Pursuit of Islamic Knowledge by Ustadh Faraz Khan

Ramadan, Eid and the Pursuit of Islamic Knowledge

By Ustadh Faraz Khan, of Risala Foundation (Houston, TX)

With the conclusion of another Ramadan, it is fitting to remind ourselves of the essence of the joyous occasion of Eid al-Fitr. Say: for the Grace of God and for His Mercy – so for that let them rejoice! It is indeed better than that which they amass (Qur’an 10:58). Many commentators, including Imams al-Tabari and al-Nasafi, state that the Mercy mentioned in the above verse refers to the Qur’an; therefore, the Divine command (so for that let them rejoice!) is to celebrate the Qur’an itself. On Eid al-Fitr, it is a sunna to display our exuberance and cheerfulness, as a beautiful expression of how our community actually rejoices in our worship, as the words chosen to carry His Divine Speech actually emanate from our mouths. Ramadan of course is the month of the Qur’an, with respect to both its inzal – its being sent down in its entirety, at one time – as well as its tanzil – its piecemeal revelation over the span of 23 years. The tanzil is also intimately connected with Ramadan since, according to many scholars, the first set of verses to come down did so in that blessed month. Hence, one could say that both Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr are celebrations and reminders of the tanzil of those verses, i.e., the magnificent event of “Read!” (iqra).

Read, in the Name of your Lord, who created. Created man from a clot of congealed blood. Read! And your Lord is Most Generous. The One who taught man by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not (96:1-5).

The iqra event is replete with invaluable lessons, yet this essay will focus on the actual verses themselves. The central theme that is evident to anyone who reflects over the five verses is that of the pursuit of knowledge. The very first word iqra carries both meanings of recite and read, the latter of which is at the heart of education, and the command is actually repeated in the third verse. The verb ‘allama is also used twice, which is to literally impart knowledge, or teach. There is also a reference to the pen in the fourth verse, which is also the heading of the chapter al-Qalam, so named due to its first verse and the Divine oath therein By the pen and that which they write! Imam al-Nasafi states, “He [Most High] swore by it [the pen] due to all sorts of indescribable benefit therein.” [Incidentally, Imam Qurtubi and others mention that the opening verses of al-Qalam were the second to be revealed in the Qur’anic tanzil, again highlighting the early Qur’anic emphasis on education.]

The initial verses sent down to humanity therefore center on reading and writing, the two predominant methods of preserving knowledge throughout human civilization. Knowledge is of the greatest of Divine gifts to the creation, and its pursuit and preservation is to be encouraged, emphasized and honored as a manifestation of God’s Infinite Generosity – Read! And your Lord is Most Generous (96:3).

Moreover, both instances of the command iqra – in verses one and three – are left unspecified; no direct object is mentioned. The Divine imperative of seeking knowledge applies to both the sacred and the secular; the Muslim community is to explore the fields of theology, Islamic jurisprudence, and Quranic exegesis, as well as those of botany, physics and geology. Allah is the Lord of both the heavens and the earth, and the human being is composed of both celestial and terrestrial elements.

Historically, luminaries of all fields of study emerged from the Muslim nation as a testament to the call of iqra – in the sacred sciences, jurists such as Malik, hadith masters such as al-Bukhari, theologians such as al-Baqillani, and Sufis such as Junaid; in the liberal arts, philosophers such as al-Farabi, poets and writers such as al-Mutanabbi, grammarians and linguists such as Sibawayh, rhetoricians such as al-Taftazani, and sociologists such as Ibn Khaldun [considered by some Westerners as the father of sociology]; in the secular sciences, mathematicians such as al-Khawarizmi, physicians such as Ibn Sina, political scientists such as al-Mawardi, and chemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan. Even in the realm of geography and travel, the exhortation of iqra produced geniuses such as al-Masudi and Ibn Battuta.

