Duty of Acquiring Knowledge
By: Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahhari
Say, Are those who know equal to those who do not know? Only those who possess intellect take admonition. (39:9)
Our topic and its intended meaning are based on the famous hadith by the holy Prophet (S) agreed upon by both Shiites and Sunnites: Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim man and woman.
According to this hadith, one of the Islamic duties and obligations is acquiring knowledge. In Arabic, Faridhah means obligation or duty and its origin is Faradha [a verb in Arabic] meaning to be certain or to oblige. What, we call today as a wajib or a mustahab act, were called in early Islamic era mafrudh [obligatory] and masnun [recommended].
It must be mentioned that the words wajib and wujub have been used in that era but not as frequent as http://www.faric.at, mafrudh., and faradha; while the word mustahab with its current meaning seems to be coined by Islamic jurisprudents. The word mustahab is neither used in the holy Quran nor in any hadith and even the early Islamic jurisprudents did not include in their glossaries. In the past, they used the words masnnun and mandub instead of mustahab.
Acquiring knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim and does not belong to a class or a subclass of people. In civilizations prior to Islam, knowledge was a privilege for the select few. In Islam, knowledge is an obligation and duty for everyone, just as performing the daily prayer, fasting, paying alms, going on pilgrimage to hajj, jihad, and promoting the good and prohibiting the bad. From the beginning of Islam until now, all Islamic sects and scholars have agreed upon this. There is normally a chapter in hadith references called Bab-u Wujub-i Talab-i al-Ilm (the Chapter on the Obligation of Acquiring Knowledge).
Thus, the above hadith is accepted by all and if there needs to be any discussion it will just be its interpretation and scope.
Conditions of Islamic nations
There is no need to discuss here surrounding issues like how Islam has urged people towards knowledge and mention verses from the Quran and quote some hadiths from religious leaders and point to parts of Islamic history related to our topic. I do not want to commend Islam and repeatedly attract your attention to how Islam has supported knowledge and has driven humanity towards it, because such things have been and are being said too much and I believe they do not have much fruits.
These become fruitless when one takes a look at Islamic nations and finds that they are most illiterate and uneducated nations of the world. Such person would, at least, have one question and that would be: why the furthest nations of the world from knowledge are the Muslims if such words are true and Islam has supported knowledge that much?
I believe we must pay more attention to the problems in our society and think about the roots of our scientific backwardness and seek for a solution rather than such above-mentioned useless propagandas whose ultimate effects are to temporarily make us feel happy. In his lecture here, Sayyid Musa Sadr (God bless him) mentioned some of Allamah Sharaf al-Dins activities and said that although Allamah Sharaf al-Din had many great books for introducing Shia and the Household (A); when he saw the Shia situation in Lebanon and that they were the poorest and were devoid of proper education and there were few teachers, doctors, or engineers among them and instead, all porters, bath-keepers and scavengers were Shiite, he thought to himself about the influence his books could have.
He was worried that people might say that if Shii Islam were a good faith, Shiites situation must have been better. That made him think about scientific activities and establish schools, institutes, and charitable groups to create a holy movement and promote the Shiite comunity in Lebanon. Muslims, in general, compared to other people of the world are like Lebanese Shiites in comparison with other Lebanese at the beginning of Allamah Sharaf al-Dins movement. Whatever we speak of Islam, its support of knowledge and its motivation towards acquiring knowledge would not have any effects upon the current situation of Islamic nations.
The most this may do is just to raise a question for the listener why Muslims are suffering in this situation if those words are true. Let me tell you a story, and before that I am going to read four hadiths from the holy Prophet (S) about knowledge and explain them because they are related to this story and then I will tell you the story next.
One is the above hadith which indicates that it is obligatory for every Muslim, male or female, to seek knowledge. It is for both men and women because the word muslim means Muslim, whether man or woman. Of course, the expression wa muslimah (and Muslim women) is added in some Shiite hadith references like Bihar al-Anwar.
According to this hadith, acquiring knowledge is a common obligation and is not gender or class-specific. There may be an obligatory duty for the youth instead of the elderly the old, or a task obligatory for the governor and not for the governed, or vice versa or something which is obligatory for men and not for women like jihad [war] and Friday congregational prayer which are obligatory for men and not for women, but the obligation of acquiring knowledge is mandatory for all Muslims and not specific to a select few.
Another hadith is: Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.
