By Muhammad Yunus, NewAge Islam
(Joint Author), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.
November 20, 2011
“Your grace (O God) is upon the homestead of the others - But the lightning strikes only the helpless Muslims” – Allama Iqbal
The Qur’an distinguishes man for his extraordinary role, potentials and privileges in the divine creative scheme. i) He is assigned the role of God’s deputy on earth (2:30). ii) He is taught the use of intellect. iii) He is endowed with the power of coherent speech (55:4). iv) He is honored and granted special ‘favors’ above much of the creation (17:70). v) He is given a freedom of choice (90:10/11). vi) He is fashioned in the finest model (95:4). vii) All that is in the heavens and the earth is made serviceable to him (31:20), and viii) his soul is stroked by God’s breath and angels are made to bow down to him (15:29).
i) “..Your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will place a deputy (Khalifah) on earth', …. (2:30) [See also 6:165, 27:62, 35:39]
ii) He taught humans the use of the intellect (96:4). He taught man what he did not know” (96:5)
iii) “He created man and taught him coherent speech (55:3/4)
iv) “We have indeed honored the descendants of Adam ….. and favored them above much of what We have created” (17:70).
v) (God) guided him (man) to the two highways (90:10). But he does not brave the steep (one) (90:11).
vi) “Indeed, We have created humankind in the finest model” (95:4).
vii) “Don’t you see (O humanity) 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?..” (31:20).[See also 14:32, 16:12, 45:13, 67:15]
viii) And your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am going to create a human being from (dry) clay (salsal), from a slimy mass (hama) (organic matter) molded (into shape) (15:28). When I have completed him (to perfection), and breathed into him from My Spirit, bow down to him’ (29). The angels bowed down - all together (30), except Iblis. He refused to be among those who bowed down” (15:31) [See also 32:9, 38:72].
These verses point to the intrinsic divinity of all humanity regardless of religion. They also point to the divine scheme of ingraining intellect in humans to help them chose the ‘steep path’ and to acquire knowledge – a distinction not granted even to the angels (2:32), and thus giving a mark of divinity to knowledge, regardless of the faith of its possessor (2:269, 58:11).
“God taught Adam the names (asma’a)  of all things and then placed them before the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these, if you are truthful' (31). They (the angles) said: ‘Glory to you (O Lord)! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, You are All-Knowing and Wise’” (2:32).
“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).
Furthermore, the Qur’an asserts that God verifies the truth of His Words . And since the multifarious manifestations of nature are nothing but the Words or kalimat of God (18:109, 31:27), the Qur’anic assertion encompasses the modern scientific method of observation and experimentation to verifying the truth about them.
“Say (O Muhammad!): ‘If the ocean were an inkwell for the Words of my Lord, sooner would the ocean be exhausted than my Lord’s Words (kalimat), even if We brought the same to replenish (it)’” (18:109).
“If all the trees on earth were (made into) pens and the oceans (were ink), with seven oceans for replenishment, the Words (kalimat) of God will not be exhausted. Indeed God is Almighty, Wise” (31:27).
Taken together, the foregoing Qur’anic pronouncements constitute a clear and emphatic exhortation to pursuing universal as well as scientific knowledge in all their dimensions and directions, and to make no distinction between Islamic and non-Islamic knowledge.
Advancement of knowledge in the early centuries of Islam.
The early Muslims made remarkable advancement 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. As the present day revisionist and greenhorn scholarship may contest this claim, we are quoting two of the most brilliant scholars of the Christian West to fully substantiate this historical reality that looks so far-fetched today.
“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” 
“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” .
Thus, in true sense, the early Muslims set the stage for the Renaissance in Europe.
The rejection of universal knowledge in Islam during the post Renaissance (15th to 19th) centuries.
As Europe was witnessing an explosive growth in science and technology and other fields of knowledge in the wake of Renaissance (15th century CE onwards), the orthodox Islam forbade the emerging knowledge to the Muslims. They espoused a doctrine of taqlid (conformity with the views of past scholars) that held that all that was to be learnt had already been learnt during the Prophet’s era and therefore all new knowledge was biddat – undesirable innovation. Accordingly the Muslim scholars stood on the sidelines watching the advancements in Europe with silent skepticism. This resulted in stagnancy of knowledge, abhorrence against any scientific advancement, and division of universal knowledge into Islamic and European categories .
