Useful Versus Useless Knowledge

[] Islamic Economics, IIIE, IIUI, Spring 2019, Course Website. Variant Post on LinkedIn: []

Lecture 8 – Review of Midterm == First question was discussed in the first two-hour segment of the lecture. The First Question of the midterm is replicated below, with some clarifications. Note that the question itself is never posed in standard economics classes. The discussion, given in the lecture, also explains why this question must be addressed in any study of economics.

FIRST QUESTION ON MIDTERM: In the first and second lectures, we discussed the PURPOSE of life, and how it affects everything we do. Related to this topic, answer the following questions

  1. What does Islam teach us about the purpose of life? This is what SHOULD be the purpose of life for Muslims.
  2. What is the purpose of your life, according to your thoughts? That is, what we actually think is the purpose of life. This requires some digging, to separate what we really think from what we are supposed to think.
  3. What is the purpose of your life, according to your actions? Our actions reveal our purposes, and they may not be aligned with our thoughts. They are almost surely not aligned with Islamic ideals.
  4. What does Western education teach us about the purpose of life? HOW does it do this?
  5. How can we resolve the conflict between our thoughts and our actions, regarding the purpose of life?

This question is extremely important, and a foundation for all further study. It is completely ignored and neglected in the West, for which reason, I have given a lengthy two hour detailed discussion: [download 2hr Audio File in m4a format 113MB]

The audio-recording, linked above, provides a two-hour classroom discussion (in urdu) of this question, and its links to the study of economics. This post is about the first 12 minutes of the lecture [Download Urdu Audio MP3 file], which discuss the PRELIMINARY topic of Useful and Useless knowledge. A separate video recording and discussion in English is also available on LinkedIn Post: Useful Versus Useless Knowledge.  The URDU 12-minute video recording of this initial segment is provided below. This post outlines the key points in this discussion.

The 12-minute video (initial segment of full 2-hour lecture) resolves a very important PUZZLE. Our beloved Prophet Mohammad SAW made DUA for acquisition of useful knowledge and also SOUGHT the protection of Allah from USELESS knowledge. So, from the Islamic point of view, there is a clear distinction between the two types of knowledge. On the other hand, Western EPISTEMOLOGY (theory of knowledge) DENIES this distinction. The West claims that all types of knowledge are potentially useful, so we cannot tell the difference between useful and useless knowledge. So how can decide which position is correct, and how do we know what kind of knowledge is useful or useless? This requires consideration of the purpose of life, as explained in this first segment of the lecture. (Video/Audio Lecture is in URDU, but the brief explanations given below are in English).

Lecture 8 Part A: Useful and useless knowledge [Summary of 12m Video in Urdu linked Above]

Q1: What is USEFUL Knowledge?

A1: Useful knowledge teaches us HOW TO LIVE OUR UNIQUE AND PRECIOUS LIVES?

Q2: What is HARMFUL Knowledge?

A2: This type of knowledge leads us to WASTE our lives pursuing inferior or useless GOALS.

EVERY GOAL is a GOD, which demands our obedience. LA ILAHA ILLALLAH means that we have NO GOALS OTHER than the pleasure of ALLAH.

In contrast to the Islamic view given above, the Western Point of View is that there is no such distinction – All knowledge is equal. We do not know now whether or not knowledge would be useful. For example, the study of bats led to knowledge of SONAR. Bats are blind and emit sound waves. By listening to the reflection of the sound waves they learn the location of objects. This example is used to show that sometimes, studying bats – which seems completely useless – can lead to extremely useful knowledge. There are many ways to answer this Western argument. One of them is that if we start to study everything, without discrimination, we can end up with a lot of garbage in our heads. In fact, the vast proportion of what is known as modern economics has no relation to reality. As we discuss later on in this lecture, it is not just useless, it is positively harmful knowledge. To see that this is not a personal and prejudiced point of view,  we provide some quotes from leading economists who have said something very much like this.

