Knowledge is a building block for everyone’s life. If we think back upon our early years, as children, we recall that we were constantly exploring, learning, and asking questions. That’s why kids are so curious. It’s part of our nature to seek knowledge—it’s built-in to us. Islam is a religion that emphasizes the natural talents and inclinations that Allah has already put into us. So, Islam puts a great emphasis on seeking knowledge. We find narrations (ḥadīth)
from the Prophet (ṣ) and the Imāms and we find verses (āyāt) in the Qurʾān that illustrate the great value of knowledge and the importance of learning. I want to look at one teaching from Imam ʿAlī (ʿa) to analyze why knowledge is so central to a Muslim’s life.
In one of the most important books of ḥadīth, al-Kāfī, it is narrated that Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) taught:
“O people! You should know that your religiosity (al-dīn) will [only] reach perfection if you seek knowledge and act on it. Let it be known: Seeking knowledge is more incumbent upon you than seeking sustenance, [for] your sustenance is apportioned [and] guaranteed for you…Knowledge [on the other hand] is stashed away with its
keepers, and you have been ordered to seek it from its keepers, so seek it.”
In this teaching, Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) makes three distinctions about an Islamic conception of knowledge:
Knowledge perfects a person’s religiosity
Not all knowledge is considered ʿilm (one of the Arabic terms for knowledge used in Islamic texts) in Allah’s eyes.
Knowledge is information that helps us to perfect our religious standing. That includes knowledge of Allah, His Prophets, and His Imāms and all of their teachings. It also includes the basics of how to pray, how to fast, and how
to perform other religious duties. It includes knowledge of ethics and the way to develop a soft heart. In sum,
knowledge shows us how to believe and how to practice; it is the path toward a closer relationship with God.
Knowledge also includes other useful forms of learning that help us to succeed in the world. For instance, knowledge of language, agriculture, medicine, business, and technical trades can be used to make a good living and sustain a family, which are Islamic priorities. Broadly speaking, any learning that aligns with what is permissible (ḥalāl) and with Islamic goals is a valid form of knowledge. In sum, knowledge is something that helps us achieve religious goals and righteous worldly goals.
Knowledge is the foundation for worldly sustenance
Allah has promised to provide sustenance (rizq) for His creation, but we must seek it through good work and good study. In order to work and study well, we have to know what is permitted (ḥalāl) and not permitted (ḥarām). In other words, knowledge of what Allah wants from us points us in a positive direction for our livelihoods; knowledge is a prerequisite that allows us to earn a pure income. The Imām teaches that knowledge is different from sustenance because it isn’t guaranteed. It is something we must work hard to get from those who know. It is important to seek knowledge from pious teachers face-to-face or, when that is not possible, then through sound, authentic books. To learn and to seek knowledge in Islam doesn’t mean the random reading of articles and books. It should be steady, consistent, focused, and from scholars who follow the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa). You aren’t really seeking knowledge if you are just learning for leisure; seeking knowledge is a serious pursuit. And if we take knowledge from random sources then we are bound to be led astray.
Knowledge is to be acted upon
Imām ʿAlī (‘a) mentions in the ḥadīth that knowledge must be activated. If we learn how to pray, but then we never
pray, then what use is that knowledge? What did it do for us? Knowledge is something to be acted upon for it says in Noble Qurʾān, Sūrah al-Zumar Chapter 39: Verse 9:
Say, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ Only those who possess intellect take admonition.
Allah asks a rhetorical question in this verse to get us to reflect and think. The answer is obvious: someone who has knowledge is more virtuous than someone who is ignorant. Then Allah connects “knowledge” to “righteous action”— knowledge of Allah that is activated leads to fearing God which leads to God’s love. It is narrated in al-Kāfī that the sixth Imām, Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (ʿa) taught:
“The Noble Messenger (ṣ) said: ‘Seeking knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim. Let it be known: God loves
seekers of knowledge.’”
Allah’s love is attained through the sincere search for Allah and His teachings and sincere activation of that knowledge through strong, proper practice.
Now, all of that seems vast and difficult. Take it step-by-step. Knowledge comes in pieces, brick by brick. Read, discuss, reflect, but don’t feel overwhelmed. New vocabulary will click with time. New ideas will become clear with experience. And we pray that through study and reflection, we will perfect our religious practices, and ultimately attain Allah’s perfect salvation in heaven. As Allah promises in the Noble Qurʾān Sūrah al-Mujādilah, Chapter 58: Verse 11:
Allah will raise those of you who have faith and those who have been given knowledge in rank.