Today Muslims are highly backward in the field of knowledge, especially in the field of social and natural sciences and technology. Unfortunately their whole concentration seems to be on what has come to be called Dini Ta’lim i.e. religious education. The excellent centres of learning in Islamic world all are religious centres like al-Azhar and others. Though al-Azhar is not purely religious university but its excellence is only in religious arena. According to the UNO report there is not a single university in the Islamic world among 100 most excellent universities in the world.

Most of the people think that Islam encourages only religious knowledge and all other types of knowledge looked down upon, if not completely shunned. Some even maintain that Islam is against science. This is empirically true but not ideologically..It is true that Muslims, even quite rich and capable, would not like to invest in secular educational centres of excellence and instead would donate generously for establishing madrasas and building mosques.

But what is important to understand is that Islam is not responsible for this state of affairs. It is Muslims who are mainly responsible. Islam does not discourage, let alone prohibit, acquisition of secular knowledge. Some people might say in Islam there is no distinction between Din and Duniya and if so there is every reason that secular (dunyavi) knowledge should not be neglected at all.

One who knows socio-cultural and socio-economic background of Mecca at the time of rise of Islam in early 7th century, knows very well that Islam was nothing short of both spiritual and socio-economic revolution. AND SCIOLOGISTS KNOW VERY WELL that any revolutionary movement flourishes only in the environment of knowledge. All revolutionary movements, therefore, emphasizes importance of knowledge.

The main Islamic scripture is of course Qur’an and Qur’an puts great emphasis on knowledge. The theologians, however, maintain that what Qur’an emphasizes is religious knowledge and not any other kind of knowledge. But this is not at all borne out by the statements of Qur’an. It is rather distortion of Qur’anic approach in view of narrow mindedness of our theologians.

There was widespread ignorance among Meccan people despite the fact that Mecca was a centre of high international finance. There were no formal institutions of learning and Tabari, the noted historian, tells us that there were no more than 17 persons in Mecca at the time of emergence of Islam who could read and write. Such a state of ignorance was a downright obstacle in further development.

Islam, it is well known, was not merely the other worldly religion but a religion which strikes balance between this and the other world. Hence Qur’an cannot be expected to emphasise only religious knowledge at the cost of knowledge essential for a successful life in this world. In fact Qur’an brought great revolution as far as knowledge was concerned. Mecca which was so backward in any kind of knowledge began to emerge as great centre of knowledge along with Madina.

Both Qur’an and hadith laid great emphasis on knowledge. As is well known the very first verse revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) began with “Read with the name of thy Lord who created thee. Today many Muslims who want Muslims to acquire knowledge name their organization as ‘Iqra’’ Society. The argument by theologians that Qur’an emphasizes only religious education is more because of that period was not a period of specialization of knowledge.

For example throughout medieval ages, right up to seventeenth century philosophy and theology were not separated and great philosophers were theologians also and these philosophers were considered as scientists too. Much confusion has been caused on account of this. And Qur’an which combines Din and Duniya (i.e. this worldly affair with other worldly affairs) does not clearly separate these two types of knowledge.

et Qur’anic verses are clear about deep study of this world as his world is creation of Allah and not only this world but other worlds as well. The very opening chapter of Qur’an describes Allah as Rabb al-Alamin i.e. as Sustainer and Nourisher of the worlds i.e. more than one world. Thus this itself was great revelation in a way that when the philosophers were’ not even aware of existence of other worlds, Qur’an was referring to these worlds.

Though there was no specialization or clear categorization of knowledge Qur’an was referring to different categories of knowledge i.e. knowledge which was revealed – revelational knowledge and knowledge obtained through observations which we can call inductive knowledge based on inductive logic. We have pointed out elsewhere that inductive logic is the very basis of modern science. Modern science developed through observational knowledge.

In hadith literature too, we find many ahadith which stress knowledge which could be both theological as well as secular. For example it is said in one of the hadith that a moment’s reflection is better than whole night’s prayer. Whereas prayer helps in disciplining one self and control ones desires. Reflection helps in understanding our universe. More you reflect. More you understand this universe.

