The Supremacy of Knowledge

Friday Khutbah delivered in IIUM Mosque on the 22nd Mei 2009


By: Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran

Having heard the few verses from Surah Al-Alaq which I have read, it is interesting to find out the reason why the very initial verse of the Quran revealed to prophet Muhammad s.a.w is in the form of command to read. Is it that reading will make us knowledgeable and well-informed persons. Or is it that the ability to read will enhance our state of living through the rise of literacy rate in our country which will add to the fulfillment of becoming a so called developed country.

Ironically, as far as religion is concerned, there were a lot of people, having read a lot of books, end up becoming an atheist and agnostic of God. We read for example the case of Bertrand Russell, in the case of Christian religion, a great modern philosopher and mathematical logician, who later on wrote his famous book, Why I Am not a Christian expounding his atheistic arguments. His debate with Prof. Coplestone, one of the famous writer of history of western philosophy who is also a priest, regarding the existence of God, is also well recorded. The same goes with the German famous 19th century philosopher Frederich Nietzche who has declared that God is dead in one of his book, Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Thus, it is clear in this case that the act of reading alone does not necessarily contribute to the salvation of man as far as religion is concerned. Even the Jews, according to some interpretations, were called Ahl-al-Kitab (the people of Book), not only because they were given Book of revelation by God but also because of their extreme obsession of reading the result of which led to their disobedient of God. The Qur’an regards them like the donkey that is carrying huge books yet did not understand and profit from it. (ka mathali al-himari yahmilu asfara)

Hence, when God enjoins reading through the word Iqra’ in the Quran, it is not merely because of the act of the reading alone, but more importantly, it refers to the true knowledge that we gain out of the act of reading. This is also the very reason why the verse in surah al-‘Alaq continues with the phrase bismirabbika ‘llazi khalaq to read in the name of your God who creates which means to read with the deep consciousness of the existence of God who have created us. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in his Tafsir, Mafatih al-Ghayb when interpreting this verse, says that to read in the name of God is to make the readings and the action that follows totally for the sake of God.

At any rate, the more important message underlying this verse is the recognition and affirmation of Islam on the supremacy of knowledge. Hardly we could find a religion other than Islam, which have given great emphasis in seeking knowledge. Islam, through the saying of the Prophet has made it obligatory to all muslims. In the Quran, the word ‘ilm either in the form of ma’rifah or nakirah occurs nearly 800 times, the third most quoted terms after the word Allah and Rabb. In many other places in the Quran, the importance of knowledge has been emphasized by God through other relevant words and phrases such as afala ta’qilun (Have you not understand), afala yatadabbarun (Aren’t you reflecting), Afala yubsirun (Do not they see), la’allakum tatafakkarun (In order that you may think).

In contrast when God humiliate and condemn a person, the Quran uses the words which are opposite to knowledge such as jahilun (ignorant), ghafilun-179 (heedless, forgetful), safahan (folly or thoughtlessness) (6:140), zalimun (3:140)- which originally means those who are in the dark, without light (nur) and nur is metaphorically means knowledge. All these negative terms, in one way or another connote the meaning of man with the absence of true knowledge. It is also interesting to find out that in the Quran, the term ‘ilm when it occurs with the definite noun (alif and lam- ma’rifah), it always refer to the knowledge of God or the religious knowledge.

And just ponder how great is the impact of these verses to the heart of the early Muslims. The Quranic motivation of knowledge did not take more than 200 years to generate a tremendous force in the heart of the early generation of Muslim to seek and acquire all kinds of knowledge at that time. They explored every inch of the earth to quench their thirst and passion for knowledge driven by their strong realization the obligation to seek knowledge. Towards the peak of the Islamic civilization, the history records the shifting of the intellectual centre, the qiblah of knowledge from Constantinople in Rome to Baghdad in Iraq. From that point of time, the authority of knowledge was in the hand of Muslims. Islamic civilization has produced greatest minds the history has ever witnessed.

