Issue 1 / January - March 1993
Islamic Perpective on Knowledge and Learning
Progress in knowledge and technology may be likened to the widening ripples caused by a pebble thrown in a pool of water. All civilizations have benefited from the knowledge of their predecessors and made their own contributions so that knowledge has accumulated and the frontiers of learning have been pushed forward.
The Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Roman, Mexican and Peruvian are the known ancient civilizations. The Egyptian civilization, for example, made a monumental contribution to the advancement of knowledge and technology. They left behind them huge constructions such as their pyramids and palaces which are wonders of technology. They also left their knowledge in other fields which influenced the civilizations that came after them. In particular, the ancient Greeks directly and through the Phoenicians were indebted to them. The Greeks learnt the craft of ship-making and see travel from the Phoenicians and also adopted their alphabet. They in turn created a distinct civilization. The Hellenic civilization encompassing the Greeks influenced the Romans, even though the Romans were their political and military masters. The Romans took over the Hellenic civilization but unfortunately, like their predecessors, they could not get rid of their prejudices or their superstitions. Therefore, they failed to prevent the monopolization of knowledge by a privileged class. Instead of using religion for general enlightenment, their priests used it to create and manipulate prejudices. Their general philosophy and attitudes were racist, their patriotism was cruel and exclusivist. It is not surprising that some of the wisest of the Greek philosophers were indicted by their priests, who were representing a paganistic religion, and the privileged class, put in prison, even executed. In contrast to Greek or Roman civilization, the Islamic civilization which provided a great portion of mankind with a long period of peace and prosperity was guided by the Divine revelation. All the positive developments within Islamic civilization were achieved by the Grace and the Mercy of God. The rise of Islamic civilization is looked upon as a âmiracleâ by many historians(1) because they cannot otherwise explain so rapid a spreading of knowledge and learning in the Muslim world. The secret of it lay in the Quran.
First and foremost the Qurâan teaches the unity of God, explains its importance and its infinite scope. It invites man repeatedly to think, to use the gift of intellect given him by God. It encourages him to contemplate the universe and the events taking place in it to discover the secret behind them and use his knowledge for the general good of humanity.(2)
The Qurâan also invites man to ponder nature as the wonderful creation of God. (3) Again and again it appeals to in manâs feelings and other faculties and invites him to ponder his own being and nature, and his environment. (4) According to the Qurâan. the knowledge and justice must be one and go together. (5) It gives glad tidings of the highest states to those who lead virtuous lives with steady faith.(6) From the Qurâanic injunctions it is obvious that the prosperity of a man in this world depends upon his knowledge and upon his ability to use it to harness the resources of nature created by God, the Enricher. This, of course, depends upon research, keen observation and experiment. (7) The Prophet Muhammad (peace he upon him) in the light of the Qurâanic teachings demonstrated the Qurâanic precepts in his words and deeds. He commended the pursuit of knowledge to the believers in the modern sense of the term knowledge. That is why the early Muslims leapt forward with such courage and strove to unite their faith with their knowledge and their deeds. As a result, in a short period of time, the Muslims amazed the world with their enterprise and achievement in every field of learning, science and technology, as well as in new general principles and ideas. The world has rightly seen this development as a âmiracleâ.
In the past knowledge and learning were the preserve of the privileged ruling classes and priests or religious intermediaries of some kind. Earlier civilizations were unable to break the monopoly of the exclusive, privileged few. For the first time in the history of mankind, Muhammad (peace be upon him) advanced the idea of the universality of knowledge in the light of the Qurâan (8) and put this idea into practice. Mankind was freed from the tyranny of priesthood, from the monopoly of knowledge by a few. The Scripture of Islam is not for the fewâit is the right of all and the duty of all. According to Islam, to seek knowledge is obligatory for every woman and every man. (9) Later, when Islamic rule extended from the gates of India to the Iberian peninsula in Europe, because of this Islamic attitude towards knowledge and learning, the number of Muslim scholars increased rapidly. In this way, the road to learning was opened to ordinary people, and did not remain the preserve of their rulers. The Qurâan (by ridding the minds of men of false gods and by urging them to study and utilize the good things in the creation) opened the road to the astounding innovations and achievements introduced by the Muslims in many scientific fields such as astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, and irrigation and agriculture. Also the same Qurâan urged the Muslims to institute the first ever programmes for public literacy and public hygiene. Because every Muslim had the duty (and the right) to read the Qurâan, and because through tawhid all knowledge was united to the Word of the One God, commonerâs were enabled to enter the distinguished class of scholars through education which had to be made available to everybody. Muslim rulers aimed to guarantee universal education to all their subjects without distinction. In addition, they made personal efforts to learn, and to enable and dispense learning (by setting up libraries, observatories and botanical gardens, for example) to the people. It was the first time that human history witnessed so wide and free exchange of ideas and intercourse amongst scholars from all nations and from every part of the Islamic world: Non-Muslims were not excluded from this achievement since Islam was from the outset a tolerant civilization.
