The Prophet’s Esteem for Knowledge

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How was the prophets respect for knowledge? What is the knowlegde in islam?

Ilm literally means “knowing.” It is also described as “knowledge which conforms to the reality or comprehends things as they are.” Ignorance is its opposite.

Islam esteems knowledge and strongly encourages its acquirement. Thus, it regards enlightening the soul and mind as very important. In the first verses revealed by Allah the Almighty, He commands to read and learn His Messenger and he reflects such to all humanity in his personality:

“Read in the name of your Lord Who created. He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, He Who taught (the use of) the Pen, Taught man that which he knew not.” (Al-Alaq 96; 1-5)

The repetition of the order “Read” twice in the above verses manifests how important acquiring and teaching knowledge is in Islam. These verses indicate that Allah the Almighty is the real source of knowledge and this in a way suggests “Remember your Lord’s name; Read in accordance with His consent; Understand the deeper meanings, Read yourself and universe so that you may reach the knowledge of Allah and live the highest level of servitude.”

Allah the Almighty encourages His Messenger to continue to make supplications to increase his knowledge by saying:

“…say, O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge.” (Taha 20; 114) In this respect the Prophet (pbuh) showed that he followed this command saying: “There is no goodness for me in a day passed without learning something which brings me closer to Allah.” (Ali al-Muttaqi, X, 136) For knowledge is such an endless treasure that it not only benefits its owner but also other people and even the whole of Creation, because it is the most important means to separate the right from the wrong. More knowledge does not impose an extra burden upon a person but it becomes a virtue. In this context the more someone’s knowledge increases the more his modesty is strengthened since he gets rid of unnecessary thoughts and concerns, understands the truth and tries to be a better person. Allah the Almighty emphasizes that He will exalt His knowledgeable servants if they fulfill the requirements of their knowledge in the following verse:

“…Allah will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks.” (al-Mujadalah 58; 11)

In some of his sayings Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) praises the scholars as follows:

“…If Allah wants to do good to a person, He makes him comprehend the religion…” (Bukhari, Ilim, 10; Muslim, Imara, 175)

“The world and everything in it are worthless except the rememberance of Allah, things that gets someone closer to Him, a scholar who transmits knowledge, and a student willing to learn it.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 14)

Teaching others is one of the greatest charities and most rewarding deeds. For instance, educating students, writing and publishing books, transmitting knowledge by using the means of modern technology can be considered among the deeds which are stated in a prophetic saying as continuous charity. (Muslim, Wasiyyah, 14)

One day, Safwan b. Assal (r.a.) met to the Prophet (pbuh) in the mosque and said:

“O Messenger of Allah! I came to acquire knowledge.” The Prophet (pbuh) told him:

“Welcome to the one who wants to learn! Angels make circles with their wings around the seeker of knowledge up to the first level of the heavens.” (Haythami, I, 131)

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) encourages us to seek knowledge sincerely saying:

“If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure at the one who seeks knowledge, the inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth and the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man. The superiority of the learned man over the devout man is like that of the night of a full moon over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither gold nor silver, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion.” (Abu Dawud, Ilm, 1; Tirmidhi, Ilm, 19)

The Qur’an states that knowledge in its nature makes people gain positive qualities and makes them more conscious towards Allah the Almighty. We can observe this fact when we examine the whole context of the verse “…Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Are those who know equal with those who know not? …” (al-Zumar 39; 9).

At the beginning of this Qur’anic chapter (surat al-Zumar) it is ordered to worship only Allah, making religion devotion purely for Him. The following verses deal with the creation of the earth and the heavens, the succession of the day after the night, the moon and sun following their courses, and the creation of man. Contemplating over such cosmic verses leads the servant to the knowledge of Allah. Then the following verses explain the people’s situation with regard to the knowledge of Allah and mention the attributes of “knowledge” and “ignorance.” Allah the Almighty says in the Qur’an:

“When some trouble touches man, he cries unto hid Lord, turning to Him in repentance: but when He bestows a favor upon him as from Himself, (man) doth forget what he cried and prayed for before, and he does set up rivals unto Allah, thus misleading others from Allah’s Path. Say, enjoy your blasphemy for a little while: verily thou art (one) of the Companions of the Fire. Is he who pays adoration in the watches of the night, prostrating and standing, bewaring of the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, (to be accounted equal with a disbeliever)? Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Are those who know equal with those who know not? But only men of understanding will pay heed.” (al-Zumar 39; 8-9)

In these verses some negative situations such as:

1) Infidelity and ingratitude

2) Praying to Allah only in times of hardship

3) Not praying during times of ease

4) Attributing partners to Allah in order to make people go astray are counted among the manifestations of ignorance and lack of knowledge.

