The word ʿilm (علم) which is the Arabic word for knowledge and its verb forms have been used a great number of times in the Quran. This shows the importance of knowledge in the Quran and Islam.
Many of the verses end with phrases that invite us to think, reflect and know. For example, verses that end with, “if they but knew”, “if you but knew”, “will you not use your reason?” And so forth. 1 And there are also about 21 verses that contain the command “know”.
The topics discussed in this article are:
- The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: The Importance of Seeking Knowledge
- The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: The First Revealed Verse
- Hadith About the Importance of Knowledge
- The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: Which Knowledge?
- The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: Acquiring and Guiding
The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: The Importance of Seeking Knowledge
A narration from the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his household) states:
طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ وَ مُسْلِمَة
Seeking knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim man and woman 2
Many verses of the Quran also speak of gaining knowledge and learning. For example, the following verse:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُّوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ ۖ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ ﴿7﴾
We did not send [any apostles] before you except as men to whom We revealed. Ask the People of the Reminder if you do not know. 3
Who are the People of the Reminder?
The verse asks us to refer to the Ahl al-Dhikr (the People of the Reminder). We therefore need to look into who this refers to.
Without doubt, from a literal point of view, this includes all those who have knowledge and the verse is talking about a universal rational law, that is, the one who does not know must refer to someone who does.
One of the references that Islamic jurisprudents refer to, to argue for the permissibility of following Islamic jurists, is this verse. 4
This however, does not mean that others cannot be asked; rather, it means that they are the best and most explicit instances of this law 6 as they are the most superior in knowledge (after the Holy Prophet of course).
The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: The Inequality of the Knowledgeable and Ignorant
Another verse that indicates the importance of seeking knowledge is the following:
أَمَّنْ هُوَ قَانِتٌ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ سَاجِدًا وَقَائِمًا يَحْذَرُ الْآخِرَةَ وَيَرْجُو رَحْمَةَ رَبِّهِ ۗ قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ ۗ إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ ﴿9﴾
Is he who supplicates in the watches of the night, prostrating and standing, apprehensive of the Hereafter and expecting the mercy of his Lord…? Say, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ Only those who possess intellect take admonition. 7
This verse indicates the superiority of those who know over those who are ignorant. However, which type of knowledge does the verse mean?
Despite the fact that having knowledge and not having it has been used in the absolute sense in this verse and that the verse has not mentioned knowledge regarding what, considering the instances under discussion in the verse, it refers to knowledge regarding God.
The reason for this is that it is knowledge of God that makes one attain perfection and is useful in the true sense of the word and if one does not have this knowledge, it would harm him. But, other types of knowledge are like wealth which is only useful in the world and would perish after death. 8
The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: The First Revealed Verse
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ ﴿1﴾
Read in the Name of your Lord who created. 9
The importance of learning and knowledge in Islam can be understood from this verse which is the first verse revealed to the Holy Prophet (peace be on him and his household) and one that commands him to read.
One of the privileges and honors of Islam is that it began with reading, writing, and knowledge, and God’s first command to His Prophet was a cultural one. 10
Hadith About the Importance of Knowledge
The Holy Prophet (peace be on him and his household) states:
خَيْرُ الدُّنْيَا وَ الْآخِرَةِ مَعَ الْعِلْمِ وَ شَرُّ الدُّنْيَا وَ الْآخِرَةِ مَعَ الْجَهْل
The good of this world and the next is with knowledge and the evil of this world and the next is with ignorance. 11
In another hadith he states:
الْعِلْمُ وَدِيعَةُ اللَّهِ فِي أَرْضِهِ وَ الْعُلَمَاءُ أُمَنَاؤُهُ عَلَيْهِ فَمَنْ عَمِلَ بِعِلْمِهِ أَدَّى أَمَانَتَهُ وَ مَنْ لَمْ يَعْمَلْ بِعِلْمِهِ كُتِبَ فِي دِيوَانِ الْخَائِنِين 12
Knowledge is Allah’s deposit on earth and scholars are His trustees of it. Therefore, he who acts according to his knowledge has delivered his deposit 13 and one who doesn’t; his name will be written in the book of the traitors.
The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: Which Knowledge?
According to a narration from Jaʿfar bin Muhammad al-Sadiq (peace be on him):
الْعِلْمُ نُورٌ يَقْذِفُهُ اللَّهُ فِي قَلْبِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ
Knowledge is light; God casts it into the heart of whomever He wishes. 14
According to another narration,
“Knowledge is not obtained by learning. Rather, it is a light which enters the heart of whoever Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, wishes to guide. So if you want knowledge, first find in yourself the reality of servitude. Seek knowledge by utilizing it and ask Allah to make you understand, then He will make you understand.” 15
Therefore, it is a special type of knowledge that is bestowed on the human being by God and requires us to work on ourselves first.
