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One of the distinctive features of Islam is its emphasis on knowledge (science). The Qur’an and the Islamic tradition (Sunnah) invite Muslims to seek and acquire knowledge and wisdom and to hold men of knowledge in high esteem.
Some of the Quranic verses and relevant traditions will be mentioned in the course of our discussion. At the outset, we may recall a famous hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUHH) that has come down through various sources; it says:
“Acquisition of knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim.” (1)
This tradition brought up the discussion as to what kind of knowledge a Muslim should necessarily acquire. An issue around which various opinions were offered in the past.
Islamic Sciences in Al-Ghazzali’s Perspective
Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (died A.D. 1111), in his famous book titled “Ihya `ulum al-din” (The Revival of Religious Sciences), mentions that he had come across twenty different answers to the above question. (2)
The theologians considered that learning Islamic theology (kalam) was an obligation, while the jurisprudents (fuqaha’) thought that Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) was implied in this Prophetic tradition.
Al-Ghazzali himself favoured the view that the knowledge whose acquisition is a religious obligation is limited to what one must know for correct performance of the obligatory acts within the framework of the Islamic Shari’ah. (3)
For instance, one whose occupation is animal husbandry should acquaint himself with the rules concerning zakat. If one were a merchant doing business in a usurious environment, he ought to be aware of the religious injunction against usury so as to be able to effectively avoid it.
Al-Ghazzali then proceeds to discuss sciences whose knowledge is wajib kifa’i (4) (something which is obligatory for the whole society as long as the duty for the fulfilment of a social need exists, but as soon as the duty is shouldered by enough individuals, others are automatically relieved of the obligation).
Subsequently, he classifies all knowledge into “religious” and “non-religious” sciences. He meant by “religious sciences” (Ulum al-Shar`) the bulk of knowledge imparted through Prophetic teachings and the Revelation.
The rest constitute the “non-religious” sciences. The non-religious sciences are further classified into “praiseworthy” (Mahmud), “permissible” (mubah) and “undesirable” ones (madhmum).
He puts history in the category of permissible sciences (mubah) and magic and sorcery in the category of the undesirable fields of “knowledge”.
The “praiseworthy” sciences (Mahmud), according to him, are those whose knowledge is necessary for the affairs of life and these are wajib kifai; the rest of them bring additional merit to the learned who pursue them.
He puts medicine, mathematics and crafts, whose sufficient knowledge is needed by the society, in the category of sciences which are wajib kifai.
Any further research into the detail and depth of problems of medical science or mathematics is put by Al-Ghazzali in the second category that involves merit for the scholar without entailing any manner of obligation.
Al-Ghazzali classifies the religious sciences also into two groups:
Praiseworthy (Mahmud) and undesirable (madhmum). By “undesirable religious sciences”, he means those which are apparently oriented towards the Shari’ah but actually deviate from its teachings.
He subdivides the “praiseworthy” religious sciences into four groups:
1. Usul (principles; i.e. the Quran, the sunnah, ijma or consensus and the traditions of the Prophet’s companions)
2. Furu` (secondary matters; i.e. problems of jurisprudence, ethics, and mystical experience)
3. Introductory studies (Arabic grammar, syntax, etc.)
4. Complementary studies (recitation and interpretation of the Quran, study of the principles of jurisprudence, `ilm al-rijal or biographical research about narrators of Islamic traditions etc.)
Al-Ghazzali considers the knowledge of the disciplines contained in the above four groups to be wajib kifa’i. But as to the extent to which one should learn the “praiseworthy” sciences, Al-Ghazzali’s view is that in matters of theology such as knowledge of Almighty Allah, Divine qualities, acts and commands, one should try to learn as much as is possible. However, as to religious topics whose knowledge is wajib kifa’i, one should learn as much as is sufficient.
The summary of his views is that one should not pursue learning of those sciences if there are already others devoting themselves to their study, and if one were to do so, he should refrain from spending all his life for their learning, “for knowledge is vast and life is short. They are preliminaries and not an end in themselves.(5)
As to theology (kalam), his opinion is that only as much of it as is corroborated by the Qur’an and hadith is beneficial. Moreover, he says, “now that the heretics attempt to induce doubts (in the minds of unsophisticated believers), adequate knowledge of theology is necessary to confront them.”
Regarding philosophy, Al-Ghazzali thinks that it is categorized into four parts: (6)
1. Mathematics and geometry, which are legitimate and permissible.
2.Logic, which is a part of theology.
3. Divinities, which discusses Divine essence and qualities and is also a part of theology.
4. Physics, which may be divided into two sections:
One part which involves discussions opposed to the Shari’ah and accordingly cannot even be considered a “science” the other part discusses the qualities of bodies. The second part is similar to the science of medicine, although medicine is preferable to it. This section of physics too is useless while medicine is needful.
Mulla Muhsin Fayd al-Kashani, in his book titled “Muhajjat al-Bayda”, says: It is a personal obligation (wajib `ayni) of every Muslim to learn Islamic jurisprudence to the extent of his needs. However, learning fiqh to fulfil the need of others is wajib kifai for him.
