6 Secrets to Success in the Quest for True Knowledge

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By Dr Afifi Akiti

The following is the full transcript of a lecture from Sacred Path of Love Conference 2010 entitled “The quest for true knowledge: beyond the race for intellectual excellence.” by Dr Afifi Akiti

Alhamdulillah. When I heard the emcee saying that the topic is actually about the quest for true knowledge, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to share with you one of the great wisdoms of our early Muslims, the great Mujtahid, the founder, the great scholar Imam Asy-Syafiee.  According to him, he says that “Knowledge (or True Knowledge, rather) is: “Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafiza”: Knowledge is what one benefits, not what one memorizes.”

So if yesterday’s lesson was “Al-muhafazah ala qadim as-soleh wal akhzu bi jadiid al-aslah”, which was about preserving the best of what the tradition has to offer, and to make use of the very best of what the modern world has to offer as of today, then today’s lesson indeed will be about this: “Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafizu”: knowledge or true knowledge indeed is what benefits not what one memorizes.

This is an interesting hikmah, this is an interesting point of wisdom, and this is an interesting aphorism even. Because here, this great Imam Asy-Syafiee who was active in the 9th century, he was one of the early muslims, he was one of the taba’ tabieens, one of the successors of the tabieens, one of those students of the sahabah, disciples of the Prophet Muhammad salAllahualayhiwassalam. For him, true knowledge is something that should benefit us, not something that one ought to memorize. That’s very interesting because if we compare this with what probably happens here in the Nusantara, in the Southeast Asia, generally speaking, the academic and knowledge culture here, as I understand it; For those who go to the schools in Singapore, in Malaysia and in Indonesia and even Brunei, there is more of an emphasis, when it comes to knowledge and when it comes to going to school, for one to, well, memorize is quite a strong word to use, but there is a lot of exam-oriented approach indeed. So much that the whole point that we go to school is to make sure that we actually pass our exams. That, of course, is the base line reason of why we go to school in the first place so that we do our O levels, for example, to ensure that we pass our O levels. And that’s important. That is important indeed.

What is meant by what Imam Asy-Syafiee [said] (Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafiza) is that only the latter part, not the former part, that knowledge or true knowledge is something that should benefit us not something that we only memorize. So here Imam Asy-Syafiee, this great Muslim scholar was not in fact belittling the value of memorizing knowledge. Memorizing is the first step to knowledge acquisition. But that ought not to be, that should not be the end of the process of your study, and that is quite important, and this is something which a lot of us don’t get, because if we do go to school just so that we can actually get the certificate and show our O levels around, then that is what you will get, just a piece of paper.

One doesn’t have enough and put the right intentions in the subject that we want to study for instance, that is all that we get. That one is pressured to end up to become say a doctor because this what our parents wishes us to become for instance, indeed that’s what we will get. Meaning, that’s what we will be able to do, to fulfill the wishes of our parents but perhaps not necessarily ourselves. So it’s interesting that here, Imam Asy-Syafiee actually says, true knowledge is something that benefits not what one memorizes. Before I go on I just wanted to highlight, the importance of this latter bit, this memorizing bit. As I said what the Imam is saying, that you need to have both things. Let’s see what is meant by this, laysa maa hafiza, or really just, maa hafiza, what is actually meant there.

One of the great Muslim theologians, one of the great Muslim scholars, Hujjatul Islam, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who died in that arguably, in that providential year of 1111. Now he later on became one of the most famous Muslim scholars. I mean the great scholar, Imam Nawawi later on described him as someone who you know had for example, if there was a possibility of there was to be another prophet after Muhammad s.a.w., then he would be one. But of course we don’t (believe that), as Muslims we don’t believe that because we only believe the final messenger being Rasullulah s.a.w.; Such was his station, and his maqam that almost all Muslims accepted him as the great Scholar of Islam, as the great role model of Islam. He is indeed known as the Hujjatul Islam, the Proof of Islam. Those sunni’s and shia’s accept him.

