Islam is the religion of knowledge and the Muslim ummah (community) should always be a community of learning and reading. It should be a knowledge community.
Knowledge in Muslim societies should be a yardstick for ascertaining the extent of the people’s affiliation with Islam, as well as an integral part of a wellbeing index that could serve as a benchmark of excellent policies and practices.
Knowledge should also be at the heart of a comprehensive and discernable quality culture of Muslims. It should represent the thrust of each and every Muslim civilizational course and agenda, performing as their alpha and omega.
Knowledge is not only to denote the potency of Islamic civilization, but also its light, soul and identity. It is to be the latter’s most prominent and proficient feature, most coveted and most invested in.
Consequently, ignorance, false knowledge, lethargy and deliberate mediocrity are to be viewed as scourges and be avoided at all costs. Relentless intellectual, spiritual and cultural wars are to be waged on all fronts against such civilizational inadequacies.
Such would be one of the noblest acts of worship. Yet, it would signify an act of a “holy war” (jihad), and those who wage it, making appropriate sacrifices for the purpose, would warrant the title of true mujahids (those who struggle for the sake of Allah and Islam, or those who are engaged in jihad). They would likewise be able to secure of the rewards reserved for jihad as one of the fundamental religious obligations, the highest of which is martyrdom.
This is significant especially nowadays when a great many Muslims are poor, divided and busy conspiring against and fighting each other. Many are still illiterate and Muslim educational systems are nowhere near the standards espoused either by Islam or the progressive world.
As a result, Muslim earlier enormous contributions to the evolution of the global society and civilization are increasingly regarded as a footnote to human history. While to most observers, the current events and affairs in the Muslims world do not even merit to be placed on the map of the crucial global cultural and civilizational developments.
Having been producers through the ages, Muslims quickly became consumers. From being leaders, they turned into followers. From being light, guidance and hope providers, they became despondent and hopeless. From being main protagonists in, and contributors to, the realms of epistemology, culture and civilization, they became ignorant, disoriented and uncultured. Instead of being chief promoters and backers of human goodness, virtue and dignity, many Muslims are proving one of their main obstacles, so much so that there is a danger that if things are not mended soon, they may gradually turn into humankind’s serious liability.
Islam on Knowledge
Islam is so concerned about knowledge, as an instrument and source of self-actualization, along with civilizational vitality, that it could be freely described as the religion of knowledge, just as genuine Muslims should be recognized as the people of erudition and wisdom, and authentic Islamic civilization as one of enlightenment and scholarly sophistication and refinement.
According to the Islamic message, man is created to know. He is to be an ever cognizant and knowledgeable being, and as such, to function as Allah’s honorable vicegerent on earth.
In Islam, the concepts of worship and knowledge are closely interrelated. They complement each other in such a way that no appropriate worship is possible without knowledge and no thorough knowledge is attainable without worship. In fact, they are almost synonymous with each other.
In the Holy Qur’an, the total number of verses (ayat) in which the word ‘ilm (knowledge) or its derivatives and associated words are used is 704. The means and aids of knowledge such as book, pen, ink, etc. amount to almost the same number.
When Almighty Allah created Adam, the first man and prophet on earth, He taught him the names of everything (al-Baqarah, 31), that is, the meanings, purposes, characteristics and functions of all things and man’s potential relationships with them. That was almost certainly prior to any prescribed religious injunctions, and even any divine prophetic revelations to Adam, for the proper understanding and application of the latter are dictated by the former.
Moreover, the first verse (ayah) of the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) enjoined reading, which is the threshold of knowledge (al-‘Alaq, 1). It stands to reason that the heavenly proclamation to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “Read! In the Name of your Lord Who has created (all that exists)”, (al-‘Alaq, 1), was similar both in effect and vivacity to Allah’s direct teaching of Adam the names and attributes of all things. To some extent, it was as dramatic as the former, too.
