The central message of the Quran and Prophetic Tradition to seek knowledge led to the foundation of several institutions of learning. The acquisition of knowledge came to be perceived as a way of improving understanding of the faith and its practices. The pursuit of knowledge was emphasised by Hazrat Ali and his descendants to the present day, by Mawlana Hazar Imam.
The Quran persistently calls on the faithful to ponder the universe in order to understand God’s creation:
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).
“God said: I could not be contained in the heavens and the earth
but can be contained in the heart of a true believer.”
Hadith of Prophet Muhammad
Early Muslim intellectuals searched for knowledge in every domain especially when the Qur’an “explicitly commands the study of the universe and the self as a means to know God” (The Muslim Intellectual Heritage p 111).
The primary focus was on the nature of things, “describing and explaining the three fundamental domains…God, the universe, and the human soul” (Ibid. p 8).
Furthermore, the need to make the works of previous civilisations available more widely led to a translation and compilation movement whereby Greek, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Byzantium materials were translated into Arabic beginning around 800 CE, whose effects are felt today.
“… following the guidance of the Holy Quran, there was freedom of enquiry and research. The result was a magnificent flowering of artistic and intellectual activity throughout the Umma….“
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Acceptance of Charter of Aga Khan University, Karachi, March 16, 1983
“From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilizations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. “
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Brown University, Providence, USA, May 26, 1996
“Once man has thus comprehended the essence of existence, there remains for him the duty, since he knows the absolute value of his own soul, of making for himself a direct path which will constantly lead
his individual soul to and bind it with the universal Soul of which the Universe – as much of it as we perceive with our limited vision – is one of the infinite manifestations. Thus Islam’s basic principle can only be defined as monorealism and not as monotheism.”
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah
The Memoirs of Aga Khan, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1954, p 175
“The question arises why the West sprang forward while Islamic societies lagged. Historians agree that several factors are involved. Makdisi notes that one of the factors was the system of perpetuity. Islam had only one form of perpetuity, the waqf, while the West, at the end of the thirteenth century, had two forms: the corporation as well as the charitable trust.
Another major factor was the ‘closing of the gate’ to the scholastic method – freedom of thought and discussion, the freedom of its practice of ijtihad. “The thirteenth century was for the West a century of corporations while for Islam, it was the century that brought into existence the first governmental post of the mufti. The freedom inherent in the function of the mufti gradually weakened and an end was eventually brought to the free play of opinions… The scholastic method eventually disappeared from the scene as a dynamic element in education … On the other hand, the scholastic method was kept alive in the West during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century in the college-universities, long after it had disappeared from the land in which it originated” (Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, Edinburgh University Press p 290).
“Islam is fundamentally in its very nature a natural religion. Throughout the Quran, God’s signs (ayat) are referred to as natural phenomena, the law and order of the universe, the exactitudes and consequences of the relations between natural phenomena in cause and effect. The stars, sun, moon, earthquakes, fruits of the earth and trees are repeatedly mentioned as the signs of divine power, divine law and order…. During the great ages of Islam, Muslims did not forget these principles of their religion.
Under the Khalif Muavia and the great Omaiyyad Khalifs of Damascus, the Islamic navy was supreme in the Mediterranean; better ships, better knowledge of wind and tide were placed at the disposal of the Muslim navy and thus the land conquests of half of Western Europe rendered possible and easy…
But at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, the European Renaissance rapidly advanced in knowledge of nature, namely all those very Ayats of God to which the Quran refers, when Muslims forgot the Ayats, namely natural phenomenon, its law and order which are the proofs of divine guidance used in the Quran, but we stuck to our rites and ceremonies, to our prayers and fast alone, forgetting the other half of our faith. Thus during those 200/300 years, Europe and the West got an advance out of all proportion to the Muslim world and we found everywhere in Islam (in spite of our humble prayers, our moral standard, our kindliness and gentleness towards the poor) constant deterioration of one form or another and the Muslim world went down. Why? Because we forgot the law and order of nature to which the Quran refers as proof of God’s existence and we went against God’s natural laws. This and this alone has led to the disastrous consequences we have seen….
“… we look upon Islamic principles as only rites and ceremonies and forget the real Ayats of God’s natural phenomenon… there is no unity of soul without which there can be no greatness…
Remember that in the great first century they knew more about the sea and wind than Europe ever did for hundreds of years to come. … Unless our universities have the best graduated Ulema school for men brought up in the same atmosphere as the science students, realizing the fundamental truth that Islam is a natural religion of which the Ayats are the universe in which we live and move and have our being, the same causes will lead to the same disastrous results.”
Letter to the President of the Arabiyya Jamiyyat, Karachi, 4 April 1952
Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Edited by K.K. Aziz, Kegan Paul International, London, p 1290-1293
“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
Acceptance of the Charter of the Aga Khan University, Karachi, March 16, 1983
Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer who 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