IE2019 Final Q2: Useful Knowledge

I taught a radical course on Islamic Economics 2019 (shortlink: at IIIE, IIUI last semester. A previous post on “Economic Theory: Purpose of Life” explained how this most important of all questions is given a wrong answer. Students absorb this answer, and adapt their lives to the only “rational” goal of the pursuit of pleasure by consumptions of goods and services. Exposing this fallacy of “The Coca-Cola Theory of Happiness” which lies at the heart of modern economics was one of the goals of my course. The next three questions on the final deal with the nature of knowledge which is imparted to us via our Western education. I have a previous lecture on “The Search for Knowledge” which was delivered to students of Research Methodology. I explained that what Western epistemology says about knowledge is radically different from what Islam teaches us. Islam teaches us the real “knowledge” teaches us how to live, and how to be human beings, while Western education teaches us how to be human resources. Obviously, when “knowledge” itself is defined differently, then the ways of our searching for knowledge (research methodology) must also be different. Questions 2,3,4 on the Final Exam of IE 2019 deal with various aspects of the difference in how knowledge is defined by the West, and how Islam defines knowledge.

Q2: Distinguish between Useful Versus Useless knowledge according to Western teachings and the same two concepts according to Islamic teachings.

A2: An extended discussion was given in a classroom lecture on this topic, linked in a post on “Useful Versus Useless Knowledge“. We provide a brief summary here. Since economics defines the purpose of life as the consumption of goods and services without limit, useful knowledge is whatever type of knowledge makes this possible. This means that knowledge which permits us to earn money is useful, and that which does not allow us to make money is useless. To illustrate this, consider a discussion which took place at Stanford University about low enrollments in the Social Sciences, some ten years ago. The faculty decided that we should inform students about the job opportunities and salaries available to graduates with these degrees, so as to attract them. In contrast to this, Islam tells us that useful knowledge enters the heart, and teaches us how to be human beings. All human beings are born with rare and unique qualities, and all have the potential to affect the lives of millions. Knowledge is what is required to nurture and grow this potential. From the start, this means that we must teach every student according to his or her own unique capabilities, instead of “Teaching Fish to Fly”. Constrast this with a Western education, which teaches all students the same subject matter in the same style. Students are not given the option of dissent — all must master the existing corpus of knowledge. This makes Western education a form of “Brainwashing, instead of Meta-Level Analysis “. The best Islamic education teaches us to study questions, and different answers given by different parties based on different arguments, and then to learn how to evaluate these arguments — this is called meta-level analysis, because it analyzes different arguments, instead of teaching us what to believe.

To summarize, “useful” and “useless” is always with respect to some goal. If the goal of life is to make money, then useful knowledge is that which helps us to make money. On the other hand, if the goal of life is to develop the potential for excellence which we are all created with, then useful knowledge is about teaching us how live, in order to grow this potential. The purpose of life actually shapes how we live, and our identities; a short english talk on “Learn Who You Are!” explains how and why we have been trained to believe in false and meaningless goals, in order to conceal true identities from our own selves. This is the first segment of a much longer talk in Urdu to Iqra University students on “Learning to be a human being, instead of a human resource“.  Finally, because a Western education is designed to turn us into standardized machine parts for use in the labor market, it fails to educate us on the burning questions we face in our personal lives. Instead of this meaningless education, we need to learn about “Getting a Real Education”.

This entry was posted in Education, Islamic Knowledge 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.

10 thoughts on “IE2019 Final Q2: Useful Knowledge

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