I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow intellectual sojourner yesterday, and I realized that I had a very particular “personal theory of knowledge.” I saved my friend from a detailed explanation of it, but resolved that I should write it down, to make my own subjective thoughts available for public consumption and critique. It is often not until we have exposed our ideas to critique that we discover their true worth or unexpected flaws.
Over the years, I have teased out a few particular strands of knowledge, each of which has a different “taste.”
- Knowledge as Entertainment: This type of knowledge is gained easily and casually. Even if the subject is of a serious nature (Islamic history, for example), it is not gained for anything other than the pure pleasure of learning. For me learning has a particular type of pleasure, just as food, sex, rest, and power/influence have particular types of pleasure. It is because of this pleasure that I can spend days lost in books, with little human contact. This type of learning is not a means to an end – it is an end in and of itself.
- Knowledge as Interpretation: This type of knowledge can also be pleasureable, but it is more serious in nature. I have a complex question that I want to answer, and so I may forgo other learning which is more pleasureable because I know that I need to spend time learning certain things in order to justifiably answer a question that I have posed to myself (for example, how Islamic law developed the way that it did). This type of knowledge requires equal parts curiosity and mental discipline, primarily because it is highly synthetic – it is made up of many different types of information brought together for their collective usefulness in answering a question. It is also cumulative and communal – any answer to the question is based on the writings of other people who have attempted to answer the same question or related questions. This is the type of knowledge that leads people to write long and complex books, and then admit that for all their decades studying the subject, they are still unsure of many things. As such, it requires a great deal of intellectual humility before the vastness of knowledge.
- Knowledge as Problem Solving: This is the most practical type of knowledge, in worldly terms. It involves a lot of the second type of knowledge, but it is not interested in interpretation – it is interested in action. It is not interested in any more depth than is necessary to do something in the here and now, and is ultimately more concerned with the action upon which knowledge is built than the knowledge itself. For example, when I have some money to invest, ultimately all I really want is the maximum return on invesment that I can get, within the limits of law and ethics. So I spend some time doing research in order to make a decision about where to invest my money – whether I was right or wrong is determined solely by whether or not I make money on my investment. The sophistication of my research means little if it does not have its intended impact in “the real world.”
- Knowledge as Self Rectification: This type of knowledge is the type that I believe is the most important. Al-Ghazālī states that this type of knowledge, “increases your fear of God Most High, improves your ability to discern the faults of your ego, makes you more cognizant of how to worship your Lord, reduces your desire for this world, increases your longing for the next world, and opens your spiritual insight to the disastrous defects of your actions so you can avoid them.” (taken from Bidāyat al-Hidāya [The Beginning of Guidance]) This knowledge, although at times containing elements of the previous three, is built on a unique premise about which the other three are essentially unconcerned – that I will eventually die and be judged on how I spent my life. As such, this type of knowledge revolves around a concept of otherworldly priorities – what can I study today that will matter most should I die tomorrow. This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life. In the meantime, if one is intellectually gifted, one can do tons of learning for entertainment, interpretation, and problem solving – all the while still struggling to live up to that one line.
I recognize that I have been blessed more than most human beings in the history of the Earth to have the time and luxury to study and think and discuss. And my main conclusion so far is that the first three types of knowledge must be subordinate to the fourth type of knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can be immensely pleasureable, but that is not its purpose, only a secondary benefit. At times, it can actually be incredibly gut-wrenching, because it exposes me to the worst of my own self and demands that I change. Knowledge as Self Rectification can involve matters of complex interpretation – for example, I needed to gain a fair degree of literacy in Muslim history and the Islamic intellectual tradition before I was able to truly benefit from the historical legacies of Islamic law, theology, and Sufism. Even after much study, I know that my perspective is not the only justifiable one – it is a constantly evolving process which can always be improved based on more knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can also involve problem solving, such as trying to make as much halal money as possible in order to fund further studies! Ultimately, though, Knowledge as Self Rectification provides the lens through which all of knowledge acquisition makes sense in light of the most important fact I know (that I will die) and the greatest idea that I have ever committed to (that God will be waiting for me when I do).