Prophet Muhammad frequently sought moments of reflection by retreating to a cave on Mount Hira outside Mecca. During one of his retreats, the Prophet had a spiritual experience, which was his first call of revelation on what subsequently came to be called Laylat al-qadr (Night of Power). The Qur’an refers to this event:
“Indeed, We sent it down during the Night of Power! And what will make you understand what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. In it, angels descend by their Lord’s permission, attending to every command. Peace it is until the break of dawn (97:1-5).
It is believed that the first revelation came during the latter part of Ramadan; Shia Ismaili Muslims observe Laylat al-qadr on the 23rd of Ramadan. The Prophet subsequently received revelation for 23 years.
The first revelation to the Prophet was about knowledge and learning:
“Recite the Name of your Lord, who created!
Created man from a clot”
Thy Lord is most noble, Who taught by the Pen,
taught man that which he knew not“ (96: 1-5).
The acquisition of knowledge came to be perceived as a way of improving understanding of the faith and its practices. Motivated by the central message of the Qur’an to pursue knowledge and the Prophetic Tradition, ‘Seek knowledge, even though it comes from China,’ the rulers incorporated some of this material into their own way of looking at the world, founding many institutions of learning. This began the period of translation and advancement, ushering in the era of knowledge exchange whose effects are felt today. An ayat also says:
Truly, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, and the ships which sail upon the sea with that which is of use to people, and the water which Allah sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after its death, and scattering in it all kinds of beasts, and the changing of the winds, and the clouds obedient between heaven and earth, are indeed signs for people who understand (2:164).
The Prophet urged the people to “reflect on signs in the universe that they might understand that in addition to achieving material goals, human life also had a higher moral and spiritual purpose” (Nanji, The Muslim Almanac p 5).
Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV reminded:
“Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur’an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah’s benevolent majesty.“
London, UK, October 19, 2003
In Islam, the cosmos is understood to represent an infinitely vast display of the signs of God. “The principle of tawhid (Divine Unity) infused all intellectual endeavour, preventing the splitting of subject from object. Tawhid… declares the inter-relatedness of all things… Given that Muslim intellectuals saw all things as beginning, flourishing, and ending within the compass of One Source, they could not split up the domains of reality in any more than a tentative way…the more they investigated the universe, the more they saw it as manifesting the principles of tawhid and the nature of the human self.” (Nasr, Sufi Essays p 112-113).
The Qur’an “explicitly commands the study of the universe and the self as a means to know God” (Chittick, The Muslim Intellectual Heritage p 111).
Early Muslim intellectuals “were not able to disengage knowledge of the cosmos from knowledge of God or from knowledge of the human soul” (Ibid. p 113). The primary focus was on the nature of things, “describing and explaining the three fundamental domains…God, the universe, and the human soul.” The universe and the human self are viewed as inseparably linked” (Chittick, The Muslim Intellectual Heritage p 108-109).
The learning dealt with many disciplines that in modern-day are considered separate fields such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, among others; thus, pre-modern Islamic scholars were knowledgeable in a variety of fields rather than in a specific area.
Hence, according to early scholars, all human knowledge, represents a dim reflection of the limitless divine knowledge, comprising transmitted and intellectual knowledge.
“Transmitted knowledge is passed from person to person, but true “intellectual” knowledge can only be discovered by the human mind from within itself…transmitted knowledge include Koran, Hadith, grammar, and jurisprudence. More generally we find it in everything that we think we know from books, teachers… but true “intellectual” knowledge can only be discovered by the human mind from within itself. Its essential content does not depend upon being passed down from others.”
S.H. Nasr notes that in the beginning, “knowledge was the Sacred as well as the source of all that is sacred.” Over time, “knowledge has become nearly completely externalized and desacralized… and that bliss which is the fruit of union with the One… has become well-nigh unattainable and beyond the grasp of the vast majority of those who walk upon the earth. But the root and essence of knowledge continues to be inseparable from the sacred” (Knowledge and the Sacred p 6-7).
The root of knowledge is the same as the Sanskrit word jnana which means both knowledge and wisdom (it is also the root word of ginan, the devotional literature of the Nizari Ismailis of the Indian subcontinent).
S.H. Nasr explains that in their Rasa’il (Epistles), the Ikhwan al-Safa, a tenth-century fraternity connected with Ismailis, taught to awaken “from the sleep of negligence and the slumber of ignorance” and to seek knowledge. “The knowledge they emphasized embraced all divinely revealed knowledge, and all branches of traditional knowledge available to them. These different branches of knowledge and different revealed laws, according to them, were medicines and potions for the treatment of sick souls suffering from ignorance, and their means for salvation from the “sea of matter and bondage of nature” and re-gaining the best form in which man had been created by God” (An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia: Ismaili Thought in the Classical Age p 208).
“Knowledge remains potentially the supreme way to gain access to the Sacred…. Today, modern man has lost the sense of wonder, which results from his loss of the sense of the sacred, to such a degree that he is hardly aware how miraculous is the mystery of intelligence…The Qur’an refers in practically every chapter to the importance of intellection and knowledge, and the first verses revealed relate to recitation (iqra) which implies knowledge, and to science (ilm – hence ta’lim, to teach)” (Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred p14).
Schuon states “All the knowledge which the brain can hold, even if it is immeasurably rich from a human point of view, is nothing in the sight of Truth” (cited in Knowledge and the Sacred p 282 n. 6).
“The quest for knowledge is never-ending, and those with the necessary preparedness must pay close attention to the advice that God addresses to the Prophet: ‘Say: “My Lord, increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114) (Chittick, The Islamic concept of Human Perfection p 3).
“In Islamic belief, knowledge is two-fold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet [Salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa- sallam] and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers. Indeed one strength of Islam has always lain in its belief that creation is not static but continuous, that through scientific and other endeavours, God has opened and continues to open new windows for us to see the marvels of His creation.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV, Karachi, March 16, 1983
More on Laylat al-Qadr at Ismaili Gnosis
Azim Nanji, “The Prophet, the Revelation, and the Founding of Islam,” The Muslim Almanac Ed. Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1996
Nasir Khusraw, Wajhi-Din, tr. Faquir M. Hunzai, in An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi’i Vision of Islam, Vol. 2, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2008
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, The Gifford Lectures
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays, State University of New York Press, 1972
William C. Chittick, The Muslim Intellectual Heritage and Its Perception in Europe, Central and Eastern European Online Library (PDF)
William C. Chittick, The Islamic Concept of Human Perfection, The Matheson Trust For the Study of Comparative Religion
Abu Ibrahim Isma’il ibn Bukhari (d. ca. 870) cited by Lewisohn in The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, Edited by M. Lakhani, Sacred Web Publishing, 2006, p 113
Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.