While there might have been a period of time that separated Adam’s learning of the names of everything, and the guiding as well as educating prophetic revelations that came to him, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was instructed to read and explore concurrently the signs (ayat) revealed to him directly from Allah in the holy Qur’an, and the signs (ayat) that had been “revealed” through created things, events and experiences, and as much in the smallest and most insignificant as in the grandest and most consequential. Muhammad (pbuh) was asked to read at once the revealed book, al-Qur’an al-tadwini, and the book of creation, or the ontological “qur’an”, al-qur’an al-takwini.
Those operational parallels between the first and final Messenger of Allah to mankind signify a sign of a pattern that was applicable to all prophets and their prophet-hood missions. Apart from the revealed knowledge and wisdom, they were also given by different means and through different ways the knowledge of all other existential things, which was indispensable for the successful articulation and implementation of the former.
That is perhaps one of the meanings of hikmah (wisdom), which is often mentioned in the Qur’an as an endowment granted to prophets along with revealed holy books and other forms of revelation.
Hikmah is similarly referred to as a special divine gift conferred on some special individuals, who were not prophets. Accordingly, such individuals were known as possessing special insights into the meanings and qualities of things, and they knew how best to deal with them. They possessed remarkable knowledge, experiences and good judgments. In short, they were wise.
In Islam, furthermore, knowledge comes before action (Muhammad, 19). While knowledge without action is wrong and insufficient, action without knowledge is dangerous and deluding. Speaking without knowledge is proscribed in equal measure.
When Allah created man, He provided him with the tools for seeking knowledge, namely, hearing (ears), sight (eyes) and reason, or intellect (hearts) (al-Sajdah, 9).
It is noteworthy that in the last verse – just as it is the case with all other Qur’anic verses wherein Allah speaks about the tools for knowledge acquisition in man -- the sense of hearing (al-sam’) is mentioned in the singular form, whereas the sense of sight and reason, or intellect, are mentioned in the plural form, al-absar and al-af’idah respectively.
That would mean -- among other possible interpretations -- that there is only one source from which man is to receive the divine revealed knowledge, addressing the people’s essential concerns, such as guidance, worship, faith, ethics, morality, life orientation, mission and purpose. That source is the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah, which are to be listened to only and about which there should be no disagreements whatsoever. Hence, the hearing sense has been mentioned in the singular form.
Allah said, for example: “It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision; if anyone disobeys Allah and His Messenger he is indeed on a clearly wrong path” (al-Ahzab, 36).
However, when it comes to people’s understanding, interpretation and application of the revealed knowledge in the variables of time and space, it is then that many aspects of the assignment will be affected – justifiably or otherwise – and some aspects more and others less. It is then that different ways in which the people “see”, “perceive” and “comprehend” different things will come to the fore.
It is thus rightly said that applying and living Islam as a comprehensive code of life denote striking a delicate balance between the physical and metaphysical, the permanent or immutable and impermanent, pure religious and pure mundane, and extremely dynamic and less so, worlds or tiers of existence. Thus, the sense of sight and reason, or intellect, have been alluded to in the plural form.
According to a Qur’anic verse, the inhabitants of Hell (Jahannam) will affirm: “…Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not have been among the dwellers of the blazing Fire” (al-Mulk, 10).
This means that the dwellers of Hell were not granted forgiveness, and thus, salvation from the Fire, because they neither believed – perhaps, in addition, associating some other beings with Almighty Allah -- nor were they Allah’s faithful and obedient servants. The reason for that repugnant status of theirs was twofold: they did not listen to their prophets and the revealed knowledge given to them, nor did they use their intelligence aright, in which case they would have been guided to the necessity as well as reason-ability of following the prophets and their life patterns. They realized that truth only in the Hereafter when it became too little, too late.