This means that acquiring knowledge does not belong to a special period of time and it always must be pursued. Ferdowsi, the Iranian Poet, referring to this hadith says:
ÒåæÇÑå ÊÇæÑ ÏÇäÔ ÈÌæí Èå ÝÊÇÑ íÛãÈÑ ÑÇÓÊæí
As the first hadith removed the limits of gender and class and generalized the theory, this hadith generalizes the concept from the aspect of time. It is possible that an obligation is limited to a specific time and that makes it impossible to be done at any time. For example, obligatory daily fasting is limited to a specific time during the month of Ramadan. Daily prayers are also assigned to a specific time of the day and must be performed during specific hours. Hajj is also an obligation though it can only be done during the month of Dhil-Hajjah. But acquiring knowledge is not limited to time or age.
The third hadith: Seek knowledge even if it is in China.1
Apparently, China has been mentioned in the hadith because either it was the furthest place in the world that people could go that time or it was known as the cradle of science and industry. The mentioned hadith suggests that acquiring knowledge is not place and time-limited. It is possible that an obligation is limited to a place and is impossible to be done anywhere; for example, hajj rituals are both time and place-limited.
Muslims are to perform hajj rituals in Mecca, in the land where Islam emerged and spread throughout the world, and it must be performed around the house built by the hands of Abraham and his noble son, Ishmael. Muslims cannot agree with each other and choose another place for performing hajj.
Thus, this obligation is limited; however, to acquire knowledge, no special place is assigned and wherever there is knowledge it must be acquired, whether in Mecca, Medina, Egypt, Syria, Iraq or the furthest places in the world. We have a series of hadiths about the virtue of emigration and travel for acquiring knowledge to furthest places and even the following verse is interpreted accordingly:
And whoever leaves his home migrating toward Allah and His Apostle, and is then overtaken by death, his reward shall certainly fall on Allah
and migrating toward Allah and His Apostle is interpreted as migrating and travelling for acquiring knowledge. It is mentioned in hadiths that If you knew what successes you would achieve as a consequence of seeking and acquiring knowledge, you would go after knowledge even if your blood would spill in its path or [if it] required you to go into the seas and travel through the oceans.2
The fourth hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (S): Wisdom is the missing property of the faithful, and one who has lost something would catch it wherever he finds it.
The word wisdom is a firm, sound and valid word that means to discover the truth. Any law that agrees with the truth and it is not made by mind is called wisdom. Imam Ali (A) states: A wise saying is a lost article of the believer. Therefore, take advantage of wise sayings though it is from the hypocrites. You, the believers, are more deserving of acquiring it.3
The one condition in acquiring knowledge is that the knowledge to be acquired must agree with the truth and reality; and if so, you should not mind from whom you are learning knowledge and wisdom. Actually, there are certain conditions when one is doubtful about the truth of the issue. In such situations, those who cannot distinguish the truth from falsehood must not listen to those who are on the wrong path. They must be careful about whom they are under influence. If they do not care, they risk going astray. But there are times when it is certain that the word is true such as a discovery in medicine or in natural sciences.
It is ordered that in such a situation, one must set out to learn. It is quoted in our hadiths from Jesus, son of Mary (A), that: Achieve the truth and accept it, even if from the people of the falsehood, but do not take or accept falsehood, even if from the people of the truth.4
You must analyze what has been said. Such hadiths have removed the limits of knowledge with respect to the people from whom a Muslim gains his knowledge. That is because an obligation might be more limited from this view, i.e. congregational prayer must have an imam, but to become such imam has conditions which are being Muslim, faithful and just; but on the contrary, none of such conditions is specified in acquiring and imparting knowledge.
Now let us tell you the story, to which these hadith relate. Our knowledgeable friend, Mr. Sayyid Muhammad Farzan narrated that in the past, at the beginning of Constitution revolution5, Mr. Sayyid Hibat al-Din Shahrestani (may God bless him) published an Arabic journal in Iraq called Al-Ilm (or Knowledge) and it was published for two or three years. On the back cover of this journal, the word Al-Ilm was written in Nastaliq calligraphic style and on its four corners the above four hadiths were written.
Once, it was written in that journal that once a German orientalist had gone to visit Mr. Shahrestani and saw the hadiths on the back cover. He had asked what was written and was told that they were the four commands on acquiring knowledge by our prophet (S). After asking them to translate the hadiths, the orientalist thought for a short while and showed his surprise over the hadiths that encouraged acquiring knowledge regardless of gender, time, place, and the type of teacher and asked how it comes that despite these hadiths, Muslims are so much backward in knowledge and the rate of illiterate people among them is very high.
Why this general rule has been ignored and not considered as an obligation and why the above commands have not been carried out continues to be a mystery. Of course, in the course of history Islam made a great scientific and cultural movement in the world and for centuries pioneered in knowledge, culture and civilization. Islam is a religion in which the first verses descended to its prophet began with: Read in the Name of your Lord who created; created man from a clinging mass. Read, and your Lord is the most generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know. (96:1-5)
Thus, it is questionable as to how a religion whose first principle is Oneness and which does not allow any restriction in thinking and learning could fail to create a great civilization.
