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Islam and the Pursuit of Worldly Knowledge

By Salman Al-Oadah
Islam and Pursuit of Worldly Knowledge

The study of the universe is indisputably the domain of the natural sciences.

Many young men and women in our colleges and universities have abandoned the pursuit of studies like medicine and engineering, because they presume that such studies will not benefit them in the Hereafter.

I have heard them complain that their studies are a curse upon them and it would be better for them to study Islamic knowledge than what they are wasting their lives pursuing.

These young people are operating under the misconception that the study worldly knowledge and technology are somehow in conflict with Islam.

They feel that their worldly studies keep them away from being truly devout and close to Allah. At the very least, they feel that the pursuit of such knowledge is not encouraged by Islam and that there would be no sin or censure upon the Muslims for neglecting it.

Islam calls us to seek knowledge in the broadest sense of the word. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim”. (Ibn Majah)

Islam gives preference to a knowledgeable person over an ignorant one. God says:

Say: ‘Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?’ (Az-Zumar 39:9)

There are around 750 verses in the Quran that encourage us to think about the universe that surrounds us and all that has been created within it and placed at our disposal. The study of the universe is indisputably the domain of the natural sciences.

God says:

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the Earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which God sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people who have sense. (Al-Baqarah 2:164)

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people who have understanding. (Aal `Imran 3:190)

And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know. (Ar-Rum 30: 22)

It is He who makes the stars (as beacons) for you, that ye may guide yourselves, with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea: We detail Our signs for people who know. (Al-An`am 6:97)

The first verse to be revealed to the Prophet was a verse commanding him to read. For this reason, scholars have declared knowledge to be the first obligation held upon a legally accountable person. The first thing that a person is required to have knowledge of, of course, is God, His religion, and His revelation. However, this obligation ultimately embraces all useful knowledge, since the first step in any area is to have knowledge about it.

How can it be acceptable for us as Muslims – the people commanded before anything else to read – to go down the road of ignorance and give up competing with the other nations of the Earth in the pursuit of knowledge? How can we do so especially at a time when they are the ones excelling in every field of human knowledge? They are far in the lead, while our heritage and our faith should be propelling us ahead.

What bridge will help us to span the distance between the pure truth of our sacred texts and the miserable state of ignorance and misunderstanding that besets the lives and the mindset of the Muslim world?

Knowledge is of two kinds: religious knowledge and worldly knowledge.

Worldly knowledge includes all branches of knowledge by which we acquire through our human experience and interaction with the universe that surrounds us. We acquire this knowledge by investigating and contemplating the patterns and laws that exist in nature.

The study of science and technology is of utmost importance to the progress of nations and civilizations. The Muslim world is in desperate need of this knowledge. No one who has eyes can fail to see how weak we are in this area, in spite of the emphasis that Islam puts upon it. God says in more than one place in the Qur’an: “It is He who has produced you from the Earth and settled you therein.”

God is telling us that he has made us to live on Earth for the duration of our lives and we are supposed to develop it, cultivate it, and thrive in it. How are we expected to do this if we do not know what will better our lives and what will bring harm to us?

God says:

And when the Prayer is finished, then may you disperse through the land, and seek of the bounty of God, and celebrate the praises of God often that you may prosper. (Al-Jumu`ah 62:10)

Here God is talking about commerce, investment, and economic development.

The Almighty says:

It is He who has made the Earth manageable for you, so traverse through its tracts and enjoy of the sustenance which He furnishes: but unto Him is the Resurrection. (Al-Mulk 67:15)

This verse alludes to agriculture, land development, and traveling in search of God’s bounty.

The Prophet said: “If the Final Hour arrives while one of you has a sapling in his hand and he can finish planting it before standing up, then he should do so.” (Ahmad)

In the field of medicine, the Prophet said: “Every disease has a remedy. If the remedy is applied to the disease, the patient will be cured by Allah’s permission”. (Muslim)

He also said: “God did not send down a disease without sending down a cure for it.” (Al-Bukhari)

A desert dweller once asked the Prophet: “What type of people are the best?”

The Prophet replied: “The best of them in moral character”.

The man then asked: “O Messenger of God, should we seek medical treatment?”

The Prophet replied: “Seek medical treatment, for truly Allah as not send down a disease without sending down a cure for it. Those who have knowledge of the cure know it, and those who are ignorant of it do not”. (Ahmad)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) referred to medical knowledge as knowledge and to a lack of it as ignorance. He encouraged us to use our minds and our resources to seek out the cures to the diseases that plague us by telling us that those cures are out there for us to discover and make use of.

How can a people who profess this religion and follow these texts be content to remain steeped in illiteracy and ignorance while other nations who do not share our legacy are progressing by leaps and bounds?

This is something surprising indeed!

The pursuit of any field of useful worldly knowledge, in principle, is an obligation that does not fall on everyone’s shoulders. As long as a sufficient number of people in society take it up, everyone else can follow other pursuits. However, today it is becoming more and more of an individual obligation. We live in an age of unprecedented technological challenge and we are witnessing a Muslim incapacity that is quite startling.

