In Islam, knowledge is a continuous process of discovering, internalizing and applying the true meanings and dispositions of things. The process is three-dimensional, covering theory, practice and education.
The pinnacle of attaining and applying knowledge is wisdom. The latter is also regarded as the raison d’etre of the former.
Wisdom could be defined as the ability to comprehend the reality and ultimate truth of things, and to be thus enabled to judge correctly in matters pertaining to existence en bloc and conduct.
Wisdom is additionally perceived as the right and effective use of the right knowledge.
Indeed, the right knowledge, molded within the framework of the right worldview, is the prerequisite of the right wisdom.
It is on account of this that wisdom is called “hikmah” in Arabic. The word is derived from the verb “hakama”, which means “to control, dominate, govern and direct.” Derived from the same root are the words “hukumah” (government), “hukm” (administration, authority and control) “hakam” (judge) as well as “hakim” (commander and leader).
Hence, a wise person is so accomplished and knowledgeable that he always adjudicates and acts upon things in such a way that he seems as though in full control of and governing all the situations and circumstances he might find himself in.
Conversely, wisdom is not to generate and articulate excessively abstract and grandiloquent ideas and theories without translating them into the realm of palpable realities and experiences. Nor is wisdom to reason and speak about things nobody – including the thinker and speaker himself - can fully understand, let alone benefit from.
Such acts are but symptomatic of an intellectual frivolity. They are signs of one’s actual intellectual vacillation and even disorientation. Wisdom by no means denotes an unrestrained wallowing in abstract ideation and conjecturing about the little-known or the unknown.
Today in the era of postmodernism - with agnosticism, liberalism, hedonism, and epistemological as well as moral relativism as its quintessence - most people are highly educated. However, few are truly knowledgeable, and yet fewer are wise. Both knowledge and wisdom are seen as social constructs.
Owing to the prevalent ethos of postmodernism, its globalized educational systems, more often than not, are significantly flawed and misguiding, promoting little beyond the precincts of self-centredness, greed, vanity and one-dimensional knowledge. Wisdom under such circumstances is a mirage. It hardly finds common ground with falsehood and deceit.
The following are important lessons on wisdom that can be gleaned from the relatively short Qur’anic Surah (chapter) Luqman:
- The Holy Qur’an - together with Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah as the exemplary life pattern, i.e., the revelation or the revealed knowledge - is the fountainhead of all wisdom (Luqman, 1).
It follows that in Islamic scholarship and culture, the compass of the science of philosophy – which means “love (philo) of wisdom (sophia)” – should not exceed the limits of a qualified rationalization of the existential truths presented by the revelation. By the same token, it could be said that authentic Islamic philosophy raises and attempts to answer an array of fundamental questions, but only in the light of the biggest answers and ultimate direction provided by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and life.
Islamic philosophy can do so either independently or in collaboration with other sciences. A Muslim philosopher, it stands to reason, is firstly a lover and follower of heavenly guidance and truth, then of wisdom. Islamic philosophy is a balancing act of harmonization between reason and revelation.
However, what is transpiring in the ambit of most of the profane and agnostic Western philosophy - where God is either humanized or rejected altogether, where man and his limited abilities and talents are deified, and where the order of nature is desacralized and ill-used – has nothing much to do with “love of wisdom”. It is essentially about “abuse of wisdom”, one way or another.
That is why, colloquially, it is said that philosophy is yet to conclusively answer a single fundamental question, or solve a single major issue confronting humankind. It is also said that no two great philosophers agree on a single subject. All that despite thousands of years of exhaustive philosophizing as a challenge to and substitute for religions.
Surely, for reason on its own the truth will remain an elusive target. Reason is powerful, but not all-powerful. It is mighty, but not almighty. It is good and reliable only as far as it goes. Although it tries to pick up the slack, reason will perennially be harvesting nothing but fragments of the truth. It will endure on its borderline.
- Almighty Allah is only All-Wise. Thus, in the Surah, He calls Himself twice “All-Wise” (Luqman, 9, 27). He also calls Himself three times “Well-Acquainted (with all things)” (Luqman, 16, 29, 34), once “All-Knower” (Luqman, 34) and once “All-Knower of what is in the breasts of people” (Luqman, 23).
- The Surah begins with a reference to the heavenly wisdom (Luqman, 2), and ends with a reference to the heavenly knowledge and acquaintance (Luqman, 34). Everything else at any plane of existence subsists between these poles, being measured and evaluated against them. The heavenly knowledge and wisdom are the lone sources of life’s authenticity, credibility and certainty.
- Ignorance, pride, arrogance, and vain desires are formidable obstacles on the road to true knowledge and wisdom (Luqman, 6, 7, 20, 21). They shut people’s faculties and blind them completely, causing people to wander and act aimlessly in their follies and myopia. It is such people who dispute “about Allah without knowledge or guidance or a Book that gives light” (Luqman, 20).
- Luqman was given wisdom. He did not acquire it (Luqman, 12). The solitary source of both wisdom and knowledge is Almighty Allah. He bestows them upon whomsoever He wants, according to His divine will and plan. About wisdom, the Qur’an says: “He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and he to whom wisdom is granted receives indeed a benefit overflowing; but none will grasp the Message but men of understanding” (al-Baqarah, 269).
- In isolation from Heaven and the revelation as guidance, man can reach and grasp neither true knowledge nor true wisdom. Hence, the Wise Qur’an is given to man as a guide and mercy in order for man to become knowledgeable, wise and so, successful while on earth (Luqman, 3, 4, 5). No genuine and sustainable success on earth, individual or collective, is possible without Almighty Allah’s Word, Will, and Blessings on-board.
- One of the first signs that someone is given wisdom is that he acknowledges the gift and is grateful and humble (Luqman, 12). This attitude is an antithesis of a state spawned by ignorance, arrogance, and indulgence in vain desires.
- Luqman was an extremely wise man. His epithet was the Wise or the Sage. His wise advice to his son demonstrates his wisdom (Luqman, 13-19). His counsels revolve around properly knowing life and living it accordingly. The counsels are as much theoretical as practical directives. They, in the end, are all connected to the higher metaphysical order of things, meanings and experiences. Without the latter, nothing on earth would ever make any sense, nor could it be mustered for the ultimate good of humankind.
- Luqman wants his son to base his perceptions, judgement, and actions on reason. He is not to act irrationally and inconsequentially. He wants him to be a person of dignity and self-respect. He wants him to grow at once as a strong and adept individual, and a beneficial community member. He wants him to be his community’s asset, rather than a liability, for wisdom inspires and builds not only individuals and their personal worlds, but also entire communities, cultures, and civilizations. Indeed, the total well-being of mankind is the goal of wisdom as the greatest heavenly gift. In other words, Luqman wants his son to be wise too.
- Though wisdom encompasses both theory and practice, abstract and applied dimensions, the latter by far outweighs the former in terms of supreme importance and value. It is due to this that Prophet Muhammad’s exemplary life paradigm, Sunnah, is likewise called “wisdom” (Hikmah). Sunnah is not only the interpretation and application of the Qur’an, but at the same time the personification of all Islam and its infinite wisdom. To live right and be successful in both worlds is to be wise.
- Islam teaches man as much what he should and can, as what he should not and cannot know (Luqman, 10, 34). Knowing what one cannot and should not know is a fundamental aspect of knowledge. Yet, it signifies the threshold of all wisdom.
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