthfulness of speech, soundness of the heart, chastity in the face of desires, and protection of truth, standing for its victory, and cooperating in its protection!”

As there were literally no comments in response 🙂 a number of us felt it might be beneficial to highlight some reflections in a separate, shorter, more casual piece. I hope insha’Allah, by sharing some thoughts on this piece, we can all take a moment to reflect internally on our own understanding of Islam.

I found it very interesting in thinking about the times that al-Afghani lived in, as he witnessed the colonization efforts in the Muslim world, that he was able to point a finger inwardly at the ummah itself and ask, “What are we doing wrong?” Subhan’Allah, after he expressed the pain and anguish that everyone feels in witnessing “the fallen condition” he called proactively to taking steps in “changing what is in ourselves.”

The first thing he says we need is: illumination of the mind, soundness of thought, and depth of vision. Al-Afghani  emphasizes the subject of our own understanding three times – the power of our minds is at the core of our reform. Before even sincerity and struggle, he emphasizes the significance of our understanding and insight. It reminded me of how our teachers would emphasize that sincerity and spirituality founded on the wrong understanding of Islam is not enough. Activism and struggle with the wrong understanding of Islam is dangerous. When otherwise religious and practicing Muslims are experiencing serious issues of failure in their efforts, one of the first places to look at reevaluating is their Islamic Understanding.

Our teachers would also emphasize the difference between information and understanding. Someone can have memorized much while understand very little. As such, the difference between fahm (understanding) and`ilm (knowledge), can be the difference between success and failure, when it comes to applying our Islamic references to guide and solve challenges in the real world. Even the word Faqih (Islamic Legal Jurist) comes from the root faquha which means to understand so deeply that understanding becomes second nature to the person. The idea of ‘baseera’ or ‘vision’ is also significant. The very word implies having extra understanding and insight. How does one person have more ‘baseera’ than their peer? Subhan’Allah, baseera is a blessing – something Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) gives to some people.

When I reflect on what previous scholars have mentioned, I find that there are a number of components that are always echoed when it comes to attaining an inspired understanding:

  1. Sincerity in only seeking His Face, while making du`a’ for increased guidance and understanding.
  2. True Love for the sake of Allah for the people we hope to genuinely help and empower through Islamic values and teachings. (Remember that the Prophets loved their people, and our Prophet’s ﷺ title was ‘Mercy to the Universe,’ this includes Muslims, non-Muslims, plants and animals.)
  3. Extensive research and sacrifice in seeking all related beneficial knowledge with an open yet justly critical mind, and,
  4. Experience in dealing with the people and knowing deeply the subtleties of their situation.
  5. Being practitioners of the truth that we preach to others in worship, in embodying excellence in noble character, and in patient perseverance in hard collective work.

Looking at the rest of the bolded text (as well as some of his other writings) al-Afghani himself also points to the significance of these points. Subhan’Allah, there are clearly many in our ummah who try to practice these points and end up with very different conclusions, with very different understandings. That’s why al-Afghani’s call to look at history is really interesting. He wants to see who Allah (swt) gave victory and success to… What were their qualities? What type of understanding did they have? Students and activists all around the world are hoping desperately to be of those who practice the best understanding of Islam for their times, so they can be a source of healing and light for the world they live in. The Qur’an itself points to the fact that there is a concept of increased guidance.


“And Allah increases those who were guided, in guidance…” (19:76)

Therefore we can be better than we are now. We can be more guided as individuals and as a community, insha’Allah.

When I think about al-Afghani’s advices and applying them today in my own context, I have to wonder what are we – the “religious practicing Muslims” doing wrong? While I am actually generally very optimistic and positive about how Muslim communities in the West are progressing and growing in maturity, I still know inside that we can be doing much better. We have the potential, the freedom of mobility and action, and the resources for exponential growth. I have heard estimates that say only 5% of the Muslim community actually attend the masajid in America. And from that 5% how many of those people (young and old) are involved with drugs, and other forms of addiction or live in terrible family circumstances such that they are inhibited from educating and developing themselves holistically and contributing positively? There are so many non-Muslims out there, who accept tawheed (The Unity of God), accept Jesus as a Prophet, declare that they are searching for religion, even saying “I think Muhammad ﷺ was a Prophet,” and yet end with, “but I don’t know if I want to be a Muslim.” They hang around the MSAs, even come to Friday Prayers, but then disappear without a trace. In times of peace and freedom in Islamic history, dating from the Madini period, the unrestricted peaceful da`wah of Islam is meant to grow in waves, with the blessing of Allah (swt) as He states:


“And you see the people entering into the religion of Allah in waves.” (110:2)

I think about where our waves are. We have a handful of communities who really do have a remarkable impact while others seem to have waves leaving the masjid. Our situation reminds me of Dr. Sherman Jackson’s statement, “The greatest threat to any religion is apathy born of irrelevance.” I was inspired by Tariq Ramadan’s Radical Reform (which I didn’t find very radical and would humbly re-title The Case for Context (al-Waaqi‘) in Modern Islamic Jurisprudence and Transformational Reform). There is a statement he makes in the introduction that I hope we can think about: “What is required is not, in each scientific field, to try to adapt to social and scientific evolutions, but rather to offer an ethical contribution, more soul, humanity, and positive creativity to societies, to the sciences, and to human progress.”

