بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In a recent discussion with a friend, we were discussing whether knowledge in the Quran was something that in principle is equally accessible to all, or whether it is in principle graduated (i.e. there are levels to knowledge which only chosen people can reach.) Of course, we all recognize that there are obstacles to gaining knowledge, but are these obstacles merely accidental – i.e. not finding the time to study Arabic full time, or is there something more essential going on?
Here are some ayaat, which I think clearly and unambiguously demonstrate that knowledge is gradated, and there there is such a thing as elite, special knowledge, which Allah only shares with His chosen few.
1. The Man In Suleiman’s Court
قَالَ الَّذِي عِندَهُ عِلْمٌ مِّنَ الْكِتَابِ أَنَا آتِيكَ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَن يَرْتَدَّ إِلَيْكَ طَرْفُكَ ۚ فَلَمَّا رَآهُ مُسْتَقِرًّا عِندَهُ قَالَ هَٰذَا مِن فَضْلِ رَبِّي لِيَبْلُوَنِي أَأَشْكُرُ أَمْ أَكْفُرُ ۖ وَمَن شَكَرَ فَإِنَّمَا يَشْكُرُ لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ رَبِّي غَنِيٌّ كَرِيمٌ – 27:40
Said one who had knowledge from the Scripture, “I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you.” And when [Solomon] saw it placed before him, he said, “This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous.”
Here are the important takeaways:
- The knowledge this man had was from the Book. This indicates that there are levels of understanding the Scripture, one level of which gives one supernatural abilities.
- This man had but partial knowledge of the Book. The Arabic preposition من here alongside the fact that the word علم (knowledge) is a nakirah indicates this. For full knowledge of the Book, it should say علم الكتاب.
- There are therefore higher levels of knowledge which give one abilities greater than the ability to teleport.
- This man was more powerful than Jinn, as indicated by the preceding verses:
قَالَ عِفْرِيتٌ مِّنَ الْجِنِّ أَنَا آتِيكَ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَن تَقُومَ مِن مَّقَامِكَ ۖ وَإِنِّي عَلَيْهِ لَقَوِيٌّ أَمِينٌ – 27:39
A powerful one from among the jinn said, “I will bring it to you before you rise from your place, and indeed, I am for this [task] strong and trustworthy.”
5. This knowledge was ” from the favour of my Lord” i.e. Allah taught this knowledge.
6. This knowledge has something to do with a trial, gratitude, and ingratitude, rather than it being simply the result of rational discourse.
2. The Abd Al-Salih That Nabi Musa
One of the great lessons in humility is that an ulul azm prophet met a man more knowledgeable than him, and humbled himself to learn. As Allah says:
فَوَجَدَا عَبْدًا مِّنْ عِبَادِنَا آتَيْنَاهُ رَحْمَةً مِّنْ عِندِنَا وَعَلَّمْنَاهُ مِن لَّدُنَّا عِلْمًا – 18:65
قَالَ لَهُ مُوسَىٰ هَلْ أَتَّبِعُكَ عَلَىٰ أَن تُعَلِّمَنِ مِمَّا عُلِّمْتَ رُشْدًا – 18:66
قَالَ إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا – 18:67
And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge.
Moses said to him, “May I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?”
He said, “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience.
- This knowledge was from Allah.
- It is possible to learn knowledge Allah as taught to someone else from that person, and thus for it to transfer in a chain. If it were impossible a prior, Musa would not have bothered asking the Righteous Servant to at least try to teach him.
- Humility is a necessary prerequisite of gaining this knowledge.
- Following that person is a necessary requirement for gaining this knowledge (i.e. it is practical and embodied – or perhaps, ensouled, rather than a mere theoretical construct.)
- Patience is a prerequisite to gaining this knowledge.
There are countless more benefits to these blessed verses and this blessed story, but I consider that sufficient for the current discourse.
3. Knowledge of the Unseen is Taught to Prophets
There are countless verses which indicate that Allah alone has knowledge of the Unseen. But there are verses which also talk about the “keys” to the unseen – thus indicating there is a door, which once opened, would allow another to gain some of this knowledge. This is made explicit in the following ayah:
عٌالِمُ الْغَيْبِ فَلاٌ يُظْهِرُ عَلى غَيْـبِهِ أَحَداً إِلاٌّ مَنِ ارْتَضى مِنْ رَسُولٍ
“The Knower of the Unseen (Allah) so then He does not make known what is hidden to a single person except those whom He is pleased with from amongst His Messengers.”
As we indicated earlier in point 2 of the previous section – knowledge, once taught from Allah, can be learned from the person Allah taught that knowledge to. It, therefore, follows that there is certain ghaybi knowledge which, in principle, can follow that chain of transmission. Of course, one should be sceptical of any individual claiming to have this knowledge, but should not deny that in principle there are certain awliyaa of Allah who may have received something of this knowledge.
4. The Quran is Not Equally Accessible to All
An objection that was made was that because the Quran is in a clear Arabic tongue, it should be equally intelligible to all. While there is an element of truth to this, it is explicitly denied that all people will have equal knowledge of the Quran, even if in principle every person can have sufficient knowledge of the Quran to save themselves on the Day of Judgement.
وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ ۖ وَمَا يَعْقِلُهَا إِلَّا الْعَالِمُونَ – 29:43
And these examples We present to the people, but none will understand them except those of knowledge.
There are in fact countless ayaat of this type, claiming that only a special class of people called ulul albaab can understand certain things, as well as the people of intellect, the people of knowledge, and so forth.
5. The Quran Explicitly States Knowledge is a Gradation
فَبَدَأَ بِأَوْعِيَتِهِمْ قَبْلَ وِعَاءِ أَخِيهِ ثُمَّ اسْتَخْرَجَهَا مِن وِعَاءِ أَخِيهِ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ كِدْنَا لِيُوسُفَ ۖ مَا كَانَ لِيَأْخُذَ أَخَاهُ فِي دِينِ الْمَلِكِ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ ۚ نَرْفَعُ دَرَجَاتٍ مَّن نَّشَاءُ ۗ وَفَوْقَ كُلِّ ذِي عِلْمٍ عَلِيمٌ – 12:76
So he began [the search] with their bags before the bag of his brother; then he extracted it from the bag of his brother. Thus did We plan for Joseph. He could not have taken his brother within the religion of the king except that Allah willed. We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.
You can’t get more explicitly than this. What this is saying is that knowledge is a question of station, one being on top of the other (i.e. this is a vertical gradation). This is opposite to the Western philosophical view of knowledge which views it horizontally – knowledge being a question of collecting more and more information.
There are at least a few other ayahs I can think to bring here, but this amount, I think, is sufficient to make the point that certain people have special knowledge granted by Allah, and that specifically there are certain aspects of the Book of Allah which only a special class of people can understand.
It is for this reason respect for the true ulema and awliya of this ummah is extremely important, and why Islam cannot allow anything like a Protestant reformation, whereby anybody can read and interpret the Quran as they understand it.