From Cradle to Grave

Posted in Knowledge, Philosophy at 1:54 am by Haider

(To read a summary of this post click here)

Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family)

I find the saying quoted above very interesting, and deserves some time for reflection. It’s intended as a piece of advice, or an instruction. An instruction is information that changes (or guides) your behaviour, if you choose to act on it. And since you can decide whether to follow the instruction or not, instructions only apply where you are able to make a decision.

A doctor can instruct you to take some medication, and give you instructions on how you should take it, but he cannot instruct the medicine on how it should behave. A marriage counsellor can advise the husband on how he should treat his wife, but he cannot instruct him on how she should treat him (the decision would rest with the wife). You cannot “instruct” a person on what he should look like, who his parents should be, or what will happen to him if he jumps out of a window.

Similarly, you cannot instruct an infant to acquire knowledge, since he cannot understand the instruction in the first place. Therefore, what does it mean to seek knowledge “from the cradle,” when we are not able to make such a decision as babies? Is the saying intended to be an exaggerration, to highlight how important the pursuit of knowledge is?

The answer is that a baby’s pursuit of knowledge is not instructed, but a natural process. What the saying means is: continue your pursuit of knowledge, from the cradle (when you could not decide to not acquire knowledge) to the grave (until you lose your ability to make any more decisions). The saying not only highlights the importance of knowledge in our lives, but that it’s something natural to us, which we should not discontinue once we are able to decide what actions to take and avoid.

To simply label the saying as a “rhetorical exaggerration” is to ignore some important meanings in the saying. We are always in need of knowledge, not only when we are able to make decisions. An adult’s intellectual development depends on his mental development as a child. We should never forget that as knowledge served us as children, and continued to serve us as adults (including the knowledge we acquired as children), we should, in turn, continue to gain more knowledge, so that we can benefit from more knowledge in our lives.

We should also note that the years from the cradle to the grave can be divided into different phases, where the type of knowledge we acquire is different. This is one of the main reasons why we should always continue to seek knowledge. What follows is a caricature-representation of the phases we go through in our learning development, but it serves to demonstrate the different types of knowledge we pursue as we move from one phase into another. For a more definitive explanation of our mental development I would need to consult some scientific studies in the field, which I’m afraid I have not done to date:

As infants, we accustom ourselves to the use of our senses, the perceptions we make and the causal relations between our experiences. At this stage, we do not have an understanding of language. Language opens the door to a vast range of new information that we can acquire, which is not directly related to our perceptions, but we can come to understand based on our experiences.

The primary focus of children is to understand how the world works. The focus then shifts to understanding ourselves better, and what purpose we seek out of life. We can also experience a phase of trying to understand other people, and how best to communicate with them. When trying to make a living, we seek to understand business better, and what can lead to financial success. Each phase in our lives needs new information, and we cannot simply rely on the information we have acquired in the past to serve us throughout our lives.

The saying doesn’t make it clear what type of knowledge is being referred to (whether secular or religious), but this will need another post to cover thoroughly. The short answer I can offer at this time is: both. However, many people would disagree with me, and, at this time, I can only reply with: stay tuned for my reasons!

Summary of "From Cradle to Grave"

A look at Prophet Muhammad’s saying: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

It is an instruction, but how can a child follow the instruction to seek knowledge from the cradle? This saying isn’t an instruction to the child, but indicates that a child will naturally seek knowledge, and that we should not stop seeking knowledge when we have the choice.

Also, in each phase of our lives we will pursue a different type of knowledge, but we are always in need of knowledge at each stage of our lives.


  1. Hassan said,

    February 27, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Firstly i would like to compliment you on this blog, not only is your English impeccable, the issues you raise and your insights are very interesting.

    I like this topic in particular as it can relate to your other entries and more specifically the idea behind this blog as a whole, the spreading and exchange of information to expand knowledge. I would like to highlight the fact that you attain certain attributes automatically when gaining knowledge, these include power and responsibility. The more truth you know the more powerful you are as you can perform accordingly and attain better results. This automatically makes you responsible morally speaking not to use knowledge in an unethical manner.

    The definition of knowledge : the conclusions made when processing information, these can differ from one person to another due to interpretation. However information is simply sorted data, this doesnt usually differ. This means that knowledge is a personal experience that leads to personal results and furthermore moving peoples minds to different directions.