The 9th century philosopher Abu Ishaq al-Kindi alone made invaluable contributions in almost all branches of science, including mathematics, astronomy, physics, optics, music [including music therapy], medicine, pharmacy, logic, meteorology, and cryptology. He had mastered the Persian, Greek and Indian traditions of learning, as well as the Hebrew, Greek and Arabic languages, whereby he became one of Islamic history’s greatest translators, and an author of no less than 265 works spanning the aforementioned areas of his expertise. Many Western academics deem the 9th century mathematician and physicist Ibn al-Haytham to be the father of optics and the pioneer of the modern scientific method; his discoveries led to the location of the retina as the seat of vision, his “Alhazen Problems” are still known today in the field, and he is even considered a pioneer in the philosophical area of phenomenology, having articulated a relationship between the tangible physical world and that of intuition, cognition and mental function.1

Of course, Muslim civilization is not alone in producing brilliant scholarship, and one could argue that the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, and Chinese [amongst others] all had their own response to the call of pursuing knowledge. The uniqueness of Islamic civilization, then, does not lie in the verb iqra itself, but rather in the prepositional phrase that immediately follows and to which it is inextricably bound, namely, in the Name of your Lord. The pursuit of knowledge that was at the heart of Islamic history was one done in the Name of Allah, by His Power, and most importantly, for His Sake. Our great past is not merely a collection of vain academic pursuits and interests, but rather a testament to a communal search for the Creator by examining the beauty and wonder of His creation – at both the macro and the micro levels – in order to serve and benefit humanity and, ultimately, attain unto everlasting Divine Pleasure. Like all minarets, those of traditional Ottoman mosques – one of humanity’s greatest expressions of architectural genius – are directed towards the heavens.

Linguistically, the prepositional phrase in the Name of your Lord has a ta’alluq, or grammatical connection, to the preceding verb Read; the two are intimately bound, for there is no iqra in the Qur’anic perspective without bismi Rabbik. The three-letter root of ta’alluq is ‘alaqa, which is related to being bound and attached; its antithetical root – noted by reading the three letters backwards – is qala’a, which means to uproot or sever something from its very foundations, the exact opposite meaning of ‘alaqa. If the qualifying phrase in the Name of your Lord is severed from the verb, iqra is left alone and can be manipulated for worldly, ephemeral aims of power and destruction. The post-industrial revolution, modern world has inverted the ’alaqa and adopted a path of qala’a; society today, particularly academia, has violently uprooted the sacred ta’alluq of in the Name of your Lord, showing utter disregard of Divine purpose in its quest of information and discovery. “Knowledge” – if it even retains the same name – in the spheres of atheism and agnosticism turns hazardous and pernicious – at the micro level, by engendering a hubris that consumes the soul and covers the heart in black rust (Qur’an 83:14), bringing out the demonic element within man; and at the macro level, by opening doors of destruction and suffering that can be cosmic.

The danger of uprooted knowledge is all the more frightening today considering the sheer speed at which technology is advancing. After the telephone, automobile and light bulb in the late 1800’s, the 20th century witnessed staggering advancements at an unprecedented rate – cornflakes, teabags and the first piloted helicopter in the first decade; motion pictures and neon lamps in the 10’s; loudspeakers and frozen foods in the 20’s; FM radio and the jet engine in the 30’s; velcro and the atomic bomb in the 40’s; optic fiber and the internal pacemaker in the 50’s; computer language and computer games in the 60’s, culminating in Apollo 11 taking man to the moon in 1969; floppy disk and word processor in the 70’s; Microsoft Windows and Prozac in the 80’s, culminating with the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990; and the world-wide-web, http, html, pentium processor and viagra in the 90’s.2

Yet concurrently, that century also saw the democide of over 169 million people;3 August 6, 1945 alone witnessed the uranium-235 nuclear weapon “Little Boy” being dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and August 9, 1945 saw the detonation of plutonium-239 “Fat Man” over Nagasaki, Japan – the only two nuclear bombs ever used in history – resulting in the death of 140,000 and 80,000 innocent Japanese, respectively. Both bombs were also the result of a pursuit of knowledge – a project termed The Manhattan Project, whose research was directed by American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.4

As for the 21st century, of which not even a decade has passed, the potential “advancements” are all the more frightening. On March 7, 2001, the scientist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil published a controversial essay online called The Law of Accelerating Returns, which begins as follows:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. [italics added] Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.5

Albeit highly speculative, deeply controversial, and reminiscent of some Sci-Fi novel, Kurzweil’s theory is indicative of the direction modern science is heading, and the rate at which it aspires to do so. The pace of technological advancement, discovery and invention is definitely more exponential than linear, and in an age of nuclear fission, genome cloning and artificial intelligence, the information highway is in dire need – more than ever in human history – of the stabilizing moral element of in the Name of your Lord. This, then, is the Divine trust given to the Muslim community – to remind humanity of the imperative to firmly root its academic pursuits – in all fields of study – in the nourishing and wholesome earth of the remembrance of God. Technology must be grounded and stabilized as such, so as not to feed the bestial element within man that seeks to fulfill its empty and vain desires of power and destruction, but rather be a means and tool of sincere betterment of society – of the sharing of resources, the healing of pain, and the empowerment of the downtrodden. Such high moral aspirations, according to the Qur’anic ethic, can never be achieved unless pursued in the Name of God, for the sake of God, and by the Power of God – that is, bismi Rabbik.

