Reflections on “Speaking without Knowledge” (17:36)

One of the most important Qur’anic injunctions (and one which is usually flaunted and ignored by many Muslims today) is the following: “And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge” or (alternatively translated) “Do not follow or accept that of which you have no knowledge” (17.36)

وَلا تَقْـفُ ما لَـيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْـمٌ

According to the great Qur’an commentator, Qatada (d. 735), the essential meaning of this verse is: “Do not say, `I have seen’, when you did not see anything, or `I have heard’, when you did not hear anything, or `I know’, when you do not know, for God Almighty will hold you accountable for all that.”

Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), although not referring specifically to this verse, expounds upon its meaning and alludes to the dangers of speaking without knowledge when he states (in his Maratib al-‘Ulum):

“Some people—whose ignorance is overwhelming, whose minds are weak, and whose nature is corrupt—think that they are scholars, but actually they are not. There is no greater harm to the sciences and to true scholars than the harm from such people. This is so because they took a meager part of some of the sciences, missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their search for knowledge was not the search for the knowledge of God, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance but to overwhelm people with vanity and admiration, to stir trouble and discord, and to pride themselves arrogantly and vaingloriously that they are scholars when in reality they are not. This path leads nowhere because its pursuers have not achieved the truth and because they have squandered their resources, thereby increasing their wickedness.”

It is important to note that the injunction to not speak without knowledge does not and should not stand alone. It is usually coupled, by the classical scholars such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), with the injunction to actively seek knowledge. As the hadith of the Prophet emphasizes: “The pursuit of knowledge is an obligation incumbent upon ever believer.” (طلب العلم فريضة على كل مسلم).

If only these two injunctions were followed today, the social dynamic and intellectual culture of the Muslim community would be very different. It is too often the case that many of those who have taken upon themselves the mantle of leadership or status of “scholars” in the community are completely devoid of knowledge, understanding or even the required training. It is far too often the case that people are falsely accused or slandered on the basis of jealousy, hatred or supposition alone. And too often, we fail to critically question the information that we receive, preferring to blindly obey rather than pursue knowledge for ourselves. Perhaps some additional reflection on this one verse would be beneficial for society, both Muslim and non-Muslim, at large. In an age of information overload and lack of accountability, it is doubly important to take a step back and assess the value of the knowledge that we are receiving from those more learned than ourselves on a particular topic and inject some humility into our approach to pursuing knowledge. This, of course, needs to go hand-in-hand with a healthy degree of skepticism and a critical mind.

I leave you all with a quote from ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (d. 1883):

“Those who are leaders from among the people can be divided into broad categories. The first are those who are knowledgeable and beneficial to themselves and others. These come to know the Truth through demonstrative proof and evidence, not by blind emulation (al-taqlid), and encourage the people to also seek the truth by demonstrative proof and evidence and not by simply following others. The second group are destructive to both themselves and others. These are those who blindly emulate their forefathers in what they believe and what they consider to be correct, abandoning rational investigation and calling the people to emulate them rather than think for themselves.”

Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, Dhikra al-’Aqil wa Tanbih al-Ghafil (Beirut, 1966), p. 34


3 thoughts on “Reflections on “Speaking without Knowledge” (17:36)

  1. Thank you for this very analytically phrased reminder to a world abounding with frivolous fatwas, stupefying sectarianism and silly superstitions.
    The world would indeed be different if the joint injunctions of not speaking without ascertaining, and searching for knowledge, were heeded conscientiously.

  2. Thank you. It would be interesting to discuss how religious authority is delineated in and as of itself, in the light of the breakdown of traditional modes of religious teaching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s