Knowledge in Islam


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Erum Asif

Erum Asif is a freelance writer and homeschooling mother, based in Islamabad.

Latest posts by Erum Asif (see all)

By Erum Asif

After the demise of the Prophet (sa), a teenager, who had acquired much knowledge from him, was determined to learn more from the Sahabahs, saying that “the Sahabahs are in a great number today.” If he heard of a Sahabah knowing a Hadeeth he didn’t know, he would dash to his home, at times having to wait outside in scorching heat. The Sahabah would insist that he could have come to this esteemed teenager himself. To this, the teenager would reply that rather he should be coming himself to seek knowledge. When those Sahabahs passed away, people, including the Caliph, would refer to this youth. He was Abdullah Ibn Abbas (rta), Mufassir of the Quran and narrator of Ahadeeth.

Moving forward in history, we find Imam Malik travelling on foot for days and nights for the sake of a single Hadeeth, Imam Shafai writing on bones, as he could not afford paper, and Ibn Asakir (compiler of the history of Damascus) mentioning 80 women among the teachers he learnt Ahadeeth from. We witness people’s love of the scholars. When Imam Bukhari was returning to Bukhara from his scholarly journeys, the inhabitants would set up tents for three miles outside the city to welcome him.

The early Muslims gave the top priority to seeking and spreading knowledge, especially that of Deen. They acted upon what they learnt. Thus, history reflects the respect, peace and power they enjoyed. Those who know and those who don’t are not equal in this world and the next. “… Say: ‘Are those who know equal to those who know not?’….” (Az-Zumar 39:9)

Islam is a religion of knowledge and it does not befit a Muslim to be ignorant of his Deen, even though this is a wide-spread case nowadays. The Prophet (sa) clearly said: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.” (lbn Majah and others; reported by Anas)

Note four things here:

1. Which knowledge is the Hadeeth referring to? Physics, mathematics or computer science? The knowledge, which is obligatory and Fardh-ayn, is that of Deen. It is also referred to in another Hadeeth: “…the scholars are the heirs of the prophets and that the prophets did not leave behind Dinars and Dirhams; rather, their inheritance was knowledge, so whoever acquires it has acquired a great share.” (Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawood)

Does learning our Deen mean knowing every detail? Some knowledge of Deen is obligatory, and some is optional. The Prophet (sa) said: “Knowledge is (of) three (categories): Muhkam Ayah (precise verse), or Sunnah Qaimah (established Sunnah), or Fareedhah ‘Adilah (firm, obligatory duty). And whatever is besides this, is extra.” (Abu Dawood and Majah)

The minimum we must know is our faith: the teachings relating to worship (prayers, fasting, Zakah, Hajj), Akhlaq (manners) and transactions (e.g., everyday Halal and Haram; teachings regarding family-life; teachings concerning our roles as businessmen, rulers, employees, etc.). Learning in-depth religious sciences, such as Tafsir, Fiqh or Ahadeeth, is Fardh-Kifayah.

2. The most serious term in the Hadeeth is Fareedhah (obligation). Learning the Deen is an obligation – the first obligation, not something optional we can postpone because of degree pursuits, marriage or career-development.

3. Another key-word is Talab (seeking). Muslims have to seek the knowledge of Deen actively, instead of hoping for its arrival by chance.

4. The Prophet (sa) made NO exemptions. He said Kull (every) Muslim. Old or young, poor or rich, male or female, busy or idle, free or enslaved – everyone must learn the glorious Deen!

Seeking the knowledge of Dunya is Fardh-Kifayah and optional. If the guidelines provided by Islam are followed, seeking worldly knowledge can be an Ibadah; otherwise, a pointless or even damaging venture.

As an Ummah, have we got our ‘obligatory’ and ‘optional’, right? “Nay, you prefer the life of this world, although the Hereafter is better and more lasting.” (Al-Ala 87:16-17) Knowledge of Deen is badly neglected and considered done, upon completing the sessions of Quran recitation in childhood, while optional knowledge has been secularized and made obligatory, with children spending nearly 20 years, and parents incurring back-breaking expenses for the sake of ‘education’. Consequently, we have societies that are ‘Muslim’ but not Islamic. We have PhDs and professionals, who don’t know the Deen. Does the average businessman holding an MBA know and follow Islam’s teachings about trade? Do our economists understand Islam’s flawless economic system? Are our doctors, lawyers and journalists aware of the Islamic ethics relevant to them? Does this ignorance affect their work? Should they be considered educated, if they haven’t learnt the obligatory? Imagine a person not performing the five obligatory prayers, though working hard on much Nafl. If Muslims start treating obligatory knowledge as obligatory, the Ummah can recover drastically.

