Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Role and Importance of Knowledge in Islam

The Importance of Islamic Knowledge

Genuine Islamic knowledge is the key to success in the hereafter. Allah said in the Quran (at-Tahrim, 6):

يا أيها الذين ءامنوا قوا أنفسكم وأهليكم ناراً وَقودها الناس والحِجارة

This means that we must protect ourselves and our families from the Hellfire. The scholars commented on this and said that one does this by learning how to pray, fast, sell, buy, marry, and divorce.

Worship requires knowledge; good intentions are not enough. If good intentions were enough, then where would be no need for prophets to teach Islam. In fact, someone who commits a sin out of ignorance has two sins: one for committing it and one for not having learned. When society is full of such people it leads to disaster in this life and the next.

Obligatory Knowledge

The Prophet said that seeking the knowledge of the Religion is obligatory on every Muslim (al-Bayhaqiy.) Obligatory knowledge is of two kinds: Obligatory upon each individual and obligatory upon some in a community of Muslims.

The principle behind what is obligatory for the individual is that he needs to learn to protect him from sins and leaving obligations out of ignorance. What is obligatory depends on the individual's circumstances; some that are shared and some that are not. Everybody must learn the essentials of beliefs and what invalidates one’s Islam, as well as how to pray. One must also learn how to fast when Ramadan comes, how to pay zakaat when one owns the quota that makes it due, how to make Hajj when one going. If one deals in business transactions or other contractual dealings, such as marriage and divorce, then one must learn how to do these islamically so as not to fall in sin. All this knowledge falls under the category of knowledge called “fiqh”, except that the later scholars do not consider the knowledge of the Islamic beliefs as part of fiqh, but as a separate field of knowledge; a separate specialty. Another important category of knowledge that may be obligatory on certain individuals is how to purify the heart of insincerity, envy, greed and pride. This is if one is not able to get rid of such corruption without learning their cures.

That which is obligatory for some people in the community to know depends on the needs of the community. If enough people have this knowledge, then the obligation has been met. If there aren't enough people with this knowledge, then all who are able to acquire this knowledge (but don’t) become sinners. As for the obligations of sufficiency, these are the fields of knowledge that are necessary to uphold and preserve the Muslims in terms of their religion and their secular affairs. In secular affairs, these include fields like engineering and medicine. Among the obligations of sufficiency in the religious sciences are memorizing all of the Quran. The individual does not have to learn more than the Fatihah plus one ‘aaya, because he needs this for the duties of prayer.

Other such obligations include learning the proofs of the correct beliefs, as well as detailed studies and memorization in fiqh, hadith (reports on what the prophet said, did or did not do), the sayings of the scholars, the methodology of fiqh and the Arabic language. Knowing the proofs of fiqh, which is the knowledge of what is for or against one’s self in the afterlife, or the judging of human actions as obligatory, duty, merit, permissible, disliked, prohibited, valid or invalid, etc. is not an obligation upon every individual. This is because understanding such proofs requires substantial talent, qualification and time. In fact, most people who spend their entire lives as Islamic scholars never reach the level where they are truly qualified to weigh the evidences of the scholars capable of extracting the judgments mentioned above directly from the Quran, hadith, scholarly consensus or analogical reasoning. The obligation upon every Muslim in this matter is to go to a trustworthy scholar to get answers to his questions in fiqh. This is what Allah ordered us to do in the Quran: if you don’t know, then ask those who know.

Learning and reviewing Islamic Knowledge is the best way to get extra credit for the hereafter. It has more credit than, for example, optional prayer or fasting.

Conditions for receiving credit for learning

First: one must have a sincere intention. This condition holds for all worship. No worship is accepted unless one is doing it for the sake of Allah only, and not for money, fame or admiration. There are also conditions for the sincere intention to be correct:
  1. One must be Muslim.
  2. One must be able to understand. The insane or small children cannot have correct intentions.
  3. One must know what one is intending, i.e. wanting to do such as learning, praying, etc.

    Extra valuable points regarding learning Islamic Knowledge In Bustaan-ul-3aarifiin Abu Laith mentions what should be the intention of the student of the Islamic sciences: First, to escape from ignorance, because Allah said that those who know are better than those who don’t. Second, to be of benefit to people, because the Prophet (may Allah raise his rank) said, “the best people are those that benefit the others.” Third, to revive and preserve the religious sciences because the Prophet ordered us to learn before knowledge disappears by the disappearance of the scholars. Fourth, to act according to ones knowledge, because to do otherwise resembles acting without knowledge, which is foolish.
Second: One must receive knowledge from knowledgeable people, not merely from books. The reason is that this is the way the Prophet and the first generations of scholars after him taught and learned. Books may have typos that change meanings, or have perversions in them made by the enemies of the religion. Moreover, one needs someone to help one understand correctly.

Third: the teacher must be trustworthy; someone who avoids big sins and who’s smaller sins are fewer than his good deeds. The ancient Muslims used to ride a camel for months to cross the desert to get a reply on a certain question, or to acquire one chapter of knowledge from qualified teachers.