Regarding philosophy, Kashani says: The components of philosophy are not the only ones distinguished by Abu Hamid (Al-Ghazzali) upon whom be Almighty Allah’s mercy. Philosophy covers many other fields of religious and mundane matters (for example astronomy, medicine and rhetoric etc.)… Whatever of these sciences that is about the Hereafter exists to the point of perfection in the Shari’ah, and that which is not useful for the Hereafter is not needed; moreover, it may even hinder the pursuit of the path of Allah.
In the case of those portions which are effective for the knowledge of the Divine and are encouraged by the Shariah (like astronomy etc.), it is sufficient to be satisfied with the simple unelaborated discussions of the Shari`ah about such matters. (7)
In brief, in Kashani’s opinion anyone who wishes to learn these sciences should first acquaint himself with the religious sciences.
Mulla Sadra’s Perspective
Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) in his commentary on Usul al-Kafi regards Al-Ghazzali’s opinion about the limitation of obligatory knowledge for a Muslim to the matters of ritual practice and legitimate dealings as unacceptable. (8)
In his opinion, learning of religious sciences (such as Tawhid, Divine qualities and acts) and human sciences (such as dispositions of the soul, its delights and afflictions) are also obligatory for the majority of human beings.
Secondly, he believes that it is not at all essential that what is obligatory (wajib `ayni) for all to learn should apply identically in case of every individual and what is obligatory for one individual be regarded as being equally obligatory for another.
Sciences whose Knowledge is Wajib Kifa’i
Here we do not intend to enter into a discussion about sciences whose learning is obligatory (wajib `ayni) for every responsible Muslim individual (mukallaf). Rather, we propose to discuss those sciences whose knowledge is a wajib kifa’i for all the Muslim Ummah.
To begin with, we consider some of the opinions of Imam Al-Ghazzali and Muhaqqiq Kashani in this regard as disputable and shall proceed to examine them.
However, before we start, we think it will be beneficial to revert to certain important points mentioned by Mulla Sadra in his commentary on Usul al-Kafi under the tradition: “Acquisition of knowledge is an obligation of every Muslim.” He writes:
1. The word `ilm (knowledge or science), like the word “existence” (wujud) has a broad range of meanings which vary from the viewpoints of strength or weakness, perfection or deficiency. (9) The word’s generic sense covers this whole spectrum of meaning in which it has been used in the prophetic tradition.
This broad sense of the word `ilm is common to all its varied meanings. Accordingly, the tradition intends to state that whatever stage of knowledge one may be in, he should strive to make further advance. The Prophet means that acquisition of knowledge is obligatory for all Muslims, scholars as well as ignorant men, beginners as well as learned scholars.
Whatever stage of knowledge man may attain, he is still like a child entering into adulthood as far as this tradition is concerned; i.e. he should learn things which were not obligatory for him before.
2. The tradition implies that a Muslim can never be relieved of his responsibility of acquiring knowledge’. (10)
3. No field of knowledge or science is undesirable or detestable in itself; for knowledge is like light and so it is always desirable. The reason that some of the sciences have been regarded as “undesirable” is because of their occasional misuse. (11)
We do not accept the division of knowledge into “religious” and “non-religious” sciences; for, as the Martyr Murtada Mutahhari has rightly pointed out, this classification may bring about the misunderstanding that the “non-religious” sciences are alien to Islam. And this is not compatible with the comprehensive unity held up by Islam in all affairs of life.
A religion which claims the ability to bring about conditions for perfect felicity of mankind and considers itself to be self-sufficing cannot estrange itself from things which play a vital role in the provision of welfare and independence for an Islamic society.
According to the late Mutahhari, “Islam’s all-inclusiveness and finality as a religion demands that every field of knowledge that is beneficial for an Islamic society be regarded as a part and parcel of the religious sciences.” (12)
Group of Sciences and their Scope
Besides, we think that the group of sciences belonging to the category of wajib kifa’i is much more larger than what Al-Ghazzali would have us believe.
Moreover, we think that the parsimony he shows regarding those sciences which may be included in this category, does not harmonize with the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. (13)
Our reasons for not accepting such restrictions on learning are as follows:
1. In most of the Quranic verses and traditions, the concept of `ilm (knowledge) appears in its absolutely general sense, as can be seen from examples given below:
Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike.(14)
(Almighty Allah) taught man what he knew not.(15)
Also, the hadith,
Anyone who pursues a course of acquisition of knowledge, Almighty Allah will ease his eventual access to paradise.(16)
Similarly, other Quranic verses and traditions confirm that knowledge does not mean only learning of the principles and laws of the Shari’ah. We may note some further examples:
And certainly We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and both (the apostles) said: All praise is Almighty Allah’s who made us to excel many of His believing servants. And Solomon succeeded David and he said: O people! We have been taught the language of the birds, and we have been granted (plenty) of everything; surely, this is manifest grace (of Almighty Allah)’. (17)
We see that these two Prophets consider the knowledge of the language of birds to be a Divine blessing.
