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16 March 2010

Knowledge with Purpose

Md. Asham B. Ahmad

16/03/2010 | The Star
Knowledge and action are two fundamental elements making up the conceptual structure of Islam. Islam is a conscious and willing submission to God. It is a submission that is made ‘knowingly' and ‘freely', without any compulsion. As such, the submission is not possible without knowledge.

Islam does not concede to a dichotomy between knowledge and action, or between theory and practice. The term ‘Islam' also describes an act, i.e., the act of submission. It means Islam does not simply happen to someone; it comes into being from one's volition. And volition also does not arise without knowledge.

The action of every Muslim is subject to the rules of the shari'ah correctly understood as the path to salvation prescribed by God through His Messenger. ‘Islam' is also the name of a particular religion, and that means the above-mentioned submission is not subjective or formless; it is the submission which is made willingly and consciously according to the way prescribed by the religion called Islam.

Since nobody can be a proper Muslim without knowledge and understanding, knowledge-seeking becomes the first and foremost obligation of every Muslim, male and female.

Islam teaches that knowledge must be sought and disseminated with correct intention, to seek Divine Pleasure and Guidance. Studying religious sciences is not necessarily a religious deed because the aim of the seeker could be worldly, and when that is the case the whole effort becomes blameworthy. The following is al-Ghazali's reminder to all knowledge-seekers: "if in your quest for knowledge your aim is to gain something for yourself and to surpass your fellows, to attract men's attention to yourself and to amass this-worldly vanities, then you are on the way to bring your religion to nothing and destroy yourself, to sell your eternal life for this present one; your bargain is dead loss, your trading without profit."

To have a correct and sincere intention is indeed not a simple matter. It entails knowledge of the nature of ultimate reality, and a definite commitment to a particular way of life in conformity with that knowledge.

Every research activity is carried out within a certain framework that is based on certain assumptions and aligned with some purposes. The credibility of the finding depends upon the validity of the assumptions and the soundness of the purposes, which means-upon verification-one would finally come to the conclusion either they conform or not to what is regarded as ultimately real and true.

If the researcher concentrates solely on the immediate objective of research (that is limited to knowing the nature of a particular object of knowledge as it is) to the extent of being heedless to the ultimate aim of knowing (which is the culmination of all other purposes, transcending immediate concerns and needs) his research will lead him nowhere.

The purpose of knowing ultimately is the purpose of existence itself. Without the knowledge of the purpose of knowing, knowledge and sciences may only serve secular aims and objectives, where no amount of research can satisfy man, because the knowledge gained from it does not give him any clue as to the meaning and purpose of his life, which is ultimately the foundation of his actions and behaviours, including knowledge-seeking itself. Therefore Islam makes distinction between knowledge that is useful and that that is not.

Knowledge is useful and worthwhile in so far as it is related to the most basic problem of life namely the problem of human identity and destiny. This is the most basic problem because the answer to it is what everybody seeks to know, and without it this life becomes meaningless. The answer, therefore, should be final, free from doubt and possibility of error because life is too short and unexpectable, and we cannot take the risk of living our life based on an answer that is subject to revision and correction.

This knowledge is also known as the knowledge of the reality of things. To this kind of knowledge certainty is a necessary condition, and by that we mean: (i) the object of knowledge is disclosed to the knower in such a way that no doubt remains along with it; and (ii) no possibility of error or illusion accompanies it; the mind cannot even entertain such a supposition.

Certainty, to quote Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, is the permanent state of the soul having to do with the knowledge of permanent realities. It would not be attained and experienced if the justification for believing ‘A', for example, contains the possibility of error.

Is it possible to attain certainty? Can man, with all the potentialities that he owns, ever attain certainty? A Muslim will definitely answer in the affirmative. He is taught that realities of things are firmly established and that objective knowledge about them is possible and verifiable. If certainty is impossible then knowledge is also impossible, and if knowledge is impossible accountability and justice would also be impossible.

The knowledge of the nature of the ultimate realities is knowledge that does not change with the change of time and nations. It is knowledge about what is real and true about existence in general. It is what every thinking human being would want to know about his self, and about the world around him. He would like to know, for example, whether God exists or not, and if He does what His name is and what His Attributes are. What he holds as an answer to this question will determine the way he is going to live his life.

This kind of knowledge will have a significant implication to one's life because it is ultimately the basis of one's ethical judgement and action, hence, no error or doubt should be tolerated. There must be certain implication to life for example, in believing that God does not exist, or that He does yet He does not possess knowledge or power. Uncertainty about this matter is a tragedy because how would one make decision in such a state of mind?

We cannot tolerate erroneous belief because every belief has got its practical consequence. There is nothing that can be categorized as ‘purely practical', if what is meant by that an activity that has nothing to do with any theory, assumption, or belief. All the horrors committed during the World War II is based upon certain theory, assumption, or belief; the Japanese thought that their emperor was a living god, while the Nazis believed in the supremacy of their nation over other nations.

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