On the other hand, some good manners such as:

“1) Continuing to worship and pray at night

2) Being cautious in this world because of the questioning and punishment in the Hereafter

3) Not to lose hope of Allah’s endless mercy” are presented as the manifestations of true knowledge. Those who possess such qualities are considered scholars even if they cannot read or write, because people’s salvation depends on living in accordance with knowledge.[1]

When those two opposite human types are compared, the first group can be described as “those who do not know” and the second one as “those who know.” According to the verses these two groups are not equal. The following verse (al-Zumar 39; 10) announces the requirements to join the second group as follows:

1) To live a pious life under continuous devotional observation of Allah

2) To do good deeds

3) To migrate if it is necessary to protect religion

4) To show patience towards the obstacles faced in living Islam and conveying its message.

What we understand from the above mentioned verses is that knowledge of Allah and cognizance of the truth is true knowledge. Such knowledge sharpens someone’s insight and sagacity and so enables him to get in touch with the unalterable truth. If a field of science directs a person to Allah the Absolute Ruler, it is accepted as true knowledge. Otherwise, according to the description of the Qur’an, abstract and disconnected information that fill the brain but does not take a person to the facts about the universe is not true knowledge.[2]

The same thing can be said about dealing with the natural laws of the universe and with other fields of science. They should become means of attain Divine knowledge. Otherwise, they will be nothing but a curtain. Those who ignore Allah’s commands, work for their worldly pleasures and comfort, study under circumstances, which are not approved by Islam, and then say “what I do is among Allah’s commands” will later recognize their faults.

It is a serious situation if someone’s knowledge increases in appearance but no change is seen in his spiritual state because increased knowledge is supposed to bring greater piety, reverence, and fear of Allah. True scholars know that Allah the Almighty however, must be known. In their hearts they carry endless love and reverence for Allah. It is stated in a verse:

“…Those who truly fear Allah, among His Servants, [are those]who have knowledge…” (al-Fatir 35; 28)

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) also said that:

“…By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you…” (Bukhari, Nikah, 1; Muslim, Siyam, 74)

When it is compared to Allah’s knowledge, people’s knowledge is very little. Indeed, Allah the Almighty states in the Qur’an:

“…of knowledge it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O men).” (al-Isra 17; 85) However if someone can reach piousness by living in accordance with his little knowledge, he attains a sagacious state as a blessing from Allah the Almighty. Thus, he begins to benefit from higher knowledge (ma’rifah) and some Divine secrets become clear to him. It is stated in another verse:

“…So fear Allah; for it is Allah that teaches you…” (al-Baqara 2; 282)[3] The following saying of the Prophet also corroborates this meaning:

“To a servant who lives in accordance with what he knows, Allah the Almighty teaches what he does not know.” (Abu Nu’aim, X, 15)

While Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) encouraged the acquisition of beneficial knowledge, he took refuge in Allah from useless sciences and warned his Companions about them. In addition to giving his Companions the necessary instructions, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) also had another important task, i.e. disciplining and purifying hearts.

[1] A common meaning is usually looked for between the words which share the same letters. The words ‘ilm (knowledge) and ‘amal (action) in Arabic is made up of the same three letters, but the only difference between them is the place of two letters. This is why scholars searched for parallels between their meanings and did not consider it appropriate to call someone “alim or scholar” unless he acts in accordance with his knowledge. Similarly, in modern psychology knowledge which is transformed into the consciousness is accepted as behavior.

[2] Imam al-Ghazali says in his ihya ‘ulum al-din that “In the early years of Islam the term ‘Ilm was used to refer to the science of religion, the science of the knowledge of God and His verses. This is why when Umar (r.a.) passed away, Ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) exclaimed: “Nine-tenths of the knowledge of religion have passed away.” He described knowledge as “’ilm billah or knowledge through Allah.” Today the term ‘Ilm deviated from its original meaning and it became locked into a vicious cycle. Even those who debate the cases of jurisprudence and of other religious sciences with their adversaries and are called as ‘alim or learned men. Therefore, the original meaning of the term ‘ilm has been shifted and it has begun to be used for secondary matters. But what has been said about the excellence of learning and the merits of the learned men in the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) apply to those who are versed according to the former meaning. The change in the meaning of the term ‘ilm has caused many people to follow wrong paths and thus to perish.” (Ghazali, I, 76)

[3] Exegete Qurtubi makes the following interpretation: “In this verse there is a promise that Allah the Almighty will teach those who fear Him. In other words, Allah the Almighty bestows in the pious servant’s heart a light through which he can recognize the Truth and distinguish right from wrong.” (Qurtubi, III, 406)

Source: The History of Prophets in Light of The Qur’an, THE CHAIN OF PROPHETS II, Osman Nuri TOPBAŞ, Erkam Publications

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