We are the community entrusted with this awesome task, as we are the nation of iqra bismi Rabbik, the people of the Qur’an, whose third chapter addresses us with: “You are the very best of nations, brought forth, for the sake of humanity” (110). As humanity races forward in all of its pursuits of knowledge and discovery, the Muslims are to restore in them a sense of the goal, the endpoint of the information highway – And indeed to your Lord is the final destination (Qur’an 53:42). We must reconnect the forgotten and abandoned in the Name of your Lord to the Read! of modern society; we must reestablish its ta’alluq. Knowledge bears fruit only if salvific; otherwise, it – along with all of the toil and effort in its acquisition – vanishes into a nothingness just as empty as the madness, vanity and sheer arrogance that goaded man to pursue it. As the 12th-century Christian theologian Hugh of Saint Victor writes in his Noah’s Ark:

Ignorant and foolish men, with a labour as vain as it is obstinate, search out the natures of things while they remain in ignorance of the One who is the Author and Maker of themselves and of all things alike. Yet they do not inquire after Him – as though without God truth might be found or happiness possessed. And, that you may be able to appreciate more clearly still how barren and indeed how pernicious such studies are, you must know that not only do they not enlighten the mind to know the truth, but they actually blind it, so that it cannot recognize the very truth…

What, then, does it profit a man to probe carefully into the nature of everything and understand it thoroughly, if he neither remembers nor knows whence he himself comes, nor whither he is going when this life is ended? For what is this mortal life but a journey? For we are passing through, and we see the things that are in this world as it were by the wayside. Does it follow, then, that we should stop and enquire into anything we see as we pass that is unusual or unfamiliar to us, and turn aside from our path for it? This is exactly what the people you are looking at are doing. Like foolish travellers, they have forgotten where they are going and have as it were sat down by the road to investigate the unfamiliar things they see. By habitually giving way to this folly they have already become such strangers to themselves that they do not remember that they are on a journey, nor do they seek their homeland…. No life could be more disgraceful and no end more unhappy than to have no hope of salvation when one dies, because one has been unwilling to take the path of virtue while one lived.6

And do not be like those who forgot Allah, so He caused them to forget themselves; verily, they are the ones who trangress limits (Qur’an 59:19).

[1] For detailed discussions on the above scholars of Islamic history, as well as others, see “Hundred Great Muslims” by K. J. Adams, and “Islamic Science – An Illustrated Study” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

[2] See 20th century timeline under inventors.about.com

[3] Democide is a term meaning government-inflicted death, and is broader than genocide, as it includes politicide and mass murder; it was coined by political scientist R.J. Rummel in his book Death By Government, published in 1994. In light of such a colossal number of murder victims – 169 million – one is reminded of the Prophetic Hadith [of various yet similar wording] related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih collection, ‘The Final Hour will draw near; knowledge will diminish, earthquakes will become frequent, strife and discord will be widespread, and al-haraj will be plentiful.’ The companions asked, ‘And what is al-haraj?’ to which he (peace be upon him) replied, “Killing, Killing.’ Commentators of the Hadith mention that the knowledge that will diminish is sacred knowledge, that which grounds all other branches of knowledge in the ever-important domain of in the Name of your Lord.

[4] For this reason, he is remembered as The Father of the Atomic Bomb. Moreover, at the test site in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where his team first successfully tested the bomb, Oppenheimer was said to have been extremely tense up until the last few moments before the explosion, holding his breath in eager anticipation as to whether the bomb would detonate. Staring out into the desert without blinking, he stood waiting, and as soon as the announcer shouted “Now!” accompanied by a colossal burst of light with its subsequent thundering roar of an explosion, his face “relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.” Years later he would recall how during the explosion he thought of two verses from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

See Peter Goodchild,J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds, (1981); and Ferenc M. Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice,(1984).


[6]Taken from Whitall N. Perry, A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, page 736.
Posted with permission of Risala Foundation.