The Meaning of True Knowledge in Islam

The wooden anaza (outdoor mihrab) and fountain at the courtyard entrance to the prayer hall at Al-Karaouine University (Al-Qarawiyyin) in the city of Fes, Morocco. It was founded as a mosque by Fatima al-Fihri in 857–859 CE and subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers. UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, cite al-Qarawiyyin as the oldest continually operating higher learning institution in the world (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

In Islam, Allah is the ultimate Truth (al-Haqq). He is the Creator and His creation stands for the manifestation of His holy attributes. The creation is also a compendium of signs (ayat) which advances, as well as facilitates, the reading of the world which, in turn, leads to an understanding and appreciation of the Creator.

Knowledge, it follows, is closely related to the truth. It is about knowing the true and actual states of things at any level of the existential reality, be they most magnificent or most inconsequential. What matters is the truth, not the quantifiable dimensions of things. Indeed, knowledge and truth are two faces of the same coin.

Knowledge furthermore is a familiarity with or an awareness of things, inasmuch as they are related to the truth and their Creator. Processes related to knowledge signify the paths that, via progressive degrees of affirmation, eventually lead to a union with the truth. Knowledge itself is the best provision for the journey.

Knowledge, therefore, is a means, not an end in itself. In its totality, it should be placed in the service of the truth, operating but for a higher order of meaning and experience. There is no such thing as knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or knowledge for vain purposes.

It is for a reason then that the Prophet’s message is associated with knowledge, following him with obtaining and holding on to that knowledge, and travelling on a road to Paradise is associated with travelling on a road in search of knowledge. No one else but the learned ones are qualified to be successors of the seal of the Prophets and to lead societies, in that upon them the destinies of people and human civilization depend. Positively, no qualification, skill, or talent can replace the forte of the “heirs of the Prophets”, whose reputation and contributions are celebrated across the tiers of worldly and otherworldly presence.

Knowledge is sacred

Knowledge in Islam, it goes without saying, is sacred. All knowledge belongs to Allah. Opportunities and capacities to learn, and knowledge itself, are divine favours conferred on mankind. Knowledge is a means of perennial connection with heaven. It is akin to a rope extended down from above, so that man, if he wants, can unchain himself from the fetters of matter and this fleeting world in general, and rise. He is thus set to draw ever closer to his heavenly origins, his primordial self, and of course to his Creator and Master.

According to Ibn Khaldun, there are three intimately interconnected levels of knowledge acquisition and application that enables man to:

1. Obtain his livelihood (self-development and personal fulfillment);

2. Cooperate with fellow men towards the goal of obtaining his livelihood and the goals of building social cohesion and civilization (social actualization and development);

3. Study and know his Master (Almighty Allah) whom he worships (ontological and spiritual actualization).

For all three levels man needs to capitalize on his intrinsic ability to think and explore, and on the heavenly gift of the revealed knowledge which was delivered to man through the holy prophets, striking a delicate balance between the two types of knowledge and their respective jurisdictions.

Islam does not recognize division of knowledge along ideological lines. In fact, it regards the world of knowledge as so holistic and universal that any dissection, even for mere educational ends, raises a series of conundrums.

There are no, for example, religious and non-religious sciences (knowledge), just as there are no religious and non-religious institutions of learning, nor religious and non-religious scholars.

The unity of knowledge 

There is only one knowledge, and that’s it, just as there is only one existential reality and only one certainty. Regardless of how Muslim scholars divide and categorise Islamic sciences (knowledge) - mainly for the sake of pedagogy and epistemological theorizing in the light of the prevalent public interests or benefits (al-masalih al-mursalah) and the impression of the objectives (maqasid) of Shari’ah - the most that could be said is that knowledge can be divided and classified solely in accordance with its proximity, together with intensity, as far as the spiritual objectives of life are concerned.

It is true that all knowledge is important, but, admittedly, some forms are more important, and hence more sought after, than others, because the former is more indispensable for one’s self-realization and for the fulfilment of mankind’s earthly mission in general, than the latter. Hence, an ordering of knowledge (sciences) based on significance and impact is commonly resorted to.

