“Even Unto China” – An Islamic perspective on knowledge and learning

knowledge

Seek knowledge, even unto China’ said the Prophet Muhammad (s)

As access to information, data and knowledge becomes easier, our ability to learn has also increased. Alexander Khaleeli reflects on the impact that true knowledge should have on those who have acquired it.

Living at a time when education is  so  ubiquitous,  it  is  all  too easy  to  forget  the  significance of   these   words,   uttered so many  centuries  ago.  In  the  developed world, we take for granted the fact that children  go  to  school,  that  books  are printed  by  the  thousands  and,  with enough  time  and  effort,  someone  can learn   almost   anything   they   desire. And  now,  thanks  to  websites  such as  Wikipedia  and  YouTube,  it  has never been so easy to learn about everything  from  astrophysics  to refrigerator repair without even needing to leave the comfort of   our   own   homes,   let alone  go  to  China.

With the  power  of  modern technology   to   bring the  world  to  us,  we might  be  forgiven for thinking that a  new  age  has dawned.    In the past, aspiring scholars   would   have   to   travel great distances to study under an accomplished  teacher  or  obtain  a rare text. Today, some of the world’s leading  universities  offer  courses online  for  free  and  tens  of  thousands  of  books  can  be  instantly downloaded  and  shared  in  digital format.  This  even  extends  to  the Islamic sciences; almost all of the major  collections  of  Hadith  have been  digitised  and  made  search-able. Yes, it has never been so easy to find and share information.

So  is  knowledge  just  a  Google search    away?    An    unfortunate feature  of  our  modern  societies is  that  we  often  mistake  information  for  erudition  and  facts  for knowledge,   as   if   education   is nothing  more  than  the  hoarding of  data.  Compare  this  to  what the Qur’an says about knowledge: ‘Only those of God’s servants who have knowledge fear Him.’ (35:28). This  verse  provides  a  completely different  view  of  learning,  in  that it  draws  an  explicit  connection between  having  knowledge  (‘ilm) and  fearing  God,  suggesting  that true  knowledge  is  something  that inspires us to hold our Creator in awe. In other words, it has less to do with what you know and more to do with the effect knowing has on you, the knower.

By  virtue  of  this,  anything  that increases   a   person’s   awareness of his Creator is knowledge – not just traditionally “Islamic” subjects. And by the same token, someone could   conceivably   have   studied every verse in the Qur’an and every word   uttered   by   the   Prophet (s) , without ever attaining the slightest degree of knowledge. If this seems highly subjective, that’s because it is! As it is only through the agency of the subject, the individual, that knowledge  can  be  actualised.  So long as knowledge is treated as an object, as something external and “other”  to  the  knower,  it  remains potential  knowledge.  Only  when that   knowledge   is   internalised so  that  it  becomes  part  of  the  knower’s own being does it become actual  knowledge.  It  is  possible to  see  whether  or  not we  have internalised knowledge in this way by  looking  at  our  own  behaviour and  attitudes.  If  we  notice  that by  learning  something  we  have become more aware of God and – as a result of this awareness  – been motivated to better ourselves both as  Muslims  and  human  beings, then   we   have   attained   some knowledge.  This  is  why  the  classical  scholars  have  said  that  the true purpose of knowledge (‘ilm) is action  (‘amal)  and  that  acquiring knowledge  without  acting  upon  it is worthless. The Qur’an describes ‘The  example  of  those  who  were charged   with   the   Torah,   then failed to carry it…’ – i.e. failed to act  upon  it  –  ‘…is  that  of  an  ass carrying  books.’  (62:  5).  And  the Prophet  says:  ‘Whoever  increases in knowledge, but not in guidance, has not increased with regards to God except in distance [from him].’ Therefore true knowledge – which is knowledge of the Divine – should be demonstrated in one’s actions.

So far  from  abounding  in  knowledge,  the  modern  world  seems paradoxically   devoid   of   it.   A secular,     materialist world view means that scholars see no under-lying  unity  beneath  the  manifold disciplines  and  areas  which  they study,  leading  different  fields  of learning  to  become  increasingly atomised  and  detached  from  one another, as well as detached from their  ultimate  source.  Moreover, the   commodification   of   knowledge   under   capitalism   means that education  is  subordinated  to economic  imperatives  and  –  as  a result  –  knowledge  is  stripped  of its  moral  and  qualitative  aspects; it  is  reduced  to  something  which can be bought or sold as readily as a pair of trainers; an inert object, alien  and  external  to  the  knower. In other words, the modern world has  the  appearance  of  knowledge but lacks its substance.

But how to overcome this illusion? Perhaps  we  can  draw  inspiration from  the  story  of  Socrates,  the famous  Greek philosopher,  and the  Oracle  of  Delphi.  Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the Oracle  if  there  was  anyone  wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle replied that there was no-one wiser than  him.  Socrates  thought  that the  Oracle  could  not  possibly  be correct,  since  he  knew  that  he had  no  wisdom  whatsoever.  So he  began  to  question  the  wisest people  in  Athens  –  statesmen, poets  and  artisans  –  in  order  to refute the Oracle’s claim. In doing so,  he  realised  that  while  these people  claimed  to  be  wise,  none of them in fact were. Paradoxically, this  made  him  the  wisest  man  in Athens because only he was aware of his own ignorance.

In  an  era  dominated  by  information  and  technology,  knowledge has  never  been  more  precious  or more  elusive.  But if we  are  to  go in search of wisdom, we must first acknowledge  our  own  ignorance, as we cannot pursue the substance of knowledge if we still cling to the illusion of modernity. But if we are able to recognise the fundamental unity –  or  tawhid  –  behind  the multiplicity   of   various   fields   of learning,  to  see  all  knowledge  as being   ultimately   connected   to knowledge  of  the  Divine,  and  in doing  so  leave  behind  our  own pretensions to wisdom for the real thing,  then  we  truly  have  under-taken  a  great  journey  –  one  that is certainly no less impressive than travelling to China.

Written by Alexander Khaleeli

This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.

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