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Reminding the Intelligent, Notifying the Unmindful

By:
‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Reminding the Intelligent, Notifying the Unmindful

‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri

Commentary

‘Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhyi al-Din al-Jaza’iri (Algeria-Syria, circa 1807–1883) was an anticolonial military leader and, later, a mystic scholar who strove to adapt Islam to the modern era through a reinterpretation of the teaching of the medieval mystic, Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240). Born into a prominent Sufi family in western Algeria, ‘Abd al-Qadir was chosen to lead the resistance to French occupation of the country in 1832. Following his surrender in 1847, during five years of captivity in France, he went through an acute spiritual crisis. At the same time, he was impressed by the material progress achieved in the West. His espousal of the scientific-rationalist approach and his criticism of blind imitation (taqlid) were consolidated in the form of mystical visions after his release, when he settled in Damascus. There, in addition to his efforts to prevent the anti-Christian riots of 1860, ‘Abd al-Qadir dedicated himself to the mission of creating and guiding an elect circle of disciples toward the spiritual regeneration of the Muslim world. This circle adopted the modernist ideology of the Salafiyya, in contrast to the Islamic populist policies of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876–1909). The selections translated here come from a book—completed just before ‘Abd al-Qadir's arrival in Damascus, and first published in French translation—stressing the compatibility of the scientific-rationalist approach with Muslim faith.1 Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, Tuhfa alza’ir fi ta’rikh al-jaza’ir wa al-amir ‘Abd al-Qadir (The Gift for the Visitor of the History of Algeria and Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Yaqza al-‘Arabiyya, 1964); Raphael Danziger, ‘Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians: Resistance to the French and Internal Consolidation (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977); Michel Chodkiewicz, The Spiritual Writings of Amir ‘Abd al-Kader (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); Itzchak Weismann, Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000).

On Knowledge and Ignorance

The intelligent person must consider the statement rather than the person who is stating it. If a statement proves to be true, one should accept it, whether this person is known to be a person of truth or of falsehood. For gold is derived from dust, the narcissus from bulbs, and antidotes from snakes. The rose is picked from among thorns. People should be measured according to the truth, not the truth according to [the reputation of] people. The goal of the intelligent person is a word of wisdom, and he is prepared to receive it from whomever possesses it, be they commoner or notable. The lowest level of intelligent persons is to be distinguished from the common people's level in certain things. Among them is not to feel disgust at honey even if it is found in a bleeder's glass. Intelligent persons recognize that blood is defiling in and of itself; it is not defiling because it is in this glass.2 [An old medical technique involved the removal of blood, often into glass cups.—Ed.] Since honey is not defiling, being within a vessel used for blood does not make it so, and there is no need to feel averse toward it. Most people yield to this false impression. Whenever a statement is ascribed to a person they believe to be good, they accept it, even if erroneous. But, if the statement is ascribed to someone they believe to be bad, they reject it, even if correct. They always measure the truth according to the person, rather than the person according to the truth. This is the utmost in ignorance and decadence. A person who needs an antidote but shrinks from taking it upon learning that it is extracted from snakes is ignorant. This person should be made aware that such aversion is pure ignorance, and that it deprives him of the desired benefit. For knowledgeable people it is easy to distinguish between correct and false statements, between true and vain beliefs, and between worthy and repugnant deeds. Such things do not confuse them, and they do not follow others by imitating their beliefs and opinions. These are the marks of the ignorant.

People whom others follow are divided into two types. One is the knowledgeable, who help both themselves and others. Such a person measures the truth according to the evidence rather than accepting it blindly, and calls others to do the same. The other type is destructive of themselves and of others. They imitate the opinions and beliefs of their fathers and ancestors while neglecting their own judgment, and call upon others to engage in taqlid [imitation]. The blind cannot lead the blind. Even more reprehensible and unsatisfactory than imitating people, however, is the blind following of books. It is better to follow a beast than an imitator. The opinions of the ‘ulama’ [religious scholars] and the devout are often contradictory and conflicting, since preferring [one opinion to others] without any grounds for doing so is unjustified, as it can be countered by equally valid arguments.

Every human being is capable, by nature, of perceiving truth. The relation of the mind [literally, the “heart”], the seat of knowledge, to the reality of things is like the relation of a mirror to colored forms that appear on its face one after the other. It is true, there are hindrances that may prevent the forms from being reflected in the mirror. These include a deficiency in the mirror's form deriving from the substance of the iron [from which mirrors used to be made], before it was given its round shape and polish; the poor condition and corrosion of the mirror, even if its shape is perfect; inaccurate direction of the mirror toward the objects, as when they are behind it; a barrier that is placed between the mirror and the form; and ignorance as to the location of the desired figure, which makes it difficult to turn the mirror toward it.