Types of Knowledge in Terms of Obligation and Prohibition
Obligatory on every individual
Obligatory on everyone but if some perform it, others don’t need to do so
Knowledge That is Obligatory on Everyone
- Obligatory knowledge: knowledge of the proof of God’s existence, his attributes, and that which is incumbent in relation to Him and prohibited against Him. It is also knowledge of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his household) and proof of his infallibility as well as knowledge of the Imams and the Hereafter.
In these instances, one cannot just blindly follow or imitate another; rather, this knowledge must be based on proofs and argument.
Knowledge That is Obligatory on a Few
- Obligatory on a few: this includes the following:
Jurisprudence and the branches of laws; Principles of Jurisprudence; methods of argument and proof; deep knowledge of the principles of faith to be able to answer and keep away the doubts and to turn away corrupt beliefs; the science of hadith and narrators of hadith; medicine to cure others; deep knowledge of Islamic laws to make rulings and judgments; mathematics for transactions and to be able to execute wills and divide inheritance, and so forth. 17
Recommended and Prohibited
Recommended knowledge is that which one learns while there are enough people who have already gained knowledge in that field and this would be surplus to that need.
Prohibited knowledge is that which has been condemned and God has prohibited the learning of; for example, magic. 18
The Importance of Knowledge in the Quran: Acquiring and Guiding
وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنفِرُوا كَافَّةً ۚ فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ مِن كُلِّ فِرْقَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُوا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَجَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُونَ ﴿122﴾
Yet it is not for the faithful to go forth en masse. But why should not there a group from each of their sections go forth to become learned in religion, and to warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware? 19
The verse states that the believers of cities other than Medina are not allowed to all go for jihād (fighting in the way of God); why doesn’t a group migrate to Medina to learn from the Prophet, act upon those teachings, and return to their people. When they return they should warn their people through publicizing and spreading the teachings and inform them of the effects of going against the principles and branches of faith so that they may become fearful and adopt piety and Godwariness. 20
The word tafaqquh (تفقّه) means to seek something and become an expert in it. 21 When the verse speaks of becoming an expert in religion; it means to acquire knowledge of all the teachings of religion, including the practical laws and the beliefs, that is, both the principles and branches of faith.
Therefore, this verse is clear proof that a group of people must always gain knowledge regarding religious matters as a wājib kifāyī (the obligation which must be performed by a few and as a result, the responsibility is lifted from others). After they gain this knowledge they must go to different parts of the world, particularly their own people and teach and familiarize them with Islamic teachings. 22 Such people are generally known as clerics.
The Obligation of Teaching and Learning
The abovementioned verse states the obligation of teaching and learning. It also communicates the particular respect and importance that Islam places on these two.
It signifies that both fighting against ignorance and fighting against the enemy is an obligation and neither is of lesser importance than the other. In fact, until a nation is not victorious in the war against ignorance they will not be victorious on the battlefield either, because an ignorant nation is always doomed to defeat. 23
Knowledge in the Quran places importance both on knowledge in itself as well as the importance of seeking knowledge and the virtue of the one who acquires it.
There are many types of knowledge and the field of knowledge is vast. However, the knowledge that the Quran and Islam emphasizes is knowledge that leads us to God and brings us closer to Him.
- Saffarzade translation. [2: 44]; [2: 184]; [16: 41];
- Miṣbaḥ al-Sharīʿah. (1400 AH). Beirut: Aʿlami. P. 13
- [21: 7]. Qarai translation
- Tafsīr Namūna. Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyyah. Vol 13, p. 361
- Bahrani, H. (1416 AH). Al-Burhān fī Tafsīr al-Qurʾān. Beʿhat. Vol. 3, p. 423
- Tafsīr Namūna. Ibid.
- [39: 9]. Qarai translation
- Tafsir al-Mīzān. Vol. 17, pp. 370-371
- [96: 1]. Qarai translation
- Tafsīr Nūr. Commentary of Surah al-Alaq. Verses 1-5
- Biḥār al-Anwār. (1403 AH). Beirut: Dar Ihya Turath al-Arabi. Vol. 1, p. 204
- Ibid. vol. 2, p. 36
- A Bundle of Flowers from the Garden of Traditions of the Prophet & Ahlul-Bayt (a.s.). (Celeste Smith, Ed.). p. 69
- Miṣbāḥ al-Sharīʿa. (1400 AH). Beirut: Aʿlami. P. 16
- Hadith of Unwan Basri. From Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 1, p. 226. Translated by Ali Alsamail.
- Tadhkirat al-Fuqahā. (1419 AH). Vol. 9, p. 36
- Ibid. p. 37
- [9: 122]. Qarai translation
- Tafsir al-Mīzān. Vol. 9, p. 550
- Al-Mufradāt fī Gharīb il Qurʾān, 1st ed. 1412 AH. Damascus-Beirut: Dar al-Ilm al-Dar al-Shamiyyah. P. 643
- Tafsīr Namūna. Vol. 8, p. 193
- Ibid. pp. 194-195
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