By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah
30 May, 2015
(Published exclusively on New Age
Islam with Permission of the authors and publishers)
10. Universality of Knowledge
Addressed to a largely unlettered people
and aimed at bringing about a quantum change in the social order of the world
under the ambit of its monotheistic discourse, the Qur’an does not talk about
pursuing universal knowledge in a direct and straightforward way. However, its
broader message resonates with exhortations and inspirations to acquiring
The very first revelation of the Qur’an is
a commandment to reading and an affirmation of the intellectual potential of
man (96:1-5/Ch. 1.2). With the progress of the revelation the Qur’an declares
that: i) man is assigned the role of God’s deputy on earth and endowed with the
intellectual faculty to identify and characterize every object individually
(2:30-35/Ch. 5.1), ii) granted special ‘favours’ above much of the creation
(17:70), iii) fashioned in the finest model (95:4), and iv) whatever is in the
heavens and the earth is made serviceable to him (31:20, 45:13).1
“We have indeed honoured the descendants of
Adam; carried them across land and sea; provided for them out of the good
things; and favoured them above much of what We have created” (17:70).
“Don’t you see 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? Yet (there are) among
people (those) who dispute about God without knowledge, without guidance and
without an enlightening book” (31:20).
“God is the One who has made the sea
serviceable to you and the ships sail on it by His command, that you may seek
of His bounty, and that you may be grateful (45:12). He has made serviceable to
you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth - all (come from) Him.
There are signs in this for a people who reflect” (45:13).
“Indeed, We have created humankind in the
finest model” (95:4).
Furthermore, the Qur’an makes repeated
references to a people: ‘who use their reason, ‘who reflect’, ‘who know’, and
‘who are prudent,’ describes wisdom (Hikmat) as a great bounty (2:269), and
promises to raise the ranks of those who are given knowledge (‘Ilm) (58:11).
“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).
Last but not least, the Qur’an asserts that
God verifies the truth of His Words.2 And since the multifarious manifestations
of nature are nothing but the reflections of the Words or kalimat of God
(18:109, 31:27/Ch. 2.1), Qur’anic assertion points to the principle of
experimentation and verification that underlies all scientific advancement.
Taken together, these Qur’anic
pronouncements constitute a clear and emphatic exhortation to pursue universal
knowledge in all its dimensions and directions. Accordingly, the early Muslims
made remarkable advancements 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.
Thus, in true sense, the early Muslims set the stage for the Renaissance in
Europe, as most historians and scholars, including those, sceptic of the
Prophetic mission, have acknowledged.3, 4
10.1. Division of Knowledge in Medieval Islam
By the fifth or sixth century of Islam, the
intellectual enterprise of the Muslims came to a virtual halt. The theologians
had remained suspect of universal knowledge as it challenged many of their
views and interpretations that were rooted in the pre-Islamic myths or faiths.
They also popularized the juristic doctrine of Taqlid (Precedence, App. 1.6)
into a simplistic notion that all that had to be learnt had already been learnt
during the Prophet’s time, and was contained in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s
normative ways (Sunnah), and the posterity was expected to simply imitate
them.5 This resulted in stagnancy of knowledge, abhorrence against any
scientific advancement, and division of universal knowledge into Islamic and
European categories.6 Thus, in the post Renaissance era, the Muslims
persistently refused to acquire the so-called ‘European’ knowledge, and watched
the phenomenal advancement of science and technology with silent scepticism. In
fact, as reviewed by Murad Hofmann,7 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 ‘Ulema
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
10.2. Significance of Scientific Knowledge in Islam
Scientific knowledge is the very key to
understanding the Qur’anic wisdom, let alone 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 foetus,
darkness in the depths of oceans, barrier between sweet and saline water etc.
as reviewed earlier (Ch. 4.8) 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 distortion of its message.
