Imam Musa al-Kadhim (peace be upon him) says, “God has two arguments against humans: an external argument and an internal argument. The external one is the Prophets and Imam (peace be upon them), and the internal one is reason.” (Al-Kafi)
Acquiring knowledge is a fundamental tool and is the fine line between success and failure, both in this world and the Hereafter. Allah says in the Qur’an, “The example of the two parties is like the blind and deaf, and the seeing and hearing. Are they equal in comparison?” (11:24) In another verse, Allah says, “Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees.” (58:11)
So it is clear that those who are armed with knowledge are safe and successful…or are they? The truth is that they are safe as long as their knowledge is not corrupted by other factors. And yes, there are many factors that can take even the most knowledgeable and send them straight to hellfire. We shall shed light on some of these factors.
Greed and Desires
Loving this world is part of our natural composition, and without any guidelines, we will gravitate towards it. Allah says in the Qur’an, “Beautified for people is the love of that which they desire: of women and sons, heaped-up sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, and cattle and tilled land. That is the enjoyment of worldly life.” (3:14)
With those desires in place, there is another important phenomenon we need to shed light on: the philosophy of give and take. In this context, we provide service, and we get our desires fulfilled. For example, we pay money to get a meal that fulfills our hunger, we work 40 hours a week to get paid our salary, we stay up and study all night to get a better grade in the exam, and so no.
Greed is that power that drives us towards getting what we want. It can be constructive when it is used in learning more and helping others. However, it can be destructive, and that is what it is generally known for, when used to further individual goals and desires often at the expense of others.
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) summarizes the above point when says, “Two seekers are never satisfied: the seeker of knowledge and the seeker of this world.” (Nahjul Balagha)
The danger lies when those who have knowledge and are able to save themselves and others yet allow greed to creep into the picture. It is then that the knowledge will be rendered useless, or in some cases be used to destroy others.
The Qur’an and history are filled with accounts of such cases.
Samiri was with Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), and when they crossed the sea, narrations say that he saw the angel Jibraeel on a horse from heaven. He then took a handful of dust from the footprints of the horse. This dust had the property of ‘coming to life’. He later used it in the golden calf to give the impression that it is alive, and many people were misguided by that. (Tafsir al-Mizan)
So Samiri had the knowledge of seeing the angel and the miracles of Prophet Musa and Jibraeel, yet he was greedy. The Qur’an shows the aspect of knowledge in Samiri when he says, “I saw what they did not see, so I took a handful [of dust] from the track of the messenger and threw it.” (20:96)
The same verse shows the greed of Samiri when he himself admits, “And thus did my soul entice me.” (20:96)
Another famous story from history is that of Umar ibn Sa’ad, who was torn between supporting Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) on one hand and becoming the governor of Ray on the other. He knew who Imam Hussain was. And he knew that he would lose the Hereafter. He had knowledge. But he himself admitted that Ray was his desire. And he chose that.
The Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) says, “Envy consumes faith just as fire consumes dry wood.” (Bihar al-Anwar)
Since envy involves wanting the destruction of the blessings of others, once it is instated in a person, that person will be occupied by that thought. Such a thought will lead one to either carry out the destruction or do even worse. Similar to greed, envy renders knowledge useless or even harmful.
And the examples are numerous, but it is enough to remember Cain who was envious of his brother Abel. This envy led him to murder, despite knowing it was his brother and despite knowing that Allah was watching.
Another example is Bal’am ibn Ba’oora who was a very pious person of high status to the point that he knew Ism al-A’adham (God’s Greatest Name). Yet, he was envious of Prophet Musa and his prophethood. Also, Bal’am was willing to follow his worldly desires. That envy and greed led him to attempt to use his knowledge of Allah’s Greatest Name and his closeness to Allah to try to destroy Prophet Musa. However, Allah punished him. The Qur’an refers to him as a dog in chapter 7, verse 176.
Knowledge is endangered when individuals factor in their position, social status, and public opinion of themselves. Pride will instill fear of tarnishing their public image. As that fear grows, they will be occupied by saving face and will be pushed towards taking every measure to ensure that.
History narrates many accounts like that. Pharaoh saw miracle after miracle from Prophet Musa. He could not get himself to bow down to Allah, and he continued to claim he was the “most exalted lord”. Abu Jahl saw miracle after miracle as well, but he could not forfeit his status as a leader of Quraysh and a prominent figure of the Arab. He called the Prophet crazy and a magician, and he fought Islam and the Prophet. Knowledge was presented, but he himself was corrupted. And the examples are many to recount here.
Stubbornness: the General Pitfall
The above three ‘corruptors’ are only examples that feed the “mother of corrupters” – stubbornness. After all, all those who are stubborn will accept the truth yet stand against it. Imam Ali says in Du’a Kumayl when speaking about hellfire, “And You [Allah] will place those who stubbornly resist therein [Hellfire] forever.”
Stubbornness will feed on worldly desires, envy, greed, pride, and more. Unless one uses one’s knowledge to tame it, it will destroy one in this world and the hereafter.
We should hang on to the teachings of Allah, the Qur’an, the Prophets, and the Imams, and use our sense of reason to not only acquire knowledge, but to also use it effectively for us to succeed and avoid ‘corruption’.