Is Knowledge of God Gifted Knowledge or Earned Knowledge – Remarks of ‘Allamah Majlisi & ‘Allamah Tabatabai

Two books I was introduced to very early on in the Ḥawzah were Maṣābīḥ al-Anwār fī Ḥall al-Mushkilāt al-Akhbār of al-Sayyid ‘Abdullah Shubbar (d. 1827) published in two volumes, and Ta’līqāt bar Biḥār al-Anwār of ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī (d. 1981). The first book is a series of traditions which are difficult to understand and comprehend, oftentimes contradicting accepted Shī’ī theological positions and so on, and al-Sayyid Shubbar attempts to address these traditions and offer interpretations by which they can be reconciled and justified.

The second work is an even more interesting one with a controversial backstory to it. It is essentially a series of critical remarks written by ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī during his young age, on ‘Allāmah Majlisī, the author of the encyclopedic work Biḥār al-Anwār. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī considered Biḥar al-Anwār as a very crucial and important work, however, he had serious issues with how ‘Allāmah Majlisī explained and interpreted certain traditions. He found his explanations rather weak, deficient, or outright flawed on many occasions and took it upon himself to write these remarks against him which were to be published by a publishing company. Unfortunately, ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī could only manage to go up to six volumes (of the more than 100 volumes) before the uneasiness of the seminary of Qom and Najaf, and the pressure mounted on him by scholars and some jurisconsults got to him and he was essentially forced to stop writing.

The story of this second book itself requires an article of its own as there are a lot of details to it, and perhaps it is something I will write about in the future. Since then, numerous articles have been written doing a comparative study of the interpretations provided by both scholars, some in favour of ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī and some in favour of ‘Allāmah Majlisī.

In any case, reading through both these works, even if not cover to cover, but rather every now and then, really helps a student see how a rigorous treatment of any given ḥadīth looks like and how different hermeneutical principles are at play while interpreting them. In ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī’s critique against Majlisī, we find him giving very unique interpretations of various traditions and even discussing certain philosophical concepts independently.

One of the shortest remarks he makes against ‘Allāmah Majlisī is the one I am sharing below in this post. It concerns a very old discussion regarding the nature of knowledge and whether it is God-gifted or something that has to be earned by humans. The origins of this discussion can be traced back to the earliest centuries of Islamic scholarship and scholars from different backgrounds, such as the theologians, philosophers, ḥadīth scholars, mystics and so on, have all contributed to it. In volume 5, pg. 221 of Biḥar al-Anwār, there is a chapter with 13 traditions that apparently discuss the fact that knowledge is something that is granted by Allah (swt).

After these 13 traditions, ‘Allāmah Majlisī gives his explanation regarding some traditions that make it appear that knowledge is acquired rather than gifted and that is what is translated below, followed by ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī’s response to it.


‘Allāmah Majlisī: Furthermore, know that the traditions of this chapter and many traditions from the previous chapters, show that the cognition (ma’rifah) of Allah, rather even the cognition of the Messenger (p) and the Imāms (as), and all the religious beliefs is gifted (mawhabīyyah) and not earned (kasbiyyah). It is possible to predicate the traditions as referring to:

a) a perfection in His cognition,

b) or that He will argue against them with that which He gave them, such as the intellects, and none of his creation – not even the Messengers – have the power to guide another or to explain Him,

c) or it may mean that one who increases knowledge is the Lord, but he has commanded the servants to strive in acquiring it through contemplation and reflection so that they can prepare themselves for it, as the tradition of ‘Abd al-Raḥīm alludes to,

d) or it has been said that this knowledge is specifically that which is not dependant on one’s knowledge of the truthfulness of the Messengers, because, besides other knowledge,1 we can only know it through that which Allah has made us aware of through the tongues of His Prophets (p) and His Ḥujaj (as),

e) or it has been said that what they mean is the knowledge of the specific rulings due to the lack of independence of the intellect on those matters,

d) or they mean that despite acquisition (iktisāb) one only attains it through His assistance.

This is what can be said in the interpretation of the traditions, though most of the interpretations are far-fetched.

‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī: It should not remain hidden that the will (al-irādah), which is a criterion for free-will (al-ikhtiyār), is not extended to anything except through a previous concept (taṣawwur) and an affirmation (taṣdīq) – indeterminately (ijmālan) or determinately (tafṣīlan). It is impossible for the will to be extended to actual cognition and knowledge and for it to be from (the instances) of free-willed actions of the servant, like the bodily actions. This is what the traditions are referring to. As for the determined aspects of knowledge and cognition, then they are earned, dependant on free-will and on a medium, meaning that contemplating on the premises allows a human to be prepared for the increment of the conclusion from Him. Despite this, knowledge is not from one of the actions of humans. The details for this discussion can be referred to in its appropriate place.


  1. Knowledge that is not dependant on affirming the truthfulness of the Prophets.

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