Contrary to the misconception that Islam produces an uneducated society, Islam lays utmost importance to education and obtaining of knowledge.
The importance of education in Islam can be seen from the prayer given in the following verse of the Quran:
“My Lord! Increase me in Knowledge.” (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 giver of wisdom. Here is a verse from the Quran:
“He it is who has raised among the unlettered people a Messenger from among themselves who recites to them His signs and purifies them, and to instruct them in 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.”
Then the first word revealed in the form of the Quran was ‘Iqra’ (96:1). The fourth verse of the first revelation forming part of the chapter Al-Qalam has this to say:
“God has taught man by the pen.” (96:4)
We find more than 1500 derivatives and synonyms of the word Ilm, that is, knowledge. It becomes easy to understand in the light of this 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 also all over the world. This is a fact that has been acknowledged by historians. For instance, 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).
The Quran and Hadith both hold men of knowledge superior 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 tradition 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)
In a tradition recorded by Tirmidhi, angels in heaven, fish in the water and ants in their dwellings pray for the well being of a seeker of knowledge.
In another hadith the Prophet of Islam observed, those who learn virtues and teach it to others are the best among humankind (Al-Bayhaqi).
Not more than 150 people all over Arabia knew how to read and write. They made the maximum use of their ability to memorise, preserving their entire literary heritage in their memory. There is no trace of any systematic or organised activity of learning or teaching in the society. But soon after the revelation of the Quran, the trend of receiving education set in, and everyone who accepted Islam learnt the Quran from the Prophet, and after learning it himself taught to other converts. In this way the homes of the early Muslims—Abu Bakr Siddiq, Al-Arqam bin Al-Arqam, Fatimah bint Khattab—turned into centres of learning. Moreover, 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 life-threatening circumstances, when the Prophet had had the first and second pledge at Al-Aqabah, three years before the migration, he 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.
At the Battle of Badr 70 people were taken prisoner. The decision was taken after consultation with the senior companions that on payment of 4000 dirhams each they would be set free. Most of the Meccans being businessmen, knew how to read and write. But the Medinans 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 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.
For more than a thousand years these served as international centres of learning, education, medicine and 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 of the family to learn to grow and play a constructive role in the progress and development of society at large. A large number of learned women have found mention in history as authorities on various Islamic sciences such as hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, seerah of the Prophet, commentary on the Quran, etc. The Prophet’s own wife, Aishah, imparted the knowledge and wisdom she received from the first educator, for almost half a century. She has narrated more than two thousand traditions of the Prophet, and according to the Muslim jurists, these are the source of two thirds of Islamic laws relating to social, political and cultural issues.
Biographers such as Ibn Khallikan (author of Waqeyatul 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 Al-Fahri 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 245 A.H.
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