Ma’rifah vs. Ilm

I’ve recently started reading Shaikh Mashhur Hasan Salmân’s explanation of Imam al-Juwainî’s Waraqât to satisfy an urge I’ve had to read something on the roots of Islamic jurisprudence, particularly of the Shâfi’î variety. Shaikh Mashhur’s explanation, which is fairly large being 797 pages cover to cover, is a bit daunting for me at the moment being that I haven’t really read anything truly Islamic academics oriented in quite some time (when I say I’ve started reading it, I literally mean just started–I’m on pg. 31).

In any case, I thought I’d take it with me to read while I waited while getting my car serviced; one of my tires got shredded while driving on the highway yesterday afternoon and needed replacing. While reading this morning, I came across this little tidbit that I thought I’d like to share with my small readership.

Shaikh Mashhur states,

Cognizance (ma’rifah) is perceiving something according to what it is. It is preceeded by ignorance, contrary to knowledge (ilm), for knowledge is not preceeded by ignorance. Thus, we do not say that Allah is cognizant (‘ârif). Rather, we say that Allah is knowledgeable (‘âlim).

Source: Âl Salmân, Abu Ubaidah Mashhur Hasan. at-Tahqîqât wat-Tanqîhât as-Salafiyyât ‘alâ Matn al-Waraqât ma’ at-Tanbihât ‘alal-Masâ’il al-Muhimmât. Abu Dhabi, UAE: Dar al-Imam Mâlik. pg. 30.


About Rasheed Gonzales
My name is Rasheed Gonzales. I’m a Muslim convert of Filipino descent. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, I was guided to Islam through one of my younger brothers and a couple of friends, all of whom had converted to Islam sometime before me (may Allah reward them greatly). I am married with four children (and the praise is Allah’s) and also a volunteer for the Qur'an & Sunnah Society of Canada, based in Toronto.

9 Responses to Ma’rifah vs. Ilm

  1. Mohamed Farhan Mohamed Samsudin says:

    Salam Akhi. Perhaps you can relate this to the Sufi’s definition of ma’rifah, especially their concept of ma’rifatullah.

    Ibn Shamsud-Deen

  2. Wa ‘alaikum as-salam, brother Farhan.

    Sorry, bro. my readings on Sufi concepts have been very brief, and quite a long time ago. I wouldn’t be able to adequately discuss these things here without doing some research first, which I don’t really have a desire for at the moment.

  3. Vince says:

    I heard this explanation also in a lecture on Usool At-Thalaatha by Sheikh Muhammad Amaan Al-Jamee years ago. He explained ‘ilm’ and ‘m’aarifah the same way. The only thing I wondered about was while ilm is defined as knowledge which is not preceeded by ignorance does the defintion also include knowledge which is preceeded by ignorance since humans are described with the characteristic of ilm as well? Allah knows best..

  4. To be quite honest, I’ve been wondering pretty much the same thing myself, Vince.

    Quick searches haven’t turned up anything conclusive. In fact, I’ve found several things that belie this distinction between the two words, e.g., Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdil-Wahhab’s statement from Thalathah al-Usul, “Ilm is ma’rifah of Allah, ma’rifah of His prophet, and ma’rifah of the religion of Islam, with the evidences.” There are also some inexplicit examples from both the Qur’an and Sunnah.

    I did come across an explanation posted on some forum, apparently words from Shaikh Salih Al ash-Shaikh (I’m just going by what the poster wrote and haven’t verified it by checking the shaikh’s library) where he explains this distinction. You can find it here if you’re interested: What the shaikh mentions near the end is quite interesting. He mentions that in the Qur’an, “ilm” is praised, but that “ma’rifah” is used to describe Ahl al-Inkar” or the people of rejection, denial, or refusal, e.g., the Jews and the rest of the People of the Book, the people of disbelief and polytheism. So the shaikh says that the word “ma’rifah” is blameworthy since it is linked to the condition of people who are blameworthy and it is as if “ma’rifah” is “ilm” that was rejected, i.e., it was understood or grasped, then rejected or refused.

  5. Here’s a bit more that I found regarding the differences between “ma’rifah” (cognizance) and “‘ilm” (knowledge) from Shaikh Muhammad bin Uthaimin’s al-Usul min ‘Ilm al-Usul, which is his primer on the roots of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh).

    On pg. 4 (of al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah’s print), he states,

    The intent of our saying “cognizance (ma’rifah)” is knowledge (ilm) and speculation (dhann), because perceiving the jurisprudential rulings could be out of certainty and it could be out of speculation, as is [the case] in many of the issues of jurisprudence.

    Later on, in his definition of knowledge (ilm), he states on pg. 11,

    Knowledge is perceiving something according to what it is with a definite perception, like the perception that the whole is greater than the part, and that the intention is a condition with respect to worship.

    Notice the similarity in the definition given for ma’rifah by Shaikh Mashhur and the definition for ‘ilm given by Shaikh Ibn Uthaimin. The main difference being the level of certainty between the two. This is also shown in the first quote I’ve given from Ibn Uthaimin where he says perception of the rulings could be certain or speculative.

    Much praise and thanks goes to the owner of the jarhwatadeel blog for referring me to Shaikh Ibn Uthaimin’s book; may Allah reward and bless you, bro.

  6. Shaikh Ahmad al-Hazme (may Allah preserve him) said in the first lesson of his brief explanation of Usool at-Thalaathah of Shaikh of Islam Muhammad bin ‘Abdil-Wahhab: “…therefore Ma’rifah and ‘Ilm according to the author (may Allaah have mercy on him) is of the same meaning. so he used ‘Ilm in the meaning of Ma’rifah. And this is what is correct according to Ahlu-Luqha even though some of the contemporaries distinguish between the two. Allaah the Most High, said:

    الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ يَعْرِفُونَهُ كَمَا يَعْرِفُونَ أَبْنَاءهُمْ وَإِنَّ فَرِيقاً مِّنْهُمْ لَيَكْتُمُونَ الْحَقَّ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ ﴾ [ البقرة : 146
    Those to whom We gave the Scripture recognise him (Muhammad or the Ka’bah at Makkah) as they recongise their sons. But verily, a party of them conceal the truth while they know it (Al-Baqarah 2:146)

    At first Allaah mentioned that they recognised (ya’rifoona) then after that He said: “they know it” (hum ya’lamoona). This shows that they are of the same meaning.”

    Shaikh Ahmad al-Hazme (may Allah preserve him) has a detailed explanation of the same risala, maybe in it there might be a detailed explanation of this issue. I have not checked into it because I am yet to finish revising this sharh first.

    Allaah knows best.

  7. Mehdi Hasan Sheikh says:

    I don’t see the similarity between the two word from Al-Baqarah:146.

    In one instance ma’arifah is attributed to the generality of the Ahlul Kitaab while Ilm is attributed to the scholars among them.

    So their scholars know (have Ilm, i.e. established and clear evidence) that Muhammad is Rasoolullaah, while the general followers may recognise him as rasoolullah, but only upon seeing his message or characteristics, i.e. their recognition is not based on solid textual evidence and they merely follow what their scholars tell them.

    Allaahu Alim.

  8. Rakib says:

    Jazakum Allah Khairan for sharing and making such complicated issue easier to understand.

  9. Jazakum Allah Khairan for sharing and making such complicated issue easier to understand.

    Wa iyyakum, brother.

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