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Knowledge As Defined In the Quran


By Aftab Ahmad, New Age Islam

28 April, 2014

The holy Quran deals with the concept of knowledge (Ilm) rather in detail. On quite a few occasions it discusses knowledge both in religious or spiritual and material or scientific terms. When analysed and studied comprehensively, the various verses of the Quran lead us to the conclusion that by knowledge, the holy Quran means both religious and scientific knowledge. It therefore negates the general notion of the Muslims that the Quran only stresses on religious knowledge and does not approve of worldly knowledge or the sciences.

In Quran two words Ilm (knowledge) and Hikmah (wisdom) are used frequently meaning religious sciences, occult sciences, science and technology, knowledge of good governance etc. God is called omniscient, the seat of all knowledge, arts and sciences. In the Quran, God is called Aleem (omniscient) and Hakeem (knower of all the sciences, arts and possessor of all wisdom).These two words denote God’s monopoly on all knowledge. That’s no man can be called Aleem. A man with some knowledge can only be called Aalim ( one who has acquired a small portion of knowledge in any field with God’s grace).God bestows a part of His knowledge to a man according to his spiritual or intellectual capabilities and passion for knowledge. Whatever knowledge or science man possesses is the gift of God. Man cannot claim to have knowledge out of his own will. Without God’s grace man cannot even speak, leave alone possessing higher religious, spiritual or scientific knowledge. The Quran says,

“(He) created man and then taught him to speak. (Al Rahman: 13)

Therefore even the man’s simple ability to speak is not without the grace of God. In another verse, the Quran announces that all the knowledge is imminent in God. In other words, no knowledge spiritual or scientific is out of the monopoly of God. Man or even the angels’ posses part of the knowledge according to HIS wish. The Quran says,

“And He taught Adam the names - all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, "Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful." They said, "Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise."(Al Baquarah: 31-32)

The angels admit to God that they know only what He has taught them.

On various occasions, God says in the Quran that he revealed knowledge of various things to Man.

“And Allah has revealed to you the Book and wisdom and has taught you that which you did not know. (Al Nisa: 113)

The Quran also says that God is “Aallimul Ghaib Was Shahadah Al Azizul Hakeem” (Al Taghabun: 18)

“And Allah is ever Knowing and wise”.   (Al Nisa: 111)

The general among Muslims is that by knowledge the Quran only means religious or spiritual knowledge and not the worldly sciences and arts. This notion led them to the tradition of Islamic madrasas that were devoid of scientific knowledge and other sciences and arts that were necessary for the material progress and development of the community that in turn would establish the hegemony of Islam and Muslims in the world. The Quran talks of religious knowledge revealed to Prophet Muhammad and all the previous prophets and messengers but at the same time, the Quran also talks of the scientific knowledge that God bestowed on the prophets as well as the ordinary man of scientific temperament who made various scientific invention in the world and contributed to modern science and technology. Let’s go through the verses of the Quran that deal with the religious knowledge.

“That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal, [O Muhammad], to you. “(Yusuf: 102)

The verse refers to the historical knowledge about the previous nations that existed in olden days particularly those nations that were destroyed due to their disobedience to God and due to their idolatry and corrupt and evil ways.

Similarly in other verse, God says:

"That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. You knew it not, neither you nor your people, before this." (Hud: 49)

The verses above refer to historical knowledge which man particularly the prophet did not have and it was given to him through the divine revelation.

In other verse the Quran says,

“And God revealed the Book and wisdom to you and taught you what you knew not" (Al Nisa :)

In the verse above, the Book means religion knowledge and the word Hikmah means other issues of religion and worldly importance. What the issues of ‘worldly importance’ can be are mentioned in other verses. For example, Prophet Yusuf have the knowledge of interpretation of dreams. Interpretation of dreams is not a purely religious issue but Prophet Yusuf was given the knowledge of dreams. In the Quran, Prophet Yusuf says,

“This is the knowledge that my God taught me.” (Yusuf: 37)

In verse No. 101 of Surah Yusuf, Prophet Yusuf is said to have the knowledge of “Taweel ul Ahadeeth. Exegetes are of the opinion that “Taweel ul Ahadeeth” may mean art of governance and arbitration. In any case, the verse does not deal with any religious ordainment but the knack of dealing with day to day affairs of governance.

So the verses of the Quran reveal that Quran not only deals with religion and historical knowledge but also with scientific knowledge. Let’s study the verses that deal with scientific knowledge and inventions.

When the nation of Noah did not discard idolatry and evil ways and refused to reform themselves, God decided to destroy them. Prophet Noah instructed to build a gigantic ship. Prophet Noah who belonged to a primitive age was able to build a huge ship with wood that was a marvel of science and technology. The ship was so strong that it sailed against stormy winds and tidal waves for more than forty days. According to exegetes, the ship was built in decades. Noah who was neither a scientist nor an engineer built the ship with the help of God’s direct instructions. The Quran clearly says that Noah built the ship under God’s direct supervision and guidance.

