I have observed a trend amongst Muslims that they regard ‘piety’ as the key criteria or pre-requisite to appreciate knowledge of a scholar or individual. What this means is that someone can have knowledge but if he or she doesn’t fit the religious norms or is seen visibly as a practising Muslim, they do not qualify as someone who can have knowledge of any matter. No distinction is made between religious and comprehensive knowledge and rather the former is regarded as the condition for the latter. I have observed this as a dominant attitude among the Muslim community in Bangladesh and in the East End, especially in Muslim proselytising organisations.
Though ironically, this Muslim community on the majority of everyday matters, from education to health services, are dependent on knowledge developed, founded and practised by non-Muslims. These non- Muslims are often regarded as ‘impious’ and ‘impure’. Strikingly, when it comes to non practicing Muslims, he or she is discredited for not being religious and their knowledge is regarded as futile and likely to be ignored; as if somehow these knowledge is inspired from the shaitaan (devil).
To unpack the whole phenomenon and asses its plausibility one has to look into what piety and knowledge is and the relation between them. I would argue that comprehensive knowledge is important and that knowledge or God, following His instructions and having an overall pious life, is dependent on comprehensive knowledge.
What is piety?
Piety commonly means to follow established religious norms and practices and to live a disciplined life devoted to God. Conventional Muslims’ definition or understanding of piety is interesting. The understanding of ‘piety’ is exclusive of other forms of piety (expanded below), and judgments are made strictly on that basis. Piousness is related to spirituality and God. I assume this is also the case with other religions which I have limited knowledge of.
We regard someone as pious who fears God or lives a life according to His instructions. They also displays example of obedience that makes us ‘perceive’ him or her as ‘pious’. I use the word ‘perceive’ as I think ultimate status of piety is dependent on God’s acceptance of his devotion and the communication between him and God. We cannot absolutely testify this. If we did, a minority bunch of paedophiles in established religious institutions would deserve our respect just because they seem pious or hold a position that is supposed to promote piety. So piety is an idea and not a fact. So measuring someone's knowledge based on this idea of 'piousness' is irrational.
A clergy, imam or rabbi by institutional definition are ‘pious’. Followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism honour them as authorities on religious matters. In other words they seek knowledge of God, Godliness and His instruction as interpreted by them.
A pious man’s piety is unfortunately highlighted with any deed that relates to his devotion exclusively to God rather than humanity or any other cause which can be regarded as ‘Godly’ by their very definition of good and evil. For example, Bill Gates having donated millions of dollars is not regarded as a pious but Mother Teresa is pious by institutional value. So piety is reserved as a religious term for religious people. Hence when knowledge is sought it is unfair to measure it by someone’s piety.
The third element of piety is that a pious man is moral. They have knowledge of God and lives life according to God’s instructions, thus they are supposed to be moral. So we can conclude three elements of piety here; knowledge of God, His instructions in how to live a life and as a result of following God’s instructions they are moral. For the third element, the pious man or woman has an authority in a religious and secular society. These three elements in total, I argue, is heavily dependent upon human beings knowledge of other matters which I am referring to as ‘comprehensive knowledge’.
Other forms of Piety
There are pious human beings who knowingly or unknowingly connect with God through many forms of devotion. Whether we like it or not I have seen spirituality in beggars, musicians, poets, politicians, travellers, gypsies, Sufis and singers. Just because they do not fall into our common understanding of piety should not let us justify a judgement on their spirituality or moral status. We do not know what knowledge they have acquired via their mysticism. Here, knowledge of piety differs within each religious community and even independent of even a specific knowledge of God.
A definition of Knowledge
I will not dare going into an in depth discussion of what knowledge is and all the theories that already exist. I will keep it simple.
Knowledge is ‘what we came to know with our experience or observations from past and now we understand it within a context of enquiry and we can use that as a fact or information on any given matter in a specific time’. Socrates simplified it as ‘justified belief’ which is too simple to regard this as knowledge of defining knowledge.
To me the time of the observation, experience, context and the time of the enquiry, is crucial in defining a piece of knowledge. Here evolution of a fact or information is very important in certifying knowledge of a particular subject matter.
Let me give an example to explain. An observer of a newly painted object in blue in a desert will describe the object as blue. Next year another passer-by may observe the same object without any paint because storms have faded the blue paint from that object. This observer may describe the object as grey or any other colour it took having got rid of the blue. The following year a Beduin decided to renew its paint and painted it in red. Now we have three versions of knowledge of the same object due to its timeframe and changing contexts. Therefore an absolute stubbornness in defining the object as any particular colour would be ignorance.
I often prefer the suspension of judgement than claiming a knowledge which cannot be confirmed. This at least saves you from a state of ignorance. Here, the time of enquiry is relevant to the knowledge of that object. With this pretext, I argue that knowledge of God is subjective to the creation’s perception, experience and time of enquiry. Thus knowledge of God is not exclusive to one individual or religious discipline. Hence piety is unique to individuals and a communal industry of piety is implausible and can often promote classification, segregation and degradation of others.
(Part 2: Knowledge of God and Morality)