So if one wants to pick an ambassador, as a poster boy, a role model to say non-muslims, of a Muslim scholar from the classical tradition, then it would be Al-Ghazali. And he indeed is comparable to a saint in the Christian tradition, like the great St Thomas Aquinas, for example, or like the great Jewish theologian, Maimonides. This is all al-Ghazali, he later went on to become a great scholar. When he was studying, when he was younger though, he was born in the town called Tus and he was sent to a town called Gurgan (pronounced as Jurjan) to study fiqh, to study Shafie’e fiqh, to study law of jurisprudence. So he went there, stayed there in boarding if you like, and then during the holidays, he “balik kamponglah” or wanted to go home.

So on the way home, he was robbed; particularly in the days when there are no police or that the police or enforcing agencies were not able to take care of the safety of the land. He was hijacked. So what he had with him was a satchel essentially, his staff, his study books and of course, his clothes and so on and so forth in his rucksack in a manner of speaking. Now the robbers hijacked him and of course they wanted to rob his satchel and his bag, so they did. And then this great Imam said, well you know he tried to negotiate with the robbers and said, well okay, you can see how cunning he was when he was young, “Surely you have no need of my satchel which only contains my exercise books and my textbooks…” and so on and so forth, “You don’t need this, so please give that back to me.” And the robbers of course, then wondered “What? Why? Please give us one good reason why we should return this, this satchel back to you?” and Imam Ghazali said to the robbers, “Oh well, I have studied very hard in Gurgan and I hate it if I would lose my books then my knowledge would have been lost, if you take my satchel away from me.” And of course at that point, the robbers told him, “Then what’s the point of you going to Gurgan in the first place to study? If everything that you have studied is something that is contained and limited to books and in lines or in pages?” And this made al-Ghazali insaf, he realized indeed the importance of memorizing. But of course he had memorized a great deal. Then he realized out of this episode, he realized that knowledge, indeed true knowledge for Al-Ghazali, al-ilmu should be something that reside in our hearts. “Al-ilmu fissudur, laa fissutur.”  That true knowledge should not be something that resides, or is recorded or collected in books, in lines or pages. So this is what al-Ghazali realized. It was quite an extraordinary insight that he got here. He realized that there is a difference between knowledge on one hand and information on the other hand.

There is a difference between true knowledge and information. Information is bits of data that you would perhaps write in a piece of paper or on books in lines of writing whereas knowledge or true knowledge is something that would enter your heart. It is indeed, as Muslims we do believe that. Even until today, it is like light, that knowledge enters your heart. That’s how true knowledge would be. It will remain in your heart; it becomes part of your being. It has an existential mode. It becomes you. And when you act upon your knowledge, it is you. And what Ustaz Zahid mentioned about the difference between theoretical knowledge on one hand and experiential knowledge on the other, that when we actually study something and we act on what we study and we really truly internalize that knowledge, it actually becomes a part of you. You carry it with you. You do not need a satchel to carry your knowledge.

That was the Basirah, the Fath, the opening, the “eureka” experience, the moment of epiphany that al-Ghazali experienced. As a result of tribulation here, finding god in times of tribulations. Alhamdullilah. That, for al-Ghazali is true knowledge, so for him the quest for true knowledge is not something that could be found necessarily in the lines of books for example, but it is something that one should internalize. This is interesting because at the University of Oxford, the motto used by the University, this is one of the oldest Universities in the world, is a nice motto in Latin that goes along the lines of “Dominus illuminatio mea” which means “the Lord is my light”. This is a famous verse that comes from the Psalms. Now the meaning of that, the tafseer of that, the exegesis of that, certainly from a Muslim perspective as well as from a Christian perspective is that, God works through mysterious ways and one of the ways that Allah s.w.t works is indeed through this Light. That’s how we learn, that’s how we know things. You can’t necessarily learn things just through lines and books. As in the case that al-Ghazali had pointed out here, that knowledge is about preserving lines of books. You actually have to make that self-discovery to be able to actually receive that knowledge and understand it.

