Recently The Quran Institute [TQI] begun enrolment for a course studying an objective overview of Western Civilisation, its philosophy and influential thinkers. Many Muslims were quite interested in this course, and it is surely a pioneering project that not many Islamic Institutes have been known to offer.
However I was asked by one person who told me that someone they knew expressed reservations about the course, and was wondering what benefit it would be for Muslims to study the West as a distinct civilisation, and its cultural and intellectual products, worldviews and origins. This person was concerned that this course would introduce doubts into the minds of Muslims by teaching them about foreign ideas, or ways of thinking that would make them apply it to Islam and find it wanting.
Both these perspectives are mistaken.
The quick answer is, If Islam is all we need to know, why does the Quran talk about Christianity, Judaism, Polytheism and Ancient Egypt?
The Quran (and Sunnah of the Prophet [SAAW]) spends a lot of effort to explain to the reader the beliefs of Christians, Jews and [Arabian] Polytheists. For example the Christian belief in the Trinity is explained in its essential form, in the Quran.
Why do Muslims need to know about the Trinity when we have Tawheed (Absolute monotheism and divine unity)?
Why do Muslims need to know about the Christian belief in the incarnation of God on earth as “Jesus”?
Why do Muslims need to know that the Polytheists believe in divine intercessors?
Why do Muslims need to know the arguments of Atheists, and the rejection of bodily resurrection in an afterlife?
Why do Muslims need to know the stories of Abraham and Yusuf and Moses and the Kings (and later Pharoahs) of Ancient Egypt?
Why do Muslims need to know about the “lifestyle-choices” of the city of Prophet Lut (SAAW)?
Why do Muslims even need to know about a military victory (and therefore a political matter) between the Romans and the Pre-Islamic Persians??
The author of the Quran seems to judge that we need to know, and I have it on good authority that He (SWT) knows what is good for us and what isn’t.
So what is the wisdom behind the Quran (and the Hadith) telling Muslims about these parts of history outside Prophetic period of Muhammed [SAAW] and Muslim history of his Ummah?
The reason is quite straightforward.
How can Muslims be witnesses to the truth, to mankind, if we don’t know what the rest of mankind believes?
If the Prophet Muhammed (SAAW) didn’t know about Judaism, how would he have ever been able to convince many Arab Jews in Arabia to become Muslim?
Likewise, if the Prophet Muhammed (SAAW) had not known of (and had not the Quran discussed) Christianity, how would he ever have been able to debate a Christian delegation from Najran?
The purpose of studying history is to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors, and learn what made them successful. The Quran (and Sunnah) is replete with histories of people who denied, defied, deride, or conversely, even deified some Prophets. These are all important lessons that the author of the Quran (SWT) judged that we needed to know, to avoid making the same mistakes.
Can you guide someone who is lost if you don’t know where they are? How can we orient ourselves politically in our collective work if we don’t know or understand the peoples of other nations, tribes and their cultures and belief systems?
For example, because the Muslims understood that the Just Christian leadership of Abyssinia were unlike the Christian leadership of the (Eastern) Roman Empire, and so they treated them differently , and even sought refuge with them from persecution.
If Muslims didn’t know about Christian beliefs and the culture of the Abyssinians, they wouldn’t have been able to deftly appeal to their values of justice in front of the Pagan Arab emissaries – who demanded the Muslim refugees be turned over to them for “punishment”.
Furthermore, Muslims knowing about the reality of the horde-like migrations of warlike pagan Turkic tribes from the Steppes of Central Asia, would explain why the Prophet (SAAW) advised Muslims not to disturb them, unless they attacked first .
The Christian hegemony of the (Eastern) Roman Empire no longer exists. However, the inheritors of the (Western) Roman Empire still exist, and they are the descendants (or invading pagan Germanic inheritors) of the Christians at the time of Muhammed (SAAW). They’ve change quite radically since then, and studying Christianity or Judaism alone, simply won’t have the same usefulness it once did 1,300 years ago, when Muslim scholars began writing the first detailed polemic against Christians, or Muslim Caliphs organising the first diplomatic, political (and sometimes military) engagements with the “franji” (Frankish peoples, i.e. Western europeans).
Therefore the study of the Western civilisation is no more useless, or fraught with dangers of doubt, as it was when the Quran and Sunnah explained Christianity, Judaism and the realities of Polytheism to the first Muslims.
In essence, the study of Western civilisation is necessary to update the Muslims on the directions that the descendants of the Christians, Jews, Atheists and those influenced by them in colonialism (Hindus, Buddhists etc) went after the time of the Prophet Muhammed (SAAW). Secular Liberalism, for example, is sometimes explained as the political system that Protestant Christianity produced.
Likewise, Muslims have not been detached observers from political events in the last 300 years, and many have succumbed to secularism and liberalism, believing it to be universal and rational – just like their counterparts amongst the Jews and Christians have. If you haven’t studied history, you won’t know that this has happened before, when many Jews living in a post-Greco-Roman world succumbed to hellenic culture like the Sadducees, and even religion (including polytheism) like the Misyavnim (Hebrew lit. “those who make themselves like the Greeks”). Likewise many Greeks/Romans who believed in Jesus’s teaching after Jesus, adapted it to the prevailing cultures of Roman pagan ideas of incarnated gods, and Greek philosophy and metaphysics of divine creation using Logos, producing Roman Catholic Christianity.
If any read Ancient Egyptian (or Ancient Greek) mythology, you look back at it and scoff. But those very same ideas were actually believed as fact, and even held to be universally true. Egyptians didn’t believe in the term “human rights”, they believed in “Maat”, which they held to be universal idea of balance, order, morality, ethics and justice (under their gods). If Muslims lived back then, as a minority in Ancient Egypt, no doubt some of them would’ve written books on “The compatibility of Maat with Islam”. calling themselves “reformers”.
But you won’t find any Muslim writing such books today, because we understand Ancient Egypt is a distinct civilisation with its own worldview, culture and religion that formed in that region due to circumstance particular to itself (although ultimately all civilisations were influenced or sent Prophets until their teachings became corrupted or forgotten over time). Likewise, in today’s world, we need an objective look at Western civilisation – as if we were time travellers from the future looking back at a historical time period. Only then will be realise the truth about our reality, and understand Islam all the better, by contrasting it with what it is not.
Therefore the benefit in studying non-Islamic beliefs and religions (as well as different civilisations) is:
1) Knowing someone’s belief allows you to call them to the Truth of Islam.
2) Learning about past and present civilisations, and communities of belief, allows us to learn lessons about how not to replicate their mistakes, misconceptions and false assumptions about the universality of their ideas and world-views. This allows us to identify where we have inadvertently adopted these same ideas, and allow us to recognise this. This is especially necessary when they have had profound influence on Muslim culture and thinking in recent history.
3) Knowing about a people, their history, origins, culture and worldview allows you to formulate strategies to politically engage with them, whether collaborating in good works with them, or opposing injustice amongst/from some of them.
For those interested in the objective study of Western Civilisation, its beliefs, history, origins and thinkers, course, please see here: http://thequran.institute/occidentology/
Abu Sukainah reported: The Prophet (SAAW), said, “Leave the Abyssinians alone as long as they leave you alone, and leave the Turks alone as long as they leave you alone.”
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4302, Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to As-Suyuti