    Experience is the best example of knowledge as your conclusions are made first hand when realizing consequences of your actions.

    referring to the quote i believe its made as a suggestion of how our attitudes should be. To continuously allow ourselves to listen and learn, to be open minded, the type of knowledge is irrelevant its the principle behind this behaiviour. It teaches us to be open minded and gain knowledge of how others view life and how they feel. Not to be so sure that you know it all but be modest in knowing you are a student, not to limit yourself to what you know. To have more interest in the process of learning even if its to do with a person knowing himself. Knowledge to an extent cannot just be passed down because it is only information unless you gather the useful concepts behind it. So its about being upto date aswell, knowing things for yourself from the world around you.

    Competing these days in the workplace, dealing with people, understanding yourself, making your family happy, being one with god . . teaching your children, how do you become a master of these issues, well simply the more you know the better you become. The higher you set your goals the more you ask yourself how it can be achieved thus the more knowledge you need. So it is the key driver of success.

    excuse me for not being as precise as you are. I’m a much better talker!! especially as i can distract you with my hands . . .

    thanks again for the blog

  2. Haider said,

    February 27, 2008 at 8:08 am

    Hassan, some very interesting points..

    I especially liked your comments about the meaning of knowledge, and how our pursuit of knowledge should change our attitude, moving towards being open minded, rather than see ourselves as “know it alls.”

    You’re very observant… are we related some how? 😛

  3. Hassan said,

    February 27, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    genius is genetic, so we must have adopted you from a clever family haha

  4. Seth said,

    March 18, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Many psychologists have tackled the issue of cognitive development, and thus there discoveries are relevant to this post. (see Piaget, Baldwin, Erikson to name a few)

    Haider, do you see the connection between Mohammed’s “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.” and the story of Yeshua (Jesus is a Greek name) telling his “disciples” that those who enter the Kingdom of God will be like suckling infants?

    Hassan, there is a mountain of psychological evidence to dispute your claim that “Experience is the best example of knowledge.” Although it sounds good, it just isn’t true. Humans pervert nothing more than their own memories and experiences. Objective knowledge is the best form of knowledge, not subjective. It is also the most reliable and testable. For example, in a court case, which is more valuable: an eye-witness account or a video?

  5. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Seth, I wouldn’t connect the quote from Prophet Jesus (peace be on him) to this particular saying by Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family), but there are several other sayings that refer to people entering heaven as being sinless, like suckling infants.

    Also, I believe the point Hassan was making is that we acquire knowledge through our own experiences. If you’ve never used a computer before, you can learn quite a lot by experimenting with it.

  6. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    I do not think the connotation to suckling infants is to be sinless. It is to be seeking nourishment innately–seeking knowledge, the peace of the Lord, freedom. Perhaps an infant is a sign of innocence, but a suckling infant has a different symbolism entirely.

    There is always so much emphasis on what we should not do (sin) that we lose sight of what we are being taught to do. There is a scripture in the Gospel of Mary Magdelene (I do not limit myself to canonized Gospels) where she asks Yeshua “What is the worst sin?” and he replies “There is no sin. You are the one who has made sin.” (paraphrased- I can get the exact wording when I get home)

  7. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    And as far as the point Hassan was making, it still isn’t right. At some point in time, the computer existed no where save a man’s imagination. He had never “used a computer before” and yet he had a more detailed understanding than the millions who do today.

    Do we all have to make that cognitive leap? No. But does that mean that we couldn’t? No.

    A cow learns best from experience. A dog learns best from experience. At some point the human race has to accept that we are of a higher cognitive ability than that.

    This is not to say that we can’t learn from experience, I am just challenging the idea that “Experience is the best example of knowledge.”

  8. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Suckling infants can mean many different things, but it depends on the context to know what they represent (symbolize).

    I’d actually be interested in reading the gospel you mentioned, but a quote for now would be nice 😀

    I don’t know what Prophet Jesus (Yeshua) meant to be able to comment on it.

    As for Hassan’s point, he’s not saying that experience is the best *form* of knowledge, but the best example of acquiring knowledge. Before a child can read, he relies on his experiences to make sense of the world around him.

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