Dr. Farida Khanam

“My Lord! Increase my Knowledge.” (THE QURAN 20:114)

THE MISSION of the Prophet of Islam has been introduced in the Quran at more than one place as an instructor of the Book and a teacher of wisdom. Here is a verse from the Quran: “It is He who has raised among the unlettered people a messenger from among themselves who recites His revelations to them, and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and wisdom.” (62:2)

Similarly, on another occasion the Prophet of Islam presented himself before the people saying, “I have been sent only as a teacher.” The first word revealed in the form of the Quran was ‘Iqra’ or ‘Read’ (96:1). The fourth verse of the first revelation forming part of the chapter Al-Qalam says:

“God has taught man by the pen.” (96:4)

We find more than 1500 derivatives and synonyms of the word Ilm, that is, knowledge in the Quran. In this light, it becomes easy to understand how the revelation of the Quran, in this almost illiterate nation of Arabia set off such a wave of receiving and imparting education which can rightly be called a learning explosion.

The revolution brought about by this learning explosion ushered in a new age of highly developed culture and civilization not only in Arabia but all over the world. This is a fact that has been acknowledged by historians. For instance, the Indian historian, T. Rama Rao, begins his biography of the Prophet of Islam with these words:

When he appeared, Arabia was a desert—a nothing. Out of nothing of the desert a new world was fashioned by the mighty spirit of Muhammad. A new life, a new culture, a new civilization, a new kingdom, which extended from Morocco to India and influenced the thought and life of three continents—Asia, Africa and Europe. (Life of Muhammad)

Merit of the Learned and the Learners

The Quran and Hadith both hold men of knowledge preferable to the ignorant (39: 9). The books of Hadith have a whole lengthy chapter devoted to the importance of knowledge, and the rewards of teaching and learning.

For instance, there is a saying of the Prophet that, one who treads a path in search of knowledge has his way paved to Paradise by God as a reward for this noble deed. (Bukhari, Muslim) According to another saying, angels in heavens, fish in the water and ants in their dwellings pray for the well-being of a seeker of knowledge. (Tirmidhi)

In another Hadith, the Prophet of Islam observed, those who learn virtues and teach it to others are the best among humankind. (Al-Bayhaqi)

The mission of the Prophet of Islam has been introduced in the Quran as an instructor of the Book and a teacher of wisdom.

At the time of the revelation, few people could read and write. They made the maximum use of their abilities to memorize their learnings, preserving their entire literary heritage in their memory. There was no trace of any systematic or organized activity of learning or teaching in Arab society of the time. But soon after the revelation of the Quran, the trend of education set in. Everyone who accepted Islam learnt the Quran from the Prophet, and after learning taught others who desired to learn. In this way, the homes of the early Muslims—Abu Bakr Siddiq, Al-Arqam bin Al-Arqam, Fatima bint Khattab—turned into centres of learning.

From the very outset, the Prophet appointed scribes who were assigned to write down the Quranic portions as soon as they were revealed. This motivated others as well to learn writing so that they might make their own copies of the holy textbook. It is to be noted that even under lifethreatening circumstances, the Prophet had appointed twelve people who were most learned amongst them as teachers of the Quran. These teachers were so sincere and enthusiastic that within a short period of three years they spread the knowledge of the Quran to almost each and every home of the tribes of Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj. Hence when the Prophet arrived at Madinah in the 13th year of his prophethood, he found all the young and old people of these tribes well versed in the teachings of the Quran.

Wisdom is the believer’s property, he should try to take it wherever he finds it. —Prophet Muhammad

At the Battle of Badr between the Muslims and the Makkans, 70 people were taken prisoner. After consultation with the senior Companions, the decision was taken that on a ransom payment of 4000 dirhams each, they would be set free. Most of the Makkans being businessmen, knew how to read and write. But the Muslims in Madinah were mostly farmers, who did not know how to read or write. Owing to the importance of education in Islam, it was decided that those prisoners of war who were not able to pay ransom, should be asked to teach 10 Muslim children in order to secure their freedom. This was the first proper school in Islam established by the Prophet himself. (Tabaqat, Ibn Sad)

The learning explosion produced by the first divine word Iqra— Read!—continued non-stop. It initially began at Makkah and gradually spread throughout the world. After the demise of the Prophet, the Companions spread out in the neighbouring countries with the same spirit of seeking knowledge and imparting it to others. From Makkah to Madinah to Abyssinia to Iraq to Egypt to Baghdad, this revolutionary educational movement gradually passed on to Central Asia and the East, then to Spain and the West.

