Of all the religions of the world, there is one religion that sanctified the role of the intellect. There is so much in our Islamic tradition that honors and elevates the role of the intellect in human affairs. The true nature of piety is not ignorance or obliviousness, but a fully engaged intellect that is disciplined in the path of God, wrestles with the challenges that thinking poses to human beings, and employs the gifts of the intellect in a relationship with God. It is easy to be dumb and pious. You can keep yourself ignorant and claim that you are the most pious person in the world, but your faith and piety are empty because they are based on absolutely nothing.
The intellect is the gift that God gave to Adam. The intellect is the very reason God commanded angels and jinn to bow before human beings in the story of creation. It is the intellect that makes human beings the inheritors of God on earth. It is the intellect that makes human beings worthy of carrying the covenant as God’s representatives on earth. But I am interested in how much of our own tradition Muslims are not aware of, and how much of the Islam that is often made available to Muslims is engineered so that it is stripped of its soul--the soul that, at one time in history, inspired Muslims to create a civilization in the world that was unlike any other at its time.
I’m going to share with you a report about the Prophet and the intellect; a report that, in my 30+ years in the United States, I have never heard cited or discussed. Often, when I would even attempt to discuss this hadith in Islamic centers, I would be met with resistance from the same people who claimed loyalty to the hadith. I still remember 30 years ago, when someone who is now a well-known Muslim, responded to this report by saying, “There is no intellect in Islam.” This report is considered authentic by the standards of traditional hadith transmission. You can easily find it in a number of books of hadith.
The Prophet is reported to have told one of his honored companions, “To everything, there is a central motor that allows it work and allows it to be. And the true motor of the believer is the intellect. And to everything there is a foundation, and the foundation of a believer is the intellect. And to everything, there is a pillar upon which it stands, and the pillar upon which Islam itself stands is the intellect. And to every person, there ought to be an objective. And the objective of the true believer is the intellect. And to every merchant, there is a commodity, and the commodity of diligent, striving Muslims is the intellect. And to every home, there are people that are responsible and accountable, and in the homes of the true believers, it is the intellect that holds everyone to account and that holds to which responsibility is owed. And to each people, there is a lineage and a genealogy, and for the true believers, their true lineage and genealogy is the intellect. And for every journey, there is a purpose, and the true purpose of the journey of a believer is the intellect.”
In another report, the Prophet was asked, ‘Who is the most knowledgeable of people?’ and he said, ‘The most rational. The person who has the greatest intellectual capacity.’ The Prophet was also asked, ‘Who is the best worshipper to God?’ to which he said, ‘The person who has developed their intellect.’ He was asked, ‘Who is the best of people?’ and again, the Prophet responded, ‘The rational person who has invested in their intellect.’ The Prophet then associates between the intellect and ethical character, because it is the truly rational human being that is capable of the greatest amount of good and the greatest amount of ethics.
So going back and assessing the first and second traditions, when the Prophet makes the intellect not just your objective as a human being, but tells you that the intellect is the pillar of the faith itself; that without the intellect, religion cannot be, what is the Prophet talking about? Is the Prophet talking about the type of intellect that can study empirical sciences? Is that the intellect upon which religion and piety is based? Partly, yes, to the extent that a truly rational, logical human being cannot withstand ignorance. In other words, if your field is medicine, you cannot be an intellect if you are ignorant of medicine. Beyond that, it has been pointed out through commentaries on this hadith that the Prophet is referring to the intellect that is not satisfied by habit, darkness, ignorance, culture and social mores; it is the intellect that understands ethical principle and virtue, that is able to reason from that as to what ethical reason and virtue entails in the life of a believer.
Mohammed al-Ghazali used to say that the idea of a Muslim that does not value the intellect as the foundation upon which piety rests is a contradiction. The idea of a believer who is ignorant is a contradiction, because a true believer would never shut down the role of the intellect. The role of the intellect, however, is severely underutilized when all it does is memorize. Memorizing a great deal of knowledge - including memorizing the Quran - is still a severely underutilized intellect. Intellect doesn't mean memorization, it means analysis and development; that you are able to take the data that you acquired and see what follows from that in a logical fashion. The idea of an Islam that is irrational within the standards of the system of knowledge of the time is contrary talk.