Do you not see that Almighty Allah sends down water from the shy, then We bring forth with it fruits of various colors, and in the mountains are streaks, white and red and of various colors and others intensely black And of men and beasts and cattle are of various colors likewise; only those of His servants endowed with knowledge fear Almighty Allah; surely, Almighty Allah is Almighty and Forgiving. (18)
Clearly, the word `ibadihi al-ulama’ (His servants endowed with knowledge) occurring in the above verse refers to those who are aware of the laws and mysteries of nature and creation, and who acknowledge in all humility the greatness and majesty of Almighty Allah.
The following traditions of the Prophet (PBUHH) also point in the direction of the most general sense of the word “knowledge”.
Seek knowledge by even going to China. (19)
The most learned of men is one who collects bits of knowledge from others and thus enhances his own knowledge. (20)
Anyone who desires the good of present life should seek knowledge. Anyone who desires the life of Hereafter should seek knowledge. And anyone who wants to do well in this life and in the next world should seek knowledge. (21)
From these sayings of the great Prophet of Islam and similar traditions which have been narrated from the Ahl al-Bayt (22), the truth emerges that such recommendations for acquisition of knowledge are not confined to the knowledge of the principles and laws of the Shari`ah; because, as it is obvious, China was not a center of theological studies in those days but was famous for its crafts and industry. Moreover, it is clear that the laws of Shari ah and Islamic doctrines cannot be learnt from polytheists and infidels.
2. Another reason for not considering “desirable” knowledge to be limited to the religious and theological studies is the precious heritage left by the Muslim scholars of the first several centuries of Islamic civilization and that has come down to our own time. As it is also confirmed by modern historians, Muslim scholars were at the vanguard of the scientific tradition for centuries and their books were used as text-books in Europe for several hundred years.
In fact the major reason why Muslim scholars rejected the intellectual traditions of other countries was that they did not see any separation between the goal of religion and the ends of knowledge and were convinced that both religion and knowledge were aimed at illuminating the unity of nature and as a result the oneness of the Creator.
Accordingly, it was on the basis of this conviction of intrinsic fusion of religion and knowledge that religious coaching and rational training were considered as aspects of a single discipline in religious schools and mosques.
3. To set aside a group of sciences on the pretext that they do not have as much value as religious studies is not correct. Because, whatever field of knowledge is conductive to preservation of the strength and vitality of an Islamic society, its knowledge is wajib kifai in the same fashion as scholarship in religious sciences has been pointed out as a wajib kifa’i for the Islamic society in the following verse of the Quran:
It is not for the believers to go forth totally (to acquire scholarship in religion); but why should not a party of every section of them go forth, to become learned in religion, and to warn their people when they return to them, that haply they may beware.(23)
So, we have discovered that the word ‘Ilm as it occurs in the Book and Sunnah appears in its more general sense than what may apply exclusively to the religious studies. Nevertheless, it may be said that Islam has only dissuaded Muslims from preoccupying themselves with any pursuit of such branches of knowledge whose harm is greater than their benefit (like magic and sorcery and games of chance used for gambling).
The relevant sayings of the Prophet (PBUHH) may be noted:
We seek Almighty Allah’s refuge from knowledge that does not benefit. (24)
O Almighty Allah! Benefit me through knowledge that You have bestowed on me, teach me whatever would benefit me, and increase me in knowledge. (25)
Ali (PBUH) is related as having said:
There is no good in knowledge which does not benefit. (26)
Knowledge is too immense in scope for anyone to be able to contain it. So, learn from each science its useful parts. (27)
To be continued!
1. Usul al-Kafi, vol. I, p. 30. Bihar al-Anwar, vol. I, p. 177.
2. Ibid, vol. I, p. 15.
3. Ibid, vol. I, p. 15.
4. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 16.
5. Ibid, vol. I, p. 39.
6. Ibid, vol. I, p. 22.
7. Ibid, vol. I, p. 72.
8. Mulla Sadra, Sharh Usul al-kafi, p. 121.
9. Ibid, p. 120.
10. Ibid, p. 121.
11. Ibid, p. 129.
12. Murtada Mutahhari, Guftar-e Mah, vol. I, p. 137.
13. Al-Ghazzali, Ihya ulum al-din, vol. I, p. 39.
14. Qur’an 39:9
15. Qur’an 96:5
16. A Prophetic tradition; source: Munyat al-Murid, p. 12)
17. Qur’an 16:15
18. Qur’an 35:27-28
19. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 14. Also see Muhajjat al-Bayda’, vol. 1, p. 21, and Bihar al Anwar, vol. I, p. 57.
20. Shaykh Saduq, Amali, p. 19. Also see Safinat al-Bihar, vol. 2, p. 219.
21. Al-Nizam al-Tarbawi fi al-Islam, p. 188.
22. Nahj al-balaghah. Dublished by Dr. Subhi al-Salih, p. 481.
24. Ibn Majah, Sunan, No. 250; also see Misbah al-Shariah, chapter 60.
25. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, the chapter on da’wat, Ibn Majah, Sunan, `introduction’.
26. Nahj al-Balaghah, published by Dr. Subhi al-Salih, p. 393.
27. Abd al-Wahid Amadi, Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim, p. 42.