This verse by no means implies that the revealed knowledge and reason, or intellect, are on a par with each other, representing two separate avenues to the actualization of the truth, as some extreme rationalists would like to depict it. Rather, the only way to the difficult goal of grasping and following the ultimate truth is the revealed knowledge supported unconditionally by ‘aql (reason, or intellect). The furthermost role of ‘aql is to rationalize the need to follow the revealed knowledge, to rationalize many of its dimensions, and to unreservedly support as well as conform to it by continuously playing second fiddle to it.
Next, the righteous scholars occupy a very special position in Islam. They are the heirs of the prophets. Their superiority over the devout, but ignorant, is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars (Sunan Abi Dawud).
Seeking knowledge is incumbent upon all Muslims. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge, the inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth and the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man” (Sunan Abi Dawud).
A person should never feel that he has enough knowledge: “And say: ‘My Lord! Increase me in knowledge’” (Ta Ha, 114). Knowledge is the best asset one can have.
The righteous scholars are the witnesses of the truth and Allah’s Oneness. They know that true knowledge and fear of Allah could be attained only by reading and grasping Allah’s signs (ayat) in the Qur’an and the universe (Fatir, 28).
All knowledge as per the Qur’anic worldview is important, for it all brings man closer to his Creator and Master, and facilitates the fulfillment of his honorable vicegerency mission on earth. Being knowledgeable makes the people progressive, visionary, devout and morally strong. It makes them “human”, above all. It makes them true sons of Adam, for they keep his knowledge legacy alive for the benefit of all creatures and in both worlds. It likewise makes them true followers of Muhammad (pbuh), for they deeply respect, explore and act upon the signs (ayat) of the two revelations: the revealed Book and the created, or ontological, “book”.
That said, being ignorant – as per the Qur’anic assessment – is unnatural, abnormal, suicidal and plain un-Islamic.
Nonetheless, due to the vastness of the realm of knowledge, some types and segments are more important than others. Some could be categorized as obligatory, others as recommended, and yet others as just permissible. Some also could be classified as individual, and others as collective responsibility.
Needless to say that the best of all branches of knowledge are the sciences of Islamic shari’ah with which a person learns about his Creator and Lord, his Messenger (pbuh), his Qur’an and his religion, specifically such religious injunctions, themes and principles as needed for a person’s everyday functioning as an exemplary Muslim.
This knowledge ought to serve as the foundation of all other branches of knowledge and must be acquired by all Muslims. It should constitute the core of all Muslim basic or advanced integrative educational systems and programs, which are supposed to neglect no segment of human existence (life mission), nor to treat some of them at the expense of the others.
Knowledge (‘ilm) is a generic term that cannot be separated and compartmentalized along the religious or secular lines. In Islam, everything to various degrees is spiritually loaded. There is nothing that is in vain, totally irrelevant and purposeless. Islam is life, and life, as perceived and planned by its Creator and Planner and the Creator and Planner of humanity and human destinies, is Islam. In Islam, there is only the truth and falsehood, light and darkness, as well as knowledge and ignorance.
In the same way, ‘alim, or scholar, is a person who knows, or has mastered a field of knowledge, and in that capacity of his functions and supports the truth and its many ways, regardless of a life field in which he excels. Reducing the concepts of ‘ilm and ‘alim, especially in their Arabized forms, exclusively to religious circles is a sign of a serious Muslim civilizational degeneration.
Both ‘ilm and ‘alim need be used equally in all the domains of both religion and non-religion, and of both art and science. Religion and religious studies cannot monopolize the terms. Doing so is grossly unfair, and only perpetuates the cultural and civilizational predicaments Muslims are currently in.
When a person passes away and he is placed in his grave, he will be asked by two angels what he used to believe in in this world, who was his Lord, what was his religion, and who was his prophet (Sunan Abu Dawud). The answers will entail as much faith and deeds, as knowledge. That synthesis unambiguously tells how, to what extent and for which ideals and standards a person should live in this world and should follow Islam, a comprehensive worldview and lifestyle. He should completely surrender his being and identity to the Will and Word of his Creator and Master. That is why Islam is so called, meaning “submission”.