By quoting these historical facts, some of us might view that we are only evoking the rosy pictures of our past civilization, hence become too romantic with the tradition and our glorious history. Mind you that we Muslims can still reach at the same level of civilization of knowledge as in the past if we really understand the strong message of knowledge conveyed by the Qur’an especially through the verse Iqra’ that we have read. To most of us in this university who are dealing with knowledge either in teaching or learning it, if we are intimate with the biographies and great works by our scholars in the past, there is nothing that can stop us from being spirited and motivated through their great ideas. To get a glimpse of the passion of knowledge shown by our great scholars of the past, let me just read an example of the intellectual life of Ibn Sina, a great Muslim philosophers of the early 11th century, as he himself wrote in his auto biography. I quote:

“(When I was a teenager) I dedicated myself to learning and reading…During this time I did not sleep completely through a single night nor devote myself to anything else by day…and because of some problem which baffle me, not being able to solve the problem, I used to visit the mosque frequently and worship, praying humbly to All-Creating until he opened the mystery of it to me and made the difficult seem easy. At night I would return home, set out a lamp before me and devote myself to reading and writing. Whenever I feel sleepy and weak, I would turn aside to drink a cup of juice, so my strength would returned to me. Then I would return to reading. And fall asleep, I would see those very problems in my dream, and many questions become clear to me in my sleep. I continued in this until all the sciences were deeply rooted within me and I understood them as far as is humanly possible. Everything I knew at that time is just what I knew it know, I have not added anything to it to this day. So when I reached the age of 18, I was finished all the sciences available in this day.

Ibn Sina continued to say in other places,

“In my neighbourhood, there was a man named Abu Hassan, who asked me to compose a comprehensive work on these sciences. I wrote a compilation for him and give his name to it, including all sciences in it, except mathematical science. At that time I was only twenty one years old. Also in my neighbourhood, there was a man named Abu Bakar Al-Baraqi, a lawyer, he was a distinguished in jurisprudence, Quran commentary and ascetism. He then asked me to comment on these sciences, and so I wrote for him the commentary in about 20 volumes which later he only possess with his own and has not loaned it to others or to be copied.

This is a typical example of an intellectual life of our Muslim scholars which has ultimately formed our great civilization of knowledge in the past. We can continue to enumerate endless glorious stories of our scholars in the past but this is not the occasion to do so.

Why this great emphasis on knowledge in Islam? It is because knowledge in Islam is the way to seek the truth which is ultimately lead to knowledge of God. Truth in Islam is something real and attainable in contrast with the claims of many western philosophical movements under the name of relativism and skepticism are trying to expound the skeptical and sophistical idea that the ultimate knowledge cannot be attained. Everything that we know, according to them, is mere perspective and subjective experience. Contradicting them, Islam through the decisive proofs put forward by the Muslim theologians affirmed that in Islam the ultimate truth knowledge could be attained. As a matter of fact, the ultimate truth in Islam is knowledge of God (al-Haqq). The attainment of truth also means the attainment of the highest level of Iman which is also the sign of the true happiness in Islam. Al-Ghazzali, in kitab Ajaib al-Qalb states that:

“Knowledge is man’s goal and a special attribute for which he was created. (al- ‘ilm huwa maqsad al-insan wa khasiyatuhu allati li ajlihi khuliqa). Man is distinguished from animals by his knowledge of things as they are. The creator of things is God. Therefore, whoever does not know God, even though he knows everything, it is as if he knows nothing. Thus the best knowledge is the knowledge God, His qualities and His acts. In this knowledge lies man’s perfections (sa’adah) of his happiness.”

The above saying of al-Ghazali at least remind us that, not all knowledge will lead to the truth and more importantly, not all people can easily arrive at true knowledge. There are also, according to al-Ghazali, many obstacles in attaining the true knowledge. Five obstacles mentioned by al-Ghazzali which prevent someone from attaining true knowledge.

a. The imperfection of man’s nature, such as the imperfection of the child’s intellect.

b. When man submits to the lusts and desire which finally leads him to the evil deeds.

c. When man deviates from the direction of the truth which is to be sought by forgetting his true aim in life and is

preoccupied by the immediate worldly aims.

d. When men hold tight to an opinion which he adheres by means of taqlid which later on becomes a barrier between him and the truth

e. When man is ignorance of the direction in which the aim can be attained.

It is therefore very important for us as seekers of knowledge in this world to remove all these obstacles from our path in order for us to arrive at the true knowledge that will guide to the right path. May God open our heart and include us in those who will receive true knowledge from Him.


(semoga kita berkasih sayang kerana Allah)

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