The Importance and Limitations of Literature

Literature is so important … but it isn’t everything. It can carry thoughts and stimulates thinking … but it’s not the only way, and they aren’t always Islamic thoughts. 

Statements of the obvious – but let me unpack some of this. 

Literature is so important … but it isn’t everything

Shaikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani once wrote ‘The thoughts of any nation are the greatest wealth it possesses’. 

It goes without saying that literature has been an essential means by which the thoughts of the Ummah were documented and propagated over fourteen centuries, such that those ideas crossed  generations, continents and civilisations. 

Yet we express our thoughts in many ways other than through the written word – and there is always an interplay between the written word and different media. 

The Prophet of Islam صلى الله عليه و سلم was ‘unlettered’. He expressed the thoughts of Islam through the miracle of the Quran and the gift of concise, yet comprehensive speech. Over generations, these thoughts were written down in books. With the advent of the printing press, books were mass-produced. 

Surprisingly, the book has managed to survive newer technologies. Audio and video recording allowed the preservation and broadcast of the spoken word. Social media has allowed both to be circulated widely. Yet the book remains.

This is in part because, whilst the book might require more effort than watching something on YouTube, or listening to a podcast, it is arguably a better medium for reference and for recalling information. 

Moreover literature – as opposed to other forms of written media like pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, journals, tweets and blog posts – usually contains ideas that have a longer-term value. Ideas are explored in more depth, and on issues that last more than a moment. 

So the humble book continues to survive as a means of transmitting thoughts and ideas – despite the rise of electronic competitors. 

Literature carries thoughts and stimulates thinking

Of course ‘knowing things’ is not an achievement in itself. The information we gather links to experiences we’ve had and realities we sense to stimulate thoughts. 

It’s like the food we put in our mouths that needs to be savoured, digested and absorbed into nutrients – it could be good for you, or bad; bitter or sweet; real or fake. The information and ideas could be correct or false. 

But I’ve seen when people can assume that because it is in print, loaded with information and perhaps written by someone respected, that what’s in print is valid.

What’s needed is a critical mentality.  – and the standard by which we measure ideas is Quran and Sunnah. 

When Europeans propagated their literature in the nineteenth century – and there was an inadequate literary response from Muslim – in part because we had departed from the Quran and Sunnah as the criteria for our thinking. Our Ummah was most revived when the purest of books, the Quran – and the best of examples, the Sunnah – were the source of our thinking. Our Ummah declined when people started to adopt the thoughts of other civilisations, often expressed in literature, in an uncritical way- and so the seeds of confusion sowed a century ago have affected thinking ever since.

In his book ‘Grey Wolf’ published in 1937, H.C.Armstrong says that as a young man Mustafa Kemal, the man who ultimately abolished the Caliphate, used to read Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes and Mill with a close friend. He describes them as ‘forbidden books’. 

Whether or not this is true in the case of Mustafa Kemal does not alter the fact that such books were available at the time, propagating ideas that were not from Islam. In the early 20th century there were many – even some from the scholarly class – who read such works or who travelled to the West. They digested the ideas in a seemingly uncritical matter. They may not have had a malicious intent or deliberately intended to undermine Islam, but their approach meant they had adopted a bias which led to a lot of so-called modernist thinking today. 

By that time, the intellectual decline of the Ummah had reached a level such that literature to critique and refute these ideas where necessary, from an Islamic perspective, was not widely produced. Such ideas unchallenged led not only to intellectual decline, but to a devastating civilisational collapse that we continue to struggle with a century later. 

The future is bright

Islam’s strength is its Divine source and Prophet tradition. Despite all manner of destructive plots under the colonial invasion on the Muslim world – and all manner of confusion through the globalisation of Western thought – Muslims had pure sources to return to.

As a result literature can and has emerged that can and will enrich today’s world in intellectual, spiritual, economic, political and social spheres – by returning to these sources of guidance to stimulate thinking anew – as well as reconnecting with past giants. 

Our challenge today is to present Islamic thought with clarity using all media – including literature. It needs to be relevant to today’s reality – answering questions and taking on flawed arguments. 

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *