The Concept of Knowledge in the Quran

The Concept of Knowledge in the Quran

An Outline of Quranic Epistemology by Dr. Muhammad Jamil Qalander

Table of Contents

  1. The Value-Dimension of Knowledge                        Page      3
  2. The Meaning-Dimension of Knowledge                  Page      5

The Value-Dimension of Knowledge:

                The Quran in its second chapter, namely, Surah al-Baqarah (The Cow) surprises its readers by telling them that the Divine made human being the master of al-Malaika once feared and worshipped by him, after He endowed him with knowledge, especially knowledge of al-Asma (names/concepts) and established him in the earth as Successor of his pre-human predecessors. Thus knowledge receives profound and immense glorification in human beings. The picturesque portrayal of the ceremony of Malaika’s bowing down before Adam has been extensively explained in terms of taskhir (exploitation) of cosmic forces by humans. What this tremendously deep and meaningful depiction suggests is that it is knowledge of al-Asma (names/concepts) and the consequent taskhir (exploitation) of cosmic forces that justify the phenomenon of human succession in the earth.

                In the same Quranic chapter another story is narrated to effect that knowledge and a strong, healthy physique are the two most significant prerequisites for leadership. The leaders of the Israelites of David’s days are reported to have asked a prophet of theirs for the appointment of a commander over them. Their prophet asked them a question and then informed them of the appointment of Saul as their commander. They objected to his appointment by saying:     آنی لـہ المـلک علینا ونحن ا حق بـالمـلک منـہ و لم یؤت سعۃ من المـال                  ” How can he have command over us when we are more deserving of the command than he is, since he has not given plenty of wealth” (2:247). The prophet said in response to their objection: ان اللہ اصطفاء علیکم و زادہ بسطۃ فی العلـم و الجسـم                Lo; Allah has selected him as such over you since He has increased him abundantly in knowledge and physique.”(2:247). in surah al-Kahf (the cave) it is surprisingly narrated that Moses was obliged to follow a ‘slave of God’ who had been gifted with a special kind of knowledge. (18: 65 – 66).

                All this testifies to the fact that the Quran attaches supreme value to knowledge coupled with sound physique.

                The value-Dimension of knowledge has been particularly stressed in the following Quranic propositions:

  1. Those who possess knowledge and those who lack it are not equal (39”9).
  2. Those who have knowledge and iman are exalted to high ranks. (58:11).
  3. The knowers of Nature alone stand in awe of the glory, majesty; sublimity and beauty of the Divine as there are mirrored in the manifold and multicolored phenomena of Nature (35:27 -28).
  4. Only those grounded in knowledge can appreciate the real import of the Mutashabih signs of the composite Book of Nature and Revelation (3:7).
  5. Only those who have knowledge can grasp the value and meaning of the similitude’s coined in the Quran (29:43) and to whom the inspirational signs of the Quran are fully intelligible.

The Quran thus refers time and again to the value and significance of knowledge as a tool whereby humans can fathom the secrets and mysteries of the composite Book of Nature and Revelation designated as al-kitab (الـکتـاب) in the Quran. It refutes the agnostic claims of the unknowability of the extra-mental realm.

                That knowledge is not a finished product or the monopoly of a privileged individual/class of individuals is highly stressed in the Quran, particularly in its aphorismic saying:  وفوق کل ذی علـم علیـم “Over every lord of knowledge there does one more know” (12:76). This is because knowledge increases in depth and magnitude with the increase of experience at the levels of observation and operation within the psycho-spatio-temporal realm. Even the Prophet is advised to continue craving:   رب زدنـی علمــا My Rab; increase me in knowledge” (20:11).

                So far we have taken a bird’s eye view of the ocean of wisdom which the Quran has poured in respect to the value-Dimension of knowledge. Now we shall take the same view of the highly suggestive and meaningful linguistic nuances with which the ocean of Quranic eloquence overflows in respect to the meaning-dimension of knowledge.

                The Quran uses a special kind of knowledge-terminology, which may be put in the following graphic form:

 Alim / Aleem / Allam (عـالـم   علیــم ‏ عــلام) 
Alam / Alameen (عـالـم   عالـمـیـن)( علـم / عـلم) Ilm   AlmAlamat (علامات)
 ‏Maloom (معلـوم) 

                A brief etymological consideration of these terms would prove helpful in grasping the Quranic concept of knowledge.

  1. In the forgoing graphic schema, the term Ilm / Alm (علم/ علـم) basically means ‘to split or mark something’. Knowledge is thus the composite process of ‘splitting and marking’. For instance, to split an atom into particles well-marked in terms of being identified may well illustrate the Arabic concept of Ilm / Alm (علم / علـم). What is thus split and marked is called a’alam (آعـلـم). Perhaps the phenomenon of lunar inshiqaq (splitting) referred to in the Quran embodies the same idea, i.e., the ‘upper lip’ of its mystery shall one day be torn as under by human knowledge.
  2. The linguistic trio of alim (عالـم), Aleem (علـیـم) and Allam (عــلام) is of special significance. Alim (عالــم) is the one who enters the relationship of Ilm (knowledge) with what is potentially Maloom (knowable). He seems to be engaged in one-way traffic, i.e., from himself as alim (عالـم) to Maloom (knowable). In Aleem (           علـیـم) we come across the one who, unlike alim (عالـم), is both the subject and object of knowledge, i.e., he knows and can, in turn, be known as knower. Allam (عـلام) is the one who immensely and intensely knows and makes others know what he knows. Human being in his limited capacity can partake of the trio of these Divine attributes to justify his status on the earth as successor of his presuming predecessors and as the master of al-Malaika once feared and worshipped by him.
  3. Alam (عالـم), which is usually translated as the world / the universe, basically means a tool or medium of knowledge, taken in this sense, a particle, an atom, a molecule, a planet, a star, a solar system, a galaxy, a gene, a chromosome, a protoplasm, a cell, a germ, a tissue, an organism, a tree, etc., are various instances of an Alam (عالـم). Similarly, a monument a tomb, a minaret, a temple, a synagogue, a church, a mosque, a monastery, a shrine, a banner, an anthem, a throne, a crown, a house, a street, a bazaar, a town / city, a country, a family, a clan, a tribe, a community, a nationality / nation, a state, etc. , exemplify different alams (cognitive media). Every Alam – tool / medium of knowledge – is the dynamic panorama of alamat (marks) – a term occurred in the Quran in reference to natural phenomena, especially landmarks (16:16) every alamah (عـلامۃ) is again an Alam (عـالـم) in the sense of being a medium of knowledge. To put it differently, we may say that ‘Alam’ is ground, while ‘alamah’ is figure. Alamat (marks) are generally referred to in the Quran as Ayat (signs), which constitute the Composite Book of Nature and Revelation designated as al-kitab in the Quran. These Ayat (signs) are comprehended in terms of what the Quran introduces as al-Asma (names / concepts). Ayat (signs) are more general and abstract than alamat (marks). For instance, the Quran talks of the two categories of signs, i.e., (1) sign-in-anfus (psychological signs) and (2) signs-in-afaq (cosmological signs). The former can be safely regarded as alamat, whereas the latter cannot be regarded as such. This is because ‘alama’ is an atomistic concept, and, hence, is not applicable to a ‘psychological sign’, which is a molar phenomenon. This polarity is also explained by the fact that the linguistic root of alamah, as we saw in the case of Ilm / Alm, means ‘to split or mark something’. From this one can judge the magnitude of linguistic care which the Quran takes in choosing terms for different phenomena.

It should be borne in mind here that, from the Quranic viewpoint, psychological signs, though not literally atomistic, are, however, included in things that are analyzable and measurable. The following three Quranic propositions, besides numerous other ones, assert the measurability of all things:

  1. انا کل شیئ خلقـنــاہ بقـدرLo; everything that we have created has define quantity (54:49).
  2. و کل شیئ عنـدہ بمقـدار“With Him everything is according to a scale” (13:8).
  3. و ان من شیئ الا عندنا خزائنہ و مـا ننزلـہ الا بقـدر معــلـومThere is not a thing but its stores are lying with us. And we do not bring it forth except in a measure well-known” (15:21).

These signological propositions suggest two significant points:

  1. That each and everything in the cosmos has been precisely quantized.
  2. That each and every quantity is within the reach of human knowledge.

The scope of this paper does not allow us to elucidate further this deep and meaningful idea in the Quran, and we prefer to postpone its elucidation to some other occasion.

                The realm of signs, as we pointed out earlier, is reflected in the human mind as a hierarchy of Asma (names/concepts). It is the knowledge of these Asma that accounts for the gradual emergence of the human beings as the successor of his pre-human predecessors and as the master of al-Malaika once feared and worshipped by him.

                Conceptual knowledge, certainty and ibadah(عبــادۃ) are mutually inter-locked in so far as the last one aims at, and leads to, the second one, which, in turn, joins the first one to account for human phenomenon on the earth. In order to make this point clear we may say that the purpose of the creation of Human Being is ibadah, that is, close adherence and submitted to the kalimat (directional laws) and the Sunan (operational/creational laws) of the Divine within the realm of Ayat (psycho-cosmic signs), as the Quran says:              و ما خلـقـت الجن والانس الا لـیعـبـدون I have created the jinn and the humans that they should adhere and submit to My Will” (51:56). The aim of ibadah, in turn, is to achieve certainty, as the Quran bids: اعبــد ربک حتـی یآتیک الیقـیـن“Adhere and submit to the One Who fosters, nourishes and sustains you till Certainty dawns on you” (15:99). But it is in terms of close and systematic observation of Nature that this certainly – inspiring ‘ibadah’ has to be practiced. This is what the Quranic narration of Abraham’s vision of the Cosmos suggests, where we read وکذ لک نری ابراھیـم ملـکوت السمـوات والآرض و لـیکـون مـن الـموقنـین“Thus did we make Abraham see the dominion of the heavens and the earth so that he should attain certainty” (6:76). That this observation of Nature is a kind of ‘ibadah’ is what Allama Iqbal has correctly pointed out. To quote his words: “In our observation of Nature we are virtually seeking a kind of intimacy with the Absolute Ego, and this is only another form of worship”.

