By Nikhat Sattar
December 18th, 2015
The raw material used for the creation of mankind was mire. The only distinguishing feature of man is his ability to choose between right and wrong, based on his intuitive and deductive knowledge. God has provided man with basic understanding and tools to access knowledge. It is a part of His spirit that has been breathed into man to impart a conscience and the urge for the truth.
Knowledge is an understanding of whatever reality we are exposed to, and is affected by human error, bias and prejudice. Mankind can have knowledge of only those aspects that God chooses to expose. A human being’s innate desire to know the truth has led him to question what he observes. He has been helped partly through God’s guidance, in the form of divine revelations and messengers, and partly through God’s injunctions to seek the truth. “…Of knowledge it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O men!)” (17:85). Human knowledge is not the absolute truth, and we must delve deeper through research, experimentation and reflection in order to get nearer to the truth.
No other scripture has given as much importance to knowledge as the Quran. Ayahs 11, 12 and 13 of Surah Nahl mention the three levels of attaining knowledge: listening and remembering; using one’s powers of reasoning; and deep reflection and insight. The word has been mentioned 161 times in the Book. “…Allah will rise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) Knowledge. …” (58:11)
The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said: “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise…. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham (money), leaving only knowledge…” (Abu Dawud)
Reasons abound for the decline in the pursuit of knowledge.
Between the 8th and 13th centuries, Muslim scientists made tremendous leaps in science. Mohammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose discovery of the algorithm forms the basis of computer science, is known as the father of algebra.
In addition to being a reputed jurist and philosopher, Ibn Rushd made huge contributions to the diagnosis and cure of diseases; Abu Bakr al-Razi was a great physician; Ibn Zuhr was a famous surgeon and physician; Ibn Khaldun is one of the forerunners of modern historiography, sociology and economics; Abu Nasr Mohammad al-Farabi was a philosopher, musician and sociologist; Ibn Sina’s contributions ranged from medicine, psychology and pharmacology to geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy. The list goes on.
According to a report some years ago, Muslim countries had nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1,000 people, compared to a world average of 41. Of 1,800 universities, only 312 had scholars who published journal articles. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed just 1pc of the world’s scientific literature.
Most Muslim countries are, apparently, only known for desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. In short, in the words of Bernard Lewis, “the civilisation that had produced cities, libraries, and observatories and opened itself to the world had now regressed and become closed, resentful, violent, and hostile to discourse and innovation”.
There are many reasons, including geopolitical ones, for this decline in the pursuit of knowledge. One was that scientific advancements had not been institutionalised in the Muslim world. Another was the rapidly growing influence of religious elements that feared that science would open doors to questioning the dogma that they had established. Science soon became anathema, and independent thought something that was a crime. Rational thinking and logic were seen to be contradictory to religious teachings that declared God’s will to be behind all events in the world, with no human control.
Islamic law faced the same fate. Afraid of dissent and loss of power, further debate was banned from the 12th century onwards, and the gates of Ijtihad were mostly closed. Muslims could no longer think and question: they could only follow laws made by religious authorities. Even Ibn Sina was declared a heretic. In contemporary times in Pakistan, many dissenting voices have been forced into exile or killed. Examples include Fazlur Rahman, Dr Mohammed Faruq, Dr Shakeel Auj and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi.
Without freedom of expression, the ability to query and debate without fear, creativity and innovation do not prosper. The pursuit of knowledge requires investment of effort and resources. Where the state, its institutions and individuals are repressive, secretive and inward-looking, whether in religious, philosophical or scientific matters, human development stagnates. It is ironic that the followers of a faith that could take human potential to the heights of intellectual and spiritual development are now mired in the depths of ignorance. The barriers to knowledge are none other than those who claim to be Islam’s custodians: the rulers and the clergy.
Nikhat Sattar is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.