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Classification of Knowledge: A Comparison of Al-Ghazali and Al-Ansari
Jan 1, 1995

The lives of al-Ghazali and al-Ansari

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was born in the city of Tus, northern Persia (Iran), in the year 450t-i/1058.

His father prayed that his two Sons would become great scholars. Al-Ghazali became ‘the most scholarly person of his generation and the imam of his time’ and his brother Ahmed ‘an awe-inspiring preacher’ (A1-Sabki, p.94). Through them, their father’s prayers were answered.

Al-Ghazali studied in Jurjan and Naisapur and became the head of the Nizamiya school in Baghdad, where he was involved in the political and religious issues of his time. He gave up his position of influence to take up devotional retreat in Damascus. From this important period of his life came the masterpiece Ihya Ulum al-Deen, The Revivification of the Religious Sciences. This, along with his other distinguished works, Ayuhal Walad and Bidayatul Hidayah made a great contribution to the development of educational philosophy.

Al-Ghazali died in the town of his birth in 505H/1113.

Zakariya al-Ansari was born in Sunaika in the Egyptian province of Sharqiyya in 824H/1449. His teachers include the great scholar of hadith Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (died 852n/1449) and the jurist Jalal al-Din al-Mahali (d. 871H/1466). He rose to the position of Qadi, a position he held for twenty years. He lived through the end of the Mamluk reign and saw Egypt conquered by the Turkish Sultan Salim I. (1517). Al-Sha’rani describing the twenty years he spent with al-Ansari, said that he was ‘never inattentive and never missed even a supererogatory prayer’. He quoted his sheikh as saying: ‘I do not want to accustom myself to laziness’. Al-Ansari continued in this state of vigilance over religious matters until his death at the age of one hundred.

He wrote several books on jurisprudence including Manhaj altullab and commentaries on a variety of early texts including Ibn Malik’s famous poem containing the rules of Arabic grammar.

The references in this article are taken from a short treatise entitled al lu’lu’ al-Nazim fi Rum al-ta’alum wa ta‘lim, which explains his view of the curriculum.

Education and Ideology

Educational ideology, in the words of Scrimshaw (1983) is ‘that system of beliefs which gives the general direction to the educational policies of those who hold those beliefs’. The educational philosophy of Islam develops from the beliefs found in the Qur’an and Sunna. In the early days of Islam, Muslims’ approach to these beliefs were straightforward and uncontroversial. There were no differences of opinion regarding the beliefs and practices of the Prophet, upon him be peace. His companions constituted clear examples of his educational ideology wherever they settled. However, as Islam spread, it faced new problems and had to deal with differing ideologies and belief systems that had crept into the body of the Muslim community. The need to determine educational practice became increasingly important. The first books collecting the beliefs and practices that ‘gave the general direction of education’ were written in the third century. These included Adab al-Mu’alimeen by Muhammad bin Sahnun.

Educational beliefs address four main questions. They are:

  • How is knowledge defined and how should it be classified?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • What is the role of the learner?
  • What happens when learning takes place?

The definition and classification of knowledge

Al-Ghazali’s division of knowledge has sometimes been misunderstood. He has been accused of advocating a secular view of the curriculum. This misunderstanding has been compounded by the translation of his two main classifications of knowledge as ‘sacred and ‘profane’2. A more accurate translation would be ‘revealed’ and ‘non-revealed’ knowledge. The first category covers ‘that which came from the prophets’. The second category includes ‘all knowledge obtained through the use of the intellect, experimentation or hearing’.

A full understanding of these two categories can only be understood by examining the relationship of the temporal world and the everlasting Hereafter. The two are intrinsically connected. Knowledge of the Hereafter is gained by examining the temporal world. The temporal world gives us signs and proofs of the existence of a Greater Existence and leads us to worship Him. Knowledge of the Hereafter teaches us how to live our temporal lives. All knowledge belongs to God. The two categories differ only in their means of acquisition.

Al-Ghazali also applies legalistic criteria. Knowledge may be fard, compulsory, or not. The fard knowledge is further divided into fard alayn, compulsory on every individual and fard al-kifaya, a compulsion on the community at large. The latter is fulfilled if at least one person learns it.

An example is the studying of medicine. -

Revealed knowledge may be of the fard al-ayn category i.e. the basic beliefs or fard al-kifaya i.e. principles of jurisprudence.

Non-revealed knowledge falls into three categories. The first is fard al-kifaya which therefore ranks among some of the types of revealed knowledge. These are connected to what al -Ghazali calls the four fundamental activities, without which human activities, including spiritual affairs, cannot be organized. They are -

i. agriculture

ii. cloth manufacture

iii. building

iv. politics.

Any activity auxiliary or subsidiary to any of the above is also fard-al kifaya. Iron production is auxiliary to agriculture. Milling and bread making is subsidiary to it. Both are compulsions on the community.

Compulsions fall on the individual or society according to specific situations. For example, one who enters Islam is not expected to know about fasting until the month of fasting arrives. Likewise, the compulsions on a community depend on how the society has developed with regards the four fundamental activities.

Another category is ‘praiseworthy’, which is not compulsory, knowledge. An example is the study of the intricacies of medicine or arithmetic. A basic understanding is supplementary to the fundamentals mentioned above and is therefore compulsory, but this is not true of its intricacies and detailed theories.

The other two categories are ‘blameworthy’ knowledge which includes magic and ‘neutral’ knowledge which includes poetry.

Al-Ansari’s classification of knowledge

Al-Ansari uses a slightly different classification. He identifies four categories.

1. Shariah studies

2. Literary studies

3. Studies based on exercise

4. Intellectual studies

The first category is similar to al Ghazali’s ‘revealed knowledge’. He includes three areas. They are Fiqh (jurisprudence), Tafsir (exegesis) and Hadith (traditions of the Messenger).

The second category includes fourteen branches of language including etymology, grammar, the study of metaphors, rhyme and speech making. The variations of Qur’anic reading are part of this category.

The third category presents the most radical alternative to the approach found in ‘modern’ school systems. Among the skills and studies that are developed through exercise are tasawuf (Islamic mysticism), engineering, music, politics, character building and domestic sciences.

The intellectual studies include areas such as logic, the principles of jurisprudence, medicine, the study of time and astronomy.

Although it is unlikely that any school would want to return purely to the syllabus of al-Ghazali or al-Ansari, their approach can help us to identify priorities in schools. They can also help us to break away from what is becoming a uniformly Western approach to knowledge. Islam has contributed greatly to education and educational theory. By looking at great thinkers like al-Ghazali and al-Ansari, Muslims and non-Muslims alike can consider alternative approaches to syllabus organization.

In our next article we will examine the role of the teacher and the student.