What Is the Meaning of Hikmah (Wisdom) in Islam?

Question and answer details
Ameena Abdallah
Salam Alaykum. What is the meaning of Al-Hikmah (wisdom) in Islam? Jazakum Allah khayr.
Tarek Ghanem

Salam Ameena,

Thank you for your at once worthy and weighty question.

Hikmah, which directly translates to wisdom, has several meanings, varying from a type of knowledge, a mode, and an approach to deal therewith. It is a complex term that acquires many levels, from operational, attitudinal, and intrinsic; and many associations, mental, philosophical, religious, and mystical.

Although I will try to sketch and engage with them all, I ultimately deal with the most important and pertaining one. And as you will see, this is related to the very nature of obligations of the highest wisdom which we should embark upon.

Practically speaking, a wise person is someone who is able to make best decisions at the right time and the right place. Naturally, this is associated with a type of maturity, which is not necessarily a function age. Also, such a possessor of wisdom is thought to have both a better grasp with the bigger picture of things and, most importantly, a faculty apt to make decisions and commitments that are more viable in the long run. So on the operational level, wisdom is associated with not having short-sightedness.

Now, it is important to understand that in itself philosophy, paying attention to the etymology, based on the Greek origins of the word, is "a love of wisdom". The pursuits of Greek philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, not only attest to that, they even push for the understanding that philosophy is the drive to understand the divine and the way the divine wants the order of things.

I would like to further engage with philosophy as a vessel and as well a tool for wisdom, for the relation of this with the comprehensive attempt to answer your question. I would like to state here that this point is one of the most precious and insightful truths I have learned.

Understanding Philosophy Today

I would argue, as would many thinkers worldwide, that the problem with our understanding of what philosophy is, is that it is informed by a modern day reinvention of philosophy, which is colored with the western, in essence European, historical experience, understanding, and in fact diffusion, of a meaning anew of philosophy.

The contemporary understating of philosophy, which is informed by the western academia, has the intrinsic flaw of confiding the tool and — even worse — the objective of philosophy to reason; reason and its systematic usage; reason and its autonomy.

What this leads to is a state that all traditional forms of philosophy, whether religious — like Buddhist, or cultural as in tribal philosophy and traditional wisdom, and across many civilizations, from African to Chinese, Indian to Muslim, are seen not as "true" forms of philosophy. Even worse, no scripture or text is given any upper hand in their claims to truth. Anything can be taken apart.

Since modern philosophy became a systematic rational abstraction and theorization of human thought to deal with the different aspects that western philosophical canons agreed upon them being parts of philosophy, ultimately two realities have emerged.

First, philosophy became separated from actually being authentically practiced in life. That is why we find for example a start difference between the moral and inspiring modality in the life of Socrates and Michael Foucault.

Regardless of the philosophical labor and production of both, where the life of the former is a tremendous source of moral aspiration, that of the latter is no less than the opposite. So this is what is important here, the authenticity of philosophy and its application in one's life.

This has lead to a major philosophical problem in our contemporary philosophy, especially the analytical school, not the continental one — so much so that philosophy has been reduced to language games and also confined to the most absurd of mundane spheres.      

The second issue is the rejection of having to deal with religious truths — save reading them as a historical product with no universal truth, a turn which insults the intellectual and religious imagination of many religious people worldwide.

At the heart of the matter here is the reduction of reality to a material set up that can only be engaged with through reason and its reinvention of 'science' to explain phenomena around us.

Where reason has always been a part of epistemological tools with which man can utilize to gain knowledge and ultimate truth about morality, existence, and phenomena, other cognitive tools like revelation, mystical experience, and traditional practical sciences are all now deemed invalid.

This has, no doubt, lead to modern man crisis and feeling of emptiness, since, to furnish just one aspect of our human condition, reason and empiricism pushed the limits of knowledge, education, governance, and social structure to limit humans to mere numbers; as it is the subject it knows how to deal with most effectively.

The Islamic Worldview

Now, let's deal with wisdom from an Islamic worldview. I would like to set out this pursuit by referring to the words of the best of humans, our beloved and honored Prophet (peace be upon him):

"There should be no envy but only in case of two persons: one having been endowed with wealth and power to spend it in the cause of Truth, and (the other) who has been endowed with wisdom and he decides cases with the help of it and teaches it (to others)." (Muslim)

I would like to leave it to the Quran now to both explain to us the virtue of acquiring wisdom and how to get it. First, God, majestic in His praise tells us:

{He gives wisdom unto whom He will, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly hath received abundant good. But none remember except men of understanding.} (Al-Baqarah 2:269)

Also, with regard to the ultimate source of wisdom, we are told:

{Even as We have sent unto you a messenger from among you, who recites unto you Our revelations and causes you to grow, and teaches you the Scripture and wisdom, and teaches you that which ye knew not} (Al-Baqarah 2:155)

So, now that this imperative is established, what is hikmah from Islam's comprehensive view which compromises physical and metaphysical being?

The basis of wisdom is fear of God as we are told by the wisest of humans, Prophet Muhammad. And, as Islam directs that from this inspection there are other levels of one's relation with God.

Fear should lead to hope, and hope should lead to love and this all should ultimately lead to a level of ihsan or beauteous perfection, where ultimately all things other than God are absent from one's heart.

The scholars of Islam mention that the best classical definition of hikmah is to put things in their due place and portions. This definition is of tremendous importance, since, if fully applied, no thought or action can ever be dealt with wisely without incorporating the complete layers of existence, physical and metaphysical, of the here-now and the hereafter, intrinsic and relational that surround us.

This is why religious wisdom, although it is one of the types, is of a higher order. This is also why the Quran narrates to us stories of wise individuals, like Luqman the Wise and his superb counsel to his son.

It also narrates to us some of the wisdom of Prophet Solomon (peace be upon him), who is believed by philosophers to be the origin of wisdom. His story with his father David gives proof that wisdom is also not just sheer acquisition of knowledge; it is also of insight, inspiration, and bounty from God. (Al-Anbiyaa' 21:79)

This all leads to the following peaks and jewels of wisdom. That God and God's pleasure is the first and most important matter in all situations, seeing the complementary relation between this world and the next. The best exemplar to follow and learn from in living, thinking, or acting is the seal of prophets.

Nothing in Islam is ordained to us without it having ultimate benefit for us, regardless of whether we see it otherwise. The true rank of something is its rank in the eyes of God and through Shariah (Islamic jurisprudence). And the true rank of someone is their eternal rank in the Hereafter.                          

I hope this will be of help. Please keep in touch.


Useful Links:

Islam and Philosophy

Simplicity, Rationalism and Practicalism

Islam and Rationalism