                It is in our intimacy with the Divine that we are electrified and charged with certainty. Certainty is nothing but a higher form of knowledge, which the Quran categorizes into three levels:

  1. Ilm al-yaqeenعلـم الیـقـیـن(conceptual /rational certainty).
  2. Ain al-yaqeenحق الیـقیـن(perceptual/empirical certainty).
  3. Haqq al-yaqeenعـین الیـقـیـن(real/existential certainty).

Ibn Arabi verbalizes his intuitional understanding of these three levels respectively as follows:

  1. Conception of the state of a thing.
  2. Perception of a thing as it is in reality.
  3. Immersion in Reality and subsistence thereby/therein through the trio of knowledge, observation and existential state/taste.

Knowledge thus ultimately transcends pure speciation and native information towards its object via cognitive media called Alamat (marks) and Ayat (signs). It is the composite process of conceiving, perceiving, and feeling, wherein the trio of hearing sight, and mind participate cooperatively. What is not knowable in this all-embracing fashion is dubbed by the Quran as ‘Zan’ (conjecture) in contradistinction to al-Haq (that which embodies’ truth, reality, and wisdom). What the Quran means by the term ‘knowledge’ is embedded in its definitional imperative: لا تقـف مـا لیـس لک بہ علـم ان السمع و البصـر و الفـؤ اد کل آولئک کان عـنـہ مسئـولا“Don’t follow that whereof you have knowledge. Lo! The hearing, the sight and the fuad (brain/mind – each of these is responsible for it “(17:36). It is worthwhile to quote here from my research paper entitled: ‘Philosophy of Science in the Quranic Perspective’:

That knowledge is not merely a stimulus-response relationship is evidenced by the fact that, according to the Quran, the observer’s sensory apparatus, especially that of hearing and sight, interact cooperatively with the objective signs being signaled to ‘fuad’ (mind/brain) where they stimulated the rational processes of tadabbur (deliberation), tafakkur (consideration), ta’aqqul (ratiocination), tazakkur (recollection), and ibsar (illumination). Taken together, these constitute what the Quran designates as ‘baseera’ (internal vision). Knowledge may, therefore, be defined as what the ‘fuad’ comprehends, through sensory apparatus, in terms of Ayat, Sunan, and kalimat embedded in the realms of anfus and afaq.

Knowledge starts with and ends in, some sort of observation of the Divine’s Ayat (signs) being revealed within the psychophysical realm. It moves in the direction of Sunan (operational laws) and kalimat (directional laws) governing the realm of Ayat (signs). At no stage of this transcendental movement, it dispenses with observation, since the realm of Ayat (signs), which is inexhaustible, calls for unceasing observational adventures, wherein the mental eye and the physical eye participate in cooperation with other sensory apparatus. The key tool of observation is, of course, the physical eye, which plays a highly significant role in the activity of learning. The question of whether it is the eye or the hearing that plays the major role of the senses has invited an explosion of research. The overwhelming interest of the contemporary educational psychologists in the role of the eye in teaching can be dimly assessed from the brief letter, which my teacher Prof. Nicholas Read Collins wrote to me in December 1974 in Beirut. He writes:

                Dear Mr. Qalander,

                                Your recent call has reminded me of something I have needed for a long time. I wonder if you could help me. I am trying to locate the source, or the research, related to a statement that, in teaching, the eye plays the major role of the sense and that hearing plays a relatively minor part………  I wonder if you have met it in your professional studies.

It would be indeed quite surprising for my teacher to hear, though very belatedly, that the very statement he has referred to is nothing but the echo of what the Prophet of the Desert expressed, fifteen centuries ago, in his proverbial saying:

لیس الـخــــــبـــر کا لــمــعـــــــاینـــــــۃ

“Information is not like observation”.

And the source of the statement is the Quran, which says:

لا تقف ما لیس لک بہ علـم ان السمع و البصر و الفئ اد کل آولئک کان عنہ مسئولا

“Don’t follow that whereof you have no knowledge. Lo! The hearing, the sight, and the fuad – each of these is responsible for it” (17:36).