In most of the Quranic verses and the Islamic traditions the concept of Ilm (knowledge) appears in its absolutely sense, as can be seen from examples given below:
Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? (39:9)
(God) taught man what he knew not (96:5)
It has been a subject of fundamental importance from the early days of Islam as to which kind of knowledge Islam recommends; is there any specific kind of knowledge to be sought?
Some well-known Muslim scholars have counted as praise-worthy only those branches of knowledge which are directly connected with religion.
As for other types of knowledge they hold the view that it is up to the community to decide which of them are essential for the sustenance and welfare of the community.
We believe that there can be no restriction on the acquisition of knowledge, and, if there were any limitations of this kind, our Holy Prophet (SAW) would have mentioned them.
We do not approve the classification of sciences into "religious" and "non-religious". As the Martyr Professor Murteda Mutahhari has rightly pointed out, such classifications may entail the misconception that the "nonreligious" sciences are alien to Islam, and this seems incompatible with the universality of Islam. The religion which claims to bestow full felicity upon mankind. A religion that considers itself self-sufficing cannot estrange itself from the issues which play a vital role in securing welfare and independence for the Islamic society. According to the late Mutahhari:
"Islam's comprehensiveness and finality as a religion demands that every field of knowledge that is beneficial for an Islamic society be regarded as a part and parcel of the 'religious sciences'"
Some Quranic verses and the Prophet's traditions are explicit in pointing out that knowledge does not mean only learning the principles and laws of the religion.
Holy Quran verse:
And certainly We gave knowledge to Dawood and Sulaiman, and they both said: Praise be to Allah, Who has made us to excel many of His believing servants. And Sulaiman was Dawood's heir, and he said: O men! we have been taught the language of birds, and we have been given all things; most surely this is manifest grace. (27:15-16)
We see that Sulaiman (AS) considers knowing the language of birds as a divine blessing or grace.
Holy Prophet (SAW) sayings:
Seek knowledge by even going to China, for seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim.
Wisdom is the believer's lost property therefore, wherever he finds it, he deserves more than anyone else to have it.
Imam ali (AS) sayings:
Wisdom is the lost property of believers, then seek it even if it be with polytheists, because you deserve to have it more than they do.
Grasp wisdom from whoever offers it to you, see what is said not who Says it.
All these sayings indicate that acquisition of knowledge is not confined to learning the principles and laws of religion, because it is quite obvious that China in those days was not the center of theological studies, but it was famous for its industry. Moreover, it is clear that the laws and principles of Islam could not be learnt from atheists or polytheists.
Another reason for believing that 'desirable' knowledge is not confined to theological studies or the Shari'ah laws dealing with permissible and forbidden is the invaluable heritage itself left by Muslim scholars of the first few centuries after Hijrah.
It is also confirmed by contemporary historians that Muslim scholars have been the torch bearers of science for many centuries, and their works were used as text books in Europe for several hundred years.
In fact, a major reason why Muslim scholars assimilated the scientific heritage of other nations was that they did not see any conflict between the goals of science and religion, and were convinced that both religion and science aimed to demonstrate the unity of nature which in turn is an indication of the Unity of its Creator. It was for this very reason that theology and rational and physical sciences made up a conjoint discipline to be taught in theological schools and mosques.
Hence we may conclude that the word Ilm as it occurs in the Quran and Sunnah appears in its generic sense rather than referring exclusively to religious studies. On this ground it can be said Islam has only discourage Muslims from preoccupying themselves with any pursuit of such branches of knowledge whose harm is greater than their benefit (like magic and sorcery and games of chance used for gambling).
The relevant sayings of the Prophet (SAW) may be noted:
The best fields of knowledge are those which bring benefit.
O God! Benefit me through knowledge that You have bestowed on me, teach me whatever would benefit me, and increase my knowledge.
Imam Ali (AS) is related as having said:
There is no good in knowledge which does not benefit.
Knowledge is too immense in scope for anyone to be able to learn all of it. So learn from each science its useful parts.
There is no division of opinion on the necessity of acquiring knowledge relevant to religious studies. Accordingly, we shall abstain from any further discussion of the subject. Instead, it is worthwhile to concentrate on the question of necessity of learning other sciences in the view of the Quran and Sunnah.
In this regard there are a number of arguments which we shall take up immediately.
1- If knowledge of a science is a prerequisite to the attainment of Islamic goal as imaged by the Shari'ah, its pursuit is an obligation (Wajib) since it entails the preliminary condition for fulfillment of a duty prescribed by the Shari'ah. For example, the physical welfare of individuals in an Islamic society is necessary, hence it is a "Wajib kifa'i" for the Muslims to study medicine.
Some are of the opinion that in this context the duty to learn any specific science depends on the need of the society for it. For example, in our day, in order to succeed in large scale agriculture or commerce, specialized knowledge of these subjects is necessary. Accordingly, it is a Wajib kifa'i for Muslims to specialize in these fields.
Evidently, if Muslims are to restrict their learning's to what has already been established in other countries, in other words, to be satisfied with the minimum of their scientific requirements, they will never be able to beat the non-Muslim world in scientific progress.
2- The society envisioned by the Quran is an independent society of majesty and magnificence, not one submissive to and dependent on the unbelievers, as can be seen from this verse of the Quran:
"...and Allah does not grant the unbelievers any way (of domination) over the believers." (4:141)
In order to realize this goal set by the Quran, it is essential that the Islamic society should have cultural, political and economic independence; this in turn necessitates training of specialists of high caliber in every field and creation of the necessary scientific and technical facilities in Islamic societies. It is clear that one of the reasons of decline of Muslim societies in the recent centuries is that they left the study of those sciences to others which they themselves deserved to study most and made themselves dependent on others.