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Universality of Knowledge and the Universal Notion of Jihad: Chapter 10 and 11, Essential Message of Islam

By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed

30 May, 2015

(Published exclusively on New Age Islam with Permission of the authors and publishers)

10.    Universality of Knowledge

Addressed to a largely unlettered people and aimed at bringing about a quantum change in the social order of the world under the ambit of its monotheistic discourse, the Qur’an does not talk about pursuing universal knowledge in a direct and straightforward way. However, its broader message resonates with exhortations and inspirations to acquiring universal knowledge.

The very first revelation of the Qur’an is a commandment to reading and an affirmation of the intellectual potential of man (96:1-5/Ch. 1.2). With the progress of the revelation the Qur’an declares that: i) man is assigned the role of God’s deputy on earth and endowed with the intellectual faculty to identify and characterize every object individually (2:30-35/Ch. 5.1), ii) granted special ‘favours’ above much of the creation (17:70), iii) fashioned in the finest model (95:4), and iv) whatever is in the heavens and the earth is made serviceable to him  (31:20, 45:13).1

“We have indeed honoured the descendants of Adam; carried them across land and sea; provided for them out of the good things; and favoured them above much of what We have created” (17:70).

“Don’t you see that God has made serviceable to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth, and has lavished His bounties on you (both) seen and unseen? Yet (there are) among people (those) who dispute about God without knowledge, without guidance and without an enlightening book” (31:20).

“God is the One who has made the sea serviceable to you and the ships sail on it by His command, that you may seek of His bounty, and that you may be grateful (45:12). He has made serviceable to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth - all (come from) Him. There are signs in this for a people who reflect” (45:13).

“Indeed, We have created humankind in the finest model” (95:4).

Furthermore, the Qur’an makes repeated references to a people: ‘who use their reason, ‘who reflect’, ‘who know’, and ‘who are prudent,’ describes wisdom (Hikmat) as a great bounty (2:269), and promises to raise the ranks of those who are given knowledge (‘Ilm) (58:11).

“He gives wisdom to anyone He wishes, and he who is granted wisdom has indeed received a great bounty (Khayran Kathirah); yet none is mindful of this, except the prudent” (2:269).

 “…God will raise by degrees those of you who believe and those who acquire knowledge (‘ilm)…” (58:11).

Last but not least, the Qur’an asserts that God verifies the truth of His Words.2 And since the multifarious manifestations of nature are nothing but the reflections of the Words or kalimat of God (18:109, 31:27/Ch. 2.1), Qur’anic assertion points to the principle of experimentation and verification that underlies all scientific advancement.

Taken together, these Qur’anic pronouncements constitute a clear and emphatic exhortation to pursue universal knowledge in all its dimensions and directions. Accordingly, the early Muslims made remarkable advancements in practically all the prevalent fields of knowledge: medicine, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, metallurgy, and geography, for example. They also acted as the transmitters of ancient Greek knowledge and Hellenistic sciences into the medieval Europe by translating these works into Arabic, which were later translated into European languages. Thus, in true sense, the early Muslims set the stage for the Renaissance in Europe, as most historians and scholars, including those, sceptic of the Prophetic mission, have acknowledged.3, 4

10.1.       Division of Knowledge in Medieval Islam

By the fifth or sixth century of Islam, the intellectual enterprise of the Muslims came to a virtual halt. The theologians had remained suspect of universal knowledge as it challenged many of their views and interpretations that were rooted in the pre-Islamic myths or faiths. They also popularized the juristic doctrine of Taqlid (Precedence, App. 1.6) into a simplistic notion that all that had to be learnt had already been learnt during the Prophet’s time, and was contained in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s normative ways (Sunnah), and the posterity was expected to simply imitate them.5 This resulted in stagnancy of knowledge, abhorrence against any scientific advancement, and division of universal knowledge into Islamic and European categories.6 Thus, in the post Renaissance era, the Muslims persistently refused to acquire the so-called ‘European’ knowledge, and watched the phenomenal advancement of science and technology with silent scepticism. In fact, as reviewed by Murad Hofmann,7 the hostility of the orthodox theologians (‘Ulema) against the so called European knowledge, led them to, among others, burn down an observatory in Turkey in 1580 - just a year after its erection, and close down the first printing press in the Islamic world, in the same city in 1745. Even as recently as the later part of the nineteenth century, the ‘Ulema in British India fought tooth and nail against the establishment of a modern university by Syed Ahmed. Ironically, to this day Muslims are bogged down with a religious education curriculum that often treats universal sciences in the sidelines.

