Posted by: admin | March 6, 2008

MS09.3 – Protection of Intellect [Part 1 of 2]

The next in our list of the darooriyaat (essentials) is al-‘Aql or Intellect. Our discussion on its protection (Hifdh al-‘Aql) will be split over two posts. In this first post, we will define the meaning of ‘Aql, its purpose and how it is preserved and protected from the perspective of what maintains and strengthens it.

Definition of al-‘Aql
The Arabic word ‘Aql comes from the root verb (‘a-qa-la) which has several meanings including ‘to detain‘, ‘to arrest‘, ‘to comprehend‘ and ‘to have intelligence‘. In our context the noun ‘Aql carries the meaning of ‘intellect‘, ‘discernment‘ and ‘intelligence‘.

As we mentioned in the previous post, God has ennobled all human beings and by our very nature we enjoy a unique position in Creation. “And indeed, We have honoured the Children of Adam” [Qur’an 17:70]. The one unique thing that differentiates us from animals and thus gives us a position of both authority and responsibilty on earth is the power of reasoning and discernment, i.e. the faculty of intellect. Such a precious God given blessing needs protection and this is therefore one of the Maqasid al-Shari’ah.

Before we can understand how the Shari’ah achieves its protection of intellect, it is important to understand exactly what the intellect is and what its role and purpose is in our lives. Firstly our intellect is not a physical part of our bodies, rather it is a combination of faculties that gives us the ability to reason, to plan, to think abstractly and to learn. There are several defintions available for what exactly constitutes the intellect, or intelligence, some of which are; “a mind’s ability to apply knowledge to a problem-solving situation”, “innate general cognitive ability” and “goal directed adaptive behaviour”.

The Role of Intellect
Why did God honour us with this unique blessing and what did He intend for its use? We can think of its purpose as twofold and it can be divided as follows:

  1. Reflection: To recognise and reflect on the signs around us to arrive at the Truth
  2. Thought and Planning: To think and plan how to live our religious and wordly lives in the best way possible

The first purpose is general and required of each and every one of us whereas the second is more of a collective effort where the common good is sought. We will look at these points from both the perspective of that which maintains intellect and that which threatens it (in the next post).

From the Perspective of That Which Maintains al-‘Aql
Those things which help preserve al-‘Aql and help us achieve both its purposes are encouraged, promoted and obligated. Some examples of these are as follows:

1) The Obligation of Learning
As the strength of our intellect is dependent on previously held knowledge and experiences, it goes without saying that the more one has recall of, their ability for abstraction and problem solving will be that much greater. Therefore learning and education is one of the most obvious ways that al-‘Aql can be preserved and strengthened.

We have already seen the importance of seeking knowledge in MS09.1 when we were looking at Hifdh al-Deen and although no distinction was made, as the objective being presented was protection of religion, the focus was obviously more on religious knowledge. Here however, as the objective is the protection and strengthening of intellect in order to achieve the purposes stated above, any learning which helps us fulfil this is mandated.

The Islamic approach to education is very clear, in numerous ahadith (plural of hadith) the Prophet Muhammad (s) outlined the importance of learning and its central role in the faith, “The search of knowledge is an obligation laid on every Muslim” [Related by Ibn Majah and Bayhaqi]. Also the pursuit of knowledge is linked to reward in the hereafter, “If anyone pursues a path in search of knowledge Allah will thereby make easy for him a path to paradise” [Related by Muslim].

The Qur’an itself from the outset placed learning high up on the agenda. The first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (s) by the angel Gabriel (Jibreel in Arabic) was the imperative “Iqra” which means “Read.” From this first encounter and throughout the Prophetic mission we see the great importance assigned to knowledge and learning which enabled the Muslim Ummah to advance in all major fields of science and learning at an astounding pace and within a relatively short space of time. Reflecting on the current state of affairs, the Muslim Ummah is in desperate need of reviving this tradition as illiteracy is widespread and standards of education are woefully lacking. We need a return to the sources to rediscover how faith and learning have always gone hand in hand.