Similarly, the mind is a mirror capable of reflecting the forms of all phenomena. Minds may be devoid of knowledge because of these same five causes. One is deficiency in the mind itself, as in the case of a child's mind, which is still incomplete. A second cause concerns the impurity of worldly concerns and the resulting wickedness that accumulates on the face of the mind. The endeavor to uncover the reality of things, and the avoidance of distracting occupations, would clear and purify the mind. Third comes its turning away from the direction of the desired truth. The fourth cause regards barriers (hijab). An intellect immersed in contemplating a certain truth may nonetheless miss it because of a [false] preconception that the man imbibed in his youth by way of uncritical acceptance and good faith. This is a formidable obstacle, which prevents most people from attaining the truth. Such people are veiled by traditional beliefs that have become deeply rooted in their souls and stiffen their minds.

Fifth is the ignorance of the direction in which the object is to be found. Seekers cannot attain a thing without referring to the relevant sciences. They must refer to them and arrange them in the specific way defined by the scholars. In this way they may find the necessary direction, and the reality of the object will be revealed to their minds.

Knowledge that is not self-evident can be caught only with the net of the acquired sciences. Moreover, every piece of knowledge can be deduced only from two antecedents, harmonized and combined in a definite manner. Their combination brings a third piece of knowledge, like the offspring produced from the copulation of male and female animals. Thus, to produce a horse, one cannot use an ass and a camel, but only a pair of horses. Similarly, every perception has two specific sources, combined in a specific way. Lack of knowledge of these sources, and of the nature of their combination, hinders that perception. As we mentioned, this is like ignorance of the figure's location. This is exemplified in the case of a person who wants to see the back of his head in the mirror. If he places the mirror in front of his face, he cannot direct it to reflect the back of his head, and if he places it behind his head, in the correct direction, he removes it from his eyes and can see neither the mirror nor the back of his head reflected in it. He needs another mirror to be put behind his head, while the first one remains in front of his eyes. Observing the appropriate position of the two mirrors, the back of his head will be reflected in the mirror directed toward it, and this will be reflected in the other mirror facing the eyes.

Similarly, in seeking knowledge and striving to understand things, there are odd paths that are even more oblique to the goal than the example of the mirror. These are the causes that prevent minds from recognizing realities. ply, each mind is able, by divine providence, to perceive such realities. Like a person who cannot see what stands in front of him without moving the pupils of his eyes a great deal from side to side, so the mind will not perceive the reality of things if it does not move from concept to concept. These movements are called thinking and contemplation. And like the looking eye that cannot see without light, such as that of the sun, so the mind cannot perceive realities correctly without the lights of success and guidance from God, the most exalted.

Validating Revealed Knowledge

Know—may God give you success—that although the intellect attained eminence and an ability to explain the reality of things, there remains knowledge that it can neither achieve nor be guided to, but is obtained only by trusting and obeying the prophets and their successors. The sciences of the prophets are superior to intellectual knowledge, that which, as we have said, is inherent in the nature of the mind and which one finds when turning one's attention to acquire it. Nevertheless, although the intellect is separate from the information brought by the prophets that one is ordered to follow, it is capable of perceiving it, submitting to their commandments, and approving its content once they make it known to them.

The proof that there are suprarational sciences is that God, most exalted, created humankind devoid of any knowledge about His innumerable creatures, which only He can comprehend. He then gave humankind the sense of touch to discern tangible things of all types, but since humans could as yet grasp neither voices nor colors, they remained to humankind as if nonexistent. Thereafter, God created human sight, which enabled them to perceive part of the creation, insofar as they could go beyond the tangible. In the following stage He accorded them the faculty of discernment to recognize abstract realities beyond the tangible things. From there humankind proceeded to yet another stage, the stage of the intellect, which allowed them to perceive additional things. Then one progresses to another level, the level of the intellect in which one perceives matters imperceptible in any of the preceding levels. Beyond the intellect is a further level involving other matters from which the intellect is separated, which it cannot obtain by itself but rather requires [the aid of] someone else, just as the senses are separate from intellectual perception.

