‘Today, in the midst of this global Covid pandemic, the entire world looks to those with knowledge to help rescue it from this unprecedented calamity.’ His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.
Since time immemorial, humans have grappled with epistemological questions, pondering what can be known, how it is known, or whether they know anything at all. The foremost enquiry among philosophers is: ‘What is knowledge?’
This article, drawing from Fatimi epistemology, examines a distinctive engagement with questions regarding the nature and purpose of knowledge.
In the Rasaʾil Ikhwan al-Safaʾ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), Imam Ahmed al-Mastur describes philosophical knowledge as perceiving the true nature of things, whether spiritual, intellectual, or material. Encapsulating millennia of philosophical thought, he affirms the definition of knowledge (al-ʿilm) as the conception formed in the mind regarding the object that is known.
Furthermore, he also succinctly elucidates the manner of acquiring knowledge. A scholar, he says, possesses actual knowledge, while a learner has the potential for knowledge. Education, therefore, amounts to bringing forth a student’s knowledge from potentiality to actuality, from possibility to reality.
The notion of the realisation of potential knowledge complements a hadith of the Prophet Mohammed in which he describes the requisites for seeking and possessing knowledge: The first [part] of ʿilm is silence and the second is listening attentively; the third is acting in accordance with it and the fourth is disseminating it.
Evidently, the process of learning is only half of knowledge. The remaining half, as demonstrated, is putting it into practice and ensuring that it reaches others. According to this philosophy, true knowledge is that which has been realised; until all conditions for knowledge are met, it remains a latent potentiality. Ultimately, the full potential of knowledge is unlocked solely by action.
This epistemology is well illustrated by an analogy. From a Fatimi philosophical standpoint, the Quranic description of the honeybee represents the ideal qualities of a seeker of knowledge.
First, the honeybee is divinely instructed to build its hive, and thereafter to partake from all fruits and flowers. Finally, there issues forth from the bee, as stated in the Holy Quran, ‘A drink of varying colors wherein is a cure for humankind.’
Correspondingly, students are encouraged to pursue all kinds of knowledge. First, however, they must build their metaphorical hive, fortify their faith and values, to ground themselves during their quest for edification. Subsequently, they are urged to seek knowledge of every type, from every field, in every place. In Fatimi philosophy, there is no fundamental distinction between secular and religious education; all human knowledge has a divine origin. Whether considered traditional or modern, every beneficial science is wholeheartedly embraced. For this reason, Imam Ahmed al-Mastur states, ‘It befits our brethren, may Allah Taʿala give them strength, to not hate a single field of knowledge among all knowledge, shun a particular book among books, or bear prejudice towards a certain faith from among the faiths [of the world]. Indeed, our philosophy and our faith engulf all faiths and encompass all knowledge.’
Indubitably, however, the passing grade in the quest for knowledge is apparent in its culmination. Akin to honeybees, who actualise the fruits of their efforts into pure and beneficial honey, seekers of education must translate their latent knowledge into active knowledge through its application. Comparable to honey, ‘wherein is a cure for humankind,’ true knowledge holds the cure to humanity’s ailments and maladies. Although humankind is perpetually confronted with new trials, reflection upon the Prophet’s proclamation: ‘Allah has not sent down an ailment but he has sent down with it a cure,’ renews hope in resolving these tribulations. Like the antidote to an illness, the solutions to local and global challenges potentially exist; it is knowledge that realises that potentiality and brings it to fruition.
Revitalising this spirit of Fatimi educational philosophy, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community and Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, asserted during AMU’s recent centenary celebrations, ‘An education which one does not put into practice and with which one does not benefit others, is not an education at all… People with knowledge are responsible for the betterment of all humankind.’
It is in this spirit that each student of the Dawoodi Bohra community strives to pursue and practice knowledge in a vast array of fields. Their aim is elementary: to fulfill their modest part in benefiting humanity in order to achieve their utmost level of self-actualisation.