The nations of the West are improving their knowledge and their application of it night and day in order to dominate the nations that surround them. We have been reduced to the lamentable state of dependency, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering, and manufacturing technology.

It is not possible for the Muslim world to be an example for others to follow unless it is strong and able to move forward. Many people are turned off by Islam because of the sorry state that they see the Muslims in – their economic backwardness, the misconceptions and falsehoods that plague them, and their intellectual and spiritual shortcomings.

Imam Ash-Shatibi and a number of other scholars of Islamic Law tell us that Islam has come to safeguard five universal needs: religion, life, lineage, property, and reason. Some scholars have claimed that this is a matter of juristic consensus.

It is not possible to safeguard these five universal needs effectively without possessing accurate scientific knowledge and being able to employ it properly to defend the faith and bring about worldly prosperity. Medicine, for instance, is a way to preserve life by safeguarding our bodies from illness. This is why our pious predecessors had so much respect for medicine.

Some quote Ash-Shafi`i as saying: ‘Knowledge is only of two kinds: religious knowledge and worldly knowledge. The knowledge that belongs to the domain of religion is Islamic Law and the knowledge that belongs to the domain of worldly matters is medicine’.

He is also quoted as saying: ‘After knowledge of what is lawful and prohibited, I know of no knowledge to be nobler than medicine, except that the People of the Scripture have outdone us in that field’.

It is said that he expressed his regret for the Muslims’ neglect medical knowledge by saying: ‘They have neglected a third of all knowledge and left it to the Jews and Christians’. (Ar-Razi’s Adab Ash-Shafi`i wa Manaqibahu)

A student cannot help but notice that there is an experimental approach to the worldly sciences. It is an approach of applying astute and rigorous analysis to meticulous and time-consuming observations.

This methodology comes under the Qur’an injunction for us to reflect upon the universe as God says: “Those who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth (saying): ‘Our Lord! You have not created this in vain! Glory be to You; save us then from the chastisement of the fire. (Aal `Imran 3:191)

If a person has a sincere and wholesome intention for pursuing this knowledge, it will have a positive effect on his faith. It will reinforce the textual evidence for the existence of the Almighty Creator. It also assists in our better appreciating the scientific allusions given by the Qur’an, which emphasizes its miraculous nature. This is a good way of calling non-Muslims to Islam and of strengthening the faith of the believers.

An economist can give support to Islam’s interest-free economic system in a way that a scholar of Islamic law never could. Islamic teachings came only to protect human life from going astray and to encourage productivity and work, so much so that wholesome, productive work is recognized as a sublime virtue and an act of devotion.

Using the proper means – the natural causes – to get things done is part of our faith and creed. God says:

Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. One (such) way he followed. (Al-Kahf 18: 84-85)

Failure to use proper means is, in effect, a deprecation of Islamic teachings. Whoever gives thought to the guidance of the Prophet (peace be upon him) will easily see how he took the needed practical steps to achieve his aims, from the time of his emigration until the time of his death.

Advancements in science and technology are among the ways and means to uplift of the Muslim world. Much of the backwardness and many of the defeats that from which we have been suffering is but the result of our lagging behind in scientific knowledge, our paucity of general understanding, and our inability to appreciate the true relationship between cause and effect.

Muslim history abounds with examples of scientific and cultural ingenuity. The Muslims inherited the knowledge of the nations that came before them and developed it and placed it in the context of a precise moral framework. Muslim scholarship made a vital contribution to the enrichment and advancement of human civilization.

Sadly, there are serious shortcomings in or efforts to teach the Muslims that the Quran is concerned with these sciences that give humanity the ability to benefit from the world around them. It is indeed from God’s wisdom behind placing humanity up on Earth that we would develop it and cultivate it.

As I have already said, our lagging behind in scientific knowledge has made us as Muslims dependent on others. Equally, we meet with considerable difficulties when we try to build productive relationships and nurture cooperation between our scientists and Islamic scholars. There is a wide gulf between these two fields of knowledge, as if one has absolutely no bearing upon the other. The truth is, these two fields of knowledge have a complementary relationship. The fruits of scientific inquiry are in harmony with what the Quran says about our role in developing the earth and benefiting from it in every way.

We should mention that our lagging behind in science and technology while the West is progressing at a fantastic pace has a damaging effect on our mental health and on our determination. This is painfully true when it comes to our youth. It makes us feel defeated in front of the West, as if we have no contribution to make.

Such a state of affairs ultimately leads to an erosion of our moral values. Our people start to believe that the West is the ideal that must be followed and emulated in every way, even when it comes to the low moral standards that the West itself suffers from.

Our youth must be made aware of these truths. They must know the extent of the danger that surrounds the Muslim world and what must be done for our upliftment.

Islam demands from us a sincere and mighty effort to achieve growth and development, first and foremost to please our Lord, and secondly to realize our own welfare in both our worldly and religious lives.

We must prevent ourselves from melting away in front of the challenges that confront us in this era of globalization.


Source: www.islamtoday.net

Sheikh Salman Al-Oadah is a prominent Saudi scholar and a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars. He is the director of the Islam Today website.

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