Quotes Critical of Economics (  has a much large collection of quotes:

“Modern economics is sick. Economics has increasingly become an intellectual game played for its own sake and not for its practical consequences for understanding the economic world …  Economists have converted the subject into a sort of social mathematics in which analytical rigour is everything and practical relevance is nothing.”  Mark Blaug Disturbing currents in modern economics – trends in 1990s economics

“Existing economics is a theoretical [meaning mathematical] system which floats in the air and which bears little relation to what happens in the real world” Ronald Coase

Directly relevant to our themes in Islamic WorldView, Julie Nelson in “Poisoning the Well: How Economic Theory damages the Moral Imagination” argues that by portraying selfishness as rational, economic theory has made many types of anti-social and publicly harmful behavior socially acceptable. It has also influenced, many businesspeople, judges, sociologists, philosophers, policymakers, critics of economics, and the public at large to come to tolerate greed and opportunism, or even to expect or encourage them. Her paper gives examples of the harms inflicted in the areas of law, care work, the environment, and ethics itself.

The above discussion shows how Western failure to distinguish between useful and useless knowledge has caused a lot of harmful knowledge to become acceptable, and to be taught in universities and colleges, without any realization with damaging consequences

Next, we clarify the Islamic point of view. In the first revelation to our prophet in the cave of Hira, Allah T’aala introduced Himself as the ONE who gives knowledge to man of that which man does not know. Islam is full of exhortations to seek knowledge, and full of praise for those who seek knowledge. The Angels spread their wing underneath the feet of the seeker of knowledge. The ones who know are far superior to the ones who do not. Knowledge is among the Greatest Gifts of God. It was the thirst for knowledge created by the teachings of Islam that led the early Muslims to leadership of the World, and a Civilization that enlightened the world for a thousand years.

It is clear that knowledge is extremely important, indeed central to Islam. This makes it even more important to find out how we define “Useful Knowledge”:

Useful knowledge teaches how to make the best use our unique and precious lives.

Each moment of our lives is precious, and cannot be purchased for all the treasure in the world.

But HOW can we realize our hidden potentials, and how can we make our lives valuable?

This requires learning who we are, what we are meant to be, how can we achieve the infinite potential which we are all born with? Useful knowledge us teaches us how to live our lives to the fullest. HARMFUL knowledge deceives us into making the wrong efforts and wasting our lives.

In order to be able to discriminate between useful and useless knowledge, we must first determine the Purpose of our Life. Useful means useful for achieving a goal. Without knowing purpose of life, we cannot tell what is useful or useless. This is the key to the puzzle – Modern secular thought in the West, which is dominant in Western education, teaches us that  life is meaningless. Universe was created by an accident, life came into being by an accident, and death will come by another accident. If life itself is meaningless, then all knowledge, as well as lack of knowledge, is meaningless.

Even this issue requires debate, discussion, thought – is life meaningless or is it meaningful.

We cannot pass by this question in silence. Unfortunately, this is what is done in Western education. Since the question is never discussed, Western education teaches the student that this question is not important, or that it cannot be answered. This is a big mistake.

So HOW can we determine Purpose of our lives?

For Muslims, the purpose is given to us by the Quran: It is to please Allah, by doing the best of deeds. To strive for success on the day of judgment. To achieve excellence in conduct, following the Sunnah of the Prophet Mohammad SAW

For those who are not muslims, they should PONDER the bigger questions? Was this universe created by accident, or is there a CREATOR? Listen to both sides of the argument. Try to decide who is right. Explore the different factions and see which one appeals to your heart. The first step is to UNDERSTAND the importance of this question – How we spend our lives depends entirely on the answers, so we cannot afford to neglect thinking seriously about this question.

My own journey towards Islam is described in a short autobiography. From this, I would make a recommendation to those who are in doubt about the existence of God. Make a CONDITIONAL prayer for guidance, like that of Ibraheem AS – O God (if you exist) Please guide me, for I cannot reach you without YOUR HELP. This is explained in my biography.

The final point discussed in this 12 minute initial discussion is central to Islam. The Quran writes that we all have multiple goals that we strive for. Every goal, every purpose that we work for, is like a GOD. What we are trying to achieve, WHO we are trying to please, THESE are our GODS.

Islam teaches us to REJECT all gods, and make ONLY ALLAH T’aala our God. All other GODS are false gods. If we pursue those gods and achieve those goals, we will get nothing of value. The only goal worth pursuing is the pleasure of Allah. As Muslims, we should focus on PLEASING ALLAH only, even if the WHOLE WORLD is displeased.


