April 23, 2001

The Use and Abuse of Knowledge



The Shahada. Seven words that changed the world
in less than twenty-five years. It was the inspiration for reflecting into the
signs of the Creator, when He (swt) said: “We will show them Our signs on the horizons
and in themselves, and they will recognize them to be Truth”


What happens when – absent an Islamic structure
– the scholars are unable to relate Shari’ah as the motivation for continuous
learning and exploration, as “the cure for what is in the hearts and a
mercy for believers”
[Qur’an 17:83] ?


This question was asked by Imam Juwayni (478 AH) in
. He addressed the necessity for public awareness of the characteristics
of Shari’ah. By the grace of Allah, this is an effort to bring a few characteristics
of Shari’ah from the perspective of Islam’s divine guidance as an ideal faith.
We would endeavor to present its various characteristics not only from the sources
of Shari’ah (the Qur’an and Sunnah), but also by contrasting it with the extremism
and failures of human whim and individualistic judgment. This effort is not worthy
of being mentioned with the great names it quotes, and is only attempting to
relate their teachings to the reader of English. 


The Messenger of Allah (saw) said:
Allah bless whoever hears my words and relates them as he understands them.
Perhaps one would carry fiqh (understanding of the Deen) and be not a
faqeeh. And perhaps one would carry
to someone who exceeds him in it”. Indeed, all glory belongs to


Methodology and Definitions

This effort revolves around three issues: Faith as identity,
the timeless, eternal applicability of Shari’ah, and the spiritual awareness needed
in the process of exploring its characteristics. Dates are related to give the
reader a sense of the continuity of Islamic scholarly tradition through the
ages and to place the element of thought in its proper socio-political historical
context. We would also attempt to relate the human dimension of Shari’ah by relating
the stories and wit of its carriers (the Sahaba and the early scholars)
as legends, but real people with hopes, dreams and families to feed.

Constructive Knowledge

It is by virtue of knowledge that Allah has elevated the human
above the ranks of the angels when He said: “and He taught Adam all
[2:31]. Allah (swt) also said to His Messenger (saw):
“Know that there is no god but Allah.” [47:19].

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: “The best deen is
to fear what might hurt you in the akhira (hereafter)”. Al-Hafith
ibn ‘Abd
al-Birr (463 AH) in Jami Bayan al-‘Ilm categorized “knowledge incumbent
upon a Muslim,” into four areas: “to know your Lord”, “to
know yourself through what He (swt) intended for you” (this is through
the message of the Prophet), “to know what He requires of you”
(that is His injunctions and prohibitions) and “to know how to repent to
Him from your faults.”

In Minhaj al-Abideen, Imam Ghazali (505 AH) says that incumbent
knowledge is “that which one does not feel safe from demise through his
ignorance regarding it – particularly in matters of ‘aqeeda“. According
to the author of Miftah al-Jannah, all sciences of the deen (Shari’ah) and its means
are based on the explanation of the honorable word of tawheed. These sciences
illustrate what duties La Ilaha Ill Allah makes incumbent in matters of worship
and worldly dealings – through conviction, word and deed.

Shari’ah emphasizes what is constructive of knowledge to bring
us closer in sincerity to Allah. He (swt) said: “Say: I do not seek any reward from you,
nor am I pretentious”
[38:86]. This is why the Sahaba (ra) warned their students about complex
philosophical questions that do not lead to action and upon which no injunction
(takleef) would be based. ‘Umar (ra) ibn al-Khattab (23 AH) said: “If a
matter is to be, Allah will facilitate for you its attainment.” Thus, intellectual
capacity in the Islamic discipline, according to Abu Bakr al-Baqallani (403
AH), is to “understand what is required (wajibat), to know what is impossible
(mustaheelat) and to realize universal divine laws that govern all existence
(majari al-‘adat)”.

The Messenger said: “There will come a time upon
people where scholars (fuqaha) will be few and orators would be many. Few can
quench people’s abundant search for knowledge. At that time, knowledge is better
than action.” This is a warning against action without proper knowledge
– and not a call to knowledge without action. This may also be
explained further by the hadith on the authority of Anas (ra) ibn Malik (93
AH) who said: 

“A man came to the Prophet and asked him about the
best knowledge. The Messenger replied that it was ‘knowledge of Allah’.
The man then asked about the best action, and the Prophet said it was ‘knowledge
of Allah’. Upon wondering about the identical reply, Prophet explained
to the man: ‘Little action is beneficial with knowledge while ample action is
not beneficial with ignorance’ “. 

In this regard Hasan al-Basri (110
AH) explained the du’a in the verse 2:201 “Our Lord grant us good in
this life”
as knowledge and worship, and “good in the

as paradise. The Prophet constantly sought refuge in “knowledge
that does not benefit its bearer”.

Imam Awza’i (157 AH) described knowledge (‘ilm) saying: “It
is what is transmitted by the companions of the Prophet. What is not
transmitted on their authority is not knowledge. You should only mention them
[the sahaba] and anyone from your Ummah kindly. And if you hear someone
criticize another, he is in essence saying, ‘I am better than him’ “. When
Ata’ replied to a question, the questioner asked, “Is this answer opinion
(raiy) or knowledge (‘ilm)?” And Ata, the Imam of tabi’een in
Mecca said,
“We heard from so and so that he heard the Prophet say…”.

Conversely, supreme ignorance, as described in the Qur’an, is
moving away from, or denying one’s inherent humanity (fitra) – for there
no way to alter Allah’s creation”
[30:30]. Ali (ra) ibn Abu Talib (40 AH)
said: “He who does not respect his limitations will break down. He who
seeks to penetrate complexity will drown. He who is impressed with his own opinion
will go astray. He who feels self-sufficient with his intellect will fall. And
he who is lead by ignorance finds the path of injustice”. What greater
injustice is there than dividing our Ummah based on ignorance, or selfish opinion
toward any material gain?

Imam Shatibi related in al-I’tisam that ‘Abdullah ibn Abbas
(ra) explained the reason for difference among the Ummah, though our Messenger
is one, our book is one, and our qibla is one. He said: “When
a verse was revealed, we (the Sahaba) knew when it was revealed, why it was
revealed and we understood its injunctions and prohibitions. There will come
a time when people would read a verse and they do not understand its language
[Arabic]. They do not know when it was revealed or why it was revealed, and
they understand neither its injunctions nor its prohibitions. When asked about
it, they will state their own opinions and their opinions will clash. And when
their opinions clash they will fight among each other.”

As Imam Ghazali
relates, divine guidance is one and does not divide people. Any difference which
generates divisiveness or bickering is not in the spirit of Shari’ah and has
its roots in ignorance. Positive ‘difference’ is that which encourages growth
in the service of Shari’ah. When Imam Ahmad (241 AH) was asked about a book that
one of his students had entitled ‘The Book of Diversity (ikhtilaf) among
he said call it ‘The Book of Sunnah’ !

Imam ibn al-Qayyim (751 AH)
in ‘Ilam al-Muwaqi’een relates numerous incidents where the Sahaba (ra) had
to exercise their understanding of established principles within the changing
context of human experience. Thus, the established aims (maqaasid) and principles
(usul) of Shari’ah are eternal. Different opinions about ancillary, side issues
were never considered differences by the Sahaba (ra), but rather a manifestation
of the richness and timeless applicability of Shari’ah.

(courtesy of http://www.ymuk.net)

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