Raymond Williams, one of the leading British cultural scholars of the 20th century, states that the term society connotes active fellowship of human beings, community of people that have come together in search of means of livelihood such as food, shelter and security. These are the fundamental reasons that bring human beings together into a society – fellowship of human species. The very act of coming together of human beings into communion with one another is what confers social attribute to them. The concept of society therefore carries the same weight with two other concepts that are regarded as constitutive human processes. The three concepts of society, economy and culture are what determine our being. All we do in life can be explained from the perspective of the interplay of those fundamental concepts. However, in coining the topic the word society is not used directly but as an adjective – societal. The adjective is used to qualify another operational term – transformation. Transformation actively signals change in terms of social condition or improvement of quality of life of the people, or even their attitudes, behaviors and values.
Societal transformation here implies qualitative change in the character of society. Society is therefore never a fixed or immutable entity. Society undergoes change as it passes through its own historical trajectory. The adjective societal as in societal transformation mentioned in the topic however straddles both the concepts of society and state in its modus operandi. While society has some kernel of civility, state is defined not just as an institution that regulates human action but also as an instrument for the enforcement of the direction society takes at any point in history. Human beings cannot be organized as members of society without the mediation of the age-old principles of social contract – rules, regulations, norms, values, customs and traditions that cohere individuals in society through some form of division of labor and redistribution of resources and endowments.
In trying to clarify the key concepts, I have deliberately decided to skip our main concern, that is, education, which is, as far as we can see from the topic, the most important operational term of the whole lot. Is education really the most important tool for societal transformation? To answer this crucial question adequately, we must endeavor to understand the meaning, nay the possibilities and opportunities provided by education? For instance, what does education do to members of society? Does it really guarantee social mobility and development? Education obviously means so many things to so many people at different places. But in all its definitions it has proven to have everything to do with a process of knowledge acquisition, edification, information sharing, appropriation of skills and learning from experience. It is an institutional process in which teaching and learning are based on some predetermined structures and arrangements – schools, teachers, education authorities, school inspectors, students, instructional materials, curriculum, policies, objectives, etc. As both system and process, education is always target specific.
You cannot therefore put in place a system of education without purpose, without needs assessment, without objectives or even without set goals and priorities. The fundamental principles of education may be the same in different societies, but the procedures, methods, goals and objectives differ considerably, depending on the priorities of society at any period in time. For instance, change of development priorities in a society must necessarily go along with change in education policy. Nigeria, for instance, has over the years witnessed a number of changes in its education policies.
In general terms, if the concept of knowledge were to be considered a value free enterprise, obviously the concept of education would be seen as purely value laden for its targeting the needs of society. In any case, the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. The essence of every educational system is ultimately knowledge production and dissemination. Here again, the nature of society can be understood from the attitude of its people to knowledge and education. The prospect of a more qualitative existence tends to be higher in a society that is guided by knowledge, which recognizes knowledge as core value. However, whether we look at knowledge from the perspective of science or from the prism of the Qur’an, human beings are a special creation that have been endowed with special qualities, qualities that have not been made available to other creatures in the kaleidoscope of creation. The most distinguishing quality of human species is knowledge. That is, the ability to know, to be conscious, and to perceive other forms of existence around us. From the scientific point of view, knowledge is realized through the mediation of sense perception, the ability to see, feel, taste and touch corporeal entities, based on the principles of experience, observation and experimentation. Little surprise then that the volume of knowledge accumulated in the world over the eons is garnered through the fundamental principles identified above.
In this regard, the dominant scientific approach to knowledge in our modern world cannot then be said to be opposed to the ascriptions of the holy Qur’an on science and all forms of knowledge. If anything, the Qur’an resolutely calls attention to scientific approach to knowledge. Clear distinction is made between knowledgeable and ignorant people. Uncountable verses of the Qur’an have reflexively differentiated those who think, understand, know, ponder, reflect and contemplate from those that do not, and from there have proceeded henceforth to choose the former over the latter. These are, of course, the attributes of learning, scientific learning for that matter, which the Qur’an emphasizes in its concerns. As they confidently immersed themselves in the unassailable truth of Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah), Muslims have proceeded to engage any ideological scheme or ideational system in the world after girding themselves with the limitless wisdom tapped from the holy Qur’an.
It was this Islamic heritage that once empowered Muslims to become the leading lights of knowledge and enlightenment as well as leading figures in the sciences, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, navigation engineering, philosophy, history and sociology and arts before the ascendancy of modern western civilization. The modern West inherited not just Greek philosophical rationalism through the agency of Muslim scholars and thinkers, but the idea of school and university were adapted from Islamic scholasticism. In fact, the very first revelation of the Qur’an (read in the name of thy Lord) is that which calls attention to the indispensability of knowledge and its identification as a core value to humanity. During the golden age of Islamic civilization before the 7th century A.H. Muslims dominated the world of learning, enlightenment and humanism. However, everything came to a halt with the closure of the doors of intellectual discourse in Islam. However, this only amounts to narrowing the doors and windows of knowledge and wisdom, by paradoxically opening widely the doors and windows of ignorance and philistinism in the Muslim world with all its attendant consequences. Of course, attempting to foreclose the doors of intellectual discourse presupposes one thing, that is, the squeezing of possibilities and opportunities offered by knowledge to enhance the global community of Muslim faithful and Islamic civilization.
Thus, from what is going on in the Muslim world today, there is the need for serious rethink of our unfolding tragedy, characterized by a state of angst that is rooted in our monumental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what constitutes knowledge from the Islamic perspective. Generally, with the exception of few Muslim societies in some parts of the world, our pathetic compartmentalization of knowledge into God’s knowledge and worldly knowledge, sacred knowledge and secular knowledge, or Islamic knowledge and western knowledge, including our lackadaisical prioritization of the former, has virtually confused and disoriented Muslims on a global scale. The wider problem that this disorientation has caused can be seen in our inability to put knowledge at the center of our practices. It was this terrible disorientation that sealed the fate of Muslims all over the place. Unfortunately for us, what we are tenaciously parading as knowledge has been gradually rendered ineffectual and irrelevant to the social needs of contemporary Muslims. The untoward development began to rear its ugly head with the conquest of Muslim world by the West, beginning from the 19th century through the period of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in the beginning of the 20th century with the arbitrary creation of nation-states in Muslim lands.
The epistemic confidence that had once catapulted Muslim scholars and thinkers into the limelight of higher order learning, scholarship and enlightenment in the world has been shattered into smithereens by our own incredible negligence of core human values. We are now only left with incoherent and meaningless verbiage of some close texts of millennium old jurisprudential rulings that pass for what we conveniently considered as Islamic knowledge, which often has no bearing whatsoever to the humanizing principles carefully enshrined in the text of the Qur’an itself. Slowly but surely over the centuries, Muslims have become marginalized through a strategically planned program of demobilization by both the beneficiaries of the rot from within the house of Islam, and from without by the new masters of the universe. Consequently, provincialism, obscurantism and ignorance have replaced our responsibility to humanity as ordained by the universality of Islamic faith itself.
The contention in this assessment is that all types of knowledge are from God, and knowledge is the collective heritage of Muslims, wherever they find it in the universe they should perforce reclaim it, it is theirs for the taking. There is thus the urgent need to recover Islamic faith from the hands of those ignorant members of its community that are everywhere giving Islam a negative interpretation, as a hermetically sealed frame of reference that is uncivilized, inhuman, backward and incapable of answering the great questions of the day.
To be continued next week.
Mr Liman, a professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, presented this paper at a roundtable organized by Zamfara Circle on June 27, 2017, in Gusau, Zamfara State.