By way of example, there is theoretical and practical knowledge, fard ‘ayn (individual duty) and fard kifayah (collective duty) knowledge, (pure) religious and (supplementary) intellectual knowledge, (pure) religious and (supplementary) worldly knowledge. Ibn Khaldun even spoke about the sciences (knowledge) of human beings, the sciences (knowledge) of the angels, and the sciences (knowledge) of the holy prophets, all adding to each other and constituting a sanctified whole.

That is why the Prophet (pbuh) said that seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim (Sunan Ibn Majah, Vol. 1, Book 1, Hadith No. 224). It is held that knowledge in this instance means the knowledge of Shari’ah. However, the word Shari’ah ought not to be understood narrowly.

In its broadest sense Shari’ah means Islam in its entirety, which, in turn, denotes an aggregate lifestyle. No wonder that, literally, Shari’ah portends a path (model or paradigm) which leads to life-giving water. Shari’ah accordingly governs not only the religious practices and ceremonies of Muslims, but also their day-to-day life activities.

In other words, Shari’ah leads to, gives, administers and sustains life. Allah declares thus in the Qur’an: “O you who have believed, respond to Allah and to the Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life” (al-Anfal, 24).

Knowledge and life

So, therefore, when the Prophet (pbuh) instructed Muslims to seek knowledge, he meant to instruct them to seek ways and opportunities to live their lives not according to their own or somebody else’s wishes and plans, but according to the wishes and plans of the Creator and Sustainer of life. Life is what life is, not what people would like it to be. This is because there is no true or authentic life except with Islam and its cause which encompasses both the interests of heaven and of the earth.

Likewise, there is no genuine contentment, nor happiness, except with the Islamic guidance which only can navigate the thorny challenges of life and secure the pleasure of God and the bliss of Paradise for man.

Islam is life and knowledge its life-support. Conversely, non-Islam is a manner of steady passing away, for which the lack of true knowledge is most responsible. Even though they are not fully equal, but a good Muslim must be knowledgeable, and a knowledgeable Muslim must be pious and good. If a Muslim is ignorant, there is then something seriously wrong with his Islam. By the same token, if a knowledgeable Muslim is not sufficiently pious and good, there is something seriously wrong with his knowledge.

For that reason did the Prophet (pbuh) warn against the reciters of the Qur’an whose reciting will not go any further then their throats (implying thereby superficial and insincere Islamic belief as well as practice). The Prophet (pbuh) also sought Allah’s refuge against the forms of knowledge that bring no benefit to their possessors with regard to their life mission.

Moreover, Sufyan al-Thawri said that the compulsory knowledge is that knowledge for which a person will not have any excuse for not knowing (i.e. knowledge of the essential parts of Islam and also life).

Similarly, Abu al-Darda’ is reported to have said that nobody can be pious unless he is knowledgeable, and nobody can enjoy (and appreciate) knowledge unless he applies it practically (for the determined honourable goals).

The case of modern jahiliyyah

Finally, if knowledge pursuits be confined only to matter (the physical world), disregarding the conditions and stipulations of the metaphysical world, man is then bound to gradually dig himself into an “ontological hole”. What he would normally regard as knowledge under the circumstances will be a form of “quicksand” from which there will be no escape. The more he tried to get out of it, the deeper he will sink.

In this case - more often than not - the truth will be bartered for falsehood and knowledge for ignorance. Absurdities and trivialities will be advocated and promoted in the name of enlightenment and refined culture, and scepticism, pessimism and disbelief in the name of ostensible quest for the truth. Put differently, knowledge and everything that goes with it will be a great deception. It will be suicidal.

Since of late the ever-expanding orb of secular science has been taking on the mantle of a creed or a religious faith, knowledge is destined to prove a false messiah.

Needless to say that Muslim educational systems are duty-bound to promote and facilitate only the Islamic understanding of knowledge. There should be a clearly demarcated line between it and the other kinds of knowledge, which are either questionable, due to diverse degrees of contamination, or are outright types of ignorance (modern jahiliyyah). The latter could be studied to some extent, but only for comparative purposes and for the sake of optimizing the case of the Islamic knowledge.

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