The sciences located in the mind are divided into two types: rational and revealed. By the term rational knowledge we mean that which is naturally commanded by the intellect, which is apart from indirect knowledge (taqlid) and revealed knowledge (sama‘). This, in turn, is divided into self-evident and acquired knowledge. Self-evident, for example, is humankind's knowledge that a single item cannot be in two places at the same time, or that a thing cannot be both existent and nonexistent. People find such knowledge in themselves and recognize it without knowing where it comes from. I mean, they do not recognize the ultimate cause [of their knowledge]—that it is of course God who created it and guided them to that knowledge. Acquired knowledge is that obtained by learning, inference, and reflection. Another type of knowledge located in the mind is revealed knowledge, which is received from the prophets. It is obtained by studying the revealed books such as the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms, and the Criterion [the Qur'an]. By understanding their concepts, they are revealed. By this [revelational knowledge] the intellect is perfected and delivered from illness.

Thus the rational sciences, although necessary, are insufficient to ensure our welfare, just as the intellect is insufficient to preserve bodily health. Humans need to know the particulars of medicine and remedies by learning them from doctors, since the intellect alone is incapable of arriving at them. Nevertheless, the intellect is the only means for comprehending such knowledge after it is learned. The intellect cannot do without the revealed sciences, and these cannot do without the intellect. Therefore, those who call on people to adopt pure imitative knowledge and avoid rationality are ignorant, while those who are satisfied with rationality at the expense of the revealed sciences are deluded. Beware not to belong to either of those groups but to combine them! The rational sciences are like nourishment and the revealed sciences are like medication. The sick may be harmed by food if they neglect their medicine. Similarly, the minds of all creatures are sick, and there is no treatment for them but the medications prepared by the prophets, namely the duties of worship. Those who are satisfied with rational knowledge will be harmed by it like the sick person who is harmed by food, as happens to some. It is said: a discerning person who grasps all of intelligible knowledge and affirms that the world has a creator has attained absolute perfection; humankind's felicity corresponds to its knowledge, and its distress corresponds to its ignorance. One's intellect brings one to this felicity.

Be careful not to assume that the revealed sciences are contradictory or incompatible with the rational sciences. On the contrary, everything the Prophet ordained is in full harmony with sound reason. It is true that there are certain details in the laws brought by the prophets that the intellect rejects, but this derives from the intellect's own shortcomings. Had it understood the method behind the stipulation, the intellect would have recognized that this is the truth, which one should not abandon.

An example from Islamic law (shar‘) involves the rulings concerning gold and silver. The law forbids their accumulation without giving part to the poor and needy; it prohibits the use of dishes and cups made out of them; it bans the sale of gold or silver for profit. Yet, if people were told to give part of them to the poor, or else they would be burnt in hell, they would surely reply, “This is unacceptable. I worked hard to gather them, so why should I now give them to people who were sleeping and resting? This is unreasonable!” If they were told not to eat and drink from golden or silver table utensils, or else they will be burnt in hell, they would similarly reply: “This is unacceptable. I will do with my property what I want and no one can dispute it. Why should I be punished for making use of my property? This is unreasonable!” And if these people were told not to sell gold and silver for profit or else they would burn in hell, they would again have said, “I buy and sell with the mutual consent of myself and my business partners. Without buying and selling, the world would be ruined and the public interest impeded. This is irrational!”

They are right [to say that it is irrational], since their intellect is incapable of understanding the punishment for such things and requires explanation.

It should be explained to them that the wisdom behind God's creation of gold and silver is their use for the sustenance of the world. In themselves these are merely two metals which have no utility. They ward off neither heat nor cold, nor do they nourish the body. Nonetheless everybody needs them. This is because every person has many needs, for nourishment and clothing. A person may lack necessities and possess unneeded things. For example, in the case of one who owns wheat but needs a horse, while a friend owns a horse but needs wheat. An exchange will certainly take place between these two, and it would be necessary to assess the relative value [of these commodities], since the owner of the horse would not hand it over for just any amount of wheat. There is also no correlation between wheat and horses to allow exchanging them for a similar weight or shape. Thus one doesn’t know how to assess the value of a horse in wheat, and transactions, in this example and its like, would become impossible. Consequently, people felt the need for an adequate medium to decide between them. For this reason God created gold and silver, to serve as a standard in all transactions. Accordingly, a horse may be worth a hundred dinars, and a certain amount of wheat has the same value.

