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Islamic Conception of Knowledge

One of the distinctive features of Islam is its emphasis on knowledge. The Quran and the Islamic tradition (sunnah) invite Muslims to seek and acquire knowledge and wisdom and to hold men of knowledge in high esteem.

In the Holy Quran the word al-Ilm, knowledge, and its derivatives are used more than 780 times. The first few verses that were revealed to our Holy Prophet (SAW) mention the importance of reading, pen, and teaching for human beings:

IqraRead: in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from something which clings. Read and your Lord is the most generous. Who taught with pen. Taught man what he knew not..." (96:1-5)

In the Islamic traditions, too, there are many words of praise for knowledge and the learned.

Traditions attributed to the Holy Prophet (SAW) in this regard, some of which are quoted below:

  • It is an obligation for every Muslim to seek knowledge.
  • Seek knowledge even if it be in China.
  • Seek knowledge from cradle to grove.
  • Scholars are the heirs of the prophets.
  • The ink of the learned will be weighed with the blood of the martyrs on the Resurrection Day; and then, the ink of the learned would be preferred to the blood of the martyrs.
  • Anyone who pursues a course in search of knowledge, God will ease his way to paradise.
  • The most learned of men is the one who gathers knowledge from others on his own; the most worthy of men is the most knowing and the meanest is the most ignorant.
  • Acquire knowledge, it enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lights the way to heaven.

Some Wise Sayings of Imam Ali (AS) in this regard, which are quoted below:

  • O you who carry knowledge around with you; are you only carrying it around with you? For surely knowledge belongs to whoever knows and then acts accordingly, so that his action corresponds to his knowledge. There will be a people who will carry knowledge around with them, but it will not pass beyond their shoulders. Their inner most thoughts will contradict what they display in public, and their actions will contradict what they know.
  • Do not turn your knowledge into ignorance and your surety into doubt. When you acquire knowledge then act in accordance with it and when you achieve surety then proceed with it.
  • Knowledge is accompanied by action. Thus he who knows acts in accordance with it. Knowledge is called through action. Thus if called it responds and if left uncalled it leaves.
  • The lowest form of knowledge is the one which (only) appears upon the tongue while the loftiest is the one made manifest by the organs and the limbs.
  • Verbal Knowledge is of the least value, while practical knowledge is of the highest.
  • The more knowledgeable the man, the more valuable the man.
  • The most complete gift of God is a life based on knowledge.
  • Knowledge gives life to the soul. Knowledge creates fear of God.
  • Practice makes knowledge perfect.
  • The one who engages in business without knowledge of its laws is inevitably dragged into usury.
  • Two types of people will never be satiated, the seeker of knowledge and the seeker of this world.
  • The best companion is satisfaction while knowledge is a noble heritage. Good morals are renewable garments and thought is a clear mirror.
  • There is no virtue in your possession of excessive wealth and offspring rather virtue and merit are (awarded) by greater knowledge and insistence and by your devotion to your Lord.
  • When a dead person is placed in his grave, four kinds of fire will cover him, but then the prayer will come and put one of them out, and the fast will come and put another one of them out, and then charity will come and put another one out, and knowledge will come and put the forth one out, and it will say: If I had come sooner, I would a have put all of them out, and given you delight for I am with you now, and you'll not see anything else distressing.
  • When Allah wishes to humiliate a person He prevents him from gaining knowledge.

Knowledge is better than Wealth because of the following seven reasons:

  1. Knowledge is inheritance of Prophets while wealth is inheritance of Firauns (Pharaohs).
  2. Knowledge does not diminish (rather increases) with spending, while wealth diminishes with spending.
  3. Wealth requires to be protected, while knowledge protects its owner.
  4. Knowledge will enter the Kafan (Shroud) while wealth will be prevented from doing so.
  5. Wealth reaches both believers and unbelievers (Kafir), while knowledge is reserved only for those who are worthy of it.
  6. Knowledge will facilitate passing over the Seraat (Bridge over Hell) while wealth will pore hurdles.
  7. People are always in need of scholars while they might not be in need of those possessing wealth.
Some Wise Sayings of Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq (AS) on knowledge:

  • Knowledge is a shield, truthfulness is might, ignorance is abasement, understanding is glory, generosity is success, good behavior causes friendship, he who has knowledge about his time, ambiguous things do not attack him.
  • Whoever attacks a matter without knowledge cuts off his own nose.
  • Verily, knowledge is a lock and its key is the question.
  • Allah does not accept any act without knowledge, there is no knowledge without act, so whoever knows, knowledge leads him to act, and whoever does not act gets no knowledge, but belief is a little of a little.
  • Enough for the fear of Allah is knowledge and enough for self-importance is ignorance.
  • Indeed, the most knowledge of all men in Allah is the most satisfied of them with death.