So this is a tradition, which goes back to that the University of Oxford uses a motto, which is actually quite religious for their coat of arms and for their motto. And it has a long history there, the University, because it goes back to the tradition when this great Imam Asy-Syafiee, the scholar that I started with, when he left his last will and testament, his wasiyah to Muslims. Now he was a religious scholar, he was a jurist, he was a theologian, he wasn’t a secular scholar in the sense that it is said that his main preoccupation was in religion not in mathematics.  Yet in one of his last will and testaments, his advise, he said “Akhi lan tanaala-al-ilma illa bisittati”, many of the madrasah students here will know this famous poem of Imam Asy-Syafiee. But how many of us and among those who particularly know this poem, actually do take this poem and or read this poem quite critically and then take it seriously?

He says, “My brothers (and sisters) you will not be able to achieve true knowledge,” You will not be able to achieve and conquer knowledge because you do need to have knowledge in order to be successful in this world, “except through these 6 things.” “Saaunabiika an tafsiihaa bi bayaani” – “Should I not share with you the secrets of these 6 things? /Should I not explain to you these 6 things one by one?” This is Imam Asy-Syafiee’s version of the dummy’s guide to being successful when it comes to wanting to conquer knowledge in 6 points. Subhanallah, wonderful, he was ahead of his time there. He doesn’t have to go Blackwells, Waterstones, I don’t know your bookshops here and you can get this dummy guides for instance. And here the great Imam was precisely doing that for us. This was the secret weapon that he was leaving for the Muslim nation to say how you want to be successful.

When he gave his last will and testament, he did not distinguish ilm’ here from between religious and secular knowledge. He did not distinguish between ilm’ duniawi and ilm’ ukhrawi. He said simply, “Akhi lan tanaala-al-ilma illa bisittati”; My brother if you want to achieve knowledge (whether secular or religious) then you need to master these 6 things. And that’s interesting because he was not only addressing the ulama’, the religious scholars of his time, he was indeed addressing everyone, everybody.

This is in the riwayat of Imam Juwaini al-Haramayn, the teacher to Imam al-Ghazali. He says, that Imam Syafiee says, that the six secrets to success for wanting to approach true knowledge for that quest for true knowledge are, “zakaaun wa hirsun wa iftiqaarun wa ghurbatun wa talqiinu ustaziin wa thuulzamaani”.

 “Zakaaun” (intellect)
One has to have a quick mind to be successful. Do not abuse your akal (intellect). If during the World Cup season, you’ve been doing your Qiyaamulail on your World cup or your playstation for the whole month, or even during the whole month of Ramadhan and every night you’ve been playing your Playstation for the whole night, for the whole month. Then even when you’ve been given the gift of fitrah and akal salim, as P.Ramlee would say, “Jadi balang juga.” So don’t abuse what God gives you. One has to have a quick mind and be quick-witted.

“Hirsun” (zeal)
One needs to cultivate this zeal for knowledge. This is particularly relevant, and particularly pertinent for the Malays I think. In the sense that I only say this as a reminder to the Malays because you see, in Arabic, there is kaedah, there is an aphorism that goes around the certain lines of, the meanings to the names sometimes reflect each other. If you go to the United Kingdom, in the time where they had never met the race of people called the Malays and if you ask them, in English, to dictate Malays. For example, I am among the Malays. Dictate that in English, “I am among the Malaise.” So meanings can reflect on the names. So be careful what name you give to your children. This is one of the teachings of our Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam, because the Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam said, “You will be called upon (in the register) in the next world by your name and the name of your father,” So that’s the basis for your ‘Muhammad bin Abdullah’, the ‘bin’ there. “Therefore beautify your name.” That’s why we don’t give names such as the devil, shaytan. Like Ali Shaytan, there was a film in Malaysia called Ali Setan or Dajjal, the Anti-Christ, or Diablos, if your drive a Diablo then you’re gonna drive like a, perhaps like a devil. I mean perhaps that’s why we don’t give certain names like that because you might acquire those characteristics. We don’t know who named the malays but apparently now, in one language of the world, there’s a meaning that actually can indeed be the opposite of hirsun, the opposite of zeal, in this case a dampener to zeal to wanting to study. So perhaps that’s one of the reasons why some for example, keep on going talking about the condition of the Malays are so malaise, i.e. why are they in that malaise; so maybe it’s all in the name there. So then my naseehah and advice to the Malays here, is that rise above your names, rise above your deen in this case, rise above all that noise and indeed you have to prove yourself if it’s truly the case that ‘malas’ (laziness) in your gene. Indeed it is not, I don’t believe that, but of course, from that argument it is an extra reason for one to work extra hard to be successful. That is important. He would have win, the one who works hard will get what he or she wish to achieve. Where there is a will, there is a way, and it is important to have that zeal because you can’t be successful in life [without it]. So that’s two.

