Q: Do the secular sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy, Medicine, etc count as ‘ilm la yanfa` (knowledge that does not benefit)?
A: Knowledge that does not benefit, as it appears in the hadith, refers to Deeni knowledge that one does not practice upon. The benefit of Islamic knowledge is that one should become pious and God-fearing by practicing on such knowledge. When a learned person fails to practice on his Islamic knowledge, it means that his Ilm has not benefited him. The nafa’ or benefit is, therefore, the ability to practice on whatever one has learnt about Islam and thereby come closer to Allah Ta’ala and earn His Special Favour.
This has absolutely nothing to do with secular or scientific knowledge, because such branches of learning are not termed ilm or ‘knowledge’ in Shariah. Secular learning is termed science, information, subjects, skills, arts, etc. but does not fall within the definition of Ilm as defined by Quran and Hadith because such worldly knowledge does not assist a person in drawing closer to Allah. If it did, then today the scientists and secularists would be the most pious people and the most God-fearing. However, the exact opposite is true.
These secular subjects are beneficial in worldly terms, hence permissible to acquire, and sometimes necessary. One should not allow such branches of learning to become a means of spiritual or religious harm, such as corruption to one’s beliefs or indulgence in haraam worldly pursuit. When this happens commonly to people then Ulema will declare such learning to be haraam.
Mufti Siraj Desai