‘Ilm and Ma’rifah: Arabic Concepts
Analysis of Science and Knowledge العلم والمعرفة
Prof. Hasan A. Yahya
This article was found in the author’s book: Crescentology: Theory C. of Conflict Management and Cultural Normalization, Createspace, 2009. However, I am in the middle of a research projects of two books: one on Ibn Khaldun in modern times, and the other about Muslim thinkers. I bring this article here may be the second time, to give an example how Muslims and Arabs were great in logic, literature and philosophy. I hope it will benefit those interested in Arabic culture and civilization. These projects are part of Ihya’ al Turath al Arabi fil Mahjar, initiated and financially supported by the writer.
Knowing other language or languages is always a benefit for human being. It is –I believe- an important factor to enhance understanding among individuals as well as groups. Sometimes, however, the second to mother tongue language is reduce disability to understand the real meaning of the written language. Because knowing languages without understanding the culture behind that language gives sometimes misunderstanding of the meaning of the concepts used . In this paper, illustration of such misunderstanding is given, then the two Arabic concepts “ ‘ILM and Ma’arifah” are explained. What exactly was misconceived in translation, with no intention of making that misconception. Some rules concludes the argument about the two concepts. ‘ILM (unlimited knowledge) and Ma’arifah (practical limited knowledge about something)
The Problem of Translation:
Rosenthal brought the following saying about knowledge (Ilm) in the forward of his book “Knowledge Triumph ”, He says:
“AL-‘ILMU shay’un la yu’tika ba’dahu hatta tu’tiyahu kullaka
fa-idhá a’taytaho kullaka fa-antá min i’ta’ihi laka l-ba’da
‘ala khatarin.” (an-Nazzam as quoted by al-Jahiz)
Which reads in the written Arabic transcript as follows:
“العلم شيء لا يعطيك بعضه،حتىتعطيه كلك، فإذاأعطيته كلك فأنت من إعطائه لك البعض على خطر .”
Rosenthal Translated the above statement as follows:
“KNOWLEDGE is something that will not give part of itself to you until you give your all to it. And when you give your all to it, then you stand a chance but you cannot be sure that it will give you that part.”
If you do not the original language, which is in this case Arabic, you might accept Rosenthal translation, and you might understand what the translation means to you or you might not if you do not understand the meaning, which knowledge do you think was lacking? Yours or the translator’s? Which one you consider to be wrong? Is it the original writer or the reader? Think of this?
When I have read the Arabic saying five years ago, I did not understand it immediately, even I have a degree in Arabic literature, I read it again slowly, and asked myself: What did the author means? The statement was written in English, therefore, I began to transform it into Arabic, I read it ten times, and every time I discovered a new broader meaning than the one before it. At last I-THINK- I understood the statement. Therefore, I want to explain it. Anyway, Rosenthal himself was guessing that he was wrong in the translation especially the last part of the statement.
The English translation have missed an important ingredient in the Arabic meaning. To explain what was missing, I will give the following simple question composed into mathematical equations, to illustrate the meaning.
IF exchanging sum of (‘ilm) = all man’s lifetime (1)
THEN All ( ‘ILM ) = (What?) (2)
It equals Sum + Sum + Sum + … or lifetime1 « Lifetime2 + L3 +…. (3)
OR 1000 sums (of ‘ILM) = 1000 men’s lifetime (4)
BUT ‘ILM never comes to an end, which means that all human race lives from Adam to the Day of Judgment will not pay for a complete possession of the unlimited ‘ILM (such ‘ILM is only possessed by Allah-ST, which is the belief of the original author.)
THEN we can deduce the following equation:
All sums of ‘ILM = All human’s lifetime in all generations (5)
Furthermore, here is another example:
It is like someone lived 100 years, and wanted to buy a cat which cost for example ( US$200.00), how much ten bills he needs to pay the full price of the cat? Suppose each piece of the ten bill, equals one’s lifetime, (in the above example), and the cat (as in the example-means ’ILM). If you understand this reasoning, THEN you will understand the statement. In conclusion to the above argument, Rosenthal’s translation was incomplete, and may misleading to the point made by the one who said that wisdom.
