The Intercultural knowledge Seeking Journey

I am writing this at my usual resting spot in JavaBaba Café in Vermont after a three-hour drive where I am, thanks to my husband, a passenger. Each time we drive to Okeme resort under construction there is new scenery to behold, and more to contemplate. I think of my longer journey away from home which started in 2006 and still has not come to an end (still trying to find home).

This time, I was reminded with the long journeys that my ancestors took on the back of camels and donkeys with the sole purpose of learning. They would navigate the Arabian desert using stars as a guide to their destination, leaving behind the comfort of home and family to the wilderness of unknown territories. The loneliness of the path was broken with singing and chanting to encourage the animals to move faster and inspire themselves to overcome illness or weakness. These long journeys often took days, even weeks. My grandmother had once told me that travelling from Makkah to Jeddah took three days on the backs of animals, which is between 60-80 miles. It would take three months from Makkah to Iraq or Sind (India), or to Egypt onboard ships that would row their way across the Red Sea when the sails failed to catch wind or were slowed down by the heat. It can even take longer if they are travelling to North Africa or Persia. Nowadays, we travel too briskly in a day or two, barely getting acquainted with the spirit of our journeys.

When Islam spread west and east, scholars[1] came from all these parts to Makkah during pilgrimage and remained for a year or two to study and exchange knowledge. It was a consortium of minds, a center for the sciences and a constant circulation of the newest research conducted around the world.  It was also a business hub for exchanging goods and entering new ventures. The stories and history of the world were told from the eldest to the youngest. Geography and detailed description of places, people, food and traditions were shared by the original people of those places. Languages and accents were discussed, learned and the literature accompanying it was transferred from one culture to another.

Most importantly the Hadith of the prophet Mohammad was told and collected along with the memorization of verses of the Quran in one of the 7 accents read and learned by mouth for certifications purposes. Hadith was to be told verbally and written only after one has taken it from several peoples’ mouth. A scholar will have to find the narrators geographical locations when they visited Makkah through a snowball effect. This means one narrator will lead to another and the knowledge seeker will have to search for them, meet them and hear it verbally from them before he can say in writing that he heard it. He has to hear it in the same phrases and words with little or no changes time and time again from different narrators. He then has to make sure every narrator he uses to verify the verbatim of the Hadith learned is highly credible in the sight of his social group, mosque, city and country. If there is one person who claims him uncreditable the Hadith narration is falsified and he has to look for another narrator. This process was done with every creditable Hadith reported in the two most credible books: “Sahih Muslim” and “Sahih Albukhary”. Sahih means correct or righteous. “Muslim” and “Bukhari” are two Imams or scholars of Islam who took upon themselves the writing of the Hadith collected from the third, fourth and fifth generation of narrators who heard from the companions of the prophet Mohammed, whom themselves told and verified to many of their own students. Narration stopped after the compilation of the books in writing and all that needed to be done was to verify the copies whenever they were transcribed to be used in main cities or libraries of Islamic towns and territories.

The research on the chain of men or narrators starts here. The generations that followed the compilers of the books of Sahih wrote six additional books, some of them were more rigorous than the others, having had to learn the knowledge and the men  and women’s biographies to be able to judge if they met and spoke verbally or just happened to live in the same era, which is not enough. This investigation continued to be the debate of all the scholars in the Islamic Studies field and Islamic Sharia. It controls the validity of the text or evidence used from the text to judge, infer, stipulate and arrive at conclusions in all matters related to actions permitted and prohibited, the acts of worship in its finest details and the benchmarking of new incidents against the eldest that occurred in history. This science opens up branches of knowledge in history, law, and jurisdiction and explains why we, as Muslims can differ debate and contradict each other sometimes.

This is very beautiful and gracious. It’s a blessing that we can continue to discuss and learn to the end of time. If Allah wanted us to be alike, he would have made all matters clear in the Quran. But, Allah, left the text interpretations open forever, so that it accommodates all lives, locations, times, contexts and nations. The cultures that can adopt Islam as a way of life, don’t have to give up this or that, it’s a matter of learning the basics and then measuring and stipulating. It keeps individuals occupied with knowledge and learning for their whole lives. Plus, it keeps the original identity of the region or culture untouched or changed, thus, resulting in all forms of architecture, traditions, social behaviors and colorful foods and music preserved in their original state. Only, when sameness is sought through strict and rigid thinking that we colors are lost to black and white and beauty is wiped of the planet. A lesson important for all religious leaders to keep in mind.

I hope my readers’ journey takes them to reading some of the Quran’s text translated (one way of understanding) and then trying to read some of the translations of Hadith, or to talk to Muslims from different cultures on how they see the text. This in itself is the Miracle of Quran which challenged the Arabs who were proud of their literary superiority in poetry and text. In This age the miracle still stands in another form, where it prompts translations with contemporary understanding.

I hope that I have added in this piece one more challenge to your Intercultural journey.


[1] Men and women equally. In Arabic text a female is included in the male noun by default. This means, in writing you don’t have to write, he and she, it is already encompassed by such a definition.