Imam al-Ghazali explains the very purpose of religion as all affairs that have to do with affirming the existence and submitting to Allah (God). Religion is truth and the truth is that which is known to correspond with reality. The reality is Allah (God). In this form of religion, all we need to do to submit to Allah (God) requires knowledge. This justifies why the book must start with understanding what knowledge means, including the what and why of knowledge. One thing the Prophet (SAW) was commanded by Allah (God) was to seek an increase in “knowledge” in Surahtul TaHa (20:114)
…and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”Suratul TaHa (20:114)
There are pieces of evidence in our tradition that point to the virtues of knowledge and the status of the possessor in the community of men. In a sound narration of Prophet Muhammad (SAW); “When Allah wishes good for someone, He bestows upon him the understanding of the deen (religion).” Imam al-Ghazali commented that having knowledge alone is not enough. The knowledge that does not result in action or sincerity is without meaning, in fact, it can be compared with someone who has medicine but could not use it to treat the ailment.
The knowledge that should be sought after and is considered praiseworthy is the understanding of the religion. The Arabic word being used is “Al fiqhy fi’deen” (understanding of the religion). Imam al-Ghazali calls the attention of the reader to common misunderstandings among people on this terminology. He says it actually means knowing which is right, including the depth and consequences of something. Beneficial knowledge is knowing what draws one closer to Allah (God), wherever one is in life in terms of one’s actions/inactions.
And the most important knowledge is to know the One who must be worshipped hence the next chapter/book in the magnum opus is on the science of sound beliefs in the oneness of Allah and His reality. Subsequent chapters touch upon acts of worship in the religion. The third quarter of the book of Ihya is often considered to be the most salient part of the book as Imam Ghazali brilliantly unpacked destructive traits and character which is often something so hidden and subtle that no one can escape those foibles. It makes sense to understand them and be watchful of them. However, understanding the destructive traits alone without knowing how one can save oneself from those traits and instead adorn one with beautiful traits is fruitless. That is why the chapters of beliefs and worship precede in the arrangement of the Ihya. So thoughtful!
Knowledge is of two types in relation to human activities;
1. Fard ayn (essential knowledge required of an individual): What an individual needs to know in order to properly submit to Allah (May He be praised and exalted) in the things that one engages in life, as compared to praiseworthy knowledge which has to do with pleasure/reward in its attainment.
Fard ayn includes the beliefs and actions of the heart. It would be obligatory to acquire knowledge of whatever would remove doubt of faith and the destructive matters of the heart, their causes, symptoms, and cure.
2. Fard kifaya (communally obligatory knowledge): This knowledge is needed to preserve the essential good of the community with respect to worldly and religious affairs. These are divided into Sacred (Shariah) sciences and Profane or other non-shariah sciences.
Sacred sciences are acquired from the Prophet (SAW) and are not a result of reason like arithmetic, experimentation like medicine, or hearing like language. Profane sciences are divided into praiseworthy (includes knowledge that aids in this life like medicine), blameworthy (like magic, talismanic, trickery) and permissible sciences.
“The beginning of knowledge is silence, next to it is listening, followed by retention, acting in accordance with it and teaching/spreading it”– Muhammad al Harith in Ihlyatul Awliya.
Seeking knowledge requires Adab (the right way of doing things) and part of it is to have reverence and respect, to consult, to follow a trodden path, and to master what one learns so one can intensify it and be able to spread it to others accurately. Fruits of knowledge are becoming an Ulama’ al-Akhirah (scholars of the hereafter) meaning someone who can seek the hereafter and show others the path to the hereafter. The path to the hereafter is one of the most important things as Imam al-Ghazali expounded extensively to show proof of that in this chapter. Another fruit of knowledge is to be an Al-alim al Rabbani (Lordly scholar) which means to be someone whose knowledge enables them to direct the self and others to their Lord.
Seeking opportunities for knowledge is prophetic inheritance. Whoever strives for knowledge knows he is seeking the inheritance of the prophet and the most knowledgeable will have the greatest share in the Hereafter, as reported in the popular hadith (sayings/deeds of Prophet Muhammad). Secondly, knowledge is empowering as it enables one to live with awareness and to be an agent of good, either by becoming a scholar or by acting in accordance with reality and truth. “Service without knowledge is toil without fruit”. It is more honourable to strive to enlighten people with what one has acquired of beneficial knowledge as Allah(God) said: “And who could be better of speech than he who calls [his fellow men] unto God, and does what is just and right, and says, “Verily, I am of those who have surrendered themselves to God” Quran (41:33).
In conclusion, a clear message that served as a theme throughout the chapter is the emphasis that knowledge in seeking, spreading or practising must be in relation to the ultimate purpose of knowing and seeking the pleasure of Allah.
May we be blessed with that which is beneficial.