Surely, the grave is the first of the stages of the Hereafter; whoever is saved from it, whatever comes afterwards will be easier for him, but if he is not saved from it, what comes afterwards will be worse for him (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).
Similarly, on the Day of Resurrection, every person will be asked how he acted upon what he acquired of knowledge. That will be one of the five things everyone will have to answer to Allah in a private audience with Him. It will be one of the earliest and most important things to be sorted out on the Day of Judgment (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).
At last, ihsan (excellence in worship) indicates the highest station in one’s spiritual development. It, nonetheless, at the same time, verifies the strength of an alliance between knowledge and piety. The Prophet (pbuh) described ihsan as “worshipping Allah as if you can see Him, and although you cannot see Him, He can see you” (Sahih Muslim). Indeed, such an exceptional state could be achieved and sustained only by such as have exemplified both the poles of knowledge and spirituality.
It is on account of this that Islam like no other opposes ignorance, blind following even in sheer religious matters, deliberate mediocrity, intellectual stupor, narrow-mindedness, and deadening formalism.
The Case of Prophet Musa (Moses) and Khidr
When Musa met Khidr, a mysterious man -- or an angel in the form of a human being -- in order to learn from him what he had been exclusively taught by Allah, a few fundamental lessons concerning knowledge emerged at the very beginning of their case.
Allah says: “Then they found one of Our slaves, on whom We had bestowed mercy from Us, and whom We had taught knowledge from Us” (al-Kahf, 65).
From this verse, it could be learnt that the only one who is genuinely knowledgeable (All-Knowing) is Allah. As a sign of His mercy, He grants of His knowledge only whomsoever He wants. A person will get only as much knowledge as decided by Allah.
Allah is the only One Who is omniscient and Whose knowledge as an attribute is part of His divine essence. Allah’s essence and divine attribute of knowledge are one and inseparable, regardless of whether Allah knows through His essence, or by having separate knowledge apart from Him -- as an endless theological quandary, or impasse.
Allah, therefore, is al-‘Alim, the All-Knowing, the Omniscient and Certain-Knowing. Hence, in the above-quoted verse, Allah declares that He had taught Khidr some of His knowledge.
Angels, too, acknowledged this verity long ago when they proclaimed: “We have no knowledge except what You have taught us” (al-Baqarah, 32).
On the other hand, when Musa addressed Khidr, he defined his knowledge as guidance and true path (rushd) (al-Kahf, 66). He did so because, as a prophet, he knew the true meaning and purpose of knowledge. Thus, no sooner had Musa met Khidr, as someone who had been generously endowed with such a gift, than he brought up the substance of the gift regarding not only Khidr himself, but also anybody else who may benefit from it, including Musa.
Musa, therefore, did not refer to knowledge in terms of its divine source and intrinsically hallowed as well as unified nature. Rather, he referred to it as an operation and function at the recipient’s level. For him, knowledge was guidance and direction, so he never felt he had enough of it.
However, when Khidr responded to Musa, seeing him as a willing knowledge seeker, he described knowledge to him as khubr, that is, information, facts or descriptions as regards the souls of the meanings of things that ought to be familiarized with, aptly understood, grasped and then effectively acted upon. That, nevertheless, is beyond many knowledge-seekers, because of the pure and sacred character of knowledge, and because of it being infinite, which, in turn, is incompatible, partly or totally, with the traits and aspirations of many knowledge-seekers, for which they prove impatient.
Khidr told Musa: “Verily, you will not be able to have patience with me! And how can you have patience about things about which your understanding is not complete (about things you cannot comprehend within the compass of your experience)?” (al-Kahf, 67-68).
In the same vein, Allah charges some people with denying and rejecting the truth because they did not encompass it in knowledge, and because its interpretation has not yet come to them (Yunus, 39).
Thus, Allah is the only knowledgeable One, the All-Knowing. Everyone else – including angels and prophets – is granted but a small portion of His knowledge by Him.