Submission to God and following the tradition (sunnah) of the Prophet (peace be upon him), proved to be the keys to Muslim advancement in every field of life. Islam does not regard virtue and happiness as inevitably and permanently in conflict, nor does it look favourably upon that self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing spirituality which shuns the world altogether. Equally, Islam does not commend a quest for material progress without a moral and spiritual dimension; indeed for such progress to bring real happiness it must be rooted in faith and prayer. Islam attaches great importance to manâs reason and other faculties by which he may understand nature and discover the secret of the creation and so affirm and glorify his Creator, God. According to Islam, neither the pursuit of knowledge, science and technology, nor material prosperity, are ends in themselves. They are means to earn the pleasure of God. These means are legitimate as long as they do not conflict with the framework of precepts which the Qurâan proclaims as the proper environment for manâs moral and spiritual improvement.
Muslim scholars always began their treatises and books with the praises of God the All-Mighty and with salutations to the Prophet (peace be upon him). They always substantiated and supported their explanation of any problem, with verses of the Qurâan and with sayings (Hadith) of the Prophet (peace be upon him). When they put forward their own findings or ideas, they always added in conclusion âand God knows bestâ. In this way they expressed their humility before God and acknowledged that the full truth and complete knowledge of any thing is only with God, the All-Knowing. Therefore, Muslim scholars never idolized or defied knowledge. A leading scholar Al-Biruni (973-1051) wrote in his celebrated work, Kitab-al-Hind: We ask forgiveness of God for our mistakes. For, our every endeavour is for His pleasure. We pray Him to give us sense to distinguish between wheat and chaff. (10)
Modern science, together with its results, may be approved with respect to its contributions to life, understanding of nature, and man himself, and to the solution of manâs vital problems, whether material or spiritual. Besides, because of its true nature, science should be the means to attain true happiness in both worlds by enabling man to recognize his Creator. Otherwise, as witnessed in this last phase of human history science can be too deadly a weapon in the hands of an irresponsible minority. For knowledge devoid of spiritual and moral values may cause degeneration in the social life of man. One may ask, but what do Muslims expect to gain by knowledge? By way of answer, let us quote the views of Al-Ghazali on knowledge: Knowledge is the source of happiness in this world and the world Hereafter because it is knowledge which leads man to believe in God and instills in him moral responsibility. Again it is knowledge which leads him to the love of God. Like a flood which levels and removes the unevenness of the ground, knowledge removes pride from the hearts of men.
A learned man is knowledgeable as long as he feels the need of learning. When he thinks he knows everything he falls into ignorance. (11)
No doubt the Muslims led mankind during what Europeans call the Middle Ages and introduced new ideas and thoughts and a new outlook on life. There is no field of life which was not affected and affected profoundly by Islamic thought and culture. This influence is one modern civilization ought to acknowledge rather than cover up. (12)
It is unfortunate that the modern world appears so unwilling to acknowledge the Islamic contribution to modem learning and scholarship. By the light of Divine Revelation the Muslims developed, under enlightened Muslim rulers, with increasing vigour from the eighth to the thirteenth century slowing down thereafter for a variety of reasons, some internal, some external. Islamic civilization established the value of reason and experiment the study of nature, an explanatory attitude to other cultures, the usefulness of travel and just commerce; it introduced the enduring concepts of public welfare, of ordered and beautiful public spaces, of well-organized and administered markets and libraries and gardens; it proved that slaves have a right to become masters and need not remain slaves; it established a tolerant, enlightened space where people of different nations and races but of different religions could live together and enrich each otherâs lives. Why should this not he widely acknowledged and understood?
History bears ample witness to the fact that Islam has never been a hindrance to the advancement of knowledge in arts or sciences. It could not be, because such a magnanimous religion could not be against any activity which is beneficial to man. Any land where Islam was sincerely practised was never backward in learning and knowledge or in science and technology. Unfortunately the present backwardness of the Muslim world is blamed by Islamâs enemies upon and even attributed to Islamâespecially by some Western scholars who fear the revival of the Muslims. The truth is quite the opposite. The backwardness of Muslims is due to their neglect of Islamic teachings and the Qurâan. Muslims must return to their own true selves, re-possess their own minds as well as regain control of their own resources. Then, with serious effort and hard work in the field of learning and scholarship they may, by God, recover the high ground and lead the world to a more humane and just future. If they do not do so, the humanity of human beings, perhaps even the fabric of this earth may be irretrievably damaged. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: âIf anybody goes on his way in search of knowledge, God will make easy for him the way to paradiseâ (Sahih Muslim). Let those Muslims who desire to please God and to work for the glory of Islam mobilize their hearts and minds to the task of putting the available human knowledge into forms, and setting it in directions, which will regain for mankind the true purpose of knowledge-namely, the benefit of the creation as a whole (not a handful of privileged nations) and the affirmation and glory of the Creator.
1 George Sarton, Lecture on Islam Middle East Institute âIslamic Contribution to civilizationâ, p. 47.
2, 3, 4. The Qurâan 12:109; 22:46; 30:9; 20-25; 36:33-34, 71-73, 78-83; 67:1-5, 15-19;
5 ibid: 3:18; 42:15; 57:25.
6 ibid: 2:25; 4:124; 24:55.
7 ibid: 2:151; 18:66; 29:43; 30:22; 35:28; 17:36.
8 ibid: 10:5; 12:76; 17:36; 39:9.
9 Ibn Majah Muqaddimah p.17.
10 An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrine by Siyyid Husseyin Nasr Cambridge: 1964, p.174.
11 Imam Ghazali, Ihya-i Ulumuddin, Beirut, p.12, 13, 50, 75, 82, 59.
12 The Making of Humanity, Briffault, R. and âIslam Peygamberâ Maududi, Lahore, p.20.