The most important part of acquiring information literacy may be the attitudinal dispositions that must underpin it. In other words, we need to develop good character, intellectual curiosity, and humility, all of which facilitate the personal growth needed to tackle large swaths of information.
As we know (or should know), certain categories of knowledge are obligatory upon Muslims to acquire, such as the basics of Islamic creed, worship, and ethics. However, this is only the minimum obligation as delineated by scholars. Those of us who want to advance our religious understanding, or our contribution to our communities through beneficial fields of science and administration, should cultivate a thirst for knowledge and an identity as a lifelong learner.
Allah, in fact, commanded the Prophet ﷺ, and all of us by extension, to supplicate to Him for an increase in knowledge, as He said, “Say, ‘Lord, increase me in knowledge!’” Therefore, the Prophet ﷺ considered continual learning to be an obligation for Muslims, “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.” The Prophet ﷺ himself applied this advice and he carried on with learning until the day he passed away. Ibn Utaybah (rha) said, “The Prophet ﷺ continued to increase in knowledge until Allah Almighty took his soul.”
There are only two constant hungers that can never be satiated, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “The seekers of two concerns are never satisfied: the seeker of knowledge and the seeker of the world.” And the Prophet ﷺ said, “Moses asked his Lord: Who are the most knowledgeable of your servants? Allah said: A scholar who is unsatisfied with his knowledge and adds the knowledge of people to his own.” This being the case, we should direct our best efforts towards beneficial knowledge and not transient worldly pleasures.
The great imams, scholars, and leaders of our religion considered themselves to be lifelong learners. Imam Malik (rha) said, “It is not befitting for anyone with knowledge to give up learning.” It was said to Ibn al-Mubarak (rha), “For how long will you seek knowledge?” He replied, “Until death, if Allah wills. Perhaps the words that will benefit me have not yet been written.” Ibn al-Mubarak said on another occasion, “A person will continue to have knowledge as long as they seek knowledge. If they assume that they have knowledge, then they have become ignorant.” And Ibn Abi Ghassan (rha) said, “You will have knowledge as long as you are a student. If you consider yourself sufficient, then you will become ignorant.” Put differently, you will continue to have knowledge as long as you keep seeking knowledge with proper methods; once you stop learning, you become ignorant. Like sharks, if we are not swimming, we are sinking.
The Prophet ﷺ, in addition to seeking religious knowledge, also encouraged us to seek beneficial knowledge from natural sciences, tradecraft, medicine, and more. One particular incident demonstrates a demarcation between religious and worldly knowledge. The Prophet ﷺ once passed by people grafting trees and he said, “It would be better if you did not do that.” They abandoned the practice and there was a decline in the yield. He passed by again and said, “What is wrong with your trees?” They said, “You told us to stop.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “You have better knowledge of the affairs of your world.” In another narration of this event, the Prophet ﷺ said, “Verily, I am only a human being. If I command you to do something in religion, then adhere to it. If I command you to do something from my opinion, then I am only a human being.”
The Muslim community is in collective need of both religious and worldly knowledge. Imam al-Shafi’i (rha) said, “Indeed, knowledge is of two types: knowledge of the religion and knowledge of the world. The knowledge of religion is to achieve understanding of the law (fiqh) and the knowledge of the world is medicine. Do not settle in a land in which there is no scholar to inform you about your religion, nor a doctor to inform you about your body.” That is, in the time of Al-Shafi’i, medicine was the most important worldly science and he considered it necessary for a medical expert to live in every Muslim town. In our times, several additional categories of knowledge have been developed that are essential for modern living.
As a seeker of knowledge, you need to find your role in the community, whether as a religious scholar, a scientist, an administrator, a doctor, a businessperson, or any other occupation, and then direct your learning towards achieving literacy, competency, and eventually expertise in your chosen field.
That said, be aware that knowledge is also demarcated between what is beneficial and what is trivial or even harmful. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Ask Allah for beneficial knowledge and seek refuge in Allah from knowledge without benefit.” Whatever role we decide upon and commit to lifelong learning in, it must be beneficial to the community in some way. Al-Ghazali, for example, describes some fields of knowledge, or “sciences,” as being “blameworthy,” such as astrology, fortune telling, and the occult sciences. It is impermissible in Islam to study such subjects with the intention of practicing them. So whatever field of knowledge you commit to, you need to be sure that it will benefit yourself and your community.
As lifelong learners, it is very important that we have intellectual humility. One needs to accept the possibility that in secondary religious issues, as well as in any worldly endeavor, one could be wrong or mistaken. Ibn Hajar al-Haytami said, when asked about differences in secondary religious issues (al-furu’), “Our way (madhhab) is correct, but could be mistaken. The way of those who disagree with us is mistaken, but could be correct.” The same attitude applies to any field of knowledge; we pursue the most accurate information we can, while keeping in mind that, like anyone else, we have our own biases and we commit errors. Regular self-evaluation and inward mindfulness is necessary to avoid intellectual stagnation. If we fail to acknowledge that our personal perspective has a degree of subjectivity, we might be misled by our own confirmation bias, which is our tendency to uncritically accept new information that supports our pre-existing narrative or theory.
Finally, we should be humble enough to accept the truth wherever we find it and from whoever says it, whether it is from an opposing scholar, a dissenting scientist, or a common person. Ibn Rajab reported, “Some of the righteous predecessors said: Humility is that you accept the truth from anyone who brings it, even if they are young. Whoever accepts the truth from whoever brings it, whether they are young or old, whether he loves them or not, then he is humble. Whoever refuses to accept the truth because he regards them as beneath himself, then he is arrogantly proud.”
These attitudinal dispositions are the prerequisites not only for acquiring information literacy, but likewise for achieving success in religious and worldly learning. Now, we will discuss some of the methodological principles that apply specifically to our situation today.