And one of the verses of the Qur’an clearly says that true worshippers of Allah reflect on this universe standing, sitting and prostrating. The Qur’anic verse 3:191 says, “Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and (lying) on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, Thou has not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee!

This verse shows that real ‘ibadat is one which makes human persons to reflect on creation of this universe i.e. obtaining knowledge of this universe through observation and it is this knowledge which is truly scientific knowledge. Be it Copernicus or Galileo they obtained their knowledge through observation of stars and planets.. Thus Qur’an beautifully combines worshipping and reflection of this universe.

In fact it is scientists who can really appreciate the Glory of the creator through their keen observations and not ignorant people. In fact it is through science and through observations that today we have some understanding of vastness of our universe and existence of galaxies and each galaxy having thousands of stars and each star being billions of light years away from each other.

Thus only Ulama (the experts in knowledge) who know what a great wonder Allah’s creation is and it is only a scientist who knows the Glory of the Creator. An ignorant person who does not know anything about this universe how can he be true believer in Allah and His Glory! That is why there is prayer in the Qur’aqn “O Lord increase me in knowledge” and not increase me in wealth and power.

Also, in this respect Qur’an says that those who have been given hikmah (wisdom) have been given goodness in abundance (kharan kathirah). Thus ‘ilm and hikmah i.e. knowledge and wisdom are the greatest good one can have. Wisdom (hikmah) in Qur’an is a degree above knowledge (‘ilm) because knowledge without values can play negative role. Knowledge could be at times [put to wrong use but wisdom which is combination of knowledge and values can never be put to wrong use.

Thus while knowledge is precious hikmah (wisdom is greatest good one can aspire for. Allah is both Alim and Hakim i.e. knower and wise. As Allah is also embodiment of all values. Thus a true believer (mu’min) cannot be real believer unless he/she knows Allah and Allah can be known only and only through ‘ilm and ‘ilm has to be all comprehensive which include both theology-philosophy and science.

The word ‘ilm occurs in Qur’an more than 800 times where the word jihad, of which handful of extremists are making wrong use of occurs only 42 times. Also one hadith which is accepted by all says that pen of an ‘alim is more precious than the blood of martyr. What is real meaning of this? What the hadith is conveying is this that while we need blood of martyr occasionally (when an enemy attacks and our lives are in danger) but knowledge of a knower (‘alim) is needed every moment of our existence.

One cannot live in ignorance and knowledge is necessary both for war and peace. Even a war cannot be won without knowledge and one needs knowledge to live in peace. One cannot live in peace without knowledge. Thus knowledge is essential at every step in life. That is why the Prophet stressed importance of pen of an ‘alim over sword of a martyr. Can then there be any doubt about importance of knowledge as far as Islam is concerned?

That is why another hadith says that go to China if knowledge is available there. Now in those days China was considered the farthest from Arabia and hence what this hadith conveys is that go to farthest corner of the world if you have to obtain knowledge. The mention of China is important because the trade caravans which ultimately began from China and hence one could not trade with China out of ignorance. To succeed in trade one must know a lot about China and knowledge produced there.

Whatever the reason knowledge, nevertheless must be sought wherever it is available be it China or any other distant place. This also shows that the Prophet was asking Muslims to seek all kinds of knowledge, not only revelational one which one of which Prophet himself was the source and it was for others to come to seek that knowledge to Madina. China and other countries could provide only other kinds of knowledge like philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and so on.

And for few centuries Muslims did seek knowledge from all sources. When a section of Muslims were at the height of power (i.e. during Abbasid period) Muslims shed all prejudices and began to transfer knowledge from other countries and other languages into Arabic and produced great philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicists, medicine men and so on. They not only borrowed knowledge from different sources but also made rich contributions of their own so much so that European universities of the time introduced these works in their courses and what is more they discovered this Greek and Indian knowledge through these scholars.


