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`ILM. The Arabic word `ilm is commonly translated as both “learning” and “knowledge,” for it refers both to the process of attaining knowledge and to the information that one gains by learning. As such, it is to be contrasted with fiqh, which refers not to the end product of learning but only to the process of understanding or deducing (see Rahman, 1979, p. 1o1, for a discussion of the difference).


Among Muslims, knowledge and the seeking of knowledge are of such importance that the latter is deemed to be an act of worship. The prophet Muhammad is often quoted as saying, “Acquire knowledge from cradle to grave” and “seek knowledge everywhere, even in China.” A. K. Brohi notes that from a Muslim perspective the best life is “the one that is devoted to the acquisition of knowledge, which may be regarded as a sacred religious duty imposed on every Muslim man and woman” (1988, p. 5). Consequently, those who attain greater knowledge are considered superior in rank and position to those having less knowledge (see Qur’an, surahs 58.11 and 39.9).

It is significant that the first direct revelation to the illiterate prophet Muhammad consisted of a command to iqra’ (read or recite), that is, to gain or to pass on knowledge. In the opening verse of Surat al-`Alaq (96.1), he is told: “Read [or recite] in the name of thy Lord and cherisher . . . He who taught the use of the pen . . . who taught man that which he knew not.” The command set forth in this verse obliges humans to seek knowledge through learning.

Nevertheless, the Qur’an also emphasizes the limits to what humans can hope to know by their own efforts. This deficiency in, or limit to, human comprehension is indicated in many Qur’anic verses and can be attributed either to God’s desire to reveal only what he wishes to reveal or to an indication of human limitations (see, for example, surahs 17.85, “Of knowledge [`ilm], only a little is communicated to you,” and 27.65, “No one in the heavens or earth, God excepted, knows what is hidden.”).

The idea then is that we must never lose sight of our limitations or become overly proud of what our learning allows us to achieve. As essential as scientific learning and human reasoning are-in the quest for awareness of what God ultimately knows more thoroughly-they are tools that always fall short of what is hidden.

Precisely because it is not clear why things are hidden, the question of whether we should have recourse to some other, nonrational method or exercise to attain such knowledge remains as much a subject of debate today as it was in the time of al-Ghazali (AH 450-505/ 1058-1111 CE) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 520-595/ 1126-1198). And the rationalist might always urge that we must not be content with the mere acceptance of God’s creation, that we must also reflect on it (see Qur’an, surahs 7.185, “Have they not reflected upon the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and what things God has created?” and 88.17, “Do they not reflect upon the camels, how they have been created, and upon the sky, how it has been raised up?”).


Brohi, A. K. “Islamization of Knowledge: A First Step to Integrate and Develop the Muslim Personality and Outlook.” In Islam: Source and Purpose of Knowledge, pp. 5-12. Herndon, Va., 1988. Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2d ed. Chicago and London, 1979.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ilm/

  • writerPosted On: April 16, 2014
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