“And construct the ship under Our observation and Our inspiration and do not address Me concerning those who have wronged; indeed, they are [to be] drowned." And he constructed the ship, and whenever an assembly of the eminent of his people passed by him, they ridiculed him. He said, "If you ridicule us, then we will ridicule you just as you ridicule. “ (Hud: 37-38)

“So We inspired to him, "Construct the ship under Our observation, and Our inspiration, and when Our command comes and the oven overflows, put into the ship from each [creature] two mates and your family, except those for whom the decree [of destruction] has proceeded. And do not address Me concerning those who have wronged; indeed, they are to be drowned. “(Al Muminun: 27)

The verses quoted above clearly demonstrate that God revealed scientific and technological knowledge to Noah. The knowledge of building a ship or boat was owned by the future generations and benefitted with the knowledge revealed to Noah. The model of the ship built by Noah was used by later generation scientists who built ships and boats on the same scientific principles.

After Noah, God revealed scientific knowledge to his prophet Sulaiman. God made him a powerful king and made the winds subordinate to hm. The winds carried him wherever he wanted to fly. The djinns and demonic powers were put at his service. They built buildings and palaces at his order and dived into seas and brought out wealth for him.

“So We subjected to him the wind blowing by his command, gently, wherever he directed, And [also] the devils [of jinn] - every builder and diver And others bound together in shackles." (Saad: 36-38)

The Quran also narrates the incident involving King Sulaiman and the Queen of Saba, Bilquees. King Sulaiman sent her a letter inviting her to the true Deen and warned of consequences if she refused to do so. Sulaiman asked his courtiers if anyone could bring the throne of Queen of Saba before she could arrive at his palace. One person in the court who possessed a particular ‘Ilm’) knowledge claimed that he could with the help of his knowledge or science bring her throne in the court within seconds.

“Said one who had knowledge from the Scripture, "I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you." And when [Solomon] saw it placed before him, he said, "This is from the favour of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful - his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful - then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous." (Al Naml: 40)

 He did so Saba’s throne was present in Sulaiman’s palace within seconds. Queen of Saba arrived in Sulaiman’s palace. The Quran narrates what happened next:

“So when she arrived, it was said [to her], "Is your throne like this?" She said, "[It is] as though it was it." [Solomon said], "And we were given knowledge before her, and we have been Muslims [in submission to Allah]. And that which she was worshipping other than Allah had averted her [from submission to Him]. Indeed, she was from a disbelieving people." (Al Naml: 42-43)

She finds her throne in the palace and at one realizes that this scientific feat could only be achieved b someone having great spiritual knowledge. She became a believer. The person who brought the throne with his ilm was not a prophet by a courtier of King Sulaiman’s palace. It means that God did not bestow scientific knowledge to prophets alone but common men with scientific temperament.

Again when she was asked to walk into the palace, she perceived that there was water on the floor of the palace. So she pulled her clothes up and exposed her legs. The courtiers were bemused and told her that there was no water on the floor but the glass floor created the illusion of water. Such a phenomenon could only be found in this modern age but that King Sulaiman’s kingdom was scientifically and industrially developed Is evident from the fact that the floor of his palace was made of high quality glass that created the illusion of water. Moreover, the Quran reveals that many demons and Djins were employed by King Sulaiman who toiled to extract copper from the earth and melted them in big furnaces to build buildings and palaces for him. Such furnaces are found today in big factories run by latest technology.

“And We certainly gave David from Us bounty. [We said], "O mountains, repeat [Our] praises with him, and the birds [as well]." And We made pliable for him iron, [Commanding him], "Make full coats of mail and calculate [precisely] the links, and work [all of you] righteousness. Indeed I, of what you do, am Seeing." And to Solomon [We subjected] the wind - its morning [journey was that of] a month - and its afternoon [journey was that of] a month, and We made flow for him a spring of [liquid] copper. And among the jinn were those who worked for him by the permission of his Lord. And whoever deviated among them from Our command - We will make him taste of the punishment of the Blaze. They made for him what he willed of elevated chambers, statues, bowls like reservoirs, and stationary kettles. [We said], "Work, O family of David, in gratitude." And few of My servants are grateful." (Saba: 10-13)

Sulaiman’s predecessor King and Prophet David is also said to have scientific knowledge bestowed in him by God. He was taught the language of birds and God also taught him how to make various tools and weapons from iron. He had got the knowledge of shaping and moulding iron easily and particularly made weapons that were used in wars. The Quran says,

“And We taught him the fashioning of coats of armour to protect you from your [enemy in] battle. So will you then be grateful?   “(Al Ambiya: 80)

About David, the Quran says in another verse:

“Be patient over what they say and remembers Our servant, David, the possessor of strength; indeed, he was one who repeatedly turned back [to Allah]. Indeed, We subjected the mountains [to praise] with him, exalting [Allah ] in the [late] afternoon and [after] sunrise. And the birds were assembled, all with him repeating [praises]. And We strengthened his kingdom and gave him wisdom and discernment in speech.  “(Saad: 17-20)

The verses above show that apart from making David a prophet, God also gave him scientific knowledge.