Explanation of one of the famous Hadith of the Holy Prophet (SAW):

Acquisition of knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim.

  1. Accordingly, the tradition intends to state that at whatever stage of knowledge one May be, 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 i.e. he should learn things which were not obligatory for him earlier.
  2. The tradition implies that a Muslim can never be relieved of his responsibility of acquiring knowledge.
  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 the undesirable effects they produce.
  4. The knowledge which is incumbent on every Muslim to acquire is the one that elevates man's position in the next world, and that which brings him the knowledge of his self, his Creator, prophets, messengers of God, elite of Islam, signs of God, doomsday, and whatever causes proximity of God or divergence from the Almighty's way.
  5. The levels of acquisition of this knowledge differ from person to person in accordance with their talents, and even in the case of a particular person, the level of attainment changes with his evolution. Therefore, there is no limit to the acquisition of this type of knowledge, and no matter what level one reaches, it is still incumbent on him to attain a higher level (this of course depends on his capacity and patience too).
Is there are two types of knowledge's "religious" and "non-religious"?

In most of the Quranic verses and the Islamic traditions the concept of Ilm (knowledge) appears in its absolutely sense, as can be seen from examples given below:

Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? (39:9)

(God) taught man what he knew not (96:5)

It has been a subject of fundamental importance from the early days of Islam as to which kind of knowledge Islam recommends; is there any specific kind of knowledge to be sought?

Some well-known Muslim scholars have counted as praise-worthy only those branches of knowledge which are directly connected with religion.

As for other types of knowledge they hold the view that it is up to the community to decide which of them are essential for the sustenance and welfare of the community.

We believe that there can be no restriction on the acquisition of knowledge, and, if there were any limitations of this kind, our Holy Prophet (SAW) would have mentioned them.

MutahariWe do not approve the classification of sciences into "religious" and "non-religious". As the Martyr Professor Murteda Mutahhari has rightly pointed out, such classifications may entail the misconception that the "nonreligious" sciences are alien to Islam, and this seems incompatible with the universality of Islam. The religion which claims to bestow full felicity upon mankind. A religion that considers itself self-sufficing cannot estrange itself from the issues which play a vital role in securing welfare and independence for the Islamic society. According to the late Mutahhari:

"Islam's comprehensiveness 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'"

Some Quranic verses and the Prophet's traditions are explicit in pointing out that knowledge does not mean only learning the principles and laws of the religion.

Holy Quran verse:

And certainly We gave knowledge to Dawood and Sulaiman, and they both said: Praise be to Allah, Who has made us to excel many of His believing servants. And Sulaiman was Dawood's heir, and he said: O men! we have been taught the language of birds, and we have been given all things; most surely this is manifest grace. (27:15-16)

We see that Sulaiman (AS) considers knowing the language of birds as a divine blessing or grace.

Holy Prophet (SAW) sayings:

Seek knowledge by even going to China, for seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim.

Wisdom is the believer's lost property therefore, wherever he finds it, he deserves more than anyone else to have it.

Imam ali (AS) sayings:

Wisdom is the lost property of believers, then seek it even if it be with polytheists, because you deserve to have it more than they do.

Grasp wisdom from whoever offers it to you, see what is said not who Says it.

All these sayings indicate that acquisition of knowledge is not confined to learning the principles and laws of religion, because it is quite obvious that China in those days was not the center of theological studies, but it was famous for its industry. Moreover, it is clear that the laws and principles of Islam could not be learnt from atheists or polytheists.

Another reason for believing that 'desirable' knowledge is not confined to theological studies or the Shari'ah laws dealing with permissible and forbidden is the invaluable heritage itself left by Muslim scholars of the first few centuries after Hijrah.

It is also confirmed by contemporary historians that Muslim scholars have been the torch bearers of science for many centuries, and their works were used as text books in Europe for several hundred years.

In fact, a major reason why Muslim scholars assimilated the scientific heritage of other nations was that they did not see any conflict between the goals of science and religion, and were convinced that both religion and science aimed to demonstrate the unity of nature which in turn is an indication of the Unity of its Creator. It was for this very reason that theology and rational and physical sciences made up a conjoint discipline to be taught in theological schools and mosques.

Hence we may conclude that the word Ilm as it occurs in the Quran and Sunnah appears in its generic sense rather than referring exclusively to religious studies. On this ground it can be said Islam has only discourage 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 (SAW) may be noted:

The best fields of knowledge are those which bring benefit.

O God! Benefit me through knowledge that You have bestowed on me, teach me whatever would benefit me, and increase my knowledge.

Imam Ali (AS) is related as having said:

There is no good in knowledge which does not benefit.

Knowledge is too immense in scope for anyone to be able to learn all of it. So learn from each science its useful parts.

