What Muslims mean by “Knowledge”
If you ever hear Muslims speak about knowledge (as in ‘we Muslims respect knowledge as much as any other group’) – beware. They may mean something very specific or particular by that word. And they may mean something very different to what you or I take to be a definition – or just a very general notion – of knowledge. (This is also true of many Western concepts or words which Muslims frequently use in a remarkably different way; such as ‘peace’, ‘justice’, ‘rights’, ‘freedom’ and so on.)
First of all, knowledge in Islam, or knowledge for Muslims (as Muslims), is not a disinterested pursuit of that which is true and also shown to be true. Instead, knowledge is intimately fused with Islam. (As, for example, ethics and politics were fused with epistemology and even metaphysics in much Continental philosophy in the 20th century.)
This fusion is both complete and explicit. For example:
“The acquiring of knowledge is worship, reading the Qur’an and pondering upon it is worship, travelling to gain knowledge is worship.”
Knowledge “is connected with [Islamic] ethics and [Islamic] morality.” (41)
Clearly, then, the Islamic conception of knowledge is worlds away from scientific knowledge and even from much Western philosophical and everyday notions of knowledge. Indeed:
“The main purpose of acquiring knowledge is to bring us closer to Allah. It is not simply for the gratification of the mind or the senses. It is not knowledge for its own sake or science for its own sake.” (42)
As I said, Islamic knowledge has nothing to do with philosophical or scientific knowledge; or with any kind of knowledge which is not Islamic – that is not the mere ‘gratification of the mind or senses’. Thus, in a sense, knowledge serves a purpose.
It also follows that if Islamic knowledge is not like Western knowledge, then Islamic truth is not the same as Western truth either – or, at least our conception of truth. Truth, after all, is intrinsically intertwined with knowledge. Thus you will also find that in Islam [truth] of ‘truth’ is at odds with most Western conceptions on the matter. (I freely admit that there is no single concept or explication of truth and knowledge in the Western tradition. That reality still puts it at odds with the fact that there is only one fundamental notion of truth or knowledge in most Islamic societies.)
In terms of the specifics of Islamic knowledge, it is incumbent upon all Muslims “to have knowledge of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.” (43) (Incidentally, that Islamic knowledge is only complete if Muslims master Arabic.)
A consequence of the belief that true knowledge is essentially – or only! – Islamic knowledge is that other forms of knowledge are downplayed or even rejected in Islam.
For example, many non-Muslims and Muslims are keen to state that ‘Islam is not anti-science’. Perhaps not. There are many Muslim scientists and those who seem to accept general accounts of the origin of the universe, the descent of man, and other things. Indeed I thought that Muslims at least accepted both the Big Bang and the evolutionary heritage of human beings (Homo sapiens). This may be the case, but it’s also clear that when Islam conflicts with science, Muslims, obviously, must take the side of Islam.
So if Islamic knowledge trumps scientific knowledge, or any alternative source of knowledge, then ‘scientific Islam’ must, by definition, come up against certain problems.
It is clear that most Muslims have a big problem with many scientific ‘answers’ to fundamental questions. The creation of the universe and the evolution of human beings are clear examples. This Muslim clearly rejects, or questions, the claims that “human beings came from or evolved from other creatures… or that there was a big bang and everything just happened to fall into place.” (7)
More precisely, these theories do not “really answer the question about the origin of the universe and all that it is, including [the origin] of human beings.” (7)
In terms specifically of the nature of man, this Muslim says that
“most Muslims are of a view that Allah created humans in a unique way, apart from evolutionary mechanisms… So while Islamic theology can generally go along with many aspects of evolutionary theory with regard to plants and animals, Muslim opinion leans more strongly towards creationism where human beings are concerned.” (81)
Many Muslims believe in evolution… except in the case of man. This can be elaborated upon. Muslims believe in science except when it concerns the origin of man (plus many other things) or any theory or statement which conflicts with Islam.
Many scientists may rejoinder that if Muslims reject science, or evolutionary theory, when it comes to man or the Big Bang, or to anything which conflicts with Islam, then they are not truly scientific at all.
*) All quotes are from Abdul Wahid Hamid’s Islam the Natural Way, which is an extremely popular ‘primer’ for non-Muslims.
“ [this book] shows how Islam provides the values for creating a better world.” – Maryam Davies, Crescent International, London