Edited and Slides by Omar K Neusser
08 The Distinction Between ʿilm and maʿrifa
In Arabic the primary word for knowing is ʿilm . Scholars translate the word variously according to context – knowledge, learning, science. The distinction between ʿilm and maʿrifa coincides more or less with that between ‘knowing’ and ‘recognizing’ in English. ‘Knowing’ is such a basic human experience that it cannot be defined, not least because it is presupposed in every definition.
‘Recognizing’ is then a specific sort of knowing, namely recovering in yourself a knowledge that you already know. To speak of recognizing God is to suggest the Qurʾanic notion that knowledge of God pertains to human nature – we are born with it but tend to forget it.
The goal of human learning is then to remember and recognize what we have forgotten. Here the Qurʾanic teaching recalls Plato and his notion of anamnesis – the elimination of our amnesia. Parallels are abundant in ancient texts, such as the teaching of Mencius (6A11) that the goal of life is to recover our lost heart.
Muhyiddin Ibn `Arabi; Presentation of Some 29 Texts
 I discussed the way Ibn al-ʿArabī understands the relationship between ʿilm and maʿrifa in The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), pp. 47ff., but in my various translations over the years I have made little attempt to distinguish between the two roots (except in the case of ʿārif, ‘gnostic,’ as contrasted with ʿālim, ‘knower,’ or ‘scholar’).