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The delights of knowledge

Ikim Views


Senior Fellow/Director, Centre for Economics and Social Studies


Tuesday June 9, 2009


Muslims striving in the divine cause must include study and teaching for the common benefit of society.


STRUGGLE (jihad) has two aspects. First is the external struggle between the believers against the deniers of religious truths, their enemies and ill-wishers “who mock at Religion and make jest of it” (al-Ma’idah, 5:57).


The second is the internal struggle against one’s carnal self. In this spiritual battle – constantly engaged between ones’ intellectual faculties and the animal powers of ones’ human soul – the intelligent self aims to subdue the bestial and render it under control.


Because the battle against one’s carnal self, which is inclined to evil deeds, is harder and more difficult, mujahadat al-nafs wa al-shaytan has been called the greater struggle (jihad al-akbar) vis-à-vis the external one.


Once, the Prophet welcomed some Companions who had just returned from the battlefield and remarked that they had returned from a smaller jihad (i.e. warfare) to face a greater jihad, i.e. fighting one’s carnal self against earthly temptations.


It is a real challenge to live responsibly among one’s family and society without one’s heart being preoccupied; in other words, worldly necessities should not be the veil which obstructs religious truths from one’s view.


As knowledge, understanding, and wisdom pertain to the second aspect of jihad, Muslims’ striving in the divine cause must include study and teaching for the common benefit of society.


In the year 630 CE/9H, there was a strong rumour that the Romans, led by the Byzantine Emperor himself, were preparing to invade Arabia, and that his armies had arrived near the frontier. In order to confront the Emperor, the Prophet then led a 30,000-strong army expedition to a place called Tabuk.


At that time, God commanded that it was not desirable for all the believers to take to the field.


Rather, a party of every group of Muslims, whether in townships or in the surrounding environs, should refrain from going forth to war.


They had to remain behind instead, to devote themselves to the study of religion and become learned in its insight in hopes of bringing about God-consciousness.


According to the Quran, that mission of tafaqquh fi al-din, which means the obligation of acquiring a deeper knowledge concerning religion, is further related to another duty; that of teaching ones’ fellow Muslim brethren, when they return from warfare (see al-Tawbah, 9:122).


Thus, imparting knowledge and its application to fellow-believers in the best interests of Muslim religious life, and instructing them truthfully, is part and parcel of the struggle in the divine path.


From that Quranic verse, scholars such as al-Ghazzali (d. 505/111) inferred a very significant category of communally obligatory knowledge, or fardu kifayah knowledge, which refers to two kinds of specialisation.


First, specialisation in Sacred Law. Pursuit of it is obligatory as it is a means to practice religion.


This includes the pursuit of the knowledge of the language of the Quran (Arabic), the legal methodological principles (usul al-fiqh), rules concerning trade (fiqh al-mu‘amalah), funeral rites (al-jana’iz), inheritance (fiqh al-mawarith), marriage (fiqh al-munakahat), criminal law (fiqh al-jinayat), and so on.


As the worldview of Islam does not draw any dividing line between the sacred and the profane, but rather a different aspect of one and the same reality, the doctrine of fardu kifayah knowledge has a positive bearing on every kind of science, even if it is not a so-called ‘Shari‘ah’ science.


Al-Ghazzali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, written in the 12th Century, for example, includes the like of medicine, arithmetic, agriculture, and politics as part of fardu kifayah knowledge.


Since then, however, intellectual perspectives, various knowledge and the sciences have developed tremendously.


Thus, in the 21st Century, Prof Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas includes among fardu kifayah knowledge the human sciences; natural, applied and technological sciences; comparative religions; Western culture and civilisation; linguistics; and Islam in World History, including its thought and civilisation.


In short, fardu kifayah knowledge refers to those sciences upon which the activities of this life depend.


Pursuant to the conception of fardu kifayah knowledge, Muslim rulers of the past provided clinics and hospitals – all well-arranged under the waqf system (endowment).


Abu Bakr al-Halwani’s Lata’if al-Ma‘arif recorded that a health system par excellence was pioneered by the Umayyad Caliph, al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, who ruled the vast land from Spain to India in 705-715CE/86-96H.


Indeed, apart from building hospitals, al-Walid I developed a welfare system, built educational institutions and measures for the appreciation of art.


Al-Halwani’s Lata’if further recorded that the Muslim rulers of the past also established a special section of judicial system to administer matters concerning bequests and inheritance (al-tirkat wa al-mawarith).


Other examples are also pertinent: the science of geography and topography were developed to support the need for communication amongst pilgrims and traders, in addition to their benefits to agriculture.


While astronomy was indispensable for travel, it was also very beneficial to agriculture in terms of a weather almanac, the ebbs and tides, and the movements of the sun and the moon.


The science of botany, meanwhile, was important to understand the nutritional and medicinal properties of plants.


Indeed, the absence of such sciences would render the community lost.


With regard to the indispensability of such sciences for the welfare of this world, al-Ghazzali was of the opinion that if one ignored the pursuit of fardu kifayah knowledge, it was tantamount to committing sin for destroying one’s community, something prohibited by God in the Qur’an, al-Baqarah, 2:195.

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