Ilm (Arabic: علم “knowledge”) is the Arabic term for knowledge. However central the idea of ‘ilm to Islamic intellectual culture, it was an essentialist concept, assumed to be a fixed and identifiable (if undefined) object or fact. It has a much wider connotation than its synonyms in English and other western languages. “Knowledge” does not exactly express all aspects of the term “Ilm”. Knowledge in the western world means information on a certain subject, divine or earthly, while “Ilm” is a term that embraces all these aspects referring to theory, practice and education. The scholar of Arabic literature and Islamic culture, Professor Franz Rosenthal, the german orientalist and teacher at Yale University, emphasizes both the importance of this word in Muslim civilization and in Islam and its diversity from Western translations.
In fact, no concept has been so important in determining all aspects of Muslim civilization as Ilm. This also applies to other words of great significance for Islamic religious life, such as “Tawhid” (recognition of the uniqueness of GOD), “ad-Din” (the True religion) and many others used constantly and with emphasis. But none of them is the same as Ilm for its depth of meaning and its wide use. There is no aspect of Islamic intellectual, religious and political life, and of the daily life of an average Muslim, that is neglected by the attitude always turned towards knowledge seen as a supreme value for the Muslim. Ilm is Islam, although theologians have been hesitant to accept the technical correctness of this equality. What stands out most from this heated discussion regarding this concept is its fundamental importance for Islam.
The origin of the word Islam (in Arabic: إسلام) derives from the triliteral root S-L-M which forms a large class of words that refer mainly to the concepts of Peace and submission, but also to security and integrity. Today the word is generally in the religious context, the word Islam means “voluntary submission to GOD [ALLAH in Arabic]”, is the verbal name of Form IV of the root and means “submission” or “surrender”. Muslim, the word for an adherent to Islam, is the active participle of the same verbal form and means “submissive”, “one who submits”, or a reasoned and voluntary “submission” (to the Only One GOD).
From the root S-L-M it is understandable that the term ilm is annexed to Islam, a path through Knowledge that leads to the achievement of it and to the understanding of Islamic doctrine, no other religion or ideological thought has stressed so much the importance of this concept. In the Quran the word “Alim” (a scholar or wise male or female) occurs 140 times, while the term “Ilm” only 27. In total, the number of verses in which the word “Ilm” is used or derived or associated terms is 704.
In addition to several Quranic verses that emphasize the importance of knowledge, there are hundreds of sayings from the Prophet (Pbuh) that encourage Muslims to acquire all kinds of knowledge from anywhere in the world. Islamic civilization, during a period of stagnation and decline, confines its knowledge in theology as the only compulsory science, an attitude generally and unfairly attributed to the destruction of philosophy and other sciences in the Islamic world carried out by al-Ghazali.
In the Islamic world, the word “gnosis” (ma’rifa) is different from knowledge in the sense of acquiring information through logical processes. In non-Islamic civilizations dominated by greek culture, “hikmah” (philosophy) is considered superior to learning/understanding. According to Islam, however, “Ilm” is not pure knowledge, but rather a synonym of gnosis (ma’rifa). Knowledge derived from two sources is considered: “Aql” (reasoning) and “Ilm huduri” (understood as not mediated and direct knowledge, which occurs through mystical experiences).
Meaning of knowledge
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word knowledge refers to “Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”
“In this work on the concept of knowledge, Franz Rosenthal collected a number of definitions of ‘ilm, organizing them according to what he saw as their essential elements (admitting that the list was ahistorical and did not necessarily conform to categories the medieval Muslim scholars themselves would have used). Among these definitions, we find the following: Knowledge is the process of knowing, and identical with the knower and the known.
Knowledge is that through which one knows.
- Knowledge is that through which the essence is knowing.
- Knowledge is that through which the knower is knowing.
- Knowledge is that which necessitates for him in whom it subsists the name of knower.
- Knowledge is that which necessitates that he in whom it subsists is knowing.
- Knowledge is that which necessitates that he in whom it resides (mahall) is knowing.
- Knowledge stands for ( ‘ibarah ‘an) the object known ( ‘al-ma lum).
- Knowledge is but the concepts known ( ‘al-ma ani al-ma luma).
- Knowledge is the mentally existing object.”
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.”
Knowledge in the Western world means information about something, divine or corporeal, while In Islamic point of view ‘ilm is an all-embracing term covering theory, action and education. It is not confined to the acquisition of knowledge only, but also embraces socio-political and moral aspects. It requires insight, commitment to the goals of Islam and for the believers to act upon their belief. Also it is reported in one hadith (a saying from the oral tradition attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) that: “Knowledge is not extensive learning. Rather, it is a light that GOD casts in the heart of whomever He wills.”
Shiism and knowledge
Doctrine about necessity of acquiring knowledge
According to Allameh Muzaffar, ALLAH (GOD in Arabic) gives humans the faculty of reason and argument. Also GOD orders human to spend time thinking carefully on Creation while He refers to all creations as His signs of power and glory. These signs encompassed all of Universe. Also there is similarity between human, as little world, and universe as large world. GOD doesn’t accept the faith of those who follow Him without thinking and only with imitation but also the CREATOR blames them for such an action.