It is therefore high time that the Muslim ‘Ulema
abolish any division of universal knowledge that may still be in force in their
religious institutions (madrasas), and incorporate the study of physical
sciences and other universal faculties in the curriculum of the madrasas.
Muslims must recognize that God alone is the fountainhead of all knowledge, and
must heed that dividing the domain of knowledge between Godly and un-godly
could be tantamount to ascribing partners to God – though God knows best.
14:32, 16:12, 67:15.
The Qur’anic expression: yuhiqqul haqqa bi kalimatihi: 8:7, 10:82*, 42:24.
*[allahu also appears in this verse: yuhiqqullahu haqqa...]
“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”– Jonathan
Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islam, Empire of Faith, BBC Series, UK 2001, p. 11.
“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. – Robert Briffault
(1867-1948), Making of Humanity, p. 202, [Extracted from Muhammad Iqbal’s
Reconstruction of Islamic thoughts, 6th reprint, New Delhi1998, p. 130.]
Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman al-Qur’an, 1931; reprint New Delhi 1989,
Vol.1. p. 42,43.
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.
11. The Universal Notion of Jihad
A broad definition based on Qur’anic illustrations
The word jihad (root, JHD) and its other
derivatives are used in the Qur’an with a varying shade of meaning, which can
be best understood by reflecting over the theme of the verses bearing JHD root
words. Such an exercise, attempted below, bears out the following Qur’anic
notion of jihad:
On a personal level, jihad is a struggle to face the hardships and
challenges of life with patience and determination, or to constantly endeavour
to accomplish a lawful goal.
On a community level, it is an ongoing struggle to overcome the social,
moral, material, intellectual and spiritual deprivations of the time.
11.2. Jihad of the Prophet’s Followers in Mecca
During the Meccan period when the Muslims
were small in number, and in no position to defend themselves, the Qur’an
connotes the root JHD with a ‘peaceful
struggle’ (25:52, 29:6, 29:69), as well as ‘putting moral pressure’ - such as,
parents putting ‘pressure’ on their children (29:8, 31:15).
“Then do not obey the disbelievers, and
wage against them (Jahidhum) an intense struggle (Jihadn Kabir)
with it [the Qur’an]” (25:52).
“Anyone who struggles (Jahada),
struggles (Yujahidu) only for himself, for God is above any need of all Beings”
“We have enjoined on humanity kindness to
parents, but if they press (Jahada) you to associate with Me that, of which you
have no knowledge - do not obey them (in religion). (Remember,) you will
(eventually) return to Me, and I will tell you what you did” (29:8).
“We will guide in Our paths those who
strive (Jahadu) for Us. Indeed God is with the compassionate”
“If they press (Jahada) you to associate
with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not listen to them (in religion)…”
(31:15). (Full text in Ch. 17.4)
11.3. Jihad of the Medinite Muslims
In the Medinite period when the Muslims
formed a growing community, the Qur’an commands the Prophet’s followers to
struggle with their wealth and their lives (8:72, 49:15, 61:11). This was
suggestive of a call to take up arms, and predictably, the affluent among the
Prophet’s followers preferred to stay back (9:86).
“(As for) those who have believed, and have
migrated and struggled (Jahadu) with their wealth and their lives in God’s way,
as well as those who sheltered and helped them – it is they who are the
protectors of each other...” (8:72).
“When a Sura is revealed, (saying :)
‘Believe in God, and struggle (Jahidu) with His Messenger,’ the affluent among
them ask (exemption of) you (O Muhammad,) and say: ‘Let us (stay) with those
who sit (back at home)’” (9:86).
“Only those are believers, who believe in
God and His Messenger; then they do not doubt, and struggle (Jahadu) in God's
way with their wealth and their lives – it is they who are truthful” (49:15).
“You who believe, shall I lead you to a
bargain that will save you from a severe punishment (61:10): that you believe
in God and His Messenger, and struggle (tujahidu) in God's way with your wealth
and your lives; this will be good for you if you only knew” (61:11).
