Knowledge and The Human Self
Commenting on the many marvelous achievements of the modern man with respect to science and technology, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas remarked in his two important Malay works (i.e.: Risalah untuk Kaum Muslimin, published by ISTAC, 2001; and Tinjauan Ringkas Peri Ilmu dan Pandangan Alam, published by USM Press, 2007) that they have been able to overcome the forces of nature, change the landscape, alter the river flow, harvest the hydropower, penetrate the outer space, and conquer the hills and mountains that had never before seen human traces; yet despite all such splendors, they still could not master and know their own selves, and lead a purposeful life that brings about certainty and tranquility to their selves.
Knowledge has been by and large beneficial. It is indeed light that enlightens.
And it is the key to decipher what may hitherto be a mysterious secret.
Nonetheless, there are occasions when one’s being bereft of it is better.
In this column last month, I had highlighted that as far as Islam is concerned, any discussion concerning the beneficialness of knowledge needs to pertain to man as the knowing subject, both spiritually and physically.
A month earlier, I had also discussed the Prophet Muhammad’s insistence that Muslims avoid engaging themselves in matters that are really meaningless and of no benefit to their actual selves.
In fact, the Prophet once reminded: “It is enough that one harms oneself when one is ignorant of one’s own self and burdens it with matters that do not concern it.”
All the foregoing will have great bearings on education and given the many contemporary attempts at democratizing information, knowledge and education in the various Muslim societies, it is yet to be seen what kind of effective and informed response Muslims would give.
It is clear, however, that in any educational context, apart from many other factors which are instrumental, two groups are necessary, namely: those who share, impart or disseminate knowledge (which include teachers and instructors) and those who learn and acquire it (which surely involve students).
As far as these two groups are concerned, the importance to consider the beneficialness and meaningfulness of any knowledge or information to one’s true self is paramount.
Yes, the Prophet had enjoined Muslims to seek knowledge.
He had once likened wisdom to a lost treasure of the Muslims, which they ought to seek wherever it is.
True, the Prophet had instructed Muslims to convey his teachings, even if it were in one verse (ballighu Ê½anni wa-law ayah).
True still, he had praised any person who faithfully relates what he had heard from him on grounds that the person to whom the report is related may understand it better than he who reported it.
In fact, in a saying of his, he even promised hell-fire for a learned person who, when asked about a particular subject-matter, conceals it.
Yet, the Prophet also warned that one who offers knowledge to those who do not deserve it is like one who decorates pigs with precious stones, pearls and gold.
He also admonished us against going on circulating (especially without sufficient verification) all that we have heard, by declaring one who does so “a liar.”
In fact, Abu Hurayrah, a well-known companion of the Prophet, once explained that he had retained two sorts of knowledge from the Prophet: one which he had related to his contemporaries; and another which, were it to be relayed (just like the former), would have led him to be beheaded.
The prophet also insisted that one speak to one’s people according to their level of knowledge and understanding.
The aforementioned strong reminders of the Prophet, to my mind, do not simply refer to the intelligence, or cognitive competency, of a person—as is obvious—but also point to the person’s character, or ethical propensities.
It is imperative, therefore, that one who is in a position of disseminating information and knowledge be fully aware of who the learner or recipient is—both cognitively and morally—and what kind of knowledge, skill and competency is suitable for the latter.
Otherwise, one shall simply commit the unforgiveable mistake of offering a thief the key to unravel the hidden treasures and mysteries.
Or, to appropriate the famous poet SanaÊ½i’s parable of comparing to a thief a person possessed of knowledge but devoid of moral and spiritual virtue, one shall then enable a thief to steal more precious goods by extending him a lamp.
We should thus bear in mind what Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr once emphasized in his Traditional Islam in the Modern World: “The Islamic educational system never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul and the whole being of the person. It never considered the transmission of knowledge or its possession to be legitimate without the possession of appropriate moral and spiritual qualities. In fact, the possession of knowledge without these qualities was considered dangerous….”