Iftiqaarun” (humility in knowledge)
It literally means poverty, but it also means humbleness, humbleness in knowledge. Part of the problem that we are facing today, particularly among Muslims, is those who think that they know but actually they do not know and when they ask question in the mosques for example, they’re the first ones to answer. They’re the first ones to tell people off, “This is wrong! Ya akhi, this is bida’ah! This is wrong!” and what they don’t realize that bida’ah is actually not a hukum syara’. Al-bida’ah laysa hukman syara’an li annaha mahalul hukum. They don’t realize that so they haven’t studied with the ulama’. There is no moral value to the term bida’ah. There is no understanding there in the way that Imam al-Ghazali, Imam Nawawi, Imam Suyuuti for example would understand. These great classical scholars of Islam for instance. So that you know when they ask questions in the mosque and they’re the first to answer and then as soon as they go home, the first thing they do as they go home and check the book and say, “Was I right in my answering?” So we are taught, one has to learn to be humble; we are taught methodologically, philosophically here, this is where Muslims in a sense differ from the Western tradition in this respect. Why? Historically we believe that knowledge is not only power as what those in the West of course believe. Starting from Francis Bacon and others. Indeed because those in the West believe that the more you know, the more you can control the world, the more you can exploit your surroundings, the more you can say make money. But Muslims ought to believe that the more you know, the more you learn, the more responsible you ought to be because we know that power Is always related to responsibility. And the more you know, the more you learn, the more humble you should be, the lower your head should be. As the Malays have a beautiful saying, “Ikut resam padi, lebih berisi, lebih tunduk.” Follow the sunnah of the padi plant. The more it’s filled with grain, with rice, with carbohydrates, the lower it becomes. Subhanallah. That’s the maqam of humility. This is the problem that I generally find in the Arabic world, in particular and also in the West. Generally speaking, Muslims who think that they know but they don’t know and this is what Muslims call a Jahaal Murokab, a compound ignorant. They don’t know that they don’t know. Much of the corruption and the disruption that is happening in the world is a result of people who are like this, not among those who are simply Jahaal Basit, people that simply don’t know. And if they don’t know like many of our simple fathers and our mothers, if they don’t know they just say, “I don’t know. ask those who know.” – As Allah s.w.t. Says in the Quran, “If you do not know, ask those who know” [16:34] Ahli zikir here means, those who know. This is Imam Syafiee reminding us there through the words of Imam Juwayni.

“Ghurba” (Go to a foreign land)
One has to go to a foreign land, meaning go outside of your kampong as the Malays have a saying don’t become a “katak bawah tempurung.” (Frog under a coconut shell) To go somewhere no one or those from your own kampong have never gone before.

“Talqiinu ustaziin” (find a teacher)
In some other riwayat, sahbatuu ustaziin, meaning the company of teacher, the instructions of a teacher, the guidance of a teacher or an inspirational teacher. This is showing the importance as it reminds us, indeed reiterates something proven in other traditions as well, whether in the Western tradition or the Eastern tradition. Like in the Chinese tradition, for example, the importance of having shifu, a teacher, and a master or those in the Western tradition or those that we read in the Quran about the story of Sayidina Nabi Musa a.s. And Nabi Khidir a.s., Prophet Moses and Khidir. So having a true teacher, you know, an authoritative teacher. As you hope when you study say, medicine, or if you study architecture, you need to go study with the mujtahid of medicine and study with the ulama’ – the scholars of medicine. You can’t just read, like what al-Ghazali was saying about that satchel, memorize everything in that satchel about physiology and pathology and Grey’s anatomy and physiology’s gallo and all the various textbooks relating to medicine. Even if one has a computerized kind of photographic-memory ability to memorize every single line of a book on surgery, but then if you go to Mount Elizabeth Hospital and you have a scalpel and you try to enter the room and then you want to, “Okay give me the patient I want to operate on.” The next thing that’s going to happen to you, you’re going to be clapping hands and the police is gonna put you in the Black Maria or put you in detention. Why? For being a ‘Quack’! I mean this is medicine this is a secular knowledge. Even in secular knowledge we have rules regarding that, what more for spiritual knowledge. That’s the importance of true guidance there. Basically have a teacher that you know, not necessarily Shaykh Google or Moulana Wikipedia. Not that I am discouraging you to use books when you do not have a teacher nor the internet but beware, if you are going to study something without an expert’s eye behind you telling that this is right and this is wrong, then remember what one of the great Muslims scholars, Sultanul Ulama’ Izzuddin ibn Abdus Salam, one of the great successors of Imam al-Ghazali, said, “man tholabal ‘ilma bilghayri sheikhin fasheikhu shaytan.” Those who study without a shaykh, those who study without a master, then his master would be shaytan. Meaning himself would be his master. This is an anathema to all cultures of the world, whether Chinese, whether Greek, where Islamic, whether in the west or whether in the east.