Regulation by gold and silver is possible precisely because they have no purpose in themselves. God created them only to circulate among the people and serve as means of exchange. Their value is unified in relation to all commodities, and possessing them is like possessing everything. Thus, the owner of a horse, for example, owns only that particular horse. If he is in need of food, he may find that the one who has it prefers to buy a garment rather than a horse. It is therefore necessary to have something that seems to have no form, but actually has an overall significance, bearing an equal relation to the various commodities. It resembles a mirror, which has no color but reflects all the colors. Gold and silver have no purpose in themselves, but they are means for all purposes. Therefore, whoever uses them contrary to divine wisdom will be punished in the Hereafter, unless God permits. Those who hoard gold and silver without setting aside a certain amount for the poor thwart the underlying reason [of their creation], acting like one who imprisons a judge and prevents him from arbitrating and resolving disputes among the people. God did not create gold and silver especially for one person or another, but to circulate among all of them and serve as a standard. Undoubtedly, if the intellect understands that, it will confirm that hoarding gold and silver is an act of oppression and will justify punishment. God most high creates nothing in vain. He entrusted the living of the poor to the wealthy, but the wealthy have oppressed the poor and deprived them of the rights accorded them by God.

We therefore say: people who make dishes and cups out of gold and silver are oppressors. They are worse than those who hoard and amass [gold and silver], since their behavior is like that of a person who turns the judge of the city into a hatmaker, a tailor, a butcher—any job that could be performed by the meanest member of society. Copper, lead, and clay, rather than gold and silver, should be used for holding food and drink. These [chosen substances] can hold liquids, but clay, iron, copper, and lead, on the other hand, cannot fulfill the task of gold and silver. If the intellect knows this, it undoubtedly would not hesitate to approve of [this prohibition] and to punish those who transgress it.

We also claim that selling gold and silver for profit, turning them into objects of commerce in their own right, is contrary to divine wisdom. An owner of cloth, for instance, who wants to buy food might not be able to exchange food for cloth; he is therefore permitted to buy it with gold or silver, thereby obtaining his goal. [Gold and silver] are means to an end and not ends themselves. But owners of gold or silver who want to trade them for gold or silver are prevented from doing so, because by remaining restricted from circulation, the effect is as if they were hoarded. Moreover, thus obstructing God or the Prophet from conveying necessities to others is an act of oppression. The only purpose of buying gold and silver for their own sake is to hoard them, and when the intellect understands this [role] it approves both the prohibition and the punishment for transgressing it. Nevertheless, buying gold with silver, or vice versa, is permissible, since they differ in the ways they help satisfy the necessities of life, silver being more abundant and more easily divided among various needs. What is prohibited is interfering with its intended function, namely, to facilitate the attainment of other commodities.

Consequently, to those who sell silver or gold for a fixed period for profit [as a form of interest-making], such as selling at 10 to get back 20 after a year, we say that the foundation of society and the basis of all religions are to promote love and harmony, mutual assistance and cooperation. Those who are in need and find someone who will give them credit can assume the good-heartedness of their creditor and believe in his kindness. They will regard aid and support [of the creditor] as requirements. Prohibiting the sale of gold and silver at a profit over a fixed period thus preserves the utility of loans, which is among the noblest ends.

These few examples, from all that might be cited, make it clear that the revealed law is not incompatible with reason. All the commandments and interdictions of the prophets intend to be harmonious with reason. None of them contradicts it, though for some [rules] the human intellect alone is not a sufficient guide. However, when it is properly guided, it realizes and complies. Like the skilled physician who commands the secrets of various treatments that the ignorant think farfetched, so are the prophets, whose knowledge the intellect is unable to obtain save through instruction. The intelligent person is compelled to accept them, after inquiring into their truth.

Bibliography references:

‘Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhyi al-Din al-Jaza’iri, Dhikra al-‘aqil wa tanbih al-ghafil (Reminding the Intelligent and Notifying the Unmindful) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Yaqza al-‘Arabiyya, 1966), pp. 33–38, 81–89. First published in 1855. Translation from Arabic and introduction by Itzchak Weismann.

Notes:

1. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, Tuhfa alza’ir fi ta’rikh al-jaza’ir wa al-amir ‘Abd al-Qadir (The Gift for the Visitor of the History of Algeria and Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Yaqza al-‘Arabiyya, 1964); Raphael Danziger, ‘Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians: Resistance to the French and Internal Consolidation (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977); Michel Chodkiewicz, The Spiritual Writings of Amir ‘Abd al-Kader (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); Itzchak Weismann, Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000).

2. [An old medical technique involved the removal of blood, often into glass cups.—Ed.]

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