Another important aspect to this work is how he doesn’t use the term “Sacred Knowledge.” Perhaps you have seen the term used to identify students of Islamic Studies before, yet in reflecting on this term, I find that despite its positives, it can be misleading, limiting, and possibly even disempowering to our community. First, there is no Arabic equivalent, so it is a mistranslation of ilm. I have never heard in Al-Azhar or else-where any references to “al-`ilm al-muqaddas” which is what “sacred knowledge” would be in Arabic. Second, the Prophet ﷺ taught us to pray for ‘beneficial’ knowledge. Third, fiqh and tafsir are not sacred nor are they absolute though they may derive from sacred and absolute sources. They are human endeavors, even by their own Arabic definitions. They are fields that deserve much respect, but they are not ‘sacred’ like the Qur’an is. This is important because it means that the ‘student of knowledge’ is one who seeks ‘benefit’ for humanity be they from Al-Azhar studying Fiqh, or Harvard studying Psychology – and ideally we would love for Azhar to “meet” Harvard. It is no wonder that scholars of fiqh in the past were also experts in sociology, astronomy, chemistry, business and other sciences. While the scholars of old are reported to have lectured to thousands, to crowds, to waves of people – I cannot help but think what stops thousands from flocking to the Western masajid today where people are free to come?

Islam, during its better times in history, was understood in such a comprehensive way and the purpose was so absorbed, that they lived in a state of experiential iman, rather than just experiencing iman. Al-Afghani told us to look to the past, and when I do, I see that civilizations’ progress occurred by those who felt it was their duty to work and study for it, those who understood all truths discovered in the world are meant to be used for the ‘benefit’ of the people. I see historically entire non-Muslim nations who immigrated to Muslim lands so they could benefit from the ‘civilizational’ progress of the Muslims, and benefit from living amongst them. It wasn’t just about the waves of converts and waves of practicing Muslims, but also the waves of non-Muslims who found it in their own interests to live as neighbors to Muslims, because of the Muslim contribution to an ethics-based civilization. It means today that every educated Western Muslim in almost any field can potentially be a an active participant in creating ‘beneficial’ scholarship, contributing both to their field of study and to the people, creating related programs that help heal, and even positively transform society using Islamic ethics as their anchor. I am reminded of Dr. Ismail Faruqi’s (may Allah have mercy on his soul) project in the 1980’s, the “Islamization of Knowledge,” and reflect on what Dr. Heba Ezzat refers to as “Post-Islamization of Knowledge.” I think of Dr. Taha Jaabir al-Alwani’s emphasis on using Qur’anic principles in discovering modern solutions. There are clearly many others who have projects and praiseworthy efforts I have not mentioned due to space. It seems all of these people, who have various approaches are really trying to find an increased understanding of Islam for our times.

How is this all related? When I read al-Afghani’s call for baseera (vision), I think of two words “relevance” and “empowerment.” When I look at what Imams and thinkers today are emphasizing, and what scholars in the past practiced, I notice “relevance” and “empowerment.” When I look at what disenchanted young Muslims and interested-but-on-the-fence non-Muslims are calling for locally, and even what uninterested non-Muslims ask about, it has to do with the relevance of Islamic teachings and ethics in addressing current issues and the empowerment of local communities to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

So I can’t help but think that two essential ingredients for our articulation of Islam in the West in order to represent a better understanding of Islam are “relevance” and “empowerment.” Islam was meant to be relevant for all times. Islam was meant to empower people in all places. We have the legal flexibility to be relevant, and we have the Maqasid ash-Shariah (Greater Objectives of Islamic Law), Kulliyat al-Qu’ran (General Qur’anic Principles) and our volumes of Ahadith (Prophetic narrations) to guide our efforts in empowerment. The next step for you and me is to go back to our local masajid, organizations, and educational institutions and figure out a way for us to be genuinely more relevant and empowering (based on the five humbly suggested components of seeking baseera) to the communities we serve. Each of us has a responsibility to explore, study, experience, and give in a relevant and empowering way. May Allah (swt) grant us increased fahm and baseera so we may think, live, and work in the way that pleases Him the most. May we uphold the legacy of “Rahmatan lil Alameen” (Mercy to the Universe) in our times. May our understanding and actions bear testimony to the truth of our call. May we truly be ‘Witnesses for Mankind.’

