In Islam knowledge is not an end in itself. It is essential, but it is not enough. Its value lies in being an aid to achieving the ultimate goal of man’s life. The goal is to be – to attain a state of being that is pleasing to his Creator and Master. Thus Knowledge must go beyond itself to help us become what we need to be.
In our earthly existence each human being is constantly engaged in shaping his evolving identity and giving it its final mould. This final shape may be pleasing to Allah or may not be. We ourselves may or may not be aware that we are engaged in this activity, but there is no escape from it. Islam teaches us to always remain aware of this truth and to be on our guard, for this is a serious matter – nothing can be more serious. Our safety and success with our Lord depends on this
The substance of our identity is a compound of our thoughts, feelings and actions. Knowledge can colour and influence all these. The effect, beneficial or harmful, which knowledge has on our thoughts, feelings and actions depends entirely on the kind of heart we bring to knowledge.
The heart may be sound or sick, or as Allah calls it ‘blind’. In Surah Al- Hajj, verse 46, Allah gives this dire warning: “It is not the eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.” If the heart is sick or blind, knowledge can produce disastrous results. The blind or sick heart distorts and dislocates knowledge. In order to benefit from knowledge we need a humble, sober, unselfish, attentive and grateful heart.
The blindness of the heart has a peculiarity of its own. It is blind only to what is true and right, but can see all that is false and wrong and take it to be true and right. If the heart is sick or blind, everything goes wrong. Even the most beneficial knowledge proves to be too inadequate, weak and dangerous. The blind heart can create havoc.
The role of the heart is crucial for other reasons as well. The heart needs to be actively engaged with knowledge. Without the willing participation of the heart knowledge remains dry and sterile. Such knowledge has no value in Islam because it does not come to life and cannot move beyond its own narrow confines.
Thus in Islam knowledge cannot stop at being knowledge only; it must have an onward movement, pass through many chambers and go beyond itself to be transformed into something else and absorbed into the essential being of man. Knowledge is useless if it remains inert and inactive and does not contribute to man’s reaching the ultimate goal of life.
Knowledge must lead to action. It acts in two spheres – the internal and the external. It moulds the inner being and influences behaviour. The internal determines the external and the external confirms and strengthens the internal. Together the two define the state of one’s being.
Knowledge can find fulfilment in action only if it can penetrate into the inner core of the being, is absorbed into it and becomes a living force there. For this to happen, knowledge must first affect the heart of its bearer. One has to feel what one knows. When the heart is moved by knowledge, the seed for action is sown. Then the seed must germinate and blossom into action; otherwise, it is wasted.
How does the seed germinate and flourish? Again, it is the function of the willing, eager, caring and able heart to nourish and nurture first the seed and then the growing plant of our delicate being. The heart is the soil, the water, the fertilizer and the essential natural environment. The importance of the heart is thus overwhelming at all stages of the process.
For Muslims, Iblis provides the greatest and the most terrifying example of the inadequacy and failure of knowledge and of knowledge contributing to one’s destruction. If the mere having of knowledge would suffice, then Iblis would have been the most blessed being in Allah’s creation. What other creature can compare with Iblis in knowledge? He had all the knowledge necessary for him. He had direct knowledge of Allah. Yet that did not save him from ruin. It served to bring about his stupendous fall, to make him the most cursed being in all of creation. His knowledge made his fall most stark and awful.
What was missing in Iblis? His heart was sick and had become blind. Without the operation of the sound heart his knowledge could not help him become what would please Allah. His knowledge took a wrong turn and put him on a course that was most displeasing to Allah; his knowledge only served to increase his ignorance and blindness. The core of his being remained impure.
Without a sound heart his knowledge made him proud, arrogant and blind. His blindness was so complete that he forgot the most fundamental truth of his own existence, that he was only an abd or slave of Allah. He did not create himself or choose the substance from which he was created. It was not for him to ascribe value or superiority to anything: whether fire was superior to earth was for Allah to determine, not him. Without the aid of the sound heart, Iblis’ knowledge only served to inflate his ego to such a point that he preferred eternal damnation to submission to his Lord.
There are people in the world who know a lot, but their knowledge does not do any good either to themselves or to anyone else. In many cases their knowledge does positive damage to themselves and to others. The damage does not remain confined to this world; it stretches to the Hereafter, and so is incalculable. Such people are a miserable lot.