Thuulzaman (to have a long life)
For example madrasah students or even university students, once you finish your programmes at school it doesn’t mean that this is the end of your process of studying. The Prophet s.a.w. said in a beautiful dho’if hadith, in a weak hadith, though weak, it’s not mauduk, it’s not fabricated, and it can be used for morals. Such as this, our beloved Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.” How absolutely beautiful. Even after you finish schooling, it doesn’t mean you finish studying. You should continue on with that life-long process, life-long learning. If there are adult classes here, go and take them. Pick up more knowledge so that you become more aware. Especially among the ulama’, among the religious scholars, it is absolutely imperative according to Imam al-Ghazali for example. If we are among the ulama’, It is very important if we want to give an opinion on a matter if we don’t have the expertise. Let’s say in medicine, or let’s say sociology or psychology for instance, it beholds us to make sure, out of good manners, to be a good gentleman, would learn a bit or a thing or two about that before giving out your fatwas. Otherwise, what would happen is that, like in Malaysia we have ‘torrent’ fatwas coming out that sometimes do not make sense. This is haram, that is haram, this is wrong, that is wrong but what is the legal justification for that? Sometimes things are way beyond the call of duty there. This is what imam asy-Syafiee said.

Now the point I wanted to make is this, this is what Imam Syafiee left to the nation (of Islam). The secrets to success to being successful when it comes to approaching true knowledge. Now, the early Muslims then, took to heart this advice. As a result, they were successful. If you read a bit about Islam’s history, please do read. There are a number of good books out there, one is by Fazlur Rahman, titled Islam. It is a textbook that I use in my university for tutorials and others. Another by a famous Christian theologian, by Hans Kung, a very interesting textbook titled Islam: Past, Present and Future. You should be able to read both and compare the two. Both agree on this that Muslims had their enlightenment early in their History. It’s the opposite of the western tradition. While the Muslims were enjoying their period of enlightenment, while the Muslims were the First World, they were the superpower; Europe was in the dark ages, they were the Third World. Now that was how the situation was. That was the time when Muslims were great scientists; you know Ibn Sina (Avicenna) or Ibn al-Nafis, the famous scientist, the famous medic who discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood, the minor circulation of the blood, well before William Harvey of course. Without which Harvey couldn’t discover the full circulation of the blood. You can read more about that if you’re interested, in this book called, Islamic Medicine by Manfred Ullman or the new book by two of my colleagues, Medieval Islamic Medicine by Emilie Savage-Smith and Peter Pormann. Now, Imam ibn al-Nafis was a religious scholar yet he was among the ulama’. He was a doctor as well and he discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood. He was a Syafiee’ jurist. Now we have some Muslims from this region (SouthEast Asia) where traditionally, this region is Syafiee’. Fine if you follow the four schools of Sunni Law whether Syafiee’, Hanafi, Hambali, Maliki. All four of them are correct. But now, because of a certain inferiority complex and perhaps the way that you are taught your Islam, where you’re not taught the context and the background for certain things or why you do the things that you do and why you follow. You don’t read the history beyond certain things, then you get defensive and you say, “Oh, I’m following the mazhab of Syafiee’.” As if it’s wrong, and you have to apologize. Why? Subhanallah. The great scholars, the Muslims scholars in the past like Imam an-Nawawi was Syafiee’, Imam Ibn al-Nafis, the discoverer of the pulmonary circulation of the blood was Syafiee’. Be proud of that. Ibn Khaldun was a Maliki. Every single jurist and every single scientist in the Classical Islamic period during the Golden age of Islam had a mazhab. For example, Ibn Sina was said to be Hanafi.