According to the above reasoning, it would be understood that the concept of ‘ILM cannot be obtained in one’s lifetime, because it needs to be obtained in full not parts, so it will take a number of human lifetimes to be completed, and it will never will, because Human beings might discover something today, or tomorrow, they will remain disabled to get to the end of knowledge-‘ILM. Such ability far from achieving in one’s or several or all lifetimes .So, after this reasoning, I will provide my own understanding for the above statement in Arabic to mean in English, the following:
‘Ilm is (like something does not give you some of it, unless you give him back your whole life – efforts and commitments-. When you acquire more over your limits, (and are already give your lifetime for it, another some of ‘ILM needs another person to continue getting another some of knowledge-‘ILM. To acquire another chunk of ‘ILM you don’t have your lifetime available after your death, in this case another lifetime is needed to continue with knowledge, In such bargain , you want to have another some, but you cannot get it, because you cannot provide your lifetime again, you are dead, as human who have only one lifetime – it is a weak position), THEN you are in danger, someone else will replace you to give his lifetime for another sum of knowledge.”
This saying can be explained as a wisdom provided for human beings, to learn about their limitations in terms of time and ability to acquire knowledge-“ILM, as humans compared to the unlimited ‘ILM of Allah (SWT).
Allah’s (SWT) ‘ILM and Human knowledge:
Understanding this point well. Ibn Khaldun have distinguished between the knowledge of human beings, in terms of one’s limited lifetime and ability and the ‘ILM of God, He first makes ridicules of human beings who believed that they know everything other than their observation mechanisms, He says:
“ …redicule and never rely upon those who tell you that the human mind is able to understand the whole World and its underlying causes. You should know that the world is to every observer, what normally can be observed by his observational means. But the TRUTH is very far beyond that ……………….” ( Baaly and Wardeh 1981:535)
Comparing human knowledge with Allah’s (SWT) ‘ILM, concerning observable religious knowledge Ibn Khaldun continues to explain human’s disability and imperfectness in the realm of religion, He says:
“ Allah’s (SwT) creation is unlimited. The world is a topic to be wholly restricted within the boundaries of our knowledge. You should-therefore-belittle the ability of your mind and obey what the Prophet (SAAS) had told you about beliefs and actions. (Because, he, the Prophet) knows things you do not know about. And his mind reaches far beyond the limit of your mind.” (Ibid:536)
Philosophically speaking, the statements of an-Nazzam and Ibn Khldun are, in fact wisdoms for human beings, to understand their limitations and imperfectness. ‘ILM is not only the knowledge of yesterday and today, but also the knowledge of tomorrow. The concept ‘ILM the three time dimensions of time, space, direction, and space. While human beings covers only small part of yesterday and today, with no knowledge whatsoever of tomorrow.
The Value of Knowledge Among Muslims:
Islam valued knowledge as supreme function of human beings, but humans acquire knowledge falls short of expressing all the real and emotional content of ‘ILM. In a friendly talk with professor Taha Jabir al-Alwani, the then, president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT in Washington D.C.,) he contrasted the concept ‘ILM as a large store full of knowledge, with knowledge as a small part of taken from that store. Such knowledge might be natural, or social, or behavioral science, acquired by human beings. Further, the concept of ‘ILM have dominated Islamic belief and given certain destinations to Islamic civilization. ‘ILM has been explained as a joint meaning with Islam as religious principle. The Prophet (SAAS) says:
“إن هذا الدين علم فانظروا عمن تأخذون دينكم ” رواه مسلم
“Ina hathá ad-dina ‘ilmun fan-thuroo ‘amman ta’khuthoona deenakum” (Narrated by Muslim)
Which may be translated as” This religion is ‘ILM, so see from whom you take your religion.” Describing the importance of ‘ILM concept, Rosenthal says:
“There is no other concept that has been operative as a determinant of Muslim civilization in all its aspects to the same extent as “ILM.” (1970:2). This meaning was expressed as dominating all aspects of the intellectual life, Rosenthal continues to say: “ there is no branch of Muslim intellectual life of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remains untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward knowledge as something of supreme value for Muslim being.”
Rules and Principles:
According to the above argument the following rules can be drown:
Understanding cultures increases the ability of understanding their language;
acquiring knowledge and acquiring Islam are one united phenomenon;
‘ILM is absolute and knowledge is concrete, therefore, ‘ILM is greater than knowledge;
‘ILM cannot be acquired totally in one of human life or all human lives on the earth, while knowledge can be acquired in terms of human intellectual and physical ability;
‘ILM is the domain of God (SWT), where knowledge is the domain of human beings in terms of their physical, mental ability and experience;
‘ILM of all human beings from Adam to the last person on earth, where the Day of Judgment about nature of things and human beings is only Allah’s (SWT) domain; Finally;
Ascribed or achieved knowledge by human beings is only one small portion of Allah’s (SWT) ‘ILM.
