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Concept and Significance of Knowledge (‘Ilm) in Islam


By Mohammad Dawood Sofi

April 5, 2017

In various Islamic discourses, the term ‘Ilm appears very frequently both in the Qur’ān and the  Hadith. ‘Ilm, derived from the root word ‘-l-m means the cognitive understanding of a particular thing and thereafter its acquisition. The terms like ‘Ilm, Hikmah, Ma’rifah, fiqh etc―and their verbs and verbal derivatives―time and again find their representation in Qur’ān and adi̇̄th that further adds to the characteristic beauty of ‘Ilm. ‘Ilm and ma‘rifah seem to be synonymous terms “but because of the various derivatives of ma‘rifah such as ‘ārif or ‘arrāf it is intended to be used for the knowledge acquired through reflection and experience presupposing a previous ignorance.” In Islam, the scholars who are dedicated and pious come under the category of “those who know” and are assigned the title ‘Ulema’ (sing. ‘ālim). Yunus Gilani (Professor of Islamic Studies, IIU Malaysia) defines the broader concept of ‘Ulema’ in his book titled, “Knowledge: An Islamic Weapon” as follows:

‘Ulema’ (sing. ‘Alim) are the possessors of ‘lim (knowledge, science, scholarship) of whatever kind and from whichever source, provided they work under the hidāyah, revealed divine guidance, communicated through the Rusul (Messengers of Allah s. w. t.), final in the line being Muhammad (SAW); and now finally contained in the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Thus, every scientist, scholar, intellectual and social engineer with the alāiyyah (capability) in his field along with aliiyyah (piety and virtue) derived from his īmān (belief in) and ‘Amal (action) according to the Qur’ān and Sunnah is an ‘ālim and all such leaders are ‘Ulema’ on the path of righteousness.

From this description, it means that the term ‘Ilm is not merely concerned with the religious knowledge but represents knowledge in the broadest sense. In the same vein, various scholars, philosophers, and intellectuals have defined the term ‘Knowledge’ according to their own understanding and knowhow and at the same time they have also endeavoured to make conspicuous different dimensions of it. For example, Knowledge, according to Sayyid Qub, is something that is beyond mere understanding. It is in the real sense an absolute comprehension and understanding of a particular thing by the mind, linked and interlinked with the soul and conscience, and finally realized by way of the actions. So, in general sense, knowledge means a total harmony between mind, soul, and the body.

Plato, a famous Greek philosopher, holds that “knowledge is of the world of forms or ideas which exist in the mind of a person”. Anis Ahmad, in a chapter titled, “ Islamization of Knowledge: A Futurist Perspective”,  published in an edited work namely Islam and Knowledge: Al Faruqi’s Concept of Religion in Islamic Thought has beautifully explained the concept of Knowledge. He says that: “Knowledge (‘Ilm) in the Islamic tradition primarily refers to revealed knowledge originating in wahy (revelation) and acquired through sensory experience”.

Similarly, Imām Ghazāli̇̄ says that: “Knowledge is like the fruit of a tree and it flows from intellect, or like the light of the sun or like the vision of the eye. Why should it not be honoured when it is the cause of the fortune in this world and the next?”. Ibn Khaldūn, the famous Muslim sociologist and historian, asserts that Knowledge can flourish only in a society that is civilized and the same is achievable through the faculty of reasoning. He further states: “Man is a social animal and his prosecution of learning is conditioned by the nature of the material, intellectual and spiritual forces of the civilisation in which he lives”.

Muslims are well aware of the fact that the spring of all the knowledge is Allah which reaches to the different Rusul (Messengers) through the institution of Way. It is through this institution that Allah invites and appeals the mankind to make use of the faculties of reason and perception (‘Ayn al-Yaqi̇̄n) and understand the significance of the whole phenomenon (including Knowledge). This has been illustrated in different Ayāt of the Qur’ān. For example:

“Verily, in the alternation of the night and the day and in all that Allah has created in the heavens and the earth are Ayāt for those people who keep their duty to Allah, and fear Him much” (Al-Qur’an, Sūrah al-Yūnus: 06)

At another place, Allah mentions:

“And Allah has brought you out from the wombs of yours mothers while you know nothing. And He gave you hearing, sight, and hearts that you might give thanks (to Allah)” (Al-Qur’an, Sūrah al-Nal: 78).

Likewise, in many Aādi̇̄th, one finds heavy emphasis laid on the significance of acquiring Knowledge coupled with the invitation to comprehend and understand the reality of the things by using the faculty of mind (‘Aql). For example in a adi̇̄th narrated by Abū Mūsā (RA) that the Messenger (SAW) said:

The example of guidance and knowledge with which Allah has sent me is like abundant rain falling on the earth, some of which was fertile soil that absorbed rain-water and brought forth vegetation and grass in abundance. (And) another portion of it was hard and held the rain-water and Allah benefited the people with it and they utilized it for drinking, (making their animals drink from it) and to irrigate the land for cultivation. (And) a portion of it was barren, which could neither hold the water nor bring forth vegetation (then the land was of no benefit). The first is the example of the person who comprehends Allah’s religion and gets benefit from the knowledge, which Allah has revealed through me and learns and then teaches it to others. The (last example is that of a) person who does not care for it and does not take Allah’s Guidance revealed through me (He is like the barren land.) [Imām Bukhāri̇̄, ai̇̄ḥ Bukhāri̇̄, vol.1, tr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam, 1997), 103].

Therefore, from this whole discussion, it emerges that there is no harm at all if a person acquires knowledge by making use of his mind―rationality or reasoning―provided it is guided and enmeshed within the very knowledge revealed by Allah. The fact is that the faculty of mind (‘aql) and thereafter its use in gaining Knowledge either through rationalism, logic, or through empiricism, has undoubtedly serious limitations. Therefore, owing to this fact if the intellect is not made subservient to the revealed Knowledge then it can mislead and misdirect the entire humanity. Last, inquisitive seeking and search for knowledge is one of the prime duties assigned by Islam to the Muslims (alab al-‘Ilm). The knowledge thus gained should not be meant for procuring fame or something similar to it rather its basic aim should be, inter alia, to win the favor of Allah and to work for the betterment of the humanity.

Mohammad Dawood Sofi is a PhD in Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University.