In fact, as reviewed by Murad Hofmann , 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 Ulama 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. Given the Qur’anic universalism as established on the basis of the Qur’anic illustrations in 1 above, such a thinking or view is grossly un-Islamic.
The truth is scientific knowledge is the very key to understanding the diverse scientific indications of the Qu’an, and the essential tool to 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 fetus, darkness in the depths of oceans, barrier between sweet and saline water etc. 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 denial of a self evident proposition - a kufr.
Conclusion: It is high time that the Muslim Ulema abolish any division of knowledge between Islamic and un-Islamic and incorporate the study of physical sciences and other universal faculties and professional disciplines in the curriculum of the madrasas. Obviously any major transformation in educational curriculum has to come in stages, but having lost almost five centuries, there is no more time to lose. Today, the participation of Muslims in academic and professional fields, cultural arenas, and prestigious and lawful avenues of livelihood in practically all Muslim minority countries is abysmally low as their educational, professional and cultural attainments are handicapped by their own or their parents’/ancestors’ madarsa based education. In historical perspective, if any single agency has to bear the blame for the introductory poetic outburst, it is probably the Ulema and the orthodox Islam - their throwback influence and reductive madarsa curriculum as this discourse amply demonstrates – however, bitter this may sound.
In fact, the Ulema can probably redeem themselves by taking an about turn in their attitude by pro-actively espousing universal knowledge as suggested above, and also adopting appropriate Western language as a compulsory subject in their curriculum, for a Western language, notably English, is far richer and advanced in interpreting the kalimat (manifestations) of God and harnessing God’s blessings as the Qur’an enjoins than any other language at this moment. No doubt it is going to be a steep path – but probably the only path out of the ‘Lighting’ that “seems to strike only the Musalman. Finally to put a Qur’anic seal to this burning Ijtihad:
“… God does not change the favor which He has bestowed on a people, unless they change themselves…” (8:53).
“… God does not change the condition of a people, unless they change themselves*…” (13:11).
The Qur’anic plural word asma’a (sing. ism) traditionally rendered as ‘names’ also connotes knowledge, virtue, quality etc. Thus, this pithy statement can be interpreted to imply God empowering humans with the faculty to identify and characterize every object individually and thus acquiring knowledge.
The Qur’anic expression: yuhiqqul haqqa bi kalimatihi: 8:7, 10:82*, 42:24. *[allahu also appears in this verse: yuhiqqullahu haqqa...]
Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islam, Empire of Faith, BBC Series, UK 2001, p. 11.
Robert Briffault (1867-1948), Making of Humanity, p. 202, [Extracted from Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Islamic thoughts, 6th reprint, New Delhi 1998, p. 130.]
Jamal Afghani, extracted from John L.Esposito’s, Islam in Transition, New York 1982, p. 18.
Murad Hofmann, Islam the Alternative, UK 1993, p. 37.
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. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009
Fantastice piece. Allah wants us to ask him to increase our knowledge (Allah humma rabbi zidni ilma_ our Lord increase me in knowledge). The first verse of the Quran was not about oneness of God, which is the cornerstone of Islam, but to "read". This is where people differ in interpreatation. Some say that this verse should only be taken to "read" the Quran and not other text, but there are also scholars who say that this verse must be taken as a whole i.e., to read and gain knowledge as much as possible in as many subjects as possible. A hadidth says that the the weight of an aalim's( one who is knowledgeable) pen is heavier than an Islamic soldier's sword.
I agree with Muhammad Yunus sir, that it is high time that the Muslim Ulema abolish any division of knowledge between Islamic and un-Islamic and incorporate the study of physical sciences and other universal faculties and professional disciplines in the curriculum of the madrasas.
Excellent article! Our Ulema, instead of ridiculing knowledge, arts and science, should become the agents to inspire our youth to pursue knowledge, arts and science. After all, that is what the Quran urges us to do.
Of course, the universal appeal and enthusiasm for learning various aspects of knowledge must be aroused and enlightened in the dark and remote areas of hearts by one and all which will tarnish the old and antiquetted thoughts of ignorance and brighten the futuristic prospects of development. No Muslim should deny or object on the necessity of teaching scientific and modern subjects in Madarsas to equip our brothers and sisters with the latest educational weapons to drive away illiteracy, ignorance and distitute from our society. May Allah give us good sense to realise the need of hour.