As a result, there spawned international centres of learning, education and medicine that served towards multidimensional development in all spheres of life.

Women were not kept away from these activities. Starting with the Prophet’s own household, Muslim families provided equal opportunities to the female members to learn to grow and play a constructive role in the progress and development of society. A large number of learned women have found mention in history as authorities on various Islamic sciences such as Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, biography of the Prophet, commentary on the Quran, etc. The Prophet’s own wife, Aisha, imparted the knowledge and wisdom she received from the first educator—Prophet Muhammad—for almost half a century. She has narrated more than two thousand sayings of the Prophet, and according to Muslim jurists, these sayings are the source of two thirds of Islamic laws relating to social, political and cultural issues.

Starting with the Prophet’s own household, Muslim families provided equal opportunities to the female members to learn to grow and play a constructive role in the progress and development of society.

Biographers such as Ibn Khallikan (author of Waqeya-tul-Ayan), Ibn Sa’d (author of Tabaqat), Khatib Bhaghdadi (author of Taarikh Baghdad) and Al-Miqrizi (author of al-Khutal-wal-Athar) have mentioned the names of thousands of women and their outstanding contribution in the field of education and development in the Muslim world. Noteworthy among them, for instance, are the two sisters of AlFahri of Morocco, Fatimah and Maryam, the daughters of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, who founded the Qayrawan University and the Andalus University in the historical city of Fas in 859 CE.

The Development of Natural Sciences

The emphasis of Islam on learning and teaching was not confined to the Quran or the teachings of the Prophet. The Quran, in fact, has given a new outlook, a new perspective or paradigm as coined by Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1955). According to this Quranic paradigm, man’s most important activity being intellectual contemplation or reflection, he was not supposed to blindly follow any idea or notion just because it was attributed to his ancestors or some other authority. He had to ponder on it critically and realistically. That is why we find that the Quran is replete with hundreds of inspirational and motivational verses that invite man to reflect on the wonderful creation of God. For example:

In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people with intelligence, those who remember God standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying) “Our Lord! You have not created all this in vain (without purpose), Glory be to You!” (3:190-91) This, we can say, was the intellectual seed which in academic circles is referred to as the spirit of enquiry. According to Arnold Toynbee and other world historians, this spirit of enquiry was the first and foremost prerequisite for the inauguration of the scientific era and the elimination of a superstitious outlook on nature and life. So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the Quran that has laid the foundation of modern science.

The Quran and Hadith both hold men of knowledge preferable to the ignorant.

On the other hand, the Prophet himself has dealt with day-to-day problems of life in accordance with this realistic approach taught by the Quran. Consequently the same realistic approach became an integral part of the frame of mind of his Companions. They all became curious, inquisitive and realistic in all matters of life.

For example, once the Prophet passed by an oasis where he found the farmers, who were date planters, at work. When he asked what they were doing, he was told that they were pollinating the clusters of dates in order to produce a better yield. The Prophet expressed his disapproval of this process. Knowing this, the farmers immediately stopped it. Later on the Prophet was told that due to lack of proper pollination, the yield had been very low as compared to the previous years. On hearing this, the Prophet replied: “You know your worldly matters better.” (Sahih Bukhari). In other words, experiment and observation should be the final criterion in such worldly matters. The invitation of the Quran to enquiry on the one hand, and the encouragement of the Prophet to engage in direct observation and reflection on the other, led the Muslims to study everything objectively.

They started learning eagerly from everyone irrespective of their religious and cultural origins. This trend of insatiable curiosity and open mindedness motivated the succeeding generations during the Umayyad and Abbasid times to enthusiastically learn and translate the cultural legacy of other nations, particularly the Persian, Greek and Roman. Abu Jafar Mansur (714-775 CE) established Bayt al-Hikmah (The House of Wisdom) where highly paid multilingual scholars were appointed to translate into Arabic, books on Persian literature, Greek philosophy, medicine, and other sciences available in those times in different parts of the world.

This was an actualization of the Prophet’s inspiring words: “Wisdom is the believer’s property, he should try to take it wherever he finds it.” Of the Abbasid Caliphs, Harun ar-Rashid, Al-Mamun and Mutadid Billah, are reported to have invited doctors, philosophers, and scholars from various parts of the world to settle in Muslim cities and help in these activities. They even bought some books by paying for them in gold equivalent to their weight.

