Evan Corey: Gaining Knowledge as Humanity’s Primary Moral Imperative in the Qur’an

 

The ethical schools by which one might examine Qur’anic morality vary wildly.  Each asks a different question of human conduct.  Although the Qur’an includes many verses to do with intent, means, and other important aspects of morality, the text is most forthcoming in the realm of duty.  The concept of wajib was created not long after the reception of the Qur’an by humanity.  Wajib encompasses the obligations present in the Qur’an and thus in Islam.  These obligations include ritual actions like daily prayer and daily fasting during the month of Ramadan, as well as more general codes of conduct like maintaining a respectful attitude towards one’s parents.  However, in the larger scale of duty to God revealed in the Qur’an, seeking, gaining, and retaining knowledge come to the forefront as the most important duties of humanity.

Receiving God’s word is never presented in the Qur’an as a passive act; the upright person must be active in seeking and maintaining the proper conduct.  In Islamic Theological Themes, Renard an inner quest, a “journey along the path of spiritual insight into God’s unity and attributes,”[1] wherein the upright person attempts to find the essence of God within themselves.  Izutzu has a slightly more utilitarian take on the quest for knowledge, in that “thankfulness […] is only possible when man has grasped the meaning of the ayat,”[2] a concept which frames understanding as only a means to achieve the essential act of humility towards God.  In the Qur’an itself, mindfulness, knowledge, and learning are consistently referenced throughout.  The Qur’an notes of God’s creation that “in these are wonders for a people who reflect,”[3] a warning to those who do not make themselves aware of their surroundings.  The text demands of the reader: “ask the People who possess the Remembrance, if you yourselves do not know.”[4]  After proclaiming of God, “Apart from Him, you have no patron and no intercessor,” it asks again of the reader: “Will you not reflect?”[5] God calls humans through the Qur’an to educate themselves and reflect on what is known.

One of the most compelling marks of the overwhelming significance of knowledge in the Qur’an is the story of the angels’ initial reaction to humankind.  When humans were first created, angels questioned God.  They asked why He would make such a violent and criminal species.[6]  However, all the angels and jinn (save Satan) bowed to the newly made humankind, because their superiority was proven in the form of knowledge.  When God asked the angels to name the things in the universe, they could not, but Adam could.[7] However, humans do not inherently own knowledge but must earn it.  Often, humans become forgetful and lose knowledge.  The Qur’an is clear that it is the responsibility of humanity to continue learning and relearning with the goal of achieving God’s ineffable will. [8]

Humans must remember that “God is with man, provided man makes the necessary effort,”[9] and thus that humans must always be working towards knowledge-seeking.  While humanity has “certainly not yet fulfilled God’s primordial command,”[10] He has gifted humans with His conditional guidance.  The condition is that the person in question fulfills their duties to God.  Towards this end, ignorance is no excuse.  Humans were made with the complete capacity of knowledge, a fact which positions them above all creatures.  Although Satan is poised within humankind, arrogantly assuming he can lead humans away from God, God has allowed him to do so.[11]  This is because God believes in humanity.  So long as humans strive for the Truth, which God embodies, they cannot be touched by Satan’s rhetoric. [12]

Throughout the Qur’an, truth is placed at the forefront, and humans are called to seek and understand the truth as the most important part of faith.  The anti-Muslim, the one who turns away from God, is called Kafir.  The root of this word means “to conceal.”[13]  Thus, the one who conceals, who turns away from knowledge, is the one who is the most wicked.  Satan was the jinn who turned away from the truth, and so he is cursed to eternal humility: watching humans seek and gain true knowledge, thus remaining out of his reach.  Knowledge and truth are deeply connected, and so when the Qur’an urges the reader to seek knowledge, it is an encouragement towards the act of seeking truth.  This is also true in the reverse.  When the Qur’an calls God “Truth,”[14] it references the ultimate knowledge which He holds.

Humanity’s utmost duty, according to the Qur’an, is to seek truth in God, to collect knowledge and retain remembrance.  Courage, charity, loyalty, and patience all connect to the ultimate and essential duty of learning.  Humans must know God in order to be loyal to Him.  Senseless eagerness for warfare is not the courage that the Qur’an calls for.  Instead, it calls for strategy and strength of heart.  Mindfulness, courage, and loyalty become the conditions of the emigrating Muslim’s patience.  Even charity, though highly encouraged, is not wajib – obligatory.[15]  To take the first step on the journey to know God is the only real requirement.  Once a person moves towards understanding and loving God, God will open that human’s eyes and heart and guide them into His arms.  As long as that person keeps consistently striving for His truth after that point, then they are saved.

 

Notes

[1]. Renard, John. Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014.

[2]. Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran; Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung. Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964. 255.

[3]. Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. American ed. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 2008. 13:3.

[4]. Ibid., 16:43.

[5]. Ibid., 32:4.

[6]. Ibid., 2:30.

[7]. Ibid., 2:33.

[8]. Ibid., 2:63-64.

[9]. Rahman, Fazlur, and Ebrahim Moosa. Major Themes of the Qur’An. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 18.

[10]. Khalidi. 80:23.

[11]. Ibid., 15:31-48

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʼān. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. 119.

[14]. Ibid., 98.

[15]. Mahallati, Jafar. “March 15 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

 

Bibliography

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʼān McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran; Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung. Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964.

Khalidi, Tarif. The Qur’an: A New Translation. American ed. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 2008.

Mahallati, Jafar. “March 15 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.

Rahman, Fazlur and Ebrahim Moosa. Major Themes of the Qur’An. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Renard, John. Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014.