Bal’am bin Baura and Thesis on the Decline of Scholars’ Integrity
Shahand, there is a wise man from the Bani Israel named Bala’am bin Baura. He lived at the end of the apostleship of Moses (pbuh). The Word of God in Qs al-A’raf : 175 is considered by some commentators to be his profile picture.
Allah SWT said (meaning), “and recite (O Muhammad) to them the news of the person to whom I have given My verses, then he abandons himself to those verses, then he is followed by Satan (until he is tempted), then he is among those who lost”.
What is meant by “āyātinā” in that sentence is al-ismu al-a’dzam. Imam At-Tabari said, “wa kana ‘āliman ya’lamu al-isma al-a’dzama al-maktūm”. Balaam was one of the few who knew al-ismu al-a’dzam; the great name of God. He is the beloved servant, the chosen one.
However, one day he deviated from the path of truth. Narrated by the king’s order, Balaam prayed to God that Prophet Moses and his followers could not enter the city of Balqa, Canaan. At first, he realized that his actions would invite God’s wrath, but over time his faith wavered. The devil’s whispers destroyed his faith.
The arrival of Musa and his followers to Balqa was to occupy the city. The king, who fears that his throne will be occupied, asks Balaam to pray for Moses’ bad deeds. “Woe to you!” Balaam said. He knew that Musa bin Imran was the messenger of God; with him the angels and the believers. At least in terms of faith, both are on the same side. In essence, Balaam disobeyed the king’s order.
Hearing that answer, the king became angry. He immediately prepared a cross to punish the master of wisdom. Knowing the king’s intentions, Bal’am’s mind shrank. His faith suddenly became fragile. He quickly prepared his donkey to go up the hill, where he could see the camp of the Israelites. Unfortunately, the donkey he was riding refused to comply. Bal’am lost his temper and hit him.
With God’s permission, the donkey can speak and “punish” his master’s actions. He said – as narrated by Muqatil bin Sulaiman – in front of him there was an angel who turned his face away from the path that Balaam was heading towards. This situation confirms that Balaam’s actions did not actually receive God’s blessing. Even so, he still chose to submit to the king’s order and take off his wisdom robe.
It is said that God will engrave a stain on the heart of a servant who sins (nukitat fi hi qalbi). The stain will be cleansed if the servant asks for forgiveness and repents. On the other hand, if the servant refuses to repent and chooses to continue sinning, God will increase the matter until it covers his heart.
Long story short, Bal’am then prayed. Between his prayers, he prayed al-ismu al-a’dzam. His prayer was immediately answered: the Israelites failed to occupy the City of Balqa. This failure made Prophet Moses curious. Before taking his last breath, the Prophet asked his Lord about the reason behind this failure.
Prophet Musa understood that everything that happened to him and his people was caused by Balaam’s prayer. Prophet Musa then prayed for Balaam to receive a suitable reward for his actions. God answered the prayer of Prophet Moses by uprooting Balaam’s knowledge and faith, until he died in a perverted state and was classified as a member of hell.
Allah likened Balaam’s actions to that of a dog (kamatsali al-kalbi). Like a dog, all its actions are based on the desire to get food or satisfaction. With this parable, God wants to warn anyone who follows in the footsteps of Balaam – that is, people who abandon faith and are inclined to lust – they are like dogs.
Scholars and Powers
The story of Balaam bin Baura and Nabi Musa mentioned above is a negative implication that arises when a scholar is too close to power. Bal’am, in this context, is caught up in the glittering stage of power and forgets his position as a wisdom expert and/or intellectual actor who must fight for the truth and not the interests of those in power.
Long after that, the experience of Muslims showed that the alliance of scholars and power was the main cause of the decline of Islam that occurred since the 11th century. Proximity – not to mention submission – to power causes many scholars to lack independence, do not dare to speak critically, and are unable to generate creative ideas. This alliance, said Ahmet T. Kuru, first caused Muslims to experience intellectual stagnation, then turned into authoritarianism, and led to the decline of Islamic civilization.
It must be acknowledged that there are differences regarding the details of Balaam’s actions with Kuru’s thesis. However, there is one common thing that connects the two. First, the proximity of scholars/intellectuals to potential power causes them to become complacent. Second, the choice to stay away from power potentially exposes scholars/intellectuals to persecution.
In the midst of this situation, an alternative path is needed that avoids scholars/intellectuals becoming the “dogs” of power and at the same time makes their voice have bargaining power in power circles. The separation of clerical powers in this context is also not the right choice.
Kuru’s suggestion, “Muslims need creative intellectuals and an independent bourgeoisie, who can balance the clerical power and state authorities” (p. 411). Perhaps, only in this way scholars/intellectuals can voice the truth and justice without having to worry about persecution.
Q: Who was Balaam bin Baura?
A: Balaam bin Baura was a wise man from the Bani Israel who lived during the time of Moses (pbuh). He was known for his knowledge of al-ismu al-a’dzam, the great name of God.
Q: What led to Balaam’s downfall?
A: Balaam deviated from the path of truth when he prayed to God, asking Him to prevent Prophet Moses and his followers from entering the city of Balqa. Over time, his faith wavered and he was influenced by the whispers of Satan.
Q: What happened when Bal’am disobeyed the king’s order?
A: Bal’am’s disobedience angered the king, who prepared a cross to punish him. Bal’am’s faith became fragile, and he reluctantly followed the king’s order while losing the blessing of God.
Q: How did Bal’am’s actions affect the Israelites?
A: Bal’am’s prayers caused the Israelites to fail in their attempt to occupy the City of Balqa. Prophet Moses, before his death, questioned God about this failure and realized it was due to Balaam’s actions.
Q: How is Balaam compared to a dog?
A: Allah compares Balaam’s actions to that of a dog, implying that his actions were driven by desires and lust. This serves as a warning against abandoning faith and being inclined towards worldly pleasures.
Q: What is the lesson from Balaam’s story regarding scholars and power?
A: Balaam’s story highlights the negative implications of scholars being too close to power. It is important for scholars to fight for the truth and not be swayed by the interests of those in power. The alliance of scholars and power can lead to intellectual stagnation and the decline of a civilization.
Q: How can scholars balance their role without becoming subservient to power?
A: Scholars need to maintain their independence and not become complacent when in proximity to power. It is important to have creative intellectuals and an independent bourgeoisie who can balance clerical power and state authorities, allowing scholars to voice the truth and justice without fear of persecution.