Science / Knowledge (isl.)


(Arab. Ilm, Turk. İlim)

The Arabic word ilm means, among other things, knowledge, awareness, understanding, thought, recognition and experience. Science (ilm) describes the methodologically controlled process by which one arrives at knowledge in a certain area. In the Qur’an and in the hadiths, the word ilm is used in the singular. In the early period of Islam, the word referred neither to systematically disclosed knowledge nor to a scientific discipline; instead, it described findings relating to religious matters or information pertaining to individual facts. Only later on is the word ilm used to designate a scientific discipline in its own right. Even in the early period of Islam, areas within the diverse field of religious knowledge were pursued as sciences chiefly in the areas of theology and law. As methodological research took shape in these areas, the ilm was used in the sense of a branch of science or a discipline of instruction. The Qur’an calls upon people to acquire knowledge, to learn, to reflect upon creation, and to articulate and discuss their thoughts by means of well-founded proofs. There are more than 700 Qur’anic verses of this type. The Qur’an assesses statements and actions that are not built upon established and rationally justified knowledge, or upon revelation, as invalid and far from the truth (25:5; 68:15; 83:13). With the verse, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ (39:9), the Qur’an describes knowledge as the most important standard for power and superiority over living beings, particularly over people, and in relationships among social groups. The human capacity to learn, and human progress in the acquisition of knowledge, have elevated mankind above all other creatures, including the angels. In many verses, the Qur’an has particular praise for people with knowledge, who reflect, who learn from their experiences, as individuals who apply their powers of reason (e.g. 30:21; 2:164). It states that the pursuit of knowledge, its acquisition and transmission without temporal or spatial limits is an individual and a societal obligation; research, enquiry and thought are deemed the equivalent of worship (ibadah) and taken on ethical and religious significance. Knowledge emerges as a sign of an individual’s virtue and quality. And because the human individual has the capacity to constantly change and develop, there is always someone who knows more (12:76). This is why all members and strata of society are called upon to take active part in the broadening of knowledge, and to apply the knowledge gained in useful ways. In keeping with the high status the Qur’an grants to knowledge and science (ilm), Muhammad praised knowledge (cf. Muslim), its transmission (cf. Ibn Madscha), and its appropriation (cf. Ibn Madscha); he advocated study travel (cf. Tirmidhi) and the trials encountered along the way, spoke highly of scholars (cf. Tirmidhi) and of pupils in pursuit of knowledge (cf. Darimi) and attempted to encourage people of all ages to acquire knowledge (cf. Bukhari; Ibn Madscha). Nearly all of the early collections of hadiths contained a chapter entitled Book of Knowledge/of Science (Kitab al-Ilm); this emphasises the high religious value of knowledge and research. In the sayings of the Prophet, knowledge or science (ilm) is not confined to a particular topic or a certain area. While some hadith scholars associated the term knowledge or science (ilm) mainly with the study of the hadiths and all its sub-disciplines, the general view is that knowledge or science (ilm) is not confined to a certain field and includes all areas instead. In later eras, in the Islamic spiritual world the term ilm came to be used to designate the systematised knowledge of a discipline, complete with its aims, central ideas, research areas and methods. In lieu of what initially had been unsystematic efforts to acquire knowledge or awareness, premises and aims were articulated and methods were systematically refined such that scientific disciplines took shape over time. As is well-known, Muslims investigated not only Islam but all areas accessible to the human intellect. In the Islamic sciences, in order to arrive at correct, reliable findings, one applies not one sole method valid for all areas but rather multiple methods. Depending on the object and field of investigation involved, every branch of knowledge developed its own specific methods and processes for the acquisition of knowledge. This does not, however, mean that all Islamic sciences work with methods that are entirely independent of one another or that they arrive at their findings on the basis of wholly different processes. Knowledge that is correct and proven can be acquired with the aid of reason, through authentic disclosure/tradition (khabar) or through sensory perception, or through some combination of these three courses. While intuition, conscience or experience also constitute avenues leading to knowledge (ilm) and awareness of God (marifa), they are not independent and are instead functions of reason (aql). Only findings derived on the basis of one of the three fundamental avenues (reason, disclosure, and sensory perception), or that rely on an even more reliable source (e.g. the results of archaeological investigations), can be considered binding, verified knowledge with regard to religious questions. Knowledge of things about which anyone can gain awareness is referred to in Islamic thought as knowledge (Arab. malumat, Turk. bilgi). This type of knowledge can be subordinate, contradictory, wrong or right. Science (Arab. ilm, Turk. bilim), on the other hand, refers to the things a person knows how to present as they are (al-Maturidi, d. 944 CE).

Sönmez Kutlu

This post is also available in Turkish.