In other words, humans have to think about the Universe with reason and intellect, faculties bestowed us by the grace of GOD. Since that there is more insistence on the faculty of intellect among Shia, even evaluating the claims of someone who claims prophecy is on the shoulder of intellect.
Ilm is a complex, multifaceted Arabic term used in various derivations to denote the many aspects of knowing and knowledge acquisition, production, and dissemination, including teaching and learning, education, and science, as well as comprehension, perception, feeling, experience, and familiarity. From ‘ilm also comes the term ‘ālam,“world,” signifying that the divine act of creation is fundamentally an act of knowing and an expression of knowledge. Through the Qur’an and prophetic traditions, Islam has placed a strong emphasis on ilm, considering the seeking of knowledge to be obligatory on all Muslims. Accordingly, the enterprise of knowing has been central to all aspects of cultural production in Islam, particularly in the fields of science, religion, and the arts. On the one hand, ilm fuses science and religion together into an indissoluble whole, and on the other, it makes art an act of knowledge before being an expression of feeling.
Historically, there has been no specific word for “science” in Arabic, and early-modern and modern Arab intellectuals, linguists, reformers, and “scientists” did not coin a new term for it to help delineate the territories of modern science from that of traditional ilm in Arabic thought. The Arabic word ilm (plural ‘ulūm) has continued to be used to describe both religious and non-religious pursuits of knowledge, that is, the devotional and intellectual engagements with the divine revelation as well as the rational and empirical study of nature. It has also continued to be associated with art (fann), imagination (khayāl), and artistic creativity (ibdā’). As both science and religion have formed the common foundation of artistic production in the Islamic tradition, ilm has acted as a unifying cultural force throughout Islamic history.
Science, Religion, and Art in Islam presents an opportunity, at the national and international levels, to examine the concept of “knowledge” in Islamic culture in order to explore and generate innovative perspectives on its role in science, religion, and the arts. It invites reflections on and discussions of the idea of ‘ilm and its role in pre-, early, and post-modern Islamic culture.
Science, Religion, and Art in Islam will bring together a broad group of scholars, artists, designers, curators, conservators, and higher degree researchers across the fields of Islamic intellectual history, history and theory of Islamic art and architecture, history of Islamic science, and Islamic studies to address key issues of concern and to highlight points of intersection between science, religion, and the arts.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“A servant of GOD will remain standing on the Day of Judgment until he is questioned about his (time on earth) and how he used it; about his knowledge and how he utilized it; about his wealth and from where he acquired it and in what (activities) he spent it; and about his body and how he used it.”
Ilm in Qur’an
In the Qur’an the word ‘alim has occurred in 140 places, while al-‘ilm in 27. In all, the total number of verses in which ‘ilm or its derivatives and associated words are used is 704. The aids of knowledge such as book, pen, ink etc. amount to almost the same number. Qalam occurs in two places, al-kitab in 230 verses, among which al-kitab for al-Qur’an occurs in 81 verses. Other words associated with writing occur in 319 verses.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, GOD [ALLAH] will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth and (even) the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man. The superiority of the learned over the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave (no monetary inheritance), they leave only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion.
(Sunan of Abu-Dawood)
The Prophet sws also said:
“Knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure out of which nothing is spent in the cause of GOD.”
Beside various Qur’anic verses emphasizing the importance of knowledge, there are hundreds of Prophetic traditions that encourage Muslims to acquire all types of knowledge from any corner of the world.
‘Ilm is referred to in many Quranic verses as ‘light’ (nur), and GOD is also described as the ultimate nur. it means that ilm in the general sense is synonymous with the “light” of GOD. This light does not shine for ever for all the believers. If is hidden sometimes by the clouds of doubt arising from the human mind. Doubt is sometimes interpreted in the Quran as darkness, and ignorance also is depicted as darkness in a number of its verses. GOD is depicted as nur, and knowledge is also symbolized asnur. Ignorance is darkness and ma’rifah is light. In the ayat al-kursi GOD says:
(GOD is the Light of the heavens and the earth … GOD is the Master of the believers and He guides them out of the darkness into light)
Muhammad sws said:
“If GOD wants to do good to a person, he makes him comprehend the religion and of course knowledge is attained by learning.”
In Islam ilm is not confined to the acquisition of knowledge only, but also embraces socio-political and moral aspects. Knowledge is not mere information; it requires the believers to act upon their beliefs and commit themselves to the goals which Islam aims at attaining.
GOD’s Messenger (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
“A believer is never satiated with gainful knowledge; he goes acquiring it till his death and entry into Paradise.”
- Dictionary listing for Siin roots derived from Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon via www.studyquran.co.uk
- Lewis, Barnard; Churchill, Buntzie Ellis (2009). Islam: The Religion and The People. Wharton School Publishing. p. 8. ISBN 9780132230858.
- “What does Islam mean?”. The Friday Journal. 2011-02-06. Archived from the original on 2011-03-14.
- Fudge, Bruce (7 April 2011). Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Al-Tabrisi and the Craft of Commentary (Routledge Studies in the Qur’an). United Kingdom: Routledge. p. 60. ISBN 0415782007.
- Bihar-ul-Anwar, p. 225, Vol. 1.
- Allamah Muhammad Rida Al Muzaffar (1989). The faith of Shia Islam. Ansariyan Qum. p. 1.