A fundamental problem in contemporary religious thinking in the Muslim world is the relationship between judgment (hukm) and wisdom (hikmah). How one understands the wisdom of a principle and then turns it into an act is key to a proper execution of human agency.
Today, there is too much judgment and too little wisdom in our lives. In Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), rules and principles come in the form of commands and prohibitions. They serve as guideposts that seek to ensure a life rooted in truth, virtue and ethics. From its inception in the first Islamic century, Islamic jurisprudence has provided detailed rules and judgments (ahkam) in order to ensure such a life through good deeds. But juridical principles and judgments are based on a deeper understanding of the goals of religion. Also called the "objectives of the religion" (maqasid al-shariah), they are extensions of "wisdom" (hikmah), the reason for which anything is done. Wisdom explains the meaning and purpose of a belief or deed, without which they become empty, formulaic acts. The question of "why" takes precedence over the questions of "what" and "how."
Etymology helps to clarify this point. The word hikmah comes from the Arabic root h-k-m, meaning "to restrain" or "to prevent." Hikmah prevents us from error as well as ignorance, injustice and blameworthy acts. The word hukm, derived from the same root, has a similar meaning: it, too, seeks to prevent us from intellectual error and moral vice. The "why" and "what" questions are thus closely interrelated. Muslim scholars have long discussed how things come to assume their essential meaning and purpose. Most Ash'arite theologians have held that something is good or bad because God has ordained it so. God's will is the ultimate source of any judgment. Lying or cruelty is wrong because God has willed it so. By the same token, charity or honesty is good because, again, God has willed it so.
Other Muslims including Mutazilites, philosophers and Sufis have objected and instead argued that God has willed something good or bad because they are good or bad in their essence. God has prohibited lying because it is evil by nature. God has ordained justice because it is good by its very nature. This does not diminish anything from God's power because, first of all, God has created everything and secondly, God acts with wisdom and purpose. He does not order anything that goes against His own nature, which is based on truth, justice and mercy. Whether one chooses God's will or God's nature as the ultimate basis for something to be good or bad, the question of wisdom remains essential for any discussion of religious faith and practice. In the final analysis, the seeming dichotomy between will and nature is false because God's will is not separate from His nature.
Furthermore, one of the names of God is al-Hakim, the one who possesses wisdom. The word hikmah is mentioned in the Quran 20 times and as something that God has bestowed upon the prophets as well as "whoever He wills." Those who have been given wisdom have been given "much good" (2:269). Several verses (2:151, 3:164, 62:2) refer to Prophet Muhammad as "teaching wisdom" to people. Wisdom signifies understanding, truthfulness and compassion. It brings out the metaphysical and spiritual dimension in our beliefs and practices. It establishes us firmly in the truth so that we can live in veracity and sincerity. It gives meaning and purpose to what we do.
It is crucial for Muslims to recover this sense of wisdom today. Without answering the question of "why," religious life becomes shallow and incomplete. In hundreds of verses, the Quran urges its followers to look at the universe and themselves and understand the meaning and purpose of all there is. If God does not do anything without a purpose, He does not order human beings to do anything without a meaning and purpose either.
For various theological and political reasons into which we cannot go here, Muslims have largely lost this sense of wisdom. Faith has been reduced to formalities, rituals and formula without much spiritual grace (barakah). This does not mean that one needs to attain the spiritual state of a saint to practice religion. But understanding the wisdom of a judgment or rule is part and parcel of any meaningful action. In the name of defending religion, some pass harsh judgments on people without understanding their spiritual needs, and without displaying much wisdom. They present a cold, ritualistic and one-dimensional interpretation of Islam as a true religion. They even justify cruelty in the name of uprightness, arrogance in the name of faith and heartlessness in the name of law. Some go so far as to justify militancy and terrorism against both Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of defending the faith. All of this goes against the wisdom of faith and the compassion of the Prophet. A proper understanding of wisdom, virtue and compassion can help ameliorate many of the diseases that we see in the Muslim world.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey