Oktober 25, 2010

Knowledge which is Beneficial to Man

Senior/ Fellow Director,
Centre for Science and Environment Studies

To meet various intellectual and educational challenges, discerning Muslims need to differentiate between knowledge that Islam seeks to nurture, and that which is inconsequential.

THAT information and knowledge have been regarded as being extremely important in today’s modern, secular life seems obvious, with such widely employed terms and catchphrases as “empowering people through ICT”, “knowledge management”, “learning society”, “k-economy”, “knowledge workers”, etc.

The promulgations have been so effective that no one at present can deny their importance without putting one’s sanity at risk.

It is also a well-established fact that ’ilm (ilmu in Malay) ranks high in the world view of Islam and plays a central role in the value system, such as world view projects.

However, since the term has been loosely translated and generally understood as “knowledge”, many who live in the present-day world may well presume that knowledge as understood and disseminated by its modern secular advocates bears no fundamental difference from that which is highly regarded in Islam.

Yet, if one were to analyse how knowledge relates to other key elements in the mindset or the fundamental conceptual scheme or the main framework of understanding – that Islam seeks to nurture, one will eventually realise that there are basic differences which no amount of superficia or at best secondary, similarities can help remove.

Such differences are striking when one considers, for instance, whether there is knowledge that is beneficial and that which is not; and were there such categories of knowledge, what criteria would then be used to so decide.

To Muslims, at least, there surely is beneficial knowledge and knowledge which is harmful, for Prophet Muhammad was reported to have prayed to Allah for beneficial knowledge (’ilm nafi’), just as he was reported to have sought Allah’s protection from knowledge that does not benefit (’ilm la yanfa’).

Nonetheless, to further discriminate on this, one cannot but consider what, and who, man is.

For man is indeed the very subject involved and the benefits meant surely pertain to him whether as an individual or as a member of any human community.

Some questions one needs to ponder:

Is man as a being purely material, with such mental states and acts as “consciousness” and “thinking” being at best only epiphenomenal?

Or is man a mysterious union of both body and spirit with the latter constituent being more everlasting and, therefore, more real?

What kind of relation does knowledge have with man conceived of as such?

Is there knowledge which nourishes the body in contrast to that which enriches the spirit?

And if there are indeed two categories of knowledge, what is the relationship between the one that gives life to the body and that which enlivens the spirit?

Suppose that “spirit” does exist, is it essentially different from the entity which is denoted by such terms as “soul”, “mind”, “intelligence”, “intellect”, and “reason”?

Or are such terms synonymous? If they are not, what relationship does each have with the others? And which has a more immediate link to knowledge? Or does to each a different type of knowledge pertain?

Such were some of the pertinent questions Muslim scholars in the past asked, and sought to answer, when they attempted to systematically examine beneficial vis-a-vis non-beneficial knowledge.

For instance, it was related that the great jurist Imam al-Shafi’i once concluded: “Knowledge is of two kinds: the science of fiqh (literally: thorough and profound grasp of a matter) pertaining to religious matters and the discipline of medicine pertaining to bodily matters (al-`ilm `ilman: `ilm al-fiqh li al-adyan wa `ilm al-tibb li al-abdan).”

The famous ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna) had compiled two great works: al-Shifa’, on the various lofty dimensions of thought and intellect, and al-Qanun, on the various branches of medicine and health sciences.

It is quite interesting to note, as duly emphasised by Professor Mehdi Mohaghegh from Iran that rather than naming the former work al-Qanun, which certainly bears ethico-legal connotations and on the surface befits it better, ibn Sina had wittingly titled it al-Shifa’ (cure or remedy), which is literally more suitable for his latter work.

Such a practice, as Mohaghegh aptly remarked, simply demonstrates that this great scholar, just like numerous other eminent figures before and after him in the long religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam, did realise the importance of, as well as the intimate relation between, both fields in ensuring man’s well-being and balanced development, one pertaining to the intangible soul and sublime thoughts, and the other relating to the material body and good, healthy practices.

It is of utmost importance, therefore, that discerning Muslims of today take due cognisance of the aforementioned understanding of beneficial knowledge and try to reformulate it within their contemporary context to meet the various intellectual and educational challenges confronting them.

Oktober 19, 2010

Knowledge with Purpose

Fellow, Centre for Shariah, Law and Political Studies, IKIM

Nobody can be a proper Muslim without knowledge and understanding, and that knowledge must be sought and disseminated with correct intention.

KNOWLEDGE and action are two fundamental elements making up the conceptual structure of Islam. Islam is a conscious and willing submission to God. It is a submission that is made “knowingly” and “freely”, without any compulsion. As such, the submission is not possible without knowledge.

Islam does not concede to a dichotomy between knowledge and action, or between theory and practice. The term “Islam” also describes an act, i.e., the act of submission. It means Islam does not simply happen to someone; it comes into being from one’s volition. And volition also does not arise without knowledge.

The action of every Muslim is subject to the rules of the syariah, correctly understood as the path to salvation prescribed by God through His Messenger.

“Islam” is also the name of a particular religion, and that means the above-mentioned submission is not subjective or formless; it is the submission which is made willingly and consciously according to the way prescribed by the religion called Islam.

Since nobody can be a proper Muslim without knowledge and understanding, knowledge-seeking becomes the first and foremost obligation of every Muslim, male and female.

Islam teaches that knowledge must be sought and disseminated with correct intention, to seek Divine Pleasure and Guidance. Studying religious sciences need not necessarily be a religious deed because the aim of the seeker could be worldly, and when that is the case the whole effort becomes blameworthy.

The following is al-Ghazali’s reminder to all knowledge-seekers: “If in your quest for knowledge your aim is to gain something for yourself and to surpass your fellows, to attract men’s attention to yourself and to amass this-worldly vanities, then you are on the way to bring your religion to nothing and destroy yourself, to sell your eternal life for this present one; your bargain is dead loss, your trading without profit.”

To have a correct and sincere intention is indeed not a simple matter. It entails knowledge of the nature of ultimate reality, and a definite commitment to a particular way of life in conformity with that knowledge.

Every research activity is carried out within a certain framework that is based on certain assumptions and aligned with some purposes. The credibility of the finding depends upon the validity of the assumptions and the soundness of the purposes, which means – upon verification – one would finally come to the conclusion either they conform or not to what is regarded as ultimately real and true.

If the researcher concentrates solely on the immediate objective of research (i.e., limited to knowing the nature of a particular object of knowledge as it is) to the extent of being heedless to the ultimate aim of knowing (which is the culmination of all other purposes, transcending immediate concerns and needs) his research will lead him nowhere.

The purpose of knowing ultimately is the purpose of existence itself. Without the knowledge of the purpose of knowing, knowledge and sciences may only serve secular aims and objectives, where no amount of research can satisfy man, because the knowledge gained from it does not give him any clue as to the meaning and purpose of his life, which is ultimately the foundation of his actions and behaviour, including knowledge-seeking itself.

Therefore Islam makes distinction between knowledge that is useful and that which is not.

Knowledge is useful and worthwhile in so far as it is related to the most basic problem of life, namely, the problem of human identity and destiny. This is the most basic problem because the answer to it is what everybody seeks to know, and without it this life becomes meaningless.

The answer, therefore, should be final, free from doubt and possibility of error because life is too short and unexpectable, and we cannot take the risk of living our life based on an answer that is subject to revision and correction.

This knowledge is also known as the knowledge of the reality of things. To this kind of knowledge certainty is a necessary condition, and by that we mean: (i) the object of knowledge is disclosed to the knower in such a way that no doubt remains along with it; and (ii) no possibility of error or illusion accompanies it; the mind cannot even entertain such a supposition.

Certainty, to quote Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, is the permanent state of the soul having to do with the knowledge of permanent realities. It would not be attained and experienced if the justification for believing ‘A’, for example, contains the possibility of error.

Is it possible to attain certainty? Can man, with all the potentialities that he owns, ever attain certainty?

A Muslim will definitely answer in the affirmative. He is taught that realities of things are firmly established and that objective knowledge about them is possible and verifiable. If certainty is impossible then knowledge is also impossible, and if knowledge is impossible accountability and justice would also be impossible.

The knowledge of the nature of the ultimate realities is knowledge that does not change with the change of time and nations. It is knowledge about what is real and true about existence in general. It is what every thinking human being would want to know about his self, and about the world around him.

He would like to know, for example, whether God exists or not, and if He does what His name is and what His Attributes are. What he holds as an answer to this question will determine the way he is going to live his life. This kind of knowledge will have a significant implication on one’s life because it is ultimately the basis of one’s ethical judgement and action, hence, no error or doubt should be tolerated.

There must be certain implication to life for example, in believing that God does not exist, or that He does yet He does not possess knowledge or power. Uncertainty about this matter is a tragedy because how would one make decision in such a state of mind?

We cannot tolerate erroneous belief because every belief has got its practical consequence. There is nothing that can be categorised as “purely practical”, if what is meant by that an activity that has nothing to do with any theory, assumption, or belief.

All the horrors committed during World War II were based upon a certain theory, assumption, or belief; the Japanese believed that their emperor was a living god, and the Nazis in the supremacy of their nation over other nations.