Quest for knowledge - Mir Adnan Aziz - Saturday, February 26, 2011

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Socrates thought they were the voice of conscience. Iroquois Indians saw them as commands to be followed. Voltaire said they resulted from overeating. Freud defined them as repressed thoughts. James Allen called dreamers saviours of the world. This is how dreams have been described over time.

Dreams, essentially a phenomenon affiliated with sleep, are an idea, a vision when one is awake. Throughout history, the most advanced nations earned their status by harnessing the intellectual capital and creative potential of the populace. They always advanced on the wings of knowledge, imagination and innovation.

Knowledge and ideas are the building blocks of spiritual, social, economic and political reality. The quality of life in a society manifests prevailing ideas. British author H G Wells asserted that “human history is in essence the history of ideas.” We can trace a line of ideas from antiquity to present-day civilisation.

Every invention and advancement, from penicillin to the microchip, sprung from an idea. That is why Archimedes rushed out of his bath tub yelling Eureka and an apple falling on Newton’s head gave us the law of motion. The Wright brothers flew, Henry Ford’s dream of a car for the multitudes changed automobile history and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” profoundly transformed American class stratification. In many ways, thus, dreams and ideas have and will continue to shape the world.

Scholar and historian William Montgomery Watt writes in his book The Glory that Was Islam: “When Christian Europe began to show an interest in the discoveries of its Saracen enemies in 1100 AD, Arab science and philosophy was at its zenith. Europe had to learn everything that was to be learned from the Arabs, without whom European science and philosophy would never have been able to develop as they did.” Tragically, the same Muslim world, once the guiding light of all civilisation, is bereft of knowledge and dreams today.

Muslim contributions, amongst numerous other disciplines, were in such varied fields as literature, calligraphy, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, astrophysics, chemistry and philosophy. Apart from many ground-breaking inventions and theories, these contributions had a profound dimension. The golden age of Muslim science and philosophy, unlike today, was one of contacts and exchanges between cultures. Knowledge was welcomed from every quarter. It was an era of spontaneous borrowings and two-way influence.

Muslim advancement and forays in navigation, from the astrolabe and compass to the fast sailing ship known as the caravel, facilitated and made possible the arrival of Europeans in the New World. For 700 years the Arabs ruled Spain and Portugal, the powers that held a virtual monopoly on exploration in the New World. In the ninth century, the Abbey of St Gall library was the largest in Europe. It boasted 400 volumes and codices. That of Cordoba contained over 500,000! Going through the Dictionary of Technical Terms for Aerospace one concludes that sixty percent of the known star names are derived from Arabic.

The Muslim world’s political mismanagement failed to sustain the intellectual zenith, ultimately leading to downfall. Islam emphasises a balance between spiritualism and worldly knowledge. In forsaking knowledge we defied the teachings and spirit of Islam. This in turn led to retrogression in our religious beliefs, intellectual productivity and societal values. Excelling in science and knowledge was once a boon for Muslims; skepticism and a total lack in these fields has become a bane.

Today we have given the world to understand that Islam frowns on scientific achievement and enquiry. On the contrary it emphasises the quest for knowledge, never being at conflict with the same. The Quran repeatedly encourages us to contemplate and investigate the world around us.

“Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot. Read, for your Lord is most generous, Who teaches by means of the pen, teaches man what he does not know.” (Al-Alaq). These were the first five verses revealed to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), the first word being “read.” Out of a total of 6,326 verses in the Holy Quran the word `ilm (knowledge) and its derivatives are used more than 780 times, the concept of reasoning 49 times. Allah says: “We fashioned man according to the best way.” (At-Tin: 95:4). This supremacy was only awarded to Adam over angels because of his being endowed with the capacity to learn and comprehend.

However, the present status of Muslims is mirrored in this verse: “They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle—nay, more misguided, for they are heedless (of warning).” (Al-A`raf: 179). Here, understand not, see not and hear not mean unaware, astray, neglectful and, above all—ignorant.

Islam was once applied in a way to support creativity and tolerance along with diversity of positive thought and behaviour, both in societal and individual lives. Mamun-ur-Rasheed summed it up aptly when he said: “Reason and faith can be the same. By fully opening the mind and unleashing human creativity, many wonders, including peace, are possible.”

Today, we are content in eulogising past glories while lamenting our present predicaments. It is time to craft solutions to the issues that confront us; to do that we need to understand the true spirit, message and history of Islam. The ways and means for a better and brighter tomorrow are only for those who seek knowledge, dream and strive to see them come true.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:

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