Knowledge to the people, it follows, is a possession, or something they are entrusted with. Knowledge is given, can be increased or diminished, and can be taken away altogether. Man and knowledge will never be identified with each other. Forgetfulness, emotional and intellectual fluctuation, besides unpredictability and instability, will forever endure in man. They will remain his trademark, so to speak.
For example, a person may be very knowledgeable when younger, but towards the end of his lifespan, he may become so forgetful, unaware and unknowing that he may not remember even his own name. He may not remember who his closest family members and friends are.
Allah, the Best Disposer of all affairs, says to this effect: “It is Allah who creates you and takes your souls at death; and of you there are some who are sent back to a feeble age so that they know nothing after having known (much): for Allah is All-Knowing All-Powerful” (al-Nahl, 70).
Allah also says: “…But over all endued with knowledge (dhu ‘ilm) is One the All-Knowing (al-‘Alim)” (Yusuf, 76).
This verse in a way sums up much of the earlier discussion. Allah calls whoever is endowed with knowledge from His creations as dhu ‘ilm, which means the possessors, or holders, of conferred knowledge. Knowledge and its finite repositories are clearly separated thereby, implying that they are essentially two different things, united temporarily and for a purpose.
However, when Allah refers to Himself as the source of all knowledge, he says that He is al-‘Alim, that is, the All-Knowing, the Omniscient and Certain-Knowing. Allah’s divine essence and His attribute of knowledge are implied as one thereby. The Name al-‘Alim represents as much Allah’s essence as His knowledge attribute.
For man to know that he is given little knowledge, that knowledge is a precious, yet passing, gift, and that the only one who has absolute, permanent and infinite knowledge is Allah –represents an integral part of his knowledge. To know that he knows little – or that he does not, or cannot, know -- and that his knowledge is a means, rather than an end, is a fundamental knowledge to man. Conversely, to pretend to know much, and that he could one day have knowledge of everything, is a sign of both arrogance and ignorance in man.
Hence, Islam teaches the people as much what to know as what not to know. It teaches what we can, and cannot know. Undeniably, while sometimes knowledge stands for deceitful ignorance, ignorance, by the same token, at other times means impeccable knowledge.
The principal epistemological facts that all knowledge comes from Allah alone, that knowledge should lead to the right path, and that the revealed knowledge should preside over all other forms of knowledge, have been encapsulated in the following words of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to his disbelieving father, an idol-maker: “O my father! To me has come knowledge which has not reached you, so follow me, I will guide you to a way that is even and straight” (Maryam, 43).
The Case of Qarun (Korah)
Qarun was of Prophet Musa’s people, but he acted insolently towards them. He was extremely rich. He was given of the treasures that of which the keys “would have been a burden to a body of strong men” (al-Qasas, 76). Some people admonished him, saying: “Do not exult, for Allah does not love those who exult (in riches)… Do good as Allah has been good to you, and seek not to spread corruption (mischief) on earth, for Allah loves not those who do mischief” (al-Qasas, 76-77).
But Qarun retorted arrogantly: “This has been given to me on account of knowledge I possess” (al-Qasas, 78).
Qarun’s case is a case of a false and misleading knowledge, which blinds, debilitates and slowly destroys its proprietor(s). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) implored Allah, seeking his protection as much against ignorance as against knowledge that is not beneficial (Sunan al-Nasa’i).
Knowledge is wrong and misleading, for example, when it is pursued with wrong intentions and for wrong objectives, when it is abused, or used for dishonest purposes, when it is employed for facilitating other individual or collective immoral tendencies and programs, when it, or anything pertaining to it, and at any level of its conception, planning, completion and application processes, comes into conflict with any of Islamic principles, values and teachings.
It goes without saying that every knowledge that is not beneficial is harmful in certain ways. Hence, it is improper.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any knowledge, though. It all boils down to the people and their private and institutional motives and plans.
