The Sincere Muslim Intellectual

PERHAPS IF YOU grew up in a country or house devoid of intellectualism, you might protest out of fear that I am decrying intellectualism. This would be a fair response. But for those of us, many in North America and Europe, who are stimulated by discussion after discussion and book after book, the situation is often radically different. Rachid al-Ghannouchi reportedly said that Tunisians in Tunis need human rights, while Tunisians in France need mosques. Different points of emphasis for different folks.

What I have felt in the core of my being is the fact that I can never know with absolute certainty when I am speaking or writing or teaching or reading for the sake of Allah alone. I can distinguish tasks, such as when I am reading Qur’an for my own benefit or when I am writing an academic paper for the acceptance of my teacher, but I can never truly know what Allah thinks of how I spend my time and energy. I seek the assistance and advice of those who I feel are pious and intelligent and learned, attempting to shade my moral responsibility under the nasihah (advice) of others, but I know that there is no shade except the shade of Allah. I make istikharah (supplication for guidance) in search of Allah’s decision, but I can never be totally sure of the outcome.

Yet around me, I see people rushing to be heard, rushing to speak, and rushing to lead. Am I better for taking it slow? Are they better for having the drive to act? I can never know. I do know that Allah will debase the scholar who speaks for his own vainglory, and will honor the one who writes and teaches and learns for His sake alone. Also, I know that the complexity of our lives demands sophisticated intellectual discourse. The mind constructs or deconstructs, and the heart becomes darkened or enlightened. Allah is the One in control.

Perhaps you might object to the insinuation that I might be able to know the intentions of others. This too would be fair. I speak from my experience, and all I can say in my defense is that if I have felt it, and struggled with it, then it must be a reality for others. But even more than that, this struggle has been documented in the works of some of the greatest Muslims who have ever lived. If they felt it too, then at least I know that I am in good company.

The pragmatist says, “I need a job,” or, “You have to get ahead,” or, “You have to have your voice heard,” or, “Things are pressing and there is no time for reflection,” but that always rings hollow to me. Perhaps I am wrong or spoiled or out of touch. Perhaps not. At the end of the day, which is death, perhaps our works will be accepted. Perhaps not. I fear standing before the Lord of the Worlds and being told, “You wrote this article to be praised by the people,” and I hope to be told, “Peace for you now, no more need to worry. You did fine.”
Even in writing this article, I may be betraying that which the article intends to promote. But the fear of punishment cannot override the urge to act when one can reasonably justify the action as righteous, and when one has also sincerely attempted to be sincere. For almost a decade, I have contemplated publishing something: Islamic theories on religion, critiques of secular historiography, personal conversion narratives, theoretical perspectives on the nature of subjectivity in intellectual traditions that strive for objectivity, and so on. But something has always held me back. I can only hope that this preliminary attempt is timely and acceptable in the eyes of Allah. If Imams al-Nawawi and al-Bukhari thought it appropriate to begin with the hadith of sincerity, then who am I to begin from a different angle?

This is a struggle we all must face in the core of our souls, and it cannot be avoided. It is immensely hard, but it must be done. Whether one is a graduate student, a professor, a murid (disciple), a talih al-‘ilm (student of knowledge), a shaykh, a transnational Muslim intellectual, or whatever, we must face this challenge. If we ignore it and assume we are fine, then we are lost. Of that I am certain, and God knows best.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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