Right to Acquire Knowledge: Nahj al-Balaghah's Approach
Dr. Syed Waheed Akhtar
Knowledge of the creation in general, and of this world in particular, is emphasized by Imam 'Ali ('a) in the Nahj al-Balaghah as a prerequisite for making use of freedom in the right direction and for the purpose willed by God. Knowledge, if used properly, helps man in winning God's favour and bartering his deeds with Divine Will, as the Qur'an declares:
And among men is he who sells his self for seeking the pleasures of Allah. . .. (al-Baqarah: 207)
Those who attain such a stage are few, and as many mufassirun point out 'Ali ('a) as one of those chosen few who bartered his self with Divine Will, according to the interpretation of this Qur'anic verse. When human will becomes one with Divine Will, man attains the highest stage of freedom: now there is no compulsion, and whatever a man wills or does is in conformity with what God wills and wants man to do. Rightly guided knowledge helps in attaining this stage.
After expressing his view on human freedom, Imam 'Ali ('a) proceeds to highlight the value and importance of knowledge. We find after the saying 78 about freedom, his views about knowledge and wisdom in the saying 79, or in his saying 130 we come across his views on the significance of acquiring knowledge and contemplating the signs observable in the world after his description of the world as the best place for making proper use of human freedom. Knowledge is held by 'Ali ('a) to be the light of reason, a treasure, the root of all good, and that which emancipates man; it is a power (saying: 146),17 and one's supremacy is in proportion to the extent of one's knowledge and wisdom (Sayings: 175).18
From his many sayings about knowledge it may be rightly inferred that knowledge is itself freedom, for it saves man from ignorance, which is the cause of man's slavery to false beliefs, unfounded fear of nature and his superiors. It is at the same time a key to attain and safeguard freedom accorded to human beings. The Holy Qur'an is unique among the scriptures in encouraging the believers to acquire knowledge and to verify the fundamentals of faith rationally. There are 704 verses in the Qur'an where the word 'ilm or its derivations are used. Book, an essential aid of 'ilm occurs in the Qur'an 230 times, while the total number of verses in which words related to kitab and kataba have occurred is 319. The Qur'an itself is mentioned as kitab on 81 occasions in its text. It is not possible in this brief article to quote even a few of the relevant Qur'anic verses and the sayings of 'Ali ('a). However, it would not be out of place to point out that the right to acquire knowledge and freedom of enquiry forms an essential part of the laws and guiding principles governing human rights in Islam. In this matter, no distinction is made between Islamic and non-Islamic sources and Muslim and non-Muslim teachers. 'Ail ('a) says:
"Acquire knowledge and truth from whomever you can, because even an apostate can have them, but unless they are passed over to a faithful Muslim and become part of wisdom and truth that he possesses, they have a confused existence in the minds of apostates."19 (Sayings: 79).
Another saying of 'Ali ('a) is an elaboration of the Prophet's famous tradition, according to which knowledge is the lost property of Muslims:
"A wise saying is a lost and long-sought article of the believer. Therefore, acquire it even if it is to be found with hypocrites".20 (Sayings: 80).
The right to acquire knowledge has been always accorded to non-Muslims also in Muslim States. An important point made by 'Ali ('a) is as to how an infidel uses knowledge, which remains in a confused state in his mind. The truth of this view is evident in our age, for modern knowledge, as pointed out by modern thinkers, is devoid of human considerations and has dehumanized its retainers and creators. All the uses of scientific discoveries and advancements for inventing and selling the weapons of mass destruction indicate the absence of a right world view. Islam, on the other hand, humanizes all knowledge in the light of Divine guidance, which leads to a humanized world outlook. Being fully aware of the dangers of the abuse of knowledge, 'Ali ('a) claims that God will always appoint some Imam as the guardian of Divine revelation and he, openly or hidden from the eyes of the world, will guide men till the end of this world. (Saying 146 addressed to Kumayl)21
Thus the right to receive unceasing Divine guidance, along with the right to knowledge and enjoy freedom of thought and expression forms the foundation-stone of the Islamic universal declaration of human rights. The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran ensures the right to knowledge and freedom of learning through various articles. Article 2, clause 6, declares that the Islamic Republic is based on faith in Allah, belief in the exalted dignity of man and his freedom coupled with responsibility before God, and that equity, justice, political, economic, social, and cultural independence are secured by recourse to: (a) continuous ijtihad of the fuqaha' . . . (b) and sciences and arts and the most advanced results of human experience, together with the effort to advance them further.
An article of the first chapter states that the Islamic Republic has the duty of directing all its resources to raising the level of public awareness and the spirit of inquiry, investigation, and innovation in all areas of science.22
These rights are not confined to Muslims only, but are accorded to non-Muslim citizens as well in the light of Article 19 (Chapter III), which states that: "All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group and tribe they belong to, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.23 These articles are in conformity with the Islamic view of human rights.