The community also continued its struggle
(22:78), at times through physical labor, which was deemed lowly and
undignified (9:79); and as the community grew, a bigger jihad was undertaken in
God’s way (2:218, 5:35).
“(As for) those who believe, and those who
have migrated and struggled (jahadu) in God’s way – it is they (who may) hope
for God’s Mercy, for (indeed) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (2:218).
“You who believe, heed God, seek the means
towards Him, and struggle (jahidu) in His way, that you may succeed” (5:35).
“Those [Hypocrites] who find fault with the
believers that give charity voluntarily and with those who find nothing but
their (physical) labour (Juhdahum), and deride them - God will (return) them with
derision, and there is a severe punishment for them” (9:79).
“Strive (Jahidu) in God's (way) - a striving
(jihad) due to Him. He has chosen you (to convey His message)…” (22:78). (Full
text in Ch. 42.3)
To demonstrate the broader concept of
jihad, the Prophet is reported to have told his followers after returning from
a military campaign: “This day we have returned from a minor jihad to a major
jihad,” and added that “by this he meant returning from an armed battle to the
peaceful battle for self-control and betterment,” that is intellectual and
spiritual regeneration and the eradication of social and moral vices.
11.4. The Role of the Greater Struggle (Jihadn
The Qur’an was revealed at a time when the
universal notions of liberty, justice and rights were yet to evolve. The
rulers, feudal lords, tribal chiefs, and priests exercised unlimited power over
common people, women were oppressed and had no legal rights,1 while slaves
formed an integral part of human society – to cite some of the major vices of
the era. Islam stripped the ruling class of its power, empowered the oppressed
class and eradicated the major vices of the society, and it achieved all this
under the ambit of the greater jihad. Thus the early Islamic societies stood
out as models of justice, equity, compassion, tolerance and enlightenment; and
this gravitated people of different faiths to its fold and led to the gradual
spread of Islam and flowering of Islamic civilization. Since this raises the
question what happened to the notion of the greater jihad, we would like to
shed some light on it.
11.5. The Demise of the Notion of Greater Jihad
The Qur’anic precepts were in direct
conflict with the established norms of the era. In modern parlour, they were
ultra-radical. Therefore, as often happens with such movements, reactionary
elements became active soon after the Prophet’s death (632). Within the next
thirty years, the elective Caliphate was replaced by a dynastic rule (662). The
dynastic rulers (Umayyads, 663-750, Abbasids, 750-1258) introduced old
feudalistic values and set aside the Qur’anic dictates on social reform leading
to gradual social and moral degeneration. The process of degeneration gained
momentum with the transfer of power into the hands of the Tatars (13th
century).2 They “misinterpreted the Islamic doctrine of divine decree so as to
frustrate human will and to choke every striving for action… principles which
directly contradicted their religion and ran counter to its precepts, became
the rule of the day, and were accepted without hesitation.”3 This, with time,
led to the erosion of the spirit of the greater jihad, and reduced the faith of
Islam to “the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, as well as some
sayings, which have been, however, perverted by allegorical interpretations.”4
This virtually brings us up-to-date on the
status of the greater jihad in Islam.
Roman law treated women as the possession of their husbands who, under
extreme circumstances, exercised the right of life and death over them.
Over a period of some forty years (1220-1258), the Mongol hordes fanned
out westwards from Mongolia, and completely destroyed the various domains of
Islamic civilization that had flourished in the eastern regions of the Islamic
Caliphate, across the central planes of Asia. After the surrender of Baghdad,
the capital of the Caliphate, to Halagu Khan (1258), the Mongols virtually
occupied the conquered Islamic lands. However, before long they embraced Islam
and became known as Tatars. The faith won with peace what its soldiers had lost
Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, extracted from Muhammad Husayn Haykal,
The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi
1989, p. 584
Ibid., Quotation from Muhammad Abduh, p. 585.
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. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana
Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.