Walā taqfu mā laysa laka bihi ‘ilm
Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge.
(Sūrat al-Isrā, No.17, Āyat 36)
Intrinsic to human nature is to pursue that which we know. A person whose natural instinct has not been corrupted pursues those matters which he knows are an external reality. Vague ideas, assumptions, doubtful issues, are different from reality. These cannot be pursued or acted upon in any way. The reality that can be discerned by the self is pursued. Other unknown realities are derived from those who have knowledge in those fields. It is important to gain realities from sources that themselves have certain knowledge about those realities. The truth of that reality is learned and becomes one’s own knowledge.
Many everyday examples of the above can be seen in daily life. When we don’t know a path to a certain destination we ask those who know about it. We learn it from them. Then we follow it. We cannot wander on a path without knowing where we are going. We need directions from one who knows rather than rely on our own deficient knowledge. Or ask someone who themselves do not have certain knowledge of it.
This verse tells the believer to refrain from going on the path about which he knows nothing. Allama Tabātabā’ī in Tafsīr al-Mīzān says this verse commands the following;
• Do not believe in something you are not certain about
• Do not speak about something you do not know
• Do not do something you have no knowledge about
This is a comprehensive command which applies to individual actions as well as in interactions and judgement of others. It covers many wrongdoings such as backbiting, giving false witness, spreading rumors, etc.
The Ma‘sūmīn (a) would advise their companions to avoid listening and speaking without knowledge. They encouraged them to be guards over their ears and heart. The second part of the above verse reads: Indeed hearing, eyesight, and the heart—all of these are accountable (Q 17:36). When a companion of Imam Ja‘far al-Sādiq (a) eavesdropped on a fight in a neighbor’s home, the Imam recited the above verse for him. It was a message telling him not to make assumptions without having certain knowledge about the matter. Imam Zaynul ‘Ābidīn (a) says: A human being does not have the right to say whatever he wishes [without knowing] (Tafsīr Nūr al-Thaqalayn).
Let this verse remind you that it is wrong to pursue that about which you have no knowledge. Everything in life must be based on certain realities. These are derived from the self, or from those who have reliable and authentic knowledge. That is how human society best functions.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.