While the West was suffering their dark ages, the Muslims were in the Enlightenment period. Why was that? It’s because they followed the advice of Imam Syafiee’. They didn’t distinguish between secular and religious knowledge to begin with. If you’re gifted with studying medicine then you work hard and if you get one, two, three, four, five, six secret weapons there. You’ll be successful in medicine as you would for example, in religion, in theology or in tassawuf (Sufism) or in Hadith or in Tafsir. These were the secrets, but you know what happened? Although I teach it incidentally, my main area of teaching is theology, both Islamic theology and Christian theology. On the side because my first degree was in History of Science, so I have a bit of interest in this, particularly looking at the transmission of knowledge from the Greek tradition into the Islamic world.

So looking again at the transmission of knowledge from the Muslim world to the West via latin. So the first transmission is something that you need to have Greek for and the second transmission is something that you need to have Latin for. This is interesting because in the 12-13th century, when the West was suffering in their dark ages, this is well before the Renaissance, well before the Enlightenment, there was an unknown scholar by the name of Bernard of Chartres who was teaching in Paris said, The Quest to True Knowledge is, “Mens humilis, stadium quaerendi, vita quieta, scrutinium taciturn, paupertas, terra aliena.” Now if you don’t understand latin, at least you can do your count, one, two, three, four, five and six. Let’s do, since we don’t have much time, Terra aliena, a foreign land; now what did Imam asy-Syafiee say? Ghurbatun! To only go where no one has gone before.

As the Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam said in a beautiful hadith, though weak, “Seek knowledge even until,” the final frontiers for him then which was, “China.” China for the Prophet was a Non-Muslim land yet he had asked Muslims to go and study with Non-Muslims. Yet today we live in a world where Muslims in the Middle East, some of them will argue and debate, can we go and study with Non-Muslims? So at least that debate didn’t occur here in the Nusantara. Alhamdullilah but perhaps today some are beginning to ask that question. Is that progress or regress? The Arab world has been beginning to realize what we’ve been doing and they’re following our footsteps and that’s very good. This is one of the good things we have to export to the rest of the Muslim world, that progressive idea. Now, Bernard of Chartres, these six things, the six secrets. He lived in around 1132, years after the time of al-Imam al-Ghazali who died in the providential year of 1111. A mere 22 years or so; where did he get that? Now, the point is the West had, forgive me for using this language, “stolen” the secret weapon of the Muslims to be progressive when it comes to wanting to achieve true knowledge, you have to have these six things.

Before you can start inventing things, you need to have that paradigm shift for the mind to change the mindset so that they can actually study properly whether it is religious knowledge or it is secular knowledge. That was the problem in the West because they had lived in certain superstitions and they had difficulty breaking away from that boundary. So Bernard of Chartres, of course, clearly took this from the Muslims and that provided the intellectual and the philosophical foundations and the basis for the years to come. This is because his very own student was the famous Adelard of Bath. For those who are in England would know him well but those of us in the Nusantara might not know him and so you would have to ask Shaykh Google after this. Adelard of Bath, the very first English scientist came in the 12th century. The point here is that the reason why now, I think that we are not in our Enlightenment period among Muslims, we are arguably in our Dark Ages, is because we have forgotten some of the core values that people like Imam Asy-Syafiee left us with.

