It was narrated by anonymous…

When I was studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this subject, proposing a concept of review and accreditation for popular Islamic publishing in the United Kingdom.

I have been reflecting on this recently after encountering several instances of individuals offering sincere advice to others on matters pertaining to our religion. There is nothing wrong with this of course; indeed it is commendable. What troubles me is that the advice is offered by people who care not to tell us their name. One would understand that someone in fear of his/her life or prosecution might seek refuge in anonymity, but each of the cases I have witnessed has been quite straight forward: the photographer receiving an anonymous letter warning him that his trade is haram; the commentary on nasheed culture published by a concerned anonymous Muslim; a writer given firm but kind advice by one who does not reveal his or her name.

Compare this to the enlightened days of our ummah. A reading certificate defined which books scholars could use, while a record of regular attendance was always kept by those promulgating books of hadith. Details were kept of who had listened to the entire book, who had joined in partially, which portions they missed, and the dates and location of the readings. The certificate was an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.(1) Muslims were so concerned about the preservation of knowledge that an entire science developed to determine the authenticity of hadith. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar wrote about the science of hadith: ‘It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information.’(2)

By contrast we do not know if the anonymous author is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where they obtained this knowledge and whether they have a reading certificate to accompany their advice. We simply do not know. Consequently I find myself pondering that question which I first asked six years ago. At the time – considering an Islamic heritage that placed great emphasis on the authentication of knowledge – I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also on the structures of peer review set up in the scientific and academic publishing industries.

In a society that argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths, the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection can obviously be considered an affront to the concept of freedom of speech – indeed, to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa. Two authors writing about publishing in Muslim countries almost a decade ago noted that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities, ‘set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.’(3)

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech would welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless. I was in favour, therefore, of the tradition which saw Islamic scholars confident of their role as guardians of knowledge. I noted that Rosenthal, writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, argued that there was little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas into what constituted Islamic knowledge.(4)

In an age in which the publishing medium has been democratised – the photocopier, the personal computer, desk top publishing and the Internet are all within our grasp – it is important that we keep our rich heritage in mind. The exacting sciences designed to preserve the teachings of Islam developed for a reason: to protect us as believers. When it is narrated that anonymous reported that an unnamed scholar forbade such and such, we know that it is not right. Let us honour those great men and women who passed before us who strove to safeguard knowledge for our benefit. We can start by putting those remarkable traditions into practice in our own lives.

(1) Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)(2) Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
(3) Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
(4) Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)

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