Qarun was tested with his riches and knowledge more than anybody else. But he employed the latter for behaving arrogantly and impudently, and for sustaining his ungodly reputation.
However, Allah warned him that when distorted and mishandled, knowledge becomes an instrument of ignorance, innermost wretchedness and ultimate failure in life. It becomes dangerous. Whereas true knowledge can only be a cause of happiness and triumph in life.
Allah brought home to Qarun -- as well as to others – the message that if he truly possessed knowledge, he would have known his true condition and its impending unavoidable corollaries, and that “the wicked are not called (immediately) to account for their sins” (al-Qasas, 78). Allah asked if Qarun had knowledge, how come he did not know “that Allah had destroyed before him (whole) generations which were superior to him in strength and greater in amount (of riches) they had collected?” (al-Qasas, 78).
The fact that Qarun did not know any of those things, nor did he behave accordingly, bringing in the end about his own disgraceful downfall, indicates that he possessed no true knowledge. He was as ignorant and unenlightened as anybody else. He was only blinded and incapacitated by what he and those like him in his midst falsely regarded as knowledge. They lived in their own epistemological fantasy world.
One day when Qarun went forth before his people in all his pomp and worldly glitter, some persons who were as misguided and so, ignorant, as Qarun, lamented: “Oh that we had the like of what Qarun has got! For he is truly a lord of mighty good fortune” (al-Qasas, 79).
When referring to such people, Allah brings forth the raison d’etre of their, as well as Qarun’s, ignorance syndrome, which is their being desirous of the life of this world only (al-Qasas, 79).
It is no coincidence that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also warned that the chief reason for Muslims’ forthcoming civilizational slumps and failures – at the core of which will always be intellectual sterility and outright ignorance -- will be “(excessive) love of this world and the (excessive) hatred for death (and what follows thereafter)” (Sunan Abi Dawud).
However, while the first group of people wished to be like Qarun, another group emerged and they said both to the first group and Qarun himself: “Alas for you! The reward of Allah (in the Hereafter) is best for those who believe and work righteousness; but this none shall attain save those who steadfastly persevere (in good)” (al-Qasas, 80).
The Qur’an describes the second group as “those who had been granted (true) knowledge” (al-Qasas, 80).
The message intended to be thus conveyed was that the persons in the second group believed and worked righteousness because they were genuinely knowledgeable, and they were genuinely knowledgeable only because they were truthful believers and doers of good.
In addition, they were able to see and understand what was concealed from others, on account of a sixth sense that true knowledge generated in them. They saw nothing good, nor appealing, in Qarun’s life pattern. They saw in him a man inflicted by endless spiritual and ethical – in addition to intellectual – contagious disorders. He, and whoever followed him, thus needed to be pitied and, if possible, cured, rather than being held in awe.
Last but not least, knowledge is not always what it seems, nor is ignorance. They often barter their respective places and roles, baffling him who is unsure as to what knowledge, and what ignorance, exactly is.
That said, one recalls the fact that abundant resources are being invested nowadays in the fields of knowledge and education in the Muslim world as part of many Muslim countries’ national development visions and plans. Despite that, however, there is no tangible progress whatsoever – or, at best, there is very little scattered here and there -- insofar as the prospect of reviving and advancing authentic Islamic civilization is concerned. Yet, the overall state of Muslims seems to be going from bad to worse by the day.
One then starts wondering if the Muslim governments and other local and international auxiliary institutions are investing in knowledge or ignorance, in progress or regression, and in the opening, or further closing, of the Muslim mind, if they are generally working for the interests of Islam and Muslims, or against them, and if they exist for the sake of solving Muslim predicaments, or for perpetuating them. Feeling simply overwhelmed, one even begins to wonder if they all know what they are doing and what exactly they are supposed to do.
Could that be a manifestation of a sign of the Hour (the Day of Judgment), according to which there will be the (widespread) disappearance of knowledge and the (widespread) appearance of ignorance (Sahih al-Bukhari)?
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