As a child, my fervent prayer was always that God would give me wisdom. Prophet Sulaiman (as), even in Christian tradition, is known for his phenomenal wisdom, so I often scoured the book of Proverbs (supposed to have been written by him), searching for something that would make me wiser. I thought that if I prayed hard enough, I would wake up one day and suddenly have all the answers and have a poignant, succint comeback for everything… yet it never happened.
Now, several years later, I have come to realize that back then, I had no concept of what wisdom even was. And, I certainly had no ability to determine whether someone had wisdom or not. So, without any idea of what wisdom was or how to recognize it, I lacked the clarity to understand how to attain it.
Since converting to Islam, I have finally come to see what wisdom truly is, and am now able to recognize it, due to the Quran itself, and to the examples of the lives of the Prophet (saws) and his Ahl-Bait. In fact, the main reason for being so attracted to Islam, aside from the Quran, was the incredible wisdom of Imam Ali (as). I was so blown away by even the simplest utterances he spoke. I had never even imagined or encountered such deep wisdom and insight. Learning more about Imam Ali also helped me to learn more about the Prophet, because as the Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate.” Imam Ali never spoke of his own – he merely reflected what he learned from the Prophet. What a vast ocean of knowledge the Prophet then must have!
Discovering Imam Ali and his relationship to the Prophet helped me to finally understand an essential component to the path to gaining wisdom – knowledge. Having knowledge does not make you wise, yet it is impossible to be wise without having any knowledge. Therefore, a key ingredient to gaining wisdom is by acquiring knowledge.
So then, what is knowledge? The Prophet was once asked this very question. He responded by saying that first, knowledge is to keep silent. Next, it is to listen attentively. Then, it is to remember. Next, it is to act on upon what was learned, and finally, it is to teach others (Al-Majlisi, Bihar Al-Anwar, vol. 2 p. 28).
So, then, we must first be quiet – to stop talking, to stop guessing and making conjectures and adding our opinions – we need to stop everything and be silent, putting aside our stereotypes, preconceived ideas, and biases. Then we need to listen. Search out those who are knowledgeable and listen to them – don’t try to compete with them or judge that which you still do not have full knowledge of. Also keep in mind that knowledge can be gained from even the most unlikely sources, so we must keep an open mind to the fact that knowledge is not confined to one particular belief system or worldview. Once we start to listen, we then need to remember. Listening is useless if we don’t try to preserve the information in our own minds somehow, so that we can process it and begin to live by it and act upon it. Finally, we need to teach others – but not before all the prior steps have been completed. As Imam Ali said, “The one who teaches and instructs themselves is entitled to more esteem than one who teaches and instructs others.” Without having knowledge deeply imbedded in our own minds, it is impossible to effectively teach others.
Wisdom entails gaining knowledge. Wisdom involves being able to conceptualize and understand life experiences, which cannot be done without knowledge and guidance. We all know people who have had a lot of difficult experiences in life, but on closer evaluation, we often find that these experiences are patterned – the person continually does the same actions (mistakes) over and over again. So then, does their experience alone make them wise? No – because they lack the tools to analyze their experiences and learn from them – knowledge.
So why is it important to be knowledgeable anyway? Knowledge helps you understand yourself. The Prophet mentioned that understanding yourself is the path to coming closer to God. When you become self-aware, you can more accurately and objectively see yourself and how you fit into the world. You can also understand the world around you. You become more aware of your Creator – and more grateful, thankful, humbled,and submissive. Things are no longer sheer black and white – you will begin to see the abundance of various shades of color in between. Being able to see the various levels and complexities of the world around us helps us to accurately classify and categorize, and then use that information to guide our steps. As long as we are armed with true knowledge and pure intentions, we will never go astray from the true path.
As Imam Ali stated, “Knowledge is better than wealth. Knowledge guards you, while you have to guard the wealth. Wealth decreases by spending, while knowledge multiples by spending” (Nahj al-Balagha p. 600).
The pursuit of wisdom is a complex path that takes an entire lifetime to travel. The key to its attainment is taking each part of the process step by step, carefully and thoroughly, with patience and sincere intention.
“One who proceeds on a path in pursuit of knowledge, God makes him proceed therewith on a path to Paradise.” (Prophet Muhammad, Al-Kulayni, Al Kafi, vol. 1).
Sermons, letters, & sayings of Imam Ali (Nahj al-Balagha): http://www.al-islam.org/nahj/