By gaining knowledge, one strengthens their ability to appreciate and understand the world around them, which is a basis upon which the obligation of reflection and planning (tafkeer) is founded. Several verses in the Qur’an allude to the role knowledge plays in this. “…Say: Are those who are knowledgeable equal to those who are not knowledgeable?…” [Qur’an 39:9] and “…The knowledgeable among His servants truly fear God…” [Qur’an 35.28]

2) Obligation of Planning and Reflection
Earlier we defined al-‘Aql and what its main purposes were, namely reflection and planning. We can summarise both of these by using the Arabic verbal noun tafkeer which comes from the verbal root, fakkara meaning ‘to ponder‘, ‘to speculate‘ and ‘to consider‘. During the course of my studies, my teacher strongly emphasised the importance of tafkeer, describing it as a ‘forgotten obligation.’

Recognition of the Truth
In the world around us, there are two types of reality. One which we can see and experience and one which we cannot, i.e. the Unseen realm (ghayb). Although none of us can see God, He has given us countless signs throughout creation which we encounter in our daily lives using our senses, and the first role of the intellect is this to ponder on these signs. The Qur’an invites us to reflect on them as they and come to the realisation that life is far from being random, rather it is by the design of an All-Wise Creator

“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding. Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire.” [Qur’an 3:190-191]

The fundamental question that has faced every human being in history is what is the purpose of life? By realising that we have been placed here by a Creator, the next step in finding the answer to this question is where revelation comes in, communicating to us the Will of the Divine.

Planning for the Common Good
Recognising our place in the world and understanding our relationship with our Creator is the fundamental building block on which a sound and complete human existence can be developed. Once a framework of belief is established we can consider the second role of tafkeer. This has a wider remit in that whereas the first purpose of the intellect is discovering our relationship with our Maker, the second purpose is to think and plan so that we can live both our religious and worldly lives in the best way possible.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) said in a famous hadith, “Allah has ordained excellence in everything” [Related by Muslim]. Whenever a Muslim does anything he or she should be motivated by these words and in whatever sphere of life, our Creator expects us to do our best.

In matters of religion this is a call to individuals, scholars and the community as a whole to understand and practice their faith in the best and most complete way. This includes all of our acts of worship, our dealings with others etc. We can illustrate this point by way of a simple example. Zakat, one of the pillars of Islam, requires every Muslim (with the financial means) to pay 2.5% of his or her wealth annually to those in need. The world over, year on year, millions of Muslims pay their zakat to the poor, yet the number of poor and needy people seems to be continually increasing. If zakat was correctly understood as being a social endeavour rather than as simply an individual act of worship and hence planned and organised it would be far more effective. For further reading on the topic of Zakat, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi‘s monumental Fiqh al-Zakat is a great example of tafkeer, of scholars taking the principles of Islam and combining them with the reality we are faced with.

In the Islamic narrative of the Creation of Adam, the Qur’an recounts: “Behold, your Lord said to the angels, I will create a vicegerent (khalifah) on earth” [Qur’an 2:30]. We are representatives or ambassadors of God on Earth, responsible and accountable for how we make use of its resources. In order to come to an understanding of how best to discharge our duty of being khulafa (plural of khalifa) here on Earth, requires tafkeer, careful thought and planning.

This is call to people at all levels of society to look for the best ways of organising and planning their affairs in all spheres without exception. It’s a call to societies and goverments to plan and prepare for the future, to improve the lot of their citizens, whether it be in education, health care, justice, environmental issues etc. This spirit of excellence needs to permeate every aspect of our lives and trigger in us a need for thought an planning in our struggle to be the best we can be.

Of course these same concerns are shared by both Muslims and non-Muslims, the key difference however is the motivation that drives a believer in this struggle. “Say: ‘Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the worlds‘” [Qur’an 6:162]. The believer’s life is consistent, everything he or she does is linked to the hereafter and seeking the pleasure of The Creator.

This concludes our discussion on the Protection of Intellect from the perspective of that which maintains and strengthens a’-‘Aql. The next post will Insha Allah complete our discussion on Hifdh al-‘Aql by looking at those things which threaten its presence and how they are discouraged and prohibited.


  1. “During the course of my studies, my teacher strongly emphasised the importance of takfeer, describing it as a ‘forgotten obligation.’”

    typo: should be tafkeer 🙂

  2. Oops! Good spot. Yes I definitely meant “tafkeer” and not “takfeer.” Post has been updated. JZK

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