Contrary to common belief Islam inculcates the spirit of enquiry in its adherents.
The Quran invites its adherents to enquire about things and the Prophet encouraged people to engage in direct observation and reflection on the other led the Muslims to study everything objectively. Due to this, Muslims started eagerly learning from everyone irrespective of his or her 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 (754-775) 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 actualisation of the Prophet’s inspiring words: “Wisdom is a believer’s own 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 learned 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.
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 at that 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 authentification 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 A.H., which laid the foundation of the Renaissance in the West.
Islam attaches such great importance to learning that the Quran has this to say:
“It is the men of knowledge who can truly realise 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 once 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.
Imam Ghazzali noticing a lack of interest among the youth of his times in learning medicine and other useful crafts and skills, issued a fatwah that doctors, craftsmen, and experts of other human skills are not less important than the scholars of fiqh, hadith and pure religious sciences (Al-Qadim waal Hadith, M. Kurd Ali). If the two-fold purpose of life is to worship God and serve mankind, then 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:
a. Iqra being the first word revealed in the Quran, an intellectual process was simultaneously started which we have called the learning explosion.
b. The commandment of Iqra has been linked with the name of God (Read in the name of your Sustainer). This connection has given at the very outset the Islamic concept of education, that is, knowledge should not be sought after for the sake of knowledge, but for the sublime purpose of the realisation of God and the welfare of man.
c. This two-fold purpose of life naturally called 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.
d. The Quran 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 Henry Pirenne, Islam changed the face of the globe. The traditional order of human history was overthrown.
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