Be warned of those ignorant people the Prophet spoke about in his hadith related by at-Tirmidhiyy:

إن الله لا ينزع العلم بعد أن أعطاكموه انتزاعا ولكن ينتزعه منهم مع قبض العلماء بعلمهم فيبقى ناس جهّال يستفتون فيُفتون برأيهم فيضلون ويضلون

..., which means that Allah does not take away the Islamic knowledge by having it pulled out of people's hearts, but by making the scholars die. When no scholar remains, people take for themselves ignorant leaders whom they ask for religious answers. These leaders will answer them out of ignorance, and all will go astray.

If one wants to go to university, one would spend a great deal of time evaluating universities to identify the best one; if one needs a treatment from a doctor, one would usually look for a recognized specialist; if one wants to build a house, one would search for the best contractors. Most definitely the knowledge of the religion is a far more important than any of these issues, so one needs to look thoroughly to find a trustworthy teacher. The ancient Muslims used to ride a camel for months to cross the desert to get a reply on a certain case, or to acquire one chapter of knowledge from trustworthy and knowledgeable teachers.

Forbidden Sciences

There are also kinds of knowledge that are not allowed to study. One of these is the study of magic, whether it is the illusory kind or actual black magic. Also forbidden is the study of astrology and fortune telling.

The field of philosophy needs some detailed discussion, because the word can mean so many things. After all, math, logic, epistemology, theology and music are all part of philosophy, and they are not all forbidden. Math and logic, with few exceptions, are generally allowed, and one can find books in these fields that have been modified to suit the Islamic creed. It is the study of the theology of the philosophers that is forbidden, because it contains blasphemous beliefs such as the belief that the world or its kind has no beginning, or that the Hellfire has an end, or that some of Allah’s attributes have a beginning. To read theology then, or the books of other religions, such as the perverted Bible, is forbidden to regular Muslims, because one might be affected by their teachings. The exception here is a highly knowledgeable and pious scholar who is reading these books in order to fight such bad beliefs and bring proofs against them. An example of the latter was when Abu Haamid al-Ghazaaliy read philosophy in order to crush the arguments of the Aristotelian philosophers. He succeeded in his quest through authoring “The Downfall of the Philosophers” and was nicknamed Hujjat-ul-Islam (the Proof of Islam.)

The Special Importance of Fiqh

The Prophet (may Allah raise his rank) said “If Allah has willed well for someone, then he will let him understand the religion”. This means understanding fiqh. Fiqh is the most important of the Islamic sciences after the science of monotheism (also called the greatest fiqh), because it teaches the rules of all matters of the religion; it is the conclusions of studying Quran and hadith. That is why it is the best starting point for studying the other sciences as well. The Prophet (may Allah raise his rank) said: “the faqiih is tougher for the devil than one thousand regular Muslims” and “there is nothing better to worship Allah by than understanding the religion.”

The Pillar of Knowing the Rules of Islam

The pillar of Islamic knowledge is the belief in God and the Prophet and Messenger Muhammad (may Allah raise his rank). We know that God exists, because this world could not exist without a Creator. We know that the prophets bring the message of God, because they have miracles to prove who they are.

What is the meaning: of the Prophet and messenger?

The Prophet (may Allah raise his rank) is a man who received the revelation to follow and teach Islam according to the rules of the messenger who came before him. The messenger is the man who not only received the revelation to teach Islam, but the revelation also included some changes in some of the rules of the religion from the messenger before him. For example, a messenger before Prophet Mohammed (may Allah raise his rank), taught his followers to pray twice a day. During the prophethood of the Prophet Mohammed, the number of daily prayers was changed to five. All messengers are prophets, but not all prophets are messengers.

How do we know what the Prophet taught?

The Prophet (may Allah raise his rank) as is well known could neither read nor write. He taught the people in person, clarifying his teachings to the students, pointing out important aspects, responding to questions and protecting his followers from misunderstandings. When he did not teach himself, he sent his knowledgeable and trustworthy followers to do so. After his death, these followers continued to teach in the same way, as did their students in the next generation and so on. Through this method of personal instruction by trustworthy people, the religion has been kept free from perversion, and was transferred through 4 sources:

There are four sources of knowledge for the rules of Islam

  1. The Quran
  2. Traditions of the Prophet (what was related about what he said/ did not say/ did/ did not do in different situations.)
  3. Scholarly consensus (what all of the top scholars of a certain generation agreed-upon unanimously)
  4. Analogical reasoning (only if the first 3 don't give a plain answer—see below)
Some rules of the religion are unequivocally known through the first three. However, only the great scholars are qualified to determine what these issues are. This is because they need encyclopedic knowledge of:
  • The Arabic language
  • The sciences of the Quran
  • The sciences of the traditions of the Prophet
  • The various sayings of the previous scholars so as not to contradict a consensus.
In some cases, there are rules of the religion that have not directly been addressed by the Quran or by the Prophet. In these cases, scholars that meet all of these and other conditions, will use analogical reasoning to decide what the rule is. The scholars qualified to do this are very few. Even among the companions of the Prophet, the most knowledgeable generation, they are said to have been only around 12.

To other than these great scholars, no one is allowed to derive the rules of the religion directly from the Quran or the Traditions of the Prophet. To do so is a big sin called giving ruling (fatwa) without knowledge. Rather, one must go to such a great scholar or one of his trustworthy students, or their students again, and so on (see Why one must follow one of the 4 schools (mathhab)). In this manner, the teachings of the Prophet is preserved and protected from illegitimate opinions. The chain of such scholars and their trustworthy students goes all the way back to the Prophet himself (may Allah raise his rank).