Man’s most important activity being intellectual contemplation or reflection, he is not supposed to blindly follow any idea or notion just because it was attributed to his ancestors or some other authority.

This generous appreciation and support of the state accelerated research work, and cultural exchange through translation which reflected on the general progress and development of the entire Muslim world of the time. Spain, under Muslim rule, witnessed a similar progressive and developmental process.

A number of world renowned historians of science and civilization (e.g. Hughman) have pointed out that Muslims’ contribution in the development of natural sciences and philosophy were not merely confined to translations from Greek, Persian, Indian, etc. For in view of their inquisitive and critical mind-set, it was not possible for them to accept Greek philosophy or any other sciences without an objective analysis. The fervour shown in authentication of the Prophet’s words was also in action in the field of natural science. Therefore, Muslim scientists, doctors and other experts were able to remove so many superstitious notions about nature and life that prevailed among the Greek philosophers. On the other hand they proved to be creative and innovative in the widest sense of the term. They sent missions for exploring new lands. They established observatories. They corrected many false concepts in astronomy, medicine, chemistry and physics. It was the legacy of the Islamic civilization that reached Europe via Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 CE, which laid the foundation of the Renaissance in the West.

Islam attaches such great importance to learning that the Quran says: “Only those of His servants who possess knowledge, fear God.” (35:28) Scholars are considered to be like angels (3:18), in view of their potential for discovering the oneness and the glory of the Creator. To inculcate this importance of knowledge in the minds of the believers, the Prophet observed that the worship of a learned man is a thousand times better than that of the ignorant worshipper (Mustadrak al-Hakim). By way of encouraging reflection on the universe and nature in order to explore divine glories, the Prophet is reported to have said: “An hour of reflection is better than a hundred years of worship without reflection.” (Al-Bayhaqi)

It was this interrelatedness of knowledge and worship that made the early Muslims seek and impart knowledge wholeheartedly and religiously.

But knowledge for the sake of knowledge as such may not be an acceptable notion according to Islamic ideology. Instead, a Muslim is supposed to seek knowledge for the pleasure of his Lord on the one hand and for the rendering of better services to the welfare of humankind on the other. In other words, the motto of education in Islam, would be knowledge for the sake of serving God and His creatures. That is why from the very beginning almost equal attention has been paid to the learning of both the religious sciences and the worldly or secular sciences.

The spirit of enquiry was the first and foremost prerequisite for the inauguration of the scientific era and the elimination of a superstitious outlook on nature and life.

Imam Ghazali, noticing a lack of interest among the youth of his times in learning medicine and other useful crafts and skills, issued a fatwa that doctors, craftsmen, and experts of other human skills are not less important than the scholars of fiqh, Hadith and pure religious sciences. (Al-Qadimwaal Hadith, M. Kurd Ali). If the two-fold purpose of life is to worship God and serve humankind, a believer cannot succeed in achieving it unless he devotes all his potential to the acquisition of religious and non-religious knowledge. Thus we may conclude that:

Iqra being the first word revealed in the Quran, an intellectual process was simultaneously started which we have called the learning explosion.

The commandment of Iqra has been linked with the name of God (Read in the name of your Sustainer). This connection has provided at the very outset the Islamic concept of education, that is, knowledge should not be sought for the sake of knowledge, but for the sublime purpose of the realization of God and the welfare of man.

This two-fold purpose of life naturally calls for Muslims to strive hard in seeking knowledge both related to their religion and to the progress and development of the human condition in general. Since the Quran and Hadith have made no discrimination between men and women concerning their rights and duties, the commandment of Iqra is equally inspiring and motivating to womenfolk. Consequently, they also did their best and contributed to this noble cause with the same spirit, fervour and dedication.

The Quranic paradigm based on the concept of Tawhid has changed the traditional approach to the universe and human life. An intellectual revolution took place; superstitious thinking was replaced by rationalistic, realistic and objective analysis. Thus in the words of Henri Pirenne, Islam changed the face of the globe. traditional order of human history was overthrown.

Dr. Farida Khanam

[email protected]

Category/Sub category

QURANIC VERSES20:11462:296:439:9
Share icon


CPS shares spiritual wisdom to connect people to their Creator to learn the art of life management and rationally find answers to questions pertaining to life and its purpose. Subscribe to our newsletters.

Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.

leafDaily Dose of Wisdom