Why this Islamic duty was not fulfilled?
Certainly, one of its causes was the actions committed by caliphate governments which created problems in the Muslims lives. It made a stratified society which was not in any agreement with Islamic laws. Then, the society was divided into a class of the underprivileged and a class of the prodigal, extravagant, and haughty ones who did not know what to do with their possessions. When peoples condition becomes weakened, the situation will become difficult to observe such duties and even some issues will prohibit their accomplishment.
Another reason for the problem was that science was disregarded because the attention was shifted to something else; it is like a certain credit is transferred from one account to another, like for example, one opens an account in a bank with certain credits and then the authorities transfer the credits from that account to another. They claim that the reason why Islamic rules about science were disregarded was that all that Islam considered as motivation of people towards learning, literacy, and merits of knowledge were all taken as credits for Muslim scholars [Ulama] like respecting them, and people instead of paying attention to their literacy and acquiring knowledge sought closeness to Islamic scholars and respected them and this all led to the current situation.
The above claim is somehow correct, though Muslim scholars have not done such misleading acts. This was result of hearing from ordinary clergymen on the pulpits about the necessity of respect for the knowledgeable people than for the knowledge itself.
Another problem has been that sometimes scholars of certain filed of Islamic knowledge insisted on the claim that the obligation [Faridhah] mentioned in the hadith from the holy Prophet (S) was only applicable to their discipline and not the rest.
In the late Mulla Muhsin Faydhs Al-Maflajjat al-Bayja, I came across a very good point which apparently he had taken from Ghazali. He says that Islamic scholars have become divided into almost twenty groups based on their interpretation of the mentioned hadith and each of them regardless of their professions have insisted that the mentioned hadith referred only to their field of study.
For example, theologians have said that by the mentioned hadith, the Prophet (S) meant Islamic theology because it is the science of religious principles. Ethicists have said that the aim has been ethics i.e. to study the deeds that lead to happiness and those that prevent from happiness. Jurists said that jurisprudence has been meant. Every person has to know his religious duties either by himself being a jurist [mujtahid] or by following the most qualified jurist.
Exegetes said that Quranic exegesis has been meant because knowledge meant to be the book of God. Hadith scholars said that it meant to be the science of hadith because anything, even the Quran itself, must be interpreted accordingly. Sufis (Gnostics) said gnosis and the knowledge of spiritual stations has been meant. After explaining the reason of every group, Ghazali gives a statement which is relatively comprehensive. And in brief, it is that the Prophet (S) did not mean any of the above mentioned sciences exclusively; and if he meant specifically one of them, he would have expressed it. What we need to do is to discover first what is necessary in Islam as an individual duty or a shared obligation, and then whatever knowledge is needed for carrying out those necessary responsibilities becomes obligatory.
Muslim jurists consider the obligation of acquiring knowledge to be preparatory and by itself. This means that the obligation of acquiring knowledge is not only preparatory like those prerequisites for obligations which themselves are not obligatory; acquiring knowledge is obligatory by itself as well. Jurists say that this preparatory obligation is for learning the rulings, as if it is generally considered that carrying out Islamic duties is dependent on the fact that Muslims know their duties themselves and doing so, they will be able to automatically carry them out.
Thus, the obligation of acquired knowledge is that a Muslim must be a scholar of jurisprudence or a follower of one. While it is obvious that as well as knowing duties and religious orders which are needed to be learned, many deeds which are obligatory in Islam require knowledge, lesson, and skill. For example, practicing medicine is a shared obligation which itself is impossible without acquiring medical knowledge and acquiring such knowledge is an obligation and it is the same for many other obligations.
One must see what the needs and obligations are in Islamic society and it cannot be carried out well without learning, so acquiring its knowledge is also obligatory. The obligation of acquiring knowledge is absolutely dependent on the measure of societys needs. Once, farming, required industries, trading, and politics did not require knowledge. Once, people could become politician, craftsmen, or merchants by having a short training course or apprenticeship as an assistant the experts in these fields. But today none of the above-mentioned businesses is possible to be carried out without knowledge in a way that they are in harmony with todays world and life.
Even farming now must be based on scientific and technical principles. If a merchant does not study economics, he would not become a practical businessman. The same rule is applied to a politician. Today, businesses have emerged which are impossible to be carried out without knowledge and profession. The kinds of jobs which could be learned with short courses of training as an assistant are now as much different that it makes them impossible to be learned without going to technical schools or colleges. Most jobs need technical experts and technicians.