All this is of course well known and one need not repeat it. But the question is why this tradition lost was and today Muslims are thought to be not only backward in these fields of knowledge but are seen resisting acquisition of this knowledge. Their contribution has become nil and their universities have hardly any achievements to show and their universities have no achievements to be proud of? Many western scholars and academics, hold Islam responsible for this state of affairs. This is totally wrong. We have quoted Islamic sources above to refute this point of view so reasons must be sought elsewhere. Firstly, as Muslim achievements achieved great excellence with rise in power, it began to decline with decline in power and by 18th century it was western colonialism which conquered most of the Muslim countries and Muslim rulers became mere puppets.

Now the western powers were at the height of their achievements and hence knowledge became their monopoly. As ignorance was spreading in Islamic world with decline of power, knowledge became to spread in the western world with rise in power. It is universal rule that conservation becomes high priority during a period of decline and hence Muslim scholars adopted closed outlook and began to conserve knowledge they had produced and felt threatened with new knowledge. Knew knowledge or inventions became bid’ah (something new) and hence against Islam.

Also, now science came to be equated with the west and hence like west, science also became unacceptable. The Ulama being totally ignorant of modern science began fearing it and issued fatwas against it. They began to think only what they have learnt is right and everything else false and unacceptable. No such fatwas will be found even in Islamic past which these Ulama issue.

Of course it should also be said that there are many Ulama who are fully supportive of modern education including social and natural sciences. They even send their own children to modern institutions of education. But still, one must say, there is no atmosphere for modern education in Islamic countries. Forced modernization by rulers also does not work and has serious implications.

Also, so far rulers in Muslim countries were dictators and supported by America who did not allow democracy. Now Middle-East for the first time since de-colonization, is undergoing democratic revolution and one can hope modern education might receive impetus. But many of these countries lack resources for investing in education. Excellence in research and education requires lot of resources which many Muslim countries except the oil rich countries totally lack. Abbasids, at the peak of their power invested heavy amounts in transferring knowledge from Greece and India and other places.

And oil rich countries less said the better. They are using their resources in investing in madrasas which impart traditional theological education for fear of revolt on the part of people. They try to buy political stabilization by keeping their people ignorant. Also, their buying influence by financing traditional system in other Muslim countries. It has also helped reinforce radical Islam.

But even these oil rich countries cannot avoid change for long. Some of the enlightened rulers have started taking steps to modernizing education. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently started a technological university with co-education in Jeddah which was just unthinkable a few years ago. Also, he has established a women’s university in Riyadh. These are encouraging signs of change.

If Saudis want they have resources to achieve excellence in research and modern education but it will take perhaps several decades as they have to overcome tremendous resistance from traditional Ulama. The political rulers in Saudi Arabia are heavily dependent on support of traditional Ulama as the Family of Sauds captured power in 18th century with the help of Wahabi Ulama.

There are no such constraints in other Arab or Muslim countries but either they are stuck for want of resources or adequate political will. Still there are high rate of illiteracy in many Muslim countries, more for reasons of poverty than theological. Also, rulers have totally wrong priorities. More worrisome is situation of women. Again, it is not Qur’an or hadith to be blamed as both stress education for women. The Prophet specifically included women in education being obligatory for them.

But social traditions become obstacle and still girls are married off at an early age and it is thought women have no need for education as an ideal woman has to mind her domestic chores. Even in countries like Afghanistan, which I visited recently, there is great urge among women for modern education despite so much damage done by the Taliban’s.

In conclusion I would like to say that modern education is a must and Muslim leadership has to pay urgent attention to this problem and they should ideally try to achieve excellence in this field they had in 9 to 11 centuries in the world. Of course it is extremely challenging job. Muslims had all the resources but today Muslim world is very much part of what is called 3rd world and totally lack resources and also in some cases face resistance from conservative mullas.

The urgency of change is being felt but will to change is not as strong and resources totally lacking. Thus situation is very complex and change is inevitable but will take time. If leaders realise importance of education both for men and women it can be expedited and that will be for the benefit of the entire ummah.

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