The Meaning of the Concepts ‘ilm and Ma’rifa:
The following pages describes the meaning of the two concepts:” ‘ILM and Ma’arifah “ as they used and explained by Arab poets and Linguistic Muslim intellectuals and as they mean in the Islamic culture and philosophy.
The term “ ‘ILM” is an Arabic concept for acquiring knowledge, The roots of the concept ‘ILM (Knowledge- or – science) may found where people cannot KNOW more than Allah (ST) (2:140/134); Angels only KNOW what Allah (ST) has taught them (2:32/30); Nothing of divine knowledge can be known without his will. (2:255/256) ; Prophets knowledge (7:62/60); The holy book (7:52/50); Faith allow knowledge (3:71).
‘ILm and Ma’rifa appear once paired in a phrase which usually, employs only ‘ILM (30:56); “Believing” and “being gives knowledge”, appear as parallel expression in (Q. 58:11/12) (2:26/24); The root of the word ‘ILM mentioned in Qur’an 750 times, 750/78,000 = 1% of Qur’an is about Ilm. The auxiliary verb k-w-n (to be) occurs 1,300 times; the unavoidable q-w-l (to say) is found almost 1,700 times; the words of Allah (SWT) occur over than 2,800 occurences; while RABB (Master , Lord) over than 950 occurences. These two statements are type of knowledge.
The truth came as “ Yaqin” (102:5-7); and “Haqq” (56:95 and 69:51); and Haqq-ul-yaqin is either “truth” (resulting from certain information or “truth” (is certain ). The later interpretation assumes identity of meaning for Haqq and Yaqin. (Tafsir at-Tabari XXVII, 110 f Cairo 1321)
In favor of understanding ‘ilm-ul-yaqin not as rendering or “the knowledge of truth but as in the adverbial expression it may be claimed that we have a parallel list between it and the following –‘ayn-ulyaqin- which can mean only “seeing with the
eye of certainty,” representing an adverbial construction. ‘i-l-m (to know); ‘i-l-m (to sign, to mark, to document); ‘aalam (eternity-universe); ‘il’m (knowledge) is opposite of j-h-l (ignorance); n-k-r or j-h-l are opposite of to know; j-w-ì (ignnorance of places, means to go around aimlessly. According to Arab life in the desert, star or moon or other signs of knowing leads to life, and ignorance of signs in a desert leads to death. The word “dalil- way is a sign or knowledge for safety,
‘Ilm in Arabic Poetry
The pre-Islamic Arabia, sha’ir is meant originally as one who knows, shi’r is knowledge or mental activity, like reading, and writing, An-Nabighah adh-Thubyani says: ” He who is ignorant of something is not like, the one who knows”
Qur’an asks: Are those who know and those who do not know equals? (Q 39:9/12)
Bishr b. Abi Khazim exclaims dramatically: Is the experienced person like the one who does not know?! Tarafah’s in his Mu’allaqah (long poem) says: “The days will show you what you are ignorant of, and someone for whom you did not provide (as your messenger) will bring you the news.”
A’sha Jillan, the poet says:
” If you desire knowledge or the like
OR someone present giving information about
Probe the earth with all its objects (asma’iha)
And probe companion with companion.”
Zuhayr b. Abi Salma says:
” I know about today, and yesterday, before it,
But I am blind to the knowledge of what is going
to be tomorrow.”
The same thought was expressed, for instance, by other pre-Islamic poets like: Tarafah ibn al-Abd: “ The woman who blamed me says although she does not have Knowledge of what is to be tomorrow and thereafter..”. Further there is knowledge beyond human being reach but within the power of omniscient deity, Zuhayr bin Abi Salma says: ” You should not conceal from God what is in your minds, in the hope that it will remain secret, whatever may be concealed from God, He knows.” Noldeke reports that Zuhayr’s Mu’allaqah is to be dated around 600 A.D. when the Prophet was 30 years old.
Antarah bin Shaddad in his Mu’allaqah says: “ Why do not you ask the people, O daughter of Malik, If you are ignorant of what you do not KNOW”. And says: ” I do know in a way that is different from, guesswork (‘ilman laysa bithanni), When a man’s master is lowly, he himself is, too” and Says: “ KNOW, woman that I am a man,”.
