Knowledge Which is Beneficial to Man
That information and knowledge have been regarded as being extremely important in today’s modern, secular life seems obvious.
With such widely employed terms and catch-phrases as “empowering people through the ICT,” “knowledge management,” “learning society,” “k-economy,” “knowledge workers,” etc., the promulgations have been effective that no one at present can deny their importance without putting one’s sanity at risk.
It is also a well-established fact that `ilm (ilmu in Malay) ranks high in the worldview of Islam and plays a central role in the value system such a worldview projects.
However, since the term has been loosely translated and generally understood as “knowledge,” many who live in the present-day world may well presume that knowledge as understood and disseminated by its modern, secular advocates bears no fundamental difference from the one which is highly regarded in Islam.
Yet, if one is to analyze how knowledge relates to other key elements in the mindset—or the fundamental conceptual scheme, or the main framework of understanding—which Islam seeks to nurture, one will eventually realize that there are basic differences which no amount of superficial, or at best secondary, similarities can help remove.
Such differences are striking when one considers, for instance, whether there are knowledge that is beneficial and that which is not; and had there been such categories of knowledge, what criteria would then be used to so decide.
To the Muslims at least, there surely are beneficial knowledge and knowledge which is harmful.
For the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, was reported to have prayed to Allah for beneficial knowledge (`ilm nafi`), just as he was reported to have sought Allah’s protection from knowledge that does not benefit (`ilm la yanfa`).
Nonetheless, to further discriminate on this, one cannot but consider what and who man is.
For man is indeed the very subject involved and the benefits meant surely pertain to him whether as an individual being, or a member of any human community.
Among the questions one needs to ponder, therefore, are as follows.
Is man as a being purely material with such mental states and acts as “consciousness” and “thinking” being at best only epiphenomenal?
Or is man a mysterious union of both body and spirit with the latter constituent being more everlasting and therefore more real?
What kind of relation does knowledge have with man conceived of as such?
Is there knowledge which nourishes the body in contrast to that which enriches the spirit?
And if there are indeed two categories of knowledge, what kind of relation is there between the one that gives life to the body and the one that enlivens the spirit?
Suppose that spirit does exist, is it essentially different from the entity which is denoted by such other terms as “soul,” “mind,” “intelligence,” “intellect,” and “reason”?
Or are such terms merely synonyms? If they are not, what kind of relation does each have with the others? And which of them has a more immediate link to knowledge? Or does to each of them a different type of knowledge pertain?
Such were some of the pertinent questions which Muslim scholars in the past had asked and sought to answer when they attempted to systematically examine beneficial vis-a-vis non-beneficial knowledge.
For instance, it was related that the great jurist, Imam al-Shafi`i, once concluded: “Knowledge is of two kinds: the science of fiqh (literally: thorough and profound grasp of a matter) pertaining to religious matters and the discipline of medicine pertaining to bodily matters” (al-`ilm `ilman: `ilm al-fiqh li al-adyan wa `ilm al-tibb li al-abdan).
The famous ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna) had compiled two great works: one was al-Shifa’ on the various lofty dimensions of thought and intellect, and the other was al-Qanun on the various branches of medicine and health sciences.
It is quite interesting to note, as duly emphasized by Professor Mehdi Mohaghegh from Iran—one of my academic instructors during my post-graduate studies at ISTAC under al-Attas’s supervision—that rather than naming the former work al-Qanun, which certainly bears ethico-legal connotations and on the surface befits it better, ibn Sina had wittingly titled it al-Shifa’ (cure or remedy), which is literally more suitable for his latter work.
Such a practice, as Mohaghegh aptly remarked, simply demonstrates that this great scholar, just like numerous other eminent figures before and after him in the long religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam, did realize the importance of, as well as the intimate relation between, both fields in ensuring man’s well-being and balanced development, one pertaining to the intangible soul and sublime thoughts and the other relating to the material body and good, healthy practices.
It is of utmost importance, therefore, that discerning Muslims of today take due cognizance of the aforementioned understanding of beneficial knowledge and try to reformulate it within their contemporary context to meet the various intellectual and educational challenges they have been confronted with.