The hierarchy of knowledge & the Prophet's Teachings
Yasser Ahmed Islam Today. Vol. 1 No. 2 December 2012

In numerous verses of the Holy Qur'an we see how Islam considers education and edification to be important tasks of the final Prophet: "Allah certainly favoured the faithful when He raised up among them an apostle from among themselves to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and wisdom." (Qur'an 3: 164)

The fundamentals of the Prophet's educational teachings encompass many principles: God's Unity, human nature, the purposefulness of creation, man's limitedness, freedom, and eternal life. If we refer to the Holy Qur'an and the Prophet's conduct we can see that his educational instructions and activities have been carefully established considering the above human realities. The Prophet's mission was to call people to believe in the Unity of God, to refine human character, explain the purpose of creation, and clarify the method to attain eternal salvation in a way that people would desire to achieve it willingly.

Like other prophets, the Prophet of Islam was sent forth to develop man's innate nature (fitrah) which is necessary to attain perfection and salvation. This primary nature refers to the way God has created people. In other words, human nature is innately endowed with the ability to recognize God.

Proceeding from this foundation, any teacher of Islam should define an approach in which all the educational activities concur with the individual's predisposition. Teachers and parents should consider the fact that education is seen as a form of enlightenment in Islam, pointing towards fulfilment of the innate needs of man. The purpose of education is to develop the trainee's own talents and his/her God-given capabilities. Education should be imparted in a way that leads to the growth and development of the intellect; it is a form of empowerment. The Prophet's strategy for education starts from this basic understanding - that all humans are born with this divine disposition and if their primary nature is not transformed or contaminated, their nature will guide them to realize life's principal goal; to journey toward God the Most High.

Incorrect education and external influences can blur human nature, hindering its development and growth and leading it astray. If we refer to religious texts, we see that a great deal of instructions in Islam have been developed taking into consideration the above premise

There is no command or regulation in Islam which is in opposition to this nature. All its ruling and teachings are in perfect harmony with man's capabilities and aim to enrich his character, strengthen his willpower and elevate his soul.

Explaining the logic behind the sending forth of the Prophets, Imam Ali(a) says: "Then Allah sent forth His Messengers and a series of His Prophets toward people to fulfil the pledge of His creation."

The main reason for sending the Prophets was to guide individuals to realise the demands of their own nature and act according to what their inner-self invites them to do.

The attainment of perfection exemplified by the life of the Prophet Muhammad(s) is within the possibility of human abilities. As the perfect teacher and the perfect human being, the Prophet Muhammad(s) is the ultimate personification of Islam and an example to emulate not only for the people of his time but for future generations.

The Holy Qur'an says to the Prophet Muhammad(s): "So set your heart on the religion as a people of pure faith, the origination of Allah according to which He originated mankind (There is no altering Allah's creation; that is the upright religion.)" (Qur'an 30:3)

In His infinite mercy God has provided mankind with all the necessary means to reach perfection and has showed it the way to reach this goal: "He said, 'Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then, guided it." (Qur'an 20:5)

This kind of guidance in the Holy Qur'an is termed general creational guidance. It applies to all of God's creation. Everything from the moment of coming into existence is moving naturally towards perfection. The planted seed of a rose, given the right conditions, will naturally develop its potentiality, turning into a beautiful plant. As far as the human being is concerned, the general creational guidance concept applies in a different form. In the case of man his natural disposition, which is common to all other creatures, has to contend with another God-given faculty peculiar to him alone; free will. This can be briefly described as the ability to take decisions and to be the owner of one's own actions within an overall system governed by God. In His infinite mercy our Creator has also granted the human being an additional educational support to help offset the possibility of going wrong: the teachings of prophets and above all the teaching of the Seal of Prophets, Muhammad(s).

Imam Ali(a) summaries the entire process with these words: "Throughout the course of time many people perverted the trust which Allah granted them and ignored His station and took partners alongside Him. Satan turned them away from knowing Allah and kept them aloof from His worship. Then Allah sent His Messengers and a series of His Prophets toward people to fulfil the pledge of His creation, to recall His bounties to them, to exhort them by preaching, to unveil before them the hidden virtues of wisdom and to show them the signs of His Omnipotence."

Although knowledge extends across many fields developing into many sciences, the acquisition of knowledge related to the nature of God, the purposefulness of creation, the afterlife remained for centuries at the top of the hierarchy and the teachings of the prophets were considered a valuable treasure for the whole of humanity. With the advancement of secularization modern society came to reject such teachings as irrelevant.

In the Islamic tradition the Prophet Muhammad(s) is considered the City of Knowledge as well as the best of teachers and as such what he taught is the best of knowledge. This doesn't mean that all other types of knowledge are useless but rather that all other types of knowledge are subordinate to it. This was a concept well understood by early Muslim scientists who were able to flourish and amaze the world by basing their quest of knowledge on the above premise.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 2 | December 2012. It has been republished here with permission.