The subject addressed here is obviously not new to the readership. It has been discussed, written about and, I think, debated in this journal and elsewhere for some time. My aim in the following pages is to give this subject a perspective based upon my own experiences in both Islamic and Western learning.
‘Ilm (knowledge) is, of course, fundamentally important for man. When Allah (SWT) created ’Adam (AS), He gave him ‘ilm. So, in the case of man, ‘ilm is as important as wjd (existence). If man had only wujud and no ‘ilm, he would be of little consequence. The Qur’an tells us that when Allah (SWT) wanted to create ’Adam (AS), He informed the angels. They, however, did not like the idea. They responded: “Why are You creating this creature on the earth who will sow mischief therein and shed blood? We are here, praising Your Holiness, and exalting Your Glory.” In His reply, Allah (SWT) did not deny the charges that the angels brought against ’Adam (AS), but simply said: “I know what you do not know.” Then, after creating ’Adam (AS), Allah (SWT) brought the angels and ’Adam (AS) face to face, and asked the angels: “Tell me the names of these things?” It was a test: the original primordial test. The angels replied: ”Glory be to You! We do not know; we know what You have told us; we do not know anything else.’’ ’Adam (AS), however, in whom God had put the capacity for creative knowledge, was able to name these things. Thus, man, ’Adam (AS), possesses a great capacity for knowledge. Neither angels, nor any other creature have this capacity.
But there is another side to this picture. Because of this capacity, i.e., because of the aql (intellect, reason) that Allah (SWT) has deposited in man, he can discover knowledge and can go on discovering knowledge, as he has done through the ages. Along with this ’ilm, man also possesses a sense of responsibility. If we give a sword to a child, he may harm himself unless he possesses a sense of responsibility to accompany his possession of the instrument. The Qur’an repeatedly states that man has not yet developed a fully adequate sense of responsibility. His cognitive faculties are great, but his faculty of the moral sense of responsibility fails most of the time. This is the meaning I derive from the Qur’an when it says, towards the end of Surah al Ahzab, (The Confederates):
- We offered Our trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains (i.e., the entire creation), but they refused to bear it and were frightened of it-but man bore it: he is unjust and foolhardy. (33:72)
We see then, that while ‘ilm is there, the sense of responsibility fails. Most of the time when a crucial test comes, man is unable to discharge this trust. Again, in an earlier surah in the Qur’iin, it says:
- ”Nay! Man has not as yet fulfilled what Allah (SWT) had (primordially) commanded him.” (80:23)
It is because of this discrepancy between the power of knowledge which man has, and his failure to live up to the moral responsibility arising from that knowledge, that this problem needs to be addressed.
The question to be posed then, is: how to make man responsible? This is the basic problem that those of us, who entertain this subject, Islamization of Knowledge, have in mind. The feeling is that the modem world has been developed and structured upon knowledge which cannot be considered Islamic. Actually, what we should be saying is that the modem world has misused knowledge; that there is nothing wrong with knowledge, but that it has simply been misused. The atom was “split” by scientists of the West but before they ever thought of making electricity from the discovery or to put its uses to other things beneficial, they made the Atom bomb. Now, having made the bombs and having piled them up high, these scientists now frantically seek ways and means to go back and undo them. Likewise, as man has begun to travel in space, his problems on earth remain ever intractable. In sum, while the presence of the desire for novelty and discovery of something new is ever present, the urge to solve problems ethically does not keep pace. The Qur’an uses the word al ’ilm and its derivatives (allama, ya‘lamu, alim) very often. Frequently it opposes this ‘ilm with what it calls zann “conjectural”. The Makkans, the opponents of the Qur’an, are portrayed as simply working with zann -- they have no sure knowledge (al ilm). This sure knowledge (al ilm) is the one given to the Prophet (SAAS) through wahy.
Such is absolutely and unconditionally al ilm. Of course the Qur’an uses al ilm in speaking about various other kinds of knowledge. It says, for example, that Allah (SWT) taught Dawud (AS) how to make coats of mail (san’nh labusin), and that is also ilm. Even a thing like magic, sihr, which the Qur’an condemns, is called ilm. Harut and Marut used to teach sihr to people according to the Qur’an. That is also a certain kind of ‘ilm although it is bad, i.e., its practice and use are bad. Those people misused sihr, and thereby separated husbands from their wives. Still it is a kind of ‘ilm. Anything that exposes something new to the mind is ilm. It is not the ‘ilm that is bad, it is the misuse or abuse of it that is bad.