Imam Ali (as) and the Spiritualization of Knowledge

Just as the modern era has seen the separation of church and state, so too has it seen the separation of church and education. Throughout the world – and not only the Christian world – education and science have become secularized. Granted, the separation of church and education happened for a good reason: despite the intellectual heritage of Christianity, some Christians refused to accept scientific discoveries which contradicted what they perceived to be the literal meaning of the Bible. Faith became associated with backwardness, and progress became associated with secularism. Faith and knowledge began to be viewed as opposites, and atheism – rather than theism – came to dominate the scientific world. In response, many Muslims upheld the inherent harmony between knowledge and faith – for instance, mentioning scientific facts alluded to by the Holy Qur’an. Nonetheless, for the most part, with the spread of Western values, learning has also become secularized among Muslims.

In contrast, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) (d. 661 CE) presented a holistic approach towards faith and learning. This holistic approach did not lead to backwardness or ignorance; rather, it spurred the proverbial ‘Golden Age’ among Muslims, in which the Islamic empire was the scientific capital of the world. Although he emphasized religious learning, he encouraged other forms of learning as well; as he said, ‘The best knowledge is that which improves you.’[1],[2] In an era where literacy was still novel to many of his people, he explained how to categorize and develop various sciences – both religious sciences, such as jurisprudence; but also physical sciences, such as medicine and astronomy.[3] As a result, the origins of numerous fields of study are traced to him.

However, even when discussing fields of study which would today be considered secular, Imam ‘Ali (as) maintained the importance of a deep interrelation between knowledge and spirituality. He did not deny what we all know today; namely, that it is possible to become very educated without placing that education in the context of faith. He did, however, suggest that education without faith has its limits. A famous saying of his reads:

Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so seek it even from the polytheist for you will be more deserving and worthier of it.[4]

In other words, although a person without monotheistic belief can possess knowledge, knowledge finds its proper place within the framework of belief and, rather than being antithetical to belief, is intimately associated with belief.

Imam ‘Ali (as) presented learning not only as a practical matter – for instance, as a means to prepare for employment as it is often seen today – but also as an essential component of spiritual development. Imam ‘Ali (as) described the intellect as a ‘ladder to the ‘Illiyyin [the loftiest parts of Heaven]’.[5] Since, according to Imam ‘Ali (as), the intellect is developed through contemplation, experience, and study,[6] these activities should lead us closer to Allah. For instance, exploring the natural world helps us to understand more about the attributes of Allah since the Creation serves as a means of understanding the attributes of the Creator which are otherwise beyond our comprehension. We cannot, for example, understand what it means for Allah to be al-nur, the Light, but we can understand the unique characteristics of light in the physical universe (or the value of lantern in the wilderness on a dark night!).

According to Imam ‘Ali (as), knowledge also facilitates our spiritual growth by enlivening our hearts. In the Islamic tradition, the heart is the organ which perceives spiritual realities just as the eyes see physical realities. The heart also distinguishes between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. However, the heart can be healthy or ill, clear-sighted or blind. Therefore, it is imperative to keep the heart healthy. One of the ways to keep the spiritual heart healthy is to engage in learning, since knowledge is – in the words of Imam ‘Ali (as) – ‘the life of the hearts and the light of the eyes from blindness’. Another way to keep the spiritual heart healthy is to engage in worship. This too is connected to knowledge, for – according to Imam ‘Ali (as) – ‘the fruit of knowledge is worship’.[7] Ultimately, true knowledge should also inspire humility, a crucial spiritual value; as the Holy Qur’an says, ‘Only those who have knowledge fear Allah’ (35:28). Learning, worship, and humility combine to keep the heart focused on the divine.

Additionally, knowledge helps protect our hearts from sins by cooling the carnal desires. This is important because sins block the ability of the heart to perceive truth and the divine reality. Although the carnal desires are necessary for human survival, when unrestrained, they can lead us to sin by indulging in them unlawfully or even just excessively, thereby disabling our hearts. However, Imam ‘Ali (as) said that ‘a person whose intellect is perfected regards carnal desires with disdain.’[8] Rather than being controlled by his or her desires, a person with true intellect controls them, thereby coming closer to the level of the angels – who have intellect but no desires – rather than sinking to the level of the animals. As Imam ‘Ali (as) said, ‘Knowledge commands, action drives, and the carnal soul is the obstinate mount’;[9] developing the intellect helps us to tame the body.

All of these are ways in which knowledge leads us to Allah. However, just as knowledge leads to spirituality, spirituality also leads to knowledge because Allah is al-‘aleem, the source of all knowledge For instance, Imam ‘Ali (as) said, ‘Whoever remembers Allah, glory be to Him, Allah enlivens his heart and illuminates his intellect and the innermost core of his heart.’[10] Similarly, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, ‘If you feared Allah with the fear that He is worthy of, you would be taught the knowledge after which no ignorance ever remains.’[11] Ultimately, there is a type of knowledge and wisdom that cannot be gained through study and must be gained through faith; as is narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (as), ‘Knowledge is not [achieved] through learning; rather it is a light that falls into the heart of one whom Allah Almighty wishes to guide.’[12]

Other than the Prophet (S) himself, there is no better example of this principle than Imam ‘Ali (as) himself; his unparalleled depth of knowledge and spirituality led him to advise the people ‘Ask me before you lose me; indeed, I know the paths of the heavens more than I know the paths of the earth.’[13] Although none of us can aspire to match the depth of practical and spiritual knowledge that Imam ‘Ali (as) exhibited, we can aspire to emulate the approach of Imam ‘Ali (as) towards learning by making faith a part of learning, and learning a part of faith – not as a means of backwardness, but as a way of comprehending higher truths.

[1] All narrations quoted here have been taken from The Scale of Wisdom: A Compendium of Shi‘a Hadith (a translation of Mizan al-Hikmah). This book can be previewed and searched over here.

[2] The Scale of Wisdom, p. 790.

[3] Ibid., pp. 789-790.

[4] Ibid., p. 305.

[5] Ibid., p. 760.

[6] Ibid., pp. 308, 772, et al.

[7] Ibid., p. 784.

[8] Ibid., p. 767.

[9] Ibid., p. 772.

[10] Ibid., p. 412.

[11] Ibid., p. 791.

[12] Ibid., p. 1106.

[13] This quotation is mentioned in many places and in different forms, such as in Nahj al-Balaghah, sermon 96; and Bihar al-Anwar, volume 39, p. 109.

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