Science and Our Ummah

Sciences Whose Knowledge Is Wajib Kifa'i

Here we do not intend to enter into `a discussion about sciences whose learning is obligatory (wajib `ayni) for every responsible Muslim individual (mukallaf). Rather, we propose to discuss those sciences whose knowledge is a wajib kifa'i for all the Muslim Ummah. To begin with, we consider some of the opinions of Imam Al-Ghazzali and Muhaqqiq Kashani in this regard as disputable and shall proceed to examine them. However, before we start, we think it will be beneficial to revert to certain important points mentioned by Mulla Sadra in his commentary on Usul al-Kafi under the tradition:

Acquisition of knowledge is an obligation of every Muslim.

  1. The word `ilm (knowledge or science), like the word "existence" (wujud) has a broad range of meanings which vary from the viewpoints of strength or weakness, perfection or deficiency. [^10] The word's generic sense covers this whole spectrum of meaning in which it has been used in the prophetic tradition.

This broad sense of the word `ilm is common to all its varied meanings. Accordingly, the tradition intends to state that whatever stage of knowledge one may be in, he should strive to make further advance. The Prophet means that acquisition of know­ledge is obligatory for all Muslims, scholars as well as ignorant men, beginners as well as learned scholars. Whatever stage of knowledge man may attain, he is still like a child entering into adulthood as far as this tradition is concerned; i.e. he should learn things which were not obliga­tory for him before.

  1. The tradition implies that a Muslim can never be relieved of his responsibility of acquiring knowledge'. [^11]

  2. No field of knowledge or science is undesirable or detestable in itself; for knowledge is like light and so it is always desirable. The reason that some of the sciences have been regarded as "undesirable" is because of their occasional misuse. [^12]

We do not accept the division of knowledge into "religious" and "non-religious" sciences; for, as the Martyr Murtada Mutahhari has rightly pointed out, this classification may bring about the misunder­standing that the "non-religious" sciences are alien to Islam. And this is not compatible with the comprehensive unity held up by Islam in all affairs of life.

A religion which claims the ability to bring about condi­tions for perfect felicity of mankind and considers itself to be self­-sufficing cannot estrange itself from things which play a vital role in the provision of welfare and independence for an Islamic society. Accord­ing to the late Mutahhari, "Islam's all-inclusiveness and finality as a religion demands that every field of knowledge that is beneficial for an Islamic society be regarded as a part and parcel of the "religious sciences." [^13]

Group of Sciences and their Scope

Besides, we think that the group of sciences belonging to the cate­gory of wajib kifa'i is much more larger than what Al-Ghazzali would have us believe. Moreover, we think that the parsimony he shows regarding those sciences which may be included in this category, does not harmonize with the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet's sunnah. [^14] Our reasons for not accepting such restrictions on learning are as follows:

  1. In most of the Quranic verses and traditions, the concept of `ilm (knowledge) appears in its absolutely general sense, as can be seen from examples given below:

Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? (39:9)

(God) taught man what he knew not. (96:5)

And He taught Adam all the names; then showed them to the angels, saying: "Tell me the names of these, if you are right."(2:31)

Anyone who pursues a course of acquisition of knowledge, God will ease his eventual access to paradise. (prophetic tradition; source: Munyat al-Murid, p . 12, Najaf A.H. 1370)

Similarly other Quranic verses and traditions confirm that knowledge does not mean only learning of the principles and laws of the Shari'ah. We may note some further examples:

And certainly We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and both (the apostles) said: `All praise is God's who made us to excel many of His believing servants. And Solomon succeeded David and he said: `O people! We have been taught the language of the birds, and we have been granted (plenty) of everything; surely, this is manifest grace (of God)'. (16:15)

We see that these two prophets consider the knowledge of the language of birds to be a Divine blessing.

Do you not see that God sends down water from the shy, then We bring forth with it fruits of various colours, and in the mountains are streaks, white and red and of various colours and others intensely black? And of men and beasts and cattle are of various colours likewise; only those of His servants endowed with knowledge fear God; surely, God is Almighty and Forgiving. (35:27-28)

Clearly, the word `ibadihi al-ulama' (His servants endowed with knowledge) occurring in the above verse refers to those who are aware of the laws and mysteries of nature and creation, and who acknowledge in all humility the greatness and majesty of God. The following traditions of the Prophet (S) also point in the direction of the most general sense of the word "knowledge".

Seek knowledge by even going to China. [^15]

The most learned of men is one who collects bits of knowledge from others and thus enhances his own knowledge. [^16]

Anyone who desires the good of present life should seek knowledge. Any­one who desires the life of Hereafter should seek knowledge. And anyone who wants to do well in this life and in the next world should seek knowledge. [^17]

Accept whatever adds to your wisdom, irrespective of the nature of the source. [^18]

From these sayings of the great Prophet of Islam and similar traditions which have been narrated from the Ahl al-Bayt [^19] (the spiritual successors of the Prophet) the truth emerges that such recommenda­tions for acquisition of knowledge are not confined to the knowledge of the principles and laws of the Shari`ah; because, as is obvious, China was not a centre of theological studies in those days but was famous for its crafts and industry. Moreover, it is clear that the laws of Shari ah and Islamic doctrines cannot be learnt from polytheists and infidels.

  1. Another reason for not considering "desirable" knowledge to be limited to the religious and theological studies is the precious heritage left by the Muslim scholars of the first several centuries of Islamic civilization and that has come down to our own time. As is also confirmed by modern historians, Muslim scholars were at the vanguard of the scientific tradition for centuries and their books were used as text-books in Europe for several hundred years.

In fact the major reason why Muslim scholars rejected the intellec­tual traditions of other countries was that they did not see any separation between the goal of religion and the ends of knowledge and were convinced that both religion and knowledge were aimed at illuminating the unity of nature and as a result the oneness of the Creator. Accord­ingly, it was on the basis of this conviction of intrinsic fusion of religion and knowledge that religious coaching and rational training were considered as aspects of a single discipline in religious schools and mosques.

  1. To set aside a group of sciences on the pretext that they do not have as much value as the religious studies is not correct. Because, whatever field of knowledge is conductive to preservation of the strength and vitality of an Islamic society, its knowledge is wajib kifa'i in the same fashion as scholarship in religious sciences has been pointed out as a wajib kifa'i for the Islamic society in the following verse of the Quran:

It is not for the believers to go forth totally (to acquire scholarship in religion); but why should not a party of every section of them go forth, to become learned in religion, and to warn their people when they return to them, that haply they may beware? (9:122)

So we have discovered that the word 'Urn as it occurs in the Book and sunnah appears in its more general sense than what may apply exclusively to the religious studies. Nevertheless, it may be said that Islam has only dissuaded Muslims from preoccupying themselves with. any pursuit of such branches of knowledge whose harm is greater than their benefit (like magic and sorcery and games of chance used for gambling). The relevant sayings of the Prophet (S) may be noted:

We seek God's refuge from knowledge that does not benefit. [^20]

O God! Benefit me through knowledge that You have bestowed on me, teach me whatever would benefit me, and increase me in knowledge. [^21]

Ali (A) is related as having said:

There is no good in knowledge which does not benefit. [^22]

Knowledge is too immense in scope for anyone to be able to contain it. So learn from each science its useful parts. [^23]