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.