What is Hikmah?
Suppose I give you a lot of puzzle pieces to put together. The first thing you will need is – knowledge. What is the puzzle about? What does the finished picture look like, or at what is the thing in it?
Your strategy will vary depending on your knowledge. You won’t follow the same order for putting together an elephant and a spaceship.
The next thing you will need to put the puzzle together is – hikmah.
Ibn al-Qayyim says that hikmah is:
“Putting things in their right places”. (448)
Hikmah is translated as ‘wisdom’ in English. And what is wisdom? It’s such a vast concept that it’s probably very hard to give a single definition. Consider what it takes to put that puzzle together.
Once you have the knowledge, you will need to take a lot of steps, and not always in the same order. It’s a complex process.
You need to look at each individual piece carefully and try to decide what it is. Is it part of an elephant ear, or a spaceship window? Your knowledge will come in handy here, but it’s not always so simple a choice. May be it’s the elephant’s stomach upside down that you’re holding.
How do you tell?
You tell by trial and error. You try putting similar-looking pieces together to see which fit. And you keep building upon that knowledge acquired from experience bit by bit. So when someone comes and tries to make suggestions, you say based on your experience:
“That’s not right.”
They say: “Why?”
You say: “Cos I have experience.”
“But this piece looks exactly right! See the color grey here and here too? It’s perfect.”
And you reply: “Your viewpoint is biased by one color. I am looking at the whole picture.”
A person who has hikmah is:
1. Free of all bias. He doesn’t view the world with filters on his eyes. He’s got perfect 20/20 insight.
As a result, he is aware of his own weaknesses very well, and is not uneasy to acknowledge his strengths. Just like Prophet Yusuf, who on the one hand knew his weakness in the face of feminine temptation and sought Allah’s refuge from it. And on the other hand, he didn’t hesitate to inform the king that he should appoint him as a treasurer based on his good qualifications.
A wise person knows that virtues are gifts from Allah that are not to be hidden, rather they are to be used for His sake.
2. Practical. He is not a dreamer or idealist. Prophet Yaqub loved his elder children a lot, but he wasn’t idealistic about their character. He knew that their jealousy against their little brother could drive them crazy. So he wouldn’t allow little Yusuf out with them, until he was forced to do so.
A person who has hikmah will be optimistic, but never to the point of being foolishly blind.
3. Empathetic. He understands people well and is good at interpreting speech. He knows that human beings aren’t just rational creatures; they have emotions, biases and weaknesses of all kinds. And he accepts and respects a person with the whole package. Empathy is a prophetic virtue that allows you to reach people’s hearts.
How do you develop hikmah?
Allah Almighty says:
He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding. (Quran 2:269)
Hikmah is a gift from Allah. Does that mean you can’t seek and find it on your own? You can, because Allah already sent the gift to you. You just need to reach for it – the Quran.
Ibn Abbas defines hikmah simply as knowledge of the Quran. (Ibn Kathir)
And Ibn al-Qayyim quoted Mujahid and Malik’s definition of hikmah:
“It is the knowledge of the truth and acting according to it, and correctness in speech and action.” He then explained that all this isn’t possible except through understanding of the Quran, Shariah, and the realities of faith. (448)
Prophet Muhammad is our role model for hikmah. Aisha said about him:
“The character of Messenger of Allah was the Quran.” (Abu Dawud 1342)
The Quran is our textbook for learning hikmah. It teaches us everything we need to know about it. And moreover, its wisdom is endless, so there can never be a time when we can say, I’ve got all the wisdom I want from this Book. It’s a lifelong learning process.
The verse quoted above is in the context of spending in Allah’s cause. Truly donating something precious for the sake of Allah can only be done by a person who has wisdom, one who is not biased by this world but sees the full picture of the reality of life, in this world and the next. After all, the duration of the former if compared to the latter is like peanuts. So a person with true wisdom will invest more in the Hereafter.
On the other hand, someone who doesn’t have this reality in view can only see what’s in front of him – the present world, and so he only thinks of benefit in it.
From his point of view, you have nothing to gain by giving away your money without any idea of a worldly return. That’s why the hypocrites in Madinah called the migrant believers from Makkah, those who had left everything for the sake of Allah, fools. And this is how Allah replies:
And when it is said to them, ‘Believe as the people have believed,’ they say, ‘Should we believe as the foolish have believed?’ Unquestionably, it is they who are the foolish, but they know [it] not.’ (2:13)
Can you imagine the dangers of being a fool and not even knowing it? This is why we need to hold on to the Book that teaches us wisdom. I’ll leave you to ponder on something Allah Almighty said to Adam after the fruit-eating episode:
We said, ‘Go down from it, all of you. And when guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance – there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve. And those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those will be companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.’ (2:38-39)
Tafsir Ibn Kathir.
Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij al-Salikin.