Allah (swt) Himself conveyed the knowledge of Deen through messengers, while He left other matters for us to discover. Why? Based on intellect, experience and experimentation, we can learn the laws of nature and the ways of growing food, treating diseases and constructing houses. But intellect and experience cannot tell us the purpose of life, who created us, what happens after death, the rights and responsibilities in various roles, the permissible and impermissible in food, money matters and gender relations. When we try to figure these out ourselves, we either reach devastatingly wrong conclusions or die without discovering the truth.

It is vital to seek and spread knowledge. We want to be the best. Who is the best? “The best of you is the one, who learns the Quran and teaches it.” (Agreed upon) Ponder over Surah At-Taubah (9:122): “And it is not (proper) for the believers to go out to fight (Jihad) all together. Of every troop of them, a party only should go forth, that they (who are left behind) may get instructions in (Islamic) religion, and that they may warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware (of evil).”

We are Muslims, because the Sahabahs and succeeding generations spread the Deen through words and deeds. Muslim rulers propagated Islamic knowledge. Caliph Umar (rta), a shining example, appointed Quran teachers everywhere in the Islamic state. Abu Darda (rta) was appointed in Damascus and was reported to have 1,600 students in his circle. Death terminates our deeds, but beneficial knowledge we leave behind keeps multiplying our rewards. (Muslim)

Regarding worldly knowledge, remember:

“Read! In the Name of your Lord Who created (all that exists).” (Al-Alaq 96:1) Divine knowledge must guide worldly knowledge. It will help filter good ideas from the bad ones, and remembering the Lord (swt) will humble us as learners. Divorcing Deen from Dunya was the design of Kuffar. We imported it into our educational institutions, which then became the prime breeding-grounds for secularization of mindsets and societies. If Islamic teachings are mentioned only in Islamic Studies class, how can our children believe that Islam is relevant to real life? While secular economics cannot fix today’s economic crises, Divine economics can. Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul-Aziz’s (rta) officials would go looking for deserving recipients of charity but find none! The opening verse of Surah Al-Alaq also suggests we seek any knowledge with the Niyyah of pleasing Allah (swt) and serving His Deen. In contemporary times, Harun Yahya and Dr. Zakir Naik have set good examples.

Secondly, Islam encourages us to seek beneficial knowledge and shun the non-beneficial. In today’s age of excessive information, this is an indispensable criterion. Allah (swt) has blessed us with curiosity – we should use it wisely. We should seek knowledge that benefits us, fellow humans and the planet. A Muslim cannot afford to waste time studying “Romeo and Juliet” or cramming useless data that exits his brain soon after exams are over.

With these two points in mind, we need to reclaim our proud tradition of learning. Righteous people must lead the various fields, instead of allowing evil or secular ‘experts’ to mislead humanity. The Ummah needs knowledgeable people also for reducing its dependence on non-Muslims. Here is some inspiration from our predecessors:

Aisha (rta) was an authority on medicine. Uthman (rta) and AbdurRahman Ibn Awf (rta) were brilliant businessmen.

Muslims have made invaluable contributions to manners, literature, science, medicine and mathematics. They were the first to establish hospitals and universities. Ibn Sina’s “Canon of Medicine” was used in European universities for centuries as the most respected medical bible. Muslims introduced the concept of zero in mathematics. Non-Muslims learnt Arabic to benefit from books written by Muslims.

Baghdad, Timbuktu and Samarqand were great learning centres. The scholars were more important than the rulers, the latter having to listen to the former. Rulers, traders and the public consulted scholars; they governed the city, acted as judges and ensured fair trade. The work of Muslim astronomers in Samarqand’s state-of-the-art observatories enabled people to pray towards the Qiblah and measure the size of the Earth. Modern scientific achievements were made possible by the work of early Muslims.

They were exemplary also because they acted upon their knowledge. Sayyid Qutb remarks: “Thus, instruction to be translated into action was the method of the first group of Muslims. The method of later generations was instruction for academic discussion and enjoyment. And without doubt this is one of the major factors, which made later generations different from the first unique generation of Islam.”

Jews and Christians read their books without practicing them. Islam advocates knowledge for the sake of action. Nobody will be able to move from before his Lord (swt), till he/she answers five questions, including “how much he acted upon the knowledge he obtained”. (At-Tirmidhi)

Let the study of the Quran and Seerah be a daily routine for your family. At least once a week, get together with fellow-Muslims to learn collectively. Check, whether you are acting upon your knowledge, and where you are falling short. Learning and practicing our Deen can secure for us not just this short life but the entire eternity!

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