Understanding Tawhid: Knowledge of Allah (swt) and his attributes

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate


 أَوَّلُ الدِّينِ مَعْرِفَتُهُ

Imam Ali in the first sermon of Nahjul Balagha says “The foremost (first) in religion is the acknowledgement (knowledge) of Him”

What is meant here by معرفة (knowledge) and how does does it differ from علم (which is also translated as knowledge)? Imam Ali (as) used this word for a pertinent reason and there is a very distinct difference between معرفة and  علم.

In the Arabic-English lexicon dictionary, it states that ‘ المعرفة is the perceiving a thing by reflection and by consideration of the effect thereof [upon the mind or sense], so that it has a more special meaning than العلم. It generally denotes the perceiving of a thing as a thing that has been absent from the mind.’

Therefore, معرفة (knowledge) of God is to begin to perceive and acknowledge God after God has been absent from your mind. Thus this معرفة (knowledge) is preceded by ignorance, forgetfulness and heedlessness.

معرفة unlike علم is that which is always preceded by ignorance! It is that which requires contemplation and thought to bring about the knowledge. This is why God is described as العالم (the All-Knower) but cannot be described as ‘A’rif. God does not need to contemplate a thing to know it, nor does He encounter a state of ignorance or forgetfulness. Transcendent be Thy name!

The first step in one’s journey to God begins through the knowledge of Him, after one’s state of ignorance and forgetfulness. And since everyone has an understanding of Tawheed and the presence of God, due to the innate disposition known as the fitra (as explained in Post #1), the first aim of the wayfarer is to begin to know what one originally knew! It is to know that you know!

As Confucius, a Chinese Sage once said, “Recognizing that you know what you know, and recognizing that you do not know what you do not know—this is knowledge.”

اللّهُمَّ عَرِّفْني‌ نَفْسَكَ فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْني‌ نَفْسَكَ لَمْ أَعْرِفْ رَسُولَكَ اللّهُمَّ عَرِّفْني‌ رَسُولَكَ فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْني‌ رَسُولَكَ لَمْ أَعْرِفْ حُجَّتَكَ اللّهُمَّ عَرِّفْني‌ حُجَّتَكَ فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْني‌ حُجَّتَكَ ضَلَلْتُ عَنْ دِيني‌

O’ God! Make Yourself known to me, for If you do not make Yourself known to me, I will not recognise your Prophet. O’ God! Make Your Prophet known to me, for if I do not recognise Your Prophet I will not recognise Your Hujjah [the Imam]. O’ God! Make Your Hujjah known to me, for if You not make Him known to me, I will have strayed from my religion.

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