If you have memorized a lot of hadiths and the Quran but are not competent in the sciences and systems of knowledge of your day and age, you are disqualified because you lack intellect. Muslims fell behind when somehow, they bought into the idea that their religion - instead of demanding the systematic application of reasoning - rejects reason; that somehow, reason leads to the doors of shaytan. If you want to see the material consequences of that, go to almost any Islamic center. The minute you step into an Islamic center, you step into a bubble of irrationality. Someone could be the most rational human being in their profession, but the minute they step into an Islamic center, could start thinking in a bizarre and twisted fashion. It is as if reason, logic and sense are not required once you step into an Islamic space. It is as if, once we are in an Islamic space, we are ruled by the hadith, regardless of whether our understanding of the hadith leads to reasonable conclusions or not.
The Prophet told us that without proper application of reason, your taqwa is defective, your iman is defective and your claim that you are a Muslim who has submitted to God is defective. You lower the standards so you can master them. You don't win by doing what dictators do in the Middle East--eliminating their competition and then claiming themselves the winner. If your way to be pious is to eliminate everyone who could pose competition for the hearts and minds of people, that's not piety. That's simply egoism. A true Muslim is educated, rational and reasonable within the standards of the epistemology of the time. A true Muslim is not scared of knowledge or education, but understands the relationship between piety, reason, and virtue.
We don't teach our children that. In 30 years, I've never heard this hadith taught in an Islamic center. When I've tried to talk about it, I've always been met by someone who may not even study Islamic sciences and tells me that this hadith can’t be authentic. You tell them where this hadith is found in books, and they reply, "No, no, no. Can't be authentic." We have become a religion that turns people off because of its unreasonableness. We have failed the test of intellect - in explaining the reasonableness of what you claim religion demands. Don't blame people when they turn away because those who choose to speak for this religion are either people whose true field is not in Islamic sciences, or people who claim that there is no role for intellect. Our Prophet taught us to live in society through the virtues of intellect. We know from natural experience that we need intellect to go through school. We need intellect to make a living. We need intellect to raise our children. We need intellect to just live in society, in good standing.
Yet, when it comes to Islam, there's no role for intellect? The only religion that humanity has known that sanctified the intellect, to the extent of saying that the intellect is the foundation of being, is Islam. It is incoherent when you find Muslims in the state they are in now. They are people that are not ignited by their faith to demonstrate the wonders of God by writing in philosophy, sociology, anthropology and the sciences in the name of God, to say, "I am doing this because I am a Muslim. I am a distinguished philosopher because I am a Muslim, not because I look at Islam from a secular perspective." This is what we truly lack.
The revolution has to start with you. Don't expect your leadership to change. The doctors who have become accustomed to sitting on the board of directors of Islamic centers because of their donations – they are not going to change. The engineers that like to play Imam on Sunday and stand at the podium and blabber on about hadith they are not qualified to talk about – they are not going to change. The imam who took a shortcut to knowledge and flew to Azhar and learned Arabic, memorized a bunch of hadiths and some ayat, and declared themselves a jurist - they are not going to change.
What will change things is if you demand standards; if you say, "If you put yourself in a position of authority, you must address my reason. You must make sense. If you're not making sense, you're not qualified to sit where you are." Like the Prophet taught: As you are, your leaders will be. If you are losers, your leaders will be losers. If you are accomplished human beings, honor Islam and give it its due as the religion that liberated the intellect from the darkness of the Dark Ages. Then, God will give you leaders you deserve. As you are, you will be led.
The religion of reason - the religion of dignity - demands that a Muslim be an example of the civilized human being in every day and age. The Prophet taught us that Muslims are like a single body. If you hurt the arm, the entire body is in pain. Where is this logic when we see a country like Israel systematically killing, torturing and imprisoning our Muslim brethren, and occupying our Aqsa mosque, yet we open for Israel welcome doors in the Emirate and Bahrain? Where is the rationality when Israel and its supporters are the supporters of Islamophobia around the world, and we embrace Israel as a friend and ignore Islamophobia?
Where is the logic when our fellow Muslims in Cyprus had a conflict with Christians in Cyprus? Egyptian Muslims supported the Christians in Cyprus against the Muslims in Cyprus, which, ultimately ended in a massive genocide against Muslims in Cyprus.
