Educational Implications of Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad
Posted Nov 1, 2005

The following is one of a series of short pieces by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas exploring the educational implications of verses from the Quran and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. All these can be found on the Contemporary Issues in Education interactive forum on the website of the Book Foundation ( )

TAM readers are welcome to register on the website and offer their comments on any of the postings.

Educational Implications of Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (3)

By Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Useful Knowledge

I seek refuge from God from a knowledge which has no use ~ The Prophet Muhammad

The best people are those who are most useful to others ~ The Prophet Muhammad

The knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure from which no charity is bestowed in the way of the Lord ~ The Prophet Muhammad

Many an intellectual has been killed by his ignorance, his knowledge failing to profit him. ~ Hadrat ‘Ali.

Educational Implications

Distinguishing the Useful from the Utilitarian

We must develop the discernment to distinguish between knowledge which is useful and knowledge which is merely utilitarian.

According to Ibn Sүna, true education is the cultivation of the Intellect in order to attain a deep understanding of the divine order observable in the world. Such an education cannot be merely utilitarian.  Gaining material benefits is not the primary goal of education.

It needs to be said also that the Intellect referred to here by Ibn Sina is not the lower intellect of mere rational thinking but the organ of spiritual intelligence, which at its highest level can be equated with the Heart.

This higher Intellect must be distinguished from its lower-case reflection in the same way that the “perceiving” spiritual Heart must be distinguished from the heart which we associate with subjective feelings and emotions and which has been largely split off from a notion of higher intelligence in Western culture.

As Rumi puts it in his typically concrete style:

The Intellect of intellect is your kernel; the intellect is only the husk.

Useful education encompasses many levels, but all are directed vertically towards the attainment of the only knowledge that is ultimately of any real and permanent use: Knowledge of God, which is also knowledge of the Self (He who knows himself, knows his Lord ~ The Prophet Muhammad). 

Useful knowledge which serves this ultimate purpose includes:

1. Knowledge of the revealed Scriptures, and the lives and teachings of Prophets, saints and spiritual exemplars;
2. Knowledge enabling us to develop the virtues, qualities of character and ethical values which should underpin the pursuit and practice of all knowledge;
3. Knowledge of the divine order and “due measure and proportion” embodied in the structure and functioning of the human being, including knowledge and application of a spiritual psychology which enables us to understand what it means to be human and to take conscious control of our own development;
4. Knowledge of a sacred science underpinning natural sciences and mathematics - a sacred science which reveals the divine order in Nature and honours that hidden reality beyond the reach of human perception;
5. Knowledge of the moral lessons which can be gained from a study of human history and the best literature;
6. Knowledge of the richness, diversity and inter-dependence of the created order, as in the study of geography, history, ecology, and different cultures and languages, as a remedy against parochialism and prejudice, and as a means of orientation in the world;
7. Knowledge of the higher purposes of language in enabling us to understand and transmit higher concepts through a well-defined spiritual vocabulary, distinguish between these authentic concepts and their counterfeits, revive meanings which been debased over time, and see through the misuse of language by rhetorical manipulation;
8. Knowledge and practice of those arts which develop aesthetic awareness and sensitive appreciation of beauty, including poetry, music, and the visual arts; 
9. Knowledge which enables us to develop as good citizens and make worthwhile contributions to the society in which we live;
10. Practical knowledge (including facts and skills) which enables us to function effectively in the world and gain right livelihood.

Some of this knowledge is innate and some is practical and acquired, but the acquired knowledge should serve only to actualise and verify what is innate, and should never be an end in itself.

Utilitarian education, on the other hand, turns this on its head, elevating the last of these (livelihood) to the first priority, and, what is worse, reducing the concept of livelihood itself from the ideal of right livelihood to a solely materialistic enterprise in which we become “consumers”, enslaved by the larger goal of “national economic development”. Such a dispiriting and demoralising utilitarian concept of schooling for the workplace has largely replaced a holistic education as the main priority in modern educational systems.

The UK Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) White Paper, Schools: Achieving Success gives the game away in the first paragraph of the Introduction: “The success of our children at school is crucial to the economic health and social cohesion of the country, as well as to their own life chances and personal fulfilment” .  Notice the priorities which are placed first in this sentence. In an exclusive interview reported in the Times Educational Supplement of 5 July 2002, Blair himself has confirmed this agenda: “Education”, he says “is and remains the absolute number one priority for the country because without a quality education system and an educated workforce, we cannot succeed economically”. The real priority is clear, and it is the same one (economic power and development) as that which governs educational policy in the White Paper. 

When the Prophet speaks of “knowledge which has no use”, he is not referring to knowledge which fails to serve merely utilitarian ends. He is referring to:

1. Knowledge which fails to serve the ultimate purpose for which men and women were created - that is, the knowledge and service of God. This includes the accumulation of inert facts, subjective and unsubstantiated opinions, conjectures, speculations, and over-refined intellectualisations masquerading as knowledge - the “ignorance” which, as Hadrat ‘Ali explained, kills many an intellectual. 
2. Knowledge which remains abstract, and is not actively realised, lived, practised and embodied through the transformation of the lower self and through right action in the world. The Prophet himself said: “Who are the learned?  They who practise what they know.”
3. Knowledge which is kept to oneself, and not shared with others. The Prophet said: “Return to your people and teach them” and “Let the one who is present impart knowledge to the one who is absent.”

In essence, then, useful knowledge has three characteristics: connects us to God and to objective, divine principles - without this connection, it has no orientation. is embodied in our character and the conduct of our lives - without this embodiment, it has no substance. is shared with others - without this sharing, it has no fertility. 

Originally published on the excellent website of The Book Foundation at  where you will find a number of useful articles on Contemporary Issues in Education.