We get more concerned on more nitty-gritty stuff about where are our feet going to be in our prayer, although it is important to an extent to learn fiqh and I say that as a so-called fiqh scholar there. We get more concerned about how other people are praying and as the Malay’s say, ‘Jaga tepi kain orang’ (i.e. to become a busybody).  Among some of the early Muslims, when they prayed, they didn’t even know who praying to the right and who was praying to the left. I mean talking about perspective and that is quite amazing. So we had lost some of that value. This is why Imam Syafiee’ says, “Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafiza.” Knowledge is something that one should benefit not what one memorizes and that is absolutely important for us. Memorizing things is only the start to studying. It is understandable that if you’re young that you need to memorize things but if you don’t learn to, what is meant by knowledge is something that one should benefit, is means you have to learn to apply your knowledge. If you’re just memorizing without thinking about the things you memorize critically, you will never be able to apply that. And this is one of the things that is always said about the Islamic tradition.

I mentioned in the introduction earlier that I had worked in a BBC documentary titled “Science and Islam”. I don’t know whether they show this here in Singapore. It’s an English programme and it’s not malay, obviously, but this is quite important here. When it comes to the pursuit of knowledge here, it is particularly important for one to actually put things into perspective and then take a stop and look at it critically. It is said for example that one of the reasons why the Muslims were successful because not only they preserve the science of Ancient Greek but they adapted it, they put in things to it. The famous scientist ibn Haytham (Alhacen) introduced the experimental method. So you just have to watch that program in three episodes. These are among the things that were introduced by the Muslims. They were not just memorizing what the Greeks had left; they were making it of benefit to themselves so they could use that knowledge. That’s the meaning of Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafiza. Knowledge should be of what that benefits us and not what should one memorize only.

So they were not just people who were just, you know when you play football, in reserve. They were not just holding the ball or signs in reserve from the Greeks to them and passing it to the West. They were not only doing that. They were adding value to it but then we forget that and as a result we’ve lost the ball. This is the reason why lost in the World Cup so badly. If you’ve been watching the World Cup every night for your Qiyamulail and then you start cursing why England lost, it’s simply because they lost the ball. They don’t keep the ball. The same for Muslims, they lost the ball of knowledge. They don’t see themselves, as wanting to be serious students of knowledge no longer and that knowledge for them is now limited to only for example, only religious studies or is it not. You can perfectly become a dentist, a medic, a doctor, and an engineer with sound religious knowledge and vice versa. The ulama’ or the religious scholars should indeed not only have religious knowledge, should perfectly be able to seamlessly and comfortably read journals in science for example.  This is what Imam asy-Syafiee left us long before but the secret weapon here has got transmitted to the West and you see what happened. So they haven’t lost the ball there. If you look at every one of these six points that were taken, that’s why they are successful, even if it’s in mathematics. We need to look up that way and ask ourselves how to make our knowledge beneficial.

Imam al-Ghazali, when his student asked him, note that the one who asked Imam al-Ghazali this question was himself a great scholar already in the Nizamiyyah in Baghdad when al-Ghazali was teaching in Nishapur. There was a mufti asking Imam al-Ghazali, a mufti asking a question to Imam al-Ghazali. The mufti is usually the one who answers the questions but this is a mufti asking a question. Look at how humble this mufti is asking his own teacher a question. “Please ya Sheikh, I have been teaching and I have studied for the last 30 years…” This is a great alim asking this. “…Yet I don’t know which of the knowledge that I have studied and which of the knowledge that I’m teaching are beneficial to me…” Look at that, a mufti asking Imam al-Ghazali for advice. “…Because I’m afraid because the Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam said ‘Oh Allah, protect me from knowledge which does not bring me any benefit.’” And what did Imam al-Ghazali answer? He said, “The best advice is not from me, the best advice is from the Messenger salAllahualayhiwassalam, and the Messenger salAllahualayhiwassalam says “A sign that Allah has turned away from His subject, from His creatures (Human Beings or in this case Muslims) is when they concern themselves with things that do not concern them.” Even if one second is spent by someone in something that he or she was not created for, so for example for the ‘A’ level student, do you have these things called free periods in your timetable? Meaning there’s no teacher in the class or you’re expected to study in the library. Now free period is not sleeping time but in England, free period has become something that you can be a truant, you can don’t study. If you are there to study your ‘A’ levels, to make sure you work on your ‘A’ levels then that’s the reason why you’re being created to go and study at that college. If one second is spent on something that you’re not created for then it is only right that Allah s.w.t will prolong his or her regret. When it comes to the ‘A’ level, you’ll see all ‘U’ because you don’t put any work into it. Hirsun is not there, Jid is not there. So you become among people who are lazy for example.

