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Knowledge in the Quran – Moses vs. Korah

When Moses met Al-Khidr, a mysterious man — or an angel in the form of a human being — in order to learn from him what he had been exclusively taught by Allah, a few fundamental lessons concerning knowledge emerged at the very beginning of their case.

Allah says:

Then they found one of Our slaves, on whom We had bestowed mercy from Us, and whom We had taught knowledge from Us (18: 65).

From this verse, it could be learnt that the only one who is genuinely knowledgeable (All-Knowing) is Allah. As a sign of His mercy, He grants of His knowledge only whomsoever He wants. A person will get only as much knowledge as decided by Allah.

Allah is the only One Who is omniscient and whose knowledge as an attribute is part of His divine essence. Allah’s essence and divine attribute of knowledge are one and inseparable, regardless of whether Allah knows through His essence, or by having separate knowledge apart from Him — as an endless theological quandary, or impasse.

Allah, therefore, is Al-‘Alim, the All-Knowing, the Omniscient and Certain-Knowing. Hence, in the above-quoted verse, Allah declares that He had taught Al-Khidr some of His knowledge.

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Angels, too, acknowledged this verity long ago when they proclaimed:

We have no knowledge except what You have taught us (2: 32).

On the other hand, when Musa addressed Al-Khidr, he defined his knowledge as guidance and true path. He did so because, as a prophet, he knew the true meaning and purpose of knowledge.

Thus, no sooner had Musa met Al-Khidr, as someone who had been generously endowed with such a gift, than he brought up the substance of the gift regarding not only Al-Khidr himself, but also anybody else who may benefit from it, including Musa.

Musa, therefore, did not refer to knowledge in terms of its divine source and intrinsically hallowed as well as unified nature. Rather, he referred to it as an operation and function at the recipient’s level. For him, knowledge was guidance and direction, so he never felt he had enough of it.

However, when Al-Khidr responded to Musa, seeing him as a willing knowledge seeker, he described knowledge to him as khubr, that is, information, facts or descriptions as regards the souls of the meanings of things that ought to be familiarized with, aptly understood, grasped and then effectively acted upon.

That, nevertheless, is beyond many knowledge-seekers, because of the pure and sacred character of knowledge, and because of it being infinite, which, in turn, is incompatible, partly or totally, with the traits and aspirations of many knowledge-seekers, for which they prove impatient.

Al-Khidr told Musa:

Verily, you will not be able to have patience with me! And how can you have patience about things about which your understanding is not complete (about things you cannot comprehend within the compass of your experience)? (18: 67-68).

In the same vein, Allah charges some people with denying and rejecting the truth because they did not encompass it in knowledge, and because its interpretation has not yet come to them (10: 39).

Thus, Allah is the only knowledgeable One, the All-Knowing. Everyone else – including angels and prophets – is granted but a small portion of His knowledge by Him.

Knowledge to the people, it follows, is a possession, or something they are entrusted with. Knowledge is given, can be increased or diminished, and can be taken away altogether.

Man and knowledge will never be identified with each other. Forgetfulness, emotional and intellectual fluctuation, besides unpredictability and instability, will forever endure in man. They will remain his trademark, so to speak.

For example, a person may be very knowledgeable when younger, but towards the end of his lifespan, he may become so forgetful, unaware and unknowing that he may not remember even his own name. He may not remember who his closest family members and friends are.

Allah, the Best Disposer of all affairs, says to this effect:

It is Allah who creates you and takes your souls at death; and of you there are some who are sent back to a feeble age so that they know nothing after having known (much): for Allah is All-Knowing All-Powerful (16: 70).

Allah also says:

…But over all endued with knowledge (dhu ‘ilm) is One the All-Knowing (al-‘Alim) (12: 76).

This verse in a way sums up much of the earlier discussion. Allah calls whoever is endowed with knowledge from His creations as dhu ‘ilm, which means the possessors, or holders, of conferred knowledge.

Knowledge and its finite repositories are clearly separated thereby, implying that they are essentially two different things, united temporarily and for a purpose.

However, when Allah refers to Himself as the source of all knowledge, he says that He is al-‘Alim, that is, the All-Knowing, the Omniscient and Certain-Knowing. Allah’s divine essence and His attribute of knowledge are implied as one thereby. The Name Al-‘Alim represents as much Allah’s essence as His knowledge attribute.

For man to know that he is given little knowledge, that knowledge is a precious, yet passing, gift, and that the only one who has absolute, permanent and infinite knowledge is Allah –represents an integral part of his knowledge. To know that he knows little – or that he does not, or cannot, know — and that his knowledge is a means, rather than an end, is a fundamental knowledge to man.

Conversely, to pretend to know much, and that he could one day have knowledge of everything, is a sign of both arrogance and ignorance in man.

Hence, Islam teaches the people as much what to know as what not to know. It teaches what we can, and cannot know. Undeniably, while sometimes knowledge stands for deceitful ignorance, ignorance, by the same token, at other times means impeccable knowledge.

The principal epistemological facts that all knowledge comes from Allah alone, that knowledge should lead to the right path, and that the revealed knowledge should preside over all other forms of knowledge, have been encapsulated in the following words of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to his disbelieving father, an idol-maker:

O my father! To me has come knowledge which has not reached you, so follow me, I will guide you to a way that is even and straight (19: 43).

The Case of Qarun (Korah)

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About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].