10.2.       Significance of Scientific Knowledge in Islam

Scientific knowledge is the very key to understanding the Qur’anic wisdom, let alone harnessing the resources of nature as enjoined by the Qur’an. Thus for example, we will not be able to understand many of the Qur’anic verses on natural phenomena, such as relating to the movement of the heavenly bodies, embryonic development in human foetus, darkness in the depths of oceans, barrier between sweet and saline water etc. as reviewed earlier (Ch. 4.8) without the knowledge of physical sciences. Therefore, from the Qur’anic perspective, the pursuit of scientific knowledge is integral to its message, and to set them apart as ‘European or ‘un-Islamic’ could amount to a blatant distortion of its message.

It is therefore high time that the Muslim ‘Ulema abolish any division of universal knowledge that may still be in force in their religious institutions (madrasas), and incorporate the study of physical sciences and other universal faculties in the curriculum of the madrasas. Muslims must recognize that God alone is the fountainhead of all knowledge, and must heed that dividing the domain of knowledge between Godly and un-godly could be tantamount to ascribing partners to God – though God knows best.      


1.       14:32, 16:12, 67:15.

2.       The Qur’anic expression: yuhiqqul haqqa bi kalimatihi: 8:7, 10:82*, 42:24. *[allahu also appears in this verse: yuhiqqullahu haqqa...]

3.       “Islam, which is only half a dozen centuries younger than Christianity, created a long and brilliant civilization, which is responsible for much of the way we are today. … When a few medieval monks were desperately trying to preserve what little they knew of Greco-Roman civilization, academies and universities flourished in the splendid cities of the Muslim lands”– Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islam, Empire of Faith, BBC Series, UK 2001, p. 11.

4.       “Science is the most momentous contribution of Arab [Muslim] civilization to the modern world; but its fruits were slow in ripening. Not until long after Moorish [Islamic] culture had sunk back into darkness did the giant to which it had given birth rise to its might. – Robert Briffault (1867-1948), Making of Humanity, p. 202, [Extracted from Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Islamic thoughts, 6th reprint, New Delhi1998, p. 130.]

5.       Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman al-Qur’an, 1931; reprint New Delhi 1989, Vol.1. p. 42,43.

6.       Jamal Afghani, extracted from John L.Esposito’s, Islam in Transition, New York 1982, p. 18.

7.       Murad Hofmann, Islam the Alternative, UK 1993, p. 37.

[7 references]


11.    The Universal Notion of Jihad

11.1.       A broad definition based on Qur’anic illustrations

The word jihad (root, JHD) and its other derivatives are used in the Qur’an with a varying shade of meaning, which can be best understood by reflecting over the theme of the verses bearing JHD root words. Such an exercise, attempted below, bears out the following Qur’anic notion of jihad:  

        On a personal level, jihad is a struggle to face the hardships and challenges of life with patience and determination, or to constantly endeavour to accomplish a lawful goal.

        On a community level, it is an ongoing struggle to overcome the social, moral, material, intellectual and spiritual deprivations of the time.

11.2.       Jihad of the Prophet’s Followers in Mecca

During the Meccan period when the Muslims were small in number, and in no position to defend themselves, the Qur’an connotes the root JHD with a  ‘peaceful struggle’ (25:52, 29:6, 29:69), as well as ‘putting moral pressure’ - such as, parents putting ‘pressure’ on their children (29:8, 31:15).

“Then do not obey the disbelievers, and wage against them (Jahidhum) an intense struggle (Jihadn Kabir) with it [the Qur’an]” (25:52).

“Anyone who struggles (Jahada), struggles (Yujahidu) only for himself, for God is above any need of all Beings” (29:6).

“We have enjoined on humanity kindness to parents, but if they press (Jahada) you to associate with Me that, of which you have no knowledge - do not obey them (in religion). (Remember,) you will (eventually) return to Me, and I will tell you what you did” (29:8).

“We will guide in Our paths those who strive (Jahadu) for Us. Indeed God is with the compassionate” (29:69).   

“If they press (Jahada) you to associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not listen to them (in religion)…” (31:15). (Full text in Ch. 17.4)

11.3.       Jihad of the Medinite Muslims

In the Medinite period when the Muslims formed a growing community, the Qur’an commands the Prophet’s followers to struggle with their wealth and their lives (8:72, 49:15, 61:11). This was suggestive of a call to take up arms, and predictably, the affluent among the Prophet’s followers preferred to stay back (9:86).