Course Website:

Islamic WorldView Blog:

A Western education poisons our minds in many different ways. One of them is the complete neglect and disregard of the meaning and purpose of lives, which is the central question we all must answer, in order to learn what our lives are about, and how to make the best of our few precious moments on this planet. The strategy for doing this is to avoid discussion of purpose, and to avoid discussion of what is Useful Versus Useless Knowledge. When we cannot differentiate between them, it become possible to teach us a lot of useless garbage, without our realization.  Some other poisons are discussed in the posts linked below:

  • The First Poison: Eurocentric History: A Western education teaches us the history started in sixteenth century Europe, when mankind first learned to throw off chains of ignorance and superstitions, and learned to reason and develop science, technology, democracy, and all good things known to man. A counter-narrative is presented in “An Islamic WorldView: An essential part of an Islamic Education
  • The Second Poison: Secular Knowledge– The idea that there are two separate realms of knowledge, and worldly knowledge and religious knowledge are different and separable.
  • The Third Poison: Worship of Wealth– A Western education teaches us that development is acquistion of wealth, fame, power, popularity, pleasure. In fact, these worldly and materialistic goals are false gods, which do not have the power to satisfy us – as those people who achieve them learn from bitter personal experience.
  • The Fourth Poison: Homo Economicus– The idea that men have no hearts and souls is central to Western social science. This leads to a stupid definition of “rationality” as being short-sighted greed and the search for pleasure. This idea influences people and prevents them from achieving the spiritual development which is essential to developing our hidden capabilities and potentials for excellence. In this connection, see “Islam’s Gift; An Economy of Spiritual Development“.

In fact, there are many other poisons, too many to be listed. But after understanding some of the central wrong and harmful ideas, it becomes easier to pick out other problems and errors, and learn to see the brilliant light of Islam.

Post-Post Script: Slides for the presentation can be downloaded/viewed from SlideShare, and Scribd. Similar post in English, with 16m English Video-Lecture is on LinkedIn.


This entry was posted in Critique of Conventional Economics, islamic economics, Islamic Knowledge, methodology by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

14 thoughts on “Useful Versus Useless Knowledge

  1. Thank you so much sir, Its stunning and deep sensitive.

    On Mon, Apr 22, 2019, 7:35 PM An Islamic WorldView wrote:

    > Asad Zaman posted: “Islamic Economics, IIIE, IIUI, Spring 2019, Course > Website: Lecture 8 – Review of Midterm == First > question was discussed in the first two-hour segment of the lecture. The > First Question of the midterm is replicated below, with some” >

  2. Pingback: The Third Poison: Worship of Wealth | An Islamic WorldView

  3. Pingback: Central Myths of Eurocentric History | An Islamic WorldView

  4. Pingback: Knowledge to Change the World | An Islamic WorldView

  5. Pingback: Islamic Approaches to Knowledge | An Islamic WorldView

  6. Pingback: IE2019 Final Q2: Useful Knowledge | An Islamic WorldView

  7. Pingback: IE 2019 Final Q5: Secular Knowledge | An Islamic WorldView

  8. Pingback: Foundations of an Islamic Approach to Knowledge – Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach-Farabi

  9. The article is well referenced, but excessive use of capitalization is considered polemical and sentimental among western audience. But it is also useful to highlight important concepts. The basic difference between Islam and West in context of this article lies in definition of utility and usefulness. We believe in infinite utility beyond death while they believe in finite utility. Even in terms of ethics, we are more concerned with deonotological ethics. So, the summary of this article is an impressive case of deonotological utility.

  10. Pingback: Islamic Economics and deonotological ethics | A spiritual Ishmaelite

  11. Pingback: 2-PIP Fellow Traveler Pedagogical Model | An Islamic WorldView

  12. Pingback: The Greatest Teacher of All Time | An Islamic WorldView

  13. Pingback: Ghazali Project: Revival of Religious Sciences | An Islamic WorldView

  14. Pingback: Central Ideas Part 2 | An Islamic WorldView

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s