So al-Ghazali reminds us, reminds his student, the mufti basically, that “If you want to know what is knowledge,” He didn’t say for example when he was asked what is beneficial knowledge, he didn’t say just fiqh, just tassawuf, just tafsir, just hadith. He did not say that. Nor did he say beneficial knowledge is just medicine, just engineering, just mathematics. He allowed the possibility that it could be both. But what is more important is to know indeed what is important for you after covering of course the basics of your religious knowledge, the fardhu ‘ain, so as to know what is of concern to you. This is what Mullah Ali Qari, the great Hanafi jurist, he said just to show even when I’m a syafiee’ scholar that I am not biased in my sources. We can use Hanafi sources or Maliki sources or Hambali sources. He said, “The meaning of ‘to leave what does not concern us’ is to leave what is not important to you and it is to leave what something that does not befit your speech, your sight, your hearing nor your thought.” This is nothing other than “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”. This is something that we share with other religious traditions. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran, “the ears, eyes, and hearts will all be held responsible for their deeds.” [Surah Al-Isra’, Verse 36] Our hearing, our sight and every part of our bodily organs will be interrogated in the next world. So it is best that we do not waste time, that we use that free period to sleep but instead make use of that time and ask ourselves what is actually important for us and what is actually not important for us.

That’s the first door to understanding on how to achieve the understanding of what knowledge can become beneficial to us. In other words, one requires a certain form of introspection; a certain form of muhasabah, a certain form of he or she who knows himself or herself shall know his or her knowledge. If you take time to meditate, just five or ten minutes after your solat to ask yourself what am I doing in my life, then you can start thinking of what is important for me and what is not important for me there. That is surely the way to be able to unlock that meaning of true knowledge. So, Al-Ilmu maa naf’aa laysa maa hafiza, knowledge is what benefits oneself, not what one memorizes only. That is crucial and it is important for us to understand. It’s important for us to understand from this, what that means is that we have to learn to practice what we preach; we have to learn to act on what we know. It is important for us to understand and particularly for us, let alone talking of non-Muslims for example, understanding Islam is one thing in theory but the practice is quite another, understanding Muslims is quite another. This is one of my lecture series in Oxford University; it is titled “Understanding Islam and Muslims.” As understanding Islam is one thing and understanding Muslims quite another. And how do we bridge them? It is through amal, it is through implementing, it is through applying what we know and what we learn and what we ought to be doing. I hope, inshaAllah, that Allah s.w.t. will give us taufiq in this and will give us success.

Allahumaftah alayna futuhal ariffin bi hikmatika wan shuralayna rahmataka ya arhama rahimin. Ya Allah bi rahmatika ya arhama rahimin.
Ya Allah give us the ability for us to learn among the things that will give us benefit in this life as well as in the next life.

Allahumma inna na’uzubika min ‘ilmi la yanfa’.
Keep us away from knowledge that would be of no use to us, Ya Allah whether in this life or the next life.

Bi rahmatika ya arhama rahimin.
Give us the ability to distinguish between true knowledge on one hand and information on the other hand.

Allah maa la tusoyyir wa la thosirru ‘ilmana hujjatan ‘alayna yawmal qiyamah.
Do not Ya Allah, please Ya Allah, do not make the knowledge and the ‘ilm that we’ve learnt in this world to become a hujjah, a proof against us in the next world. That is the test of knowledge, that is the aqabat-ul-‘ilm and especially the test for the ‘ulama. May Allah give us the ability for us to act on what we know, make the knowledge that we learn in this life to be hujjatan lana’ in the next world, to make it a proof for us that would bear witness for us and not against us in the next world. Give us the ability to act on whatever little we know like the early Muslims even when they may not be muftis, they may not be giving out fatwas, they may not have an opinion themselves on certain matters, they would act on whatever little they know. Act on whatever little we know even if it is a tenth of what we know, like paying the zakat, a tenth of our wealth that we give out. So act on that so that when we do such that we will be liberated through the light of knowledge from the darkness of ignorance.