Gaining knowledge, benefiting from it and uplifting one’s society through it, is the right and responsibility of every Muslim as laid down in Islam. Knowledge is not the realm of scholars, priests or nobility. As Islamic society is characterized by a ‘flat’ casteless structure, people are not given special status or privilege when it comes to gaining knowledge.
Islam emphasized knowledge of two kinds: one which pertains to the world, and one which pertains to the after-life. Both are differentiated from one another because the goal of attaining these types of knowledge is different. Worldly knowledge includes formal education, schooling, gaining qualifications and training, etc. which will enable one to earn a livelihood and pursue a vocation. Knowledge of the after-life aims at existential questions, the nature of God, the purpose of life, and how to conduct life on earth to attain the goal of jannah, or heaven.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, Muslims are reportedly the most under-educated class, at a lower level that ‘scheduled castes and tribes’, a group of people who had been forced to live on the fringes of society and systematically oppressed for centuries. The level of knowledge about Islam among Muslims is far from optimal, if the worldwide crisis of “Islamic terrorism” is a benchmark to go by. The oppression of women in Islamic societies, their inability to gain knowledge and paid employment, is the anti-thesis of what is advocated in Islam, again an output of the ignorance which is rife among Muslims.
The root cause of so many social ills, whole societies at the brink of catastrophes, so much lost potential, is ignorance.
The very first time Angel Gabriel came to prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as he sat meditating in the cave of Hira, he told him to “Recite in the name of your Lord who created” (The Quran, Chapter 96, Verse 1). He was not told about the oneness of Allah, about worshiping Him, or anything else except to recite or read in the name of the Lord. Reading, reciting, becoming knowledgeable, dispelling ignorance, was the first thing Muslims were commanded to do. Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) advised his followers to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”.
Gaining knowledge is useless if it is not subsequently applied. Islam holds people who have knowledge, responsible and accountable. One of the four questions a soul will be asked on the day of judgment, is what a person did with the knowledge he or she had and how it was used or misused. Knowledge is indeed power, and is to be used cautiously and directed at the right cause.
There is an Islamic etiquette of seeking knowledge, which includes:
• Being patient. In-depth knowledge takes time to cultivate
• Correct the goal. Examine the reason for gaining knowledge. Is it purely for monetary reasons or to gain the pleasure of Allah? How will the community or society benefit?
• Apply the knowledge. Do not restrict the knowledge gained but disseminate it so others may benefit and lives may improve.
• Know the source. Realize that ability and inability both come from Allah. This guides one’s ego from becoming arrogant or boastful.
• Utilize the time. Having time for study is precious and a gift from Allah, not everyone has it. Use it well and do not waste it in frivolous pursuits or arguments.
• Breadth of knowledge. Study widely to know your subject well. Become aware of current issues, controversies and counter-arguments.
• Respect the teacher. No matter what level of study you are at, respect your teacher and trust their learning, expertise and experience.
• Check the company. The company you keep will influence your knowledge and its applicability. Carefully select friends and associates.
Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. (Kofi Annan).