“(As for) those who have believed, and have migrated and struggled (Jahadu) with their wealth and their lives in God’s way, as well as those who sheltered and helped them – it is they who are the protectors of each other...” (8:72).

“When a Sura is revealed, (saying :) ‘Believe in God, and struggle (Jahidu) with His Messenger,’ the affluent among them ask (exemption of) you (O Muhammad,) and say: ‘Let us (stay) with those who sit (back at home)’” (9:86).

“Only those are believers, who believe in God and His Messenger; then they do not doubt, and struggle (Jahadu) in God's way with their wealth and their lives – it is they who are truthful” (49:15).

“You who believe, shall I lead you to a bargain that will save you from a severe punishment (61:10): that you believe in God and His Messenger, and struggle (tujahidu) in God's way with your wealth and your lives; this will be good for you if you only knew” (61:11).

The community also continued its struggle (22:78), at times through physical labor, which was deemed lowly and undignified (9:79); and as the community grew, a bigger jihad was undertaken in God’s way (2:218, 5:35).

“(As for) those who believe, and those who have migrated and struggled (jahadu) in God’s way – it is they (who may) hope for God’s Mercy, for (indeed) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (2:218).

“You who believe, heed God, seek the means towards Him, and struggle (jahidu) in His way, that you may succeed” (5:35).

“Those [Hypocrites] who find fault with the believers that give charity voluntarily and with those who find nothing but their (physical) labour (Juhdahum), and deride them - God will (return) them with derision, and there is a severe punishment for them” (9:79).

 “Strive (Jahidu) in God's (way) - a striving (jihad) due to Him. He has chosen you (to convey His message)…” (22:78). (Full text in Ch. 42.3)

To demonstrate the broader concept of jihad, the Prophet is reported to have told his followers after returning from a military campaign: “This day we have returned from a minor jihad to a major jihad,” and added that “by this he meant returning from an armed battle to the peaceful battle for self-control and betterment,” that is intellectual and spiritual regeneration and the eradication of social and moral vices.

11.4.       The Role of the Greater Struggle (Jihadn Kabir)

The Qur’an was revealed at a time when the universal notions of liberty, justice and rights were yet to evolve. The rulers, feudal lords, tribal chiefs, and priests exercised unlimited power over common people, women were oppressed and had no legal rights,1 while slaves formed an integral part of human society – to cite some of the major vices of the era. Islam stripped the ruling class of its power, empowered the oppressed class and eradicated the major vices of the society, and it achieved all this under the ambit of the greater jihad. Thus the early Islamic societies stood out as models of justice, equity, compassion, tolerance and enlightenment; and this gravitated people of different faiths to its fold and led to the gradual spread of Islam and flowering of Islamic civilization. Since this raises the question what happened to the notion of the greater jihad, we would like to shed some light on it. 

11.5.       The Demise of the Notion of Greater Jihad in Islam

The Qur’anic precepts were in direct conflict with the established norms of the era. In modern parlour, they were ultra-radical. Therefore, as often happens with such movements, reactionary elements became active soon after the Prophet’s death (632). Within the next thirty years, the elective Caliphate was replaced by a dynastic rule (662). The dynastic rulers (Umayyads, 663-750, Abbasids, 750-1258) introduced old feudalistic values and set aside the Qur’anic dictates on social reform leading to gradual social and moral degeneration. The process of degeneration gained momentum with the transfer of power into the hands of the Tatars (13th century).2 They “misinterpreted the Islamic doctrine of divine decree so as to frustrate human will and to choke every striving for action… principles which directly contradicted their religion and ran counter to its precepts, became the rule of the day, and were accepted without hesitation.”3 This, with time, led to the erosion of the spirit of the greater jihad, and reduced the faith of Islam to “the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, as well as some sayings, which have been, however, perverted by allegorical interpretations.”4

This virtually brings us up-to-date on the status of the greater jihad in Islam.


1.       Roman law treated women as the possession of their husbands who, under extreme circumstances, exercised the right of life and death over them.

2.       Over a period of some forty years (1220-1258), the Mongol hordes fanned out westwards from Mongolia, and completely destroyed the various domains of Islamic civilization that had flourished in the eastern regions of the Islamic Caliphate, across the central planes of Asia. After the surrender of Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphate, to Halagu Khan (1258), the Mongols virtually occupied the conquered Islamic lands. However, before long they embraced Islam and became known as Tatars. The faith won with peace what its soldiers had lost in war.

3.       Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, extracted from Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 584

4.       Ibid., Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, p. 585.

[4 references]

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.