As many readers of this blog know, I recently graduated from Urbana Theological Seminary with a Masters in Religion with an emphasis in Islamic history and theology. Returning to school after a twenty year hiatus wasn’t easy. Yet it was important for me to gain a fuller comprehension of all aspects of religious history, thought, theology, and apologetics. Obtaining knowledge and developing the wisdom that derives from it is an aspiration that many people from different faiths share. But what happens when we look at the theological instructions regarding acquisition of knowledge that is given within Christianity and Islam?
In the Bible, it shouldn’t be surprising that God tells us to seek knowledge and understanding. In fact, the entire book of Proverbs is given to teach us how valuable knowledge and wisdom are, how they affect our lives, and how to employ them in our daily lives. They are so valuable, God tells us that they are to be sought more than silver and gold (Proverbs 8:10; Proverbs 16:16). We are blessed when we obtain them (Proverbs 3:13). Indeed, it guards our very lives (Proverbs 10:21). It allows us to more fully comprehend the mystery of God that is revealed in Christ (Colossians 2:2-3). If we lack wisdom, we can ask God Himself, who is pleased to grant it to us with abundance and without reproach (James 1:5).
Perhaps the Biblical account which most reveals God’s view of wisdom and the human need to acquire it is that of King Solomon. Very early in his reign, God tells Solomon to ask anything he wants from Him (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon chooses to request a wise and discerning heart in order that he could be a wise and just ruler (1 Kings 3:9). God was very pleased by this request (1 Kings 3:10), so much so He granted Solomon a number of other things as well (1 Kings 3:13). Because Solomon put first things first, God was pleased to reward him in excess of what he had asked.
Other Biblical characters asked for wisdom, but in a much more confrontational way. How far can this idea of asking God for wisdom be pushed? In the book of Job, Job is stricken with calamity and longs to know why. He confronts God in an effort to find out what is going on (Job 7:20). Even though Job knows God’s power and justice are perfect, still Job demands an answer from God Himself (Job 10:1-2; Job 13:3). While God does not explain the inner workings of why calamity often strikes the seemingly undeserving, God never once rebukes Job for asking the difficult questions.
The Qur’an offers a somewhat different perspective on asking such difficult questions.
[5.101-102] O you who believe! do not put questions about things which if declared to you may trouble you, and if you question about them when the Quran is being revealed, they shall be declared to you; Allah pardons this, and Allah is Forgiving, Forbearing. A people before you indeed asked such questions, and then became disbelievers on account of them.
In this verse, Muslims are specifically told NOT to ask hard questions because the knowledge that they receive in return may do more harm than good. In other words, the pursuit of knowledge within Islam has limits. Any question that is not well defined or is in any way “outside the box” is frowned upon.
It is paramount to make sure this ayah is not taken out of context. Is this really what this section of the Qur’an means? To ensure this is the correct interpretation, consider what ibn Kathir, one of the most prominent early Qur’an commentators had to say regarding these verses of the Qur’an,
The apparent wording of this Ayah indicates that we are forbidden to ask about things that if one has knowledge of, he would be sorry he had asked. Consequently, it is better to avoid such questions. [i]
Some Muslims herald Islam’s commands to pursue knowledge, but the Qur’an and Hadith give a mixed message at best. While knowledge is applauded in some Hadith, others make it clear that this refers to religious knowledge only. Even that knowledge which is to be pursued is restricted to memorization of the Qur’an and understanding of well-defined Islamic principles. Asking the hard questions is strictly prohibited.
To review, on the surface both Christianity and Islam suggest that acquiring knowledge is a lofty goal. However, a closer look shows that the God of the Bible tells us to pursue knowledge at all costs, to ask Him to give us all knowledge and wisdom. In Islam, the acquisition of knowledge is only limited to well-understood religions dogma. Any investigation that strays form the norm is disparaged. No matter where you look, Christianity and Islam approach topics from completely different perspectives.