Ibn ‘Arabī on the Benefit of Knowledge

~William C. Chittick 

Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240) is arguably the most influential Muslim intellectual of the past seven hundred years. Although he founded no formal school, a series of important authors considered themselves his followers, and many more were inspired by him or felt compelled to deal with the issues that he and his followers raised in their writings.The most famous of these issues is “The Oneness of Being” (wahdat al-wujūd)  though many others could be cited, such as the Perfect Human Being and the Five Divine Presences. At the heart of each lies the question of the nature and significance of knowledge, a question to which Ibn ‘Arabī constantly returns.

In his discussions of knowledge, Ibn ‘Arabī typically uses the term 'ilm, not its near synonym ma‘rifa, which in the context of Sufi writings is often translated as “gnosis.” In general, he considers ‘ilm the broader and higher term, not least because the Quran attributes ‘ilm, but not ma‘rifa, to God. Nonetheless, he usually follows the general usage of the Sufis in employing the term ‘ārif (the “gnostic,” the one who possesses ma‘rifa) to designate the highest ranking knowers. The gnostics are those who have achieved the knowledge designated by the famous hadīth,  “He who knows [‘arafa] himself knows [‘arafa] his Lord.”

According to Ibn ‘Arabī, there is no goal beyond knowledge:

There is no level more eminent [ashraf] than the level of knowledge 
(III 448.7).

There is no eminence higher than the eminence of knowledge, and 
there is no state above the state of understanding [fahm] from God 
(IV 129.14). 

There is no blessing [ni‘ma] greater than the blessing of knowledge, even 
though God’s blessings cannot be counted (II 620.9). 

The most excellent [afdal] thing through which God has shown munificence 
to His servants is knowledge. When God bestows knowledge on 
someone, He has granted him the most eminent of attributes and the 
greatest of gifts (III 361.16). 

God said, commanding His Prophet—upon him be blessings and 
peace—“Say: ‘My Lord, increase me in knowledge’,” [Quran 20:114] 
for it is the most eminent attribute and the most surpassing [anzah] 
quality (II 117.13). 

Knowledge is the cause of deliverance. . . . How eminent is the rank 
of knowledge! This is why God did not command His Prophet to seek 
increase in anything except knowledge (II 612.9)

Given the extraordinary importance that Ibn ‘Arabī accords to knowledge and the vast extent of his literary corpus, it is beyond the scope of this article even to begin a survey of his views on its nature and significance. Instead I will try to suggest his understanding of knowledge’s “benefit” (naf). I have in  mind the famous hadīth, “I seek refuge in God from a knowledge that has no benefit.” According to another well known hadīth, “Seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim.” What then is the benefit to be gained by seeking it, and what sorts of knowledge have no benefit and should be avoided? Ibn ‘Arabī agrees with the standard view that there is nothing clearer or more self-evident than knowledge, so it cannot be defined in the technical sense of the term “definition” (hadd). Nonetheless, he sometimes offers brief, descriptive definitions, often with a view to those offered by other scholars. Thus, he says, “Knowledge is simply the perception [idrāk] of the essence [dhāt] of the sought object [matlūb] as it is in itself, whether it be an existence or a nonex-istence; a negation or an affirmation; an impossibility, a permissibility, or a necessity” (IV 315.11). In a similar way, he says, “Knowledge is not knowledge until it is attached to what the object of knowledge [ma‘lūm] is in itself” (IV 119.21).  It would not be unfair to say that Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings are an attempt to expose the full range of the “objects of knowledge” available to human beings—not exhaustively, of course, but inasmuch as these may be “beneficial.” After all, as Ibn ‘Arabī says, “The knowledges are not sought for themselves; they are sought only for the sake of that to which they attach,” that is, for the sake of their object.

Thus we must ask which object or objects of knowledge, once known, are useful and profitable for human beings. In Islamic terms, benefit must be defined by ultimate issues, not by the passing phenomena of this world. Beneficial knowledge can only be that which profits man at his final homecoming, which is the return to God. Any knowledge  that does not yield benefit in these terms whether directly or indirectly—is not Quranic knowledge, so it is not Islamic knowledge, and, one might argue, it is beneath human dignity to devote oneself  to it. Although acquiring various sorts of knowledge may be unavoidable on the social and individual levels, one should actively strive to  avoid searching after any knowledge that does not prepare oneself for the greater knowledge. As the well known formula puts it, secondary knowledge should only be sought bi-qadr al-hāja, “in the measure of need.” To devote oneself exclusively or even mainly to the secondary knowledges would be blatant ingratitude toward God (kufr), because it would be to ignore the evidence of human nature and God’s explicit instructions through the prophets. As Ibn ‘Arabī expresses it, Human beings have no eminence save in their knowledge of God. As for their knowledge of other than God, this is a diversion [‘ulāla] through which veiled human beings divert themselves. The right  thinking man [al-munsif] has no aspiration save toward knowledge of Him (IV 129-5).

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