There are other prophets whom God gave wisdom and knowledge. For example, God gave prophet Khidhr a particular knowledge (Ilm)

“And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge.  “(Al Kahf: 65)

God also gave prophet Luqman wisdom:

“We gave Luqman wisdom “(Luqman: 2)

All the verses quoted above show that all the knowledge of religious, historical or administrative or scientific importance was imparted to prophets by God.  God revealed religious ordainments to man through prophets in order to make man morally and spiritually elevated and gave them scientific knowledge in order to make their material life comfortable.

 It is not that he gave scientific knowledge only  to the prophets like Noah, Sulaiman, David and their courtiers but also to ordinary men both Muslims and non-Muslims so that they could contribute to the progress and development of the society. Secondly, God bestowed scientific knowledge to anyone who did research into his creations, the earth, the nature and the all the living and non-living beings. God asks man to ponder over his creation and bestows rewards on anyone who ponders over his universe and does research on it. To the non-believers he bestows knowledge in the hope that his knowledge would lead him to the divine truth. God bestowed a particular knowledge, art or trade to Qarun. He accumulated huge wealth with the help of this knowledge or art and did not express his gratitude to God for his blessings and bounties. God gave him knowledge and wealth to test his faith. About Qarun, the Quran says,

“Indeed, Qarun was from the people of Moses, but he tyrannized them. And We gave him of treasures whose keys would burden a band of strong men; thereupon his people said to him, "Do not exult. Indeed, Allah does not like the exultant. But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters." He said, "I was only given it because of knowledge I have." Did he not know that Allah had destroyed before him of generations those who were greater than him in power and greater in accumulation [of wealth]? But the criminals, about their sins, will not be asked.  “(Al Quisas: 76-78)

The result for this ingratitude was:

“And We caused the earth to swallow him and his home. And there was for him no company to aid him other than Allah, nor was he of those who [could] defend themselves. “(Al Quisas: 81)

Qarun was destroyed because he did not express gratitude to God for his Ilm (knowledge) and believed that his knowledge was not given by God.

Similarly, the sorcerer Samiri was a contemporary of Prophet Moses. He had got some knowledge and insight. He was a non-believer and while Moses on Mount Toor, he misled his community and created a golden calf with the voice of cow. The nation of Moses started worshipping the calf. When Moses came back, he burnt the calf and cursed Samiri after which he suffered isolation from the society.

“[ Allah ] said, "But indeed, We have tried your people after you [departed], and the Samiri has led them astray." So Moses returned to his people, angry and grieved. He said, "O my people, did your Lord not make you a good promise? Then, was the time [of its fulfillment] too long for you, or did you wish that wrath from your Lord descend upon you, so you broke your promise [of obedience] to me?" They said, "We did not break our promise to you by our will, but we were made to carry burdens from the ornaments of the people [of Pharaoh], so we threw them [into the fire], and thus did the Samiri throw." And he extracted for them [the statue of] a calf which had a lowing sound, and they said, "This is your god and the god of Moses, but he forgot. “ (Taha: 85-88)

However, there are other inventions mentioned in the Quran whose inventors are not named. For example, the weighing scale is said to have been revealed by God. There are two verses that mention the scale:

  We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice. And We sent down iron, wherein is great military might and benefits for the people, and so that Allah may make evident those who support Him and His messengers unseen. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might. “(Al Hadeed: 25)

“And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance.”Al Rahman: 07)

It means that the knowledge of making a weighing scale was revealed by God to man. Since the knowledge of weighing scale was revealed to ordinary scientist, the inventor was not mentioned. However it is obvious that the knowledge was bestowed by God.

Similarly the Quran also speaks of small inventions that have made life easier and more comfortable for man. No one knows about their inventors. But God says that He revealed their knowledge. That means God gave the knowledge of all the scientific inventions to man .

It is evident from the verses above that all the knowledge of scientific inventions were actually revealed to man, or to be precise, scientists both Muslim and non-Muslim. He gave scientific knowledge to Muslims so that his faith in God enhances and to non-Muslims so that the knowledge leads him to Him.

So it can be concluded that to God, knowledge is knowledge. It is not religious or scientific. Muslims have categorized knowledge as religious and scientific. They have declared scientific knowledge as un-Islamic and therefore barred scientific knowledge from their school curriculum while the truth is that God asks Muslims in the Quran to acquire scientific knowledge by doing research into his creations in the universe.

Aftab Ahmad is an occasional contributor to New Age Islam and a freelance journalist.  He has been studying the Holy Quran for some time.