About the author

Muslema Purmul

Muslema Purmul

Shaykha Muslema Purmul was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and raised in San Diego, California. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in the Study of Religion and a Bachelor’s in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of California at San Diego. She was a scholarship student with the Islamic American University and participated in the International Union of Muslim Scholars “Future Scholars Program” in 2008/2009. She has completed the Bachelor’s degree program in the College of Shari`ah at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Currently, she is a busy new mom and gives weekly classes at the Islamic Center of Irvine.

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  • Mashallah that was a great reflection Muslema!

    The whole time I was reading it I was thinking, “hmm…sounds like someone’s reading TR” and then I saw your reference to him 🙂

    That book is truly remarkable and very motivating. I have to disagree in terms of title choice though — I think the title is on point because I feel that a major reform is needed in terms of the “model” which Muslims use to practice activism in America (and elsewhere I suppose).

    When TR spoke recently in SoCal he mentioned a few things along those lines:
    – don’t confuse principles with models; principles are universal, and models can change
    – you need a model for your area (i.e. context)
    – we need to move past integration into contribution

    But you are absolutely right, relevance is key if we really want to make an impact and effect positive change.

    Thanks for this post! Inshallah we can have more like it in the future

    • Assalamu Alaikum Br. Omar,

      One more thing– the scholars have a statement “La mushahata fil istilaah”– basically,that there is no real dispute over the names of things 🙂 The book is a good read either way 🙂

      In terms of the book’s title– from an activist perspective– you might find what he is suggesting to be radically different than what you’ve experienced in the community because pple tend to choose ‘adaptation reform’ over ‘transformation reform.’

      But from an usul al-fiqh perspective, context or al-waaqi3 has historically always and long been a significant point of consideration for scholars. Using the hard and social sciences as a necessary means of understanding context for informing fiqh rulings is, in my humble opinion, not so radical, but rather the next step in the historical development of understanding and using al-waaqi3 in usul al-fiqh.

      Jzk also for your words of encouragement and beneficial comments!


  • Assalamu Alaikum Omar,

    Subhan Allah, Dr. Tariq Ramadan has some amazing points in his book, but this article is actually a reflection of many classes, readings, meetings and books from a wide variety of scholars and teachers of which Dr. Ramadan is one of them. There seems to be a general discussion moving in the direction of relevancy and empowerment in developing our Islamic Understanding with many great thinkers at the table. I think the discussion itself is a good sign for our ummah insha Allah.


  • Salam Muslema,

    Maybe you could share some of the other books/articles which helped you write this reflection as it would be of benefit to myself and I am sure others. Thanks!

    May God reward you

    • Assalamu Alaikum Omar,

      I apologize for the late reply– I recently noticed this– I had mentioned in the article thinkers’ names like Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Sherman Jackson, Dr. Heba Ezzat, Dr. Ismail Faruqi (rA), and Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani mostly because I think they are names people have maybe have heard of, but have not really read or sat with in discussion. There are really too many names to add to this list– for those who can understand Arabic, I recommend the International Union of Muslim Scholars website– they have lectures from a variety of scholars/thinkers including Dr. Mohammad Saleem al-Awwa, Dr. Mohammad Ammara, and more. Sheikh Salman Awda’s website, “Islam Today,” Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s books, and what you can find from Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah. Something nice to think about is that masha Allah, many of these names do not agree on a number of issues, but have the knowledge and tolerance to differ in a just and open-minded way.

      There are many other names, but my main focus is not so much to direct you to the exact people or books I have gotten to experience, but rather, to encourage people to seek ‘baseera’ and increased Islamic Understanding through the advices given 🙂


  • This is a great piece. JAK Muslema for the elaborated insight on Al-Afghani’s bolded quote. I was pleased to read the segment you had on ilm. In an effort to fit into a world of labels, divides and boxes, sometimes we tend to take terms/ideas, chisel away and store into a neatly fitted compartments. This is what the term ilm has been commonly reduced to in many circles. In an increasingly reductionist understanding of the world, sometimes we get stuck in the smaller components that make up that whole which we originally sought out to understand–taking away from our “depth of vision.”

    One social side-effect of this loss may be that we would end up with having highly specialized Muslims in specific fields/interests without the ability to bring it all together and use the accumulated ilm as a fuel to mobilize the Ummah in a positive direction. What we would have is scattered specialized Muslims in fields XYZ pointing fingers at the scholars/students of knowledge to solve all the problems of the Ummah because they have been studying–regardless of their field–under the illusion that their ilm was not a ‘sacred ilm’ that could serve to directly benefit our affairs. It is therefore very important to look as the word ilm [or words, ilmun nafi`un (beneficial knowledge)] as it was intended–as a means, not a goal– because it never stops. Looking at the term in a broader light “[illuminates] the mind” so that we can creatively work towards that which benefits our state as a whole.

    JAK for the much needed reminders and new points to reflect upon.

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