The Importance of Knowledge on the Islamic Path (...continued)
Knowledge (ilm) can be divided to two types, of two different inherent qualities, both in the Qu'ran and in the cosmos around us. Just as the verses in the Qu'ran appear as either mukhamat, direct and practical instruction, and mutashabihat, allegorical verses sometimes referred to as the 'inner adornment' of the Quran, in the world around us we have the tangible knowledge of the Sciences, that rationalized the set of rules Allah has programmed into our planets and creation, as well as the hidden sacred knowledge that descended upon Adam as a symbol of gratitude for accepting the burden of the message.
Both are proof of Allah's existence for those who think and see. And both are important to pursue if we are to truly walk the path of Islam. The Qu'ran makes it clear that we have been commanded to seek knowledge it presents us with many signs, and challenges us to increase our knowledge and understanding:
Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ships that run in the sea with that which profits men, and the water that Allah sends down from the clouds, then gives life with it to the earth after its death and spreads in it all (kinds of) animals, and the changing of the winds and the clouds made subservient between the heaven and the earth, there are signs for a people who understand.
So how do we increase our understanding? Allah has not left us in the dark: He has given us all the tools we need to pursue knowledge, and apply it to the daily action of our lives. We have five senses with which to gather information from the world around us, a brain with which to filter this information, we have a conscience, we have the communicative ability to share the knowledge we gain, and the collective knowledge of our fellow human beings. We have a heart, which receives knowledge on a more subtle level—divine knowledge—and we have acts of prayer, through which we can not only glorify God, but also use as a means to communicate with Allah, to ask Him to bestow on us this subtle sacred knowledge.
Once a shred of knowledge enters our being, we can express this knowledge positively, act it out in the world around us, and spread its light. In bestowing upon human beings the unique ability to transmit thoughts, experiences and insights, through writing, from individual to individual, across generations and across cultures, Allah has underlined the collective character of knowledge. God teaches each of us, through collective accumulation of knowledge, things that we could never have learned by ourselves.
The divine ordinances found within the Qu'ran and the golden examples of the Prophet Muhammad are crystallized into a structure where knowledge can take form and becomes useful to the world around us—if we choose to seek, then act upon that knowledge. It's up to us.
In this way, knowledge is intimately related to action. Our actions will reflect what we know or don't know, and our actions will ultimately lead us toward God's acceptance (paradise) or land us in the depths of God's rejection (hell). The knowledge and discernment of right from wrong is perhaps the most profound characteristic of our personal lifelong jihad (struggle).
But Allah has planted tests along the path of knowledge, and acquiring knowledge has the potential to lead us astray from His truth: Are we seeking knowledge to truly know Allah? Are we seeking knowledge to better understand the Qu'ran? Are we seeking knowledge to be better Muslims, better human beings? Or are we seeking knowledge for our own egoistic ends?
...and those to whom the Book had been given did not show opposition but after knowledge had come to them, out of envy among themselves.
Knowledge can be misused in other ways as well. Sometimes a person assigns so much value to their knowledge that it begins to move into the realm of shirk (attributing excessive importance and value to something other than God). People set up intellectual concepts as partners with Allah. Or a person's egos might grow as they attribute the acquisition of knowledge to themselves. Knowledge becomes a way for people to control matter or other people, rather than to help them, and to worship God and become close to Him. The story of Qaroun in Sura Qasas (Quran 28) describes this:
Surely Qaroun was of the people of Musa, but he rebelled against them, and We had given him of the treasures, so much so that his hoards of wealth would certainly weigh down a company of men possessed of great strength. When his people said to him: Do not exult, surely Allah does not love the exultant...
He said: I have been given this only on account of the knowledge I have. Did he not know that Allah had destroyed before him of the generations those who were mightier in strength than he and greater in assemblage? And the guilty shall not be asked about their faults.
A hadith from the collections of Bukhari and Muslim shows us that ultimate knowledge comes from God: "Upon a person whom Allah desires good, He bestows the knowledge of faith."This knowledge of faith is where information transcends the mind and the wisdom of divine truth enters the heart.
The servants closest to Allah are those of knowledge: "Those of His servants only who are possessed of knowledge fear Allah." [35.28]. And, simultaneously, seeking knowledge is a way to know God. But rather than seeking only the single-layered intellectual knowledge that we are taught in school, we need to look deeper. For the self to begin to know God, it needs to close the eye and open the heart.
The life of the Sufi saint Imam al-Ghazali is a good example of the limits of academic knowledge and the boundlessness of sacred knowledge. Philosophers and thinkers in Imam al-Ghazali's time tended to place human reason above divine revelation, upon which the Islamic community was founded. Imam al-Ghazali himself was a glittering professor at Nizamiyya University in Baghdad, having mastered success in the academic realms. Yet he was dissatisfied. He abandoned his post at the university and left Baghdad to wander around searching for Truth. For ten years, he devoted himself to a life of hardship, abstinence and worship during which time he underwent a spiritual transformation in which Truth came to him at last—as something received rather than acquired. With a new depth of understanding, he went back to Baghdad and truly stunned his contemporaries!
Where knowledge is something that our brain acquires, ponders, remembers and forgets, true knowledge—inner certainty—is something received from Allah, a station of being, which cannot be forgotten. So in seeking knowledge, and then using it, we can begin to move closer to Allah, but true knowledge ultimately only comes from Allah, and he grants it in varying degrees:
He [Allah] grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and he to whom wisdom is granted indeed receives a benefit overflowing. But none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.
If the goal of our life is to 'grasp the Message,' our path, then, becomes one of knowledge. And how blessed we are to have been given the Message, the desire to access that Message, and the means to do so by the methods of Islam. A hadith from the collection of Tirmidhi summarizes beautifully:
"A Muslim is never satiated in his quest for good (knowledge) till it ends in Paradise."