There is no division of opinion on the necessity of acquiring knowledge relevant to religious studies. Accordingly, we shall abstain from any further discussion of the subject. Instead, it is worthwhile to concentrate on the question of necessity of learning other sciences in the view of the Quran and Sunnah.

In this regard there are a number of arguments which we shall take up immediately.

1- If knowledge of a science is a prerequisite to the attainment of Islamic goal as imaged by the Shari'ah, its pursuit is an obligation (Wajib) since it entails the preliminary condition for fulfillment of a duty prescribed by the Shari'ah. For example, the physical welfare of individuals in an Islamic society is necessary, hence it is a "Wajib kifa'i" for the Muslims to study medicine.

Some are of the opinion that in this context the duty to learn any specific science depends on the need of the society for it. For example, in our day, in order to succeed in large scale agriculture or commerce, specialized knowledge of these subjects is necessary. Accordingly, it is a Wajib kifa'i for Muslims to specialize in these fields.

Evidently, if Muslims are to restrict their learning's to what has already been established in other countries, in other words, to be satisfied with the minimum of their scientific requirements, they will never be able to beat the non-Muslim world in scientific progress.

2- The society envisioned by the Quran is an independent society of majesty and magnificence, not one submissive to and dependent on the unbelievers, as can be seen from this verse of the Quran:

"...and Allah does not grant the unbelievers any way (of domination) over the believers." (4:141)

In order to realize this goal set by the Quran, it is essential that the Islamic society should have cultural, political and economic independence; this in turn necessitates training of specialists of high caliber in every field and creation of the necessary scientific and technical facilities in Islamic societies. It is clear that one of the reasons of decline of Muslim societies in the recent centuries is that they left the study of those sciences to others which they themselves deserved to study most and made themselves dependent on others.

Is worshipping God is only through prayers, fasting and so on?

And I have not created the Jinn and the men except that they should serve Me. (51:56)

And that you should serve Me; this is the right way. (36:61)

Therefore, the main objective of man should be seeking proximity to God and attaining His consent; and his activities should be focused in this direction. Anything that brings about this proximity or guides in that direction is praiseworthy. Thus knowledge is useful only if it is an instrument for obtaining knowledge of God, and His pleasure and proximity; otherwise knowledge itself is an inscrutable veil (Hijab-e-Akbar), whether it is linked with the sciences of nature or the sciences of the Shari'ah.

It is obvious that worshipping God is not only through prayers, fasting and so on. In fact, any move in the direction of proximity to God is considered as worship. One of the means to help man in his way towards God is knowledge, and of course it is only in this case that knowledge can be considered valuable. By the help of knowledge a Muslim can gain proximity to God in various ways and manners.

First of all, he can increase his cognition of God.

Our great Prophet (SAW) is related as having said:

God can be worshipped and served by means of knowledge; bliss in this world and Hereafter comes through knowledge; and adversity of this world and Hereafter lies in ignorance.

Secondly, he can effectively help in the advancement of Islamic society and realization of Islamic goals:

A tradition has been quoted from our great Prophet (SAW):

Should death occur to a man who is learning knowledge with the purpose of reviving Islam, his position in paradise will be (only) one stage below (that of) the prophets.

Thirdly, he can guide other people. It is reported from our dear Prophet (SAW) as having said:

God will patronize my successors. He was asked. Who are your successors? He answered, those who revive my traditions and teach them to God's servants.

Fourthly, he can solve many problems of human society, Our great Prophet (SAW) is quoted as having said:

All People are God's family. Among them, God's favorites are those who are more useful to His family.

The knowledge employed in the above mentioned ways is deemed to be useful; otherwise, it would not have any real value:

"This is because Allah is the truth and that which they call upon besides Him is the falsehood." (31:30)

"And the word of Allah is the highest." (9:40)

DonkeyOur great Prophet (SAW) is related as having said:

He who learns knowledge for other than God, and his aim be other than God, will abide in fire (hell).

One whose knowledge increases but his salvation does not keep pace with it, his remoteness from God increases.

Any knowledge not helping man on his way to Allah is similar to the load of books carried on the back of a donkey.

BeheshtiAs Martyr Dr. Beheshti puts it: Any area of knowledge as long as it does not become an instrument in the hands of Taghut (non God or anti God) is a means of enlightenment; otherwise knowledge may also become a means of misguidance.

The only limit set to the acquisition of knowledge in Islam is that Muslims should seek useful knowledge. Our great Prophet (SAW) is reported as having said:

My Lord, save me from the useless knowledge.

Any knowledge helping man in performing his God assigned role in this world is useful, other than that is considered useless knowledge.

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
I swear by the time, Most surely man is in loss, Except those who believe and do good, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin on each other patience.
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