As long as we have an authority that organizes the Hajj, we're fine? As long as the emir of Abu Dhabi hosts bin Bayyah, we're fine? As long as he builds the mosques and names it in the honor of Shaykh Al-Azhar, we're fine? What has gone wrong with the Muslim intellect? The corruption of the intellect is the kernel of the corruption of ethics. An irrational human being lacks mental capacity and a person who lacks mental capacity is often incapable of ethical choice. Mental capacity is a prerequisite for accountability and responsibility.
A couple of jumu’ahs ago, I made an angry comment about those who would object to a woman doing the adhan (call to prayer) and told those people I would discuss whether a woman's voice is awrah once they take care of priorities like liberating Al-Aqsa mosque. Is it irrational, when your ummah is falling apart around you everywhere, for you to occupy yourself with an issue like the awrah of a woman's voice?
In my view, part of what an irrational person displays is a lack of ability to engage priorities. Part of what a rational human being is, is the ability to prioritize. ‘Before I go out, I have to get dressed.’ That's priorities, that's what rational people do. If you reverse the process, ‘I'll go out naked first and then I'll get dressed,’ you lack mental capacity. If you're incapable of prioritizing, you are either lacking intelligence or lacking mental capacity. A huge part of intelligence is knowing how to prioritize. Someone could have the greatest ideas in the world, but if they don't know how to prioritize and present information, they lack competence.
I was disturbed by the number of people who gave my comments dislikes, not because I care about what people think about me, but because it disappointed me in this ummah. I received comments such as, ‘Get her to stop doing adhan first and then we'll liberate Al-Aqsa.’ My response? You lack priorities, you lack mental capacity, you are insane.
There is a more fundamental issue. So many Muslims do not know that we have a long tradition of Muslim women reciters of Quran and performers of adhan that goes back centuries. Today, you can find many women reciters all over the world, including Jennifer Grout of America and Madinah Javed of Scotland. Many people don't realize that the famous Oum Kalthoum started out as a reciter of Qur’an. Even long before Oum Kalthoum, Egypt had a very famous woman reciter. The tradition of women Qur’an reciters and adhan performers is very old.
The sad thing is the same Wahhabi Islam that vilified the idea of women reciting Qur’an or performing adhan is the same Islam that is now opening up bars in Mecca. Instead of a woman reciter, they invite Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. The Islam that has convinced you that a woman's voice is awrah is the Islam that has betrayed you, but you remain stupid and ignorant.
What is the whole thesis of a woman's voice being awrah based on? A single hadith that is unauthentic in every way. It says that the Prophet passes a woman singing and tells her to stop. But with that, you have numerous reports about the sahaba women teaching, and a long tradition of women reciting Qur’an and performing adhan.
Another problem, when women recite the Qur’an and do adhan, they don't end up on radio stations. It is only men that are privileged enough to be broadcast or recorded. So, what do women do? Many of them do what Oum Kalthoum did: Give up on reciting the Qur’an and sing romantic songs. Imagine if Oum Kalthoum remained a Qur’an reciter, if that amazing voice remained in the service of God.
There was a woman who had a voice of the quality of Oum Kalthoum. When she read the Qur’an, your heart trembled. But she got married to a person who believes a woman's voice is awrah, so now she wears the niqab and no longer recites Qur’an in front of men. In fact, she has pleaded with people to take down all her recordings online because it is haram. That woman with a golden voice, who could make hearts tremble out of love for God through her recitation, now hides that gift.
Is that rational? Is it rational to talk about a religion that wants half of the population of the world silent? How much intellect do you need to understand that it is not the Prophet that silenced women, it is patriarchy? It is you same men - authoritarian, insecure men whose ego is easily threatened by women who can look at you and say, "I am your equal." The problem is in you. Your ego is so fragile. Ask God for forgiveness and try to listen to some women reciters. See how they will make your heart move, because that's part of intellect.
We don't want another Oum Kalthoum that turns to love songs because no one will record her reading the Qur’an. We don't want another reciter who is led to believe her voice is awrah. We want the rational position that know women have piety too, that women have a relationship with God too, and that some women were gifted by God a beautiful voice that they can place in the service of God. Who are you to tell them it is haram? Your haram is not based on anything other than the fatwa of the same people who are now betraying the Palestinians and building bars in Mecca and Medina.
The religion of the intellect is surrounded with ignorance and irrationality. This is not right. The solution starts with you. Stop being misogynistic. Stop being small minded and ignorant. Make a commitment that your piety must shine upon humanity with reasonableness and virtue.