Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray
Islamic Concept of Knowledge (‘Ilm): The Noble Qur’an—the Sacred Text of Muslims and the primary source of Islam and its law—is generously dotted with references to learning, knowing, seeking knowledge, education, observation, using reason and so on. The noble Qur’an, in fact, stimulates and inspires, motivates and encourages on studying the Universe (cosmos) in its various facets and aspects.
‘Ilm—derived from the Arabic root ‘-l-m/ ‘alama (which connotes the meanings of: to mark, sign, distinguish, or to know, to learn, to be acquainted, to inform, knowledge, learning) means knowledge, learning, information, knowing, awareness (as in Q. 3: 66, 28: 14, 35: 11), or science. In many verses, noble Qur’an highlights the importance of knowledge for accomplishment, attainment, and success in life. Islam seeks to help man to recognize Allah as knowledge is to know the reality and the greatest reality is the existence of Allah. This is ‘ilm by which we can distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, virtue and vice, and above all between Haqq and Batil. The very first Revelation, Surah al-‘Alaq (Q. 96: 1-5, “Read! In the name of your Lord who created … who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know”), serves as an invitation to man to know the Lord of the entire creation.
Numerous Quranic terms, or the different shades of the term knowledge (‘Ilm), occur throughout the noble Qur’an; some of these are: ‘Iqra (read), Qalam (pen), fikr (thinking), tafakkur (pondering), taddabur (contemplation), faqaha (perceiving/ understanding), fahm (understanding), idrak (grasping), hikmah (wisdom), dhikr (remembrance), shu’ur (consciousness), burhan (demonstration), qalb (heart), fu’ad (inner heart), ulu al-albab (people of understanding), al-rasikhun fil-‘ilm (those ﬁrmly grounded in knowledge), and so on. The Qura’nic usage of these terms ‘establishes’, as Dr Ibrahim Kalin puts it ( in ‘Reason and Rationality in the Quran’, 2010, pp. 9-30), “a context of integrated thinking in which our encounter with reality unveils different aspects of the all-inclusive reality of existence” and “leads to a mode of thinking that combines empirical observation, rational analysis, moral judgment and spiritual refinement”—in précis to the “wholeness of perceiving and thinking”.
The noble Quran, for instance, uses the term ‘Aql (reason/ intellect) in a wide sense; and it places heavy emphasis on thought, reflection and meditation. As Muhammad Hashim Kamali (in Islam and Science, 2006, p. 143) puts it: “Approximately 750 verses, or nearly one-eighth of the Qur’an, exhort the readers to study nature, history, the Qur’an itself, and humanity at large. The text employs a range of expressions in its appeal to those who listen (yasma’un), those who think (yatafakkarun), those who reflect (yatadabbarun), those who observe (yanzurun), those who exercise their intellect (ya’qilun), those who take heed and remember (yatadhakkarun), those who ask questions (yas’alun), those who develop an insight (yatafakkahun), and those who know (ya’lamun). These […]consist essentially of […]encouragement to thinking”. For example, the noble Qur’an says: “There truly are sings in the creation of the heavens and earth, and in the alternation of night and day, for those with understanding” (Q. 3: 190).
‘Ilm, the Qura’nic word for Knowledge, signifies that knowledge is a form of remembering God. Those who study God’s Signs “in the creation of the heavens and the earth” are remembering Him “standing, sitting, and lying down” (Q. 3: 190-91). Thus, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a form of worship (‘Ibadah) which is accorded special status in the Qur’an. “Conventional types of worship”, as Ziaudduin Sardar puts it (in Reading the Qur’an, 2015, p. 253), “does not necessarily make the worshipper intelligent, clever or wise”, but “knowledge can increase understanding, comprehension, and lead to wisdom”. That is why noble Qur’an asks: “What about someone who worships devoutly during the night, bowing down, standing in prayer, ever mindful of the life to come, hoping for his Lord’s mercy?”, and answers: “Say, ‘How can those who know be equal to those who do not know?’” (Q. 39: 9).
Thus, the “emphasis on knowledge in the Qur’an”, Sardar continues to highlight, “is an eye-opening: again and again, we are urged to study nature, explore the cosmos, measure and calculate, discover the situation and histories of other nations, travel the earth in search of knowledge, learning and wisdom”: “It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so that you might know the number of years and how to calculate time. God did not create all these without a true purpose” (Q. 10: 5); “it is He who spread out the earth, placed ﬁrm mountains and rivers on it, and made two of every kind of fruit … There truly are signs in this for people who reﬂect” (Q. 13: 3); and “Say, ‘Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being’” (Q. 29: 20).
Muslim Contribution in the Middle Ages (‘the Golden Age’): All these verses reveal the importance and significance of seeking knowledge, of learning, of observing, of using reason, and so on. It was this very message of the Sacred Text that stimulated and motivated the Muslim Scholars of Classical and Medieval eras that they contributed in all subjects and all areas—from religious and social, to physical, natural and medical sciences. Especially with the establishment of Abbasid caliphate in 750 CE (and the Umayyad Empire in Spain in 756 CE) in the Islamic Empire opened—as the history reveals—opened a new era in the domain of science and literature. It is a fact, which no one can deny, that by the beginning of the Abbasid age the many sided cultural influence produced the early phase of the real scientific age of Islamic culture—the “Golden Age”. During this period, the contribution to various fields/ branches of knowledge—Medicine, Philosophy, Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics, History, Geography, Law, Theology, Philology, and so on—by the Muslim scholars was great and impressive. A galaxy of brilliant scientists, philosophers and scholars emerged during this age, making valuable contribution to the culture not only of Islam but of the whole world; directed their minds to every branch of human study and revolutionized thinking, feeling and action of man by the might of their pen.
They contributed—for the Pleasure of Allah, and for the better promotion of welfare of the humanity at large—in varied and diverse subjects. Makkah, Medina, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova and so on became great centers of learning, of science and technology, and of arts and architecture. P. K. Hitti, in his History of the Arabs (1970, p. 557), for example, is of the opinion that “Moslem [Muslim] Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual history of medieval Europe. Between the middle of eighth and beginning of thirteenth centuries [750-1200s] … the Arabic-speaking peoples were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilization throughout the world”. But with the ‘Fall of Baghdad’ (in 1258 CE), the downfall of Muslim Rule in Spain (in 1492 CE), and with the closing of the ‘gates of Ijtihad’ (independent intellectual reasoning), became collectively responsible for the intellectual decay in the Muslim world. As Sabah Mushtaq (‘Intellectual Suicide of the Muslim Mind’, New Age Islam, 5th Nov’2016) puts it: “Islamic civilization…underwent a moral and intellectual crisis in the 9th to the 11th century of our era, when it turned its back on philosophy and took refuge in dogma…The gates to Ijtihad (independent reasoning) closed. Taqlid (imitation) ruled. Rationality was dead…”.
—To be continued
— The article is a modified version of a lecture, ‘Reading Transmuted into Writing: An Art Unattended by the Muslims’, delivered in One-Day Seminar on “Educational Backwardness among Muslims: Reasons, Ramifications, & Remedies”, organized by Dawah Center Bumthan, Mirbazar, Anantnag, on 17th September, 2017]
—The author is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org