Knowledge as the real essence
By Dr Riffat Hassan
September 19, 2008
Friday Ramazan 18, 1429
ISLAM regards the seeking of knowledge as an ethical imperative, and an endeavour highly pleasing to God. Amongst the sources of knowledge, the Quran particularly emphasises the following: revelation and practice of the Holy Prophet (PBUH); reason; empirical inquiry; history and intuition.
From the Quranic perspective, knowledge is not limited to what is learnt through a reasoning mind or the senses. Acquisition of knowledge requires a total involvement of the seeker in relation to the total reality. To become a “total” or a “whole” person, integration of the diverse, often mutually conflicting, aspects of one’s outer and inner self is required, as sages through the centuries have taught.
By identifying and endorsing the diverse sources of knowledge often considered to be mutually opposing (as revelation and reason, or reason and intuition), the Quran points to both the possibility of, and the need for, an integration or synthesis leading to a unity of knowledge that subsumes the multiplicity of the sources of knowledge. That the Quranic vision had been internalised by Allama Iqbal, for instance, is clear from his statement: “Modern India ought to focus on the discovery of man as a personality — as an independent “whole” in an all-embracing synthesis of life. But does our education today tend to awaken in us such a sense of inner wholeness? My answer is ‘No’. ...The soul of man is left untouched and the result is a superficial knowledge with a mere illusion of culture and freedom. Amidst this predominantly intellectual culture which must accentuate separate centres within the ‘whole’, the duty of higher minds… is to reveal the inner synthesis of life.”
The Quran urges the seeking of knowledge so that through it both inner and outer reality may be transformed. It is in the essence of a river to flow and the sun to give light. Likewise, it is in the essence of an alim (scholar) to translate knowledge into objective reality as did the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). The Quran calls those who know but do not act jahilun (ignorant ones). Understood in these terms, an alim is one who strives in the way of God.
The high rate of illiteracy amongst Muslims, especially women, is both a tragedy and irony, given the importance accorded to acquisition of knowledge by Islam. The Quran refers more than one hundred times to God as Alim (One who knows), and the very first verse revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) links to divine bounty the human ability to write and to know (Surah 96: 1)
The Quran describes the Prophet of Islam as one taught by God (Surah 4: 113) and as an imparter of knowledge to others (Surah 2: 151) but commands him, nevertheless, to pray: “O my Sustainer, cause me to grow in knowledge” (Surah 20: 114). About those who have knowledge, the Quran says that they have been given great wealth (Surah 2: 269), and will be exalted by God (Surah 58: 11)
The Quranic perspective is also reflected in a number of well-known ahadith. For instance: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim” (Baihaqi, Mishkat); “Search for knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim, male and female: (Ibn Majah); “He who goes forth in search of knowledge is in the way of Allah till he returns” (Tirmidhi, Darimi); “Search for knowledge though it be in China: (Baihaqi); “Whoever searches after knowledge, it will be expiation for his past sins.” (Tirmidhi)
The high priority given to his community’s education by the
Prophet (PBUH) is attested by Goldziher thus: “That Muhammad himself — partly,
it may be, on utilitarian grounds — attached considerable importance to the
acquisition of the most indispensable elements of knowledge, may be inferred
from the conditions on which he released prisoners of war after his victory at
Badr. He employed several Quraish captives to teach the boys of
The Prophet’s attitude had a strong impact on his community as pointed out by Semaan: “In the realm of education, we may say, Muhammad instituted learning as an incumbent duty upon his people and this established a definite educational policy for Islam.”
Gulick expresses the belief that the knowledge affirming ahadith which “have been widely accepted as authentic and... have exerted a wide and salutary influence… must assuredly have stimulated and encouraged the great thinkers of the golden age of Islamic civilisation.”
The writer is a scholar of Iqbal and Islam, teaching at the University of Louisville, USA.
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