Qays b. al-Khatim says: ” We have inherited glory, the Ma’add KNOWs,” And Imru’ul Qays says: “ I am the one whose excellence the Ma’add KNOWS”. Tarafah again says: “ The Bakr (tribe) KNOWS that we…” A’sha Hamdan says: “The tribe KNOWS .. that you.. “ A’sha Maymun says: “ The people have come to KNOW,” and Finally A’sha Hamdan says: “ The horses (khayl) KNOW .. that you..”
Definition of Ma’arifah (Knowledge)
A. Knowledge is the process of knowing and identical with the known and the known of it as attribute enabling known to know.
- through which one knows;
- through which the essence is knowing;
- through which the object known (al-ma’lum) is known.
- through which the knower knows the object known.
- through which the knower is knowing.
- which necessitates for whom is substitute the name of The knower.
- which necessitates that he in whom it subsists is knowing. (This definition is ascribed to al-Ash’ari).
- which necessitates that he is whom is resided (mahall in knowing. (Imam al-Haramayn).
- knowledge stands for the object known.
10. knowledge is but the concept known (al-ma’ni al-ma’lumah).
11. is the mentally existing object (al-mawjud adh-dhihni).
12. is the attribute through which the knower knows.
13. is an attribute through which he who is alive becomes knowing.
14. knowledge is as attribute expressing the relationship. (idafiyyah) between the knower and the object known.
15. is an attribute through which the conditions or the object known becomes clear as they are (‘ala ma huwa ‘alayhe min ahwalihi).
The concept of Ma’arifah (Knowledge) means the following:
- Knowledge is cognition, a process of obtaining or finding through mental perception.
- A process of clarification, assertion and decision, (bayyana, mayyaza, athbata, qata’a), it is for (surah) a concept of meaning. (ma’na)
- A process of mental formation and imagination (tasawwor)
- “perceptions and/or mental verification (tasdiq)
- “appreciation”) for knowledge as tasdiq “faith”.
- is a belief, this conception of knowledge is philosophical in origin was basically Mu’tazilat doctrine to be refuted by the argument that God could not by thought or believing.
- Knowledge is remembrance, imagination, an image a vision as opinion, and is a motion.
- Knowledge is a relative term. Aristotelian idea.
- It is may be defined in relation to action. Aristotelianism clamed that “knowledge was the beginning of action, and action the entelechy of knowledge.”
- And is conceived as the negation of ignorance.
- Knowledge, is the result of an intuition coming from outside or as a result of introspection.
* Knowledge in Islam: (Theology and Religious sciences), it is the Light (Sufism), the society.
- ‘ilm- a’mal- adaab (knowledge, action, and general education. and finally,
Knowledge is Thought [Philosophy]
Baali, F. and Wardi. (1981) Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Thought Styles: A Social Perspective, Boston: Hall and Co.,
Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddimah (Dar al-Qalam, Beirut, Lebanon-Arabic Version,(1978)
The Holy Qur’an, (1977) (transl. Ali A. Yusuf, Americaî Trust Publication.
Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The concept of knowledge , in Medieval Islam, Netherlands, Leiden: E.J.Brill.
Diwan al-Shi’ir: for Antara, Zuhair, Antara, etc.,
Yahya, Hasan A. Crescentology: Theory C. of Conflict Management and Cultural Normalization, Amazon, 2009.
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Hasan Yahya is an Arab-Jordanian-American born in Palestine. Sociologist and Historian, former professor of Comparative Sociology and Educational Administration at Michigan State University and Jackson Community College. He is the Board Editing member at International Humanities Studies (IHS) Journal. Dr. Yahya is the originator of Arab American Encyclopedia and Ihyaa al Turath al Arabi fil Mahjar-USA. His (250 plus) publication may be observed on Amazon and Kindle. To reach the writer: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Yahya Credentials: Ph.D in Comparative Socioloy 1991, Michigan State University.Ph.D in Educational Administration, Michigan State Univ. M.A Psychology of Schhols Conflict Management, Michigan State Univ. Diploma M.A, Oriental Studies, St. Joseph Univ. Beirut, Lebanon. B.A Modern and Classical Arab Literature. Life Achievements: Publishing 250 plus Books and 1000 plus articles